San Gorgonio Mountain P5K HPS / PD

Aug 6, 2002
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
later climbed Jul 2, 2011


I woke up around 5:30a at the Vivian Creek Trailhead. It was cool, almost cold in the early morning, and I struggled a little to stay warm. I tried to be as quiet as possible in cleaning up and eating breakfast since there were others sleeping nearby in the back of a pickup truck. Today was going to be a long day, climbing both San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. I would have to hustle to get up and down the peak in order to have enough daylight left to drive to the Palm Springs Tramway and do the 12mi roundtrip to the summit there. San Gorgonio is the highest and toughest of the Southern California county highpoints. 16.8mi roundtrip and 5600ft, taking one to almost 11,500ft. The Vivian Creek Trail is both the easiest and (consequently) most popular route to the summit. The Forest Service estimates that nearly 9000 persons visit the summit annually, a number I thought was probably inflated. Later I changed my mind on that. By 6a I had the car packed up and I was on my way.

The book I was using as my guide made one believe it was easy to get lost at the start, but that wasn't too likely. I probably would have been better off not reading the description in the book, and just following the fairly obvious signs. I headed up the road from the parking lot for about half a mile before crossing the wide dry streambed of Mill Creek. Over 50 yards wide, one can easily imagine this creek sees periodic torrents that give it the appearance of a raging river. The name of the road (Valley of the Big Falls Road) suggests that the steep cliffs on the north side must make for some impressive waterfalls when it rains as well. I imagine in the wintertime it takes on a dramatically different look and feel. A sign on the opposite bank shows where the trail begins to climb a series of steep switchbacks (If you walk up the creekbed at the start instead of the road, just look for the sign on the left bank). A sign soon indicates that you have entered the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

The steep switchbacks are a quick reminder that there is a lot of elevation to gain. They go up sharply for about 1000ft, no messing around with flat spots to catch your breath. I was warmed up nicely by the time I reached the top of them. One gains a wonderful view of the steep cliffs on the south side of the creek, which is the north face of a ridge in the foreground south of San Gorgonio. To the west, Mt. San Antonio can just be seen peeping above the haze. The trail mellows some after that initial rise as it curves around the corner and enters the enchanting camp at Vivian Creek. Ferns, large pine and fir trees, and one of only two spots with running water in mid-summer. There was only one large tent set up (not far from the No Camping Here sign that was nailed to a tree) right next to the creek. Lots of gear about the place, and a full role of toilet paper on the stub of a tree branch completed the scene. I chose to pretend they didn't really camp there and use the creek as their latrine, but rather camped further up the creek and to the side where they were supposed to.

After the easy travelling through Vivian Creek, the trail climbs again on its way to Halfway Camp (it's not halfway to the summit, so don't get your hopes up), where there didn't appear to be any water at this time. It was only 7:30a so I thought I was doing pretty good (see, I got my hopes up). Climbing higher, I soon got views of San Antonio to the west, much better than I had the day before when I couldn't even see San Gorgonio. To the south I soon climbed higher than the fore-range, and could see over it into the Los Angeles basin. More climbing and in another 45min or so I reached High Creek Camp, the last place to get water. I filled up my water bottles in the small stream here that seems to be fed by a spring. A short distance up the streambed it is completely dry, and I couldn't tell if the stream really was springfed, or simply went underground for a distance. There were two tents sent up next to each other in a nice platform, the occupants still asleep and their socks neatly folded on top of their boots left outside the tents.

The trail now climbs another series of switchbacks, these much longer with less gradient than the earlier ones. The sun was now peeking up over the ridge, but only thin slices of light filtered down through the trees, the rays nearly parallel to the mountain slope. Once above these switchbacks, the views to the southeast and south open up, and San Jacinto Peak comes into view. It is a magnificent spectacle rising up out of the desert for 10,000ft, and even the rising levels of haze can do little to detract from it. The trail now follows a southwest ridge towards the summit area, and there looks to be a great deal more elevation to gain. The summit is not visible from this point, in fact you cannot see it until about 15min away from it, but there isn't much elevation or mileage to gain above the highest point that can now be seen. It was 10a when I reached the junction with the San Bernadino Divide Trail that follows the high ridge leading to San Gorgonio. Very little lives up here above 11,000ft, and it's mostly a lot of rock and sand. The trail flattens out, and the views to the north open up into the San Bernadino National Forest. To the northwest can be seen Big Bear Lake, a popular resort area, and to the east was the last high bump that comprised the summit. In another 15 minutes I was at the summit. The summit is nothing special, in fact there are far too many stone windbreaks built on the summit by backpackers over the years, something like a dozen of them. The views on the other hand, are hard to beat. 29 Palms and the desert ranges to the east, Palm Springs and San Jacinto Peak to the southeast, The LA basin stretching from the south to the southwest, San Antonio and the Angeles National Forest to the west, Lake Arrowhead and the surrounding mountains to the northwest, and the rest of the San Gorgonio Wilderness to the north with the Mojave Desert behind it in the distance.

A heavy iron register box holds a ton of registers with thousands of entries, none of them I found were more than a year old. Upon discovering this, I decided the Forest Service probably didn't sandbag its estimate of 9000 yearly summit visits. Today I had the entire summit area to myself, no one else around, no tents sent up, and no one else on the trail. I wandered over the east summit which is only 3 feet shorter, but the only advantage was a better view looking southeast. I headed back, and started down the trail.

It had taken me longer than I expected to get to the summit, and I'd originally hoped to get back by noon. I would have to really hustle to get back by 1p now. I started jogging wherever I could, but there are a great deal of rocks choking the trail, making it somewhat dangerous trying to run down much of it. Just above High Creek Camp, I came across another dayhiker who was kneeling down to take a photo. I stopped in my tracks without saying a word and looked around to see if there was an animal that he was trying to capture so carefully. For 15 seconds I looked around, looked at him, he looked at me and then back at his camera, and finally I said "Hi." He greeted me in return and when I asked if I was interupting him, he replied, "No." It was a strange start to a strange encounter with Harvey Helpless. Harvey started by asking a seemingly innocent question about how long he had to go to the summit. Of course that depended a lot on how fast he travelled, after finding he'd already spent 4hrs from the trailhead, I estimated he had another 3hrs to go. But then I got a whole series of questions that made me want to run. "How much water do you think I need?" "Will this be enough?" "What will happen if I run out of water?" "Do you think this plant will survive?" Harvey had an 18" plant in his backpack with wilted flowers that he'd found early on the hike. It had a single weak root only a quarter inch long that had been keeping it alive in a precarious location. Feeling like it needed saving, he'd plucked it from the rocks and stuck it in his backpack. I suggested he could leave it in the stream down at High Creek Camp and pick it up on his way back. That took him a lot of deliberation before he decided to keep it with him. The water questions were causing a good deal of stress as well, as he couldn't decide if his 1 liter remaining would suffice. "I have a problem with overheating," he offered. He had missed the stream at High Creek Camp, but it didn't seem like it would be too much trouble to go back a hundred yards or so. Harvey asked me what elevation we were at, offering that he expected he was at 10,000ft. I countered that it couldn't be that high at this point, but I didn't have a map. Harvey did, and pulled it out to show me. I showed him where we were on the map and that it showed we were at 9400ft. Because he couldn't decide to go back for more water, I offered him the liter I was carrying, figuring I could fill up in a few minutes when I got to the stream. He took it, but still couldn't decide if he had enough. When he opened his daypack to pull out his water bladder, I noticed a full roll of toilet paper. What is it with people carrying full rolls of toilet paper? But I didn't dare go there. Harvey was also carrying a deflated green air mattress that he'd found abandoned at High Creek Camp. He said there was another one and asked if I wanted it. When I declined, he started deliberating whether to go back and get the other one. Why he wanted to carry it to the summit was beyond me, but I didn't ask him. Though Harvey said he was a proficient hiker, he didn't seem confident in anything he was doing. Yet here he was on a strenuous hike to the highest peak on Southern California. I decided he was just wasting my time and I wanted to get out of there. I'd spent 15 minutes with him and I felt it would have been time better spent hitting my head against a tree.

Taking my leave, I jogged down a hundred yards in a few minutes, filled my water bottles, and continued on. I began to come across others making their way up the trail. Most seemed to be travelling in parties of three, whether backpackers (who seemed to be suffering a great deal) or dayhikers. I kept hoping to reach Vivian Creek Camp, but it took longer than expected. The trail continued to be hard to run on. I tripped many times, but managed to catch myself before going down. I noticed that my right foot was the problem in most of the trips, for some reason I wasn't lifting it as high or placing it as precisely as I should have been. I finally reached Vivian Creek and soon made short work of the switchbacks below it (a short detour gave me a view of the now very weak Vivian Creek Falls), crossing the creek, jogging the half mile down the road and returning to my car at 1:15p. Though disappointed that I took over 7hrs, I decided the hike is tougher than the stats for it would indicate. I rinsed off the sweat and salt from my face and head at the picnic grounds before driving back down. A little behind schedule, I wasted no time in heading to Palm Springs for the tram. I still had lots of time to get the hike to San Jacinto in before sundown. I don't know how often these two peaks are both climbed in the same day, but I'm betting it's not often. I would have liked to believe I was going to be the first, but from past experience I'd likely find that not only has it already been done, but someone's also done the hat trick which would include Mt. San Antonio.


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