Last year in October, my son and I climbed the Skyline Trail, and I swore that I would never subject myself to such a grueling climb ever again. Climbing 8000 feet in eleven miles is not a simple walk in the park. It takes preparation (you must carry lots of water) and you’d better be in shape. And even then it’s a hike that can take its toll on you. Hence my desire to never climb it again.
Still, climbing Skyline is a fairly major accomplishment for any hiker, and I admit that I was proud of myself. Perhaps a bit too proud.
My wife, wonderful woman that she is, had to put up with my smug superiority for months afterward, and, unbeknownst to me, this festered within her for a year. October swung around once again (Autumn being the best time of year to climb this trail, as it’s too hot down below in the desert during the summer and too icy near the top in the winter) and suddenly, out of the blue, I was informed that I would be climbing the Skyline trail with her the following weekend!
I tried to protest, reminding her of how much she hated hiking uphill, but it was immediately apparent that this was a doomed strategy on my part. She was hiking Skyline the following Saturday, with or without me.
At this point, my only course of action was Damage Control.
I knew that she would never make it if she had to carry eight liters of water by herself, so I prepared my big backpack by emptying it out completely. Then I added some insulite foam as insulation, and bought an eight-pack of 1 liter water bottles, as well as a Gatorade or two, and stuffed them inside. I also had my own water bladder, with hose. All told, I was going to be carrying twelve liters of fluids, and Vicki would have her usual two liter bag (with hose) in her trusty fanny pack. We would refill hers as we hiked, so that my pack would steadily get lighter as the day and miles went by. We even froze two of the bottles to keep the rest cold. I also packed the ten essentials, with extra food and a windbreaker layer in case it got cool or we had to spend the night high up on the trail. Be Prepared! And we were. All told, my pack ended up weighing thirty eight pounds! I felt like I was going backpacking, not on a mere dayhike. But then again, the Skyline Trail is no ordinary dayhike.
As the weekend approached I checked the weather report for Palm Springs: It was due to be 98 degrees that Saturday afternoon! This is way hotter than we liked, but Vicki didn’t care. She simply changed her start time. We would hit the trail at 12:30 AM! That way we would be higher on the mountain at sunrise, so that the elevation change would make it cooler. Typically this effect is good for three to five degrees temperature drop per thousand feet. If we could get ourselves above the 4300-foot mark (half way) by dawn we would probably be OK.
That Friday night we went to bed just after dinner, hoping to get in a couple of hours of sleep before waking back up at 9pm. Then I began the three hour drive to the trailhead at the Palm Springs Art Museum. We were the only ones there at this early hour, but we knew that there would be many more hikers soon enough. And they would undoubtedly be faster than us, so we’d meet them all eventually.
We put on our packs and turned on our headlamps. It was time to hike! The trail begins at the 500 foot elevation point, directly from the museum’s parking lot. Our goal was the Upper Palm Spring Tram Station, at 8500 feet elevation, roughly 11 miles away via the trail, which winds its way along a ridge to the top. The weather was clear, with a temperature near 80 degrees. It was hot! In fact, it hadn’t even finished cooling from yesterday’s searing heat. But at least the sun wasn’t out. Still, we were glad that we’d (ahem! I’d) be carrying all that water. We were going to need it!
Skyline Trail 900ft – Night Video – Lights of Palm Springs
The first section of trail above the museum was known to be confusing, but I had my GPS track from the hike last year to consult, and thus we avoided getting completely off-trail. As we climbed, the lights of Palm Springs grew further away, and the sound of revving Harley-Davidson motorcycles became less (there was a big biker party going on that night, with motorcycles everywhere and plenty of amplified music from an outdoor rock concert blaring).
There was also a full moon that night, and it was bright enough that we were able to hike without our headlamps on! This was truly beautiful, as our night-vision responded and our tunnel-vision widened until we could see the ridgeline soaring away above us. It was truly peaceful and lovely up there.
Meanwhile, the trail continued its endless grind uphill, and we sweated out our precious water. We drank more, knowing that we needed to stay well-hydrated, and ate some salty chips to maintain our electrolyte balance. My pack slowly got lighter. Meanwhile, we kept hoping that the air would get cooler as the night progressed and our elevation increased, but it didn’t seem to happen. The uphill climbing never relented, so we never cooled off enough to tell the difference!
Hiking without headlamps., we were able to see a large group of hikers below us. They snaked along the trail, their headlamps shining this way and that. We wondered if anyone down below in Palm Springs was looking up at the mountain at that lonely hour. The hikers were much faster than we were, so it didn’t take long for them to catch up to us. Also, as we were totally lamp-less, the hikers didn’t even know that we were above them. I took a video as they approached, and when the leader was almost upon me I said “Hello!” and he nearly jumped right out of his skin! But then we all laughed and introduced ourselves. They left super-early so that they could complete the full Cactus To Clouds Hike, heading all the way to the top of San Jacinto Peak for a full 10,000 feet of ascent. (We only left early because we knew that we were really slow and because of the heat.) We wished them well and continued hiking in the moonlight.
Skyline Trail 2500ft – Video as a group of Hiker Headlamps approaches from below
At the 3200 foot level Vicki began to tire. She was running out of steam. She needed a nap. So I removed the insulating pads from my big pack and laid out a semi-comfy bed just off the trail. She ate some carbs and had some caffeine, then fell asleep, using her fanny pack as a pillow. I, too, lay down and had a bit of shut-eye, as I had had even less sleep than Vicki. But after thirty minutes or so Vicki sat back up, ready to hike. She knew that we needed to hike as far as possible before dawn. So we refilled her water, and she set out up the trail, leaving me to pack up the napping gear. I would have no trouble catching up to her.
We hiked on. Eventually, the eastern sky began to lighten. It was enough to provide us a burst of speed, but couldn’t rival the moon for light. We eventually reached a major landmark on the trail: The Halfway Point at 4300 feet elevation! And the sun wasn’t up yet! We had done it! This had been our first goal, to get high enough on the mountain before the temperature started to climb.
Video at 4400 feet – Full Moon over the mountain and the Early Dawn Light
By this point other hikers had begun to pass us regularly. Truly fit hikers can climb the entire trail in five hours, and we’d barely made it halfway by that point. The fit ones typically left the museum trailhead by four or five AM so that they, too, could be up this high at dawn. A Saturday in mid-October is prime time for hiking Skyline, and there was a regular parade of folks passing us by. It didn’t help that we were hiking slower than ever, as we’d been hiking for a much longer time.
And then the sun came up. This gave us some impetus to increase our speed, as the air was still quite warm, but we no longer cared. It hadn’t cooled anywhere near as much as we had been expecting (and hoping). We hadn’t even needed our windbreakers to take a nap earlier; it was that warm. We had a bad feeling that we would be roasting soon. Still, the sunrise was beautiful, and now we could see the surrounding mountains in all their desert glory. Rather than hike faster we took out the pads and Vicki took another 30 minute nap at the 4800 foot mark. She certainly deserved it after making it well beyond the halfway point by dawn. As for me, I sat and watched the sunrise, then wandered around taking photos and saying hello to the other hikers as they powered on by.
After the nap at 4800 feet, we knew the tough part of the day had begun. The sun was out and it was rapidly getting warmer. The trail didn’t care, naturally. It just kept on going up. “UP” was surely the theme of the day. This next stretch of trail was what some folks call the “Neverending Ridge” as it doesn’t climb quite as steeply, yet it covers a lot of ground without all the switchbacks. This section loses some of the low desert aspect of cacti and takes on the character of chaparral, with larger bushes like chamise (ribbonwood) dominating. Just the same, there wasn’t much shade, and the sun was cooking the water out of us. We began using some of our water to soak Vicki’s hair, which did a much better job of cooling her off than drinking it. We also diluted some of our Gatorade and ate salty snacks so that we wouldn’t suffer from hyponatremia.
As the ridge meandered on, the views got even more impressive. If there’s one thing this trail has in oversupply it’s tremendous views. The other thing it has in oversupply is elevation gain, but that’s what makes it such a challenge. The views are the icing on the cake. We were able to see far into the desert in the haze to the east, the Salton Sea and Toro Peak to the south, and San Gorgonio Mountain to the north. To the west, ahead of us, loomed the mighty San Jacinto Massif, whose towering granite spires and cliffs appeared to be far beyond our ability to reach them in one mere day. And yet surmount them we would, or we’d never get off the mountain. For there was no going back down – it was becoming an inferno down below at 500 feet in Palm Springs, with temperatures nearing 100 degrees. Descending would only lead to death by heat stroke, so the only way left to us at this point was uphill to the tram.
Vicki was tiring sooner (meaning a shorter time between naps) as the day wore on and the temperature climbed, but on this stretch she pushed herself a bit further in a desire to reach one of the true landmarks of the Skyline Trail: Flatrock. This is considered to be one of the best “rest areas” on the trail, as it has plenty of nice clean granite to sit on, as well as an oak tree with shade. But it isn’t flat. Not at all. But then again, is any part of the Skyline Trail flat?
Regardless of all that, Vicki was more than happy to arrive there. We sat down in the shade of the tree, got out some lunch, and generally just relaxed. Vicki took a full nap while I read my book. Eventually, I, too, lay down and snoozed lightly. It was a pleasant place. A few slow hikers stopped by to chat, but most of the regulars had long since passed us on their way to the top. Not only did we start extremely early, we would be finishing extra-late. We’d been hiking for ten hours and the toughest part of the trail awaited us.
Flatrock Panorama Video
We woke up, stretched our stiff legs, and continued onward. The trail was noticeably steeper after Flatrock. It wound along under numerous oak trees. The chaparral was turning into deciduous forest. And the trail kept climbing. The distant high wall of mountain above us began to get noticeably closer. Maybe we’d make it to the top, after all! And the views got even better, if that was possible. Palm Springs was already over a mile below us.
At the 7100-foot mark, Vicki was a shambling zombie once again. She didn’t even realize that she needed another nap. But I was getting used to this. I found a tiny spot just off the trail that was flat enough to sleep on, and Vicki happily crashed there. I read my book some more. At least I was getting some reading done! As other hikers passed, they looked concerned: Was this woman OK? I placed my finger to my lips for silence, then mimed that she was sleeping, shutting my eyes and leaning my head toward my shoulder onto my two clasped palms. They nodded with understanding and hiked on. The frequency of people passing us was getting smaller all the time. Soon enough, I feared, we would be the last ones on the trail. If anything bad happened, we’d be all alone up there. But my fears turned out to be groundless. It was only a hiking trail, after all.
Vicki awoke feeling somewhat refreshed. She had some caffeine and carbs, some salty chips, and more water. We finished off our gatorade, hoping that an infusion of electrolytes would make the difference. We also were enjoying the pine trees; it was wonderful to have shade and be in an actual forest again. The pines were proof that we were making major headway on the trail.
A few hundred feet higher and the trail suddenly changed direction: We’d finished climbing the main Skyline Ridge! Hooray! Now it was time to tackle “The Traverse.” Of course, the main Skyline ridge was still there, but it became so steep up above near the top that it was more like a cliff, and so the trail headed off to the right, toward the tramway cables, traversing across several steep chutes. In the Winter and Spring these chutes remain in shade and can be very icy and dangerous, but in October they were merely pleasantly cool. Naturally enough, even though the trail was traversing, its upward slope never changed!
The end of the traverse is marked by a giant stone monolith: Coffman’s Crag. After this, there was only one final stretch of trail to go. I kept reminding Vicki of this, but it didn’t seem to be sinking in. She was already zombified, after only 700 feet of climbing since her last nap. But that didn’t really matter. There was a nice flat spot, perfect for napping and relaxing, and she took full advantage of it. While she slept, I checked our stores of water and snacks: We were doing fine, with several liters left, and the air was cooler now. We’d make it to the top with plenty to spare.
Vicki woke up and had some more snack and fluids. We hung out a bit, stretching our legs and getting ourselves mentally ready for this final section. It looked to be insanely steep! Or at least the slope itself was steep. The trail, if you could call it a trail, zig-zagged back and forth rapidly rather than head straight up, and it wasn’t really one trail at all, but was a mish-mash of competing tracks winding between boulders and fallen logs and other obstacles. And it went on like this for a long, long time. Vicki had to stop briefly to rest (and breathe) every few steps, so our progress was slow. But it was steady. Coffman’s Crag fell away behind us, and the top of the trail, Grubb’s Notch, eventually came into view.
We did it! We stood in the late afternoon sun at Grubb’s Notch and flagged down a passing day-hiker to take our picture. When we told him that we’d just finished hiking up from the bottom, starting at Palm Springs, he was thunderstruck. He’d arrived via the tram, and had no idea that maniacs actually dared to hike such a trail. We laughed, realizing that we were now maniacs. And then we headed off to the upper tram station and the restaurant there. It had a bar, and Vicki wanted to celebrate.
We climbed up the long cement ramp to the tram station, laughing as we heard other people complaining about how long and difficult the ramp was! It was FAR less steep than the Skyline Trail; in fact, it was almost flat by comparison. Then we went to the bar and Vicki had a beer. And she truly deserved it. It takes a lot of willpower to get up that trail, and I was truly proud of her. Just a few short years ago a hike like this would have been impossible for her; she had really gotten herself into shape. We sat at the bar and looked down at the view of Palm Springs spread out below us, just taking in the view.
But soon enough the beer was gone and the lack of sleep the night before began to catch up with us. We walked over and took the tram back down. What a wonderful device, that tram! It saved our knees a terrible ordeal. We called a cab to pick us up at the bottom, and after a short drive we arrived back at the art museum parking lot where we’d left the car. Wow! It was still in the upper 90’s down there, but at least the car was waiting in the shade of the mountain. And then it was time for the long drive home. Vicki slept most of the way, which was fine by me. I was happy to carry her gear all the way up the Skyline Trail, and I was happy to drive her all the way home, as well. Great job, Vicki!
Start at 500 feet, with Naps at 3200, 4800, 5900, 7100, 7800, and a beer at 8500 feet
More photos can be found on my Flickr Page.
An Interactive topographic map of our hike and GPS track can be found on my CalTopo Page.