Mt. San Jacinto was one of the first big peaks I bagged as a teenager and I’m still drawn to it many years later. This route starts at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram — a treat in itself — and although it’s the “easiest” route it’s by no means easy. This out-and-back trail travels 11 miles round trip with 3000 feet of vertical elevation climbed. At an elevation of 10,834 feet above sea level, Mt. San Jacinto offers amazing 360-degree views and an alpine environment that surprises first-time visitors.
Why bother backpacking this what you could hike in a day? Why not!? It’s a beautiful setting for sleeping under the stars, and gives you a chance for an early morning start to the summit of San Jacinto. And it’s a great way to dip your toes in the waters if you’re new to backpacking, or just trying out some new gear.
Getting to the Trail
Start by driving to the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. There is free parking at the tram station. Buy your tram ticket and get ready to ride to the top!
The tram itself is pretty cool. It’s one of the largest rotating trams in the world, and climbs nearly 8,000 feet in the short 20 minute ride. At the top is the Mountain Station, replete with gift shop, cafe, restaurant, lockers, restrooms and yes, tourists aplenty. Many people ride the tram just for the experience or to escape the heat of Palm Springs below. Most of them don’t go far from the tram station.
Exit the tram station, walking down the concrete switchbacks to Long Valley and follow the signs for Round Valley. If you’re here for a day hike, you can stop at the seasonal Long Valley ranger station and get your self-issued permit. If you’re here overnight, you’ve already got your permit in hand, right? Yep, you’ll need to apply in advance, and by snail-mail. Here’s the details (PDF).
Continue past the ranger station, paying close attention to the trail signs. The trail mainly follows a seasonal creek up the valley. In the spring, it’s lively and bubbling. With the current low rain levels this year the creek was bone dry.
A few weeks after we backpacked here, some friends were hiking this as a day hike. As shown here, it was bone dry on their way up (and the skies were blue and cloudless). Before they reached the summit, the weather had changed with a vicious monsoon thunderstorm. Not only were they forced to cut their hike short, but this creek had become a raging torrent. The lesson? Be prepared for changes to the weather, including cold, rain and (depending on the month) even snow.
Continuing on the trail, you’ll pass a couple of junctions, but the trail is well-marked. Stick to the signs towards Round Valley (or the summit) and you’ll be in good shape. Soon, we got our first glimpse of the meadow in Round Valley.
At 2.3 miles, you’ll reach the far end of the Round Valley meadow. There is a seasonal ranger station as well as a water source. Be sure to filter or purify the water from this source.
The campsites in Round Valley are well spaced to provide a sense of privacy, but you’ll see and hear other people. It’s not complete solitude. There are also several pit toilets that serve the area, but BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper).
Why backpack this trail that most people hike as a day hike. Because we were able to sit back and enjoy the quiet beauty of this wonderful valley. We enjoyed a leisurely dinner, drank some boxed wine, and gazed at the stars above. And in the morning, we had a great breakfast and still were on the trail before the first tram reached Mountain Station, giving us fewer people and cooler temperatures for the climb to the summit.
Round Valley to the Summit of San Jacinto
We left our campsite setup and slack-packed to the summit. Start by retracing your steps to the trail junction at the Round Valley water source, then take the trail up the valley towards Wellman’s Divide. This trail climbs steadily on a well-engineered trail for a mile, finally reaching the stunning southern vistas of the divide.
There is a junction at the divide marked by a trail sign. Be sure you head north towards San Jacinto Peak.
The trail runs diagonally across the east flank of Jean Peak, pausing briefly at a flat cleft at 10,000 feet before continuing north on the east side of San Jacinto. The trail have very little shade and direct sun all morning. Sun protection is essential.
One more mile in this direction and the trail switches back, heading south west for .3 miles to Saddle Junction. Here the trail meets up with the Marion Mountain Trail that starts outside of Idyllwild, and turns north again for the final push to the summit.
We paid a visit to the hut on San Jacinto, then boulder-hopped the remaining 100 yards or so to the 10,834′ summit of San Jacinto. Distance from the tram to the summit: 5.5 miles. But because we had backpacked to Round Valley first, it was only 3.5 miles for us.
We were one of the first groups of hikers to reach the summit, but soon after the first hikers off the tram started arriving, and a steady stream began to arrive.
From here, we retraced our steps down to Round Valley. On our way down, we were stopped by SoCal Hiker reader Josh — who thanked us for the site and shared how he was in the process of completing the Six-Pack of Peaks.
A bit further still we ran into Oshie (@purpleosh— another friend of SoCal Hiker that we knew through Twitter. She was training for a big Sierra backpack trip.
We reached our camp, packed up and headed to the tram. By the time we got there, the day had warmed up considerably. We were thankful for our early start.
This route up San Jacinto from the tram is a very popular hike, both as a day hike or as an overnight backpack. I’ve done it both ways, many times, and really encourage you to give the backpacking option a try.
Overview of the Trail from the Tram to Round Valley to San Jacinto Peak
Mount San Jacinto via the Tram Trail Map
PRO TIP: I track all my hikes using GaiaGPS. It’s the best solution for staying on the right trail, it works even when you don’t have cell service, and there are versions for iOS and Android. The app is free, and you can get a discounted membership for maps here.
Mt San Jacinto Photo Gallery
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Mt San Jacinto Hiking & Backpacking Tips
- If you want to camp overnight, you’ll need to get a permit in advance from the ranger station in Idyllwild. Call the station with the dates you’re interested in, fill in the the downloadable permit application, then mail in your check with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Yes, it’s all done by mail, so allow sufficient time.
More Mt San Jacinto Resources
- Looking for an even more challenging route to the summit of San Jacinto? Try the Marion Mountain Trail which starts near Idyllwild.
- The tram runs year round, and makes a great intro to snowshoeing in the winter.
- Weather at Mountain Station (at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram)
- GPS user? Download the GPX file.