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Backpacker Magazine – May 2005

America's Hardest Dayhikes

Push yourself on any of these challenging hikes

by: Mike Lanza, BACKPACKER Northwest Editor


5. Cactus to Clouds Trail
Mt., San Jacinto from Palm Springs, CA

Score:
80 Miles: 23 Elevation Change: 13,400 feet X Factor: Broiling temps

Sure, it's a big deal to climb Mt. Whitney-but on the highest peak in the lower 48, you begin at 8,360 feet. To conquer Cactus to Clouds, you start on the desert floor and ascend 10,700 feet-a vertical half-mile more than Whitney. Two fun ways to put your pain in perspective as you churn up the unmaintained trail: The trek to San Jacinto's 10,804-foot, boulder-strewn crown is only 800 vertical feet shorter than the climb from Everest basecamp to summit-and comparable to doing more than a thousand flights of stairs. Start before dawn, because temps hit triple digits more than 100 days a year, and there's no water below 8,500 feet. But come prepared for wild temperature inversions and possible rain and hail up high; the worst scenario is to be forced to descend waterless in the ruthless afternoon heat. From the top, where you'll see every major peak in Southern California and all the way to the coast, most people hike down 2,300 feet and take the tram back to town; the hike's tough enough without adding another 8,000 feet of downhill. Contact: Long Valley Ranger Station, Mt. San Jacinto State Park, (951) 659-2607; www.sanjac.statepark.org. Palm Springs Aerial Tram, (760) 325-1391; www.pstramway.com

6. Great Smoky Mountains End-to-End
TN/NC

Score:
78 Miles: 32 Elevation Change: 12,300 feet X Factor: Mud, bugs, humidity

It's a safe bet that leisurely Bill Bryson won't ever wax poetic about doing this one-day walk in the woods. The Appalachian Trail's infamous switchback-free section from Newfound Gap to TN 32 at the national park's northeast corner breaks you down mentally and physically, rising 4,600 feet and dropping (perhaps literally) a staggering 7,678. The Smokies' famed low clouds and chronically wet ground (Bryson writes of rain falling there "with an endless, typewriter pattern) lend the incessant downhill a distinctly Appalachian flavor-you'll churn through slick mud, rocks, and roots. When it's clear, the views from ridgelines along one of the AT's highest stretches are the best in the Southeast. Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1297; www.nps.gov/grsm




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Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Steve
Jul 03, 2014

Badwater Flats to Telescope Peak. over 11,300' of pure elevation gain without factoring in trail changes. Shortest distance with the greatest elevation change in North America, world record triple digit heat, no water, extreme weather changes.... Just how did this not make the list?

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Jun 26, 2014

Hike Smart by going to http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/day-hiking.htm to plan your Grand Canyon adventure. The Grand Canyon continues to claim more lives every year for a variety of reasons; hikers become lost, hikers arenít prepared for the elements they encounter, or a simple photo op turns tragic. Live to hike another day by staying found and knowing how to use a compass. Even skilled explorers can become lost or somehow end up spending the night hunkered down because of weather or injury. Many people never consider that they might end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors or waiting for medical help --and so they hike without the essentials. Day-hikes can be the most dangerous because hikers usually carry minimal supplies. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors. Read "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon). A compass doesn't need a signal, satellites, or batteries and works in all types of weather, day or night, but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Learn how to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. This book is for all ages. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart."

Star Star Star Star Star
Rick
Apr 07, 2013

It is interesting that the two hikes with the highest mileage are both on the East Coast! As far as the Pemi-Loop goes, Backpacker Mag is totally correct! It's not the mileage or the elevations gain/loss that hurts you in NH; it's the rocks! They don't call it the Granite State for nothing...

DoctorDee
Nov 20, 2011

My experience was that Mt Whitney was a doddle. Did that a couple years ago, and was back by 13:30. Grand Canyon I did this year, and it was much, much harder due mainly to the heat/dehydration.

I'm from the UK, and I'm considering, for 2012: A US road trip that begins with the Cactus to Clouds, follow that up with a Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim then the Timberline Trail and finish with the Enchantment Lakes traverse. Is there a time of year when I could realistically do all of these within three weeks?

Garrett
Jul 14, 2011

Mahoosuc Range Traverse from Gorham NH to Old Speck Mt ME, about the same mileage as Pemi Loop, but more elevation gain and more rugged terrain, including AT's "toughest mile" at Mahoosuc Notch.

Pavel Chernikov
Jun 20, 2011

Here's another good one: Hut to hut White Mountains traverse, 50 miles, 17k elevation gain (34k elevation change). Usually the goal for this one is under 24h.

Pavel Chernikov
Jun 20, 2011

"Bob Marshall's big hike" traverse in ADK, about 32 miles, 13500 elevation gain (27000 elevation change). It's basically Great Range on steroids.

Hikin' Jim
May 28, 2011

How were the scores calculated?

HJ

Jon
Feb 08, 2011

Cactus to Clouds is best done in late fall before the snow starts to hit, or early spring after it has melted. You want a clear trail without ice, and the ability to get up high enough in the morning without the desert heat killing you. We started at 4 am last October, made it to the tram station at 10:30 and relaxed for a half an hour before pushing to the top in about another 1.5 hours. Getting to the tram station is the hard part, the few miles up to the top is well maintained and relatively easy.

Shelli Johnson
Oct 18, 2010

What time of year is optimal for hiking the Cactus to Clouds Trail
Mt., San Jacinto from Palm Springs, CA trail?

Shelli Johnson
Oct 18, 2010

What time of year is optimal for hiking the Cactus to Clouds Trail
Mt., San Jacinto from Palm Springs, CA trail?

Rob
Sep 03, 2010

The Timberline Trail still (as of 2010) has a section closed after flooding in 2006 washed out a section on the north side and destabilized steep slopes. Too bad because it's a super hike.

Another hike in Oregon of similar mileage, but less vertical would be around the Three Sisters (Bend).

Cheers.

Morning Star
Apr 14, 2010

#11
Telescope Peak from Shorty's Well, Death Valley, CA. Score: 110. Miles: 30. Elevation change: 12,000. X-Factor: Skull frying heat in the middle of nowhere.

steve
Dec 02, 2009

@Chenendez asked, "Why not Rim to rim to rim? Well why not Rim to rim to rim to rim?"
A: Because r2r2r is done in a day, many times per year, and r2r2r2r is not.

Then @Chenendez asked, "What happens once you reach the top of San Jacinto? Do you radio in the copter to airlift you out? How do you possibly make it back in the same day?"
a: This guy did it in 10.5 hours. http://sites.google.com/site/jeffstrailroutes/Home/mt--san-jacinto and I'm sure well-trained people will typically do it under 18-20 hours.

They didn't call this "hardest dayhikes" because they're easy, you know. But they're definitely possible.

Yaakov Relkin
Nov 16, 2009

What happened to the Devil's Path in New York?
It's 25.5 miles and has 18K feet of elev. change!

Chenendez
Nov 10, 2009

Why not Rim to rim to rim? Well why not Rim to rim to rim to rim? Isn't that harder? What can possibly beat that? I know. Rim to rim to rim to rim to rim. This article just shows some people have nothing to write. I got a real hard day hike for you. Go from Santa Monica pier to Mt Baldy. So this is suppose to be a day hike list. What happens once you reach the top of San Jacinto? Do you radio in the copter to airlift you out? How do you possibly make it back in the same day? You can't camp, because that would be a backpack trip, and wouldn't be in the same day. Hmmmmm.....

Carlos
Aug 11, 2009

Mt. Whitney is tougher than suggested here. 6000 ft of elevation is nothing to sneeze at, and the fact that it happens, for the most part, above the tree line adds another dimension of difficulty. How many people have I seen balk at about 11,000 feet because of the effects of altitude sickness. And bring sunglasses because the sun is surreally bright at that elevation, as well.

Robert Burns
Jul 20, 2009

Recently did The Great Range in reverse as a backpacking trip that included Dix and Noonmark. Missing in the description of the GR above is Basin Mountain, which is between Saddleback and Lower Haystack. Also missing is the class 3-4 climb at the top of Saddleback. We did this in reverse, going from Marcy back to St. Huberts, abandoning ship after Gothics (which sports new cables up the southern ascent) because of some pretty raucous thunderstorms. The escape route featured the pretty cool Pyramid Peak, however.

Cindy
May 26, 2009

Granted, this is outdated, but I have seen the latest top hikes recently, somewhere. I have hiked several of these hikes and they are awesome.
Question..... why isn't the Rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon on the top list? I sure is up there in miles and elevation. It kick most of the hikes in a heart beat.

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