San Jacinto – May 2006

Mt. San Jacinto State Park and surrounding area is a fantastic spot in Southern California with some big granite peaks, beautiful forests, meadows, some great high country scenery and long range views from the trail contained within wilderness area. It boasts the 10,834 ft San Jacinto Peak, one of the most topographically prominent peaks in the US, and the Pacific Crest Trail passes through. One can take the Palm Springs tram up most of the way to the peak, but where is the fun in that? The park is less remote than other backpacking destinations but we weren’t disappointed on the trail. Tom and I headed to the mountain in May 2006 and planned a 3 day backpack to cross most of the park and some surrounding San Bernardino National Forest.

  • Area: Deer Springs Trail, San Jacinto Peak, Tahquitz Peak
  • Duration: 3 days/2 nights backpacking, May 24-27
  • Estimated Distance: 22 miles
  • High Points: San Jacinto Peak 10,834 ft, Miller Peak 10,400 ft. Low Points: Deer Springs trailhead 5,620 ft, South Ridge trailhead 6,600 ft
  • Hikers: Mike, Tom

Day 0

Tom and I drove out from LA and took the scenic drive to the San Jacinto and Idyllwild area. We took the 10 to Banning, then 243 (Banning-Idyllwild Panoramic Hwy) to Idyllwild. It was a nice drive and the sun set along the way with the road giving a fantastic view to the west. By the time we got to Idyllwild it was dark and we drove through town looking to camp at the State Park Headquarters car campground for Mt. San Jacinto State Park. We found it and drove into the campground (quietly to not wake up the campers), but we found it was $20 to camp there and decided to just sleep in the car at the trailhead. I remember the stars were incredible!

Day 1

It was chilly in the morning but it hadn’t been nearly as cold overnight as when we slept in the car at Tioga Pass outside of Yosemite. After packing up and eating a little breakfast, we started on Deer Springs Trail at 7:30.  A sign at the trailhead said “Attention All Visitors, May 22 through May 26, Deer Springs Trail and the surrounding area will be intermittently closed due to clearing and helicopter removal of trees.” Sure enough, we soon saw this helicopter going back and forth taking trees and brush. We were careful to watch for it. It got fairly close at one point on the trail but then we went away from it.


We were climbing and it was to be mostly a climb this day. In fact it was a 4,700 feet in 10 miles climb this day! The manzanita grew up quite high over both sides of the trail here and had blooms of flowers all over. It was quite nice. We also saw some snowflower which is really a fungus. We took break at a small stream and got some fresh water. The mileage was marked well on the trail and the map and after 2.3 miles of steady climb we came to the first junction – for the 1 mile spur trail to Suicide Rock. We decided to take that and check out the view since we were confident in reaching our destination of Little Round Valley that night.

Tom among Manzanitas at San Jacinto Blooming Manzanitas at San Jacinto Snowflower along trail Suicide Rock trail sign

With all the climbing this day we were appreciative to the trail builders for designing this spur trail to contour around and not gain or lose too much elevation. I think we stashed our packs near the junction after grabbing a snack to stick in our pockets. We came across a bunch of lizards on this trail. We saw a bunch on the whole trip but a lot right here. Tom even got a video of one lizard we saw doing pushups, I guess to warm up its cold blood after the chilly night. Suicide Rock did have some nice views, especially across the valley at Lily Rock.

View from Suicide Rock Lily Rock from Suicide Rock Lizard

After a little break, we cruised back on Suicide Rock Trail to Deer Springs Trail and headed right uphill once again. When we got to Strawberry Junction, we were on the Pacific Crest Trail. We’d be on the PCT for 2.8 miles, and then we’d be on it again the next day. At the junction with Marion Mountain Trail we ate lunch, summer sausage and cheesy crackers, tasty. The sign said it was 6.3 miles back the way we came to Banning Highway and only 1.5 miles left to Little Round Valley. That 1.5 miles remaining had more climbing up the San Jacinto massif, and eventually the trail would take us right alongside Newton Drury Peak at 10,160 ft. This part was hot, not much breeze, steep, and the bushes were crowding the trail and scratching up our legs. We caught a few great views in a direction we hadn’t seen yet, northwest. We also saw San Gorgonio to the north surprisingly.

Rocky landscape Tom climbing brushy Pacific Crest Trail San Gorgonio from San Jacinto Mike on Pacific Crest Trail

We reached Little Round Valley at 9,700 ft! We were worn out after our 10 miles/16km and 4,700ft/1433m gross elevation gain. We arrived here about 4pm I think. There was still some snow around, grass was matted down, and it looked like winter hadn’t left the area too long ago. The sun disappeared for us early since we were in the valley and it was kind of gray. I loved the stream flowing through the valley with its picture perfect banks. This is the headwaters of the North Fork San Jacinto River. We cooked supper, ramen and tuna. I had the shrimp ramen and the zesty lemon tuna, yuck! I’ve decided to not eat those tuna packets again and if I eat ramen, it will be the regular beef ramen by itself.

I had a bit of a headache creeping in from the altitude change. It didn’t feel so great if I moved around too quickly. I thought it might get worse when I laid down, but it was ok. We went to sleep at 6pm, no kidding! We had no reason not to, so we got a lot of rest and hopefully sleep.

Tent at Little Round Valley Stream - San Jacinto River Little Round Valley, Mike

Day 2

I felt great in the morning. The temp was quite chilly in the 20s. We got going pretty early again this day. I got some more shots of the stream in the morning light. As we were leaving the campground area we saw a sign and an outhouse. We didn’t even know there was one. There were some neat trees at this elevation, I think the one is a Foxtail or Jeffrey Pine with the neat spiral growth. We had a 1.3 mile and 1,134 ft climb from our campsite to the top of San Jacinto Peak. It was steep but we were glad it was a short climb compared to yesterday’s. From the photos you can see it was a cloudy day for some people 🙂 It’s cool being above the clouds.

San Jacinto River in the morning San Jacinto River San Jacinto River and Mike A window to the clouds below Some people had a cloudy day Cool dead tree

We got to the trail crest where the short spur trail breaks off to the peak and the sign was snowed in a bit, but it looked like it had been cleared by someone. We stashed our packs and headed up with a snack and camera. We quickly found the mountaineer’s hut. It said it was built in 1933 and it looked in great shape. There was a paper in a case at the door that said the only maintenance is by visitors.  It’s for use in emergencies only. Well there were four bunks, some bottles of water, various kinds of non-perishable and dubious food, some stove fuel, and a bottle of Black Velvet Whiskey. There was also a basket that contained many little notebooks which were the Peak Register. I wrote next to the most recent entry, which was 5 days earlier.

Trail crest sign snowed in at San Jacinto Summit cabin on San Jacinto Peak Peak register at San Jacinto cabin San Jacinto peak shelter Tom San Jacinto peak register

Climbing to the top there was actually a lot of snow here despite the sun exposure. We did a lot of climbing over big rocks and through snow to get to the summit. Tom didn’t take the best route. He went more to the steep east side which looked pretty dangerous. One little tumble there could really be bad news. I heard him yell, “which way did you go?” I yelled back “look how far down that is!” He responded “I know” 🙂  But we made it up ok and soaked in the summit. San Jacinto Peak is the second highest point in Southern California at 10,843 ft, while the valley below shortly to the north and east is at 1,000 ft! Wow that is impressive, about 10,000 ft drop in just a few miles. The steep side of the mountain was like looking straight down for a mile. I did a little Bear Grylls impression. Up here it was chilly and windy.

It's a long way down this side of San Jacinto Snow, rocks, and dropoff Tom almost at the top of San Jacinto San Jacinto summit rock, Mike Bear Grylls impression, Mike Jean Peak from San Jacinto Peak View from San Jacinto Top of the Palm Springs tram zoomed Back down from the peak on snow, Tom

There was a lot of desert in view from up there. San Gorgonio was clearly visible in the distance. I managed to pick out the top of the tram also. Jean Peak’s north side was still covered in snow. I had thought about taking a side trip to climb that but decided not to in the interest of time. However after we climbed back down and took back to the trail, I did take a short side trip to Miller Peak while Tom cooled his heels. It took a little bit of rock climbing to the very top, but it was cool. There were two plaques up there, one was the Boy Scout Oath and the other the dedication of the peak naming for Frank A. Miller, with the date of 1936. There was quite a dropoff from the east side.

Nice view below San Jacinto Descending the flank of San Jacinto, Tom Miller Peak summit rocks, tricky little climb Top of Miller Peak, Mike

We followed the trail south as it traversed the slope of San Jacinto and Jean Peaks. We actually started to see a few people finally. We had seen only 2 people on Day 1 and nobody until this point where we passed a few groups of two coming the other direction. Wellman’s Cienaga was a trickle of water coming right out of the ground and a marsh below. Cienaga means marsh in Spanish. It’s strange to have a marsh on ground that slopes so much but I guess maybe the groundwater is squeezed out here by an impermeable rock layer. There was a little pool but it wasn’t deep enough to filter water from. We could have if we really tried I suppose. We thought about it a bit and then I just said let’s go.  Well everything dried up after that so we were hurting for water for a couple hours. I ate some snow. It seemed strange to have all that snow on the mountains and no water in the valleys, even the large drainage areas. It had to be flowing underground for sure. It was good we were going downhill mostly.

Huge conglomerate rock boulder by Wellman's Cienaga Wellman's Cienaga trickle Wellman's Cienaga marsh and corn lilies Where the hell is the water from all that snow?!

We rejoined the Pacific Crest Trail and headed downhill some more. At Saddle Junction, we saw a hiker eating a snack and asked about water. He said there was a flowing river the way he had came and that was the way we were going. It was a very gentle slope down into Tahquitz Valley. It was basically the first valley we’d been in, as Little Round Valley was definitely little. There was a great meadow with the nice Tahquitz Creek on the other side. As we came up to the stream we saw a man and his two little girls a bit downstream filtering water. We waved but got no response. I think the girls saw us but not their dad. Later they came over and we talked a bit. He had a big long bag of some kind, it looked clear but there was no way that was a water bag. He said it was his girls’ first backpacking trip and that they came over Tahquitz Peak earlier. That was pretty darn cool. At the river we downed a liter nalgene of lemonade, great stuff. We filled up and had a snack.

Trail junction sign, Stawberry Cienaga, Deer Springs, Wellman's Junction, Round Valley, Saddle Junction On the PCT again Tahquitz Valley! Tahquitz Creek, great tasting water

Rattlesnake that could have bitten my leg offFrom here we headed upstream past Little Tahquitz Valley and to Chinquapin Flat. Maybe 10 minutes after leaving the stream, we passed a boulder and I looked to the right and aaaaahhh! Under the boulder was a big rattlesnake just a few feet away. I didn’t see it until I was right next to it, and I jumped down the trail about bumping into the back of Tom. Tom had walked right past blissfully ignorant and I had seen it move in the corner of of my eye. Once past, I looked back and carefully looked around for any more before I scooted a bit to the right so I could get a good shot. Wow he must have been 6 feet long, but it’s hard to tell with it curled up. He looked like he could have bitten my leg off. When Tom leaned over to see him he said “Let’s get the hell out of here”. No shit.

After climbing some very dry terrain, we were back on the Pacific Crest Trail for a third time, just .8 miles this time. We lost hope finding any liquid water again today. The trail was supposed to parallel a seasonal stream for quite a while but either we weren’t as close as we thought, or it was really just a dry stream, probably the latter. We had plenty left in us for hiking so we didn’t want to go back and just stop somewhere near the stream.

We got to the ridge near Tahquitz Peak at 3:30 and decided to camp there, 8,600 ft. That made 9 miles for the day. There wasn’t any liquid water so we settled on the solid kind. Our other choices were to keep hiking and hike all the way out, which was at least 4 miles, or to go back to the nearest part of the stream. This is National Forest area, not part of the state park, though it was still part of the San Jacinto Wilderness. I know in the State Park they say only camp in designated campgrounds. Oh well, we’re pretty low impact and we camped on gravel. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see a ranger next morning being Saturday of Memorial Day weekend but we didn’t. Just in case we took our tent down before breakfast the next morning.

Chinquapin Flat area Junction sign at top of Tahquitz ridge Lily Rock from Tahquitz ridge

There were great views on the ridge and we walked around a bit after setting up camp. Looking back to where we had hiked and the tops of the mountains, it seemed incredible that we hiked that far. I love being able to see where you’ve been or where you’re going. Also, Suicide Rock from Day 1 was across the valley.

Tom gathers aguas frias Tent on Tahquitz ridge Cookin dinner on Snow Peak stove Brushing teeth above the clouds Tom, Mike on Tahquitz ridge The lizards Yin and Yang

We packed our bottles full of snow to melt for morning. We also packed the pot full to cook supper and packed it again for morning after we ate. We just used tablets for those instead of the purifier. A few pine needles make good roughage. It took a while to melt all the snow. We had spaghetti that night I think.

We had one of the best views I’ve ever had for brushing my teeth 🙂 Tom hung our food and got ready for bed where he checked how far we had to go tomorrow. We went to bed early again at about 6:30pm. I went out to check on the sunset and take a few more pictures at 7pm and 8pm because I knew it was going to be good, and it was. A friend said “wow you have managed to bottle sunset.” That’s true, but even better we drank it the next morning after adding lemonade mix. Tasty sunset.

Snow receptacles in the sunniest place nearby for melting Meditating Buddha Above the clouds 7pm Great panorama! Tom checks out the map Above the clouds 8pm Clouds form waves over the hills Nalgene sunset

Day 3

Footprints in the gravelIn the morning I found some fairly big footprints in the gravelly ground near out tent. There weren’t toenail prints but they probably wouldn’t show up with this surface. Tom said he thought he had heard something last night. Our food was fine. Sometimes we hear things, who knows. It’s always a funny feeling the first time you go looking for your food in the morning.

It’s hard to tell but I’m holding up the rock with my pinky in one shot below. Tom wasn’t convinced so I tried another way.

Morning looking up Strawberry Valley Morning panorama Pinky boulder lift Atlas boulder lift

The trail took us along the cliff on the north side of Tahquitz and we pretty quickly got to the top as it wasn’t that much higher at 8,846 ft. There is a historic fire tower on top, built in 1917, and fixed up in 1998. Nobody was there so I guess it wasn’t staffed yet, but it is staffed by volunteers. I read that this lookout station has the distinction of being the longest continually-operating station in the San Bernardino National Forest and it’s also the highest lookout in the forest and the only one within a wilderness area.

Headed to Tahquitz, looking back to our camp, Mike Panorama Tom looking back toward our previous camp Fire tower on Tahquitz Peak Tom sitting on Tahquitz Peak, chilly! Koyaanisqatsi clouds flowing over the mountains

The clouds were flowing over the mountains here from right to left. It looked awesome. I was reminded of the Koyaanisqatsi movie. It was really windy and chilly on top so we put on our jackets. From here it was a long steep descent and we hiked down into the clouds. We couldn’t see very far at one point there. We began seeing more people going up as we headed down, all dayhikers. Some looked a bit unprepared. I know they would be cold when they got to the top. Some had dogs. One lady in a group we passed said “Well aren’t you the early birds”. That was funny. It took me a minute to understand what she said. She thought we had day hiked to the top like they were doing now. I guess we were early, more than 2 days early. Hopefully the others in her group had noticed our bigger packs with sleeping pads sticking out!

Tom at trail sign, descending from Tahquitz Peak Neat window in the rocks Headed down into the clouds, we can see a whole 10 feet End trailhead shot, South Ridge Trail

We passed another group who had an accent. As we were turning a switchback they cut the corner so I yelled “Hey no shortcuts”. (It actually is bad for the trail.)  I talked to a guy in the group a bit.  He asked what it was like and if it was worth it, hehe.  Then he asked if I took a photo so they could see and skip the hike.  I told him he couldn’t prove it if he just looked at mine, hehe, funny guy.

At the end of the trail there was a large group of about 30 kids and a couple adults in some kind of group trip. I asked if they could take our photo at the trailhead sign. We talked a bit and when I said we had been out 3 days one of the kids said something like “he said that so nonchalantly!” haha.

Then we had to hike into town and back to the car a few miles. Luckily we were able to hitchhike with some nice people. The trailhead parking area where we started was completely packed with cars. It was so funny because our car had been the only one when we left. The whole area was full of people and cars and motorcycles because of Memorial Day weekend. We did well to time the hiking mostly before the crowd.

Later we went to eat a greasy fatty meal at Oma’s European Bakery and Restaurant in Idyllwild to make up for our healthy exercise of the past few days. I can’t remember the name of this German breakfast food I had. It was an open faced ham, bacon, cheese, egg thing. Tom had the 4 kinds of sausage (wurst) meal. They were both great and so were the Spaten and Löwenbräu.

Spaten and Lowenbrau The roaming gnome Yum!



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