Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mount San Gorgonio

One of the reasons I love inland Southern California is that we are in the shadow of the San Bernardino mountains. Among them is the largest mountain in Southern California, Mount San Gorgonio, at 11,499 feet in elevation. I recently hiked to the summit for my 12th time. One other time, my first attempt, we were very close to the summit when we had to turn back because of a snow storm. In a list of the most topographically prominent peaks of North America, San Gorgonio ranks no. 35. When the list is limited to the 48 contiguous states, it ranks no. 7. The first known climb was made in 1872 by W. A. Goodyear and Mark Thomas from the Millcreek area, which is now most closely approximated by the Vivian Creek Trail.

The picture below, taken from Anderson Peak, gives an indication of why it is also known as Greyback. The summit is just above tree line and the exposed rock makes it standout from the surrounding mountains. The local, Cahuilla, Indians, called it "Kwiria-Kaich," which means bald or smooth.

South Fork Trail:

There are three main routes to the summit. The most popular, from South Fork, is my least favorite, because it is the longest. It starts at South Fork, on the north side of the mountain range, at an elevation of 6,880 ft. It goes through Horse Meadows, over Poopout Hill, through South Fork Meadows, past Dollar Lake to Dollar Lake Saddle. This is the route I took on my first attempt at the summit, in October 1990. I was a member of the bishopric and with the teachers quorum of the Redlands 3rd Ward, including John Wainright, their advisor. Below is a picture taken while approaching the Dollar Lake area. Charleton Peak is in the background. My brain is foggy on the full names, but at the left is a Field, then John Wainright, Nathan Koch and a Henderson. Upon reaching Dollar Lake Saddle (10,000 ft.), which is on the main ridgeline that runs from Mt. San Bernardino to Mount San Gorgonio, you get a nice view of Dollar Lake from above. The picture below was taken with a 300 mm zoom lense on one of my nine peak hikes.

The next picture was also taken from one of my nine peak hikes, from Anderson Peak. Charleton Peak is the next most prominent peak to the left of San Gorgonio. Dollar Lake Saddle is where the ridgeline meets the mountain on the left side. The trail then swings around the south side of the base of Charleton.

Below, we take a lunch break on the south side of Charleton. Jepson Peak is to the back on the right side.

From the same spot, looking south, you get a view of Yucaipa Ridge. Millcreek is tucked in the valley below Yucaipa Ridge.
Below, we stand near Dry Lake View, a saddle between Little Charleton and Jepson Peaks. The trees are thinning out and getting smaller.

Dry Lake, as viewed from the saddle, also taken on one of my nine peak hikes. Grinnell Peak is in the background.

The same shot, with a 300 mm zoom.

One of the wonderful things about the San Gorgonio Wilderness is that it feels quite a bit like the Sierras. The rarified air, sudden weather changes and relative solitude make you forget that sprawling Southern California is right before you. On this trip, a storm front blew in and we got hail which turned to snow. At a point quite close to the summit, we decided we needed to turn around. None of us had been to the summit before and the snow was starting to stick to the ground.

The next picture was taken along the trail after we had been walking back some time. As you can see, I was not adequately prepared for the weather.

For this route, San Gorgonio is 11.6 miles one way, or 23.2 miles roundtrip. For my next and subsequent trips, other than nine peak hikes, I chose routes that are substantially shorter.

Fish Creek:

The second main route to the summit, is the Fish Creek Trail. It is great for an overnight backpacking trip with Boy Scouts. It starts at an elevation of 8,160 ft., almost 1,300 ft. higher than South Fork Trailhead. It is also a little shorter route, 10.2 miles one way, or 20.4 miles roundtrip. The main disadvantage of this route is that it takes about 45 minutes to get to the Heart Bar campground from Redlands, then another 45 minutes along a dirt road to get to the trailhead. However, because it is more remote, there is more solitude.

I have used this trail three times to go to the summit of San Gorgonio. The first time was October 9th and 10th, 1992, with Mark Richey as scoutmaster of the Redlands 4th Ward troop, and included Brad Martinsen, Jason Cemer, Jeremiah Brice and Blake Burdette. One of the difficulties of an LDS troop going on campouts after school, is that we get a late start. We did not start hiking until 6:40 p.m. However, there was a full moon, and several of us hiked the entire 5.5 miles to Fish Creek Saddle (9,805 ft.), where we camped, without using flashlights. We arrived at our campsite at 9:45 p.m. in very chilly conditions. Then Mark Richey pulled a loaf of French bread and butter out of his pack, along with beef stroganoff and chicken tetrazini, and we had a wonderful feast, before retiring to our tents to get out of the cold breeze. I learned from Mark, on this and subsequent trips, the value of sacrificing a little space and weight in the backpack to bring something really good to eat.

My second time on this route was also with Mark Richey and his scout troop, on September 30 and October 1, 1994. Merrill Paxman and his son, David, were along, as were Josh Sheffer, Brian Lehnhof and my son, Sam. From pictures, I know there were three other boys along. I believe one was Paul Billings and another was one of Brad William's sons, I believe Brian. As with all three times on this route, we camped at Fish Creek Saddle. Below, Josh, Brian Lehnhof and I believe, Paul Billings, are in hammocks they slept in.

Mark and Merrill around the morning campfire.

Below, from the 1992 trip, Mark, Blake, Jason, Brad and Jeremiah, in the vicinityof Mineshaft Flat, 2.8 miles past Fish Creek Saddle, at 9,280 ft. They stand below the north side of San Gorgonio. Once reaching the massif, you begin a series of long switchbacks that traverse mainly up the east side of the mountain.
My third time on this route was August 15 and 16, 1997, with a group including Craig Wright, and his sons, Kevin, Brian and Kyle, Nolan Reichmann and Ben Millett. Part way up the switchbacks you run into the wreckage of an airplane and helicopter. The plane was a Douglas C-47 which crashed on December 1, 1952 while traveling from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska to March Air Force Base near Riverside. It crashed at night, in a storm, killing 13 people. About a month later, a Marine Corps helicopter crashed while trying to recover victims of the airplane crash. Those three crewman lived. Below, Andrew and other boys walk through the wreckage, which is right off the trail.

Sam and Nolan, also looking through the wreckage.

After completing the long switchbacks around the east side, the trail winds around to the south side of the mountain. From there, you get a view of the Tarn, below, a little under 11,000 ft. in elevation. The Tarn is flat, like a football field, and completely lacking in vegetation. In the spring, it fills with snow melt and is the highest lake in Southern California (although I have never seen it with water).

On our 1992 trip, I'd heard that bighorn sheep could often be seen in the Tarn. We found some, in the distance, walking before us into the trees, then had the thrill of seeing four of them run across the Tarn (see the tiny specks in the middle of the picture below). The sight was from a long distance, but still a thrill.

On my 1994 trip, Sam and I ventured into the Tarn, while the rest of the group continued on to the summit. I was stoked by the bighorn sheep sighting two years previous and wanted to see more. We were rewarded. Our group scared a couple of bighorn sheep down to us while we were standing in the Tarn. The bighorns seemed as surprised to see us, as we were to see them. The mountain at the west end of the Tarn is visible in the background.

The two ewe bighorns quickly recovered from their shock and high-tailed it for the ridge on the south side of the tarn.

The most prolonged bighorn experience happened on my third trip in 1997. We all traveled into the Tarn hoping to find sheep. Below, six of them, including three rams, were in the Tarn.
As we approached, they went to the south side and climbed up the ridge. Some went to the east, and two went up and over the ridge. However, we watched them for quite a while. Some of those pictures will be in my bighorn sheep blog, later. Below, a ram and ewe, just before disappearing over the ridge.

Below, after the sheep disappeared, we got a photo of the boys in the Tarn. In the back, from the left, are Kevin, Brian and Kyle Wright, Sam and _________? From the left front are Ben Millet, Nolan Reichmann and Andrew.

Finally, Andrew, Sam and I at the summit on our 1997 trip. Mount San Jacinto is in the background.

From the 1992 trip, Brad, Blake, Jeremiah, Jason and Mark in a stone shelter just below the summit, where hikers sleep or rest out of the wind, which can be severe and bitingly cold at the summit.
Vivian Creek Trail:

The third main route to the summit, the Vivian Creek Trail, is my favorite. The trailhead is above Forest Falls, in Millcreek Canyon, on the south side of the mountain. It is the shortest and most direct route to the summit, 8.6 miles one way, or 17.2 miles roundtrip. However, it is also the greatest elevation gain and can be brutal. The trailhead starts at 6,080 feet, so it involves an elevation gain of over 5,400 feet. After some preliminary hiking up a dirt road on the south side of the Millcreek Wash, you cross Millcreek and the wash and begin a mile journey up steep switchbacks to Vivian Creek. It is a hot, sweaty climb going up, and an agonizing knee killer after a long hike, on the way down. I have a number of blisters and lost toe nails that are mainly attributable to this section of the trail, coming as it does, at the very end of a long day.

My first trip up Vivian Creek, and second attempt of San Gorgonio, was on June 14 and 15, 1991. I was scoutmaster and was with Gregg Palmer and Steve Webster, as leaders, and Brad Martinsen, Scott Brennen and Eric Dietzel as scouts. We backpacked in to Halfway Camp, 3.6 miles in, at 8,000 ft. When we arrived, other campers informed us we'd just missed a mother bear and her cubs near Vivian Creek, which is above the camp. The next morning, both Gregg's and Steve's knees were bothering them and they decided they didn't want to go to the summit. Brad and Scott decided to stay with them. So Eric and I decided to do the summit together (in the days before the scout rules frowned on a single leader being with a boy). This was my first successful summit. We met a biologist on top studying butterflys. He noticed my raspy cough and suggested I might be getting high altitude pulmonary edema, and should go down. I attributed it to air pollution. This is the first time I had an indication I might be susceptible to altitude sickness (although I ignored it).

My second time up Vivian Creek, I was alone, on a dayhike to the summit, in 2000. The most memorable part of that trip was a bear I saw at about 11,200 feet, just below the summit. It was scrawny and moved too fast for me to get my camera out for a picture. On this trip, I did a significant amount of cross country hiking, going directly down the mountain to High Creek and up and over the saddle to Vivian Creek, difficult slogging through very thick deerbrush.

My third trip, my worst, was on August 17, 2002 with Al Sonne, Mark Walker, Andrew, and the Redlands 4th Ward teachers (I didn't take any pictues and don't recall the boys). I had lost about 30 pounds and was thinner than I'd been in quite a while. I figured that the weight loss would make the hiking easier. What I failed to take into account was that I'd not been working out. I had no gas in my tank. From High Creek, at 9,440 ft., it is 3.8 miles to the summit and 2,050 ft. in elevation gain. I was feeling every bit of that gain. At a certain point, approaching tree line, when the limber pine start to lose their height, the trail goes at about a 45 degree angle, straight, without any switchbacks. That stretch nearly killed me. I had to stop and rest every few minutes. Al and Mark were very patient with me. I eventually made it to the summit, but it was no fun.

My fourth trip, with Sam, was on August 16, 2003. I was still leery from the trip the year before and Sam offered to carry the daypack. It was fun to have him initiate the trip. I did better and Sam, in much better shape than I, was patient. It was wonderful to have some time alone with him. I treasure my time with my children in the mountains. There are so many cherished memories.

My fifth trip, from June 27 to 28, 2008, was with quite a few people from the Ward, perhaps 19, using two permits, in preparation for our Mt. Whitney trip later that summer. I don't know that I can recall all that were along, but it did include Jeff Brice, Scott Zollinger, Mark Zollinger and his boys, Josh and Scott, Jacob Sales, Ben Jury, Cray and Cole Carlson, and Scott, Brian and Robby Hartman. I brought my 500 mm telephoto along and ventured into the Tarn alone, looking for bighorn sheep. I found none. I believe the mountain lions may have thinned out the bighorn sheep in that area.

My sixth trip up Vivian Creek Trail, happened recently, on June 15, 2009, exactly 18 years from the first day I summited with Eric Dietzel on this same trail. I was with my friend Larry and his son, Garrett. It was a beautiful cool Monday, with very few people on the trail.

Below, from the first trip in 1991, Eric Dietzel and Steve Webster go down the last horrible, steep, mile from Vivian Creek to the Millcreek Wash.

From a nine peak hike, the Vivian Creek area in late afternoon, with beautiful large trees providing shade and water and foliage adding to the surroundings. This is one of my favorite places in all of the San Bernardino Mountains.

From the 1991 hike, Eric Dietzel approaching High Creek, with Yucaipa Ridge in the background.
From my most recent trip, the limber pines so small they appear shrub-like, a few hundred feet short of the summit.

The signed junction of the Vivian Creek Trail and the Skyline Trail (the Skyline Trail is the way in from South Fork).

Garrett, at the junction of the Skyline Trail and the San Gorgonio Summit trail.

Larry and Garrett, with the summit nob in the background.

A zoomed in look at the knob with some hikers, ahead of us, approaching the summit.

Finally, Eric Dietzel and I on the summit in 1991, my first time there.

From my last hike, Tibetan prayer flags at the summit. The first time I have seen them there.

Finally, Eric Dietzel below the summit at a small pond created by melting snow. The snow drift behind him is more than 10 feet thick.

I have been to the summit another three times, in conjunction with nine peak trips. They are to be the subject of another blog post.


  1. Really cool pix. I hiked her in eary 80's........Fun Fun

  2. I live in Riverside and have always wanted to go up and do some good hiking. You've inspired me. I'll be looking forward to the Vivian Creek Trail early Spring.

  3. In the picture titled

    "In the back, from the left, are Kevin, Brian and Kyle Wright, Sam and _________? From the left front are Ben Millet, Nolan Reichmann and Andrew."

    The mystery person is Mike Eaton.

    One of the guys in the picture.

  4. Thanks, I remember Michael, but was having a brain freeze at the time of writing up the post. If this was Michael, I hope things are going well for you. It has been a long time.

  5. Your June 1991 trip was just 5-6 weeks before the famous "Lost Scout of San Gorgonio" incident, in which an insufficiently staffed BSA unit out of El Monte permitted one of their Scouts to remain unsupervised at the trail junction while the rest of their group went up to the SG summit. Glad your trip turned out differently, but wow --eeirely similar story.

  6. There was actually quite a bit of difference between our trip in 1991 and the El Monte group. My understanding is that there was one leader on that trip and the boy was alone when he got lost. We had three leaders with three boys and none of the boys was ever alone. Bob Cannon

  7. Nice pictures. I grew up near Yosemite and lived on the North Coast, so I've been pouting since moving to SoCal. Just this year I discovered the San Gorgonio; it's almost like being home (in the Sierra). It's nice to see pictures of the different routes. My first time will probably be via South Fork, too, but because I'm great with distance and lousy with incline.

  8. Now that you are in SoCal you need to spend some time in the desert, particularly in March and April. You'll add a whole new dimension to your outdoor life and find it every bit as beautiful and exhilarating.

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  10. I happened to be reminiscing about one of our many trips up San Gorgonio and so I googled it and low and behold found your Blog. Good memories. Ill have to have you send me a copy of that group picture with Kevin and Brian.
    -Brent Wright

    1. I have fond memories of those San Gorgonio trips. Thanks for the comment and hope married life is going well.