San Jacinto Peak

Climbing San Jacinto and Cornell Peak in Southern California

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An ice climbing buddy from Ouray reached out to me about doing some peak bagging as I made my way to settle down in Joshua Tree National Park. Colin was back living in San Diego and suggested we make a day trip out in the Mount San Jacinto Wilderness to go climbing San Jacinto and Cornell Peak which towers 10,000 feet above the the quiet, golf resort paradise of Palm Springs.

I did some super cursory Googling, saw some pictures, and told him that sounded good. I really hadn’t done much research at all about the actual nature of the route, mileage, elevation gain, conditions, etc.

I had been on the move for some time, most recently driving all over the state of Arizona and hadn’t really had the opportunity to sit down and do that research. So basically I just entrusted it all to Colin and was going along for the ride!

Climbing San Jacinto and Cornell Peak

The rangers told us that we’d probably be in need of snowshoes… I actually just sent mine back with my Mom when she flew out of Arizona. I was heading to the desert! What use would I have for snowshoes?!

Thankfully, Colin, had a second pair that he brought up with him.

The San Jacinto Wilderness is pretty unique in that you can access it via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which takes you from about 2,500 feet to 8,500 feet–over a vertical mile in about 12 minutes. You pass from the heat of the Sonoran Desert up into an alpine wilderness high above. The temperature difference can be as much as 30 or 40 degrees, apparently.

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Colin and I met up in the lower parking lot by 8am, geared up, and caught the next tram. I must say it feels mighty weird loading up the snowshoes and the warm layers down in Palm Springs in the morning with the temperatures about to soar up into the 80’s for the day…

The tram itself is around $23, not cheap, but you can save a few dollars with a AAA discount. But hey, the thing helps you skip over 6,000 feet of ascent! 🙂

Cornell Peak

We picked up our wilderness hiking permit from the ranger and told her our plan for Cornell and San Jacinto… She commented “You’re not bringing a rope?” “Uhh, no.” Hmm, what was I getting myself into? I didn’t even Google Cornell Peak.

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There was patchy snow at the start, which got deep enough to start post holing in, but not enough to necessitate the snowshoes.

We followed the trail through the snow for the most part, but then broke off the beaten path toward Cornell (most people just do San Jacinto). You can see the peak for the most part through the trees, so you just head toward it, trending toward the rightmost ridgeline.

Some easy scrambling and boulder hoping quickly brings you to the base of the summit block. While I don’t think a rope was necessary, there is a short 3/4 class climb up the summit block. I suppose someone totally new to climbing might appreciate a rope.

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Sitting on the summit block of Cornell Peak (9,750′) offers pretty incredible views in all directions. Including the sweeping view down to Palm Springs, which sits at 440 feet above sea level.

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We scrambled back down the summit block and began wrapping around the side and in the general direction of San Jacinto.

San Jacinto

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As we progressed the snow deepened considerably, with occasional post holes all the way up to your knee. We still hadn’t put on the snowshoes yet.

We encountered a volunteer ranger with the State Park who gave us quite a hard time.

First, for being on this particular trail in the first place, which was as he put it, “for experienced snowshoe’ers who know this area”. It was the direct route between the two peaks, and the trail was even on Colin’s GPS unit.

Second, he was adamant that we needed to put our snowshoes on right now because he was “postholing even with snowshoes on” and we’d break our knees if we didn’t. It was a strange and unfriendly conversation, but we put our snowshoes on and continued up this trail where we’d regain the main summit trail.

Upon regaining the main summit trail, we didn’t really need the snowshoes again until the area just below the summit.

We encountered numerous people slogging their way either up or down the peak. It’s a popular winter destination, and pretty remarkable for it’s ease and accessibility. Where else can you so readily access 10,000+ feet above sea level in the winter?

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We finally reached the 10,834 summit of San Jacinto Peak, the second highest peak in Southern California (second to San Gorgonio). Obligatory photos, snacks, and gawking at the view ensued, before we started the descent.

We opted not to wear the snowshoes on the way down since they can be a pain on the descent, and just dealt with the postholing.

A few hours later we were back among the masses around the tram station. Kids frolicking, parents taking photos. It’s a pretty different world up there, and seemingly a first outdoors experience for lots of different families making the trip up from the lowlands of Los Angeles and the surrounding desert.

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the trip, but it turned out to be pretty awesome. Who knew there such a wild and wintery wilderness right by Palm Springs? I sure didn’t. It was nice to go out and get a little bit of a cardio workout too, I think I’d become lazy from those non existent ice climbing approaches in Ouray.

San Jacinto Peak on SummitPost
Cornell Peak on SummitPost

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Climbing San Jacinto and Cornell Peak in Southern California trip-reports, california, alpine


Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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