PCT: Highway 74 to Saddle Junction

Miles 151.9-179.4 of the northbound PCT: A long climb into the San Jacinto Mountains, reaching potentially treacherous terrain at the higher elevations.

Hiking Severe

Distance
42 km
Ascent
2.2 km
Descent
1.2 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
1.5 km
High Point
2.6 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Highway 74 to Saddle Junction Map

Description

From Highway 74, the PCT makes a determined climb into the San Jacinto Mountains, along a topographic feature known as the Desert Divide. This is the prominent ridge system extending south from San Jacinto Peak, itself holding several notable peaks along the crest. At the higher elevations, and especially on north-facing slopes, early-season hikers may contend with ice and snow on steep terrain. Thus, many a thru-hike attempt has been thwarted by the San Jacintos, and some lives have been lost. You must gauge conditions based on trail reports and according to your comfort level, and decide if bypass might be a better option. The San Jacinto Trail Report is one resource you might consult online, among others.

This segment of the PCT leaves Highway 74 near Paradise Valley Cafe, immediately beginning a long upward trend. Along the way, the setting transitions dramatically with elevation and aspect. In just a few miles from the highway, you’ll wander through a giant-sized garden of granite formations on the mountainside. Beyond there, the uphill journey will eventually deliver you out of the familiar chaparral thickets, and into higher manzanita meadows, with limitless views from windswept ridgelines.

Even though you’re entering the mountains, water can still be an issue on this stretch. There are reliable springs, but most of them are removed from the PCT along side trails. Check the PCT Water Report for locations and current information. One common stop is Cedar Spring (NB mile 162.6), which is clearly indicated by signs along the trail. It’s a one-mile detour from the PCT, down a steep grade leading to an alcove of truly large, old trees that surround the natural spring. At the same junction for Cedar Spring is an opportunity to exit (or enter) the PCT, via Cactus Spring Trail and Morris Ranch Road.

Just past this junction, the PCT continues climbing toward Palm View Peak, and reaches 7000 feet for the first time in its northbound span. It then drops, somewhat suddenly and disappointingly, back to 6000 feet at Forbes Saddle (NB mile 166.5) only to brutally regain all that and more on the way to Apache Peak. It is north of Apache that snow often lingers in early season, and throughout May in some years.

Another option for leaving the PCT is Spitler Trail, which comes at the saddle between Spitler and Apache Peaks (NB mile 168.6). By going down there, you can hike or hitch a detour through Idyllwild and return to the PCT farther north. If you do continue past the Spitler Junction, you can find water at Apache Spring (NB mile 169.2) and good campsites within the next few miles.

Rounding Apache Peak and Antsell Peak, the PCT enters much rockier and more exposed terrain. This stretch can be nerve-racking under normal conditions, and downright treacherous if it’s icy. As of May 2021, there was a rockslide over the trail near Antsell Peak (approx. NB mile 172.5), requiring scrambling to get through.

After further ascent along the craggy ridgeline, among skeletal trees of a burned forest, the trail finally enters greener pastures, so to speak, on the slopes of Tahquitz Valley at over 8000 feet. Here the forest is more intact, and though the ground is still riddled with rocks and possibly covered in snow, the pitch is less steep for the most part. If you’re feeling fit, you might visit the lookout atop Tahquitz Peak (NB mile 178) for a phenomenal view.

Next comes Saddle Junction (NB mile 179.4), and the end of this segment. From here, Idyllwild is 5 miles by way of Devils Slide Trail. This friendly mountain town provides near-essential resupply for long-distance hikers, and makes the most logical place to start or finish a section hike in the San Jacintos.

Permits: This section enters the San Jacinto Wilderness of San Bernardino National Forest, which requires either the PCT Long-Distance Permit or a wilderness permit. Anyone camping may also need the California Fire Permit for use of a cook stove. There is also a separate recreation pass for parking at certain trailheads, which might be needed for section hiking.

Sources: https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://sanjacjon.com/ https://pctwater.com/ https://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/permits/local-permits/

Difficulty

Severe

Hiking challenging trails where simple scrambling, with the occasional use of the hands, is a distinct possibility. The trails are often filled with all manner of obstacles both small and large, and the hills are very steep. Obstacles and challenges are often unexpected and can be unpredictable.

High Exposure

3 out of 4

Some trail sections have exposed ledges or steep ascents/descents where falling could cause serious injury.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Summit Hike
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Guidebooks in this area