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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The trail is well-traveled and fairly well-maintained. Signage in the San Gorgonio Wilderness has a reputation for being indistinct and, at times, poor, but there is only one true junction on this trail near the summit, and it's pretty easy to determine which way to go.
The nearest campgrounds are north of the wilderness along Highway 38 at Barton Flats. However, this route is best done as a backpacking route, with dispersed camping occurring at one of four different campsites along the trail (Vivian Creek, Halfway Camp, High Creek Camp, and Summit Camp). You will need a permit, which is distinct from the day-use permit, to camp at any one of the trail camps.
From I-10, take Exit 80 for University Avenue, and turn right. Continue for 1 mile, and then turn right onto CA-38. Continue east for 20 miles, passing the Mill Creek Ranger Station on the right after 9 miles. After 20 miles, take the right turn for Valley of the Falls Road. Continue east for 4 miles until you reach the entrance for Big Falls Picnic Area. You can find parking for the trailhead at the eastern end of the picnic area near the Vivian Creek Trailhead. Adventure Pass required.