On our second morning at the Desert Star Glampsite, we enjoyed a quiet coffee and breakfast as the sun crept into view – warming our bodies and inviting us into another adventurous day.
Shedding layers that kept me warm through the night, I scrolled through my curated list of hikes on All Trails until the Willow Creek Trail to Hidden Lake and the Round Valley Loop at Mt. San Jacinto State Park caught my eye. It was mountainous. It was alpine-y. There was snow… I think we have a winner!
There was only one problem. The trail reviews and park warnings indicated snow and ice and recommended using ice spikes and trekking poles to enjoy any sort of substantial hiking.
Guess who didn’t think to pack the ice spikes and trekking poles?
I Googled furiously, trying to track down a gear rental service – or even a nearby sports store where we could purchase what we needed. I was NOT going to let this minor detail keep us from exploring the mountains.
Only, it didn’t matter how much I searched – nobody had what we were looking for.
For an area so close to alpine adventures, you’d think spikes and trekking poles would be more easy to come by. But then again… you’d also think that an adventurous girl like me would remember to pack the ones she already had. These things rarely make sense.
Although we probably wouldn’t be able to hike the entire trail, we decided to go ahead and get to the park and see what the rangers would suggest. At the very least, we could hike to our comfort level and turn around if we felt unsafe.
After loading up on snacks at an area grocery store, we drove to the Palm Springs Arial Tramway at the base of Mt. San Jacinto. We then purchased our tickets and joined 80 other tourists on a cable car ride up 6,000 feet to the state park.
I gotta say… 6,000 feet feels like a long way down when you’re suspended by a cable. I was relieved to learn that on our trepidatious ascent, the car slowly spun in a circle. You know… so I could get a full 360-degree view of my impending doom… with an extra side of nausea. Bonus!
Miraculously, we arrived safely at the top, stepped out into the gorgeous Mt. San Jacinto State Park, and I reclaimed my normal breathing pattern. Dodging our fellow survivors, we made our way to the rangers station to obtain permits and hiking recommendations for the day.
We learned that our desired 5 mile trail was about 75% covered in ice and snow – and since this genius (me) forgot to pack basic winter hiking gear – the (slightly condescending) ranger advised us to only attempt half the route we had originally planned. Doing so would eliminate the steep inclines on the back half of the Round Valley Loop but would still give us a decent amount of hiking.
I couldn’t read his mind, but judging by the look on his face, he assumed we were novice midwestern idiots. I hoped he wasn’t right.
Trying not to shame myself, I focused instead on enjoying the 3.5 miles of the trail we could do safely.
And it was gorgeous.
After spending most of the previous day in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park, it was incredible to find ourselves in a snowy alpine wonderland.
Although the tramway and entrance to the state park was crawling with strolling tourists, we were all alone out on the trail. Absolute bliss.
The Willow Creek Trail meandered easily through pine groves (did you know Jeffery pines smell like butterscotch?!?) punctuated by funky slabs of rock. The short snowy inclines were easy to manage, but I knew we’d have to take things slow on the way back down.
We stopped several times along the way to admire the rock formations and giant pine cones. I even lucked out finding a perfect walking stick to help me balance. Who needs a trekking pole when you can splinter up your hand on a dead pine branch??
A mile or so in, we reached the turn toward the Hidden Divide Natural Preserve. The trail was easy to spot – marked by a giant rock and a dead pine tree stump rising mightily into the air.
We made the turn and followed the marked path – careful not to veer off trail in this protected area. After a few minutes we approached the hidden “lake” – a mostly dry wet-weather vernal pool.
Continuing on, we reached the end of the trail at an unbelievable overlook of the Cochella Valley. At 8,640′, we could see everything. The planes landing and taking off from the Palm Springs airport looked like tiny grains of rice. The Salton Sea to our right was easily two hours away by car.
I understood why, according to John Muir, “the view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth.” (Legends and History of the San Jacinto Mountains; Frederick, K.P.; 1926)
Mike geeked out on the airplane landing patterns while I stared in amazement and thought how ridiculously small we all are. We enjoyed snacks, took pictures and reluctantly began our trek back to the trail head.
I slipped a few times on the icy descent – very gracefully, I must say – and was thankful for my hiking stick and strategically-placed rocks I could grip for balance. We progressed slowly, but it was all good. We had plenty of time, and I was worn out anyway. It’s crazy how quickly fatigue sets in at these higher elevations.
Before long, we were back at the trailhead where we chatted with with one of the rangers, filled up our water bottles and headed out for another 3 miles of hiking in the park’s popular Discovery Nature Trail and the adjacent Desert View Trail. These weren’t secluded quiet trails, but in our ragged state, the idea of an easier trek to conclude the day was appealing.
There were five lookouts (called notches) along the Desert View trail where we were rewarded with even more spectacular views of the valley. Beautiful color and long shadows stretched out as the sun began to set.
At the end of the two loops, we were sore yet satisfied after our 6.5 mile day.
After a brutal climb up the ramp to the tramway station and a long ride down in another crowded cable car, we were ready for dinner, clean clothes, and a bed. Our yurt was thirty minutes away, so before making our way back, we searched Google Maps for a place to eat.
Rick’s Desert Grill in Palm Springs had excellent reviews, and I was delighted to see a mostly empty parking lot when we arrived at 5:00 p.m. I felt a little embarrassed in my stinky hiking clothes, but we did our best to clean up and sheepishly walked in.
Fortunately, the staff was friendly and service was quick. I enjoyed perusing the black and white photos on the walls – scenes from a bygone era. At our server’s recommendation, I ordered slow-cooked pork, beans with rice, plus fried plantains and yucca on the side. Delish.
With full bellies and happy hearts, we ended the night early in our yurt, tired from a lovely day of hiking and thankful for a cozy place to sleep. Two days remained in our desert getaway, and I couldn’t wait to head out on our next adventure.