Hike San Jacinto: Nov 2019

Updated: Jan 23

Hike distance: 12.6 miles with 2,644 ft elevation gain.

Prominence: 8,230 ft

Click here for a review of prominence and its role in mountain topography


Since we started hiking in this region, I've added 3 summit hikes to my bucket list:

  1. San Jacinto

  2. San Gorgonio

  3. Pinto Mountain

San Jacinto Peak is the most impressive natural feature in the Coachella Valley; it's visible no matter where you stand in the valley. Although only the 39th highest peak in CA, San Jacinto is considered the 6th most prominent mountain in the contiguous US because in slightly less than seven horizontal miles the north face (pictured below) rises from 800 to 10,834 feet above sea level. This escarpment is one of the largest gains in elevation over such a small horizontal distance in the United States. No other mountain in the lower 48 states rises so high so fast, not even the Sierra Nevada or Grand Tetons. 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!'.

San Jacinto snowy summit from Desert Hot Springs

During November 2019, the weather conditions and available daylight provided good conditions to summit San Jacinto Peak from trails originating at the Tram Station. So we struck while the going was good. In summary, without a doubt this trek is one of the more strenuous hikes in the area – and worth every bit of effort it takes to navigation the 12+ mile round-trip which includes an elevation gain of about 2,600 ft


Our morning started by waiting in line for a tram which would deliver us 2.5 miles in 10 minutes from the Valley Station at 2,643 ft to the Mountain Station at 8,516 feet.

San Jacinto tram car arriving at the station, the worlds largest rotating tram car

Some great views of the valley from our tram.

Looking down from the San Jacinto tram car into the Chino Canyon and Coachella

Once at the top (10:20 am), we walked 0.5 miles to the Ranger Station to fill out a free self-serve permit. The permits help Park Rangers identify if people are lost on the mountain after the tram closes. With our permit completed, we officially started the hike. The path through the rocky terrain was easy to follow.

Shortly after the Ranger Station there’s a trail junction sign; we headed toward Long Valley and the Round Valley trail.

Round Valley Trail sign leading to San Jacinto summit

The trail traverses a pine forest with little elevation gain.

We continued hiking through the forest but now the trail had a distinctive incline.

Forest trail leading to the summit of San Jacinto

As the forest began to thin out, the trail became progressively more steep.

Steady uphill climb to the San Jacinto summit

After 1,400 ft of elevation gain over 3+ miles, we reached Wellman Divide, a spiny ridge overlooking the south side of the San Jacinto Range. An outlook provided great views of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountain ranges. We were standing at an elevation of 9,700 ft which meant we only had to climb 1,134 vertical feet to reach the summit.

Reaching Wellman Divide at 9,700 ft in elevation on trail leading to San Jacinto summit

From here we had great views of San Jacinto forests. The San Jacinto mountains are a short range extending only 30 miles before joining the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Views of the San Jacinto forest from summit trail

Looking S/SE toward the Santa Rosa Mountain Range with Toro Mountain (8,717 ft), the tallest peak in the range, visible in the top right section of the picture below. The Santa Rosa Mountains extend for about 30 miles along the western side of the Coachella Valley.

Santa Rosa Mountain Range with Toro Mountain (8,717 ft) from San Jacinto summit trail

After Wellmans Divide, the trail began traversing the mountain. Although the altitude increase was fairly consistent for the remainder of the hike, our pace slowed a little as a result of the altitude.

San Jacinto trail traversing the mountain

During this section of the hike, our focus was naturally directed on Cornell Peak, one of the more striking features of the trail.

Cornell Peak, one of the more striking features on the San Jacinto summit trail

Cornell Peak is a rocky outcropping which rises 9,754 feet above the valley floor. Climbing to the summit block involves Class 3/4 difficulty.

Cornell Peak, one of the more striking features on the San Jacinto summit trail

The views from here to the top were incredible. We were making our way up the east side of San Jacinto with panoramic view of the desert floor 7,000 ft below us.

Panoramic desert views from the San Jacinto summit trail

Meanwhile views of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains kept getting better.

San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains ranges from the San Jacinto summit trail

As we continued climbing, the trail became more rocky.

Hiking on the San Jacinto summit trail from the Rangers Station

Light-colored igneous rock (granite) covered the slope. These rocks are evidence of the geological processes that have taken place over millions of years. The San Jacinto Mountain Range is basically a granite rock mass that resulted from magma cooling and then slowly moving toward the surface over 100 millions years ago. Erosion and massive tectonic plate activity created these mountains and what we see here today in front of us.

Light-colored igneous rock (granite) covered the slope of the San Jacinto summit trail

The switchbacks finally ended as we approached the final stretch to the summit.

Hiking on the San Jacinto summit trail from the Rangers Station

When we reached this emergency stone hut the trial became less defined. Unfortunately, this hut, built in the 1930's, gets more use than you might think. At the summit, weather conditions can change rapidly trapping even experienced hikers.

The Emergency Stone Hut on the San Jacinto trail.  The hut was built in the 1930s

Past the shelter, the trail ended and became a class 2 or 3-ish scramble up a 200+ vertical foot section of granite blocks.

Class 2 or 3-ish scramble up a 200+ vertical foot section leading to San Jacinto summit

It wasn't very difficult, but since there were no other hikers, we were on our own to select a line to the peak. As a result, there are few pictures of the final climb; my focus was on the path we had chosen. However, I did manage to capture a few pictures on our way down.

Class 2 or 3-ish scramble up a 200+ vertical foot section leading to San Jacinto summit

Then finally the last bit of scrambling ....

Rocky summit of San Jacinto at 10,834 ft the second highest mountain in Southern California

.... and we found ourselves at the San Jacinto peak (10,834 feet), the second-highest mountain (next to Mount San Gorgonio, viewable to the north) in southern California.

Rocky summit of San Jacinto at 10,834 ft the second highest mountain in Southern California

Incredibly, at 1:40 pm we had the summit to ourselves for at least 10-15 minutes before the next hikers arrived. Just lucky I guess! It wasn't the typical summit experience most people report.

Rocky summit of San Jacinto at 10,834 ft the second highest mountain in Southern California

A close up of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker at the summit.

A close up of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker at the San Jacinto summit

Looking North toward San Gorgonio.

Looking north toward San Gorgonio summit from San Jacinto summit

Looking East toward the Coachella Valley.

Panoramic views of Coachella Valley from the San Jacinto summit trail

Looking South toward the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Santa Rosa mountains from the summit of San Jacinto

We took our time taking photos and enjoying the beautiful 360-degree views at the peak. With only 3+ hours of daylight left, we quickly ate lunch and were off the summit by 2:10 pm and heading back the same way we came up. It wasn't long before the mountain started casting long shadows on the trail.

Dusk on trail returning from the San Jacinto summit

Incredibly, 90 minutes after we left the summit there were still hikers making their way to the top. There was no way they would make it back to the Tram Station by the time darkness fell over the trail. With the sun disappearing behind the mountain, temperatures began to drop 10-15 degrees. Time for long sleeves.

Dusk on trail returning from the San Jacinto summit

This was the lighting level when we reached the Tram Station at 5:12 pm.

Darkness on the trail from teh San Jacinto summit to the Tram Station

By 5:20 pm we were back on the tram and looking forward to getting home and putting our feet up. It was a long day but a great hike with perfect weather, a quiet summit, and amazing views throughout the hike. It was a great feeling to knock one peak off our bucket list. We're looking forward to Winter 2020 and bagging another peak on the list. Here is the view from the tram during our descent. We were surprised that we saw so many lights in the valley at this time.

Night time view of Palm Springs from the San Jacinto tram car

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