San Gorgonio Mountain. Old Grayback. At 11,503 feet it’s the highest mountain in Southern California. Getting to the top is no easy feat. It’s a strenuous hike, and you’ll work hard no matter which route you choose. It’s a popular destination as part of a training regimen for Mt. Whitney or the John Muir Trail. For others, summiting San Gorgonio is a goal in itself.
Getting to the trailhead is part of the adventure. Heading east on Highway 38 (the “back” way to Big Bear), drive one mile past Heart Bar Park Road, and turn right onto a spur road signed for Heart Bar Campground and Fish Creek.
What begins as a paved road quickly changes to a gravely dirt road. NOTE: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended. I drove this in my 2WD Xterra and the ride was bumpy but fine. A sedan might be a different story.
You’ll follow this road for about 7.5 miles. Watch for the signs toward Fish Creek on your right. The parking area is small, but since you started early, you’ll have no problem finding a space. As part of the San Bernardino National Forest, you will need to display your Adventure Pass.
The trail itself starts out gently. Just before the one mile mark, you cross Fish Creek and you begin to experience more elevation gain. At your right will be Fish Creek Meadow. At about Mile 2 you’ll cross another seasonal creek and begin climbing up the steep southeast slope of Grinnell Mountain.
At 4.5 miles, you reach the Fish Creek Saddle. There are campsites here, and a wiser person might actually backpack to this point. Then day hike to the summit, splitting this trip into something more manageable. Maybe next time.
In any case, Fish Creek Saddle is a good spot to gather, rest and check your map and your bearings.
Continuing southwest on Fish Creek Trail, you get a little break from the climbing as you traverse the northwest face of Lake Peak. To your right you’ll have views of Dry Lake. You’ll pass the North Fork Trail and reach a three-way junction. The Fish Creek Trail ends, the Dry Lake Trail goes to your right, and the Sky High Trail goes to your left and up to San Gorgonio (which you are now on the northern slope of).
You’ll notice that the foot traffic picks up here, as you’ll get hikers from Dry Lake coming up this route. Plus people tend to start slowing down due to the altitude.
As you hike along the Sky High Trail, keep your eyes open for signs of the airplane wreckage. There are numerous planes that have crashed into San Gorgonio, but the trail goes right by one of them, and there is a memorial plaque marking the spot. In 1953, a military C-47 crashed into the side of the mountain during a snowstorm. All 13 men aboard perished.
The day I hiked this trail, I felt awesome. I was cruising up the trail, breezing past other hikers. Even up the series of steep switchbacks at mile 6.5 unfazed me. And then — at about mile 8 — it hit me. I had to stop and catch my breath. My pace slowed considerably. The summit was so close, but I had to take it slow and easy. The altitude told me, and I had no choice but to obey.
I made it to the summit, downed my lunch, took some photos, and started back down. The route back was easy, but as is often the case on long hikes, my feet started feeling sore. The last two miles seemed much longer than I remembered. Be sure to take care on the route back that you note any trail junctions, check your map or GPS and make sure you’re headed in the right direction. On a hike this long, you don’t want to take any wrong turns.
One brilliant modification I would recommend is breaking this up into a two or three day trip. You can backpack to Fish Creek Saddle, setup camp, then hike up to the summit (or explore other areas) from your base. The only hitch is that there are no reliable water sources up at the saddle, so plan to bring your own.
Another great modification would be to snow shoe in the winter, though this will require map and compass skills for navigation (depending on snow levels).
San Gorgonio Mountain via Fish Creek Trail Map
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Tips for Hiking San Gorgonio Mountain
- You’ll need a permit. You need to allow at least five days for processing. Plan ahead so you’re not disappointed.
- You’ll need an Adventure Pass for parking at the trailhead.
- Bring plenty of water. I’d suggest at least 4 liters per person per day. Don’t underestimate the water and electrolytes you’ll need.
- Wear sunscreen and bring a hat. Much of the higher elevations are exposed to the sun.
- 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.
More San Gorgonio Resources
- GPS user? Download the GPX file (right-click and “save as”)
- View the trail in Google Earth
- Get driving directions to the trailhead. Click the blue pin and “directions” for turn-by-turn driving directions to the trailhead. A National Forest Adventure Pass is required for parking.
- Download a printable topo map of the trail.
- And check out our guide to San Gorgonio via the Vivian Creek trail.