I wondered where all of these people came from, and then I remembered that Wellman Divide is the junction of the trail leading up to the San Jacinto summit and the trail coming from Long Valley, the ranger station at the terminus of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The tram brings people from the foot of the mountain in Palm Springs up 6,000 feet to an overlook at 8,420 feet. Many visitors walk to the summit from there. Along with the teams of boy scouts out for a summer backpacking weekend, this accounted for the crowd. As I felt the rest and the drink take effect, and as I watched the tourists have their pictures taken with the sign pointing up to Mount San Jacinto, my excitement was renewed. I was so close now. When I got antsy to start walking again, I knew I was feeling better. I saved half of my drink for the summit, packed up the long-sleeved shirt I'd had to put on to fend of a chill, checked the arrows on the sign, and continued walking.
After a long stretch of woodland scenery, a long, wide mountainside expanse came into view. I turned to my right and saw miles of San Jacinto's topography below me. Idyllwild had long since been out of view. Now, I was on the eastern side of the mountain, and I could see my work cut out before me. But was it lovely. The mile-long switchback leading up to the summit shelter is one of the most beautiful parts of this walk. The single track makes a gradual ascent. The views are stunning, but the trail is not free of obstacles, so the walking requires a holistic kind of attention: while I marveled at the scenery all around me, I took care to tread carefully and avoid a twisted ankle. It is here that the mountain reveals itself. The trees are smaller, and there are fewer of them. Low shrubs struggle through the granite talus. I turned at the center of the long switchback and felt the heat of the sun on my face mix with a crisp, cold breeze. I was so happy, but I was also in a lot of pain. I could tell that blisters were forming on the backs of my heels, and for the past few miles, all I could think about was the fact that my pack was too minimalist for me. My neck and shoulders were so uncomfortable, and I wished I had padding and pockets on a hipbelt that was more substantial than just a one-inch webbing strap.
At the end of the switchback, a grove of taller pines obscured the path for a few hundred yards. A couple resting on a rock pointed me in the right direction, and I soon glimpsed the summit shelter. I was eager to get to the summit, so I passed by the cabin for the time being. A mass of boulders stood before me. I put my trekking poles in my pack and while I didn't hesitate to climb, I wasn't that happy about it, either. I like a path. When confronted with a pile of rocks, all I can think about is slipping and falling. So, I set my mind to the task and tried to enjoy it. I focused my attention to only what was directly in front of me, and I slowly wound up a precarious pass over rocks and boulders. Suddenly, I came across three men resting on a big rock. I stopped short, planted my feet and looked to my right, out in the direction of the mens' gaze. My breath caught in my throat as my mind tried to catch up with the information I was sensing all around me. I had never seen such a view. The north side of Mount San Jacinto fell ten thousand feet down below my feet. I looked out over Palm Springs and beyond, into the rolling distance. I drank down the rest of my electrolyte drink and then realized that I still hadn't seen the summit sign. Noticing that I was alone, a hiker up from Palm Desert offered to take my picture with the sign.
It's a terrible picture: the expression on my face is the exact opposite of the exuberance I felt over being in that very spot; there is some dude sitting in the corner; and someone's lunch is strewn all over the rock on the other side. But it wasn't until a few days later when I was looking at the few pictures I'd taken on this trip that I noticed the little arrow below the sign, the one that points toward the boulder to my left. Did I ever make it to the top of that boulder? No. No, of course not. I was too thrilled by the scenery and focused on finding a little perch I might have to myself for lunch to realize that I hadn't actually made it to the summit! As a beginning hiker, I hadn't internalized the requisite search for the summit plaque and register box, and as such, not knowing any better, I didn't know I'd missed out on anything. I guess I have a good reason to go back...
Continued in Part IV