Another year’s PCH backpacking trip is in the bag! This year’s trek took us to the top of Mt. San Jacinto.
Our group of six hearty souls left the office and, after a sumptuous breakfast at Gramma’s in Banning, soon arrived at the lower station of the world-famous Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The Tram is a great option to explore the high country without the arduous climbing.
After disembarking the tram at 8516 feet elevation, the 70-degree pine-studded mountain environment cooled our faces after the 100+ temps of the desert below. We registered our permit with the Ranger Station, shouldered our heavy backpacks, and were soon trekking through the clear air and wilderness solitude.
The 2-mile, well-marked trail climbs steadily along the banks of a small streambed and up several sets of switchbacks. Soon, we were sweating profusely and huffing from the strong sunshine and the thin air.
Our initial destination was Round Valley Campground in the Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Situated at 9100 feet in elevation, the primitive campground winds its way in and around majestic rock outcroppings and ancient stands of 100 ft tall pine trees. Being careful to stay well away from the sensitive vegetation of Round Valley Meadow, the campsites are spread about a large area, giving the impression of being isolated from fellow campers. Only the playful shouts of a nearby Boy Scout Troop and hollering of several disturbed Steller Jay birds pervaded the camp’s silence.
Once tents were erected, the relaxation that comes from being “unplugged” outdoors began to permeate our psyche. Dinners are a good time of fellowship and, as always, Mr. Pacini’s gourmet camp meals are a sight to behold. Afterwards, our good friend Jack Daniels, accompanied by another gentleman from Knob Creek, stopped by for dessert ensuring lively chatter long into the evening.
Up with the Saturday morning sun, we were all eager to start the climb to the summit. After the first strenuous mile, the trail becomes exposed on the peak’s eastern flank giving an unforgettable view of the low desert, upper tram station, and Round Valley meadow. At 10,000 feet, the trees thin and the air thins even more. Rocks congest the trail, punishing our knees, ankles, and feet.
Soon however, Summit Saddle is reached with the peak being a short 3-tenths of a mile away. There is an emergency cabin built from local stone by the California Conservation Corps. Bunk beds and shelter are available should Mother Nature turn nasty.
San Jacinto peak is a rugged rock-scramble to the top. At 10, 834 feet above sea level, both the Pacific Ocean and Salton Sea can be viewed in opposite directions on clear days. Across the Banning Pass, the imposing ridge of Mt San Gorgonio (“Old Grayback” to locals) looks to be roughly the same height although it is 665 feet higher.
Ominous gray clouds started building during our short lunch at the peak. Nicknamed “Icarus” after the doomed Greek aeronaut, we were certain to be drenched from the pending downpour. Fortunately, we reached camp just before a gentle rain peppered the ground, trees, and rocks with large splashes of drops. The musty odor of damp forest weighted the air and increased humidity drastically. The rain did not last long however, the clouds scattered, and our camp dried quickly.
On a large flat rock, impromptu yoga instruction stretched tight, tired muscles in the warm sun.
After another scrumptious dinner, Mr. Pacini regaled us with ancient stories from his youth. The gentleman from Knob Creek and Mr. Daniels again joined us as we settled into the quiet mountain darkness for the evening.
Sunday morning’s trip down the Tramway and the drive home was thankfully uneventful and everyone made it home safe and sound. Stories and memories will last a lifetime from our wonderful adventure to the top of Mt. San Jacinto peak!