The Mountain: Mount San Jacinto is the tallest peak in Southern California. John Muir, a conservationist and naturalist, famously wrote, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” Though it’s only 10,834 feet tall, it’s one of the most topologically prominent peaks in the country, which means that everything else around it is flat. There are great hikes all over the mountain, with well-marked trails. We picked up a free copy of this very good map from outside the State Park.
I had a hard time figuring out a plan for the park, so here’s some details on what I figured out. You can jump to what we did if you like.
Getting There / Picking a Route: there are a couple different ways to get there. The east side of the mountain has a tram (for $24) that takes you from 2,643 feet to 8,516 feet of elevation, so you can then reach the summit with an ~12 mile round trip day hike to cover the remaining ~2,200 feet of elevation. Modern Hiker has great write ups of this hike and the other options.
The blue pins are the top and bottom of the tram on the east side of the mountain, and the red pins are trailheads from the west side of the mountain.
From the west, you have a number of ways to hike up the peak from the Pine Cove and Idyllwild areas. One thing to consider is that the mountain is split between state park and the San Bernadino national forest. If you are only hiking, a permit from either group is necessary and sufficient, but if you want to camp, you need a permit from the appropriate bureaucracy.
One annoyance with planning was that the State Park office seemed to be manned only from about 8am until 9am, and the National Forest office people did not know where we would be able to find water on the mountain. We lost a day getting this figured out and so decided to do a long day hike to the summit. The potential snow storm rolling in may have also impacted our decision not to camp on the mountain. You can get permits in advance by mail.
Camping: If you decide to camp in the area or on the mountain, the State Park campsite in Idyllwild is on a reservation basis, and is a pretty campground in a cute town that also has one dollar five-minute showers. On the mountain, you need a permit from the national forest to camp anywhere there, or a reservation and permit to camp in limited State Park sites.
We arrived in Idyllwild on Tuesday, hoping to get on the mountain. Unfortunately we missed the one hour the state park office is actually open (between 8 and 9am), despite it’s listed hours of all day. The national forest people couldn’t tell us where there was water on the mountain, so we waited until Wednesday to get our bearings. At that point, with a potential thunder and/or snow storm rolling in, we decided to race the ~14 miles to the top and back in a day hike to avoid camping in the potential cold and wet weather.
There are two shorter options, Marion Mountain Trail, with a round trip distance of about 12 miles, or the Seven Pines Trail, that’s a little longer (~14 miles) but is supposedly slightly less brutal at the beginning. The shortest route from Idyllwild is via the Deer Springs Trail and it’s about 17.8 miles round trip.
We went with the Seven Pines Trail, where there are pine cones everywhere. We were the only ones on the trail that day, and possibly the only ones who had been on the trail in a few days. It wasn’t well marked or well trod, though there were some pine cones set up as cairns along the way. Unfortunately, squirrels and maybe other creatures on the mountain eat pine cones, so they’re not the most reliable trail markers. Luckily, we only got lost for a few minutes on the way up and a few miles on the way down.
It took us about 4.5 hours to reach the summit with a handful of breaks along the way. The view was amazing.
Since we started at 10am, we only took a short break for lunch on the peak so we could cover the return trip back down before dark. We were back on the trail at 3pm and made it back to the car by 6pm. Those downhills are a little rough on the knees but we headed back to the State Park Campsite at Idyllwild for a dollar shower and a beer and made a full recovery. While the campsite was great, next time, if the weather and permit availability work out, we would probably come up Deer Springs Trail and spend a night or two on the mountain.