I day hiked Mt Whitney a few years ago. That night, I swore I’d never do it again. About two days later, I needed to back hiking again. A year later, I was ready for another go, but life’s just too busy. I moved my family from Sacramento down to Orange County just after this past Thanksgiving, and wanted to find some good hikes down here. I stumbled across Cactus to Clouds, and we decided to make a go of it. 2 vertical miles and 23 miles of hiking. Sounded like a good challenge! With three little ones, it’s hard to properly train, but we did what we could. Mostly our typical family hikes, 4-5 miles, throughout the Santa Anas. We knew we could have been better prepared (we always can, right?), but we had one weekend to get babysitters in the next 6 months, so we set the date in stone.
We arrived in Palm Springs on Friday, 3/21 around 3pm. We checked in at the Motel 6 on East Palm Canyon, grabbed a bite to eat at Giussepe’s down the road, and were bed sleeping by 5:30pm. We got up about 12:15 to wake up, stretch and gather our things for the hike.
We parked on W Tahquitz Canyon Way, just in front of the Palm Mountain Resort and Spa. Since we were getting a really early start, I wanted the car somewhere closer to people, and not in the secluded corner in/by the museum. It was maybe ¼ mile from the car to the trailhead. There was a police cruiser making a round through the lot as we walked through, so it’s patrolled, but I felt more comfortable with a little more public.
We hit the trailhead at 1:30am, as I’m a fairly slow hiker, and wanted to make sure we had as much of the day as possible to take our time. Long hikes are strenuous enough mentally to be up against the clock, too. The first few miles we breezed along up the mountain. Temperature was low-60s, and I was comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts. We visited about a month ago to get an idea of the trail, and hiked with our young children to the picnic tables. In the daylight that day, I recall the trail being somewhat challenging to find at some points, and it was equally challenging at points in the dark. Even with headlamps and the moon, we definitely got off a few times. Thankfully, it’s easy to get back on. Once past the painted rocks, it’s pretty easy to maintain course for the rest of the hike. It was a fairly quiet hike through the dark portion. We saw a toad and some bugs, and kept our eyes on what appeared to be a mountain lion off to our right, keeping its distance, yet a watchful eye on us. My wife was especially glad to see the sun rise and stopped shuddering every time we heard a rustle in the bushes.
It was really cool seeing the sun rise over Palm Springs, and also amazing how quickly it warmed up! Our pace slowed a little as the sun rose, and we approached the 6k foot mark. From there, things definitely slowed as we continued up the hill. The uphill climb was relentless. The temperature was too cool in the shade for short sleeves comfortably, and too hot in the sun for long sleeves. I had both, and made the switch every now and then. We had brought micro spikes in case we needed them for the traverse, but we didn’t even need poles through that section. There were only a couple of steps with ice/snow, so nothing at all bad.
We arrived at Long Valley at 11:30am. 10 hours. We had stopped every hour to eat a little food, and given that I’m generally slower at hiking, I felt good with our 10 hours. We met two ladies at Grubb’s Notch who seemed less-than-impressed at our time, but we were proud of the accomplishment. They were the first people we’d seen all day. I figured in 10 hours of hiking, we’d see someone, but not a soul. We stopped for a bit in the valley to eat lunch, sit down on a bench instead of a rock and fill out our permit. There were three park service workers prepping for a memorial service. We chatted briefly about our hike to that point. They didn’t seem to have much feeling about the hike one way or another. I’ve heard they generally shy away from encouraging the hike, so we weren’t too surprised.
We headed toward the summit around 1pm. We passed a couple of volunteers who said there was one patch of snow, but the rest was dirt. We later realized she must have only been referring to the trail to Round Valley, and not beyond. To Round Valley, the trail was mostly dirt, with a long patch of snow. It was slushy in the early afternoon “warmth.” We were full-time long sleeves and pants from here out, as it was definitely cool, especially in the shade. We were passed by many hikers just doing the upper loop, as were moving slowly. I had an ever-so-slight case of AMS. Symptoms were mild headache, loss of breath and I was definitely losing my appetite to eat. We plugged on, and stopped briefly at Round Valley to eat, apply sunscreen and refill water. We’d each carried a 100 oz Camelbak bladder, and a 22 oz water bottle. The bladders had water and Vitalyte. I had carried a backup 100 oz Platypus, and so at Round Valley, we split that between the two bladders. It ended up being the perfect amount of water for the day. We sipped throughout to avoid dehydration and to keep AMS risk low.
From Round Valley, the trail to the summit was primarily snow covered. We had the micro spikes, but I didn’t pull them out because it was slushy. We did use the poles, and they helped a lot. We made slow but steady time. We summited around 4pm. The summit was completely snow covered with foot prints leading everywhere. Thankfully it’s easy to find the top; just keep going up! We stayed for a short while, took some pictures then signed the register and headed down. We knew there was a good chance we’d finish in the dark, so we wanted to get moving.
Finding the trail to get back down was a real challenge. There were three other groups on the summit with us. We all left at the same time, all went a different way to get to the trail, and all had to cut through bushes and down snow to get back to the trail. We all made it, but more slowly that we’d hoped. With the sun setting, we were in shade the whole trip down. It was quite cold. The snow had also started to refreeze, so we were walking on ice the full trip down. We put on the micro spikes, and were still about to breeze pretty quickly. We got back to Long Valley at 7:30pm. 18 hours on the mountain. The last walk up the concrete incline was a slap in the face after the long day we’d had! We got our one-ways, and headed down on the next tram. They called for a cab for us there, and within 10 minutes we were on our way back to the car. Quick showers and collapsed in bed very quickly. As I write this the next day, there’s only a little soreness in the knees, but otherwise we’ll feel great!
Things I was glad of on the hike:
That we left as early as we did; we still finished the last 30 minutes in the dark with headlamps, but if we’d left later in the morning, closer to the 4am I was originally thinking, we wouldn’t have summited.
That we’d stopped every hour to power down some food. We brought fresh fruit, homemade energy bars and homemade trail mix. While we still couldn’t compete with total calories burned on the day, it kept us from totally bonking, and forced us to stop every now and then and enjoy the view.
That we’d brought plenty of fluid. I hate trying to ration water, so bringing extra, though extra weight, is a lifesaver – sometimes literally.
That we had trekking poles and micro spikes. It was really icy and slippery. People were up there in tennis shoes slipping, sliding and falling all over the place. I ate it once just before putting the spikes on, and it hurts falling on the ice after a long day! I grew up in the Midwest, used to ice and snow, and we lived in the Northern Sierras for a few years, so I’m used to walking in it, but even still; best to be prepared!
All said and done, we feel very proud of the accomplishment. I don’t know that it’ll be the radar again any time soon, but I said that right after I hiked Whitney, and I’m ready for another round there, too