High and Dry: Climbing the high points of southern California: San Gorgonio, San Antonio, San Jacinto, and Santiago Peak
San Gorgonio Mountain (11,499’, 3505 meters) is a must for peak baggers. Southern California’s highest peak positively dominates the surroundings for miles with a bit of competition from the neighboring mountains, San Jacinto (10,804’), and Mount San Antonio (10,064’). Together these three peaks form the ‘triple crown’ of southern California. Each marks a county highpoint and the prominence ranks these three as some of the tallest peaks, base-to-summit, in the United States. The north face of San Jacinto is arguably the most impressive as it rises more than 10,500' directly above Palm Springs.
Geology: The lofty heights of these peaks is owed to the cataclysmic geology of the region. Very young in geologic terms, as are most mountains in the far West, their proximity to the San Andreas fault is their raison d’etre. The San Andreas Fault is the boundary between two tectonic plates, the Pacific and North American, which are sliding past one another. The deep subterranean movement causes the well-known earthquakes that frequent the region and the friction and heat results in magma that slowly rises to the earth’s surface. As it cools beneath the surface the dynamics become favorable for the formation of granite and its various subtypes such as diorite and gabbro. In contrast, if these rocks break the surface of the earth before cooling they are classified as volcanic. Otherwise granite remains the dominant intrusive igneous rock on the earth’s surface. The age of the rocks in the San Gorgonio Mountains is perhaps 80 million years*, but the mountains are extremely young, not having been forced upward until the late Miocene (11 to 5 million years before present). There is still uncertainty surrounding their formation and it’s thought that during this late Miocene period a proto-mountain range was created. The current range seen today was probably formed a mere two million y.a.**
The most recent ice age has also left its marks on the higher elevations of the San Gorgonio Mountains and there are cirques and moraines that are north facing, or trending, above 10,000 feet. The evidence of pre-historical glaciation in the San Gorgonio Mountains is said to be the southwestern most evidence of glaciation in the North America Cordillera aside from the high volcanoes of central Mexico.*** Dollar Lake is a tarn formed by the glaciers of the Pleistocene. Evidence suggests that there were as many as seven alpine glaciers above the elevations of about 9,000’. The longest glacier might have been close to two miles long and the terminal and medial moraines left over are still evident.****
The Hike: San Gorgonio Mountain is a long and strenuous hike. Anyone who is in reasonably fit condition can undertake it. Allow enough time and come prepared with enough water. When I climbed it one day in late May, the weather was perfect. Temperatures were just right and there were hoards of people coming up as I was going down. I might have been the first to start that day at Vivian Creek trailhead. To get to the Vivian Creek Trail, follow Route 38 towards the village of Forest Falls. About 5 miles to the east of Mentone the road will branch. Route 38 (Mill Creek Rd.) will continue up into the mountains with a sharp left turn. Take the well-marked road to the right (there’s a small junction) that goes to Forest Falls called Valley of the Falls Drive. Go as far as the paved road will allow, which ends at the picnic area. Two things are required: A wilderness permit to enter the San Gorgonio Wilderness, which is part of the San Bernardino National Forest, and an Adventure Pass for your car. The former can be picked up at the Barton Flats or Mill Creek ranger stations. The latter can be acquired at most outdoor sporting goods stores and costs 5 dollars for one day. I bought mine at an REI.
My day began early. I woke at 1:00 am and was on the road by 1:30 am hoping for an early start. Since I was driving from San Diego County I allowed for a 2.5 hour drive and was on time when I parked just before 4:00 am. I started hiking at 4:15 am in the cold hours of the pre-dawn darkness but within an hour I had to strip down to just a shirt. The first obstacle was crossing Mill Creek in the dark. There’s no bridge so I had to make out the tenuous banks of the creek as best I could with my head lamp. Thereafter began the long, inexorable trek of 7.8 miles covering over 5420 vertical feet to the top of southern California along the Vivian Creek Trail. The trail is a well beaten path and not difficult to follow. Take a map because some of the junctions can be confusing for those who haven’t climbed it. I reached the first junction just after 6 am where the Halfway Camp Trail forks from the Vivian Creek Trail. It was just getting light at this time. The camp should more appropriately be called “Third Way Camp” if you are heading to the summit. Elevations at this point are 8,100’. It’s at this lower part of the hike where you start to see huge trees, mostly cedars and ponderosa pines. Some are well over a hundred feet tall. The trail starts to climb a bit and great views open up, especially of Mill Creek Canyon and the distant San Gabriel Mountains north of LA. San Antonio Baldy still had some snow on the summit. At 9,100’ I reached High Creek Camp in good time. This is the last chance to get water if you have a filter or tablets. It was on the switchbacks above High Creek Camp that the elevations started to hit me and I had to rest and catch my breath a few times. At around 10,000’ the trail makes it to the top of a ridge with great views of Mount San Jacinto. Shortly after the summit ridge becomes visible but it was difficult to determine the actual high point. Needless to say the views just keep getting better as the expanse of southern California unfolded below. I was able to easily see Palomar Mountain (6140’) to the south and Santiago Peak (5687’) to the southwest, the high point of Orange County. Surprisingly I could also see Mount Woodson (2890’), a prominent peak just north of San Diego. I made it down in a record time of exactly four hours after spending about twenty minutes on the summit. The number of life zones that you hike through is intriguing. The lower slopes of the San Gorgonio Mountains have Yucca and scrub Oak, because of the lack of moisture. While most of the mountain is populated with pines there is little underbrush between the trees, especially at higher elevations. Only the well-watered canyons and creeks have the typical water-loving plants, such as willows that make for dense underbrush and thick stands of evergreens. Surprisingly some of the trees are gigantic, perhaps because of the abundant sunlight and winter snow pack which provides most of the water. The summit is treeless, and just above treeline – equivalent to a trip to the Arctic Circle. Back home in time for dinner after a long day I proved to myself that with some effort these huge mountains make good day hikes from most points in coastal southern California.
Mount San Antonio (10,064’). Also known as Mt.Baldy, this peak dominates the surroundings of the LA basin and draws hikers because it is the high point of the San Gabriel Mountains and Los AngelesCounty. Besides, it’s virtually the only treeless summit in the vicinity so the views are unsurpassed.
The Hike. There are a number of approaches to the summit. The most grueling is probably Bear Canyon which gain about 5,800 vertical feet and begins behind the Mt. Baldy Visitor Center. The Devils Backbone offers another strenuous option up Mt. Baldy. The most direct route is via the Baldy Bowl/Ski Hut accessible via Mankers Flat. From I-10 take exit 50 and follow Mountain Avenue north through Upland until you get to Shin Road. Eventually it will join Mt. Baldy Road and head up into the canyon. After going through Mount Baldy Village the road will climb through a number of hairpins turns. When it levels out at around 6,000’ above sea level watch for the sign to the Mankers Flat National Forest Campground. About 100 meters past the campground take the left hand turn and park along the road. You will see portable toilets on and the entrance to the fire road, which is where the trail begins. Follow the fire road. At the first switchback you will pass San Antonio Falls. After the next straight away after the falls the road takes a turn at which point you should watch for the spur trail, on your left hand side, which is the beginning of the trail portion. It’s easy to miss so pay close attention. Thereafter you will hike through scattered pines and yucca plants and reach the Ski Hut at elevation 8,200’. This is a great place to take in the view, rest, and prepare for the second half of the hike which will continue past a scree slope and up a series of steep switchbacks. At the top of the switchbacks the trail follows the ridgeline, known as Goldmine Ridge, and eventually reaches the summit, which is treeless. There are great views in all directions. Ontario Peak, Mount Baden Powell, San Gorgonio Mountain, and even downtown LA are visible on clear days, which is often. Return the same way.
San Jacinto Mountain (10, 840’). Located roughly thirty miles south of San Gorgonio, San Jacinto rounds off the list of SoCal’s ‘big three’. Geologically it’s part of the Peninsular Ranges and its tell-tale granite forms the core of this high massive which rises more than ten-thousand feet above Palm Springs to its east. Its abrupt north and east faces makes it one of the most prominent peaks in the United States. It can bee seen for miles, especially by drivers along I-15 and I-10 approaching Los Angeles. San Jacinto's summit is within Mount San Jacinto State Park but many of the trailheads are located in the San Bernardino National Forest. It's best to check a map beforehand if you plan to hike.
Hiking. Of the ‘Big three’ San Jacinto has the greatest number of routes to its summit. The shortest, requiring the least vertical, is from the terminus of the tramway station on the Palm Springs side. For the super-human, San Jacinto can be climbed from the Pacific Crest Trail accessible from San Gorgonio Pass. This will, without question, require at least one overnight, and will gain more than 9000 vertical feet. A shorter climb to the summit is via the Marion Mountain Trail located off Route 243. This trailhead can be accessed between the Fern Canyon and Marion Mountain Campgrounds, both in San Bernardino National Forest. It leads to the Deer Springs Trail after 2.5 miles from where it goes to the summit connecting to a short spur trail after a number of switchbacks. From the car park to summit is 5.3 miles one way and 4,480 vertical feet. A wilderness permit is required for any approach to the summit. For day wilderness permits (free) there is a self-issued kiosk at the Stone Creek Campground in Mount San Jacinto State Park (along the same road to the Marion Mountain Trailhead), and at the Forest Service Ranger Station in Idyllwild along Route 243. Both the State Park and Forest Service honor each others’ permit. For overnight wilderness permits contact either the Forest Service or State Park as the regulations are different than the day-use, self-issued permits. An Adventure Pass is also required for parking at the trailheads.
Santiago Peak. Although comparatively low, Santiago Peak (5,687'), the Orange County highpoint, should not be overlooked. It's a beautiful hike and from the summit, despite hoardes of telecommunications equipment, great views are afforded of all the aforementioned peaks. The hike is 16 miles roundtrip with 4000 feet of vertical gain from Trabuco Canyon along the Holy Jim Trail in Cleveland National Forest. You can get all the way to the Holy Jim Trailhead in a 2WD but it's advisable to use a 4WD as the last two miles are rough and wash-out after heavy rains is common. The Holy Jim Trail meets up with the Main Divide Truck Trail for about a mile before resuming as the "Upper Holy Jim Trail" to the summit. A classic SoCal hike, Santiago Peak is popular with hikers, mountain bikers, and dirt bikers. Avoid hiking in the summer as the temperatures can be very hot and the bugs quite bad.
*San Gorgonio Wilderness Association. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2009, from http://www.sgwa.org/aboutsg.htm
**United States Geological Survey. 2006, May 26). Geology of the San Bernardino Mountains. Retrieved July 16, 2009, from
***Owen, L.A., Finkel, R.C., Minnich, R.A., & Perez, A.E. (2003, August). Extreme southwestern margin of late quaternary glaciation in North America: Timing and controls. [Electronic version]. Geology, 729-732.
**** San Gorgonio Wilderness Association. (n.d.). Retrieved July 16, 2009, from http://www.sgwa.org/aboutsg.htm
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