This trip is the last group outing I organized for the summer. I originally planned three: Mt. San Bernardino, Mt. San Jacinto, and Mt. San Gorgonio. These peaks range in elevation from 10,800′ to 11,500′ (San Gorgonio at 11.5k, the tallest peak in southern California) and are all located within a few hours of LA. This trip in particular garnered a lot of interest from fellow interns; 9 people signed up and committed to the trip! However, by the time the day of the trip arrived, all but three had bailed. Of those three, one showed up at our designated meeting spot. Oh well – we had a great time regardless!
The Tom Harrison San Gorgonio map is an excellent resource for hikes in this area. Permits are required to enter the San Gorgonio Wilderness area, both for day hikes and overnight trips. The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association has a great page with information about the permit process. I’ve also found the information on Hikin’ Jim’s website very useful.
Vivian Creek to High Creek
Saturday, July 30, 2016 | 5.6 mi | +3190′
Drew and I meet up at 8:00 and drive a few hours to the Vivian Creek trailhead. The parking lot right next to the trailhead is full (and has been since 6 AM, the ranger tells us!) so we park a few hundred yards down the road near a picnic area. It’s a short walk to the trail, which begins as a service road and parallels a riverbed. I don’t say river because there is absolutely no water, just a lot of dry rocks. I hope it carries water in the spring; it’s a little depressing if it’s dry all year.
After crossing the riverbed, the trail begins a steep series of switchbacks that rise a thousand feet in a single mile. It’s hot as can be and Drew and I quickly find ourselves panting as we climb the mountain. Every few switchbacks bring us to a corner that overlooks the valley below; at these little lookouts, the light breeze cuts through the trees and brings us some relief.
Just before Vivian Creek camp, we reach two rangers standing at the wilderness boundary. Naturally, they’re checking permits, so I dig ours out of my pack and present it to them. Curiously, this is the first time I’ve had my permit checked all summer!
Thankfully, the trail levels out considerably after Vivian Creek. The trees are huge and provide lots of shade from the hot sun, which is a welcome relief. We stop for lunch at Halfway Camp and rest for a while before continuing on. As the afternoon progresses, clouds gradually gather and we begin to hear thunder in the distance. The weather forecast for Mt. San Gorgonio calls for rain this afternoon. I was skeptical when I read that in LA yesterday – it never rains around here! However, with thundering rumbling all around, rain seems like a distinct possibility. Sure enough, just as we’re passing a group of boy scouts, rain begins to fall. The shower quickly becomes torrential, and I cover my pack and camera holster with their respective rain covers. Although I am quickly drenched, the rain is refreshing. It’s been months since I’ve actually experienced precipitation!
Hiking in a thunderstorm is quite the exhilarating experience. When you’re inside during a storm, listening to the thunderclaps can be calming, but when you’re walking between sparse trees on the side of a mountain, they have the opposite effect. Although I logically know that it’s incredibly unlikely for us to be struck by lightning, and the best option is for us to keep moving to somewhere with more shelter, each boom brings a little bit of an adrenaline rush.
We reach High Creek Camp while the storm is in full swing. Ranger Dan cheerfully gives us to directions to a nice site in the area; Drew and I waste no time setting up the tent. Once the tent and rainfly are up, we hop inside and hide from the rain. After 45 minutes or so, the rain patters fade away and the thunder recedes into the distance. One afternoon mountain thunderstorm: check!
Once the rain had cleared, Drew and I take off to see what things looked like from a little higher up. I bring my camera gear, of course. We hike up to a ridge near our campsite and watch the clouds. Little wispy ones fly up toward us and then over the ridge to join other cloud remnants.
While we watch, the clouds begin to clear and nearby ridges become visible. The Smoky Mountains in Tennessee frequently sport this type of weather, but it isn’t something I was expecting in the San Bernardino mountains! After watching the clouds for a while, we grow hungry and descend back to camp for dinner. As the sun is beginning to set, we walk down the trail after eating and admire the evening light on the nearby mountains.
Of particular interest: there’s a tree with bark patterns that very much resemble Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It was almost cooler than the nearby mountains. Almost.
On the way back to camp, I stop to take a long exposure shot of High Creek. It’s very refreshing to be camped this close to water! The past two trips I’ve taken to these mountains have involved dry camping, and both times I’ve been thirstier than I would have liked.
Hiker midnight arrives soon after we return to camp, and, after brushing teeth and other daily hygiene tasks, I quickly fall asleep.
Above Treeline on San Gorgonio
Sunday, July 31, 2016 | 12.2 mi | +2242′ / -5422′
An early morning start puts Drew and I on the trail to the summit at 7:00 with light packs. The first mile is a repeat of yesterday’s climb to the ridge for cloud watching. For some reason, it feels more difficult than it did yesterday; perhaps it felt easy because we had been hiking with heavier packs. My other hypothesis is that the air was denser yesterday because of the storm; High Creek camp is well above 9,000 feet, so altitude ought to begin affecting us as we climb above that altitude. This morning the skies are clear, and the air is, perhaps, less dense (i.e., it is more difficult to catch your breath).
Anyway, the climb to the summit is a fun experience! The trail gains altitude at a respectable rate, but not so quickly that the climb becomes overly strenuous. We leave treeline behind somewhere between 10 and 11 thousand feet, which is a fun change! Both Mt. San Bernardino and Mt. San Jacinto sported scraggly trees on their summits, but the top of San Gorgonio is completely lifeless, reminiscent of the high altitude Sierras.
The boy scouts we passed yesterday camped up at the summit last night. They report that it was quite pleasant – not even too windy! The biggest difficulty with camping up here is that you have to pack all your water in; it’s 3.3 miles and 2.2k feet altitude between the summit and the nearest water source. Drew and I relax for a while, sign the summit register, and take a photo with the summit sign.
The descent from the peak is one of the easier descents I’ve done this summer; we lose a little over a mile in elevation over the course of 9 miles, but the grade is generally gradual and doesn’t hurt my knees or hips too much. Despite this trail’s reputation as the “most difficult route to San Gorgonio summit,” it’s very pleasant! Drew and I make excellent time despite stopping to pack up camp, eat lunch, and rest a few times. Another afternoon storm seems to be brewing, but I think we out hike it – a few raindrops fall, but the thunder remains far away and we’re not treated to any more showers. The forest near Vivian Creek is particularly striking on the descent; I don’t remember these trees being so huge, and it’s so green! The final descent down the steep switchbacks is knee-murdering, but it doesn’t last long and soon we’re strolling along the service road back to the car. Another peak for the books!