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San Gorgonio: The Highest Peak in Southern California

The mountains--he continued, with his eyes upon the distant heights--are not seen by those who would visit them with a rattle and clatter and rush and roar--as one would visit the cities of men. They are to be seen only by those who have the grace to go quietly; who have the understanding to go thoughtfully; the heart to go lovingly; and the spirit to go worshipfully. --Harold Bell Wright “The Eyes of the World,” 1914

A half-dozen major trails lead through the San Gorgonio Wilderness to the top of Mt. San Gorgonio, Southern California’s highest peak. Oldest, and often regarded as the best, is Vivian Creek Trail.

Not long after the formation of San Bernardino Forest Preserve in 1893, pioneer foresters built Government Trail to the top of San Gorgonio.

This path was later renamed Vivian Creek Trail, because it winds along for a few miles with its namesake watercourse before climbing the steep upper slopes of San Gorgonio.

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Most of us have marveled at the 11,499-foot mountain, which is most striking in winter when its snow-covered peak can be seen reaching far above the metropolis.

From the top there’s a 360-degree panoramic view from the Mexican border to the southern Sierra, from the Pacific Ocean to the far reaches of the Mojave Desert.

Vivian Creek Trail begins in Mill Creek Canyon. The lower stretch of the canyon, traveled by California 38, displays many boulders, evidence of many floods in years past.

Upper Mill Creek Canyon is where Big Falls falls. Tumbling from the shoulder of San Bernardino Peak, snowmelt-swollen Falls Creek rushes headlong over a cliff near Mill Creek Road.

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A quarter-mile path leads to Big Falls Overlook, where you can gaze up at the falls. (Don’t try to climb Big Falls; many foolish people have been killed or injured attempting this stunt.)

Mill Creek Canyon was the retreat for pastor-turned-novelist Harold Bell Wright (1872-1944). His wholesome, popular novels featured rugged individualists as well as Southwest and Southland settings.

One novel, “Eyes of the World,” uses the San Bernardino Mountains as a setting and explores the question of an artist’s responsibility to society and to himself.

Leaving the head of Mill Creek Canyon, Vivian Creek Trail climbs into the valley cut by Vivian Creek, visits three inviting trail camps--Vivian Creek, Halfway and High Creek--and ascends rocky, lodgepole pine-dotted slopes to the top of Old Grayback.

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Directions to the trailhead: From Interstate 10 in Redlands, exit on California 38, and proceed 14 miles east to a junction with Forest Home Road. (Halfway to this junction, on California 38, is Mill Creek Ranger Station, where you must stop and obtain a wilderness permit.) Follow Forest Home Road 4 1/2 miles to its end, at Big Falls trailhead and a day-use area.

The hike: The trail, an old dirt road, travels three-quarters of a mile through Falls Campground (now a picnic area) to another (the former) Vivian Creek trailhead. The trail, a dirt path from this point, crosses boulder-strewn Mill Creek wash, then begins a steep ascent over an exposed, oak-dotted slope. Soon you’ll reach Vivian Creek Trail Camp, where pine- and fir-shaded sites dot the creek banks.

Past the camp, Vivian Creek Trail follows its namesake, crossing from one side to the other and passing little lush meadows and stands of pine and cedar.

Halfway Camp, a relatively new trail camp about halfway between Vivian Creek and High Creek camps, is another welcome retreat.

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Another 2 miles of steep climbing up forested slopes brings you to High Creek Camp.

Above High Creek, located at the 9,000-foot elevation, you leave behind the ponderosa pine and cedar and encounter that hearty, high-altitude survivor, the lodgepole pine.

Two miles high, you start getting some great views; at 11,000 feet, the trail ascends above the timberline.

When you reach a junction with the trail coming up from Dollar Lake, you’ll turn right.

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Soon you’ll pass a junction with the Sky High Trail, cross a last rise and climb to the summit of San Gorgonio.

No other Southern California mountain commands such an uninterrupted panoramic view.

To the north are the deep meadowlands of the upper valley of the Santa Ana River.

To the west is the murky megalopolis.

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To the east is the Mojave Desert.

South is San Gorgonio Pass and just across it, nearly level with your feet, is Mt. San Jacinto.

As Harold Bell Wright described the scene in “Eyes of the World”:

“At last their wanderings carried them close under the snowy heights of San Gorgonio--the loftiest of all peaks. That night, they camped at timber-line; and in the morning, made their way to the top, in time to see the sun come up from under the edge of the world.”

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Vivian Creek, San Gorgonio Peak Vivian Creek Trail

Mill Creek Canyon to

Vivian Creek Trail Camp

2 1/2 miles round trip;

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1,200-foot elevation gain

Mill Creek Canyon to

Halfway Trail Camp

5 miles round trip;

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1,800-foot elevation gain

Mill Creek Canyon to

High Creek Trail Camp

8 miles round trip;

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3,400-foot elevation gain

Mill Creek Canyon to

Mt. San Gorgonio Peak

14 miles round trip;

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5,300-foot elevation gain

Wilderness permit required


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