Places to Play: Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area

A man show-shoes under pine trees at Mount San Jacinto State Park

California’s Stay at Home Order is still in place. Please enjoy our travel content but remember to recreate responsibly and only in your local area. At the time of publication, outdoor areas of Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area are open to the public for day use, however the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is closed. Visit their websites or call for up-to-date information.

Californians love to repeat the adage that here, you can ski and surf all in one day. It’s easy to mock the enthusiasm, mention traffic and other logistical objections, but there are so many places in the state where almost any outdoor pursuit you desire is absolutely within reach. Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area, a four-season alpine playground high above the Coachella Valley, is a fitting example. The park, which is within the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, is typically 30 to 40 degrees cooler than the valley floor, with significant snowfall throughout winter and spring. It couldn’t feel further from the sunbaked resorts and date palm groves 6,000 feet below. Thanks to the engineering marvel of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the desert’s highest and lowest elevations are just a 10-minute, hair-raising ride apart. Surfing might be a stretch, but you really can ski or hike amid the park’s old-growth pines in the morning, and soak up the sun at the poolside back in Palm Springs in the afternoon.

A tramcar seen from above, ascending the slope of Mount San Jacinto above Palm Springs, California

Getting to San Jacinto State Park

There are two access points to San Jacinto State Park: from Palm Springs, via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; and from the small mountain town of Idyllwild, which offers two drive-in campgrounds. The tramway, built in 1963, carries passengers up from China Canyon just outside Palm Springs to Mountain Station, the main hub of activity in the state park. It operates year-round, takes 10 minutes to complete the 2.5-mile, almost sheer ascent, and boasts the world’s largest rotating tram cars. It makes the quick journey up the mountain as memorable as the rest of the adventure. An alternative is the 21-mile Cactus to Clouds Trail, an incredibly steep hiking route connecting Palm Springs to San Jacinto Peak.

A view over the Coachella Valley from the snowy edge of Mount San Jacinto

Things to do in San Jacinto State Park

Many day-trippers from Palm Springs are content to explore Mountain Station and its immediate surroundings. Indoor attractions there include two restaurants, a visitor center, gift shop and a small natural history museum. At 8,400 feet above sea level, be sure to visit observation decks where you can take in panoramic views of the entire Coachella Valley as well as several high peaks. There’s also a picnic area, nature trail, ranger station and seasonal Adventure Center within a short walk of the station.

You don’t need to venture far to enjoy the high-elevation habitat. The meadows are pine forest (mostly ponderosa, sugar, lodgepole and Jeffrey pines) harbor rare plants and impressive birds of prey. In summer, the cool climate is a welcome escape from the oppressive heat of the desert floor. Winter’s snow is prime for play, but backcountry activities during that season are best left to those with experience in the conditions. Camping is available in the wilderness area as well as drive-in campgrounds near Idyllwild. That area of the park is very popular for rock climbing.

Hiking in San Jacinto State Park

The state park features 54 miles of hiking trails. The trail network spans from just outside the tram station to the outskirts of Idyllwild and encompasses San Jacinto Peak, the second-highest in Southern California. It also includes a section of the epic Pacific Crest Trail. A permit is required to hike beyond the ranger station on the Long Valley (tram) side of the park. They’re free of charge and available 24 hours a day at the park headquarters in Idyllwild and the Long Valley ranger station.  

Trails in the park are mostly steep and strenuous, but there are some easy routes too. Those include the 1-mile Panorama Point Trail loop near Idyllwild and the 0.6-mile Discovery Nature Trail loop in Long Valley. Reaching the 10,834-foot summit of Mount San Jacinto is possible via several routes ranging from 10.6 to 18.4 miles out and back. All are very steep and require sufficient preparation. Hikes of any length during winter call for caution, too.

A sledding hill covered with snow and people sledding in Mount San Jacinto State Park, California

Winter Activities in San Jacinto State Park

The park typically experiences anywhere from a few inches to several feet of snow from mid-November to mid-April. It’s best to check on the conditions online or by calling the ranger station before heading up the mountain during this season. Trails are not groomed in winter, so backcountry adventurers need to be able to navigate, and might need specialized snow equipment. Day-trippers enjoy snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, tubing and sledding. Rentals of snowshoes and cross-country skis are available at the Adventure Center, or you can bring your own. Only plastic sleds are allowed, and they’re available to buy in the gift shop.


Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area

Park Headquarters: 25905 Highway 243, Idyllwild, CA 92549

(951) 659-2607

Long Valley Ranger Station (via Palm Springs Aerial Tramway): 1 Tramway Road, Palm Springs, CA 92262

(760) 327-0222

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

1 Tramway Road, Palm Springs, CA 92262

(888) 515-8726

[email protected]

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