A couple of weeks ago, I met Robert and Remi on a hike up the San Bernardino Peak. They were getting ready to hike Cactus to Clouds for the first time. Since I knew the route well, we decided to do it together. When the day finally came, we met up at the trailhead at the Palm Springs Art Museum at 3:00 am. I wish I could say I planned it this way, but it just happened to be a full moon that night. You could almost see without a headlamp in some sections and it was absolutely beautiful. Not only was it well lit, but it was quite warm, so I started off with a t-shirt and no extra layers.
Cactus to Clouds is a Rite of Passage
With an elevation gain of 10,300′, the Cactus to Clouds Trail has one of the greatest elevation increases among day-hike routes in the United States. It is 16 miles from the trailhead to the summit (+5.5 more miles back to the tram station), making it one of the steeper trails of its length in the world. For local hikers, Cactus to Clouds (C2C for short) is not just a trail, it is a hiking rite of passage. For those who have done it, it never gets any easier when you do it again. It is the definition of a “sufferfest.”
Trailhead to 4,300 Feet
This year’s epic rainfall has caused the sparse trail to become overgrown in many places. This is a problem when you are hiking in the dark for hours. I lost the trail at least four or five times as we made our way through the brush. I don’t think Palm Springs is a very beautiful city, but at night and at first light, it is quite beautiful.
About three hours in, we made it to the top of a ridge near the 4,300-foot marker where we caught the sunrise. When you hike at night, the sunrise is always a beautiful moment. The light seems to fill your soul in ways you don’t experience normally. There is almost a tangible feeling of “being filled” that gives you a boost of emotional and physical energy. A quarter mile from where we stopped, we reached the “halfway point” to the tram station. Somebody spelled out in rocks on the ground “4,300 feet” which is halfway to the 8,600′ elevation of the tram station.
4,300 Feet to the Tram Station
With the sun rising and the moon setting behind the mountain, we stopped for 15 minutes and had a bite to eat. This segment is the steepest part of the trail – and it gets progressively steeper as you approach the tram station. There is close to 2,000 feet of elevation gain in the last two miles before you reach the tram. And no matter how many times I’ve done it, it’s tough. Robert and Remi did great. We all reached the tram about 7.5 hours after we started.
I should mention that there is a community of hikers in the area that hikes or runs to the tram station every week. Many of these folks can make it to this point in 6 hours or less. No joke. I am always humiliated and inspired on this trail by some high school girl who runs past me like I’m standing still. It happened again today – I got passed four times!
Segment 3: Tram Station to the Summit
We stopped at the plateau near the tram station, ate some snacks, and refilled our water. I got a backcountry permit at the ranger station and we headed to the summit. Five and a half miles to go. Within a half mile of the ranger station, we hit the snow line. And because it was late in the season, the snow was full of motes, those shallow snow bridges that you step on and punch through into deep holes.
It was a warm day and the snow became increasingly slushy. We had spikes on, but it was pretty miserable terrain. At one point we saw a group of hikers coming down who had done the same route. They just gave up because the snow was so tough. It just saps your energy.
At one point we saw a group of hikers coming down who had done the same route. They just gave up because the snow was so tough.
Robert, Remi, and I pushed on. After a long tough incline, we traversed a few miles, then came to the upper mountain. We were all pretty exhausted and this was the hardest terrain we had encountered. We had to climb straight up a steep slope with terrible snow conditions. Kicking steps into the mountain, every step involved a short slide back down – bleeding off precious energy and morale.
When I finally reached a ridge where I could see the summit, Robert went ahead and I waited for Remi who was a few minutes behind me, then we walked the last few hundred feet to the summit together. We did Cactus to Clouds! It was a beautiful summit, as always, but the wind was howling and it was freezing cold so we didn’t stay that long. We snapped a few pictures and started down the mountain.
Back to the Tram Station
Because of the wind and the snow being so sloshy, getting down the upper mountain was a little challenging. We met another hiker, Christine, who had come up by a different route, who was looking for a way down. We invited her to join our group as we descended. We glissaded about 500 feet of the way down, but it was not at all graceful. I didn’t have an ice axe so I had to improvise. I shortened up my trekking poles and held them close to the tips to keep myself from accelerating out of control on the way down. Christine did the same. Robert and Remi fared a little better because they had brought ice axes.
We glissaded about 500 feet of the way down, but it was not at all graceful. I didn’t have an ice axe so I had to improvise.
We all emerged uninjured from the glissading and we cut about a mile off our descent. We were all very grateful for the shortcut and the fear of getting injured gave us all a needed boost of energy. We came to a junction and Christine took a different route back to Idyllwild. I ended up giving her my headlamp because she didn’t have one. I was a little bit worried that she’d be out there at night by herself without a headlamp.
Epilogue: What All Men Want
We finally got back to the tram, got our tickets to go down on the gondola, and we decided to grab a Gatorade and a slice of pizza while we waited for our ride. There was a guy in line in front of us with a huge tattoo on his neck. We were clearly from different tribes socially and economically, and in other circumstances, we might both posture ourselves toward one another. But today, something different happened.
He looked at Robert and I and asked, “Did you guys hike today?” “Yeah,” Robert replied, “We started at 3:00am in Palm Springs. It was incredible.” As Robert recounted the hardships we endured that day on our way to the summit and back, the guy grinned, starry-eyed. It was obvious from the look on his face that he wanted to be out there with us that day. The little boy inside him craved adventure like a drug. No matter what nationality or social status a man is, he longs for hardship, connection with other men, and glory – the satisfaction of achieving something great.
No matter what nationality or social status a man is, he longs for hardship, connection with other men, and glory – the satisfaction of achieving something great.
Even when we have become domesticated by sedentary jobs and urban lifestyles, something inside of us all longs for adventure. I am reminded of Shackleton’s famous ad for his polar voyage. Even though we know this ad is apocryphal, it taps into the inner longings of all of us…
After the tram ride down, we got an Uber back to our cars. On the way back, I was so tired that I actually had trouble keeping my car in the lane. It was pretty windy but I can’t use that as an excuse. I was just so tired. In fact, I was fabricating a good story I would tell the CHP if one of them pulled me over. I got home about 8:00pm, and got a message that Christine had made it off the trail. We did Cactus to Clouds. All was right with the world.