PCT: Saddle Junction to Interstate 10

Miles 179.4-209.5 of the northbound PCT: Traversing precipitous slopes of the San Jacintos, then descending aggressively to the desert floor.

Hiking Severe

Distance
45 km
Ascent
904 m
Descent
3 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
365 m
High Point
2.8 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Saddle Junction to Interstate 10 Map

Description

From Saddle Junction in the San Jacinto Mountains, the northbound PCT climbs even higher into the range, reaching lofty vistas from this grandstand over the desert. These elevations are subject to extreme weather, as well as persistent snow and ice to complicate the already rugged terrain. Once the snow has mostly melted by late spring, however, the difficulties become sun exposure and long miles without a water source. Thus, there is no easy window for tackling this northern half of the San Jacintos. If you choose to take it on, you must thoroughly research conditions and be well prepared for whatever you may encounter.

The segment mapped here is the northernmost part of California Section B. This is where the PCT passes Mount San Jacinto, though the trail itself does not reach the peak. To hike this section and also tag the summit, you must make an extension with Wellman Divide Trail and/or Deer Springs Trail, each of which meet the PCT along this segment.

As mapped here, the segment begins in the south at Saddle Junction (NB mile 179.4), a common place to get on or off the PCT via the Devils Slide Trail to Idyllwild. Around the junction, the PCT rolls lazily among fragrant pines and granite boulders, but just to the north it makes a determined climb on rocky, south-facing slopes. Even here, as the trail approaches 9000 feet, sunny weather can feel like a return to the parched desert. Luckily, water can be found a bit farther at Strawberry Cienaga (NB mile 182.1), and the view leading up to this natural spring is absolutely stunning. While traversing a slope studded with oblong boulders and padded with leafy flora, you’ll overlook the valley cradling the town of Idyllwild. Granite promontories rise on either side, while rows of mountains proceed to the horizon.

Campsites are scattered both north and south of the spring, tempting not only for the views and convenience to water, but also for their location outside the San Jacinto State Park Wilderness. On the 5.4-mile stretch through that park, camping is allowed only in designated areas and requires arranging a permit in advance, so most PCT hikers avoid camping there. Note also that dogs are not allowed on that section of trail. If you do get the permit, however, Strawberry Junction (NB mile 183.5) makes a good place to spend the night. At this backcountry campground is where the Deer Springs Trail joins the PCT, making another option for getting to/from Idyllwild.

Within the state park wilderness, the PCT crosses a few creeks (tributaries of the San Jacinto River) that usually have water. Note that this could be the last water for a very long stretch of trail. You should check the PCT Water Report for current status of these and other sources. Past these creeks in the northbound direction, the PCT starts to descend along Fuller Ridge. It’s a strenuous traverse across the serrated ridgeline, as the trail zigzags back and forth, up and down, through stacks of granite and clumps of trees. At points where the trail crosses to the north side of the ridge, you’ll gaze at the desert far below, even though you might be walking in snow at this elevation. This is another part of the trail that can be hazardous, either due to ice in early season, or sun exposure in late season.

After passing the Fuller Ridge Trailhead and crossing the unpaved Black Mountain Road (NB mile 190.7), the PCT begins an aggressive descent from the mountains. Below the road, there’s more than 10 miles of trail to reach the bottom of Snow Creek Canyon, nearly 6500 vertical feet below. To get there, the trail twists through countless gullies and across steep slopes, all with phenomenal views over the desert as taller trees are quickly left behind. There are decent campsites tucked among boulders on the mountain slopes, but you must beware of water availability. The next year-round source is at the road in the bottom of the canyon (NB mile 205.7).

You might camp near this road and the fortuitous water fountain there, or you can simply fill up and keep walking the road. A couple miles on pavement leads to a footpath once more, and this cuts straight across the sandy desert floor to reach Interstate 10. The trail joins a wash to tunnel under the freeway then emerge at Tamarack Road (NB mile 209.5). From there hikers might walk or try to hitch to the small town of Cabazon, where there is a store and a post office. This concludes the northbound extent of California Section B. From there, Section C heads northward through desert hills, bound for the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

Permits: This section is partially within the San Jacinto Wilderness of San Bernardino National Forest, and also passes through the San Jacinto State Park Wilderness, which is separately managed. Each of these forests honor each other’s day use passes, but different permits are needed for camping. Dispersed camping is allowed in the national forest with a wilderness permit, while the state forest allows camping only in designated areas, and only with that park’s own Wilderness Camping Permit. Note: the PCT Long-Distance Permit is good for travel through both forests, and for dispersed camping in the national forest, but not for camping in the state forest. Anyone camping, regardless of other permits, may still need a California Fire Permit as well.

Sources: https://pctcalsectionb.com/ https://sanjacjon.com/ https://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/636/files/MtSanJacintoSPFinalWebLayout2018.pdf https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/recarea/?recid=26473

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.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause 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
  • Picturesque
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Guidebooks in this area