The best place to experience the PCT’s notorious elevation changes is on the traverse of the San Jacintos. From the 10,804-foot top of Mt. San Jacinto, you’ll descend almost 9,600 feet in about 20 miles, dropping through all six of California’s life zones. In two or three days, you’ll go from a barren alpine summit to forests of white fir, lodgepole pine, and western white pine to a scrubby desert of chaparral and shaggy Mojave yucca—the biotic equivalent to walking from Alaska to Death Valley. Following a long ridge, this traverse features high-mountain views of rugged side canyons, the cliffs of rock-climbing mecca Tahquitz Rock, Joshua Tree National Park, and Southern California’s highest peak, 11,499-foot San Gorgonio. Tagging Mt. San Jacinto’s summit requires a detour off the PCT via the Wellmans Cienaga and San Jacinto Peak Trails (a distance comparable to the PCT stretch you’ll miss). The payoff: views stretching into Nevada and Mexico, and to the Pacific.
LOCAL WISDOM Hike northbound to knock 3,200 feet off your climb. The best campsites are on side trails: Cedar Spring, a mile north via Cedar Spring Trail 4E17; and Little Tahquitz Valley, .3 mile north on the Tahquitz Valley Trail.