Last weekend a buddy of mine and I hiked Mount San Gorgonio. Sitting at roughly 11,503 feet, Gorgonio is Southern California’s tallest mountain nestled in the heart of the San Bernardino National Forest. It was a fantastic experience, and probably the 2nd hardest physical challenge of my life (second only to my single-day domination of Mount Whitney in September of 2006). The most popular trail to the top of Old Greyback is the Vivian Creek Trail, which was supposedly closed last weekend due to excessive bear activity. As a result, we took the Fish Creek Trail to the summit. To the top and back, Fish Creek is roughly 20-miles round trip starting at an elevation of approximately 8,180 feet. Fish Creek is a little longer than Vivian Creek, but less steep which probably saved our legs a little in the long run.
Here are some of my notes and pictures from the trail.
If you’re in great shape, you should have no problem handling Gorgonio. I workout regularly and bike to work three days a week, so I wasn’t hurting too bad. Gorgonio isn’t a simple weekend excursion though; you need to plan and know what you’re getting into. In fact, for a day hike and even extended camping adventures, you need a permit which you can pick up for free as described here.
In my day pack I carried three, 3 liter water bottles and 2 Gatorade’s to the summit. I also carried a sweatshirt, sweat pants, sunscreen, sunglasses, a long sleeve shirt, and a wide brimmed hat. I wore thick hiking boots and mesh shorts, but you can probably get away with comfortable pants if you prefer. If you’re going on a day hike, remember to bring plenty of liquids, a lunch, and some snacks. It got hot and dry out there at some points on the trail, and having enough water was key. I recommend that you alternate between water and Gatorade while on the trail.
Getting to the Trail Head
Some trails on/around Gorgonio are more accessible than others. As it turns out, the Fish Creek Trail is one that’s harder to get to. To get to Fish Creek, we followed the instructions on this site. We also had a map of the San Gorgonio National Forest that my buddy picked up at REI for about 9-bucks. Getting to Fish Creek involved navigating some interesting back-country service roads, none of which are paved. If you plan on hiking Gorgonio, remember to drive an SUV or another vehicle that won’t bottom out on a rough service road. A sedan or other low-riding vehicle will definitely NOT get you to the Fish Creek Tail head. Luckily though, the trail heads and service roads are clearly marked. Getting from point A to point B wasn’t a problem, so we easily found our way around in the forest.
We woke up at about 3AM on Saturday morning. My buddy lives about 2.5 hours away from the mountain, so we needed to rise early if we were going to take Gorgonio in a single day. We got on the road and left Orange County, CA at around 4AM arriving at the Fish Creek Trail head at approximately 6:15AM. Our hike started at 6:30AM. If you plan on taking Gorgonio in a single day, you need to start early. Coming back down the mountain later that afternoon, we passed several groups of hikers on their way up. It was clear that they did not have overnight camping gear, nor would they make it to the summit before sunset.
The Fish Creek Trail
The trail itself is very bright and well maintained. We had no problem following Fish Creek to the top and back. Starting out at roughly 8,180 feet, the trail is quite lush and takes you past several meadows and creeks (one was probably Fish Creek, hence the trail name). Initially, the trail is well shaded until you get to the upper elevations. The scenery starts noticeably thinning out at around 9,500 feet. It also starts to get a little windy at times past 9,500 feet. There are many rocky points on the trail past 9,000 feet; thousands of little boulders and interesting rocks scattered about the trail.
On the mountain, the average temperate that weekend was around 70-degrees F. I was perfectly comfortable at all points on the hike with shorts and a long sleeved shirt. I never felt too cold, or too warm at any point on the trail. Of course, when you hike Gorgonio the weather on the trail could be different so you should plan accordingly, and always dress in layers.
Be sure to drink plenty of fluids on the trail too. At some points past 10,000 feet I started feeling light headed and a little dizzy. In retrospect I was not drinking enough liquids during the ascent.
The Plane Crash
At about 10,400 feet you’ll come across the site of a plane crash from the early 50’s. As shown in the pictures below, the Fish Creek trail takes you through what looks like the heart of the crash site. In 1953, a C-47 US military cargo plane crashed into the side of Gorgonio during a rough snow storm. All thirteen crew members on board perished in the crash. Wreckage from the plate is still scattered about the side of the mountain. You can easily see a wing, a propeller, and can even crawl about on what appears to be the body of the plane itself. It’s definitely a solemn and eerie sight.
At around 11,000 feet on Fish Creek, you’ll notice the scenery shifts to a barren landscape that looks like the moon, but with large boulders scattered across the terrain. About 0.5 miles from the summit, it almost feels like you’re walking through a desert; there’s no vegetation on Fish Creek saddle 20 minutes from the summit. At 11,503 feet, the summit of Gorgonio is very rocky and very dry. There are few shrubs and no trees at the summit. Unlike Mount Whitney, the top of Gorgonio has tens of thousands of small boulders scattered about. By comparison, the rocks at the top of Whitney seemed larger to me. In any event, there are plenty of rocks to rest on at the summit of Gorgonio while enjoying a bag lunch. I could have easily used a bed at that point, but sadly there were no mattresses at the summit.
On a clear day, from the summit of Gorgonio you should be able to see Mount Baldy (a.k.a., Mount San Antonio) to the west and Palm Springs to the south-east. We didn’t see either, it was too hazy (ehh, smoggy?). Supposedly, if you’re on the summit of Gorgonio on a clear night you can even see the glow of Las Vegas to the north-east.
In terms of altitude, the elevation wasn’t a real problem for me, but you can definitely feel the change in oxygen levels. Altitude seems to impact all hikers differently; I had no problems on Mount Whitney at 14,497 feet and no problems on Gorgonio at 11,503 feet. Of course, I was exhausted and slightly dehydrated at the top of Gorgonio but I didn’t feel nauseous or have any other symptoms of altitude sickness. My buddy and I ate lunch and rested at the summit of Gorgonio for about an hour, then started our descent.
The entire hike took us roughly 13 hours total, start to finish. In fact, we were a little slower coming down, taking breaks more often along the trail. I swear the last 1.7 miles (the last stretch of trail from Fish Creek Camp to the cars) felt more like 5 miles. My feet were absolutely killing me, and I had a few small blisters to boot. I shouldn’t complain too much though, I successfully took Gorgonio in a single 20-mile day.
We returned to Orange County later that night at around 9:30PM. All-in-all, it was an incredible hike. If you have a chance to visit Gorgonio, I would highly recommend it. It is a very strenuous and difficult mountain, but if you’re physically ready and well prepared, you should have no problems.
Me at the Fish Creek trail head:
Plane wreckage at about 10,400 feet:
More plane wreckage from the C-47 crash site:
At the summit, finally made it:
Me at the summit with Mount San Jacinto behind me:
Another shot from the summit:
Special thanks to my buddy J.P. Voisinet for organizing the hike, snagging the permits, and hosting me down in so-cal that weekend.