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Mount San Jacinto: Southern California’s Favorite Peak

“San Jacinto is the most sublime specticale to be found on this earth!”

– John Muir

Muir, the great environmentalist, mountain climber, and founder of the Sierra Club, was right – Mount San Jacinto is sublime.

To be succinct, my partner, CT, has often called it her “happy place.”

Mount San Jacinto (photo: Raymond Shobe)
Mount San Jacinto (photo: Raymond Shobe)
Mount San Jacinto: CT's happy place
Mount San Jacinto: CT’s happy place

Mount San Jacinto in Southern California is not your first thought when thinking of the California lifestyle.

Known for sunshine, sandy beaches, surfing, Hollywood, and amusement parks, the Golden State’s southern half is also filled with mountains and snowy peaks.

There are more than 26 named peaks in the area over 10,000 feet (3,226 meters) in elevation.

Climbing San Jacinto in winter
Climbing San Jacinto in winter

My partner CT and I have climbed to the top of all 26, but our favorite one is the highest point on the San Jacinto massive.

The peak is 10,834 feet high (3,611 meters) and is accessible from seven different trails.

If you are hardy, fearless, and not afraid of the cold – the mountain can be climbed all year long.

The view from the top of Mount San Jacinto goes in all directions and for many hundreds of miles.

We have seen the Pacific Ocean, parts of Mexico, the Sultan Sea, and Telescope Peak in Death Valley.

Where is Mount San Jacinto?

Map of Mount San Jacinto
Map of Mt San Jacinto

Hiking to the top of Mount San Jacinto can be done by starting from either side of the mountain.

The resort city of Palm Springs sits at the base of the mountain and is on the east side, and the little town of Idyllwild is on the west side.

Choose either side, and it is a 2.5-hour drive from San Diego or a 3-hour drive from Los Angeles.

Every trailhead I list below is accessible through Google Maps, which will guide you directly to the parking area.

I have climbed to the summit of more than 430 mountains over the last seven years, but only a few peaks get a second hike.

Conversely, since I have climbed Mount San Jacinto 21 times, I can say it is my favorite mountain.

CT and I taking a rest
CT and I are taking a rest

San Jacinto Routes to the Top

Climbing Mount San Jacinto never gets boring.

There are eight routes to the top, and we have done seven of them.

  • Via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway / Round Trip 11 miles (17.8 kilometers) Elevation gain 2,200 feet (709 meters).
  • Marion Mountain Trail / RT 11 miles (17.8 kilometers) Elevation gain 4,500 feet (1,451 meters).
  • Skyline Trail or Cactus to Clouds RT 30 miles (48.3 kilometers) Elevation gain 10,100 feet (3,258 meters).
  • Deer Springs Trail / RT 19 miles (30.6 kilometers) Elevation gain 5,121 feet (1,652 meters).
  • Devil’s Slide Trail / RT 16 miles (26 kilometers) Elevation gain 4,410 feet (1,422 meters).
  • Fuller Ridge Trail / RT 15 miles (24.2 kilometers) Elevation gain 3,950 feet (1,274 meters).
  • South Ridge Trail / RT 20.5 miles (33 kilometers) Elevation gain 6,500 feet (2,100 meters).
Stopping to put on snowshoes
Stopping to put on snowshoes

In addition to trying many of the trails to the top, we often used a snowshoe route in the winter when all the trails and bushes were covered in snow.

By using snowshoes, crampons, or even just microspikes, we were able to hike Mount San Jacinto’s summit every month of the year.

Some of the trips we made in the winter were thrilling, and some were brutally cold and miserable. Each of them was memorable.

Snowshoeing through deep snow at 10,500 feet on Mount Saint Jacinto in California.
Deep snow at 10,500 feet

If there had been a recent snowfall, we would wear snowshoes the whole way.

By springtime, the snow had begun to melt and become hard ice as it froze each night.

Under these conditions, we used crampons and an ice axe.

See also: Sierra Nevada Adventure – White Mountain Peak

A sunny, but icy April ascent of Mount Saint Jacinto
A sunny but icy April ascent

We have started our journey to the peak via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway more than ten times.

This is a ride that not only takes time off of the hike but makes for a safer and more reasonable hike in winter.

It is not uncommon to be in line for the first ride up the tram and see a dozen or more folks ready with snowshoes to try for the summit of Mount San Jacinto.

The Tram is not just for crazy summit hikers, though.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (photo: oomer, Pixabay)
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (photo: oomer)

Thousands of people each day take the tramway up to 8,500 feet for the viewing decks, to eat and drink in the restaurants, to play in the snow, or take a stroll through the easy trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park.

The Tram is billed as the world’s largest rotating tramcar, and it takes guests 2.5 miles up the mountain in less than 15 minutes.

It is a great place to start a hike to the summit of San Jacinto Peak too.

Mt. San Jacinto Camping

CT and I have stayed in Idyllwild on many occasions before climbing one of the peaks on San Jacinto.

We have stayed at a friend’s cabin twice, and twice we have stayed at a small hotel in Idllywild.

We have tent camped at two places on the west side of San Jacinto near Idyllwild as well.

Idyllwild County Park: is a Riverside County-owned campground for RV and tent camping with 88 sites. We stayed here and hiked right out of the camp to the Deer Springs Trail and made it a long 24 mile (39 kilometer) round trip hike to the peak and back.

Marion Mountain Campground: is the most secluded and pleasant of all the choices. It comprises just 24 sites and is at the trailhead for the Marion Trail to the peak. We stayed at campsite number 20, the best site in the campground.

Other sites for tent and RV camping at the base of the mountain include:

  • Idyllwild Campground at Mt. San Jacinto State Park
  • Stone Creek Campground
  • Boulder Basin Campground
  • Hurkey Creek Campground (best is you have a large recreational vehicle)
  • Yellow Post Campsites: are a good choice for primitive camping. There are no services or water, but the camping is free.
The snow-covered
The “Hut” near the summit

Backpacking

Twice we have backpacked into San Jacinto State Park and pitched a tent in the wilderness area.

While I have seen tents pitched in various places on the mountain, the three spots set aside for camping are Little Round Valley, Round Valley, and Tamarack Valley.

The official rules are designed to keep control of the degradation of the wilderness and keep guests safe.

Designated campsites on San Jacinto
Designated campsites on San Jacinto

Permits and Fees

Permits are required to hike into the wilderness areas of Mount San Jacinto State Park, which includes the peak.

There is no permit fee, but volunteers and official rangers will check for permits on the trail.

If you plan to hike from the western side, permits are obtained at the Idyllwild Ranger Station at 25905 Hyw 243 Idyllwild, CA 92549.

Pick them up the day before your hike, or get there early as the permits are limited.

If you ride the tram up the mountain or you hike from the east side, you will need to stop in the ranger station at Long Valley after getting off the tram to pick up and fill out a wilderness permit.

A backcountry wilderness permit is needed to backpack into the wilderness and stay the night, and a $5 per person fee is required.

Related: Climbing the 10 Highest Peaks in Joshua Tree

Dead tired and cold: 5 F (-15 C) at the peak
Dead tired and cold: 5 F (-15 C) at the peak

Staying Safe on the Mountain

During the summer months, the peak and the trails will be crawling with people trying to reach the peak.

We have been on the summit on a summer’s day with perhaps 50 people crowding the boulders at the top.

As long as you bring enough water and stay on the trail, you will be in good shape.

However, if you decide to climb this peak in the dead of winter as we did, be ready and trained to take care of yourself.

There have been many days when we hiked to the summit in winter, and we were the only people on the peak for hours.

All alone in deep snow on San Jacinto
All alone in deep snow on San Jacinto

Avalanches and slipping and sliding to one’s death on the mountain slopes are a possibility.

We found that the best trip reports come from a blog called Sanjacjon.com.

He hikes to the peak several hundred times per year and runs the blog to inform folks about the mountain and the current conditions.

Whatever your dreams may be when it comes to climbing mountains – Mount San Jacinto can fulfill nearly anyone’s climbing fantasies.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

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