Steep Stepping, but Peak Is Worth It

John McKinney is the author of "Day Hiker's Guide to California's State Parks" (Olympus Press, $14.95)

It’s the shortest, the steepest and, in the opinion of some hikers, the most scenic ascent of San Jacinto Peak (10,804 feet) in Riverside County. Marion Mountain Trail gains 2,400 feet in just 2.5 miles. The rest of the climb to the peak via Pacific Crest and Deer Springs trails is nearly as steep.

Although reaching the summit of the great mountain is ample reward for most hikers, Marion Mountain Trail scatters additional rewards along the way. This is a hike for tree-lovers, a climb to remember through “Conifer-Land.”

Marion Mountain’s lower elevations support stands of Jeffrey pine and even oaks. Higher up the mountain grow ranks of sugar pine and white fir and, higher still, some lofty lodgepole pine.

If you want to learn about the highly intriguing (to the arboreal appreciative, anyway) stories behind California’s 50 species of conifers, I highly recommend perusing the just-published “Conifers of California” (Cachuma Press, $24.95) by Ronald Lanner. It’s a beautifully illustrated and captivating natural history and field guide to the state’s native cone-bearing trees.


Marion Mountain Trail is a great conditioning hike for anyone planning a High Sierra adventure. The altitude and the altitude gain of this hike approximate some Sierra sojourns. With forests and bold granite outcroppings, this part of the San Jacinto Mountains even resembles the Sierra Nevada.

Get an early start and allow plenty of time for this hike--six to nine hours, depending on your pace and how long you linger on the summit. Even if you’re a well-conditioned hiker, don’t be discouraged if it takes you four hours or more to make San Jacinto Peak. And don’t rush the descent: The steep and rocky trail has a high ankle-turning and knee-wrenching potential.

Most of Marion Mountain Trail traverses the Mt. San Jacinto State Park Wilderness. This means the hiker must obtain a wilderness permit from the state park headquarters at 29505 Highway 243 in Idyllwild.

In addition, because trail head parking and the first mile of trail is in the San Bernardino National Forest, you’ll need to display a U.S. Forest Service Adventure Pass or purchase a $5 day-use pass from the forest service’s San Jacinto Ranger District at 54270 Pinecrest in Idyllwild.


Directions to trail head: From Interstate 10 in Banning, exit on California Highway 243 and ascend south for 19 winding miles. Just about opposite the Forest Service’s Alandale Station, turn left (east) on the road leading to Stone Creek Campground. You’ll soon fork left and follow the signs for Marion Mountain Campground 1.5 miles to the start of Marion Mountain. The trail is on the road’s right side, and trail head parking is on the left.

The hike: Signed Marion Mountain Trail begins what is briefly (0.2 mile) a mellow ascent through the pine woods. You’ll soon pass a spur trail leading north down to Marion Mountain Campground and begin the vigorous ascent of the northwest flank of Marion Mountain.

A bit more than 1.25 miles up the trail, a sign informs hikers they’ve entered the Mt. San Jacinto State Park Wilderness. Like a window on the world you left behind, the trail-side view briefly opens up to reveal Highway 243 snaking through the mountains far below and the murky flatlands of the Inland Empire to the north. Almost immediately, it’s back to the trees, interspersed with ferns and big boulders. That hammering you hear could be from a high altitude headache, but it is more likely the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker working away high atop one of the many snags near the trail.

After what may seem like one of the longest 2.7-mile stretches of trail in the Southland, you’ll come to a junction. It’s not quite the perfect four-way intersection pictured on trail maps, but it’s well signed. You’ll first encounter Pacific Crest Trail (Deer Springs Trail) coming in from the right (south). Turn left and walk 50 feet to a second junction. Seven Pines Trail descends to the north, but you continue your climb east on the signed PCT.

After a 0.3-mile ascent on the very well-engineered and well-maintained PCT, you’ll pass gurgling Deer Springs. The modest springs-spawned creek forms part of the headwaters of the North Fork of the San Jacinto River.

The ascent continues another 0.25 mile up the other side of the creek canyon and junctions with Fuller Ridge Trail. Keep right, and keep switchbacking for another mile to Little Round Valley, where a small trail camp is located.

The trail curves east, still climbing and still switchbacking for another 1.3 miles and 800-foot elevation gain to San Jacinto Peak’s summit ridge. A final 0.3-mile ascent via the summit trail leads past a stone mountaineers’ hut to the peak.

Enjoy the view that John Muir described as “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this Earth!”



Marion Mountain, Pacific Crest Trails

WHERE: Mt. San Jacinto State Park.

DISTANCE: From Fern Basin to San Jacinto Peak is 11 miles round trip with 4,400-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Steep pine- and fir-covered slopes.

HIGHLIGHTS: Memorable forest, summit vistas.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Strenuous to say the least.

PRECAUTIONS: Very steep trail, high-altitude hiking. Both a wilderness permit and Forest Service Adventure Pass required.


FOR MORE INFORMATION: Mt. San Jacinto State Park, tel. (909) 659-2607; San Bernardino National Forest San Jacinto Ranger Station, tel. (909) 659-2117.