Mount San Jacinto via Snow Creek



Disclaimer

There are a handful of cross country hikes here in the Southern California Wilderness that push the limits of the word "adventure" for several reasons. They are extremely remote locations that most people will never have the pleasure of seeing. A consequence of their isolated location is that rescue is highly unlikely in the case of an emergency. 
That being said, it is the responsibility of the few that are capable of reaching these locations to practice safety when traveling to these places.
TRVRS Outdoors is all for encouraging new and exciting adventures, but part of the adventure is doing adequate research ahead of time to assure a safe and fun trip which is why we've decided to document these back country hikes. Stay safe!

OVERVIEW

Mount San Jacinto is a 10,834 foot peak located in the San Jacinto Mountains in the Peninsular range of Riverside County, California. It is the sixth most prominent peak in the United States and the second tallest peak in Southern California. It is especially known among hikers for its infamous Cactus to Clouds trail, which ascends roughly 10,500 feet from the desert floor of Palm Springs to the summit of Mount San Jacinto via the Skyline trail. The Cactus to Clouds hiking trail has been called one of the toughest day hikes in the world.

According to Palm Springs news outlet Desert Sun, “From 2009 to mid-2015, 61 rescue missions occurred on the Skyline Trail below the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Nearly two-thirds involved hikers with heat-related trauma. Five died from their injuries.

Each year, the continued media attention revolving around the C2C trail seems to attract a new batch of unprepared hikers in and around Southern California. However, in mountaineering circles, there is a far more difficult and remote route that ascends from the desert floor to this incredible peak.

The North Face of San Jacinto Peak climbs over 10,000 feet in under seven miles, making it one of the largest escarpments in the contiguous United States. When California is fortunate enough to experience a strong winter, this drainage transforms into a massive snow tongue visible from San Gorgonio Pass and across the Morongo Valley. Snow Creek is the mountaineer's Cactus to Clouds. It includes little to no trail apart from sporadic animal tracks, dense brush, and one of the longest and steepest sustained snow ascents the United States has to offer. Of course, when a potential route like this is highlighted in such a way, there should be no surprise that humans would attempt to climb it. Outdoorists who attempt this route are required to be skilled in orienteering, with experience in 4th & 5th class exposure, and have the endurance/conditioning of a bighorn sheep.
 Snow Creek Canyon, Mount San Jacinto | Trip Report

Snow Creek, from Snow Creek Canyon Road.

RED TAPE

As if ascending Snow Creek isn't a difficult enough task, there are some restrictions that make the route even more arduous. The front end of what would be the easiest approach is closed to public use. The short story is that Section 33 of the Forest Service Map is owned by the Desert Water Agency (DWA), who strictly prohibits access to its land in order to protect its water source from human interaction. You can read more about the debate over access to San Jacinto's North Face, and even get lost in an official statement and endless discussion if you have more interest in the matter. However, it doesn't take more than a glance at the topography to appreciate the fact that the alternate route for climbing Snow Creek (which ascends Blaisdell Ridge) includes far more rewarding views than the immediate drainage. And, considering that most mountaineers tend to be “purists,” glory lies in taking the longer approach when legalities are in question.

ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

There are several considerations to keep in mind when preparing to climb Snow Creek. Most notably, the route requires an extremely high level of commitment. Partially due to the above-mentioned closure, even reaching the base of the snow ascent requires a 5,000+ foot climb in six miles—all of which is off-trail and along some extremely rough terrain. Additionally, the Chockstone should be considered the halfway point of the route and is also the crux of the climb. Once reached, hikers must either commit to the remaining ascent or turn back. Even after managing to climb the Chockstone, a successful ascent depends heavily on snow conditions. 

Perhaps the most important consideration is time.  The only way down and back to your vehicle is by way of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.  Hikers need to make it to the tram station before it closes, or else be prepared to spend the night at the summit. If you intend to bivvy along the route, then this consideration may be less pertinent.

Besides that, you'll also need a permit to travel into the San Jacinto National Forest.

PREFACE

Prior to this attempt, California experienced its most intense winter in thirty years. I spent a few weeks eyeing the forecasts in hopes of finding a window for the ascent. When there was a report in late February that an avalanche occurred along the entirety of the route, I knew that Snow Creek was likely now passable and safe. 

On April 4th, I went out to the trailhead and hiked a couple miles of Snow Creek Canyon to get acquainted with a section I would most likely cross in the dark on my full attempt. A few days later, I was scheduled to meet a friend at the trailhead at 2 AM for an alpine start; however, they bailed hours before the start, and I ultimately walked a couple of miles in the dark before turning back because I didn't feel well rested. I wouldn't have another opportunity in the schedule to summit for several weeks, and, after a month, I grew tired of waiting and simply chose the coldest day of the week to climb solo. It wasn't optimal, but it would have to do.



Cairn, Snow Creek Canyon, San Jacinto | Trip Report

Looking into Snow Creek Canyon from 2,000 ft elevation (Photo taken during reconnaissance effort).

CROSSING SNOW CREEK CANYON

May 2nd, 2023 | 4:36 AM -- I sat in the dark sipping my coffee while strong winds howled and rocked my truck back and forth. This felt like an identical experience to my failed attempt weeks prior. The only difference was that, this time, my pack was much lighter and I felt well rested. 

The walk along the Snow Creek Canyon floor wasn't particularly difficult. The ground here is coarse and riddled with rocks and cactus, but the wide open desert landscape offers plenty of variable terrain to suit the hiker’s preference. I moved from the trailhead directly southeast toward the tip of the ridge. During my failed attempt weeks earlier, I slipped during two of the three creek crossings. This time, I managed to get across unscathed. I reached the aqueduct at the base of the climb after walking for a little over a mile and ascending 200 feet.

Blaisdell Ridge from Snow Creek Canyon, Mount San Jacinto Trip Report

Terrain along Snow Creek canyon floor. Blaisdell Ridge in the background. (Photo taken during reconnaissance effort)

ASCENDING BLAISDELL RIDGE

From the aqueduct to the first peak on the map (Peak 3481) is a 2,100 foot climb in under 1.25 miles. Trekking poles are critical in aiding the ascent since this steep segment features a significant amount of loose soil. A few cairns mark the route, but “up” is the general idea in this section. At roughly 3,000 feet elevation is a collection of massive boulders. I aimed for them, then cut across the west side of these large rocks to avoid the rising sun. I ended up side-hilling across talus for an additional quarter mile. Reaching the top of the ridge revealed that aiming for the northeast side of those rocks would have been much more tame, as that route was comprised of more scenic views along the grassy meadows of the ridge.


Reaching top Blaisdell Ridge, San Jacinto via Snow Creek | Trip Report

Near the top of Blaisdell Ridge, Peak 4340 in the center.

LEAVING THE RIDGE AT PEAK 4340

Location: 33.86698, -116.66009
Cumulative Distance: 3.25 miles
Cumulative Vertical Gain/Loss: 3,150 feet | -25 feet

The majority of the route is visible from the top of Peak 4340, so I took a long break to snack and drink the first of two beers in my pack; a non-alcoholic West Coast IPA from Bravus Brewing. The route leaves the ridge at a small notch to the south and descends several hundred feet to intersect Falls Creek. Originally, my assumption was that this would be a rough side-hilling effort, but it turned out to be a very relaxed traverse with plenty (if not a surplus) of cairns. Around mile 4.7, however, the route becomes gradually overtaken by brush, and this bushwhacking goes on for a quarter of a mile. The cairns here seemed a little misleading, so I focused on tracking broken twigs, branches and foot prints instead. 

Eventually the brush opens up above the canopy of the Falls Creek intersection. A steep and rugged descent brought me to the serene creek bed. I took a break to filter water and have another snack in the shade. All I could think about was the fact that I was less than a half mile upstream from some of the biggest and most desolate waterfalls Southern California has to offer

And yet, an inaccessible road leads right to its base.

Bravus Brewing, Snow Creek, San Jacinto
Descending into the Isthmus, Snow Creek, San Jacinto Trip report

Hiker leaving Blaisdell ridge, traversing to the Isthmus.

Looking over at the Isthmus, Snow Creek Trip Report

Looking over at the Isthmus.

WANDERING AROUND THE ISTHMUS

8:45 AM -- By the time I left Falls Creek, I was beginning to feel the heat. I followed a cairn straight up and into the brush without hesitation, and in hindsight it's laughable how committed I was to parading through this section. After ten minutes of hell, I backtracked to the creek and realized that the correct route was further south. Once I reached the height of the Isthmus, I for some reason started descending into the East Fork of Snow Creek. Thankfully it quickly became obvious that descending wasn't the move, and I observed the map to reorient myself once again. Paralleling the main drainage of the East Fork was some pretty rough side-hilling and a familiar scent—this entire section was covered by Poodle Dog Bush.Falls Creek Canopy, Snow Creek Trip Report

Looking down into Falls Creek and the Isthmus.Click here to see my horrendous route finding here.

Crossing Falls Creek, San Jacinto via Snow Creek Trip Report

Crossing Falls Creek.

REACHING SNOW CREEK PROPER

I was relieved to find another creek bed just below a beautiful waterfall at 4,650 feet. I took another short break in the shade to hydrate and then ascended the falls on its east side. Following the creek bed offered some pleasant boulder scrambling over flowing water and fascinating views of an alternate route known as "Kristian's Cleavage". At the 4,950 foot mark, the route leaves the creek on its west side. A short and steep class 3 ascent over chossy granite and loose dirt brought me to a campsite at 5,150 feet. I noticed that I had some views of the city here, so I took a minute to see if I had service on my phone. My hunch was correct and I sent a text out to my emergency contact who responded immediately.

From this overlook, I could see everything that I had accomplished so far, including where my car was parked. I snapped a couple photos and did an about-face, continuing hastily along an obvious and gradually ascending path. This was the first time I wasn't fighting to achieve forward progress since a short section atop the Isthmus (and that was when I was going the wrong way). I stopped abruptly about a hundred feet past a campsite. I could now clearly see a snow tongue creeping along the endless Snow Creek proper and what looked like the Chockstone somewhere along its path. The sound of gushing water pulled my attention downstream where I could clearly see the edge of the snow line and its 4-5 foot depth.


Standing Above Falls, Snow Creek Trip Report

Standing above the Falls at Kristen's Cleavage. Dirt path at the top right is where I dropped in.

Creek Bed Scramble, Snow Creek Trip Report

Looking up at the creek bed rock scramble. Very fun!

Snow Tongue, Snow Creek Trip Report

Looking down into the east fork of Snow Creek.

GETTING OVER THE CHOCKSTONE

Location: 33.83926, -116.67572
Cumulative Distance: 6.5 miles
Cumulative Vertical Gain/Loss: 4,700 feet | -661 feet

10:46 AM --  I stepped onto the canyon floor and found comfort in the fact that my feet weren't sliding or sinking into the snow. The sun was now out in full force. I parked up against some rocks and stuck half a Clif bar in my mouth before removing my pack. I had never been so excited to unload gear. My mountaineering boots and crampons had been weighing me down all day, and they were about to become "worn weight". I won't get into the physics, but this would technically make me lighter overall. It also meant that I probably wasn't going to be side-hilling through poisonous brush. Little did I know, I had a whole new set of problems incoming...

 

What I love about climbing up a snow chute is that it keeps you honest. With other types of terrain, you may need to stop to reorient, or find the best line. With snow travel, the only way is up, and thus your physical abilities are put under a microscope…and let me tell you, I did not like what I was seeing.

After trudging up the canyon for a third of a mile, I reached the mass of granite known as the Chockstone. The falls were so intense, I could feel mist from thirty feet away. Everything about this place was just getting more enormous by the mile. I took a short break to admire my surroundings, and then turned to the right. The Classic route to bypass the Chockstone was a class 5.4-5.5 slab, and, at first glance, it looked...possible? I walked ten feet closer to the edge of the snow line to find that I was about eight feet away from the wall and fifteen feet above the canyon floor with no immediate options for descending safely. I could also see that the lower portion of this approach featured some of its most difficult moves, so I wasn't very interested in pressing this option.

I backtracked ten or fifteen feet and found a promising alternate, but a degraded snow bridge is all that stood between me and it. I couldn't risk getting cliffed out on a hunch, so I backtracked fifteen feet more where I found a crack/ledge system I could exploit. This one involved a short jump to a ledge, but it was close enough to do both ways.

I had read in several places about a class 2-3 alternate that included a bushwhack, and I was sure that I saw it on the way up; but, in all honesty, having to remove my crampons to get intimate with manzanita bushes sounded about as appealing as rekindling a relationship with an ex.

Near the top of this fifty foot vertical ascent, a small tree obstructed the route. I couldn't squeeze past without my poles/ice axe getting stuck, so I was forced to carefully remove the pack and send it up first. A short scramble past the brush brought me to flat ground where I could now comfortably look down at my approach. I'd later find that another group had taken this same route (skip to 4:30) and defined it as having a class 5 move, which I think is important to note.

Photo of selected route from Mountain Project (credit: Jonah Olson).

Chockstone_snow_creek-trip_report

The Chockstone (left). Class 5 route (center).


Class 4 Alternate, Chockstone -Snow Creek Trip Report

Looking down during the Class 4 alternate ascent.

Top of Class 4 Chockstone Bypass, Snow Creek Trip Report

View from the top of Class 4 ascent.

MOUNT SAN JACINTO'S NORTH FACE

The Chockstone bypass had placed me about thirty feet above Snow Creek on the western slope. I shuffled back into the canyon where I had officially reached the point of no return. Whatever I encountered beyond this point would have to be dealt with in order to return to the car, because there was no way in Hell I was going back the way I came. I was only 1.7 miles from the summit, and yet, I still needed to climb roughly 5,000 vertical feet.

11:53 AM -- Fatigue was setting in. The sun was baking the snow and I was post-holing significantly more than before. It was now a race to higher altitude and cooler temperatures. I found an exposed creek along the path at around 6,000 feet and stopped to filter water. I was fairly certain this would be my last opportunity, so I made the best of it by soaking my shirt as well. I struggled to ascend smoothly from here to about 9,300 feet before the snow started to feel solid again. The average slope for the final half mile is roughly 45 degrees, so this wasn't necessarily a good thing. A fall here could have sent me down several hundred feet in seconds. As the cloud cover came in, I was in a white-out for the remainder of the ascent. It was eerie and desolate. I absolutely loved every second of it, even when I was cursing myself for being so slow and useless.

The final 100 feet featured a bit of actual ice, which felt weird climbing over as if it were granite. I could hear the wind howling at the peak, so I dropped my pack and layered up as soon as I was out of steep terrain. I reached San Jacinto Peak at 5:12 PM and stood alone just above the clouds for about fifteen minutes—just enough time to fully soak in a panorama of the Southern California desert. I successfully soloed one of the steepest escarpments and toughest mountaineering routes in the United States.

The initial descent from the peak was pure bliss. I casually strolled down the snowy southeast slope of San Jacinto as the crow flies, occasionally sipping from my West Coast Lager by Burning Bridge Brewing. Once I reached Long Valley Creek however, my legs started to feel like Jell-o. For the first time all day, I started to see humans and they were all wearing tennis shoes and jeans, which meant I was closing in on the tram station. 

I managed to reach the top of the 160 foot ramp without passing out. I walked into the gift shop, paid for my tram ticket, then proceeded to the cafeteria where I completely devoured a $20 rib entrée in under two minutes. Right as I was finishing, I heard the intercom announce that the tram was arriving shortly. I hustled over to the boarding area and took a seat. As soon as I sat down, a hundred emotions passed through my body and I almost started to cry. I would have if I wasn't surrounded by twenty people. 

I completed San Jacinto via Snow Creek in 14 hours and 24 minutes and I bet I could do it a little bit faster next year.

Ascending Snow Creek, San Jacinto, Trip Report

Endless snow tongue.

Hiker Ascending Snow Creek
Final Approach, San Jacinto North Face

Final ascent.

Looking Down into the White Out

Looking down into the white out.

Burning Bridge Brewing, San Jacinto Peak

MORE INFORMATION

Disclaimer: I think my GPS device was malfunctioning during this effort, so instead of exact figures, I decided that these are the estimates I feel comfortable providing.

Distance (to summit): 8.6 miles
Elevation Gain (to summit): + 10,300 feet
Elevation Loss (to summit): -700 feet
Cumulative Distance: 11.5 miles
Cumulative Elevation Gain: 10,500 feet
Cumulative Elevation Loss: -3,200 feet
Route Difficulty: Extreme

  • Undefined Class 2 route from Snow Creek Canyon floor to waypoint SC08.
  • Dense brush, difficult sidehilling, Class 3 scrambling (in that order) to waypoint SC11.
  • Class 3 boulder scramble to the Chockstone (snow ascent in my case).
  • Class 4 slab ascent (minimum) to reach the upper East Fork Snow Creek.
  • 5,000 vertical feet in 1.8 miles for the remainder of the route.
I've decided not to share a full GPX file and instead share way points. I've completed quite a few cross country routes all over the United States and nothing has ever felt quite as remote as this one. Hopefully this helps to preserve the experience for others.

Download the waypoints



1 comment


  • Tom Boggs

    That was incredible. I never imagined seeing the mountain from the bottom in the valley that you were climbing this in one day, thinking that’s a bit nuts. But you did and what a great adventure and accomplishment. And all alone! Thanks for sharing. I’ll pass it on to my buddies.


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