Key Hike Statistics:
Distance, Trail Style: 17 miles, Out & Back
Elevation Gain: ~5500 feet
Best Time: Early Morning; June-October to avoid snow
Dogs: Allowed, Make sure they’re capable of this difficult hike
Bathrooms: At Trailhead
Parking: At Trailhead; Adventure Pass Required
Trailhead: Big Falls Picnic Area, Forest Falls, CA
*Note: This hike requires an advanced permit from the area ranger station. Be sure to apply and receive your permit online before setting out. Permit application and info available here: http://sgwa.org/wilderness-permits/
Mount San Gorgonio is the highest mountain in Southern California rising 11,503 feet above sea level. Vivian Creek Trail is the shortest and therefore steepest route to the peak and begins at the Big Falls Picnic Area near Forest Falls, CA. It’s best to start this hike nice and early in the morning, which requires staying in the area if you aren’t from the nearby inland empire region of Southern California. We camped about 20-30 minutes away at Barton Flats Campground, which was the closest open campground in the Summer of 2016.
On the morning of our hike we, my Father-in-law and Brother-in-law and myself, woke up around 7 am in order to drive over to the picnic area and get on the trail by 8 am. This timing was pretty ideal as we finished our hike sometime around 3 pm.
The first section of the hike is quite easy as you head away from the picnic area following the dry creek bed. The trail begins as paved, looks like an old service road, but then gives way to a dirt path and eventually leads you across the creek bed. Here you’ll see a sign notifying hikers that a permit is required past a certain point. Once you’ve past by this sign the climb begins as the trail switchbacks up to the dense forest wilderness you’re about to enter. After about 1.3 miles you’ll reach the Vivian Creek Camp, where you can stay if you’ve secured an overnight permit. This is the first of the on trail camping options. There wasn’t much water at Vivian Creek Camp so if you’re planning to stay here it’s best to plan accordingly.
Continuing on along the trail, you’ll start to climb away from Vivian Creek through a mix of pine and manzanita trees. At roughly the 2.8 mile mark you’ll come to the second overnight option (permit still required), Halfway Camp. I am not entirely sure why this camp is named as such, since it is not halfway from the trailhead to the peak. It actually seems to be about halfway to nothing in particular. However, it is a lovely spot for a first break as you’ve already climbed a good bit of elevation. The climb continues past Halfway Camp starting with some long switchbacks that eventually give way to some early contours of High Creek Canyon.
At the 5 mile mark you’ll reach the best shot for water on trail, if you didn’t plan on carrying enough to go up and down. High Creek still had water when we were there in the late Summer (October) of 2016, you’d need to have a filter on hand. Here you’ll find the third and final overnight option, High Creek Camp. If I were doing an overnight trip this would be my pick for campsites since it has water readily available, permits are also required here.
Leaving High Creek starts another set of switchbacks and contours, now covered in taller pines having left the manzanitas of the initial climb behind. However, at this point the trail has risen above 9,000 feet above sea level so the tree line is quickly approaching. Eventually, you’ll reach a ridge which provides the first view of neighboring Mount San Jacinto across the valley. The ridge is right around the 10,000 foot mark, so if you aren’t used to elevation you’ll likely begin to feel its effects at this point. From here, the trail is also quite exposed having risen above the forest biome. Now you must contend with the sun above and the rocky trail beneath your feet.
This is not the steepest part of the climb by any means but the altitude doesn’t make it any easier. After what feels like a long mile or so from the ridge you’ll reach a lonely trail junction located in the saddle before the peak. It’s not far from this junction to the peak and you’ll likely get a motivating view of the peak that can put some extra energy in your legs for the final push to the top.
Be sure to locate the peak registry box and the elevation sign (most likely not attached to its post). There is something of a false peak on San Gorgonio and these markers are the indicator that you’ve reached the true peak of the mountain at elevation 11,503.
At the top you’ll have a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape, including Mount San Jacinto, Mount Baldy and beyond. After eating your lunch at the peak you’ll retrace your steps to get back to your car at the picnic area below.
This hike is no joke. It requires patience and perseverance as it is straight up at times. You’ll be surprised, as we were, at how much the switchbacks you climbed earlier in the day look very much like slides as you make your way down them on the way back. Be careful not to move too quickly that you may misstep on the way down because of this.