4th in the Mountains

Sarah and I decided to celebrate the birth of our country by combining two American values, pioneer spirit and technological ingenuity, with a combo tram ride/backcountry hiking trip in the Mount San Jacinto State Park.

The technology came in the form of a tram that took us from the Palm Desert floor (about 2600 feet) and 100 degree heat to mountains of roughly 8500 feet high and cooler temperatures.  In about 15 minutes you ascend nearly two miles and get some spectacular views of the surrounding valleys and the enormous cliffs surrounding the tram route.  The tram cars rotate so that you get different views throughout your ride.  For some history of the tram, see this.

We continued to enjoy creature comforts at the top as we ate our lunches in air conditioned splendor before strapping on our backpacks for a short three mile hike to our camp site for the weekend.  Outside the tram station, we descended steeply down a concrete walkway to the beginning of our trail.  Our travel companions, Ashley and Christina, warned us that the worst part of the hike would be coming back up that concrete walkway with our backpacks.

The hike to camp was relatively easy as we took the low trail around Round Valley.  There’s some nice pine forest and we eventually were walking near a stream that ran near a large meadow.  We reached the Round Valley campgrounds and using the map provided with our permit, we set out to find our campsite, which was in the next campground, Tamarack Valley.  It looked easy, but we got tripped up by a downed tree that covered the trail we were supposed to turn onto.  How many Sierra Club certified navigators does it take to find Tamarack Valley campsite?  Apparently 4.  After a couple more wrong turns, we got back on track and found the first of the sites in Tamarack Valley.  We scouted out some other sites, and settled on one that wasn’t too far uphill that abutted a small stream and was near the “toilet”.  The 3 mile trip took about 2 hours.

After setting up camp, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon taking a quick hike over to Cornell Peak and try to get to the top.  Our campsite was nearby, so getting to the base of it was pretty easy; the trail running through the campground took us part way and then we went cross-country to the western side of the peak, where there was a ridgeline that connected up with Cornell that we thought would be the easiest way up.  The picture to the left shows what we saw from the ridgeline.  There was no real trail at all, and as you can see, it was very rocky so we were mostly scrambling over boulders.  There was some fun bits of climbing that required using hand and footholds, which were plentiful.

We thought we were finally approaching the summit when we hit a dead end.  After scrambling over a large boulder we stood on a small area that continued up a chute towards the summit on one side and looked out over the edge of the mountain on the other.  Sarah and Ashley got part way up the chute, but could go no further.  I decided to stay put.  The GPS we were carrying put us on the same contour line as the summit, so we considered it a victory and decided to head down.  Going down is always hairier than climbing up, and after a few rough spots we made a quick descent.  As we looked back at the peak, we were impressed with our climb, but wondered if there was another way up that would have gotten us to the tippy top.  Upon our return to civilization, a few Google searches indicated that the way to the top involved approaching from the east side.  We’ll have to try that next time.

Since we had only had a short hike into camp, we had loaded up our packs with vittles for a little gourmet camp cooking.  We also packed in alcohol for the first time on a backpack trip, with two small cardboard cartons of wine and a flask of Bushmills.  We chilled the wine and flask in our stream, which did the job nicely.  For dinner, we did a shrimp ramen dish.   Frozen shrimp and packages of ramen noodles were combined with chopped jalapenos, onion, dried mushrooms, scallion, soy sauce, sesame oil, and a bouillon cube.  We prepared most of the ingredients beforehand, so it mostly involved dumping in all the ingredients into some boiling water.  It’s a really good camp dish if you want something other than dried food.  The wine wasn’t great, but it was nice to have something other than water with your dinner.

The next day our goal was to climb to the top of San Jacinto (stopping off at Miller Peak on the way), then go off-trail to several other peaks in the area.  Sarah had planned out several possible routes.  Only three of us started out the next day, as Christina was feeling the effects of the altitude.  We’d been camping at around 9100 feet and having had altitude sickness before, it’s no fun.  I actually woke up in the middle of the night with a headache, but some aspirin and water had kept me from getting any worse symptoms.

The trail was pretty steep all the way up to Wellman’s Divide.  There you get a break from the trees and you get to look out over a valley and a lot more mountains.  We took a quick rest stop there and also noticed that there was quite a bit of clouds gathering.  We kept going up and now we were able to see the valley we were camping in as well as Cornell Peak and even the tram station which was  a couple of ridgelines over from Cornell.  We also were able to see rain coming out of some of the clouds miles away.  Dang.

As we approached the last stretch of trail to Jacinto, we took a brief off-trail excursion to the top of Miller Peak.  It took about 5 minutes to find the rockpile that led to the summit, and after a few more minutes, we had found the plaque that marked the summit.  One peak down, several more to go.  We hoped, because the weather was looking worse.  We were surrounded by clouds now and the wind was getting stronger.

We made it to an emergency cabin just below the peak at San Jacinto when it started raining and the wind was whipping.  We took shelter behind some rocks and put our rain jackets on.  When the rain died down, we scrambled up the last section of rocks to the peak.  Peak number two taken.

On a clear day, the view from Jacinto is spectacular.  With clouds all around us, we couldn’t see much.  We had another visitor snap the shot to the left.  At a little over 10,800 feet this was the second tallest peak I’d ever been too.  Since the weather wasn’t that great, we skedaddled out of there and headed back off the peak to the trail.

The plan was then to go cross-country following the ridgeline between Jacinto and our next target, Jean Peak.  We left the trail and it was slow going.  There were lots of trees and large boulders, as well as some manzanitas for good measure.  It was pretty slow going and eventually we stopped for lunch in a clearing.  Unfortunately the clouds weren’t moving away and it started raining again, this time harder than before.  We had seen that the route to Jean was going to involve a lot of rock scrambling, and after a short discussion, we decided that climbing over wet rocks off-trail was not a smart move.  So, we decided to cut the trip short and head back to camp.

Rather than following the trail back to camp, we decided to go cross-country.  The first section was quite steep, but we made a quick descent to a clearing where we met up with the trail again.  After taking it for a short while, we tried to find an old trail that was no longer in use that would lead us to the general vicinity of our campsite.  We never really found that trail, but we soon found a stream that we located on our topo map, and used that as a landmark to guide us back to camp.

Since Christina was feeling better and we had made it back to camp much earlier than expected, we did another little excursion to try and find a section marker and some other landmarks on our topo.  We got to the general vicinity of the section marker but never found it.  We found some tall rocks and hung out on those awhile, and then found a spring marked on the topo.  With those small victories, we headed back to camp for dinner number two.  This time we made a chicken and grits meal from our latest issue of Backpacker.  It was tasty, and we had our second “bottle” of boxed wine.

After dinner, I took some shots of the stream.  I was trying to mess with the film speed to create a “fluid” look with the water.  I got mixed results, but I think this one turned out pretty well.  We played some Uno, but the bugs were out in force, so we turned in pretty early.

The next morning we packed up and headed back to the tram station.  This time we took the high road around Round Valley, completing the “round” in Round Valley.  The final push up the dreaded concrete walkway was the only thing left to do.  It wasn’t as bad as I expected, and I think the fact that I knew a Stone beer at the tram lodge was awaiting me as quickly as I got up added a little pep to my step.

We all made it and had that celebratory beer.  The tram ride back was equally as impressive and even quicker than going up.  The drop in elevation was met with a rise in the temperature.  Since we were all hungry, we stopped in Palm Springs and ate at a great Jewish deli called Sherman’s.  Great sandwiches and an absolutely huge array of pies, cakes, and pastries for desert.  Given the calories we burned hiking, we figured we could splurge on a large piece of chocolate cake.  A delicious end to a great weekend of hiking!

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