San Jacinto Peak – Where The Air Is Thin
Naturalist John Muir wrote of San Jacinto Peak, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth! Well, if good ol’ John said that, then it must be true. Our trek would take us up to a peak that was over two miles high. The air would be noticeably thinner as we pushed toward the summit. We weren’t sure what the weather would be like near the top.
Many of the areas we hike in San Diego County are over 5,000 ft. with cool breezes. A previous hike took us into the San Jacinto Wilderness, with impressive rolling hills, an abundance of tall pines and granite monoliths that are a rock climber’s Valhalla. The easiest way to hike Mt. San Jacinto as a day hike was to catch the aerial tramway in Palm Springs. It promised to ascend from near the desert floor to 8,000 ft., passing from the desert to the alpine forest. From there, we could do a 12 mile round trip hike to the peak which topped out at 10,834. It is the second highest peak in southern California with Mt Gorgonio nearby at 11,000+. Driving in to Palm Springs, we would actually make our way around the mountain with its’ steep north face. Afterwards, I read that this mountain is ranked 6th in prominence in the lower 48 states. Basically, the peak increases in height rapidly in a relatively short distance.
The tram ride up was pretty cool. The cable car was a large round vehicle, could hold over 60 people and is the largest of its’ kind in the world. Since this was during the week, there weren’t many people heading up mid-morning. The views were amazing as we made the 6,000 ft. climb, the car turning slowly as it rose. As the car passed each supporting tower, it would drop and give you a momentary sinking feeling. This was going to be neat when we return at night.
The visitor center at the top was nice, with restaurants and gift shop, but that was for the tourists. We were here to hike so we made our way to the ranger station, got our permit and headed out. The path was easy to follow, very sandy and the landscape was a mix of deciduous and conifer trees. We crossed a creek and the trail began a steady incline through a heavily wooded area. The Jeffrey and tall Sugar pines gave way to the Lodgepole pines as we gained altitude. The variety of plants and trees up here was interesting. The White-headed woodpeckers were very chatty, seemingly fussing at each other. Often, you will see an entire family climbing close to each other.
A trail runner and older female hiker passed us as we hit the steep switchbacks. You know, I was feeling quite proud of myself until then. When you see someone running past you – uphill, it just humbles you. We made our way to Wellman’s Divide and the trail split two or three ways. The views at the divide were glorious. The woman who passed us earlier was friendly and took our pictures before she continued to the summit. We caught our breath and at 9,400 ft headed up the “hill” Slowing frequently to take photos, I pushed to keep up with my amazing wife who was about 150 ft. ahead. Nearing 10,000 ft, we stopped to take a photo of the altitude and coordinates of the GPS where I would later post it on Facebook for my friend John to figure out where we where. It’s a game we play, he looks up the UTM coordinates and pinpoints where we are.
It was actually fairly warm up here and the thin, dry air made a solid workout even more challenging. Mary slowed down as the possible effects of altitude sickness started . After a snack and water, she felt better and we continued on. Did I mention before that she was tough? Close to the summit, we found a cabin build for stranded hikers. Often, the weather changes quickly and this structure has saved more than a few lives. A few more photos and as we made our way to the top, the trail seemingly ended. All that was in front of us were big boulders and trees. The rocks were higher than us, so we climbed over and around, finally emerging at the peak. There it was, the sign at the top. The lady hiker we met earlier took our photo again. Most people on the backcountry trails are very nice and love to help others out with information. Often, complete strangers share their food with the thru-hikers on their long hikes.
The views at the top were just as John Muir said – “sublime”. We had our lunch, made a silly video pretending that we were lost and enjoyed the crisp, clear air. Palm Springs was over 2 miles below, Mt. Gregorio to our east and the rest of Riverside County to the west. It was getting late, so we started our way down. We were making good time, probably 4-5 miles an hour and the shadows were getting long. Because the air was so dry and breathing through your mouth causes a lot of moisture loss, I ran out of water about an hour from the end. Mary, shared hers with me as we stopped by some outhouses in the middle of the woods. The outhouses were BYOTP.
We would make it back to the visitor center before it got dark and people watched as we waited for the tram ride down. It was a great view of Palm Springs at night, the tram-car slowly rotating. We talked about doing Mt. Baldy, another 10,000+ footer to the west, but didn’t make it in time as winter set in. You see, we were pleasantly surprised with the birth of our first granddaughter – Ruby Mae. What a blessing she is turning out to be. One day-Lord willing, Ruby will learn how to hike with Papa John (me) and Nana (Mary)
Enjoy life friends, God has given you another day!