Mt San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino Mountains is more than the highest peak in Southern California at 3506 m (11,503 ft)…it is also also the 18th most prominent mountain in the United States. The peak is visible from great distances and nicknamed “Old Greyback.” It has the strange distinction of claiming the lives of Frank Sinatra’s mother and the son of Dean Martin in separate plane crashes.
While there is camping along the trail at the campsites listed below, we chose to climb Mt San Gorgonio in a single day. Even though we chose the shortest path to the summit, it made for a very long hike of 29 km (18 miles) round trip.
We started off at 7am on an unusually cold but sunny day for the end of May. The trail started as a gravel road that continued from the parking lot along the bank of an enormous and rocky wash. After turning at the second “Trail” sign (there are actually two…don’t take the first one). We made our way across to the forest on the other side and the start of what we called, “The Big Wall.”
Don’t be too alarmed by the first section of the trail. It is the steepest and climbs an enormous wall on the north side of the wash. It has a southwest exposure and as such, has the chaparral and loose rock typical of this exposure in Southern California. Once at the top, the trail levels out and begins to follow Vivian Creek in a cool, shaded valley.The difference from the first section is so stark that it makes the Vivian Creek watershed seem even more lush.
To High Creek
After following Vivian Creek for a couple of kilometers, the trail leaves the stream and begins to climb over a ridge to the next watershed, High Creek. There are now enormous pine trees and rock formations that are reminiscent of hiking in Yosemite or Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevadas. Adding to our enjoyment, the temperatures rose during the day but we also increased our elevation at a rate that kept the temperatures consistently cool and pleasant.
High Creek is a beautiful camp site and the final place to find water before the summit. It is our recommendation that anyone leaving this spot for the top should have a minimum of three liters of water. We were in good shape so we continued upward and began the climb to the ridge that accesses the summit.
Some of the first great views of the day start at the beginning of this ridge. The trees approaching the ridge began to thin until the ridge itself, where the vegetation became low and eventually disappeared entirely as we crossed above the treeline. The ridge was one of the steeper sections of the climb, but with the summit approaching, our energy made it easier to summon the strength. The air was noticeably thinner at this point as well. At the top of the ridge, we made the right turn toward the summit, clearly visible in the distance.
The summit is one of the best views from any mountain top. It is a 360 degree panorama of Southern California that’s hard to find anywhere else.
We were fortunate to be among the first to arrive for the day and had the summit mostly to ourselves for the first few minutes. That changed as large groups arrived behind us, but the view more than made up for the relative crowds.
Any hike of this length needs a warning that the summit is only ‘halfway there.’ Mt San Gorgonio by Vivian Creek is a very long day, and while every hiker is energized by standing on the top, the very long walk down is the most dangerous and difficult part of the day. We were exhausted and sore by the time we reached the bottom of the The Wall as it entered the rocky wash.
This is an excellent hike, but shouldn’t be done in one day unless you have experience hiking such distances and elevations.
Keep in mind this is the second most popular trail for reaching the summit of Mt San Gorgonio. It can be busy with day hikers, overnight backpackers, and even casual hikers walking up from the picnic area. Camping on the trail can be accomplished in the following areas:
- Vivian Creek at 2 km (1.2 miles ) and 2164 m (7100 ft). This is a very wooded camp.
- Halfway Camp at 5 km (3 miles) and 2469 m (8100 ft). This is also a wooded campsite.
- High Creek at 8.5 km (5.3 miles) and 2804 m (9200 ft) and last water. High Creek is in tall pines but less wooded than the lower campsites.
Click here to download the GPX file from our hike (right click and choose ‘save as’):
For the latest in trail conditions, including water availability, check with the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association.
Passes and getting to the trailhead
Before you start, you’ll need to either plan ahead for a day or overnight permit (permits are required for day hiking or overnight camping). Passes can be faxed back to you, mailed (if you have 3-7 days for deliver) or can be picked up in the office or in a small box by the door when the Mill Creek Work Site isn’t open. Their phone number is 909-382-2882 and their official site is found here.
Mt San Gorgonio’s Vivian Creek is one of the easier trailheads to reach. From the Mill Creek Work Site, continue to follow Highway 38 to Forest Falls Road. Turn right and follow Forest Falls until it ends at a picnic area (which is obviously a former campground). The trail starts immediately off the end of the parking lot and initially follows the left bank of the rocky stream bed that you’ve been following since turning on Forest Falls.