Amidst the famous summits of the Los Angeles basin stands the oft-overlooked San Bernardino Peak. This relatively inconspicuous bump on the long ridge leading up to Mt. San Gorgonio’s summit is the first of the nine peaks in the “Nine Peaks Challenge.” Despite the fame given to its more famous “saintly” neighbors, Mt. San Antonio (Baldy), Mt. San Jacinto, and Mt. San Gorgonio, San Bernardino Peak, along with the spectacular campground at Limber Pine bench, is itself an immensely satisfying hike and peak-bagging experience.
This hike benefits from two things that the other peaks do not have. First, San Bernardino Peak, being less popular, is not as highly visited as its more famous neighbors. I recently had the experience of being part of the only camping party on the mountain on a Friday night. It still gets visitation, but not nearly at the level of Mt. Baldy or Mt. San Jacinto. Part of this is due to the San Gorgonio Wilderness permit system’s usage quotas, but even with this permit system, a visit is easy to accomplish. The same cannot always be said for nearby Mt. San Gorgonio, which frequently fills its quota during the summer months.
Second, the San Bernardino Peak trail stops at Limber Pine Bench, which may very well be the most spectacular backcountry campsite in Los Angeles, excepting perhaps the summit of San Gorgonio. Unlike San Gorgonio, Limber Pine has a nearby spring, which allows easy access to water. San Gorgonio in contrast does not have any available water within several miles of hiking, so you’ll have to do some serious schleping. What makes Limber Pine so special are its views, which encompass the Inland Empire and feature great views of the Mt. Baldy mountain complex, as well as southerly views to the Santa Ana Mountains.
Beside those two standout qualities, the trail itself is full of beautiful scenes and views. The initial climb out of Angelus Oaks travels through a forest of mixed-conifers and black oaks, the latter of which turn gold during the fall. After climbing out of this initial ascent, the trail reaches Manzanita Flat, which delivers exactly what its name implies: a flat stretch of trail carpeted with manzanita and studded with picturesque Jeffrey pines. As the trail climbs, you will enjoy witnessing the transition from a variety of forest types from lower montane mixed-conifer and oak forest to subalpine lodgepole and limber pine.
The permit process is relatively simple, and there are a couple of ways to go about it. The simplest, but less guaranteed way is to go for a walk-up permit at the Mill Creek Ranger Station in Mentone. This station is located on the road to the trailhead, so if you’re looking to take this as an impromptu hike, you can simply walk in and request your permit from one of the rangers. You’ll fill out the usual details on a carbon-copy form, and then you will be on your way. For Thursday and Friday hikes, a permit is likely to be a given. However, it will make sense to come early if you’re looking to hike on a Saturday or Sunday. The ranger station opens at 8:00 am, but it is closed on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
To get permits for a hike on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, or to reserve your permits ahead of time to assure availability on the weekends, you can download a permit request form here and then fax it into the ranger station. San Bernardino National Forest requests that you send the permit form within 90 days of your hike, and they will deny the permit if you send it outside that window. Although the National Forest governs the entire area, The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association handles the permits. You can download .pdf’s of the permit, which you can either fax or mail. If you submit a request early, you are very likely to get either a day hike permit or an overnight permit for San Bernardino Peak. Unlike the nearby South Fork and Vivian Creek Trails, San Bernardino Peak does not receive the same volume of traffic, making permits easier to come by. The National Forest can either fax or mail your permit, or it can leave it outside the station for you to pick up.
So, now that you have your permit, you will encounter the second minor challenge on the hike, which is finding the trailhead. While explicit directions are outlined above, make sure to take a left before the fire station onto the Frontage Road. You’ll then make a right onto a dirt road that will dead end into a parking lot. The traillhead is next to a info sign. Once you find that, you’re off and running (or at least walking slowly and breathing heavily).
From the onset, the trail wastes no time in climbing. It begins to switchback efficiently and consistently up the side of a steep slope. Even though it’s a fairly demanding climb, you will be rewarded by the combination of conifers around you, including ponderosa, Jeffrey, and sugar pines, incense cedars, and white firs, with an abundance of black oak mixed in. Additionally, views west to the eastern ramparts of the San Gabriels soon emerge, and they will stay with you for the duration of the hike. Meanwhile, views of Santa Ana Canyon, including the wall of mountains south of Big Bear and Rim of the World Highway open up to your north.
The trail soon gains the shoulder of the first major slope and then passes through a denser section of forest. After some more climbing, the trail will round a bend through a thick growth of manzanita, buckthorn, and chinquapin with a few memorable Jeffrey pines before one last spurt of climbing deposits you at Manzanita Flat. This relatively flat space is dominated by manzanita, with scattered pine trees for punctuation. The San Bernardino Peak massif is in front of you, although the summit isn’t immediately visible from this vantage point. You have now earned a respite and can enjoy the only flat segment of the trail.
You will soon come to a junction with trails heading off toward Columbine Spring and Johns Meadow. Ignore the trails branching right and left as your trail lies before you. You will start climbing again as the forest begins to transition from the Yellow Pine zone into the Lodgepole zone. Here, the Jeffrey pines, sugar pines, and white firs that have been your companion over the first 4 miles will begin to disappear as lodgepole pines and limber pines replace them. This distinctive forest ecotone will be familiar to anybody who has spent time in L.A.’s high country. The lodgepole pines, whose scientific name is Pinus contorta, bend into all kinds of fantastic shapes. Limber pines get their name from the extreme flexibility of their branches. Some of the smaller branches are so flexible that you can tie them in a knot.
The trail continues to wind upward through this sparse forest as it nears Limber Pine Bench. The views continue to improve as the trees become more and more gnarled. Soon, you’ll find the trail starting to even out a bit. A well-marked path diverges to the right, even though it is not clearly signed. This is the trail to the campgrounds at Limber Pine Bench. There is a sign, but its about 100 feet past the actual path. This is one of the drawbacks of the San Gorgonio Wilderness; trails and campgrounds aren’t always signed as clearly as one would like. As you follow the path down a gentle slope, you will see numerous limber pines contorted into fantastic shapes. Scattered among them are a handful of campsites. The campsites furthest to the edge of the bench offer the best views, but they are usually the ones that get snatched first.
You may choose to camp here and enjoy some of the finest views of any backcountry site in Los Angeles. Below you is the entirety of the Inland Empire, and now the ramparts of the San Gabriels take on an entirely new and unique perspective from what you’ll find in most L.A. area hikes. A half mile up the trail from here lies the spring. Limber Pine Spring lies in a small ravine that receives minimal sun exposure, which means that accumulated snow lingers here longer than it would elsewhere. If you’re here earlier in the season, be careful as there may be icy snow present that was not present on most other sections of the hike, even at higher elevations. Another thing to know is that the spring does not run all year long, especially during drought periods. The rangers seem to provide inconsistent information regarding the state of the water sources on San Gorgonio, but this website is an excellent way to get a snapshot of the state of the spring if you’re backpacking.
From the spring, the trail will continue to switchback through ever more rarified air. Eventually, the trail will pass onto the south face of the mountain, opening up great views south toward San Diego’s Palomar Mountains and Orange County’s Santa Ana Mountains. After this open, sunny section, you will come to a ridge, along which you will find Washington’s Monument. This monument is not for the first President but rather for the surveyor who used this perch to survey vast sections of the inland region. While you are still at least half an hour from the peak, you will find that this vantage point has the superior views due to a lack of obstruction from trees and 270 degree views from east to west.
Keep following this ridge as it undulates a bit and then resumes climbing. The trail will start to veer around a rise in front of you as it transitions over to the north face of the peak. Keep your eyes peeled for the ducks indicating a faint use trail toward the summit. I had a hard time finding the use trail, and so I veered off a bit before finding it again. The use trail climbs briefly, and before you know it, you will be faced with a pile of rocks, an ammo can indicating the peak, and somewhat obstructed views toward the massive hump of San Gorgonio Peak. San Jacinto will loom off in the distance, while Valley of the Falls and Yucaipa Ridge stand silently far below you. As I said earlier, the views are a bit obstructed here, and you may wish to return to Washington’s Monument for a fuller expression of the views.
After enjoying the feeling of the air at 10,600’, return down the summit slope and back onto the ridge trail. You will continue to retrace your steps from this point, perhaps stopping at Limber Pine for a rest if you are day-hiking or to make dinner and catch some sleep if you are backpacking. If you are backpacking, do whatever you can to watch the sunset here. You’ll watch the sun sinking over Mt. Baldy while all of the lights in the Inland Empire start to twinkle beneath the fading orange glow. It’s a spectacular site.
From here, simply retrace your steps along the same tread you followed on the way up, stopping where you need rest or feel inspired. Eventually, you will find yourself back at the trailhead, having left behind only footprints and a whole lot of calories.
On thing to be aware of with the GPX track: I forgot to turn my GPS on until about half a mile into the hike. The track has been hand-drawn in to the best of our ability, but may not get you to the exact trailhead. The coordinates for the trailhead are 34.146920, -116.978422.
The trail is well-kept and easy to follow. Patches of snow are likely to be present through the beginning of June, and if there have been any late Spring storms, the upper elevations could be impassible. It's wise to check with the rangers before hand to know what you're up against.
Your best option for camping on this route is backpacking up to Limber Pine Bench and using that as your base camp for hitting the peak. Not only is this a less taxing way to hike the peak, but the views at Limber Pine Bench are worth a hike up.
Traveling east from the junction of I-215 and I-10, exit on Orange St, following the ramp until Orange St, turning left. Make a right on Lugonia Ave/Highway 38and continue through Mentone, past the Mill Creek Ranger Station, and then past Valley of the Falls Drive. At Angelus Oaks, make a right onto Fir Street at the fire station. Take an immediate left on Frontage Road. Follow that until you make a right onto a forest service road named "1Wo7," which dead-ends at the trailhead
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