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.
Text and photography copyright 2016 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. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.