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Bucket List Hike of Mount San Gorgonio, CA

Several years ago I put together a list of 3 mountain hikes I wanted to complete while we were in California. The list included:

3. San Gorgonio

Including San Gorgonio on the list was an easy decision. First, it sits across from San Jacinto and together these two giants stand guard over the narrow opening to the Coachella Valley. Secondly, it is the tallest peak in Southern California with an elevation of 11,503 feet. These were reason enough in my book.

Hike distance: 20.2 miles

Elevation gain: 3,687 ft

Prominence: 8,294 feet - ranks 7th among peaks in the contiguous US and 18th overall

TrailsNH Hiking Difficulty Calculator:

  • Click here for a review of prominence and its role in mountain topography

  • Click here to navigate to the TrailsNH website. I've also provided a brief summary of the rating system at the conclusion of this blog.

There were a few problems trying to plan this hike.

1. Weather: The only reasonable time for me to hike San Gorgonio was during the early fall since by winter the mountain is snow covered and is not my preferred conditions for hiking.

I use to track weather conditions since it provides the kind of details I needed to find a 2-day window of acceptable weather (low winds and mild to moderate daily temperature swings). After searching for a week or so, I finally found my time slot. I’d start the hike midday on Thursday October 21st and complete it on the 22nd.

2. Solo hiking: Dave made it clear that he has no desire to camp overnight in the San Gorgonio Wilderness but he understood my ‘need’ to complete this hike. Despite my reputation for being too adventurous, Dave knows I take preparation seriously whether it’s a 3 or 20 mile hike and he trusts my decision making. Next I needed to obtain an online permit to camp at the Fish Creek Saddle Campground and also a California Adventure Pass. An Adventure Pass is required if you are recreating in the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, or San Bernardino National Forests of Southern California. A great fact: 80% percent of the revenue from the sale of the passes is reinvested in the local areas where they are purchased.

Then I laid everything out to pack.

3. Reliable water source: The Fish Creek trail might not have a reliable sources of water so I needed to bring sufficient water for the entire hike. Water equals weight and I ended packing 9 liters or 20 pounds of water. I could have packed less and used a filtration system but I have never relied on filtration/treatment for drinking water and didn't think it was a wise idea to start on this solo hike. To the 20 pounds of water, I added food, tent, sleeping bag, and other supplies which brought it close to 40 pounds between my two packs. Here is the photo Dave took before I threw everything in the car and started the 2.5+ hour drive to the trailhead.

Getting to the trailhead was part of the adventure. The last 7.5 miles involved driving a 'gravel road' with more than a few challenging moments. Luckily, no one was driving down from the trailhead so I didn't have to maneuver around any oncoming vehicles. I would have taken a photo but I was 100% focused on what the Forest Service refers to as a 'road'.

I chose the Fish Creek trail to the summit. Even though it is longer than both the South Fork and Vivian Creek trails, it involves less elevation gain. In addition, Fish Creek has a reputation for being the 'road less traveled' and there are times I find being on a trail all by myself relaxing and rewarding. My summit plan was pretty straightforward and ordinary.

Day 1: Hike approximately 5+ miles from the trailhead to the campground at Fish Creek Saddle. Set-up my tent and relax for the night.

Day 2: Start out early, hike 5+ miles to the summit, then return back to the campground for a brief rest and lunch. Breakdown the camp and hike 5 more miles back to the trailhead.

Thanks to SoCal Hiker for this 3D graphic

After the seemingly endless gravel road, it was a relief to reach the parking area at the trailhead. A sign of things to come, there was only one car and a single person setting up their tent when I started hiking.

The trailhead is located on the boundary of the San Gorgonio Wilderness making this hike a protected wilderness experience right from the start.

The trail started out gently with the first half-mile descending to Fish Creek. It was a welcomed start for today's 5 mile hike with included over 1,800 feet of elevation gain.

In some sections along the trail, the forest resembles a vast tree graveyard with upright matchstick trunks and thick mats of crisscrossed fallen logs.

Were the trees killed by drought and the invasion of bark beetle; destroyed by the Lake Fire (2015); felled as part of a fire perimeter control line; or cut down as part of post fire cleanup? Whatever the cause it was difficult seeing the impact up close.

The Lake Fire was first reported on June 17, 2015 but expanded rapidly on June 18, growing from about 1,500 acres in the afternoon to 10,000 acres in the evening. Hot, dry winds helped fuel the blaze in the densely wooded northern portion of the San Gorgonio Wilderness at elevations between 6,000 to 9,000 feet.

By June 26th over 2,116 personnel were fighting the blaze. Finally, on July 15th the Forest Service reported the fire was 98% under control. The remaining 2% proved incredibly difficult and time consuming to extinguish. Due to extensive damage and necessary trail maintenance, some sections of the Wilderness remained closed until July 2017. Even today charred debris is visible along the trail.

Ponderosa pines and firs are built to survive fire with thick bark that does not burn easily and protects the inside of the trunk. However, the Lake Fire burned with such an intensity that huge tracts of these trees were destroyed.

There were a few water crossings, but at this time of the year the water was just trickling through the creek bed.

Soon Fish Creek Meadows came into view with grassy fields and tall pines and firs. The fall temperatures were creating a golden blanket of fall foliage.

After passing through the meadow, the trail began to climb. Although it was still a manageable grade despite carrying the 40 pound pack for 2+ miles. For the first time, I could see traces of last winter‘s snow on the trail.

With the increase in elevation came these beautiful mountain views.

The switchbacks steepened as they followed the southeast slope of Grinnell Mountain. I had initially thought about summiting Grinnell after setting up camp at Fish Creek Saddle, but the further I hiked the less interested I became in adding more mileage and elevation to Day 1.

Throughout the day, I was being cautious to stay hydrated—taking plenty of water breaks and chewing electrolyte candies. After all, I was cruising at an elevation of 9,000+ feet and had been a sea level only a few hours earlier. So multiple factors were playing into a possible ‘dehydration scenario‘ if I wasn’t careful.

Here’s some useful information from

At higher elevations your body works harder as your respiration rate goes up and your body loses water faster than it would at sea level. Your body is essentially working harder in order to inhale more oxygen. Therefore the more energy your body exerts directly requires a greater water intake. According to the Wilderness Medical Society, “your body loses water through respiration at high altitudes twice as fast as it does at sea level”. Additionally, at high altitudes there tends to be low humidity levels which increases the body’s rate of evaporation of water.

Over 3 miles into the hike and I had not run into a single person on the trail. What a feeling of solitude.

For the longest time I had this amazing view of the pyramidal peak of Ten Thousand Foot Ridge. It is one of the 21 Southern California named peaks that rise above 10,000 feet (south of the Sierra Nevada).

Despite being tired, I still enjoyed these spectacular panoramic views. Mountains that stretched for miles then stopped abruptly at the edge of the Coachella Valley.

There had been an unintended benefit of hiking Gorgonio in the fall. The arc the sun traces in the sky is lower in the fall which results in the mountains casting shadows earlier in the afternoon. I had been able to avoid direct sun exposure even as the tree-covering thinned. Some of those beneficial shadows are visible below.

The trail began to level off as I got within a mile of the campground.

With a simultaneous sigh of relief and feeling of accomplishment, I arrived at Fish Creek Saddle campground around 4:35pm. It wasn’t a fast climb (38 min/mile) but a good consistent pace that I maintained throughout the afternoon. Missing from the photo is the backpack that I had strapped to my chest.

When I signed up online for the camping permit it showed 4 other permits had been issued for October 21, 2021. I figured I was just lucky to be the first person to arrive and therefore had the pick of the sites. I chose the location that was ringed by tree trunks and began unpacking. It was the first time I had used this tent but I put it up like a pro.

The next job was to make a pizza sandwich from slices I had brought from home. For some reason the pizza tasted extra good that night.

After dinner the camp ground was still empty except for me.

I was the lone camper enjoying the beautiful sunset with the blue and pink tones hovering over the San Bernardino Mountains. I guess everyone else got a late start.

OK, darkness was setting in and I came to the conclusion that I would be the only 'resident' tonight in this wilderness area. The question was, would I get any sleep? After checking out the impressive night skies, I crawled into my tent around 7:30pm.

The thought that I was the only tent in an isolated, high-altitude wilderness area populated by large black bears only crossed my mind about one hundred times by 7:45pm. Good night?

I somehow managed to sleep on-and-off most of the night but around 5:00am I woke up to the sounds of howling coyotes. Since there was no chance I’d fall back asleep, I made breakfast (dry cereal and trail mix), packed my supplies for the summit hike, and relaxed until 7:30am when I got back on the trail.

From the saddle, the trail traversed the northwest face of Lake Peak. The gentle incline was a great warm up for the remaining 5 miles that stood between me and the summit. Speaking of the summit, San Gorgonio was faintly visible through the trees.

What an adrenaline rush seeing the summit lit by the morning sun. The first peak left of center is Jepson Peak but my target was the flat summit of San Gorgonio, partially hidden by the tree trunk and located to the left of Jepson.

After less than a mile, I reached Mine Shaft Saddle and said goodbye to the Fish Creek Trail and hello to the Sky HighTrail. The Saddle sits at just under 10,000 feet.

Almost immediately, there were spectacular views of the surprisingly ‘close’ summit. In this photo, a portion of the vast north cirque or bowl stretching between San Gorgonio Mountain (tallest peak left of center) and Jepson Peak (small bald peak slight right of center) is apparent. Standing at 11,205 feet, Jepson is the 2nd highest mountain in Southern California but with a prominence of only 125 feet, it does not qualify as an independent peak and is overshadowed by Gorgonio.

If you look closely, left of center and directly below Gorgonio’s summit, you can see the Sky High Trail as a thin line of snow crossing the northeast slope of San Gorgonio.

Much of the rock debris scattered along the trail is man-made. During the summers of 1965 and 1966, crews redesigned and relocated the Sky High Trail. Using shovels, crowbars and dynamite, they removed multiple switchbacks and replaced them with a trail that traverses and curls around toward the south face of the mountain.

Looking up into one of the many rock littered chutes. Erosion, avalanches, and rock slides are the main contributors to these boulder fields.

The weather was outstanding and exactly as predicted by Cool temperatures, very little wind and clear skies made for a perfect hiking day. Caution continued to be the theme for today. I made sure to apply ample sunscreen knowing most of the day would be spent with constant sun exposure. I was also carrying more water than I needed in case my hiking plans went astray; running out of water was not an option!

Around 10,400 ft, the trail passed through the crash site of a C-47 US military plane that went down on December 1, 1952. The plane was on route from Omaha, Nebraska to the March Air Force Base in Riverside, CA. With visibility hampered by a severe snowstorm, the plan hit the slope of Gorgonio, scattering debris down the length of this canyon. In a horrible twist, on December 5, 1952, a Marine helicopter crashed while trying to reach this site. Fortunately the crew survived.

Weather kept rescue crews away. When teams finally reached the site on Dec. 21st, there was over 12 feet of snow that prevented them from finding any bodies. The C-47 crew wasn’t recovered until the following May.

When the trail was relocated in 1965 and 1966 the decision was made to leave the plane debris to serve as a memorial to the 13 men who lost their life.

This is the second crash site I have visited while hiking. The crash site at the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts did not involve any fatalities. This site was different and I struggled with taking pictures while also respecting the site as a memorial. Click here to navigate to that blog.

I was running into more snow and ice covered sections. This ice combined with loose sand on the edge of the trail slowed my progress.

Walking the Sky High Trail you can’t help but notice there are two very distinct views. The beautiful green tree-covered San Bernardino mountains and ...

... the barren, brown, tree-less San Bernardinos damaged by drought, beetle infestation and wildfires.

I approached the end of the traverse and knew that around the next turn were the dreaded switchbacks.

This 3D map generated using FATMAP shows the Sky High Trail and the series of switchbacks heading toward the summit.

The switchbacks started at 10,400 ft and ended after three-quarters of a mile with a gain of over 600 ft. This short section of trail represented 33% of the total elevation gain for today’s hike to the summit. The altitude began to impact my stamina and my pace slowed considerably. These weren't the toughest hiking conditions I'd experienced, but it would be disingenuous if I didn't say it was EXTREMELY difficult and it sapped a boatload of energy. I only took one photo at the end of the switchbacks so that I could look back at the terrain I had covered.

After the switchbacks, the trail wound around to the west with only a minor increases in elevation. The level terrain was a welcomed sight. Coming into view was the Tarn, a barren valley between two folds of the mountain. Each spring melting snow fills the Tarn making it the highest lake in southern California but for the rest of the year it looks like a desert.

To the right, the craggy peak is Dragon's Head. Dragon's Head (10,866 ft) is a rarely visited summit located on the southern slopes of San Gorgonio. It's the fourth highest recognized summit in Southern California. A hike to the Head is not to be taken lightly. It follows a knife’s edge with a precipitous drop on the east flank into a steep canyon that rivals any in California. Google the topo map if you think I am exaggerating.

I was also greeted by this spectacular view of San Jacinto rising 10,842 ft from the desert floor. It is the second highest peak in Southern California and along with San Gorgonio stands guard on each side of the mountain pass leading into the Coachella Valley. You can’t miss them driving into or out of the Valley.

After the switchbacks, the trail traversed the south face for over a half-mile then swung to the west. It was frustrating that trail was circling rather than zeroing in on my target.

The low pines and gentle slope gave way to a barren landscape with a steady uphill climb.

Less than 3 hours after starting the hike, I reached the junction of the Sky High Trail and San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail aka the Summit Trail. At this 11,360 ft junction, where the Vivian Creek and Sky High trails join, you typically see multiple people or groups heading to the summit. Such was not the case for me. I had not crossed paths with a single hiker since I saw the one person at the trailhead yesterday afternoon.

It was only 0.4 miles to the rocky flat summit rising in the distance. In contrast to its spectacular neighbor, Mount San Jacinto, San Gorgonio is not particularly craggy and from a distance, it appeared to be an extremely high hill.

The final section of the trail was much rockier than I'd experienced elsewhere on the hike.

Suddenly, I was standing on the summit of the highest peak (11,503 ft) in Southern California. I had completed the hike in a little more than 3 hours with an average pace of 36 min/mile. If nothing else I am incredible consistent since yesterday's pace was 38 min/mile over almost the same distance. It was time to celebrate and I was lucky enough to have the summit all to myself.

Some people consider the summit a little underwhelming. The summit plateau is one square-mile in area; it's a broad expanse of gravel and rocks. However, considering the effort expended and the feeling of viewing Southern California from the highest peak, I couldn't disagree more with those who are underwhelmed.

I quickly tracked down the summit marker.

Next up, I signed the summit register then I kicked back, relaxed, enjoyed the views, and basked in my accomplishment. It was only 10:30am and too early for lunch so I just snacked. I remained on the summit for 30 minutes amazed that I didn't have to share it with anyone else.

These following photos highlight how the summit is a broad plateau of gravel and rocks more than one square-mile in area. Up close and from a distance it looks more like a big mound than the highest point in Southern California. It’s fitting that San Gorgonio’s nickname is Old GreyBack.

Even with haze the views were outstanding. San Gorgonio hosts the longest recorded line of sight in the contiguous United States; it is plainly visible from the summit of Mount Whitney, 190 miles away.

To the north the faint outline of Big Bear Lake.

To the south, San Jacinto and the Santa Rosa Mountains rise above the haze.

To the east, the high desert plain and mountains of Joshua Tree National Park.

To the west Mount San Antonio, commonly referred to as Mount Baldy. The 10,066 ft summit is the highest point in the San Gabriel Mountains which border Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County.

Off in the distance I could see another person approaching the summit. My time at the summit had come to an end. The San Gorgonio Wilderness Area is the heaviest use per acre of any wilderness area in the United States. I had been lucky to experience the summit alone and wanted to give the same opportunity to the approaching hiker.

I gathered my pack and started the hike back to Fish Creek Saddle. It was only 11:00am and I had many more miles to hike today. I thought about the quote by Ed Viesturs – “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”

I decided not to take many photos on the way back and instead appreciate the views. During the return trip on SkyHigh Trail I ran into at least 10-15 people making their way to the summit.

I made it back to the camp site in under 2.5 hours. Unfortunately, I arrived with a bad headache most likely caused by a combination of altitude and dehydration. I rested for a while and popped some Advil. I recovered sufficiently and quickly packed up the tent and other supplies that I had left at the site. It seemed strange to think that it was only 1:30pm yet I had already been on the go over 6 hours and hiked 10.2 miles.

I must admit the last few miles to the trailhead were the toughest. I took multiple breaks, went through a ton of water, and kept pushing myself. I wanted/needed to get to the car with enough time to drive the 'gravel road' in sunlight or at least not in total darkness.

Finally the car was within sight.

I officially completed the hike at 5:18pm. It was a slow pace of 42 minutes/mile over the final stretch but then again I had hiked 15.2 miles in the last 10 hours. It didn't take long to get out of my hiking boots, change into a fresh set of clothes, toss some water on my face, and start the long drive home.

Looking back at this post, I realize that it is probably too long, but I wrote this post for an audience of one ... me. I’ve completed my 'initial' bucket list hikes and wanted to document it fully so I can always look back at it in the years to come.

Only a small percentage of the American population has experienced a night in a wilderness, away from the lights and sounds of civilization and I am one of the lucky ones. What a great first experience in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area.

Now as I sit comfortably at home in New Hampshire, I've begun researching new bucket list hike. I can't hold off aging, so there is no time to waste. I think Dave is getting nervous and is frequently checking my Google search history. Maybe Mount Baldy?

TrailsNH Hiking Difficulty Calculator

The TrailsNH Hiking Difficulty Calculator gives you a better sense of the challenge a hike may require. The goal for this calculator is to help you determine how doable a hike is for you. Is it too big? Although they acknowledge the full experience of a hike is impossible to estimate, so you should always prepare for the unexpected.

TrailsNH extended the established 'Shenandoah Hiking Difficulty Scale' from 250 to 500 and added two new effort categories: 'Challenging' and 'Bomber' hikes.

They also include assessments for 'Energy Miles' and Steepness Rating, Grade, and Angle which they believe provide an overall better evaluation of hiking demands. Click on the link to navigate to for more detail, including the formulas they use for each assessment.

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Peggy Zipperer
Peggy Zipperer
Aug 21, 2022

I am always in awe of your challenging hikes. Just wow! Such an accomplishment!

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