San Gorgonio Mountain via Vivian Creek Trail
- Location: Forest Falls, San Bernardino National Forest. From I-10 in Redlands, take the University Ave. exit. Head north on University for one mile and turn right on Lugonia/Highway 38. Follow Highway 38 for a total of 13 miles. At the hairpin left turn where the highway heads into the mountains, stay straight onto Valley of the Falls Drive and follow it 4.3 miles to its end at the Falls Picnic Area. A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required for parking here. Click here to purchase. A free Vivian Creek Trail permit (good for a group of up to twelve) is also required. Note that on summer weekends, quotas for these permits fill up several weeks in advance, so plan accordingly. Three day-of permits can be obtained on a first-come, first served basis. The ranger station opens at 7am and it’s common for people to show up as early as 6am to wait in line. Permits for week days are easier to obtain.
- Agency: San Bernardino National Forest (Mill Creek Ranger Station)
- Distance: 17.4 miles
- Elevation gain: 5,400 feet
- Suggested time: 11 hours
- Difficulty: NC-17 (elevation gain, distance, altitude, steepness, terrain)
- Best season: June-October
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide
- Recommended gear: Head lamp(for possible night time descent or backpacking) water filter hiking poles sun hat insect repellent
- Dogs: Allowed on leash, but only bring dogs that have experience doing this level of hike
- Cell phone reception: Weak at trail head and below summit; none in between
- Water: High Creek and Vivian Creek usually run year round; water here can be filtered
- Restrooms: Vault restrooms at trail head
- Camping/backpacking: There are three trail camps en route. Campfires are not allowed but portable gas stoves are. The gate to the Vivian Creek Trailhead is closed from 10pm to 6 am.
- More information: Trip descriptions here, here, here and here
- Rating: 10
The highest point in Southern California is the summit of San Gorgonio, “Old Greyback”, at 11,503 feet. Needless to say, any route to the summit is a major undertaking, but one that comes with the rewards of outstanding scenery and bragging rights. The Vivian Creek Trail is the oldest (1893) route to the top as well as the shortest, steepest and in the opinion of many the best.
The first half mile follows the road alongside Mill Creek, passing by a few cabins. At 0.5 miles, the trail turns left and crosses the creek. If water levels are high, this is the first challenge of the route. If water is low or dry (as is the case as of September 2016), your first challenge comes on the opposite side, as the Vivian Creek Trail begins its first steep ascent. It switchbacks through black oaks and pines, providing some nice views of Mill Creek to enjoy if you have to stop to catch your breath. There are a few spots where the trail splits but it soon reconnects. After passing the San Gorgonio Wilderness boundary, the grade levels out and you enter the shade of Vivian Creek Trail Camp (elevation 7,200).
The next segment of the trip is quite enjoyable as the trail follows Vivian Creek under towering Jeffrey pines, in and out of a meadow and to a junction with a spur to Halfway Camp (elevation 8,000, 2.5 miles from the start). Halfway Camp is a misnomer as you are less than one third away from the summit, but during this stretch progress is fairly easy due to the moderate grade. Views include the Yucaipa Ridge to the south and glimpses of Mt. Baldy and the Inland Empire to the west.
The sound of a waterfall below the trail signals your arrival at High Creek, the third and final trail camp en route (5 miles from the start, elevation 9,230.) High Creek flows past the camp, providing an attractive spot to rest and catch your breath. Beyond the creek, a few long switchbacks bring you to a vista point where you get your first great views to the east including San Jacinto and the Coachella Valley.
Now comes the hard part. The trail zigzags steeply through some lodgepole pines before passing the tree line and making a final steep ascent to the San Bernardino Divide. By this point, you will already have more than seven miles on your legs and you will be above 10,000 feet. You should also know that the peak visible on the right side of the trail is false summit. Nevertheless, the views become more and more panoramic as you ascend. To the south are the Yucaipa Ridge and San Jacinto, now well below you as you make your push.
At 8 miles, you reach the end of the Vivian Creek Trail. Turn right and follow the San Bernadino Divide Trail east, passing one last junction with the Sky High Trail coming up from Fish Creek Meadow. You pass the false summit and the real thing comes into view. The last stretch is mercifully level and after long last, you are standing on San Gorgonio’s summit.
The views are outstanding, including Big Bear Lake and the high desert to the north, the Coachella Valley to the east, San Jacinto the south and the rest of the San Bernardino Divide to the west. Drink it all in before beginning the long descent, exercising appropriate caution on the steep and sometimes loose trail, especially during the mile between Vivian Creek Trail Camp and Mill Creek.
In case you were wondering, San Gorgonio was named by Spanish missionaries after 3rd century martyr Saint Gorgonius of Nicomedia.