AKA-The sun also rises and burns you to a crisp.
The lowdown- Approximately 8 miles and 8000 feet of elevation gain to Long Valley, plus an extra 4 miles out and back to Round Valley cause why the heck not. It’s a steep son of a gun.
For my husband’s 30th birthday he decided to do one of the most difficult trails in Southern California, during the hottest month of the year on the hottest weekend. Did I mention this trail starts in Palm Springs where the average daily high in august hovers around 110 degrees? To many this may seem a little crazy, dangerous, fool hardy, or in the words of the Ranger at Long Valley “not the best idea…”. I do not disagree, but there is something in my brain that drives me to endure a certain amount of discomfort before I feel like I’ve achieved something noteworthy in my outdoor adventure. Perhaps there is something in the encephalon of the adventurer, some faulty wiring that leads us to these suffer fests. It is possible that some synapses only fire when we are pushed to our edge, almost as if a sixth sense only becomes active when that special level of fatigue sets in. Everything in the mind and body is yelling stop, take a load off, turn around. But you keep going and if you’re lucky you eventually reach a monk like state of forward momentum. The steady rhythm of your pace the mantra for your meditation.
In order to beat the worst of the heat we started the trail at 3am, even at this time the air was thick with residual warmth. Within the first mile we were already drenched in a layer of sweat, the salt starting to create a film on our skin as we continued up the steep trail. Skyline trail in the summer is a race against the sun. Start too late or go to slow, and you will be caught ascending in the direct sunlight and steadily rising temperature. We raced to the promise of shade that comes with higher elevation and more scrub cover. The sun finally crested the hills at 4300 feet creating halos around the cholla, the rays shooting out along yucca spines There is nothing like the color of the land when the sun first hits the hills in the morning and everything is bathed in electric pink. With the sun came more heat slowing us to a plodding pace.
Traveling up the mountain we were witness to the gradual transition of the desert world to an alpine one. The plant community going from scraggly brittle bush to barrel cactus; a few sad leggy scrub oaks morphing into a manzanita forest. It is not until the final mile that the pines create a steady screen of shade. The last .3 miles of the trail get right to the business of vertical hiking and it seemed like a mirage to us when we crested the rise into the gently sloping meadow that is Long Valley. Day trippers from the tram abounded. Traipsing about in their flip flops, women walking the trail with their coach purses smelling of clean laundry; it always make me wonder how I smell. I do not begrudge the causal nature admirer, enjoying the novelty of taking a tram to the same spot we worked so hard to get to. I only hope that they are still able to appreciate what they see, that they will be free of a sense of entitlement. Nature is not a ride, it is not Disneyland and I pray that those who travel up the tram are able to see this and will not take the wilderness for granted.
Ideally we would have completed the entire Cactus to Clouds trail, all the way to the summit of San Jacinto but the heat had taken its toll on us. My face had a crust of salt on it that would have been better explained if I had just dripped my wet forehead in the bowl of table salt and a pain had been building in my head for the last few miles. While pushing oneself to the limit can create sense of adventure it is also important to listen to you body. After hiking a bit further to Round Valley we decided to turn back and joined the rest of the nature tourists at the Tram station. We took the Tram back down to Palm Springs because descending into 113 degree heat on foot did not sound like a good idea despite the fact that ascending in 98 degree heat seemed oh so reasonable to us.
We did not go as fast as we expected to, we did not get as far. We worked so hard but still got passed by a small group of other brave souls on the trail (Palm Springs desert rats in their element). At the end of the day though we still hit the trail, we still felt the heat of the sun on our backs, and could smell the mountain air in every welcomed breeze. Although the trail was hard on us it was worth it, its always worth it.