Riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway or driving the Palms to Pines Highway are two ways to view the astonishing change in vegetation that occurs with a change in elevation in the San Jacinto Mountains.
A third way to observe the startling contrast between desert and alpine environments is to hike up the back side of the San Jacinto Mountains to aptly named Desert Divide. The imposing granite divide, which reminds some mountaineers of the High Sierra, offers far-reaching views of the canyons in back of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.
Most visitors to the San Jacinto Mountains begin their explorations in Idyllwild or from the top of the tramway. Few hike--or even think about--Desert Divide. Too bad, because this land of pine forest, wide meadows and soaring granite peaks has much to offer.
The trail begins in Garner Valley, a long meadowland bordered by tall pine. Meandering across the valley floor is the South Fork of the San Jacinto River, whose waters are impounded at the lower end of the valley by Lake Hemet. Autumn brings a showy "river" of rust-colored buckwheat winding through the valley.
Spitler Peak Trail offers a moderate-to-strenuous route up to Desert Divide. You can enjoy the great views from the divide and call it a day right there, or join Pacific Crest Trail and continue to the top of Apache Peak or Antsell Rock.
Directions to trailhead: The hamlet of Mountain Center is about 20 miles up California 74 from Hemet and a few miles up California 243 from Idyllwild. From the intersection of California 243 (Banning-Idyllwild Highway) and California 74 in Mountain Center, proceed southeast on the latter highway. After three miles, turn left at the signed junction for Hurkey Creek County Park. Instead of turning into the park, you'll continue 1 3/4 miles on Apple Canyon Road to signed Spitler Peak Trail on the right. Park in the turnout just south of the trailhead.
The Hike: Spitler Peak Trail begins among oak woodland and chaparral. The mellow, well-graded path contours quite some distance to the east before beginning a more earnest northerly ascent. Enjoy over-the-shoulder views of Lake Hemet and Garner Valley. Actually, geologists say, Garner Valley is not a valley at all but a graben, a long narrow area that subsided between two bordering faults.
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The trail climbs steadily into juniper-Jeffrey pine-Coulter pine forest. Most of the time your path is under conifers or an occasional oak. There always seems to be quite a number of deadfalls to climb over, climb under or walk around along this stretch of trail.
About a mile from the divide, the going gets steeper. Finally you reach the windblown divide just northwest of Spitler Peak and intersect the signed Pacific Crest Trail. Enjoy the vistas of forest and desert. Picnic atop one of the divide's many rock outcroppings.
Pacific Crest Trail, sometimes known as Desert Divide Trail in these parts, offers the energetic a range of options. It heads north and soon passes through a section of ghost forest--the charred result of the 1980 Palm Canyon Fire that roared up these slopes from Palm Springs. After a half-mile you'll pass a side trail that descends steeply another half-mile to Apache Springs. Another half-mile along the trail brings you to a side trail leading up to bare 7,567-foot Apache Peak.
Another mile brings you to a point just below 7,720-foot Antsell Rock. Unless you're a very good rock climber, stay off the unstable slopes and resist the urge to ascend to the very top of the rock.
Spitler Peak Trail
Apple Canyon to Desert Divide 10 miles round trip; 2,000-foot elevation gain . Apple Canyon to Apache Peak 12 miles round trip; 2,600-foot elevation gain . Apple Canyon to Antsell Rock 14 miles round trip; 2,600-foot elevation gain .