Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mount San Bernardino

Mount San Bernardino is the largest looking mountain at the east end of the San Bernardino Valley,
often topped with snow during the winter.
There have been different calculations for mileage along the San Bernardino Peak Trail, the main route to its summit, over the years and the calculations vary quite dramatically.
I talked to a ranger a few years ago and he told me that the current U.S. Forest Service calculations are based on GPS readings and that many hikers believe they are inaccurate; that many believe the mileages on the old San Gorgonio Wilderness Association (SGWA) map may be the most accurate. For this post I have provided those mileages as well as mileages on the old USFS map and from my old version of John Robinson’s San Bernardino Mountain Trails: 100 Hikes in Southern California. I have been to the summit of Mount San Bernardino eight times and I have been up high on the mountain (at least as far as Columbine Spring junction), and cut short, usually by snow, at least six other times.
The trailhead, near Angelus Oaks, is at 5,960 feet. Just past the fire station, you turn right down a dirt road and take it to the trailhead. I consider the hike to consist of three sections. The first section starts from the trailhead and after a short walk starts to switchback up the first hill in very long, gradual, switchbacks. It is through pine trees and I am often going up this in the dark because of an early start. You trace your progression up the hill in relation to the buildings (and lights) of Angelus Oaks below. I’ve not seen much wildlife on San Bernardino, but I have seen mountain quail along this section, gray squirrels, and a skink. Approximately two miles up the trail you pass a sign letting you know you are entering the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Below, in July 1995, Rachael, Andrew, Sam and I on the trail near the San Gorgonio Wilderness sign.
Eventually you reach the top of the first hill and onto a plateau where the switchbacks end. That is the end of what I think of as the first section. On the way down, usually in the afternoon, the first section is where it can get quite warm. The first section is my least favorite part of the hike. It is closest to civilization, often with the sound of cars and the sight of buildings and cars. And because it is the lowest elevation of the hike and the last portion after a day hike, it can often be quite warm.

The second section follows the plateau, mostly in a relatively straight, non-switchbacking trail, up to the San Bernardino massif at Columbine Spring junction. Below, from higher on the mountain, looking down at the relatively level plateau toward the left of the picture.
At the junction, a left trail takes you down to John’s Meadow, a right trail takes you down to Columbine Spring Trail Camp, which usually has water, and the San Bernardino Peak Trail continues straight ahead. The second section has plenty of trees, but also more open space. The elevation gain is more gradual and eventually you are rewarded with wonderful views of Mount San Bernardino.
Below, Jason Bogh, Peter Walker, Kirk Thompson, Warren Guyman, Mark Richey and Brad Martinsen in June 1993 with San Bernardino in the background.
As you get closer to the massif, Manzanita and deer brush appear and can be quite thick. Below, Andrew in November 1996 on a boulder surrounded by manzanita and deer brush.
This is probably the most pleasant portion of the hike. Civilization has been left behind, the quietness and solitude of the wilderness engulfs you and the walking is easy. The only wildlife I’ve seen along this section is small birds, like chickadees. The Columbine Spring junction is anywhere from 4 miles [Robinson] to 4.9 miles [current USFS] from the trailhead (SGWA is 4.3 miles and old USFS is 4.7 miles). It is at 8,000 feet and most of the 2,040 feet in elevation gain happened in the first section. Columbine Spring and the marvelous trail camp are about ¼ to ½ mile downhill from there. It is among the trees, secluded from the main San Bernardino Peak Trail, and there is usually a nice stream running through camp, although two years ago we camped there during a drought and there was no water (one of the boys found water about a quarter mile upstream). This is where we camped when our entire family did our first and perhaps only family backpacking trip which was up Mount San Bernardino on the July 4th weekend in 1995.

The third section of the hike goes up the San Bernardino massif to the summit. Below, a look up the mountain in June 1993, from beyond the Columbine Spring junction.
Another picture taken in the same vicinity without snow.
The next landmark is the Limber Pine Bench where there is another trail camp. It is from .8 miles [current USFS] to 2 miles [Robinson] distant from Columbine Spring junction and an additional 1,360 feet in elevation gain. The old USFS has the distance at 1 mile and the SGWA at 1.4 miles. Again, the sources vary quite drastically. The elevation of the Limber Pine Bench is 9,360 feet. The trail camp is right off the trail. Below, Limber Pine Bench Trailcamp.
I have never camped there, but I have been along with a group that did and at least one member of that group experienced altitude sickness there during the night. From Columbine Spring junction the trail trends south and upward. Below, Bill Tooke, near Limber Pine Bench Trailcamp, looking uphill.
On several of my attempts on San Bernardino that were cut short by snow, this section of the trail is where we had to stop. On June 12, 1993, with Mark Richey and the Redlands 4th Ward scouts, named earlier, we had a lot of fun along this section, hiking up the side of the mountain and then sliding down in the snow. Below, Brad Martinsen sliding down the snow.
A closer look at Brad.
There are sections where you can get a nice ride, but not worry about the danger of going too far or going off a cliff. Below, Brad with snow-capped Mount Baldy in the far distance.
A quarter mile up the trail from Limber Pine camp is the one sure place for water, the Limber Pine Spring.
It is just off the trail to the left, in a little side gully, as the trail turns right on a switchback. Because it is in a shaded area of the mountain, if there is snow, this place is surely surrounded by snow. I have been there several times when the hike over to the spring is quite tricky because of hard, steep snow. On my first hike up Mount San Bernardino, on November 29, 1991, right after Thanksgiving, with my brother-in-law, David Kenison, and nephews, Rick DeLong and Brent Jackman, we found no snow on the trail but most of the spring was frozen over with ice. Below, Brent uses a rock to smash the ice.
Brent and Rick
From Limber Pine Spring (below, just up the trail from the spring, looking back to the gully where it is located),
the trail continues south around a section of the mountain into a gully (below, Judy on a trip where we got stopped short because of snow)
and then begins switchbacking up the opposite side of the gully (below, snow covering the trail in this area)
until it ultimately crosses over a ridge to the south side of the mountain looking down into Millcreek Canyon. Below, David Kenison in 1991.
Once it crosses back over the ridge you soon reach a marker,
just off the trail, commemorating the spot where the San Bernardino Valley was surveyed from. The more informal marker, below, is the actual spot where the survey took place.
The east/west line became Baseline Street in San Bernardino (visible from this spot) and all land surveys in Southern California are based on this baseline. According to John Robinson, in San Bernardino Mountain Trails, Colonel Henry Washington of the U.S. Army, along with 12 other men, reached this point on November 7, 1852. There are spectacular views from this area: looking down into Millcreek Canyon in the vicinity of Forest Falls (Brent and Rick with Yucaipa Ride and Mount San Jacinto in the background),
to the west into the San Bernardino Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains, including Mount Baldy, and to the north Big Bear Lake is visible. Below, the trail near the marker with the San Bernardino Valley ahead.
From the marker, the trail follows near the ridge up to the summit. Below, on the way down, looking at the ridge which the trail follows.
The actual summit is reached by a side trail that goes up about 40 yards. A pile of rocks with an upright post in the center marks the summit. My first several times there was a wooden sign indicating “San Bernardino Pk” attached to the post. Below, in November 1991.
Later, the sign was lying loose in the vicinity. Below, September 1993.
Rick DeLong in September 1993
And Kasey Haws in September 1993
On my most recent trip, the sign was gone. From Limber Pine Bench (near the trail camp) to the summit, at 10,649 feet, is anywhere from 2 miles [Robinson] to 2.3 miles [old USFS] with both the SGWA and new USFS showing 2.2 miles. There is an elevation gain of 1,289 feet, or a total elevation gain from the trailhead of 4,689 feet. Strangely enough, despite the wide variation in segments among the various sources, there is very little variation in total mileage from the trailhead to the summit: 7.9 miles SGWA and current USFS and 8 miles Robinson and old USFS. To the east is my favorite view of the trip: the other eight peaks of the nine peak hike in the mountains of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and particularly the dominant 11,499 foot Mount San Gorgonio.
I’ve kept records of my hiking times to the summit on five occasions (two of the eight times to the top were backpacking trips where we stayed overnight along the way). My fastest time was 3 hours, 54 minutes on September 24, 2005 when Kasey Haws, Craig Wright and I did this as part of a nine peak hike. We started at 3:23 a.m. and arrived at the summit at 7:16 a.m. We would have been even faster if we’d not stopped at Limber Pine Spring to fill up on water. We did it about as fast in November 1991. We started much later, at 6:49 a.m. and reached the summit at 11:10 a.m., which was 4 hours, 21 minutes, but we stopped about a half hour for lunch along the way. Below, Dave, Rick and Brent on the summit in 1991.
The cool temperatures in November certainly helped. I recall barely sweating the entire trip. When we arrived at the summit, the temperature was 20 degrees. My slowest time was 5 hours, 15 minutes on July 4, 1997 when our entire family, plus Bryan Horspool did it. We started very early, at 3:45 a.m. and I arrived at the summit at 9:00 a.m., the last of that group. This was Sam’s first time to summit San Bernardino, more on this later. My most recent summit, on August 21, 2010, was with my law partner, Bill Tooke. We started at 4:45 a.m. and summited at 9:35 a.m., or 4 hours, 50 minutes. On September 25, 1993, my second summit, I did it as part of a nine peak hike with Kasey Haws and Rick DeLong. We started at 4:15 a.m. and reached the summit at 8:34 a.m., taking 4 hours, 19 minutes.

Mount San Bernardino particularly has a special place in my heart because of my son, Sam. We attempted to hike it four times before he finally summited on the fifth attempt. His first experience on San Bernardino was the July 4th weekend of 1995. Our entire family, Judy, Rachael, Sam, Andrew and I, backpacked in to Columbine Spring and spent the night. The next day we got to within a mile of the summit and cut it short because of hard, slippery snow. His second experience was later that fall when he and I hiked in above Columbine Spring junction and encountered snow again, this time snow that had just recently fallen. It was deep and powdery and was going down Sam’s boots. He was getting cold so we turned back. His third experience was in November 1996 with Andrew and a friend, Greg, and Greg’s father. Greg had new boots for the occasion and developed severe blisters. We cut the hike short in the second section, on the plateau. Below, Sam has fun sliding in the snow while we ate lunch on that trip.
 His fourth experience was in February 1997. We went up fully prepared in the snow. We had on all weather gear, including waterproof boots, gaiters and crampons (Sam had four-point crampons). We were going up the hill, in snow, in the first section and felt that crampons were not needed. The trail was covered with snow, so we cut up through a steeper section and Sam put on his crampons. My heavier boots were biting well in the snow and I did not put on my crampons. As we went up the hill, Sam’s feet suddenly went out from under him and he hurtled down the hill through the trees and out of my sight. A chill came over me. I hollered and heard nothing. I feared he might be severely injured. I hollered again and he responded. He asked me to come and help him, but said he was not hurt. I put on my crampons, then proceeded downhill. I found him perched at the top of a 10 to 12 foot rock. He had a scratched up hand and was somewhat shaken, but otherwise okay. I said a silent prayer of thanks. I expected him to want to go home, but he said he wanted to go on. I left on my crampons, roped him up to me, and we went back up the mountain. Below, Sam roped up and with his crampons on.
We made it up into the third section of the hike, well beyond Columbine Spring junction, when we ran out of time and energy, but other than the fall, had a very fun snow day. Sam’s fifth experience was later that year, on July 4, 1997, again with our entire family. Sam and I hiked together and the others beat us to the summit. When Sam arrived he announced to us all proudly that he had made it to the summit on his fifth try. Below, the whole family at the summit with San Gorgonio in the background.
Two days later in church, in a fast meeting, Sam got up to speak for the first time in such a meeting and announced proudly that he had summited Mount San Bernardino on his fifth try. Sam later made the climb with some of his buddies before their missions, once with David Vilt and Josh Brice, another time with just David Vilt, and then with Kevin Wright before his mission, in about February 2002, through deep snow and hard ice, climbing with ski poles. When Sam got his Eagle award, I recalled his many attempts on Mount San Bernardino before he finally succeeded in making the summit. Sometimes what at times can be quite easy, can be made much more difficult by difficult conditions. In the case of Mount San Bernardino, those conditions were snow and ice. Later, with experience and skills gained from years of hiking, Sam and Kevin made it to the top in very difficult snow and ice conditions. I sometimes think of Sam’s experience on Mount San Bernardino, and other experiences I have had in hiking and climbing mountains, and I believe they provide powerful metaphors for other aspects of our lives. There is something to be said for continuing to plug ahead, to keep trying. Eventually conditions will improve, or our ability to address those conditions will improve, and we will eventually be successful. So when I think of Mount San Bernardino, I think of Sam overcoming difficulties to ultimately find success. That is one reason I love Mount San Bernardino.


  1. Awesome post on an awesome mountain. It's towering form is one of the things I love most about this valley.

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  3. Beautiful autobiography on Mount San Bernardino. Most people think it's Mount San Gorgonio.