Maps of Skyline Trail and Cactus to Clouds
Here are two maps covering the Cactus to Clounds hike from Palm Springs to San Jacinto Peak. I've done this hike several times, but am by no means a local expert. If you find mistakes or have information to add, please email me. Perry Scanlon has created a nifty guide.
Between 2009 and 2012, four people died attempting this trail. The common pattern in these deaths is that it's after mid-May, temperatures in Palm Springs are high, the hiker turns around, and is killed by heat stroke below 2000'. The safest way to attempt this trail for your first time is in cool fall weather with someone who knows the trail. The trail is not maintained, and is sometimes nonexistent. There is no water. Ask about conditions at mtsanjacinto.info.
Description of the hike
Most people start up several hours before sunrise, using a headlamp. This allows you to reach high altitudes before the life-threatening heat of the day. At the top of the ridge to the west, you will see a bright white light at the tram station. The lower part of the trail can be very confusing in the dark, with lots of shortcuts and alternative versions of the trail weaving in and out of one another. A common mistake is to wander off too far to the left, toward Tahquitz Creek Canyon. People who get in trouble on Skyline Trail and try to descend will sometimes go down into Tahquitz Creek Canyon because there is water, but then they get stuck in the canyon and can't get out.
Above about 7000', you enter a steep portion of Skyline Trail known as the Traverse. In early spring and late fall, it can be icy, and under those conditions it can be dangerous to cross even with ice ax and crampons. Even when there is no snow, there are stretches of the Traverse where there is no visible trail. Watch for Coffman's Crag, which is a huge, prominent rock shaped like the nose-cone of a rocket. Go to the base of the crag and then turn left, uphill. If you don't turn uphill, you can end up stuck in Chino Canyon (the rugged canyon underneath the tram cables), from which people frequently have to be rescued.
Heading west from the tram station, stop at the ranger station to fill out a wilderness permit. They want you to put a description of your car on the form, so they can check whether you made it out OK; make sure to write that you're parked at the art museum rather than the tram's parking lot. In spring, you will start to encounter snow, which makes navigation difficult. The USGS map that I drew this map on top of shows a trail leading from the meadow at Tamarack Valley up toward San Jacinto Peak. This trail is no longer maintained, is difficult to find, and is not shown on recent maps. You're better off taking Wellman's Divide. In snow, some of the most prominent landmarks are the series of outhouses marked on the map with a circled letter "T." In some places, trees are marked with ribbons to show where the trail is.