elevation profile of San Gorgonio Mountain
* this distance on my GPS differs slightly from the distance on topo maps, which gave 24.8 miles. Trust the maps.

google earth profile of san gorgonio mountain

The fact that San Gorgonio Mountain is the tallest peak in Southern California (11,502 feet) is reason enough to hike it – the breathtaking 360 degree vistas and stunning alpine scenery along the way are icing on the cake. This trip follows the South Fork Trail, approaching the peak from the north. It is longer than other approaches, but has a relatively gradual elevation gain. This trail also passes through Dry Lake, which is a great place to camp if you want to make this into a 2-day backpack (highly recommended).

*** Additional Red Tape *** This hike is almost completely within the boundaries of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and a Wilderness Permit is required. Wilderness Permits are free, and can be obtained at the Mill Creek Ranger Station on the way in. Day Hike and Overnight Permits can be found here, and should be faxed in no later than 72 hours before your trip (the office is closed holidays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays). Some trails and camps do reach their quotas, especially in the summer, so plan ahead. The Mill Creek Ranger Station accepts permit requests up to 90 days before the trip.

If you are camping (or just planning to filter creek water), it is also wise to check the snow and water levels and bear activities along the various trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association maintains a well-updated web site for all of this information.

San Gorgonio Mountain was the site of my first backpacking experience. That trip, ascending on the Fish Creek Trail, was ill-fated for many reasons – mostly due to our lack of general preparedness and a bout of altitude sickness. We didn’t get to summit then, so I was determined to correct that on this try.

On this trip, I was accompanied by Kolby from 100 Hikes and the very entertaining new hiking-blogging team behind What Would Ed Do, and after getting all of our gear into the car, driving up, and hanging out at Jenks Lake for a bit to get used to the higher elevation, we hoisted our packs on at the South Fork Station and started the journey.

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The first 1.5 miles of the trail ascend about 600 feet, bending around a few canyons and seemingly backtracking on itself. This section of the trail, like almost the entire route, is very well shaded, even though the bigger trees are a bit further along.

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In 1.5 miles, the trail reaches historic Horse Meadows, the site of a former equestrian camp. It’s a nice place to set for your first break, especially if you’re still getting used to carrying 30 pounds on your back.

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Continue southeast on the South Fork Trail, ignoring a fire road heading west AND a trail heading east, entering the San Gorgonio Wilderness proper. Be sure you have your Wilderness Permit on you – because rangers do patrol this trail, and they will ask to see it. I think we got asked a total of four times over our trip.

Here, the trail takes a rare shadeless stretch through some low brush and manzanita, as it skirts the southwest slope of the colorfully named Poopout Hill.

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At 2.5 miles, you can take a short spur trail to the peak of Poopout Hill (el. 7741), but odds are, you’ll probably skip it and just continue on the South Fork Trail. I made a mental note to try to stop here on the way back out, but never got around to it. We did, however, stop for a group photo at the wilderness boundary sign (which, according to maps, differs from the actual wilderness boundary):

Me, Shawnte, and Kolby at the boundary.  No turning back!

Me, Shawnte, and Kolby at the boundary. No turning back!

The next 1.8 mile stretch of trail is very shaded and relatively level – so enjoy it. To your east, you will be able to see a small stream, shaded by tall trees and surrounded by grasses. This is the South Fork of the Santa Ana River, which eventually ends up in the Pacific Ocean near Huntington Beach. There is an old trail that leaves the South Fork Trail here, and appears to run right alongside the stream. Ignore this route, and stay on the clearer trail.

At the end of this stretch, the South Fork Trail meets with the Grinnell Ridge Trail – a 5.2 mile trail ascent from the South Fork Camp. Stay straight at the junction and continue south for another 0.3 miles … here, the trail starts gaining in elevation, and you’ll start to notice it again. You’re at 8000 feet right now, and over the next 2.1 miles, you’ll rise to 9070.

Here, The South Fork Trail ends and splits into the Dollar Lake and Dry Lake Trails. Stay to the left at the junction to head on the Dry Lake Trail, which hops across the South Fork of the Santa Ana a few times and heads into some seriously picturesque alpine territory. Now might also be a good time to check your water reserves to see if you need to do a quick refill.

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For the next 1.8 miles, the Dry Lake Trail makes five short-moderate switchbacks up the far western slope of Grinnell Mountain, slowly taking you away from the water and closer toward the treeline and those tantalizing (and approaching) peaks.

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Eventually, the trail levels out a bit, and you’ll come upon the wide-open expanse of Dry Lake, which – depending on what time of year you’re hiking – will either be a shallow alpine lake or a wide alpine meadow. The surrounding north slope of San Gorgonio to the south and Charlton Peak to the west make a great bowl formation, with you in the middle.

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A short trip to the east along the banks of Dry Lake will bring you to Dry Lake Wilderness Camp, which is an excellent, shaded place to set up camp. If it’s too crowded or you like to be closer to water, you can continue 0.4 miles further southeast to Lodgepole Camp, which is near the mostly-always-flowing Lodgepole Spring.

We set up camp at Dry Lake, cooked dinner, and mentally prepared to summit the next morning. Kolby had some mild altitude sickness on the way up, but seemed to be in pretty good shape after a bit of rest, and the remainder of the party were in good health and spirits – despite setting our alarms for 5AM.

The next morning, after spending a lot of time filtering some water for the ascent, we crossed Dry Lake toward the southwest and picked up the trail again.

The trail from Dry Lake begins climbing up a creek bed that’s mostly loose rocks and scree, but does start to provide you some of your best views of the east slopes of Charlton and Jepson Peaks.

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Here, Shawnte stands on the loose-rock trail, with one of the north slopes of San Gorgonio behind her … it’s still a long, long way to go:

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In 1.3 miles, you’ll pass by Trail Flat Camp, another wilderness camp that’s basically a group of small clearings among the rocks and trees. From here, the trail continues another 0.7 miles, switchbacking once and carrying you across a long ridge with some decent views of Dry Lake beneath you. After the 0.7 miles, you’ll find yourself at a trail junction at Mine Shaft Saddle, elevation 9850 feet.

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There are a few strewn logs at this saddle, and that combined with the steady breeze makes this a pretty good place to kick off your shoes and take a breather if you need it. The toughest part of the trail is just ahead of you, so get yourself prepared.

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Keep right at the junction and start on the 3.2 mile Sky High Trail, which climbs 1430 feet on mostly shadeless, relentless switchbacks – 11 in all. Even though the switchbacking portion of the trail is tedious and long, there’s enough spellbinding scenery to keep you mostly distracted. You’ll have great views of the Ten Thousand Foot Ridge to the west, and even some of Joshua Tree’s Little San Bernardinos a bit further.

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Just before the actual switchbacks kick into gear, you’ll also pass the wreckage of a military C-47 that crashed in the winter of 1953, killing all 13 on board. Someone was kind enough to come and place a plaque in memorial of the victims, but the wreckage remains a strange and fascinating side trip on the trail.

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When you’re done paying your respects, continue toward the switchbacks. Be forewarned that there are a few “iffy” spots on this section of the trail – nothing that should prevent you from hiking it, but if you get vertigo or are a bit afraid of heights, they may give you some pause.

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Once you’re done with the switchbacks, the trail loops west, just below the actual summit of San Gorgonio. Here, you’ll get a great appreciation for the jagged front country of the San Bernardinos, which is remarkably more rugged than our San Gabriels:

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This is The Tarn – a barren valley between two folds of the mountain. It’s a lake in the winter and early spring, and it looks like a desert all other times. Behind it is Mount San Jacinto, just across the 10.

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By the time you’ve finished this stretch of the Sky High Trail, you will have left behind the hardy limber pines and ascended past the tree line completely. Only a few small bushes, mosses and lichens can survive up here. The Sky High Trail meets up with the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail at 11360 feet, and from here it’s only 0.4 miles to the summit of San Gorgonio.

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At this point in the trail, Shawnte and I were both in pretty bad shape. She was just about out of water, and I was down to my last half-liter. We were both probably suffering from some mild exposure from being in the direct sunlight for so long, and dealing with the altitude making us both a bit more lethargic than we were used to being … the last 0.4 miles to the summit was more of a slow shuffle than a hike, I’d say, but we still made it.

The views, as one would expect, are unbelievable. We could make out Big Bear Lake to the north, the peaks in Joshua Tree to the east, San Jacinto to the South, and could even see Mount Baldy and the smoke from the Station Fire to the west:

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Usually when I get to the summit of a big hike like this, I just want to lie down and relax for a while … but there was something about being this high up, in this much sun, and knowing that we still had to pack up camp and backpack to the trailhead that made me not want to spend a lot of time up here. My body was just telling me that it was probably in its best interest to get back down to a sensible elevation, so I listened.

We signed the register, took some photos, and hightailed it out of there as fast as our exhausted, dehydrated bodies would let us. When we got to the trailhead, the rest of the group was waiting with ice-cold gatorades – and I really couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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Casey Schreiner

Founder and Editor at Modern Hiker
In addition to writing about the outdoors since 2006, Casey has also been producing and writing television since 2003.He was the Head Writer on G4's "Attack of the Show," co-writer and host of "The MMO Report," and the Series Producer / Head Writer of pivot's "TakePart Live."His work has received several honors, including Webby, Telly, and CableFAX awards.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on September 22, 2009

42 Comments

  • Isabella Janovick says:

    I’m confused. The San G websites are saying it is only 19 miles and can be done in 8 hours. Is this not the South Fork trail but a different trail instead? We are looking to summit in one day, so which is the fastest/easiest trail? Already got our permits so we are ready to go! Thanks!

  • rob says:

    i’m thinking of doing a 2-day hike to summit san gorgonio. is it pretty safe to leave our tent at dry lake?

  • Brian says:

    I took Vivian Creek to San Gorgonio peak in july 2012. It took me and my hiking buddy 14 hours to do as an in and out hike. We crossed the creek where the car was parked at 8PM as the sky went dark. it’s about 18 miles and 5,600′ of gain.

    Tip: Don’t stop too long to take pictures or talk with other on the trail going up. Pick a turn around time so you are not on the trail in the dark.

    Great hike!

  • Alex says:

    My friend and me hiked San Gorgonio Mt from South Fork Trail yesterday as 1 day hike. We did a loop through Dollar Lake and returned through Dry lake (as your description). The east side of San Gorgonio is covered with snow and it’s a difficult hike even without backpacks. We started at 7AM and returned back to the car at 11PM.

  • nathon says:

    thanks a lot man, great review, this is gunna help guide me and my friends 4sher!!! thanks!!!

  • Alina Mardesich says:

    Did the hike this past weekend starting at New South Fork Trail to Dollar Lake (Day 1) where we camped, and covering 4 peaks (Charleton, Little Charleton, Jepson and San Gorgonio) on Day 2. Returned back to trail head Day 3. Took a mountaineers route from Dollar Lake (straight shot to Chartleton) which covered 1600 feet of gain in about a half mile (Class 3). Somewhat precarious but very exciting. No ropes, just a helmet which got christened with a few falling rocks. It seems like it took about 4 hours to cover the first mile. I am collecting more accurate stats and photos that I will endeavor to share here, soon. Happy trails :)

  • kushibo says:

    Let me ask a totally naïve question here: For someone who has done Mt Whitney (21 miles roundtrip, elevation gain of 7000 feet to a height of 14,500 feet) in one day (dawn to an hour after dusk on a day with a full moon), is the Mt San Gorgonio hike doable (as in feasible and safe) in one day instead of two?

    I’m a California native but now living in Hawaii, so when I get back to California to visit, it’s usually for short visits that don’t exactly afford the luxury of two days in the wilderness. :)

    • Modern Hiker says:

      kushibo,

      It is definitely doable, although I’m not sure how much fun it would be :). There is an alternate route from Vivian Creek that’s steeper but shorter, if you’re pressed for time.

    • David says:

      FIrst a correction the Mt. Whitney hike is 6K elevation gain in 22 miles. I have hiked San Gorgonio from Vivian Creek twice as a day hike. I have also hiked San Gorgonio along with the two Charlton Peaks as a loop from South Fork in a day. The easiest route to climb San Gorgonio is from Fish Creek. With that said if you can do Mt. Whitney as a day-hike, you can climb San. G. from any of the THs I mentioned. Vivian is shorter with more elevation and S. Fork has more mileages but less gain, I found them both similar in difficulty.

  • Joseph C.M. says:

    Hiking up the South Fork Trail was a lot of fun! We did a 2-day backpacking trip, and camped at Dry Lake during the weekend(Oct 22-23, 2011). We wanted to push it to the summit, but unfortunately we did not have much time and got worried about heading downhill in the dark. We only made it close to Trail Flats Camp. Anyway, I just want to say thanks for all the great information provided on your website! I will surely visit this wonderful place again soon!

  • Jon Califf says:

    When I last did this hike (back in the seventies), there was a road (1N78) and parking at the base of Poopout Hill, which cut a couple of miles off the route as opposed to starting near Jenks Lake. I presume that access must now be closed or otherwise not an option as a trail head?

  • Sonia says:

    The area seems secure. I don’t know of any thefts having occurred in several years.

  • Paul says:

    Did you leave your backpacking gear @ Dry Lake? Is is secure? Thank you, great write up and photos.

    • Modern Hiker says:

      Paul – I didn’t leave valuables there, but I generally feel like most backcountry campgrounds are pretty safe places. No one that hikes in that far wants to hike out with any more weight than they came in with :)

  • Supplement says:

    I’m hiking this next Friday with two friends, it’s going to be amazing.

    =]

  • H.C. says:

    Nice! I didn’t know they had a register at the summit — I hiked the Vivian Creek trail last year and totally missed it, drats!

    But totally agreed on stocking up water, electrolyte & glucose restoring drinks/snacks… I actually overstocked, but better to be too-well-equipped than running out, and I had the space in my backpack since I did Viv Creek as a day hike.

    Looking forward to doing it again this year, and yes – signing that registry too!

  • Matt says:

    Excellent descriptions and photos – my thanks.

    Forty-two years ago, as a camper at nearby Camp Ta Ta Pochon, I made the “Old Greyback” hike at age 10. One week from today I’m taking my tomboy 9-year-old daughter at least to Dry Lake, and then maybe to the summit on the following day if we feel up to it. Sure hope I can get up there again! I’ll let you know how it goes.

  • Scott says:

    Great write-up, Casey! I managed this as a loop dayhike in 2008 and did it in just under 12 hours – some of my most efficient hiking ever! Would love to try the Vivian Creek Trail next time – it’s shorter but harder (or so I hear)!

  • Helen says:

    Awesome, thanks Marco, Shawnte, and Casey :) We’ll definitely overestimate our water requirements for that hike. It’s going to be our training hike for the full grand canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim hike (two days, not one). I’ll definitely re-comment after the hike to let you know how it went!

  • Modern Hiker says:

    Helen,

    100% agree with Shawnte. I think I had about the same amount she did when we left camp, and drank the last bit of it at the summit with a few Shot BLOKs. Even though coming down was easier than heading up, the lack of water and shade takes a significant toll.

    I’d say take more than you think you’ll need. You’ll probably end up drinking all of it.

  • Shawnté says:

    Hi, Helen –

    I wish we would have carried more water to the summit! Once we left our campsite at Dry Lake, that was the end of the water supply, and I ran out of water (carried 1.5 L from camp) right at the summit, unfortunately. It made for a very long, very hot, very tiring slog back down to the camp & Lodgepole Spring, the closest water source in the area. Bring more than you think you’d need for the last stretch past Dry Lake! I’d also highly recommend taking along some Clif ShotBlocks (or something similar) – Casey had some of those, and they were an absolute lifesaver!

  • Marco says:

    Helen: I bet 3 quarts/liters are fine if it’s not hot. If you run out on the way back, find some more and treat it. Have fun!

  • Helen says:

    How much water do you recommend carrying for a hike of this length? Especially if we wanted to try to push and finish it in one day?

  • Mr.Black says:

    I spent Lots of time on San G(summit 4 times in a week years ago during a search).,Your pics are great.Some of my old prints are almost shot from the same angles,but your pics are Good.The Tarn… note: I would like to apologes to the Civil Air Patrol Pilot I blinded with my signal mirror when we did the radio check above the Tarn… if your out there sorry dude.
    thanks for the memories

  • silkworm says:

    nice pictures, what camera/lens/filters are you using?

  • Marco says:

    Nice report, nice beta, lovely pix. I did this trail on 11/21/09, but up Dry Lake, then down Dollar Lake. The loop makes it more interesting and, on a cold, windy day, kept me in the sun a bit more. It took me 8:20 without really pushing it.

  • Ray says:

    I’m interested in doing the 2 day backpacking trip. Can someone comment when to expect snow in the San Bernadino Mountains? I most likely won’t have time until the middle of November. Thanks!

    • Modern Hiker says:

      Ray, generally, when Southern California starts getting rain, assume Gorgonio just got a bunch of snow dumped on it.

      The website I linked to for water conditions also has snow updates, so it’s a good resource to check – along with calling an actual rangers’ station. I have backpacked here snow-free in November, but it was during a very dry year.

  • Shawnté says:

    Ah…memories! That was the most exhilarating and exhausting hike I’ve ever done. I’ll never forget those last 400 feet to the top…or how that Gatorade saved my life at the end!

  • Modern Hiker says:

    Yeah, excellent quote, Ze – I just got a huge collection of Muir essays and can’t wait to dive into them.

    Of course, I do love the San Gabriels as well … maybe it’s got something to do with the higher elevation that I like so much … less of that thorny chaparral Muir so expertly describes.

  • Kolby says:

    Nice write-up, Casey! I’ll probably have something posted on my site about the hike… in a month or two. LOL Gotta get caught up on the blogging!

    Zé – nice quote!

  • says:

    Nice job! The altitude problems can be a real pain, and a real downer when you don’t get to relax on the summit when you want to. Had a similar experience on Whitney – was on top for like 5 min.

    I gotta defend the San Gabriels’ ruggedness though :) Certainly the east end of Yucaipa Ridge (from experience) and Dragon’s Head (which I believe is in a photo above) are quite rugged parts of SBNF, but man the San Gabriels have a lot of crappy, crumbly rock on steep slopes!

    An interesting quote from John Muir: “In the mountains of San Gabriel, overlooking the lowland vines and fruit groves, Mother Nature is most ruggedly, thornily savage. Not even in the Sierra have I ever made the acquaintance of mountains more rigidly inaccessible. The slopes are exceptionally steep and insecure to the foot of the explorer, however great his strength or skill may be, but thorny chaparral constitutes their chief defense… ” – that guy can write!

  • Hiking Lady says:

    Great hike write-up, and excellent pictures. I did this South Fork Trail hike 3 weeks ago in a one-day push to the summit (and back!) in preparation for climbing Mt. Whitney in a day. Even though they are the same distance and the San Gorgonio elevation is lower, I actually thought Whitney was easier! If anyone wants to climb Whitney in a day and needs a fun but tough training hike, try San G. in a day, either via the South Fork Trail or Vivian Creek Trail. The views are worth it!

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