San Jacinto 7-peak Traverse

San Jacinto 10,834′ with Cornell Peak 9,750′, Miller Peak 10,400′, Folly Peak 10,482′, Newton Drury Peak 10,177′, Jean Peak 10,674′ and Marion Mountain 10,335′
Total Time: 7.5 hours
Roundtrip Mileage: 11.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 4000′
Crux: Class IV (Cornell)

Trailhead: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway upper station: trash, toilets, dining. $25 + $5 for parking




San Jacinto, one of the three saints of Southern California, rises over 10,000′ above the city of Palm Springs. I had hiked Jacinto twice before when I lived in Southern California, once as an overnight with a group from USC, and once as a dayhike, each time from the tramway. Surrounding Jacinto are 5 other peaks in striking distance on the Sierra Club’s HPS list, all of which I had missed on my first two trips. We had a weekend planned to Palm Springs and I hoped to tag the 5 other nearby peaks on a big 7 peak loop. I was able to talk the group into allowing me to head up the tramway first thing in the morning, with the rest of the group coming up in the afternoon for some beers at the top. I woke up early and caught a ride to the tram for the 8 AM ride up. There was a large group of hikers loading on to the first car up, and we crammed the rotating tram to near capacity with packs, trekking poles, and somehow already dirty hikers. The tram itself is very enjoyable, rising to about 8500′ from the desert floor in 11 minutes with narration the entire ride up. Once at the upper station, I made a quick stop in the restroom and headed out on the trail towards Jacinto.

Starting out.
Starting out.

After about 1/2 mile, the trail passes the ranger station, and I dutifully signed in for my free Wilderness permit. The trail past the ranger station is fairly tame, winding up and around some drainages coming in from the North. Where the trail crosses a small bridge to the south, I continued west up the drainage, keeping the spires near Cornell Peak in sight. This section was steep, but there was a good use trail that seemed fairly well traveled, likely by others looking to tag Cornell.

Continuing along the drainage.
Continuing along the drainage.

The trail grade leveled off at 9200′, and I could see the summit of Cornell to the north. I had read that many commonly mistaken the closer spire for Cornell, and I aimed for the saddle between the two. I lost my use trail, and took a direct line up the east slopes of Cornell. I could see a large boulder above, but it didn’t seem to match the description of the class IV summit block. As I topped out, I could see I was at a minor false summit, with the true summit block another quarter mile to the west.

True summit of Cornell from "Yale Peak."
True summit of Cornell from “Yale Peak.”

I dropped down along the surprisingly jagged ridgeline and started scrambling up towards the true summit block, taking a small gully along the north side to the summit block base. The summit register was tucked in a small alcove and I signed in before taking off my pack and sizing up the class IV summit block. I hadn’t read too much on the climb up the block but the route seemed straightforward, climb a vertical crack at the base with solid holds, then take the exposed ramp to the very top. I started up before I had the chance to overthink it, and found the holds extremely solid. Once up the crack, I awkwardly shimmied/ straddled the summit block to the high point with big air all around.

Base of the summit block.
Base of the summit block.
Looking down the summit block.
Looking down the summit block.
View NW.
View NW.

I snapped a few quick photos and looked up the long ridgeline towards Miller Peak, the next stop of the day. This section would prove to have the biggest elevation gain of the day, and I hoped to find a decent use trail to make life easier. I dropped off Cornell to the south, with some easy scrambling to bypass some rocky fins to make my way west towards Miller. I worked around an intervening rocky bump, then headed directly up the snow-free ridgeline. I hiked cross country for about 45 minutes, climbing over 1000′ to eventually hit the summit rocks of Miller Peak. Although Miller Peak is overshadowed by San Jacinto only another 0.5 miles and several hundred feet higher, I took a fairly long break here, feeling a little spent from the continual ascent. Miller Peak is named for a prominent scout leader, and a small plaque memorializes him on the summit, one of a number of peaks in Southern California named for prominent members of the Boy Scouts.

Cornell from the ridge up to Miller.
Cornell from the ridge up to Miller.
San Jacinto from Miller Peak.
San Jacinto from Miller Peak.
Memorial for Miller.
Memorial for Miller.

I hiked cross country from Miller to Jacinto, and topped out on the summit 15 minutes later. The summit was over run by other hikers, with probably over 50 people milling around the summit sign. I didn’t even stop to sit, and after grabbing a photo, continued farther west towards Folly Peak.

San Jacinto summit sign.
San Jacinto summit sign.
Too many people.
Too many people.
Summit panorama.
Summit panorama.

The remainder of the day became a theme of climbing the wrong summit block. I dropped off San Jacinto towards Folly, and from a distance, the high point seemed obvious enough. But as I neared what I thought to be the summit of Folly, I continually kept finding myself atop false summits, one of which had a deep cleft separating it from the ridgeline that had to be downclimbed. After at least 4 attempts at various high points, I finally found the summit register tucked under some rocks far west along the summit plateau.

View NW from Folly.
View NW from Folly.
View south to Newton Drury.
View south to Newton Drury.

At this point the wind was increasing as the marine layer drifted across the Inland Empire, and I took shelter under the summit boulders. By now it was about 12:30, I had been hiking for four hours with four peaks down and three to go. Looking across Little Round Valley towards Newton Drury, the next stop, I could see that I needed to lose a good deal of elevation only to climb back up again. I dropped off the south side of Folly and made a gradual traverse around the bowl, trying to limit as much elevation loss as possible. Unfortunately, as I started to hit more north facing slopes, I encountered significantly more brush, and was forced to drop down to the valley floor regardless before heading back up to Newton Drury. Heading up the north facing slopes, I found the first bit of snow for the day and walked across a fallen log to the summit blocks. The summit of Newton Drury was nice exposed granite, but compared to the other summits of the day, it wasn’t much more than an unassuming low bump on the ridgeline heading up towards Jean Peak.

Summit view from Newton Drury.
View towards Newton Drury.

It had taken almost an hour to traverse the short, brushy distance, and I started up Jean with a sense of urgency, trying to meet my friends at the top of the tramway between 3 and 4. There was more brush to contend with and a number of boulders to work around, but I ultimately made my way to the summit ridge for another fun game of climb the wrong summit block. There were a number of contenders for the honor of highest scrap of rock on Jean Peak, and after climbing three or four with no sign of a summit register, I assumed that I probably hit the high point and kept moving towards the final summit of the day, Marion Mountain.

One of the many contenders for highest boulder.
One of the many contenders for highest boulder.

Hiking along the ridgeline between the two was fairly straightforward, and after traversing west of a small intervening bump (which I later learned was known as Shirley Peak), I headed up the snowy north slopes to the east summit. On the topo map, the east summit is marked with a benchmark, yet when I topped out and looked west, I could see the western summit was clearly higher. I hopped off and scrambled up and over the central summit to the base of the west summit. I was surprised to find some challenging scrambling to the top, probably more difficult then Cornell, with a steep class III-IV chimney to an exposed fin of rock to the summit block.

Serious chimney climbing to finish the day.
Serious chimney climbing to finish the day.

In retrospect, there may be on easier line on the NW side. I found the summit register tucked near a tree before dropping off Marion to head back towards Shirley. Looking at the map, it looking like I could drop off the ridge to the east, and if I angled north, would eventually hit the trail at Wellman Divide. In fact some trip reports I had read had done the same, and I thought it would be pretty easy. Unfortunately, while the upper slopes were clear, I soon found myself waist deep in thick brush with almost no use trails to work with. It seems other trip reports had done the route in snow when the brush would be completely buried and a nonfactor.

Brush, brush and more brush.
Brush, brush and more brush.

What I thought would take 15-20 minutes wound up taking nearly an hour to rejoin the trail at Wellman Divide. At this point it was already 3PM and I had little chance of making it back to the tramway by 4 with over 3 miles to go. I started jogging along the trail, passing dozens of groups of hikers that had been to San Jacinto earlier in the day. Thankfully it was mostly downhill and I made pretty good time, rolling into the tramway station shortly after 4 and heading straight to the bar for a beer to meet my friends. We sat on the deck overlooking Coachella Valley for a round, then headed back down the tramway for dinner in Palm Springs.

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