The Nine-Peak Challenge is a really intense route that took two SoCal hikers up nine (yes, NINE) peaks including San Gorgonio — the highest in Southern California — in one really long day hike. Thanks to Jen and Dave for sharing their photos and this epic trip report.
We hit the trail at 5:50 AM and started climbing immediately. The sun was rising over the mountains , so we were treated to stunning views, and a shady, cool trail.
The ground was mostly soft dirt, with flat open stretches interspersed between steeper climbs. We snapped a quick photo of Washington’s Monument and reached our first peak — the summit of San Bernardino Peak — in 3.5 hours, holding a steady, fast pace the entire way up.
From the summit, we had a 360 degree view for miles in every direction, with barely a cloud in the sky. San Gorgonio was only a distant ridge, mostly indistinguishable to our untrained eyes. I was able to point out San Jacinto, Mount Baldy, and Santiago Peak in the distance. We signed the register and headed to the next peak:
The trip from San Bernardino Peak to East San Bernardino Peak was a gradual sloping walk along a ridgeline trail all without losing too much elevation – maybe 200 feet or so over the course of about a mile, with a slightly steeper climb to the summit.
We were treated to similar views, including San Bernardino Peak where we had just been. We stopped for a snack before continuing due east toward Anderson. We crossed the Moymer Creek Trail junction and the Foresee Creek junction, and soon after encountered our first challenge – there was no trail on my topo map application, and no evidence of any cairns pointing the way. Instead there was a steeply pitched hill, with a soft floor of pine needles shaded by big pine trees. So… we just went up until we’d reached the top, or at least what we think was the top (we didn’t notice any USGS marker or register at the summit).
We sloped back down through the pine forest until we reconnected with the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail and continued east toward Shields.
After crossing the second intersection of the Foresee Creek trail at Anderson Flats, we could clearly see Shields Peak in front of us. It was a pile of large boulders ~100’ higher than the trail. We opted to approach the summit straight on, which would be steepest but shortest. I had a blast hopping from boulder to boulder, doing mostly Class 2 scrambling.
Shields Peak was breezy and starting to get a little cloudy, a nice reprise from the heat of the day. We headed down one slow step-hop at a time, angling northeast to save ourselves a few feet back on the trail.
The fifth peak, Alto Diablo, would have gone unnoticed if I hadn’t put the waypoint in my phone app ahead of time, as it was unnamed on the map. Being so close to the trail, it was such a quick win to summit after the last two ascents that it almost felt like cheating!
From Alto Diablo, we turned south for about 1.5 miles, passing through the Dollar Lake saddle – back down to 10,000 feet and “only” about 14 miles from where we’d started, after ~7.5 hours of hiking without stopping for a snack. I began to realize I had mentally prepared for the ascent up San Bernardino Peak, and for the long descent down San Gorgonio, but I had underestimated the distance from SB to SG, and the challenge of the 7 peaks in the middle. This was not going to be a 10-hour hike, or even a 12-hour hike.
We wrapped east around Charlton looking for a path up through the brush, which meant hiking past it a bit almost to the saddle with Little Charlton. From the summit, we could see our final peak in the distance, clearly for the first time. We celebrated summit number six with a “packs off” break, and enjoyed apples.
From the summit of Charlton, with map in hand, it was pretty easy to see the path to Little Charlton, peak number seven. We enjoyed apples along the way – which were extra juicy and delicious as we’d been rationing our water.
Three liters of water each turned out to be enough, but just barely given the heat and the duration of the hike. We continued nearly due south to reconnect to the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail, instead of backtracking to the saddle to catch it where we’d headed up Charlton.
Jepson was another challenging ascent, because the only clear break in the brush to get up was about ¾ of a mile past the summit. The path would have been easy to see if we’d done the peaks in reverse, starting with San Gorgonio, but at this point in the day, after walking around this mountain with Gorgonio easily in sight, the thought of backtracking even 0.10 miles was disheartening. We took a moment to mentally regroup.
I was ready to simply call our adventure an “8-peak challenge”, but Dave (while he was fully ready to support my decision either way) said “well… we’ve come this far…”. I agreed, and up we went, dropping our packs along the way to gain some speed. The register was especially rewarding to sign after almost skipping it! As an added benefit, I realized that we would only lose about 150’ of elevation, which was cause for added celebration as we headed back across the ridge.
After summiting eight other mountains, San Gorgonio seemed almost easy! It was ~1.5 miles away, with only ~450’ gain from the saddle with Jepson. Pretty much a walk in the park! We passed the Vivian Creek trail intersection and again dropped our packs, grabbing just a bottle of water in the final summit push. I was giddy to see snow (what tiny patches there were left), and a full 7 hours after we had been standing on San Bernardino Peak (10.5 hours after we’d started at daybreak), we thoroughly took in the 360 degree views from the highest point in southern California, noting each peak we’d climbed in the distance.
The way back down Vivian Creek Trail was as easy to follow as it was long – about 10 miles and 5500’ left to descend. We were quickly losing light, and while we both were prepared with headlamps, we jogged a little along the not-too-rocky portions to gain as much distance as quickly as we could, since we knew the steepest switchbacks were near the trailhead. Vivian Creek, at the High Creek campground, still had water flowing, but we opted to just keep going rather than to stop and replenish our dwindling supply.
We made it back down in about 4 hours, reaching the car at 8:20pm just as the last essence of daylight was fading – we had hiked from sun up to sundown.
Final figures? 14.5 hours total, over ~27 miles, gaining ~8300’ across 9 peaks. What a great day!
But the challenge wasn’t quite done! Driving back to Angelus Oaks in total darkness proved to be more difficult than we had expected, and it took us about 20 minutes to find the trailhead parking lot among a sea of bumpy dirt roads that seemed a LOT longer than they were in the morning.
Nine Peak Challenge Trail Map
Click on any photo to view a larger version. You can also leave comments on any photo.
Nine Peak Challenge Tips
A big portion of this route in the middle is currently closed due to the Lake Fire, so consider these tips for once it reopens (hopefully October 1, 2015).
- Take plenty of water. There is sometimes water available from the Columbine Spring (short detour en route to San Berardino) and sometimes at High Creek or Vivian Creek on your way down from San Gorgonio, but must of this trail is pretty dry. Don’t rely on refilling.
- Carry the Ten Essentials, and know how to use them. That includes a map, compass and the knowledge to navigate out of there.
- Have a bail-out plan. This is a long hike. Set a “turn-back” goal. If you don’t reach that point by the specified time, you turn back to where you started and try this again another time–good advice for any long hike.
More Nine Peak Challenge Resources
- GPS user? Download the GPX file
- View the trail in Google Earth
- Being a shuttle hike, you’ll need to drive two cars, leaving one at each trailhead. Here’s the Vivian Creek trailhead on Google Maps, where we exited, and here is the Angeles Oaks 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
- Map of current trail closures in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (PDF)
Nine Peak Challenge Weather Forecast
Note that the conditions at the summit can be considerably colder!
Thanks to Dave and Jen for taking on this crazy challenge — and completing it successfully!