Hiking Cactus-to-Clouds has always been a bucket-list goal of mine and this past November, I accomplished it. I am by no means in the best shape of my life, but hey, I freaking did it! If this trek is a goal of yours too, below is a few training and packing tips to help prepare! Happy hiking!
What is Cactus-to-Clouds
Cactus-to-Clouds is a 21 mile assent from the Palm Springs valley floor, at about 400 feet, up to the San Jacinto Peak at 10,834 feet. It is rated one of the hardest day hikes in the United States and the trail actually has the largest elevation gain out of any hike in the United States. Skyline trail takes you up about 9.4 miles, starting behind the Palm Springs Art Museum ascending up all the way to the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Then, to do the full Cactus-to-Clouds hike you must continue on for another 11 miles to the peak and back down to the tramway station to ride the tramcar back down to the valley floor.
I wrote a separate blog called Training for Cactus-to-Clouds, where I mostly talked about hiking different trails throughout the Coachella Valley each week with my mom to train for this hike. The blog was more centered around our journey together and not so much about what you realistically need to be able to do in order to be as prepared as possible for a hike like this. So, in this blog, I’ll list out a few tips and information for more practical advice!
How to Train for Cactus-To-Clouds
Tip #1: Cross-Training. As mentioned in my last blog, we did one hike each weekend at the start of our training and then increased to twice a week, taking on more strenuous trails as the date got closer. Aside from hiking though, we also added in other workouts on our own during the week. I was actually working with a personal trainer at the time who created a lifting program for me that I followed. Each workout program was four workouts each week for four weeks and then I’d get a new plan for the next four weeks and so on and so forth. Lifting weights allowed me to really strengthen my legs and increase my stamina. I would highly recommend cross-training in the gym or just with weights at home as a means for preparing yourself for a full day of hiking on an incline.
Tip #2: Mindful Eating. I am still very far from where I want to be with my daily eating habits, but, I did fairly well leading up to this hike. I didn’t drink any alcohol for about 2 weeks prior to the hike and my trainer was working with me on learning to track macros. Again, this is still a work in progress for me and I’m definitely not the person to give out advice in this area, but, I felt that I was at least being mindful of what I was fueling myself with which really helped me feel more prepared. I focused on drinking a gallon of water every day, and tried to preplan my meals to hit a specific number of calories and grams of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. I also stopped drinking coffee as breakfast and began focusing on having a good nutrient dense meal before any caffeine intake. Lastly, I discovered these magical magnesium tablets from a brand called Voost that seemed to really help aid in muscle and bone recovery! They also have electrolyte tablets that I’d highly recommend as well!
Tip #3: Write Out a Plan
This tip was already completely done for me by my wonderful master planning mother. BUT, for those of you that don’t have a mom with a mapped out notebook filled with hikes by week to follow, I’d recommend making your own! We started planning about three months ahead of our hike date and my mom wrote out which trails we’d be doing each week in order to feel ready. For reference in creating your own plan, avid hikers who know this trail like the back of their hand have said you should be able to do the Bump n’ Grind trail in Palm Desert (up the hard side) four times in a row to be able to take on a trail like Skyline (let alone Cactus-to-Clouds).
What to Pack
Here is a list of everything I packed, with links to a few recommended essential items.
- Layers, Layers, Layers. – I wore biker shorts and a long sleeve dri-fit with a hat, which was perfect for the heat during the first half of the trek, and then I packed, sweatpants, a hoodie, a light wind breaker, and a larger warm jacket, a beanie and mittens. By the time I reached the peak I had every layer on and was so glad I packed it all.
- 1 Galloon of water (and some extra) – I brought four, one liter smartwaters. Not the most environmentally friendly I know, but, it was the most comfortable and cheap way I could think to pack them all on my back. I also packed four additional 16.9 ounce plastic water bottles that I preprepared with the Voost magnesium and electrolyte tablets ahead of time (linked below).
- Bug spray
- First-Aid Kit with some sort of compression wrap in case of a sprained ankle or other form of injury.
- Headlamp (I started and ended the hike in complete darkness)
- Walking sticks (these were life savers for my legs)
- Runner’s Goo (linking my favorite below)
- Snacks! I cut up two protein bars into small bite size pieces and put them in a baggie to snack on throughout the day. I’d also recommend some sort of salty snack like trail mix, crackers, etc. I also packed a peanut butter and honey sandwich which is alway my go-to trail food.
- Hiking Backpack large enough to fit everything mentioned above (linking the pack I used below!)
Know Before You Go
Aside from what to pack, here’s a few other useful tips/information to consider.
- Start at the Right Time – It is recommended you start this hike between 12 a.m. and 4 a.m. to allow yourself enough time to finish before the last tram car down at 9:30 p.m.
- Hike During the Right Time of the Year – Fall and spring are the best seasons to do this hike so that the temperature isn’t too hot at the beginning and isn’t too cold as you reach the top. Temperatures in Palm Springs are in the triple digits during summer and temperates at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway are typically around 30 degrees in the winter with plenty of snow.
- Pack AT LEAST 1 Gallon of Water – There are two rescue boxes along the trail that sometimes contain extra water left behind by other hikers and you can also fill up at the ranger station at the top of the tramway, but, I would highly, highly recommend not relying on these sources. You will be hiking for many hours and need to be properly hydrated the day before the hike AND during the hike.
- You Will Need a Permit – You must obtain a permit before continuing on once you reach the top of the tram. The permits are free and located at the ranger station. This not only allows rangers to protect the wilderness but is also meant to keep you safe. With limited cell service in the San Jacinto mountains, permits allow the rangers to know if you’ve safely returned from your hike.
- Know Where to Park at the Trailhead – 101 N Museum Dr, Palm Springs, CA, 92262, USA. Do not park in the museum parking lot or the parking garage across the street or you will be ticketed (or worse, towed). There is however, free street parking around the museum with plenty of spots if you start early morning. Also keep in mind, you will be finishing the hike at the parking lot at the bottom of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which is actually around 20 minutes from where you began your journey behind the Palm Springs Art Museum. Be sure to have a plan for how you will get back to your car.
Lastly, here are some trail markers that are helpful to know so you can see how far you’ve traveled and how many miles you still have left to go!
(Chart credit: HikingGuy)
I hope this blog helps anyone out there looking to cross this beast of a hike off their bucket list! As always, travel on my friends.