Us too, are concerned with the abysmal state of precipitation we got in the last two years. We've been to places in the summer where there should have been water, but it was dry. We heard quite a few stories about hikers needing airlifts from the southern portions of the PCT becuase they ran out of water.
Of course, we're doing whatever we can to save water and raise awareness in other people, but that doesn't mean we won't adapt our hiking to the change. We don't do "serious" winter mountaineering, so this was a great opportunity to get to otherwise inaccessible places in the winter and the spring.
In January, Em and I went up to Mt. Williamson (the one in theLos Angeles National Forest), and it was scary. Besides a few small spots on northern slopes, there was no snow whatsoever. After we kept running into reports of similar conditions everywhere, I started looking at the trail reports for Mt. San Jacinto. First we went there in June 2011 (a very high snow year) and then I was there with two friends in September 2012. Em wanted to climb this mountain again, and after reading that most poeple made it without any winter equipment, we gave it a shot. We only had a short weekend, and as we have never been on the tram, this was a good time to try it.
There was no time to do a camping reservation by mail, but I called the ranger station and they said we should have no problems, snow or no snow, it's not that crowded yet.
We got up moderately early, drove to Palm Spring and got on the tram at 9am. The drive up to the tram in itself is pretty cool, the road takes you into Chino Canyon, ending at the part where it gets really steep. Back in the day, I've been on countless trams around Europe, but this is by far one of the niftiest I've seen. It looks like a little spaceship, and the floor revolves a few times during the journey so everybody can enjoy the view in every direction. The trip itself is very impressive, the carriage climbs almost 6,000' in 2.5 miles and 10 minutes.
The upper landing - Mountain Station - sits on a crown of the rock and is a typical tourist trap with souvenir shops and the like, but it's pretty neat. The trail goes down into Long Valley, and this time of the year, there should have been feet and feet of snow, but there was hardly any. In the middle of the valley, there's the ranger station where a friendly ranger gave us a permit and a reservation for a spot at Round Valley. He confirmed that there are a few stretches with snow on the trail, and microspikes are advised, but we should be OK without them.
The 2-mile hike up to Round Valley in the forest is short and easy. Approaching from this side, the junction and the campground are on the far side of the Round Valley meadow at an elevation of 9100'. The spring you find there is the only reliable all-year water source on the whole mountain. A sign says to treat the water, but it's coming out of the ground right there, so I can't imagine how it could be contaminated. This time and before, we all drank it as it was, and nobody got sick. Of course, I'm not saying you should not treat it. Use your own discretion.
The campground is huge, with the 28 sites dispersed over what looks to me like 10 acres or more. The sites are arranged at a distance where none are in sight of another (as far as I saw). They are so far away, it's a very good idea to consult the map posted near the junction, on the side of the building (I think it's used to house emergency and survey equipment). Each site is only a yellow marker post and a flat space for a tent or two. There are no tables or anything else. Despite the fact that there's a strict no-fire policy in the park, I haven't seen one site without traces of small fires under the rocks. Idiots.
By noon, we had camp set up and ate lunch. There was no reason to hurry, we decided to try for the summit next morning. The snow would be less slushy and we'll be better acclimatized by then. After a nice nap in the tent and an afternoon snack, it was time for an evening hike. First, we took the High Trail and the Willow Creek Trail to Long Valley. There was some of snow on High Trail and the forest was very quiet and peaceful in the light of the setting sun. From Long Valley, we walked up the Desert View Trail to see the world below. By this time, it was getting dark, and the lights in the cities were coming on.
On the way back to camp, we took the same main trail as in the morning, but of course now it seemed very different in the darkness with headlamps. It wasn't a bad thing to be warmed up when we sat down for dinner as it was cooold. This mountain is always colder than it would seem.
While getting ready after breakfast, we talked to a couple who hiked up from tram yesterday almost at the same time as us, but then went up to the summit in the afternoon. Their trip report confirmed what we thoreized: the snow was very slushy, and it was hard going for them. They got back very late and were completely exhausted. The guy said this was his first ever backpacking trip, and despited the tough hike the day before, he was very happy and enjoyed it all.
We left most of our gear at the campsite, then took off for the summit. The trail climbs sharply for about a mile until reaching Wellman Divide. There was a little snow, but all rock hard and easy to navigate. Here you get a first idea of how far you'll see from the peak. Then the trail leaves the forest and continues on the side of the mountain within manzanita bushes, with views of Round Valley and Long Valley, including Mountain Station. In the saddle just below the peak, where one could continue down on the other side to Little Round Valley, we were amazed how little snow there was. We vividly remembered the huge snowbank obscuring the intersection in June 2011, and now it was March!
The way to summit had some snow, but still hard, we got up without any difficulty. The day before, people told us it was pretty windy and low visibility. Now, it was moderately clear and there was almost no wind. We spent some time lounging around, Em called her parents (phones sometimes work up there) and I sent a picture of a kumquat to a friend who us a few from her garden.
The hike down was quick and uneventful, with the snow still being far from slushy. We gathered our gear from the campsite and headed back to the tram. By around 3:30pm, we were by the car again.
Make sure you take a look at the full gallery for more pictures.
A pretty decent map of the area is in this PDF here, on page 6 of the borchure.