That title should actually read: “Current Conditions May 2013, Vivian Creek Trailhead to San Gorgonio Summit to Jepson Peak”, but that’s way too long. Long time readers of this blog know that there are three mountains I climb on a yearly basis – Mt. Whitney, San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto. The reason I climb these mountains yearly? Well, number one, I don’t need a reason, and number two, if I needed a reason, my reason is that I like mountaineering. But, if I’m being serious, the truth of the matter is that they are the three largest peaks closest to me, and I like to get out on the “larger” mountains. While climbing these mountains never gets old for me no matter how many times I’ve done it, what does get old is writing trip reports with the same or close to the same trip conditions. With respect to Gorgonio, there’s not much I can tell you right now that I haven’t already told you in past years trail reports (See 2012, 2010); and if you feel you really need more information on the mountain, I suggest you read them.
There’s something about San Gorgonio. I don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s something about it. There must be something about it, because I keep going back to climb it. There is one thing that I am sure about, however, and that is that the mountain doesn’t get any respect. In the mountaineering community, the summer ascent of San Gorgonio is written off as a mere “walk-up”, meaning that all you have to do is walk to the summit – no technical skill is required. While it is true that no technical skills are required to summit in the summertime, let’s talk statistics for a minute though: San Gorgonio is the highest mountain in Southern California at 11,502 feet. If you are taking the most popular trail, the Vivian Creek Trail, which I am discussing here, the trailhead elevation is 6,080 feet.
Moreover, according to the National Forest Service, from the Vivian Creek Trailhead, you will hike 9.3 miles one-way to reach the summit (more on distance at the bottom). This means that you will gain over 5,000 feet of elevation and walk over 18 miles to summit the peak and return. In order to summit San Gorgonio in the summer, you can also encounter a temperature range of 30 to 90 degrees. So, no, San Gorgonio is not the hardest, most technical peak to summit in the world. Then again, it’s not a cakewalk either. At the easiest, it’s a hard moderate hike; and in some respects, it is strenuous – so be prepared.
Directions: The trailhead is located at the Forest Falls parking area. If you are coming from the West, you will take the I-10 East, and exit University Avenue, which you will follow for one mile, before turning right onto the CA-38, which at that point is signed as Lugonia Avenue. From that point, it is fourteen miles to the trailhead. Along the way, you will want to stop at the Mill Creek Ranger Station, which is located in Mentone to pick up two things: 1) A wilderness permit; and 2) A National Forest Adventure Pass. This is a popular hike (especially as it is right outside Los Angeles), and it is possible that you may not be able to obtain a permit if you are going on a weekend. However, reports of never being able to obtain a permit are exaggerations. Obviously, like any regulated trailhead, the day you are going, and the size of your group will affect whether you can obtain a permit or not. I’ve been going for years, and I’ve never had a problem; but I’ve also never had a group of larger than seven people. The good news about the permit is that it is free. One of the things that has changed about this hike is that the Forest Falls parking area now has a fee kiosk prior to entering the lot, and the Rangers do monitor the area for compliance, so you will need that $15.00 Adventure Pass for your car, unless you want a more expensive ticket!
From Forest Falls, the trail heads up past some inholdings, before crossing Mill Creek. Once you cross Mill Creek, the trail really begins, and the next mile of trail leading up to Vivian Creek Camp is steep. I’ve climbed steeper sections of trail; and longer sections of trail, but in my mind, this section is up there as one of the most difficult and steepest sections that I have traversed. Be sure that you pace yourself accordingly, as the remainder of the trail is also uphill, and you still have a long distance to go. After this section, you will be in a wooded valley next to Vivian Creek, and Vivian Creek Camp. The trail levels out slightly to pass through the valley, and winds up gradually to Halfway Camp. I always try to enjoy this section of the hike, as there is no gradual elevation gain from Halfway Camp to the peak.
From Halfway Camp, there are a number of switchbacks that lead up to High Creek Camp; and then from High Creek Camp, there are a series of steeper switchbacks that lead you up to a ridgeline, where you will have clear unobstructed views of the peak, and the surrounding high country. At that point, there are a few remaining switchbacks that remain before you clear the treeline, but after that, it is a long steep ascent along the ridgeline up to the saddle just below the summit. Once you have attained the top of the ridge, you will be approximately half a mile from the summit, and have a negligible amount of elevation left to gain. After you have reached the summit, you will return the same way you came.
Current Conditions: I arrived at the Forest Falls parking area at around 7:25 a.m. on Saturday, and as I expected, the lot was nearly full at that point. Make no mistake about it, this is a popular hike, and should you arrive later in the day, you will risk not finding a parking spot. Since my gear was already packed, all I had to do was put on sunscreen, and I was ready to go. As it’s been a dry year, there was a negligible amount of water in Mill Creek – one foot wide, several inches deep; and I would not consider it a crossing at this point in time. Again, I can’t say it enough – that first section of trail up to Vivian Creek Camp is brutally steep, and I passed a number of people who were hurting/gassed on that section of trail on Saturday. While there was water flowing in Vivian Creek by the campground, it was flowing at a very low level, one that I would expect to see in late August or September. If I was to estimate, I would say that it will likely be dry within the next two weeks to a month. It’s also worth noting that I did not see any water flowing above Vivian Creek, so if you are backpacking or day-hiking, and plan to filter water; you should likely adjust your plans accordingly.
As for the rest of the trail, I’d say that it was in excellent shape the rest of the way up the mountain; and there were no obstacles that I saw to report or avoid. In terms of weather; as I got an early start, I avoided the heat from Mill Creek up to High Camp. However, it was very dry, and at or around High Camp, there were strong wind gusts of 25-30mph that persisted along the exposed traverse from treeline to the summit. These strong winds pelted me with all sorts of rocks, grit, and dirt; and at times, were physically pushing back against me on the ascent. There were also a few occasions, I felt like they were ripping the breath from my lungs. These winds made an already long day longer, as they were dry, which took more of moisture; and cold, which raised the potential for hypothermia (if I had not had the proper gear).
With respect to the second point, I saw a number of people who were not prepared for the cold – no jackets, wearing shorts – who were really struggling with the conditions past treeline. As always, be prepared with the proper gear; and check the conditions before you go. There is no snow anywhere on the summit; nor anywhere near the summit. Again, past Vivian Creek, I saw no flowing water of any sort; so plan accordingly. I spent a little less time on the summit than planned (due to the wind); and headed back down after about twenty minutes. On the descent, it was hot at all elevations below Halfway Camp. It looks like it will be a long, hot, dry, summer, so be warned if you are attempting the mountain from this point on. Roundtrip time for me was 8:05 (excluding stops), which seems pretty good in retrospect, but seemed slow at the time, but it was still a good day. At this point, I cannot reiterate enough: carry plenty of water if you attempt this hike during 2012, as it will be dry and hot!
Distance: It may surprise you, but the jury is out on how long this hike actually is. I spent a lot of time ruminating about this in 2010 (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/8/19/san-gorgonio-july-31-2010-vivian-creek-to-summit-156-miles-r.html); but the point is that it is a long hike. Summitpost lists it at 7.8 to 8.4 miles one way (http://www.summitpost.org/vivian-creek/155752); Local Hikes lists it at 16 miles roundtrip (http://www.localhikes.com/Hikes/SanGorgonioviaVivianCreek_4472.asp); and the National Forest Service calls it 18.6 roundtrip (http://www.sgwa.org/Wilderness_Mileage.pdf). Someday, I’m going to have to use my own GPS on it, and find out for sure how long it really is but at this point, I’m becoming more and more inclined to call it 18.6 to 19.5 miles, as confirmed here: http://trailtrove.com/san-gorgonio-peak-via-vivian-creek-trail. In any event, be prepared for a long day (or series of days, if you backpack it), and to go at least sixteen miles roundtrip.
Nothing is the same. If I was to teach a class about mountaineering, that would be one of my first precepts. No matter how many times you go to a location, it is still the wild, and there is always something different about it: it may be hotter, it may be colder, the rocks may be a little more loose, the route may be harder to find, there may be animals, or that tree that was half fallen may be all the way fallen, or the grass slightly greener, but nothing, nothing is ever exactly the same. It may seem the same, but it is not. Everything is different. Nothing is the same. This is a mantra that helps to keep you alive out in the wild as well. It allows one not to take anything for granted; not to shortcut a spot, use an old hold, or use old protection that should be pulled. Nothing is ever the same.
Aside from keeping one alive, it is the best mantra for the wild, and life, in my opinion that one can have. Nothing is the same. Everything is unique. (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/3/1/interregnum-the-past-is-the-past-the-future-the-future-and-t.html). Sure, it’s hard to appreciate the uniqueness of the third Wednesday of the month at work, in the same way that one approaches an old growth forest that is dusted with dew, but in my book, it’s a universal truth. Nothing is the same. Every unique and different moment of life should be enjoyed, whether it’s pushing paper, or discovering something in a far-far-off land. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to sleepwalk through life. Sometimes, too many irreplaceable things are lost, like remembering a good 7/8’s moon with good company or long lost friends, or who you are as a person. That is why I always try and tell myself every day, that phrase – “nothing is the same”, because even though life may be ghastly and difficult at times, it’s still beautiful – and I wouldn’t want to miss that beauty for anything.
Despite having this as one of my personal mottos, with all of the complicated practical and personal baggage that it brings, when I was on Gorgonio on July 31, 2010, I found myself repeating the phrase in the shadows cast by the gloaming light as the day ended. I could feel the rough rasp of the bark of the tree my hand was resting upon. Nothing is the same, I told myself. I could see the pale blue sky fading behind the black branches and needles above me. Nothing is the same, I told myself. I could smell the musty odor of long decayed plants, the dust of the valley below, and the sweet tang of summer growth. Nothing is the same, I told myself. I could hear the low, almost inaudible babbling of Vivian Creek next to me, speaking of frozen winters, falling rain, and melting snow. Nothing is the same, I wondered.
At this point, I was no longer sure if my eyes were open, shut, or if some cataclysm had struck the planet, and my mind had passed on from my body. The last time I had been on Gorgonio, in 2002, I had stood in this almost exact spot on my descent, and marveled at the timelessness of the forest. I had stopped to pull out my camera, felt my legs complaining tiredly, fixed the aperture, and shot a photograph that still hung on my wall. If I had been in black and white, I would have known that somehow, I had been transported into that picture. I shifted uneasily. I was hesitant to reach for my bag – what if I reached for it, and instead of a digital camera, my old film version fell out? What if, despite what I thought I knew, I was still there in 2002, and had fallen asleep, and the last eight years had been nothing but a detailed dream. Suddenly, I was stock still. All I could hear was my calm breathing. All I could feel was my heart beginning to cycle faster. Was it really 2010? As far as I knew, it could have been any time where I stood.
Then, I heard it: Hi Fi Killers rumbling away into the distance under Rude Boy’s tired legs. (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/8/19/san-gorgonio-july-31-2010-vivian-creek-to-summit-156-miles-r.html). The spell was broken. I felt foolish, laughed at myself, and started moving quickly down the trail after him. Nothing was the same. I told myself as I whipped through the familiar trees. Even though sometimes, it sure as hell feels that way.
Just ahead of me, I could hear the muffled dub beats of the Hi Fi Killers (http://www.amazon.com/Hi-Fi-Killers/e/B000AQ4NLG) coming out of Rude Boy’s backpack pocket interspersed with his tired but now vocal cursing. A half-mile back, he had cranked the volume on his iPhone, set it to shuffle, and hit play in an effort to inspire himself to get down the last bit of San Gorgonio. While he had been occupied with that, I had been ransacking my gear to find my last liter of water, while my brain again had crankily noted for the third or fourth time that the Vivian Creek trail felt a lot longer than 15.6 miles on the descent; and this, according to my brain, was something that I had already known, and not forgotten, but ignored, which it, and my body were not happy about. Five minutes after hearing the Hi Fi Killers, I was about to experience one of the more surreal moments of my life, but at that moment, fifteen minutes before the Hi Fi Killers, and ten minutes before an intangible loss of reality, all I was thinking about was about how damn long that Vivian Creek Trail felt. That, and how much I hated giving blood to mosquitoes on a voluntary, or involuntary basis.
We had left that morning from San Diego for San Gorgonio, getting an early start at 5 a.m. Back in San Diego, there was no orange glow of the reflected late night onshore flow. What there had been was a heavy drizzle that soaked the pavement and chilled my bones with its soupy moisture. As I flipped the wipers on that morning, I had shaken my head for the 1,012th time at the strange San Diego weather of 2010. After Whitney (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/6/24/mt-whitney-portal-to-summit-june-21-2010-part-one.html), San Gorgonio was the next peak I had interested the group in climbing. Gorgonio, as you may or may not know, is the tallest peak in Southern California at 11,503 feet, rising up out of the smog and foothills of Los Angeles, to tower over the City of Angels and the surrounding mountains and desert. Based on my past experience, I had suggested to the group that we would take the Vivian Creek route, which, according to my information – and memories, was 7.8 miles one way. I had climbed “Old Greyback” as San Gorgonio is also known several times, and twice by that route, so I knew that it was definitely do-able, although, I also knew it would be a long day.
From San Diego, it’s an easy drive up to Gorgonio – you follow the I-15 North, to the I-215 (also North), to the I-10 (East), to the Highway 38 exit in Redlands. Up to that point, my passengers – Rude Boy and Pratt - had been pretty quiet, but once we hit Redlands, they began to stir, and note that we could finally see the sun – and that there were a lot of tattoo parlors in Redlands. (Maybe it was just the exit we got off at). In any case, I had plenty of eyes to help me find the Forest Falls Road intersection, which one makes a right turn at, toward the Falls Recreation Area. Once we had arrived at the end of the road at the Falls Recreation Area we found...people! Tons of people! Whether it was the lack of sleep or my own personal naiveté, I had not expected nearly the amount of hikers out and about on the Vivian Creek trail. As we circled the lot, I realized that I had based my assumptions about the trail’s popularity on my experiences climbing the peak eight years ago on a Wednesday in May. Fortunately, Pratt and Rude Boy were nonplussed about the amount of people, and accepted my sheepish explanations about trail usage. (However: do not pull a LA! Be sure to get your permit in advance for this trail, as it is now quite popular!).
I parked the car, and in a matter of minutes we met up with Brother Bear and Tan and set off up the wash after Cash and his friend, who had left an hour earlier in order to beat the purported “90 degree temperatures”. As we traversed the wash, the air had the cool crispness of a fall day, not July 31st – a fact that made us all realize that we had lucked out with another great hiking day. One of the other things I had remembered about the Vivian Creek Trail was that the first segment of the trail after the wash was a brutal, steep climb. Unlike the amount of traffic the trail received, this fact had not changed. By the time we arrived up in the hanging valley next to the Creek, all of us were sweating and panting in the cold tree shadows at 7100 feet.
Once we had our breath back, we kept trekking through the late growing valley, and up into Halfway Camp and then up into High Camp, where there were some great summer blooms. Just after High Camp, we ran into Cash and his friend at the ridgeline, resting up for the summit ascent. From the ridgeline, which is also roughly treeline and is at roughly 10,000 feet, it is easy to see why San Gorgonio is known as “Old Greyback”, as the top of the mountain is covered with a rolling grey boulder-and-talus filled slope. After cracking a few jokes, there was nothing to do but suck heaping breaths of the now thin air, and push up through the dusty, exposed slope one boot at a time.
I’d say that we reached the summit quickly, but the summit approach and the first section of the trail are the steepest – and toughest in my opinion. Since it was cooler, we didn’t get cooked to a crisp like ants under a magnifying glass on the approach, and were in great spirits by the time we reached the summit. After lounging with the herd of other hikers who had made it that day on the summit blocks, and making friends with our Angel Share, and marveling at the remaining snowfields, we turned back down, and were making record pace until people began to tire just after Halfway Camp and into the hanging valley, which was when the aforementioned Hi Fi Killers were turned on, which, among other things, powered us back to the cars in a tired but accomplished fashion.
After we had returned home, I received an e-mail from Cash, telling me in his own sardonic way, that I had misled the group into thinking it was a 15.6 mile hike roundtrip, when in reality, his friend had measured the hike at 18.0 miles roundtrip on his GPS watch. I was puzzled. After all, when I had started mountaineering, all we had to measure distance was maps, compasses, sextants, and pieces of string and no one ever allowed us to question things like distance, and all hikes were uphill both ways. Placing such thoughts about how times had changed from my mind, I focused on the memory of how damn long the trail had felt. Moreover, I was sure I had told everyone the correct distance – hadn’t I?!?!?
At this point, it was now a question of mountaineering honor for me, the LA! I began to research it, and I found out some interesting things: Most sites, including my old resources list is as 7.8 miles one way (At this, I felt better – my honor was safe – I had not intentionally misled anyone!); however, some sites list it as 8.4 miles one way (http://www.summitpost.org/mountain/rock/150533/san-gorgonio.html); and even more interestingly, the most recent USFS handout lists that trail as 8.6 one way (http://www.sgwa.org/trails2.htm). Now, you are probably wondering: how long is the Vivian Creek to summit trail? My answer: honestly, I now have to admit I have no idea! I think, based on having climbed the peak on that trail a number of times and reviewing my maps, I’d have to admit that it’s probably longer than 15.6 roundtrip. Is it 18-19 miles roundtrip? Probably not. Is it 17.2 miles roundtrip? I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. In the end, all I can say is that it’s a great hike and a great time – but if you’re going to do it, be prepared for the extra mileage, and be sure to have fun doing it.