7 - 8
FATMAP difficulty grade
San Gorgonio is the tallest mountain in Southern California, at 11,503 feet above sea level.
Its summit is within a wilderness area and is accessible only by long and strenuous hiking trails.
The standard route to the top is Vivian Creek Trail, which begins from the retreat town of Forest Falls. At the trailhead, the immense scale of the landscape is immediately apparent.
It’s in a deep canyon with a wide, rock-strewn riverbed lined by towering pines.
The trail begins in this forest, alongside the dry creek, then crosses the creek to begin climbing out of the canyon.
Switchbacks take on a steep slope, which faces south and is normally hot in the sun.
Keep going up, and soon you’ll reach shade and gentler terrain in a forested ravine. This is a pleasant stretch, where grasses and ferns fill the understory, and trickling water intersects the trail.
Passing Vivian Creek Camp, the trail continues to rise steadily, staying mostly in the woods but occasionally emerging to sunny subalpine meadows.
The journey continues in this manner for quite a few miles, in and out of the trees, and ever upward.
The gradient is rarely super steep, but it’s long and sustained, making quite a strenuous hike overall.
After passing a small waterfall and crossing High Creek, more switchbacks carve a deliberate ascent to a ridgeline, which the trail then traces toward the crest of San Gorgonio.
As you gain elevation, the ground gets rockier, the trees sparser, and the sun grows more intense as the air simultaneously becomes crisper.
This is alpine terrain, where you’ll likely feel the effects of altitude.
Take breaks as needed and be sure to conserve energy.
Also, pay attention to the weather.
If it turns poor, you should descend immediately because the rest of the way is dangerously exposed. Eventually the trail punches above treeline, on barren talus slopes where few plants can take hold.
The scene is something you’d expect in the High Sierra, but not in Southern California.
The views are enormous if the air is clear.
You can stare down the canyon you originally hiked up, and gaze over a broad valley to the south at the opposing Mount San Jacinto. San Gorgonio’s summit is in sight from some distance away.
The final stretch to reach it is relatively mellow, but farther than it looks.
You’ll cross a moonscape of sparkling granite blocks, and perhaps patches of snow.
It can be well into summer before all of it melts. On the broad summit, you’ll find a windbreak made of stacked rocks and a summit register tucked among them.
On a nice summer weekend, you may share the top with a dozen or more people, but some days you might find it all to yourself.
As Southern California’s highest peak, it attracts due attention, but the distance and difficulty of the trail keep would-be crowds away. This hike can be done in a long day or as a multi-day adventure.
Camping is allowed at one of three camps along Vivian Creek Trail.
All overnight hikes require a wilderness permit, which is free but additional to the [California Adventure Pass](https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/r5/passes-permits/recreation/?cid=stelprdb5208699) that is required to park at the trailhead.
Day hikes do not require a permit, yet submitting a permit is highly recommended for safety, so that your whereabouts are known in case something goes wrong.
You can submit a permit online at [sgwa.org](http://sgwa.org/wilderness-permits/) or in person at the Mill Creek Ranger Station, en route to the trailhead. Sources: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5402321.pdf https://www.summitpost.org/san-gorgonio/150533