If you've had the opportunity to stop in at Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park, you've seen a visual illustration of the forces at work in the San Andreas Fault as it runs through the Coachella Valley. Looking out at Mount San Jacinto's towering peak, visitors see the steepest escarpment in the country, a rise of more than 10,000 feet in just over 7 miles. Subduction at the fault has uplifted this Mesozoic granite, and the process is by no means finished.
For the truly fit, the arduous Cactus to Clouds ascent allows you to feel every step of this massive elevation gain. This route climbs over 10,000 feet in over 23 miles, and it is among the most difficult and rewarding hikes in the state. For the rest of us, taking the Palm Springs Ariel Tramway up to Mount San Jacinto State Park is a fantastic and accessible illustration, and you'll still have the energy to explore some of the excellent trails at the top such as the Round Valley Loop.
To access the loop, walk down the series of steep switchbacks leaving from the top of the tramway and proceed onto the dirt trail. In a short distance you'll see signs for the Discovery and Desert View trails leading to the left. These are great options if you are considering a shorter hike, but if you have the time, keep right to proceed to the ranger station. You'll have to stop here to fill out a wilderness permit, which is free, easy, and quick. Once you've finished, continue along the path toward the wilderness area to find the beginning of the Round Valley Loop.
Taking the loop in a counter-clockwise direction pays off with big views of the Coachella Valley near the end of the hike, but hiking clockwise is also a popular option. Keep right to save the views for the end and proceed along a seasonal drainage that holds the snowmelt from the previous winter. It is incredible to think that at this point you're standing in a subalpine snow zone less than 10 miles from the desert floor. Follow the trail and the drainage as it winds around granite formations and under tall Jeffery pines.
In just under a mile the trail finally crosses the drainage and begins to climb the ridge that leads into Round Valley. Aside from a few steep sections, the climb in this direction is relatively gradual and constant. The trail sticks to the northwest-facing flank of the ridge as it peaks at 9,000 feet or so near a junction 1.8 miles from the ranger station. A right takes you to Round Valley campground; keep left as the Round Valley Loop veers east. The pines open up a bit on this aspect, as do the views. Most of the climbing is behind you at this point, so take your time to enjoy this forest and the views of the Coachella Valley. Approximately a mile from the junction with the trail leading to Round Valley Campground you'll take a left for the 1-mile return to the tramway. Traveling counter-clockwise gives you this section of trail as a descent, and you'll be glad for it when you see the faces of oncoming clockwise travelers climbing and puffing with the steeper elevation gain.
At 4 miles and 600 feet of elevation gain, this hike is an easy way to explore the park that leaves time for other projects in the day. At times the terrain is uneven and rocky, which is something to consider when bringing children. The distance and elevation gain may qualify this hike as family-friendly, but small children may need some support over the entire distance of the trail.
Note that it is very important to prepare for this elevation as you would any subalpine zone. Temperatures can easily be 60 degrees cooler than in the valley below; don't be surprised to leave a parking lot that reads a sweltering 100 degrees and emerge from the tramway car into a 40-degree wind. Bring extra layers in addition to the standard supplies of water, food, and sunscreen to explore this extraordinary area.