Difficulty PG Distance 0 to 2 miles Rating: 7-8 San Jacinto/Santa Rosa Mountains & Joshua Tree Season: Late Winter/Spring Season: Summer

North fork, San Jacinto River (Highway 243 to Dark Canyon)


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Along the San Jacinto River
Head left down toward the river when you see these trees.

Text and photography copyright 2011 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

North fork, San Jacinto River

  • Location:  North of Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains.   From I-10, take the highway 243 exit and drive south for a total of 17.4 miles.  Look for a pullout on the east (left) side of the road near mile marker 11.25.  If you’re coming from Idyllwild, it’s seven miles north of town, on the right side of the road.  A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required. Click here to purchase.
  • Agency: San Bernardino National Forest/Idyllwild Ranger Station
  • Distance: 2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 600 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 1.5 hours
  • Best season: March – November
  • USGS topo map: “San Jacinto Peak”
  • Recommended gear: insect repellent; hiking poles
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire
  • More information: here
  • Rating: 7

This short trip along the north fork of the San Jacinto River poses several challenges.  First, hikers are prohibited from coming within 10 feet of the water to protect the endangered Yellow Legged Frog that lives here.  Second, while much of the trail is clear as day, there are several sections where it is poorly defined, and some scrambling over boulders will be required.  That said, it’s a very enjoyable trip on which you are likely to avoid the crowds of the more popular trails in the area.  It’s also a good introductory trip for people who want to get some off-trail experience.

The trail begins on the south side of the river (across the bridge from the parking area; be careful of cars on 243).  The beginning of the trail is fairly well defined, although the terrain is rough in spots; at one point you have to squeeze under a tree that bends toward the rocks.  Shortly after this, you get quite close to the water’s edge (this is the only way to get through without scrambling over the higher rocks) and soon afterward, you cross a fallen log and come to a spot where the trail appears to head uphill (see picture above).

It is at this point that another creek comes in to join the San Jacinto River.  You head to the left of the trees and toward the water.  Look for a “window” in the rocks and head through, crossing the tributary creek.  While this may technically be in violation of the frog law, the area does show signs of human travel, and your chances of encountering a ranger on this particular spot are small.

After crossing the creek, you’ll fin yourself on a sort of island between the two forks.  Continue along the main fork, crossing over fallen trees, and soon you reach a tricky ascent through some rocks.  While the climb, of about 30 feet or so, may seem intimidating, no special skills are required; there are a lot of handholds and basic common sense should carry the day for you.  Following this, the trail becomes fairly well defined (although you still might want to consider leaving ducks or some other kind of marker), and makes a final ascent to the Dark Canyon campground, the turnaround point.

All this in a mile?  Believe it.  Gotta love the San Jacinto Mountains and Idyllwild!

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