Distance (round-trip)

16.8 mi

Time

10 hrs

Elevation Gain

5500 ft

Season

Summer
Fall

Weather

In June of 2015, the Lake Fire burned its way through thousands of acres of forest contained within the San Gorgonio Wilderness area of San Bernadino National Forest. Several popular trails, including the South Fork Trail to San Gorgonio Mountain, are now closed as a result (as of July 2015), leaving some of the more popular routes to the mountain off-limits. For a brief period of time, it looked like trails through the rest of the wilderness would remain closed. However, the forest service quickly re-opened the popular Vivian Creek Trail. As the forest on the north slope of San Gorgonio Mountain begins its long and slow recovery, the Vivian Creek Trail is now the fastest and most scenic way to reach the top.

DSC07122The hike up to Mt. San Gorgonio represents a number of things to SoCal hikers. For some, it is the ultimate local high-altitude training ground for Sierran adventures at Mt. Whitney and beyond. For others, it is represents a milestone as Southern California’s highest point. For some, it’s just a beautiful place to go hiking, with a diverse forest, exceptional views, and an array of options for backpacking. There are a number of ways to reach the summit, ranging from long, but moderately graded routes like the South Fork Trail, to extremely challenging multi-day routes that incorporate the 9 Peaks Challenge. Of all the routes to the top, however, the Vivian Creek Trail is the shortest and steepest of the bunch.

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Looking west and north toward Big Bear from the summit

Vivian Creek Trail rises out of the Valley of the Falls to climb 5,500’+ feet to San Gorgonio’s spacious, flat summit. Along the way, the trail passes numerous backcountry camping sites, making this route a popular destination for backpackers. The steep, nearly constant uphill grade makes this a difficult hike even for experienced hikers, although the rewards of attaining the summit – especially if you succeed in lugging your camping gear to the top for an overnight stay – are more than worth the effort.

Gorgonio Sunrise

Sunrise from the summit

Like all other forays into the San Gorgonio Wilderness, there are some red tape hurdles to surmount whether you are day-hiking or backpacking. If you wish to visit, you will need to obtain a backcountry permit from the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association, which is a partner organization that helps to monitor use among other things. To obtain the permit, you will need to fill out the application found by navigating the above link, faxing said application to the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association, and obtaining the permit by mail. San Gorgonio is a very popular hike, so you would be wise to plan your visit and submit your free permit application well in advance. Weekends are the most popular times, but you can easily obtain a walk-up during the week.

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Vivian Creek Trailhead

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The trail begins from the Vivian Creek Trailhead at the end of Falls Road. The initial segment parallels and then joins an access road for local residents before cutting across the floodplain for Mill Creek, which drains the south face of the mountain as well as Yucaipa Ridge. Mill Creek may swell to enormous proportions during full flood, but during the summer you will likely encounter the merest trickle. After crossing the floodplain, find the continuation of the trail leading into a dry, wooded section that commences the steepest section of the hike (1,000’ in one mile) on an often sunny stretch of south-facing trail. This is the hottest part of the route, and it makes sense to get an early start.

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Ascending along Vivian Creek

After crossing the signed wilderness boundary, the trail bends right, heading north at 1.25 and plunges into the cool forest along the banks of Vivian Creek. Lilies and other wildflowers bloom in the damp soil, while the conifers grow particularly large. This is a good place to tank up on water if you drank through your supply on the first mile up. There won’t be any other reliable water until High Creek, some 3.6 miles later. For backpackers seeking a shorter foray into the wilderness, the Vivian Creek campground east of the creek would one of two good turnaround spots. DSC07089

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Looking west down Valley of the Falls

At 1.8 miles, the trail climbs away from the creek and enters a sparser forest with a thick understory of manzanita and ceanothus. Along this steady grade, you will pass a Halfway Camp at 2.7 miles before the trail begins to switchback up a prominent southern ridge of San Gorgonio Mountain. As you rise, you’ll catch views west down Valley of the Falls toward Mt. San Antonio, which may or may not be partially shrouded in marine layer and haze. As you go, the tree cover begins to change, with Jeffrey pines and incense cedars disappearing to be replaced by predominantly lodgepole pines and white firs. The trail makes a handful of long, moderate switchbacks before reaching 9,000 feet. From here you’ll contour or climb gently around the face of the ridge and into High Creek’s steep canyon.

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High Creek

At 5 miles,  you will hear the faint (or loud, depending on recent precipitation) splatter of water on rock as High Creek tumbles over an obscure waterfall. The trail continues its bend to the left (north) as it passes along the west wall of High Creek’s canyon. A few hundred yards later, you’ll pass through a thicket of willows before coming across a handful of scattered campsites. This is High Creek camp, and aside from being your best shot at tanking up on water before the summit, this is also a good spot to make camp if you don’t wish to carry your camping gear up to the top.

DSC07179After High Creek Camp, the trail commences a long series of switchbacks through rocky limber pine forest to reach a ridge at 6.5 miles. From this ridge, you will enjoy a stunning view of Mt. San Jacinto across Gorgonio Pass. From every other vantage point in Southern California, San Jacinto appears massive, but from this angle, it appears to be a much more modest pyramid-shaped massif that pales slightly in comparison to the mountain you’re currently climbing. This vista is an inspired spot to stop and rest, but remember that the hardest part is yet to come.

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Mt. San Jacinto

The trail bends to the left to begin climbing the ridge toward a junction leading toward the true summit. After some more switchbacking, the trail will straighten out before passing the treeline and climbing along a wide bowl dotted with krumholzed limber pines that have been bent prostrate by wind and snow. For people prone to altitude sickness, this will undoubtedly be the hardest part of the climb as all of it takes place above 10,500’ on its way toward the junction toward the saddle.

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Preparing for the final climb to the summit

After what seems like a brief eternity, you reach a junction with a trail shooting off on the left toward Anderson Flat and Dollar Saddle. Turn right to begin the final push up to the summit. As you approach the summit, you might notice a steep drop-off just to your left on the north face of San Gorgonio Mountain. This dramatic escarpment is the result of glaciation that occurred during past ice ages. San Gorgonio Mountain is the only place in Southern California where you will encounter past evidence of glaciation.

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Yucaipa Ridge

With a few last bursts of effort and determination, you will find yourself approaching a large pile of rocks with a summit register and a sign that may or may not be attached to a sign post (it was lying around when I scouted this route). This is San Gorgonio’s true summit, 8.4 miles away from your starting point. The large, flat summit plateau to the east is about the size of a football field. Here, you will encounter a number of sheltered camping sites that are perfect for a dry camp with some of the most spectacular sunset and sunrise views you can find in SoCal. Camping up here is a difficult endeavor given that you’ll need to carry your own water with you, but if you’re up to the challenge, this may be one of the impressive backpacking spots in the entire southern third of the state. From here, you can check off a complete roster of Southern California peaks, which also includes views north to the Sierra Nevada when clear and views south deep into Mexico, also when clear. The ocean shimmers in the far distance, air quality permitting, and the Coachella Valley shimmers in the heat 11,000’ below.

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Summit view looking east over the Coachella Valley

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The Palm Springs Airport thousands of feet below

The return journey is a matter of retracing your steps while remaining mindful of a long descent with a great deal of elevation loss. By the time you return to your car, you will probably be thoroughly spent and completely satisfied.

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Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.

Camping

Dog-Friendly

Views / Vista

Water Features

Waterfall

16 Comments

Mike

Mike Aug 4, 2016 18:08

We did this hike last year as a day hike and it was a really nice hike. It took us about 9h total and we spent about 30 minutes at the top. In May there was still snow at the top but it doesn't prevent you from reaching the summit as it is really flat and wide area. We saw only a handful people on the way up and nobody else at the summit when we were there.

As we didn't have any water purifiers we carried all of the drinks with us (about 4 liters each). We dropped the extra water at about 3000m altitude and picked it up on the way down.

If you are not in a decent shape then consider camping on the way. This was our 5th hike of the week so we were in pretty good shape, but still exhausted after finishing this hike.

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Angela Jun 26, 2016 07:06In reply to: Larry Weisenberg

I just summited yesterday and there's plenty of water running at High Creek. Bring a filter or iodine tablets and you can save yourself the weight. I did it as a day hike and only packed in 1.5 liters for the first section. The rest of the 6 liters I drank came from the creek.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Jun 20, 2016 16:06In reply to: Nate

I mean that it's a very difficult hike. The "faint of heart," which is merely a fanciful term I'm using to describe people who blanch at the idea of a 17 mile, 5500' hike, would not enjoy the route.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Jun 20, 2016 16:06In reply to: Larry Weisenberg

Yes, there is usually water at High Creek Campground, although you may want to check ahead with the rangers to be sure.

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Larry Weisenberg Jun 20, 2016 16:06In reply to: David

Thanks.

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Nate Jun 20, 2016 16:06In reply to: Nate

And yes, I meant the Devil's Backbone at Mt Baldy. I'd like to try it, but I don't have the surest of knees, from years of running. There are hikes here in Hawaii I simply don't even attempt because of that.

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Nate Jun 20, 2016 16:06In reply to: Nate

Whoever's pictures they are, they are nice.

Yeah, once we end up living there, I'm hoping I'll be able to find partners for the more strenuous hikes.

If you do Mauna Kea, make sure that you rent a 4WD or AWD vehicle, as the unpaved road gets rough after a certain point. Also, rental companies specifically disallow their non-4WD/AWD vehicles from going past the Onizuka Visitors Center at 9K feet.

When you visit the Big Island, maybe get the Mauna Kea drive out of the way, doing it on the first sunny day. People associate Hawaii with tropical weather, but the summit regularly gets snow — sometimes even in July — and the road closes down. The road's primary purpose is to service and man the telescopes at the top; tourist plans are not their concern. :)

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David Jun 20, 2016 15:06In reply to: Larry Weisenberg

Sounds like a great trip, Larry. It was a few years back for me so I really can't remember how much I took. Only that it wasn't enough! Suggest you check with the ranger station for their advice on water and all else. Enjoy!

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Larry Weisenberg Jun 20, 2016 15:06

My 13-year-old son and I are training for Whitney in July, and need the overnight experience. That's why we're doing two days. Just gauging how much H20 to haul up the mountain.

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David Jun 20, 2016 15:06In reply to: Nate

Nate, when my buddy and I did Gorgonio we ran into a total of one couple who were speed hiking the peak. They came up from behind and zoomed past us. Didn't see them again. Nor did we see anyone else for the rest of the day. My recollection is that we did it in autumn, early enough so that it was still very warm. You might check with the ranger station when you get your wilderness permit before the climb. But I'm sure if you're moving to the area you'll find lots of people who know far more than I do.

And yeah, the Devil's Backbone (assuming you're referring to the one on Mt. Baldy) is not for the faint of heart!

Finally: I haven't uploaded any pix to this site that I know of, surely not of Gorgonio at any rate. So whatever you've seen comes from someone else.

One day I'd love to make that Mauna Kea drive. Know what you mean about the thin air, remembering the feeling from when I'd climbed a couple 14ers in Colorado in my youth. Now? Er, maybe not!

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Nate Jun 20, 2016 14:06In reply to: David

Thanks for the reply, David. I do appreciate dramatic flair, but I also wonder sometimes if I should be taking things literally when it comes to hiking. The Devil's Backbone Trail comes to mind, and here in Hawaii (I live on Oahu) we have some truly life-endangering hikes that probably have more people on them than they should.

When I'm living in SoCal again and am in a position to be doing San Gorgonio, I will likely be living in a town in the San Bernardino Mountains, at around 6000 feet, so hopefully the jump to 11K won't be as bad. But I do recall Mt Whitney as a teenager where I really felt it after you hit the crest. (And heck, even on the Big Island, *driving* to the top of Mauna Kea at just under 14K feet, you could really feel the lightheadedness.

Anyway, your photos look great, and this is something I am definitely planning to do.

One last question: If I can't get my wife to go along and I have to go it alone, are there enough people up there so that if you do run into trouble there are people about?

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David Jun 20, 2016 12:06In reply to: Larry Weisenberg

Larry, I wouldn't know about that as we did it in a day. I'm sure Casey or one of the other contributors has the answer. I do recall a small stream at what looked like a likely camping area but I'm not sure if it was the one you refer to. You'll love it, though!

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Larry Weisenberg Jun 20, 2016 12:06In reply to: David

But you can pump and refill H20 at High Creek campground, correct? We're planning to spend the night at High Creek, and then summit and come all the way down the second day.

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David Jun 19, 2016 11:06In reply to: Nate

Hah - good question! No, no tumbling off cliffs (unless you try very very hard). I was exercising my dramatic flair there. It's simply long and, especially for this just-above-sea-level-living-guy, quickly gets you into the thin air. You feel it most fter the saddle, which as I recall is at about 9K feet and still leaves you with a couple thou and quite a bit of country to go.

So yes, stamina and endurance are what it's about. Oh and be sure and take plenty of water. We ran out about 3/4 of the way down and the last hour or two were miserable. Only the thought that I had a cooler with some glorious hops-enfused fluids waiting in the trunk of my car kept me going!

But all in all it's an amazing experience and the top is a wonderful place to hang out, have lunch and enjoy the fact that you're on the ceiling of SoCal.

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Nate Jun 18, 2016 22:06In reply to: David

Can you explain what you mean by "not for the faint of heart"? Is it a stamina and endurance issue, or are there some parts where one wrong step will have you careening down to your death?

Our plan is to move to the Running Springs in a few years, and I want to take advantage of all the hiking in the San Bernardino Mountains. San Gorgonio has always been a goal of mine, and this looks absolutely beautiful.

(I should do Mt Whitney again. Haven't done that since high school.)

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David Jan 1, 2016 18:01

Did this about 8 years ago as a one-day trip. It is not for the faint of heart. But the satisfaction of getting out alive is worth the agony, and the feeling of being on top of Southern Cal is unmatched. If I ever decide to re-up it will certainly involve a night in a tent halfway up!

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