San Jacinto Wilderness

Precipitous Peaks outside Palm Springs
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San Jacinto at a Glance
Location : 10 miles west of Palm Springs
Size : 32,851 acres
Elevation Range : 6,000 to 10,000 feet
Miles of Trails : 80
Ecosystems : Mixed conifer, chaparral
Administration : San Bernardino National Forest, California State Parks

Banning Pass separates the San Bernardino Mountains, part of the Transverse Ranges, from the San Jacinto Mountains, the highest portion of the Peninsula Ranges that run southward into Mexico. As dramatic as the San Bernardino Mountains may be, the San Jacinto Mountains are even more precipitous. In the space of six horizontal miles, these stupendous mountains rise in a rocky escarpment from less than 1,100 feet to the summit of 10,804-foot San Jacinto Peak, providing some of the greatest vertical relief anywhere in the nation. The contrast of desert cactus framing snow-capped peaks is one of the pleasures of living in Palm Springs, located near the base of the mountains. Despite the rugged nature of the slopes, the sky island of the San Jacinto Mountains levels off into a rolling plateau that is forested and dotted with small meadows.

Mount San Jacinto, as well as the highest ridges and peaks, are protected as part of the San Jacinto State Wilderness, which is managed by California State Parks. The summit—:the highest point in the state parks system—:was climbed by John Muir in 1896, who called its view". . .one of the most sublime spectacles to be found anywhere on earth!" Few would argue with his assessment. On a clear day, the entire Los Angeles Basin spreads out to the west, Mount San Gorgonio lies to the north, and, to the east, the Mojave Desert reaches beyond the horizon.

The state park, surrounded by the San Bernardino National Forest, is bordered on the north and south by the federally designated 32,040-acre San Jacinto Wilderness. Taken together, they provide a large wilderness unit that protects the entire top of the range.

The resemblance of these mountains to the Sierra Nevada is striking. The granitic-ribbed San Jacinto Mountains are a fault-block range with a westward tilt. Bounded on the west by the San Jacinto Fault and on the north and east by the San Andreas Fault, the entire region is seismically active: The range is still rising.

The 8,828-foot Tahquitz Peak, a granite dome in the federally protected San Jacinto Wilderness, is reminiscent of the granite outcrops of the Sierra Nevada. A favorite with climbers, the vistas from the summit are nearly as spectacular as those from Mount San Jacinto.

Granite ridges and domes forested with sugar pine, ponderosa, Jeffrey pine, incense cedar, white fir, lodgepole pine, limber pine, chinquapin, and black oak gives the entire range a mini-Sierra feel. Dozens of springs nurture cascading streams that provide a cacophony of splashing, cooling sounds along the trails.

The development history of the San Jacinto Mountains is similar to that of the San Bernardinos. The hunters were first, coming to the high country to kill the abundant deer and an occasional grizzly or bighorn sheep. Then loggers began to strip the ridges of their large, old-growth pine, while thousands of domestic sheep and cattle were grazed on the mountain meadows. Finally, President Grover Cleveland created the San Jacinto Forest Reserve in 1897 to control the abuses and to afford limited protection to the uplands. In 1907, the name was changed to the San Jacinto National Forest, then it was joined with the Trabuco Forest to become the Cleveland National Forest. Later, in 1925, the San Jacinto was attached to the San Bernardino National Forest, where it has remained since.

As early as 1919, proposals were put forth advocating that the higher parts of the range be set aside as a wilderness park. When the California State Parks system was set up in 1927, establishment of a San Jacinto State Park became one of the first priorities. In 1929, formal acquisition of private lands that dotted the mountain uplands began, and by 1935, the state controlled a core area of 12,695 acres that was designated in 1937 as a new unit in the state park system. The area was renamed San Jacinto State Park in 1963.

At the same time the state was working to acquire land for a state park on the mountain, the federal government designated the land south of the park as the San Jacinto Primitive Area. In 1964, it was renamed the San Jacinto Wilderness and was expanded in 1984 to 32,040 acres.

Just after the state park and federal primitive area became realities, a bitter fight ensued between developers in Palm Springs who wanted to build a tramway to the top of the mountain and conservationists who wanted to keep the area as it was. Several bills were introduced into the California legislature authorizing construction of the tram, and one finally passed in 1945. Attempts to thwart construction continued, however, and the tramway was not completed until 1963. Visitors are now whisked up 8,516 feet on a gondola where they merely look around, have a meal at the Mountain Station restaurant, or hike trails in the Long Valley area.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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