What to know before hiking in Palm Springs

Thinking about hiking in Palm Springs? A dusty trail about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles and about two hours from San Diego is quickly becoming one of the country’s most  renowned hikes, and it’s known for its ability to bring even the most seasoned hikers to their knees.   It’s about 9 miles long, accessible year round and extremely well trodden for what it is.  Locals love it and visitors fear it:  it’s the Skyline Trail located in downtown Palm Springs, California.  Make no mistake; this is not a hike for beginners; it can take 10 hours from start to finish.

-By Guest Blogger Matthew Jordon, hiking expert, guide.

Skyline Trail: One of the most dangerous hikes in America

Hiking this route is a serious commitment and failing to take it seriously has claimed lives. “The Skyline Trail segment — boasts not only one of the most difficult sections of trail in the country, but also one of the most dangerous and deadly,” says an article in the Desert Sun.

“Since 2009, 61 rescue missions have taken place on the Skyline Trail below the tram, according to data collected by The Desert Sun. Of those, 40 involved hikers suffering from heat-related trauma. Five individuals died from their injuries.”img_skyline trail palm springs psp hike hiking

Hiking Palm Springs: Skyline Trail was once a hippie escape route

Once upon a time, hippies used this route to escape the brutal 120+ degree summer heat, and back then it was also referred to as the ‘Cross Trail’ according to author and folk historian Gordon Kennedy, who still ventures into the backcountry on mild spring days.

“There used to be a huge wooden cross up here and that’s why folks called it the cross trail,” explains Gordon, who likely has more trail time than the mules from Smoke Tree Stables.  Gordon’s been here since the early 70’s so he’s seen how popular this trail has become in spite of its high level of difficulty.

Vertical gain+ rattlesnakes=trouble for some hikers

One problem is not so much the length of this trail, but the vertical gain of over 8,300 feet.  For the uninitiated, its like spending six to twelve sweaty hours in a heated gym on a broken stairclimber — except in real life you are also having to mind the trail for rattlesnakes.img_skyline trail palm springs psp hike hiking

After spending a considerable amount of time helping unfortunate souls (who’ve found themselves in dire straits) get off this mountain, I started thinking to myself that a solid head-check is needed for the bright eyed, bushy tailed hikers that want the Skyline notch in their belt.  Hopefully, Skyline veterans will agree that the following 10 points relating to the reality of hiking this trail are all worthy of some foresight, so here goes nothing…

10 Tips for hiking Palm Springs — Skyline Trail

#10.  Evaluate your Ambition:  Don’t let your ego get ahead of you. This hike may be outside of your ability and it won’t impress your friends if you need to be rescued.

#9. Factor in your Meds:  In an age where almost everyone is on pharmaceuticals, don’t forget that your medications often come with extra baggage in the form of side-effects that could be magnified by strenuous activity.  Personal judgement and coordination can be impaired by the increased mental and physical stress of doing a trail like this.

#8. Watch for Snakes:  Even though it’s extremely rare to be hit by a rattlesnake the truth is that this is their native habitat.  Local venom neurotoxicity of some rattlers is on par with that of cobras.  If you see a snake, freeze until you figure out where the snake is. Give it a chance to move away. For more tips on how to handle rattlesnake bites , read this (preferably before you head out).

#7. Pay attention to Time & Season:  The last tram car down from the top is usually 9:45pm which seems like ample time to complete this journey (especially for those starting at midnight), but remember that time can be a friend or foe depending on how you use it.  On average, daytime temperatures at the valley floor can vary between 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months to below freezing in the wintertime at higher elevations.  Choose wisely to avoid brutal lower elevation heat. The hike can take 10 hours depending on your fitness level so plan accordingly.

#6. Know your route: The Skyline Trail leads to Cactus To Clouds Trail so if you are planning on hiking to the very top of the Mt. San Jacinto, remember that there’s even more vertical gain after completing the Skyline portion (about 2,000 feet more). You’ll be heading up  to 10,834 feet — in other words, the hike’s not over yet if you push on.  Save time for the down-hike 2000 feet back to the tram because it’s a really long hike all the way back to the desert floor and back to Palm Springs.

#5. Watch the Weather:  A lot changes on this mountain, including temperature drops of 30 degrees Fahrenheit, sandstorms, whiteouts, and freezing cold gusts in excess of 70mph.  All of this translates into unexpected FUBAR conditions even for those that habitually overpack.  Check the forecast before you head out.

#4. Water, Water, Water: There is no reliable water on this trail at all — dehydration is a real threat.

#3. Avoid Getting Lost: The last 1,000 feet or so of this trail is very steep and confusing for first timers.  A fresh layer of snow in the winter can erase the trail in minutes, thereby creating a predicament because you likely won’t want to down-hike back to your car, now several hours below you.     Keeping a detailed map with you, particularly for the first couple of times on this trail is a wise decision.

#2: Avoid Getting Hurt:  Bad things usually happen to good people.  A twisted ankle or a slip and fall can put anyone out of commission fast and you can’t count on anyone but yourself at the end of the day.  Sometimes you don’t know how bad it is until it’s too late and that’s when you start asking yourself how you got into this situation; it’s an uncomfortable feeling.   Pack a first aid kit or bring a knowledgeable guide, or go with a partner who has some first aid training. You can’t plan for accidents but you can be prepared if they do happen.Search rescue img_skyline trail palm springs psp hike hiking

#1. Know Rescues May Not Happen Fast:  Some people think that a quick phone call will save them quickly when the ‘SHTF’ but they’re wrong.  Even the best rescuers can’t always deploy quickly and helicopters aren’t always available when the weather is bad. Your cavalry might just need to hike up the very same trail that’s downed you.  Chances are that you’ll be on your own for a while — even longer if you’ve gotten off the trail in hard to reach areas.  Be prepared to hunker down for hours potentially, in possibly extreme weather. Wear layers, have extra water, some food and a way to call for help.

That brings up one last point; it’s always a good idea to hike with a partner if you can.  Heat stroke can come on fast in the desert, bringing you to your knees and even unconsciousness before you might have time to grab your smartphone.  Having a buddy means someone else can make the call for help when it’s needed, and tend to you.

Recently, our search and rescue team pulled a group of 9 hikers off Skyline at about 7,500 feet elevation; I was involved in that rescue.  In this case, they were fortunate to have been helped by four SAR members and the assistance of the CHP aviation and Riverside County Sheriff’s Department — but not everyone is so fortunate.  If you are planning on hiking Skyline or Cactus to Clouds this season, please remember to think things through before your journey and be safe out there!

Matt Jordan previously ran Stout Adventure in Palm Springs and is an experienced hiker and guide. If you’re not sure you’re ready to tackle Skyline on your own, seek a knowledgable local guide


Palm Springs Traveller Staff