Hikers can ascend to the highest peak in Southern California from a trailhead that’s just a short jaunt from the Coachella Valley.
Standing 11,503 feet high, San Gorgonio Mountain towers over all peaks in the Transverse Ranges and can be seen from a number of vantage points in the Coachella Valley. It’s a full 67 stories higher than San Jacinto Peak.
There are four main routes to reach the summit. The quickest of them is the Vivian Creek Trail, which will take about 10 hours. The hike comes to 18.5-miles round trip and gains 5,470 feet in elevation.
The length, steepness and high elevation makes it a difficult hike for most. You should first be able to summit San Jacinto Peak and Mt. Baldy (in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains) before even attempting this hike. You’ll also need trekking poles and quality hiking boots to handle the terrain. Many hikers also recommend backpacking enough equipment – tent, sleeping bag, food and water – in case you get stranded a night or two on the mountain.
To reach the trailhead, from the Coachella Valley, take Interstate 10 west across the San Gorgonio Pass. At exit 85, go left/northeast onto Oak Glen Road and drive through Yucaipa. Turn left/north onto Bryant Street then right/northeast onto Calif. Hwy. 38/Mill Creek Road. You’ll soon enter the San Bernardino National Forest. Go right/east onto Valley of the Falls Drive. Take the road through Forest Falls to its end at the Vivian Creek Trailhead parking lot. This is about a 35-mile drive from where Calif. Hwy. 111 junctions with I-10.
Despite the hike’s difficulty, the parking lot fills quickly on summer weekends. You’ll want to arrive early, not just for a parking space but to ensure you’re not hiking in the dark on your way back.
You’ll also need a parking permit. A National Parks Pass (which includes entry into national forests), a Southern California Adventure Pass, or a day permit purchased at the ranger’s office will work. Before setting out, always check the summit weather; conditions can change rapidly, so if you spot clouds forming at the peak any time after 10 a.m., turning back is smart.
A kiosk in the parking marks the way. At about 0.45 miles, look for a trail sign that sends you left and across the rock-strewn creek. Watch for a brown trail sign on the creek’s other side so you re-enter the forest at the right spot.
From there, the trail narrows, turns rocky, and climbs for the next mile. The reward are great vistas of the neighboring peaks in the San Bernardino Mountains along the way.
At about 1.6 miles from the trailhead, the terrain flattens as you cross through an evergreen forest. Soon the trail heads alongside Vivian Creek, but the grade up is reasonable.
The trail reaches a junction at 3.3 miles. Go left and head toward High Creek. The other way goes to Halfway Creek.
In short order, the trail climbs again on some switchbacks. They are a bit easier than the ascent made earlier in the hike, however, and the views only get better – among the sights is Mount Baldy, the highest point on the trail’s right and close to 40 miles away as the crow flies.
Beware of altitude sickness at this point. You’re well above a mile in altitude, and there really is less oxygen at higher altitudes. If you feel headache and nausea, take a rest and rehydrate yourself. If the headache and nausea return once you continue the hike, your safest bet is to turn back.
At around 5.8 miles is High Creek Camp, elev. 9,440 ft. The camp has water to refill your canteens and is a nice spot to take a break and enjoy a snack.
The trail continues to the summit by crossing a stream at High Creek and then up several switchbacks with rock eroded off the mountainside. San Gorgonio essentially is a massive block of quartz monzonite. As the Pacific and North American tectonic plates slide against one another, San Gorgonio’s older rock is being thrust over younger rock below it on the mountain’s north side.
The trail reaches a ridge at 7.3 miles. A short spur on the right heads to an observation point. Its great vista of the terrain south of the mountain makes it another good place to rest.
Once you’ve you’re feeling re-energized, continue on the main trail, which quickly starts gaining altitude. The terrain turns even rockier as the trees thin. Be sure to look to your right for some fantastic views of San Jacinto Peak, which towers over Palm Springs.
You’ll spot your destination, San Gorgonio Mountain’s peak, at about 7.5 miles. The trail also grows steep again as you head above the tree line and enter the barren, rock-filled region circling the summit. Look for cairns and signposts to guide you. You also may want to pull a jacket out of your backpack, as the open area gets quite windy, even on clear days.
The San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail junction is at 8.8 miles. Continue right. At the very next trail junction, go left and make the final ascent to the peak of what many call “Old Greyback.”
San Gorgonio is Southern California’s only peak with a significant portion of its slope above the tree line. It’s peak is quite similar to that of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in California and the Lower 48. By the way, Mt. Whitney boasts the Lower 48’s longest recorded line of sight between two peaks – it and San Gorgonio – at 190 miles.
A sign marks San Gorgonio summit. The 360 degrees view are incredible to say the least. You’re also just high enough that you can make out the earth’s curvature.
You will get chilled atop the peak. The average temperature here never gets higher than 50 degrees, and there’s plenty of snow even in late May.
Besides its visibility on the horizon, the peak has a couple of Coachella Valley connections, though both are tragic. Palm Springs celebrities and residents Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin both lost loved ones in plane crashes on the mountain – Sinatra his mother and Martin his son.
Once you’ve taken in the sights, retrace your steps back to the Vivian Creek trailhead.
- Reaching the peak: Rob Bignell
- The trail crosses High Creek at about 9,440 feet above sea level.: Rob Bignell
- Highest mountain: Rob Bignell
- San Gorgonio offers 360 degree panoramas.: Rob Bignell
- Vivian Creek: Rob Bignell