Pets allowed
Not Allowed
Elevation Gain
10,384.00 ft (3,165.04 m)
Trail type
23.80 mi (38.30 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

Starting at a mere 450 feet above sea level and gaining more than 10,000 feet by its end, no single trail in the country gains more elevation than Cactus to Clouds. Many use this hike to train for high altitude climbs in the High Sierra and Alaska. Most hikers start between 2:00 a.m and 4:00 a.m. because beginning any later than that means exposing yourself to the extreme desert heat. Be sure to bring 3 to 5 liters of water, food, warm clothes for the higher elevations, and equipment to help with higher-elevation snow and ice if necessary.

Ideally you will reach 4,000 feet for what is usually an amazing sunrise. From that point on it’s a race to the trees, which begin around 6,000 feet; here you can escape the sun's heat and take solace in the shade of the pines. Be sure to keep your eyes on the trail, however, as the route from the treeline to the ranger station is quite a rock scramble. Once you make it to the ranger station, congratulate yourself for gaining over 8,000 feet from the trailhead, and take comfort in knowing that you are more than halfway finished! Many teams will have a meal and take a nap before continuing on. 

After getting your free hiking permit from the ranger station, continue to the summit that is only 5.5 miles away. This section of the hike varies greatly with the seasons. It can be completely covered with snow or it can be over 80 degrees, so be sure to plan accordingly. Enjoy the mellow climb through the forest as the trial moves along several creeks and waterfalls before making the final scramble to the 10,834-foot summit. 

From the top, the return trip is quite easy. Most hikers who complete Cactus to Clouds choose to hike back down the 5.5 miles to the ranger station and take the tram to the valley floor. If this is your choice, be sure to arrange for a pick-up at the bottom tram station; alternately, you can always try talking to people in the tram terminal who would most likely be happy to give you a ride back to your car at the museum after hearing your story. If that fails, you can hire a taxi for around $20.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)




Parking Pass

Not Required


Expansive views. Multiple climate zones. Pride in accomplishment.


Sporadic weather. No trail markings. Almost no water.

Trailhead Elevation

450.00 ft (137.16 m)


Backcountry camping
Rock climbing
Big vistas
Old-growth forest


Nearby Lodging + Camping

Santa Rosa + San Jacinto National Monument
Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park, California


Just finished this hike in late July. Left at 2:30am (it was still 95 degrees). By the time the sun hit, I was above 5k, so there were actually some tall shrubs and a few hillsides that gave cover. The last scramble before the tram (8k) was the hardest section I thought, but it's in the tall trees and shaded at least. From the tram, it's smooth sailing to the peak. There were a couple points during the darkness, where I questioned if I was still on the right trail or if I wasting my head start on the sun. Ultimately the light on the tram tower served as a pretty decent beacon before sunrise. The white dots marking the trail become pretty sparse somewhere shortly after Rescue box #1. I wouldn't count on anything being in Rescue box 2. I went through nearly 3 liters of water before the tram, but carried 6 for the day which I finished before day's end easily.
We did it in July. 2AM start. carried 6 liters of water. needed 7 to get to the Ranger Station (thank God for someone leaving an extra gatorade in the last emergency station!)
This trail has been touted as the most difficult hike in the US, the hike with most elevation gain, etc etc for a reason. It's a serious trail, especially in the summer. Don't take this on unless you are prepared and physically fit.

This trail is in serious danger of being closed off, either seasonally or permanently, because of the high number of accidents recently.

I did this trail today from Palm Springs Museum to San Jacinto summit and back down to the tram. While stopped at the parmit station I had a chat with the ranger, who told me there have been 4 deaths just this year and quite a few other rescues performed. The cause is usually dehydration and heat exhaustion.

I think we would all agree that this trail should remain open for those who really want it. So please make sure you do it right if you decide to take it on.

My advice: There is no reason this trail should be a killer. Route finding is relatively easy, there are no sharp drop-offs, rocks are generally stable underfoot, and the route passes by not only a drinking water source, but a luxury restaurant and bar. The difference between a great experience and a miserable one is a little planning, preparation, and training for steep, sustained hiking.
Have updates, photos, alerts, or just want to leave a comment?
Sign In and share them.