San Gorgonio is the tallest mountain in Southern California, and a right of passage for serious hikers in the area. At 11,503′, “Old Grayback” provides an excellent high altitude training for those preparing to summit Mt. Whitney, and an easy drive from most of LA and Orange counties.
Time: ~10 hours
Elevation gain: 5,840 ft
When to go: June-October
The Vivian Creek trail is really divided into five, distinct sections.
The first 1/2 mile is a gentle warm-up through the wooded Mill Creek Canyon.
July 2010 Trail Note – This first section of the trail has been temporarily rerouted along the gravelly Mill Creek. Apparently there are a number of fallen trees across the official trail, and until they get cleaned up, you’ll need to scramble along the creek bed. Just watch for the yellow ribbons tied to mark the detour.
The next section is a steep mile of switchbacks that climbs 1,000 vertical feet. A lot of people talk about this section with dread, but I found it very pleasant. Could be the payoff from all the other hiking I’ve done lately, but it’s forested trail with views over Mill Creek Canyon and to the west toward Mt. San Antonio.
SoCal Hiker Tip! Listen for the waterfall from Vivian Creek. There is a nice overlook about 10 yards off trail that gives you a good view of the falls.
The third section of the trail is parallels the beautiful Vivian Creek. This is an easy section and was really a highlight of the trail, with the sounds of the babbling creek, impressive pines and lush greenery. There is a popular campsite, though many of the sites are very close to the trail. Be wary of mosquitos! You might meet a few along this section.
The fourth section gets steeper, climbing past High Creek and up a number of switchbacks to the tree line. You may begin to feel the effects of the altitude as you approach 10,000 feet. The view opens up and you gain stunning vistas of Mt. San Jacinto and the Inland Empire.
The final section of the trail is a long, diagonal traverse near the ridge that leads to San Gorgonio. You climb steadily, with sparse vegetation and full exposure to the sun. It is dry and it can get quite hot, but it’s a well-engineered trail that climbs steadily and not-too-steeply to the summit.
As you reach the summit ridge, you’ll pass to junctions en route to the peak. The first is a spur that leads west toward Dollar Lake. Bear right and head eastward. Another 1/4 mile along the trail you’ll reach a junction with the Sky High Trail joining from the south. Continue straight for another .3 miles to the summit.
The top is a broad expanse of gravel and rocks that is a little anti-climactic. It feels more like a big mound than a peak. But it’s the highest point in Southern California, as the 360 degree views confirm.
The return route on this out-and-back trip is back down the nearly 8.5 mile trail. Fair warning, it will feel longer. Take your time and enjoy it. The views you enjoyed on your morning climb take on a whole new look in the afternoon light.
San Gorgonio Wilderness Trail Tips
Let me tell you the story about the Sixty Dollar Beer… But first, a few tips for making this an enjoyable hike.
- Apply for your permit early. This is the second most popular trailhead in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and permit quotas often fill up in advance. The permits are free, and the entire process can be handled via fax.
- Start hiking early. The trailhead parking officially opens at 6am. We got there about 5:35 and there were only a few spots left in the upper lot. It’s a long day, and by starting early you’ll avoid the worst of the heat.
- Be prepared. Yeah, it’s the old Boy Scout motto, but on an all-day mega hike like this, preparation really counts. Carry the 10 essentials. It’s a long trail. Don’t underestimate the water and electrolytes you’ll need.
Now about that $60 beer… After a long, tough hike there’s nothing better than a cold beverage. A study from Granada University in Spain even proved that beer hydrates better than water. But if your hike ends at the Vivian Creek trailhead parking lot, be sure that cold beverage is not an alcoholic one. The trailhead parking forbids the possession of alcoholic beverages. Somehow I missed that sign in the morning darkness (in my defense, we got there at 5:30 AM). I was happily sipping a cold beer when the forest rangers drove by. No warning — just a $60 fine and a lesson learned.
But the best part was the way my fellow hiker John R. described what they did with the five unopened cans.
“The Forest Service helped us celebrate the ending of the 6-Pack of Peaks series by ceremoniously watering the forest with our 6-pack of beer, symbolizing the connection between the hikers and the trees of the forest.”
Right on, John.
Trail Map and Elevation Profile
San Gorgonio Photo Gallery
Click any image to view a larger version. You can leave comments on individual photos, too!
Additional San Gorgonio Resources
- GPS user? Download the GPX file
- View the trail in Google Earth
- Trailhead on Google Maps. Click the blue pin and “directions” for turn-by-turn driving directions to the trailhead. A National Forest Adventure Pass is required for parking.
- Permits are required, even for day hikes, and group size is limited to a maximum of 12. They checked us near the summit, so they mean business.
- San Gorgonio Wilderness Association
Weather Forecast for San Gorgonio
Note that the conditions at the top can be considerably colder!
Special thanks to my Hiking OC friends Jim, Tari, John, Emily, Barry and of course Joan for joining me on this hike!