San Bernardino National Forest’s Toughest Hike

The Cactus to Clouds Trail

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San Bernardino National Forest’s Toughest Hike

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Warning sign on Cactus to Clouds Trail. (Photo courtesy of Joe Tuborg.)

The San Bernardino National Forest is located directly east of Los Angeles. Although more than 100 miles from the City of Angels, this area attracts its citizens, as well as millions of others from Southern California and beyond. In fact, this national forest claims more annual visitors than either of the more familiar parks of Yellowstone and Yosemite.

Now over a century old, the San Bernardino National Forest encompasses just shy of 680,000 acres. The forest is divided into two parts. The north portion has within its boundaries the San Bernardino Mountain chain. The San Jacinto Mountain chain is located in the southern portion. At an elevation of 11,502 feet, Mount San Gorgonia is the highest of the forest's peaks. However, it is not the most difficult. That title is reserved for Mount San Jacinto.

Those of you familiar with the area may be shaking your head in disagreement at my previous statement. After all, San Jacinto's highest peak tops out at 10,834 feet. Indeed, it's a long way from being Everest-like. In fact, there is even a tram ride that takes tourists from Palm Springs to a restaurant that sits only 5 and a half miles from the summit. If you choose to take the ride, it is possible to have lunch, climb to the top of the mountain, and be back for dinner before taking the tram back down.

A more difficult route is from Idywild, California, on the back side of the mountain. Here, you will get an outstanding exposure to the San Bernardino National Forest. Hikers are literally among its pines until the final few steps of the ascent that bring you above the treeline.

However, if you want a real challenge, then you must take on the hardest hike in Southern California -- some might say in the entire state of California. In fact, Backpacker magazine rated it as the fifth most difficult hike in the U.S.

I am speaking of none other than the infamous Cactus to Clouds trail. A walk that will take you from desert floor to mountain peak with an elevation gain of 10,700 feet.

One of the most intriguing idiosyncrasies about this route is that it is not officially recognized as a trail. Since the beginning of the trek begins in Palm Springs, the trail does not actually enter the forest's boundaries for several miles. The park rangers we spoke with wouldn't acknowledge the trail existed but were very aware that it does.

The trailhead is hidden behind the Desert Springs Museum in downtown Palm Springs. From your first step, you are moving upward. It is something you will need to get used to, as that is how the rest of your day will proceed. We left for the summit at 3:30 a.m. -- some leave even earlier. It's not the 22 miles that is most concerning but being ahead of the desert heat. In fact, I would strongly discourage attempting the hike past April or before November.

After your first mile on the trail, the route does become a bit less steep. However, it is there where you come across a large rock with a warning about no water for the next eight miles and 10 hours. If nothing else, it is sobering. For the next 8 miles, you work your way upwards through desert scrub upon a poorly worn trail. There is no cover from the sun or elements until you reach Long Valley and the shelter of the trees of the national forest. Here, water is available, as is food, prior to finishing off the next 11-mile round trip to the summit and back to the tram station.

The route is considered completed upon return to the tram station. Conquer the Cactus to the Clouds, and you have conquered the toughest hike in the San Bernardino National Forest.

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