Finally, the highest mountains in Southern California are glistening white in snow, just in time for fun and frolic over the holidays. Mt. San Jacinto State Park’s Long Valley, at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, is currently blanketed in two to three inches of snow with as much as a foot or more covering San Jacinto Peak.
While northern “snow birds” flock to Palm Springs to escape winter’s cold, Southern California residents flock to Long Valley where they can play in the snow. Daytime temperatures at the Tramway’s Mountain Station this time of year range between 35 to 50 degrees, but can drop precipitously so come prepared for cold, snow and ice. Don’t be fooled by Palm Springs’ 60 to 70 degree winter afternoons. Temperatures on the mountain are much colder than the desert cities below. Visitors traversing through Long Valley should dress in layers and wear snow boots, gloves, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Check the mountain’s conditions before you leave home. Call the tram office or check out the Long Valley web cam.
Visitors like to travel up the mountain by tram because they can get to snow without having to drive for hours. No treacherous roads, no snow chains, just magnificent views of the Coachella Valley and the distant San Bernardino Mountains. When they have their fill of snow, visitors can be back to warmer weather in just 20 minutes.
Long Valley in the winter is a great place for kids and kids at heart. Snowball fights, sculpting snowmen, swishing snow angels and even picnicking are popular activities. The valley’s Desert View Trail offers spectacular views of the Coachella Valley and surrounding snow-covered sub-alpine forests with their galvanized granite outcroppings and weather-toughened pines and firs.
There is no downhill skiing in Long Valley, but you can snowshoe, cross-country ski, sled and toboggan, however, inflatable sleds and sleds with blades are not permitted. There is an Winter Adventure Center in Long Valley where you can buy sleds and rent snowshoes and cross-country skis. Snow conditions, however, have been poor for any of these activities and the Adventure Center may be closed. For more information about the Winter Adventure Center, call (760) 325-1391 or check its the Tram’s website.
Snow Camping for the Adventurous
I relish snow camping in a pine forest, whether the forest is in Alaska or California. It’s mesmerizing to watch the conifers bend under their snowy burdens while dropping clumps of snow, pine needles and cones. If you are a brave and toughened snow camper, you can pitch a tent in one of the State Park’s four wilderness campgrounds: Round Valley, Little Round Valley, Tamarack Valley and Strawberry Junction. Don’t, however, expect any accommodations. All these wilderness campgrounds offer is the ground you sleep on and pit toilets. No campfires are allowed, only propane cook stoves. You also have to pack in your own water or melt snow. Keep in mind, there is not enough snow for snowshoes at the moment, but I do recommend carrying at least microspikes as the trails are often icy, dangerously so if you are not aware and prepared.
Wilderness camping is cheap on the mountain. Only $5 per person for up to two weeks. For more camping information go to: http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/636/files/dpr409.pdf.
48 Miles of Hiking Trails
Long Valley’s ¾ mile (1.2 km) loop Nature Trail is an easy hike, depending on the weather.
Hiker with stamina and grit often climb to the crest of San Jacinto Peak (10.069 feet) in winter, but must endure the icy blasts of the mountain’s chilling alpine winds. The reward: stunning views of the San Gorgonio Pass, Pacific Ocean, Colorado Desert, Salton Sea, and distant Mexico. A permit is required for wilderness hiking and can be obtained at the Long Valley or Idyllwild ranger stations. Hiking permits are free.
All park visitors should be prepared for changing weather conditions by dressing in layers and wearing sturdy, winter hiking boots, sunscreen and sunglasses. Hikers going to the peak would be wise to carry snowshoes, crampons and an ice ax as conditions on the peak are often treacherous. For information on the 10 Essentials of Hiking, visit the American Hiking Society’s website.
With its geology of alluring granite summits and boulder-stacked ridges, visitors often refer to Mount San Jacinto State Park’s wilderness as the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Southern California. Indeed, it is the closest wilderness in So Cal that is comparable to Southeast Alaska — sort of.
All text and photos copyright by Aleta Walther, 2015
Naturalist, Outdoor Excursion Guide, CIG, CTA, ATG