As seen in the Nobody Hikes in L.A. Guidebook!
Text and photography copyright 2010 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
San Jacinto Peak from the Seven Pines Trail
- Location: San Jacinto Mountains north of Idyllwild. From Idyllwild, drive 5.5 miles north on highway 243 to the signed turnoff for the Stone Creek/Fern Basin/Marion Mountain/Dark Canyon campgrounds. Follow the signs for Dark Canyon (stay left), and reach at the campground. (There may be signs that say it’s closed, but it is open for day use). At the campground, drive around a circular road and look for a dirt road signed for Seven Pines. The dirt road is in decent condition, and should be passable by any passenger vehicle. Drive 1.7 miles to the end, and park at the trailhead. A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 for a day, $30 for the year) is required (click here to purchase), as is a free San Jacinto Wilderness permit (available from the Idyllwild Ranger Station).
- Agency: San Bernardino National Forest/San Jacinto Ranger District
- Distance: 13.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 5,000 feet
- Difficulty Rating: NC-17 (Trail condition, altitude, elevation gain, steepness, distance)
- Suggested time: 10 hours
- Best season: June to November
- USGS topo map: San Jacinto Peak
- Recommended gear: altimeter and compass; sun hat; sunblock; hiking poles; insect repellent
- Recommended map: San Jacinto Wilderness trail map
- More information: San Bernardino National Forest homepage here; report on P.C.T. conditions here; trip report via Marion Mountain trail here; trip report via the tram here.
- Rating: 10
Mt. San Jacinto towers above Palm Springs and the desert, across the Banning Pass from San Gorgonio Mountain. While “San G” is the tallest peak in southern California, San Jacinto is notable for being one of the most topographically prominent peaks in the country. Its prominence of 8,339 feet means that should the sea level rises to the point where San Jacinto becomes an island, the highest point on the island would be 8,339 feet. Travelers from L.A. to Palm Springs see the mountain’s dramatic rise from the desert.
There are several routes to the summit. The most popular is probably by way of the tram from Palm Springs, which brings hikers to an elevation of 8,516 feet. Die-hards sometimes achieve the summit by way of the infamous “Skyline” (or “Cactus to Clouds”) trail, also from Palm Springs. The peak can be reached on the Idyllwild side via the south, from Humber Park, or from the west, via Fuller Ridge (which requires a long drive on a dirt road), the Marion Mountain trail, or the route described here, the Seven Pines trail.
I’ll just say that while I am notorious for making fun of those who summit via the tram, hiking the Seven Pines route made me eat my words. While the Seven Pines trail goes through some beautiful country, and is one of the most isolated routes on the mountain, the trail is poorly maintained, requiring a lot of climbing over fallen trees, and sharp navigational skills to stay en route.
The Seven Pines trail leaves the parking lot and ascends steeply to a rocky hill, giving great views of Black Mountain and the other northern peaks of the range, and then descends about 200 feet to the north fork of the San Jacinto River, which also marks the entrance to the wilderness at an elevation of about 7,000 feet. After crossing the river, the trail continues to climb, crossing the stream again at about 7,800 feet (approximately 2.5 miles in). Keep these elevations in mind–the trail is easy to lose, and if you have an altimeter you can track your progress and make sure you are crossing the stream at the correct time. There are also trail ducks that can help you, and remember that often times if the route appears lost, it is probably blocked by a fallen tree. The same isolation that makes the Seven Pines trail attractive (we saw more deer than people during this section of the hike) means that it is not as well maintained as other trails in the area. There are two more smaller stream crossings (the water is barely a trickle this high up) and then the trail meets the Deer Springs trail at 8,600 feet, a spot for a well-earned break.
From here, head left on the Deer Springs trail (which is also the Pacific Crest Trail), and at half a mile, stay right as the P.C.T. heads left toward Fuller Ridge. The next mile is steep, gaining almost 900 feet, but you are rewarded with great views to the west. On clear days, you can see Old Saddleback and the San Gabriel Mountains. The hills north are dotted with flowers, and a couple of small waterfalls make the journey a little more enjoyable.
After the climb, you arrive at Little Round Valley, where you cross the stream and enter a primitive camp site. This area makes another good stopping point (elevation 9,800 feet). From there, the trail switchbacks up to the saddle below the peak. The main trail continues east at this point, and you will likely see hikers who have come from the Palm Springs side or from Humber Park. A short spur climbs the last 300 feet to the summit, past the famous survival hut. The trail basically gives way to the summit boulders, so at a certain point, you basically just have to climb upward. By this point, the summit sign and an American flag will be in view, providing both your orientation–and a boost to your morale.
From the summit, you get great views of San Gorgonio, and Palm Springs spreads out far below. To the south, you can see Tahquitz Peak, and on clear days, El Toro and Rabbit Peaks. To the southwest, you can see the Santa Anas and the ocean. While smog is an inevitable part of the view that once inspired John Muir, it’s still hard not to be impressed with the scene before you.
The Seven Pines route is a challenging approach to the summit (I’m tired just writing about it!) but it also has its rewards. No matter which route you take to San Jacinto Peak, it is sure to be a memorable experience.