If you’ve ever lounged poolside in Palm Springs, then you’ve seen Mt. San Jacinto, the 10,834-foot mountain that dominates the city’s western horizon. Mount San Jacinto State Park preserves and manages the mountain and its surrounding granite peaks, subalpine forests, and miles of hiking trails, including portions of the Pacific Crest Trail. The majority of this high-country wilderness area also falls within the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
The region south of the park is managed as the San Bernardino National Forest. Open year-round, hiking and camping permits are required in both the State Park and National Forest, and they can be obtained at their ranger stations or via mail.
Ferns along the trail to Little Tahquitz Valley
Be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen, and wear sturdy hiking boots to provide both ankle support as well as limited protection against the rattlesnakes, which like to sun themselves on trails.
While most visitors venture up Mt. San Jacinto’s slopes via the aerial tram in Palm Springs, hikers and backpackers know the real treasure of the mountain awaits on its western side near the hilltop hamlet of Idyllwild.
Rattlesnakes are a frequent sight along the trails
Idyllwild is a community intent on keeping its quirky, small-town vibe. There are no chain stores or fast-food restaurants. The town has plenty of accommodations available, from campsites and cabins to hotels and Airbnb rentals, and a range of dining options, but there’s a near-zero corporate presence in the town, a welcome change from some overly commercialized mountain resorts.
The town serves as a perfect base camp for exploring the mountain’s backcountry trails, and its proximity to Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties make it an ideal weekend destination. Be sure to pick up an Adventure Pass parking permit before you head out. They come in daily and yearly passes, and can be purchased at locations in town (like the local gas station) as well as down the mountain in some sporting goods retailers like Big 5.
Suicide Rock dominates the Devil’s Slide trail
My hiking partner and I started our adventure from the Devil’s Slide trailhead located in the San Bernardino National Forest just above town. The trailhead is located in Humber Park, which is really just a large parking lot with jaw-dropping views of Lily Rock, Tahquitz Peak, and the surrounding forest.
From an elevation of roughly 6,400 feet, the trail steadily gains another 1,700 feet over 2.5 miles of switchbacks until reaching Saddle Junction. You’ll be met with spectacular views on the climb, but will want to postpone taking pictures until your return descent when the vistas somehow improve.
Hikers barely visible amid the ferns along the Willow Creek Trail
Once at the saddle, most hikers head directly for San Jacinto Peak to the left or Tahquitz Peak to the right. We opted to head east on the Willow Creek trail and then south on the Little Tahquitz Valley trail through acres of pines and ferns. At several points the ferns were so tall and dense they nearly hid the trail as we passed through. Earlier in the season, lush purple lupine burst through the green ferns.
A view east into Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley
There are any number of locations perfect for a backcountry campsite within the San Bernadino National Forest. We chose a site overlooking Little Tahquitz valley and a short distance from a gently murmuring stream. In earlier times, large tent cabins were constructed along the eastern rim of the valley.
The author’s campsite
Less than two hours after starting up Devil’s Slide, our tents were pitched, chairs assembled, and drinks in hand. There are no campfires permitted in the region, which is still recovering from the 2018 Cranston Fire, but we made do with some freeze-dried chili mac and a couple of sandwiches we had picked up at the grocery store deli in town earlier that morning.
The following day, we broke camp early and headed south to Tahquitz Peak and its fire lookout. As our luck would have it, supplies were being ferried in by helicopter to the lookout that morning, so we kicked back and watched the aerial show.
The U.S. Forest Service helicopter delivers supplies to the Tahquitz Peak fire lookout
Rather than head down the mountain via the same route, we decided instead to return via the Tahquitz Peak Loop. This loop is the combination of three trails: the Devil’s Slide and South Ridge trails, and then the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail. The entire loop is roughly 12.5 miles, and we traversed the remaining segments in a few hours, arriving at our vehicle in Humber Park just before noon.
The author’s reading space
We had just enough time for a leisurely lunch in Idyllwild, before heading back down to civilization.
This piece initially appeared in Out Traveler print issue Summer 2022.