San Gorgonio Mountain lies at the easternmost extremity of the Transverse Mountain Ranges, and it is the only mountain that can be seen clearly from Mt. Whitney over 190 miles away. The San Bernardino Wilderness attracts over 200,000 visitors per year, and with a variety of activities like hiking, biking, and climbing. It’s easy to see why.
While the hikes to the San Gorgonio summit are technically ranked an easy Class 1, most of the trails to the top are steep and strenuous and will result in an elevation gain of over 4,000 feet above sea level, as well as, a few hundred feet above the treeline.
History of San Gorgonio
San Gorgonio is named after Saint Gorgonius, a Christian martyr who died in 304 AD. Before it received its name from the US Geological Survey in 1899, it was known as Old Grayback because, from a distance, it looks like a steep gray hill.
In 1962, Defenders of the San Gorgonio Wilderness formed. This group fought against popular ski associations who wanted to turn San Gorgonio Mountain into a ski resort. In 1964, the defenders prevailed, thanks to the federal Wilderness Bill. The Wilderness Act promised to, “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness….. an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Alas, the San Gorgonio Wilderness was officially safe from developers and open for the public to explore.
Parkings and Rules and Regulations
Parking is available at most all of the trailheads, but you must have a visible parking pass. Either the National Parks Pass, which gives you access to all national parks, monuments, or national forests, or the California Adventure Pass is valid for parking. You can also buy a $5 day permit from the Ranger’s Station.
Due to the popularity of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, a wilderness permit is recommended for those wishing to day hike, but if you’re hoping to camp overnight, you must acquire a permit from the ranger’s office.
The San Bernardino Wilderness has a variety of rules and regulations, which include but are not limited to:
- Campfires are not allowed. Gas and backpacking stoves are permitted, and you do not need a second permit for your stove.
- Group size is limited to 12 people per party.
- Dogs are allowed, but they must be leashed at all times. Dog owners are required to clean up after their pets.
- Visitors are required to pack out what they bring in, including garbage, debris, and waste.
- Smoking is not allowed, except in areas where you are seated and within an area of three feet in diameter in which all flammable debris has been cleared.
If you wish to receive parking at the trailhead, arrive early. Spots will fill up quickly, despite the permit rule.
It’s important that hikers are bear aware while hiking in the San Gorgonio WIlderness. Bear-human encounters have occurred. Hikers are encouraged to keep their packs with them at all times, as bears are more likely to approach an abandoned pack. If you are backpacking, bear canisters are recommended to store food. Canisters are available for rent at the Mill Creek Ranger Station.
Park officials recommend that you bring a map or some kind of navigation tool with you. Weather at higher altitudes can instantly change and leave hikers lost due to heavy rain or fog.
Trails to the San Gorgonio Summit
Length: 9.3 Miles One Way
Elevation Gain: 5,422 Feet
Features: Canyon Views, Creek Views, Waterfall, Vistas
The Vivian Creek trail is the fastest route to the summit. While it can be completed in one day, if you get an early start, you could also break this trip up into an overnight trip. Hikers who have completed this hike have said it’s divided into five sections ranging from a warm up to very steep. The Vivian Creek Trail features many stunning views and photo opportunities, such as the Mill Creek Canyon, Vivian Creek, and Mt. San Jacinto.
Length: 12.4 Miles One Way
Elevation Gain: 4,622 Feet
Features: Flora, Creek Views, Seasonal Lake Views, Vistas
At approximately 2 miles into your trek, rangers will check for a Wilderness Permit, so obtaining a permit is required to hike the South Fork trail. Due to the length of this trail, it’s recommended that you break it up into an overnight backpacking trip. There are a few side trails and a service road on this trail You will want to ignore these and continue on the clearer South Fork trail to the summit. Hikers should also note that there are many switchbacks and steep elevation gains on this hike. Before the switchbacks begin, you’ll pass the wreckage of a military C-47. Unfortunately, all 13 passengers passed during the crash in the winter of 1953, and a plaque has been placed at the site in their honor.
Length: 10.1 Miles One Way
Elevation Gain: 3,342 Feet
Features: Switchbacks, Panoramic Views, Flora
The Fish Creek trail is one of the least traveled roads to the San Gorgonio summit. Though the distance is longer than other trails, the elevation gain is significantly less, as you start your hike at 8,000 feet above sea level. The drive to the trailhead is a trek in itself, and a high clearance vehicle is recommended. Signs for Fish Creek will be on your right. On this trail, you will see the plane wreckage mentioned above on the South Fork trail, as these two trails connect.
Lost Creek to South Fork Trail
Length: 12.9 Miles One Way
Elevation Gain: 5,182 Feet
Features: Flora, Creek Views, Seasonal Lake Views, Vistas
Hikers can park for access to this trail at the Santa Ana River trailhead. From there, hikers will cross the highway and begin following signs east for the Lost Creek trail. Once you have reached the Grinnell Campground, follow the signs for the South Fork trail. From there, continue on this path until you reach the summit. The Lost Creek trail offers plenty of shade thanks to the coniferous trees. Due to the lack of hikers on the Lost Creek trail, there is virtually no erosion, making the trail easy to follow.
Momyer Creek Trail
Length: 13.2 Miles
Elevation Gain: 6,062 Feet
Features: Creek Views, Seasonal Lake Views, Vistas
Momyer Creek trail takes you up the backside of Mount San Gorgonio. It’s a trail less traveled, and it features steep inclines and switchbacks. The Momyer Creek trail is great for backpacking to the peak of San Gorgonio, as it offers plenty of water sources. To access the trailhead, visitors should park at the Big Falls Trailhead located approximately 2 miles from the Vivian Creek trailhead. The trail will drop to the Snow Creek trail and then connects to the Momyer Creek trail. This trail is rocky, so proper footwear is recommended. There are many side trails on the way to the summit via the Momyer trail. Make sure you bring a map and follow all signs to ensure you don’t get lost.
Forsee Creek Trail
Length: 17 Miles One Way
Elevation Gain: 4,702 Feet
Features: Hot Springs, Seedlings and Pioneer Plants, Springs, Vistas
Parking for the Forsee Creek Trail is available down a windy backroad. Before reaching the trailhead, a sign is posted as a somber reminder that portions of the trail are still recovering from the Lake Fire in 2015. The first junction is approximately 0.5 miles into the trail. Hikers will keep right and follow this trail for the next 5.7 miles. At approximately 8 miles, you will have reached San Bernardino Peak. Continue on this trail for the next 9 miles, and you’ll arrive at the San Gorgonio Peak. For this particular route, an overnight backpacking trip is recommended.
What to Bring
When hiking in the San Bernardino Wilderness, more specifically the high elevations of Mount San Gorgonio, you’ll want to make sure you have the 10 wilderness essentials:
- Navigation: a map, GPS, compass, or personal locator beacon (PLB)
- Sun Protection
- First Aid Kit
- Extra Food
- Extra Water
- Extra Clothes: Sweat-wicking, non-cotton clothing is recommended.
- Fire Starter
Aside from these essentials, trekking poles would be a great addition to your packing list to assist with balance on rocky or steep sections of each trail. You’ll also want to make sure you’re wearing proper, broken-in footwear, as the trails to the San Gorgonio summit are long and strenuous.
Hiking to Southern California’s highest peak should be on every SoCal hiker’s bucket list. With a variety of trails to choose from, there’s a hike for everyone.