Conquering Mount San Jacinto

Mojave Trading Co.

On 8/12 Jacob, my cousin Andrew and I headed out to Idyllwild, California with the intention of summiting Southern California’s second tallest mountain….Mount San Jacinto.

Mount San Jacinto rests at 10,834 feet above sea level and is known for being the third most prominent mountain in the state of California and sixth most prominent in the contiguous United states. Topographic prominence of a summit is how high the summit rise above it’s surroundings, and being surrounded by flat desert you can imagine San Jacinto towering over it’s surroundings.

After picking up our day hike permits (self serve on the front porch at the Ranger Station in Idyllwild) we left for Dark Canyon Campground, a small campground located off of the 243 in Idyllwild. If you drive through the campground there is a dirt road that switchbacks up to a girl scout camp called Azalea Trails. Driving past this camp and further up the road is a yellow post campsite away from the quiet, but still there, chit chat of the campground. If you can score this campsite you will be met with showers of shooting stars throughout the night. This site also sits at the trail head for Seven Pines Trail which is the route we decided to take to reach the peak of the mountain.

Our view of the moon from the yellow post site, a favorite of ours, from the weekend before our hike. 

Unfortunately, the site was already taken by the time we were able to get there. We happily took a small site within the Dark Canyon Campground and set up just the necessities for the night. Knowing that we were going to be expelling an access amount of energy, we treated ourselves to some steak and beans for dinner for the extra protein boost. We sat around the picnic table waiting for the meteor shower to begin but soon succumbed to sleep as we planned on beginning our hike at 6am. I was barely able to fall asleep, excited for the next days adventures.

My alarm went off at 4:45 in the morning and we broke down camp as quietly as possible with many protests from Jacob about how early it was. We made it to the Seven Pines trail head just as the sky started to get light and after checking our supplies Andrew, Jacob and I headed off down the trail.

Seven Pines trail head as the sky is just beginning to lighten up.

View of the sunrise as hike along Seven Pines.

One of my favorite things about backpacking and hiking is the planning and research that it takes. From all my research online I had come to the conclusion that the hike was a little more than 14 miles round trip, following our way out and back the way we came. Approximately 7 miles to the peak and the same back, with a ton of elevation gain of course. I imagined this to be a hike that kicked my butt and boy was I right…

I set my Gaia GPS app to track our trip upon our take off, curious to see all of the information that it logs. Our plan was to take Seven Pines to the Pacific Crest Trail (eep! Even if it is only for .5 miles…) which turns into Deer Springs that takes you to the summit.

We set off with my cousin gawking at all of the boulders surrounding us, wondering if he would have the energy after the hike to climb a few. I laugh thinking back at it… The elevation gain was steady, enough to set my thighs on fire and to qualify for several short stops along the trail. Eventually we hit the sign marking the change of territory into Mt. San Jacinto State Park Wilderness area.

Sign marking the change in wilderness territory.

As we passed the sign we took a demoralizing dip to our first of several river crossings. This last winter has been a record snow year for the mountains in California, leaving a good amount of water running even late in the summer.

Our first river crossing. 

When researching this trail it was noted that it was the least maintained of all routes to the peak, and this was true. However, we did not have much trouble finding it on the way there as we did on the way back. Pink bands are tied to trees or branches frequently along the trail, making it pretty easy to find your way.

The view from atop a boulder my cousin forced (yes forced) me to climb on top of…I thanked him for the push as I let my fear of heights get to me, and it truly was a nice view. 

The trail marker at the junction of the PCT and Seven Pines Trail.

Making it to the first junction of trail brightened my spirits as it was the .5 mile section of trail shared with the Pacific Crest Trail. This part of the trail is well maintained and a break from the ever climbing elevation gain that was Seven Pines Trail. Not that it doesn’t go up, because it does…just not as steep.

PCT trail marker for Fuller Ridge. 

From here we would next meet Little Round Valley, a trail camp a couple miles below the top of Mount San Jacinto. Online I read that bugs are a real problem here though I never could find out what kind…the campground is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen with it’s sites immensely spread out. As we passed through we decided we would stay here whenever we decided to come back.

View of the foliage passing through Little Round Valley. I saw a family of deer hiding between the trees as we passed.

From this point on the camera on my phone decided to malfunction. I’m pretty sure the Gaia GPS app was taking up most of my phone’s focus, recording our trip. Luckily, Andrew’s phone was still working.

After passing through Little Round Valley we began the strenuous trek up the never ending switchbacks that lead to the peak. By this point, Jacob was looking at me as if I were insane for wanting to do this….and even enjoying it. We had already hiked 9.5 miles according to the Gaia GPS, and in the next mile we would be gaining over 700 more feet of elevation. Andrew decided to take off ahead as I stayed back with Jacob, tackling the trail at snail speed. He kept saying we could say that this exact point on the trail was the top…that we did it and we could turn around. But I knew that I had to make it to the peak. There was no other choice in my mind.

After what felt like eternity of hiking up switchbacks we made it to the survival shelter near the peak. Inside is emergency supplies and two bunk beds equipped with all supplies necessary to sleep as well as the trail register. Jacob and I signed the register and took a break on the beds, studying the shelter. Wanting to find my cousin I headed up to the final length of the trail in which you must rock scramble to the peak.

Finally! We had made it to Mt. San Jacinto Peak!

Panoramic from the peak. 

A view of the desert from 10,834 feet above sea level.

As I sat at the peak I wondered how the view I was now seeing differed from the one John Muir saw when he quoted it “…the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on Earth!” Surely there was less smog… That being said, it was still a spectacular view. I felt like a super hero, having hiked nearly 11 miles to the peak and gaining over 6,000 feet of elevation.

Screenshot of my Gaia GPS trip report. Note that my phone died at the shelter, about 300 feet lower than the peak. Total distance was at 10.4 miles…

Seeing 10.4 miles (10.5 after the last stretch) and knowing that we had to hike that back was enough to get us back on the trail quickly. It has taken us nearly 7 hours to hike to the summit, and now we had to (begrudgingly) hike it back. Only then did I remember reading about the trail head being marked with the incorrect distances and this added over 7 unexpected miles to our hike. Thankfully, most of it was downhill.

It took us about 4.5 hours to hike back down the mountain, not taking any breaks the first 4-5 miles. Descending the mountain, losing all the elevation we had earlier gained, really puts a toll on your knees and legs even with trekking poles. We had to take several breaks along the way back, constantly checking the GPS to see how much progress we made. It was never as much as we wanted it to be.

After we crossed our first (and last!) river crossings I got a last wind, motivated by the thought of air conditioning and sitting in my car. I left Andrew and Jacob to practically run back to the car. My legs were shaking, my body was exhausted, and I was glad to be done. We had hiked nearly 22 miles round trip, summiting the second tallest mountain in Southern California.

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