Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hiking the 10,000ft Cactus to Clouds Trail, Mt San Jacinto, California

If you were to ask me to make a list of the craziest things I've ever done in a day, the "Cactus to Clouds Trail" would probably top the list. Backpacker magazine rates this trail as the 3rd most difficult day hike in the country. This trail takes you from the city of Palm Springs, California to the top of Mt San Jacinto in about 16 miles. That's over a 10,000ft gain! I've never heard of, nor encountered anything quite like it in all my adventuring. Hike this trail and you will most certainly be able to impress any dayhiker.

One hell of a climb!
How insane is the trail?      
      This trail is very rugged, very steep, and not a lot of people are on it. Between Palm Springs and the top of the Aerial Tramway, 10 miles into the trail, there is no water or any other service; you're on your own. Water sources exist, but they are very unreliable. Its best to bring at least a gallon of water on the way up because once that desert sun rises, you will be sweating a lot. This brings me to another point- you HAVE to get an "alpine start" on this trail. This means if you haven't STARTED by 3:30AM you are going to run into two problems. First of all, it starts in the desert, so if you don't put some elevation under boots, you will run into extreme heat. Second of all, if you leave late, you will probably reach the summit at night and you will run into extreme cold. BE SMART, LEAVE EARLY! DO NOT TAKE CHANCES WITH THIS TRAIL!

Leave Early, Leave Early, Leave Early!

      The Trail The Cactus to Clouds trail starts in Palm Springs, literally. The trailhead begins at the Palm Springs Art Museum in downtown Palm Springs and beginning ascending from there. Be careful with this section- it is over rocky terrain which is confusing and ambiguous. Follow the white paint marks for a mile until you get to a clearing. This marks the true beginning of the trail and there are profuse warnings about not pushing your luck. Heed them!
Here's the basic run-down of the trail
  • Miles 0-1- rough, rocky trail marked by white paint
  • Miles 1-5, desert terrain to the halfway point
  • Miles 5-11, trail is mostly direct with some rough patches
  • Mile 11- The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (gets you down if need be)
  • Miles 11-16- smooth and gentle ascents to the top of Mt San Jacinto
  • Mile 16- The Summit
  • Miles 16-21 smooth descent back the way you came to the Aerial Tramway
  • Head down via the Tramway
       From the Art Museum, the trail ascends through scrubby, desertous terrain while endlessly switching back. You should reach the halfway point, which is usually marked with rock cairns. If you are seeing the sunrise at this point, you're on schedule. If its midday by this point, its risky to head down or up- once you get to the top, you could take the Palm Springs Tram to the bottom, but its a long hike. If you chose to descend, you will run into that terrible desert heat.
       The trail from the halfway point to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway gets somewhat rough and ambiguous as well; I've lost my way here. However, a good landmark you can use is a VERY conspicuous and prominent rock point that is close to the tramway. Obviously it isn't very noticeable from a distance of more than a couple miles, but as you approach the Tram, you will see it clearly.

This Prominent Point marks the location of the Aerial Tram


The Prominent Point from a further distance, not as reliable, but it does help


      The trail will finally top off at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which can take you down the mountain if need be. Mind you, the bottom of the tram drops you off far from town but cab companies will drive you back to the Art Museum (or you could always hitch-hike!). Do a little self-evaluation and make sure you are in good shape for another 10 miles or so. Its not as strenuous, but it will feel like it after the initial ascent.
      The ranger station is near the tramway and you will have to pick up a permit for the hike. I would recommend purchasing a map in the Tram store too- there are multiple trails and you wouldn't want to go down the wrong trail at this point! All you need to do now is follow the signs for the summit. The first 2 miles to "Round Valley" are gentle and easy whereas the last 3 miles to the top are a little more difficult. Again, a map really helps for this point.


Bask in the glory of your accomplishment!
      Most people will reach the summit in the late afternoon; don't spend too much time here. San Jacinto's prominence and proximity to the ocean make the weather unpredictable. Take some photos to prove you did it and follow the exact same route down to the Tram Station. Even the craziest of day hikers will be content taking the tramway down, but some will insist on descending the whole way by foot; your call.



Heading back to the Tram


Another reminder, the Tram will take you down the mountain to a parking lot which is just outside of Palm Springs. Either hitch a ride or pay for a cab to get you back to the Palm Springs Art Museum. And, for goodness sake, have a beer or something, YOU accomplished the most difficult dayhike in California!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mountain Biking Mecca: Downieville, California

      A "Mountain Biking Mecca" is the term given by hardcore enthusiasts to a place that has the best trails in the United States. It is a place that any self-respecting mountain biker must ride at some point in their life. It is a right of passage, holy ground for those on two fat tires. While there is no official accreditation for a location to become a "Mountain Biking Mecca", the term is used for only the most glorious of mountain biking destinations. So, I would like to bring to your attention, the town of Downieville, California.
Unless you are a hardcore mountain biker, you have probably never heard of Downieville, California. In ten years of California adventuring, I had never heard of it until about a month ago! Although it is not as well known to the general public, this tiny town is a prime location for some of the best trails in the country. The famous "Downieville Classic" is actually one of the biggest downhill races in the country. There are ENDLESS opportunities for biking- from beginner trails to crazy-ass technical trails that require nerves of steel. Needless to say, if you have a mountain bike, get yourself up here!
The "Trail", don't fall off to your right!
Where can you ride?       In a word, anywhere. Head into town and stop at a mountain bike store or an information booth and you will get the run down on every single trail. You can ride any off road vehicle on most trails too- great 4x4 driving and dirt biking exist  too. It would take a long time to describe the trails I did, but here are my recommendations if you make it up here-
  • The Downieville Downhill: This is the premier trail of the town, the creme de la creme, the "why-go-to-Egypt-and-not-see-the-Pyramids" type of place. It will rock you, roll you and send you happily screaming down 4,000 vertical feet of glorious single track. I did this trail as an out and back trail but there is a shuttle system that you can pay for that will cut off the huge elevation gain. This trail has jumps, technical sections, steep downhills, river crossings, and varied terrain. You definitely need a damn good mountain bike for it. What I loved most about it was that it took me about 4 hours to climb up it and about 45 minutes to descend. Wheeeee! Trail maps are available in town- if you take the shuttle, expect 29 miles of uninterrupted ascents and descents through Sierra forests and streams.
  • The SBTS Mountain Epic Route: This is another route that is not too far from the town of Downieville. This is a dirtbiking trail but mountain bikers have made a claim on its route as well. This trail is also known as the "Second Divide Trail" and can be done in conjunction with the Downieville Downhill. Its much more difficult than the Downhill route- more tricky rocky sections, tighter curves, and some very "cliffy" sections. I highly recommend it though!
  • Chimney Rock Trail: I haven't personally done this trail, but it was also highly recommended by local mountain bikers. This can be done through the local shuttle as well but it still involves about 5,000ft of elevation gain. It is a 28 mile trail with great views that is locally described as simply "outrageous". Let me know if you get a chance to ride this one!

Despite the well-deserved "atrociousness" of the trails, they are quite peacefull and usually empty
Where the hell is Downieville?
      That's what I said when first heard of the town. Downieville is located in the Northern Sierras, northeast of Sacramento, California. Its almost directly north of Auburn California (if you know where that is!). From anywhere in Southern California or San Francisco area, you are going to have to make it to 80- East. Auburn is 25 miles east on I-80 from Sacramento. From here, head north on Highway 49 for 70 miles to the town of Downieville. Make sure you follow the signs to stay on Highway 49- it forks off once near Grass Valley. The drive itself is beautiful and you will see some gorgeous views of the Yuba River.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mountain Biking the Famous Flume Trail

Lake Tahoe's famouse Flume Trail!

      What happens when you cut a log flume directly into a cliff but then remove it in leau of a singletrack trail? Mountain bikers rejoice. Lake Tahoe's Flume Trail has gained the statewide and national attention of the mountain biking community due to its uniqueness. We're talking a handlebar-wide trail with a vertical cliff on one side and and a 300 foot drop on the other side. If you're a mountain biker looking for an adrenaline fix, here's your shot!

The Trail
     The flume trail is a singletrack mountain biking trail, which means it is very narrow and somewhat technical but not something that requires extreme amounts of experience. This was one of my first experiences with a technical mountain biking trail and I've been hooked ever since. This is because the views of Lake Tahoe are phenomenal and its one of the most thrilling trails I've ridden.
     The Spooner Lake parking lot serves as your starting point and you will have to climb about 1000ft in 5 miles on the North Canyon Trail to see anything spectacular. This inital climb is not entirely strenuous, but it can be a bit of a heartbreaker. The reward at the top is great- the sparkling and clear Marlette Lake is a serene place to stop for a snack or lunch.
Looking into the Nevada Desert
      The trail forks at Marlette Lake and you will take a left to reach the Flume Trail. A flatter 1.6 mile section will take you to the actual Flume. This is the best part of the trail! I found it difficult to focus with all the stunning views of Lake Tahoe. Be sure to stop when you can just to take it all in. Most mountain bikers will be headed in the direction that you are, but keep your head up in case somebody is heading the wrong direction; the trail isn't wide enough to handle two bikes.

Marlette Lake
      The actual flume trail is about 4.5 miles and at the end you have a choice of going back the way you came or making a loop. I prefer making a loop; its safer to keep the flume trail going one way and the view of Nevada are great from the loop. So, at the end of the Flume Trail, take a right at a small connector trail that will bring you to the Tahoe Rim Trail. This is a more difficult trail- switchbacks and large boulders, so be prepared. The Tahoe Rim Trail will climb about a thousand feet in 2.5 miles, flatten out, and in another 2.5 miles you come to a crossroad. Take a right at this crossroad and in about 2 miles you are back at Marlettle Lake. From hear, just take the north canyon back to your car. Enjoy!

How do I get there?
      Located on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, the Flume Trail can be accessed easily from South Lake Tahoe. If you're coming from the Sacramento area, you would pretty much take highway 50 east all the way to South Lake Tahoe. From South Lake Tahoe, you will continue on highway 50 about 15 miles into Nevada. At the junction of highway 28 and 50, you make a left and within a half a mile you will park at Spooner Lake
      If you are coming from north of Sacramento- Roseville, Rocklin, Auburn ect, take highway 80 east to Truckee. Take highway 267 south toward the ski resorts and follow it for about 10 miles. At the junction of 267 and 28, turn left and head across the stateline towards Incline Village. From the junction, it is about 17 miles to Spooner lake.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Climbing Quail Mountain, Highest Point in Joshua Tree National Park

How to get to the highest point in Southern California's National Park
Joshua Tree's Best View!
Quail Mountain is the highest peak of our beloved Joshua Tree National Park. It is the highest point in the park as well as the highest peak in the "Little San Bernardino Mountains". Quail Mountain itself is 5,813ft and a true backcountry adventure for a desert explorer. There are no trails or roads to the top- its entirely cross country and requires very strong compass and map skills. It is not, however, a technical climb- all you will need are supplies for a day and some sturdy boots and pants.

Getting to the Trailhead


The best way to approach Quail Mountain is through Joshua Tree's west entrance. This can be reached by driving Highway 62 to the town of Joshua Tree. Once in the park, you will drive all the way past Hidden Valley Campground to the pullout for "Cap Rock". This is roughly 10 miles from the entrance and at the beginning of the intersection for "Keys View". Other sources may give you a route that is a shorter distance, however I believe this route is the best because the actual mountain has a clear line of sight between this parking lot and the summit.

The Route


Its difficult to describe the route itself without a Topographic map, so if you are serious about climbing this mountain, go purchase one. From the "Cap Rock" parking lot, if you look west by northwest, you should be able to see the summit. Note the bearing and head off in that direction. You will be crossing a flat, desert basin for about 2 miles. This section has many Joshua Trees and will lead you to some foothills. Again, remember your original bearing; the foothills will obscure the summit as you approach them.
The long, flat section you cross to get to Quail Mountain
(the highest point in the picture is the summit)
From the bottom of these foothills, you are looking for a saddle that will allow you to pass them without climbing too high. These foothills are not connected to Quail Mountain, so don't try and climb to the top of them.

Once on top of these foothills, you should be able to clearly see Quail Mountain. Study the topography carefully and look for a ridgeline that leads to the summit. It will look like an arm extending in a southeasterly direction from the summit. Descend from the foothills towards this arm, which will take you to the top.


You will know you are at the top when you see an unnaturally large pile of rocks known as a "cairn". The summit will have sweeping views of Mt San Jacinto and the San Bernardino Mountains and the Mojave Desert. Congratulations, you are at the top of JTree!
A large "cairn" marks the true summit
Mt San Jacinto is directy to the left
Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Snow in the Desert: A Natural Paradox of the Mojave

Read. Plan. Get Out There!
Snow in the desert???
      Perhaps one of the strangest phenomenons of the Mojave Desert is its potential for temperatures exceeding 120 degrees while also being a place that sometimes gets snow. The north side Joshua Tree National Park is "High Desert" and the elevations range from about 3,000ft to the highest point at 5,820ft. The cooler temperatures of the winter, combined with high elevation and the occasional precipitation can blanket the cactus and Joshua trees in a layer of snow. Although the snow rarely lasts more than a day or two, the sight of a desert covered in snow is reason enough to make it out to J-Tree in the winter.
It only happens a couple times a year
How and when can I see snow in the desert?
      Though this phenomenon is not entirely unheard of, you will have to be lucky and strategic in your planning. The best months are December, January and sometimes February after a longer Southern California storm. Use the NOAA's weather website to find out if it is really snowing. On their website, there is a "Detailed Point Forecast" system where you can click on a map for specific weather.
The Highest Mountains west of Hidden Valley campground in J-Tree
      Again, the northern side of Joshua Tree National Park has some higher desert points and is close enough to the ocean to catch some precipitation of dissipating storms. From the town of Joshua Tree (120 miles east of LA) drive through the "West Entrance". Drive in and park at the "Hidden Valley" campground. The mountains to the west of the campground can get snow and you will be able to see it from here. If you want a better view, you can climb these mountains, however there is no trail. Hiking cross country is permitted, but make sure you have you compass and map skills down. You will be rewarded by making this trek; it takes you to the highest points of the park which will surely be covered in snow after a large storm.

Strange sights!
      Also, if the "Keys View" road is open, this is a great spot to view the snow in the desert.