ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SOUTHWEST
Hike K17. Mount San Gorgonio
- Hiking time: about 15 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 21 miles
- Elevation gain: 4600 feet
- USGS Topo Map: San Gorgonio Mountain, Big Bear Lake, Moonridge
- Difficulties: Very strenuous hike and long day
- Special equipment: Plenty of water, headlight
This is an awesome and challenging hike to the summit of San Gorgonio, the highest mountain in Southern California. You climb through beautiful alpine meadows and lakes to the barren slopes above the treeline and on to the 11496 ft summit of San Gorgonio almost ten miles from the start. The descent on the east slopes of the mountain is equally spectacular and passes the wreckage of a USAF plane. The total length of the hike, some 21 miles, requires a very full day beginning before dawn and ending in the dusk and is therefore only advisable in the summer or early fall. That and the summit weather require careful hiking preparations including plentiful water and flashlight.
Mount San Gorgonio from the valley below.
The South Fork Trailhead is at 6900 ft and is located on Jenks Lake Road, 2.5 miles from Highway 38 at 34.16169oN 116.87215oW. From the large paved parking area, the trail starts on the opposite side of the road across from the vault toilet.
The South Fork Trail (1E04.1) climbs gently towards Horse Meadows (34.15355oN 116.86489oW, elevatiom 7395 ft and 1.3 miles from the start) and at 2.5 miles from the trailhead it crosses the San Gorgonio Wilderness boundary. Shortly thereafter at 34.14458oN 116.85452oW and an elevation of 7831 ft there is a short side trail to Poop-Out Hill, 7740 ft, and a Wilderness information display. The main trail then continues to the Dry Lake Trail Junction at 34.13074oN 116.84359oW and an elevation of 8198 ft at 3.6 miles from the start. The left fork leads east to Dry Lake, 1.5 miles away. We take the right fork which leads across South Fork Meadows (8200 ft) toward Dollar Lake and the Dollar Lake Forks Trail Camp 5.6 miles from the start at 34.12529oN 116.85728oW and an elevation of 9488 ft. Dollar Lake itself is 0.3 miles away down a side trail. (Camping is prohibited within 0.25 miles of Dollar Lake.) A little over a half mile further brings you to the junction with San Bernadino Peak Divide Trail and the Falls Creek Trail at 34.11828oN 116.86051oW and an elevation of 9974 ft. some 6.21 miles from the start.
You now approach the treeline and it can be cold and windy from here on as you gradually climb toward the summit of San Gorgonio Peak. Just before the summit there are a series of trail junctions. The Vivian Creek trail, a popular alternative to the present summit trail, joins about 34.10123oN 116.83410oW and an elevation of 11231 ft. Shortly after and 9.5 miles from the start, you come to the junction with the Sky High Trail at 34.10114oN 116.83080oW at an elevation of 11355 ft. This is the return route after a visit to the summit. The summit itself is less than half a mile away at 34.09912oN 116.82480oW and an elevation 11496 ft and 9.9 miles from the start.
Retracing your path down from the summit you turn left onto the Sky High Trail at 34.10114oN 116.83080oW at an elevation of 11355 ft and 10.4 miles from the start. Proceeding south and contouring around the mountain you pass high above The Tarse and then around to the eastern slopes of the mountain. Here the trail crosses a wild, windy rock slope and passes the remains of an airplane wreck strewn over the rocky slope. These are the remains of an Air Force C-47D that had crashed into the snowy south slope of San Gorgonio Peak in 1952 probably because it inadvertently entered Whitewater Canyon and could not climb out of that closed canyon.
As you descend you pass through the tree line and eventually come to the Mine Shaft Saddle at 34.10983oN 116.82360oW and an elevation of 9934 ft, some 14.0 miles from the start. The trail then winds down to Dry Lake at 34.11925oN 116.82889oW and an elevation of 9075 ft, some 16.0 miles from the start. Skirting around the west shore of the lake you continue on down along Dry Lake Trail to the junction with your ascent trail at Dry Lake Trail Junction at 34.13074oN 116.84356oW and an elevation of 8205 ft. some 17.6 miles from the start. The rest of the hike retraces your ascent route past Poopout Hill (18.9 miles from the start) and Horse Meadows (19.9 miles from the start) before returning to the South Fork Trailhead (34.16152oN 116.87199oW, elevation 6883 ft) 21.2 miles from the start.
Last updated 4/1/02.
Christopher E. Brennen