One of the best-kept secrets of Southern California is San Bernardino Mountain. Just five miles away from the highest peak in SoCal — San Gorgonio — San Bernardino tops out at a respectable 10,649 feet. Hiking from Angelus Oaks, this 16-mile out-and-back trail climbs over 4,600 vertical feet. It makes for a very long day hike or a great weekend backpacking trip.
Time: ~9 hours
Elevation gain: 4,702 ft
When to go: June-October
The first challenge with this hike is finding the trailhead. I was able to find it on Google Maps, but the directions Google gave me neglected to point out that many of the streets in Angelus Oaks are missing street signs. Not helpful. The key is to look for the fire station (it’s on Manzanita). Turn torwards the station, then an immediate left on the frontage road. That’s where you’ll see what might be the most detailed road sign I’ve ever seen.
You’ll drive about 1/4 mile along a bumpy dirt road. You can take a passenger car up there driving slowly, though I was glad to be driving my Xterra.
The trailhead parking requires an Adventure Pass. There is a message board and the ranger regularly posts updates (“rattlesnake seen on the trail” or “be sure to carry your permit”). Check the board for any special notices before heading up the only trailhead which begins just to the left.
Permits are required to hike this trail, even as a day hike, and group size is limited to a maximum of 12. Permits are free, and can be obtained from the San Bernardino National Forest Mill Creek Ranger Station in Mentone, 34701 Mill Creek Road or you can fax the permit request form to (909) 794-1125.
There are three distinct sections to this trail. The first section climbs steadily up well-engineered switchbacks through oak and pine forest. You gain a lot of elevation quickly, but the trail is smooth and not too steep. I was impressed with the great views out toward the Inland Empire and north towards the snow-capped Mt. San Antonio (last week’s peak).
Eventually you emerge at Manzanita Flats — the main junction along this trail. Note: read the trail signs, and head toward Limber Pines.
The second section gently climbs through manzanita, with beautiful views to the north towards Big Bear.
The trail beings to climb up the final slope as you near Limber Pines. There is a small seasonal creek that you’ll cross about 1/2 mile before Limber Pines. I wouldn’t count on using from mid-summer on, but with this year’s bumper crop of snow, it was flowing pretty well in mid-June.
Limber Pines is where the weekend backpackers often setup camp, and it makes a great place for a break before your final climb. The third and final section follows switchbacks up the steep slope to Washington’s Monument, then parallels the ridge to the top of San Bernardino Peak.
This is last section of the trail, you may really begin to feel the altitude, and depending on the time of year, you may find large patches of snow covering entire sections of the trail. Fortunately the warm weather has been melting what snow remains pretty quickly, and we were able to get by without crampons or ice axes. Well, most of us anyway. More on that later…
Washington’s Monument is the tongue-in-cheek name for a what is really little more than a pile of rocks with a pole stuck in the middle. In 1852, Colonel Henry Washington and his Army survey party were directed to erect a monument atop San Bernardino Peak. The monument was the east-west reference point from which all future surveys of Southern California were taken.
From Washington’s Monument, the trail follows the ridge for another 3/4 mile to the summit, where you can take in the 360 degree views.
So the observant ones out there may have noticed that sometime after Limber Pines, my photos ceased to be, and were replaced by Emily and Tyler’s photos. You might reason that my camera battery died (and it was low). But sadly, that is not the reason.
The real reason is… I didn’t summit. I got about 10 minutes away from Washington’s Monument, and decided to stop. It wasn’t altitude sickness (I did Baldy the week before). No, my friends, I succumbed to run-of-the-mill dehydration. Consider it a lesson in what not to do. I considered it a great lesson in handling the unexpected and being flexible.
I did almost everything that I tell my hikers not to do. I didn’t get adequate sleep (4.5 hours). I went to bed thirsty. I woke up, had a light breakfast (good) but didn’t hydrate! (Very bad.) I brought along 3 liters of water and by the time I reached Limber Pines Bench I had downed about 1-3/4 liters (including 16 oz of electrolytes). But the damage was done. When I started the hike I was already dehyrdrated. Had I not hiked, I probably would’ve been fine, maybe suffering a little headache and then recovering quickly. A strenuous hike coupled with altitude did me in.
Once I realized that what I had done, I had sense enough to do the right thing. I stopped. My stubborn determination could’ve driven me onward, but I stopped, rested, and rehydrated. I headed back to the car. I rested some more. Hydrated more. By the time we were back at the car, I was back to my normal self. Only wiser. So let this be a lesson to you, as it was to me.
Trail Map and Elevation Profile
Note that this is a partial map. The full distance and vertical gain is noted at the top of this guide. And the trail from my turnaround point is easy to follow. I’m heading back in September to hike this trail again, and I’ll update the map with complete data. You’ll also notice the starting elevation on the elevation profile is (thankfully) incorrect. You start at about 5,800′ — not sea level. If anyone knows an easy way to edit a GPX file to fix some of the anomalies, let me know.
Click any thumbnail image to see the larger version.
Additional San Bernardino Peak Resources
- GPS user? Download the GPX file
- View trail in Google Earth
- Angelus Oaks trailhead parking on Google Maps
- Current weather conditions
- San Bernardino National Forest Permit Information
Special thanks to my friends from Hiking OC: Lily, Jim, John, Ivana, Emily, Kristin, Dave, Tyler, Kelly and Joan for joining me on this epic hike.