Written by Sam Rober, Photography by Jon Pierce
San Gorgonio Wilderness, just over 2 hours outside of North County San Diego awaits immaculate mountains and peaks in the San Bernardino National Forest. With SoCal’s highest peak, Mt. San Gorgonio, or commonly referred to as “Old Grayback” at 11,503 ft, the variety of land is stunning in itself. Over 24 miles you will encounter pine, dry desert like land, burnt trees from the devastating ‘lake fire’, few lakes (likely water-less) and rounded granite peaks. It is free to obtain permits to backpack here, so we headed out for a 4th of July weekend trip!
When backpacking in the San Gorgonio wilderness, you must request a permit. In this process, you choose designated backpacking campsites. The most popular areas, such as High Meadow Springs and Summit Camp fill up early, but less popular areas, such as Mine Shaft Flats are relatively easy to get a few days ahead of time. Most campgrounds (exception of Summit Camp) are within a .5 mile radius of a water source. More to come on water.
Beginning our hike at the popular South Fork trailhead, we hiked through horse meadows before entering the wilderness. Horse meadows is a devastating area effected by the ‘Lake Fire’ of 2015. Many trees are still burnt and skeleton like, the sun beats down through these 4 miles that we will take to begin and end our 2-day hike! We make our way into the San Gorgonio Wilderness to our first water source at mile 4, South Fork Springs. A great time to take a snack break, and fill up on water if needed. Lower springs tend to dry up as the season turns to late summer, so make sure to check conditions before heading out. (Forum and resources at the bottom of the page!)
Continuing clockwise at the Dry Lake Springs split, we take the Dry Lake Trail through dusty yet overgrown switchbacks to Dry Lake. Surprise to us! Not dry yet! In the early season you get a beautiful view of a marshy water filled lake with San Gorgonio Peak hosting some stubborn snow patches still burying themselves in the peaks crevices staving off the melt from the summer sun. Head out early in the morning and picture this with rising steam coming from the lake. Recommended!
Just around the lake we head towards Lodgepole Springs to fill up on water. This will be our last water stop for the day and for our first 11 miles tomorrow. A little risky! Lodgepole Springs is a reliable water source and almost never runs dry. As always please check conditions prior to heading out. At the springs, we ran into Ranger Dan who checked we had a permit for the evening and chatted about the ins and outs of trails and the wilderness.
From Lodgepole Springs, we took an unmaintained trace trail towards Fish Creek. This trail is marked by cairns as there is no formal trail. About 3/4 mile, this steep, short and rocky portion was likely the hardest trail of the trip! At the top a sign for Fish Creek Trail emerges and we head right, towards Mine Shaft Saddle. Just before Mine Shaft Saddle, we turn left towards our campground, Mine Shaft Flats. We detoured slightly and camped on a flat about 1 mile before the campground that overlooked San Gorgonio. (Please note, Big Tree Camp and Mine Shaft Flats are said to be stunning and full of wildlife. There is a water source between the two. In hindsight, continuing to the camp for the extra water would have been very helpful.) We unpacked, relaxed, cooked up a re-hydrated meal and headed off to sleep acclimating to the elevation of 9800 feet!
Total mileage for day 1: 9 miles
We set the alarm for 4:30 AM to catch sunrise as we make the 4 mile hike to San Gorgonio peak. An undisturbed sleep by neither hikers or wildlife, we found our Garcia Bear Canister, packed up, and headed out! Heading towards Mine Shaft Saddle, we turn onto Sky High Trail and are welcomed by an array of pink and orange shades of sun peaking over the mountains. Taking every glimpse we can get, we hike past an old bomber plane wreck that still lays in the midst of the trail and wrap around switchbacks to the peak. Don’t forget to pause and take a look at the tarn down below!
As 7:30 AM roles around we make it to the peak! Certainly beautiful and well worth the sore shoulders of a first backpacking trip! We enjoyed some time fooling around taking pictures and taking in the mountain skyline that graces us with extensive views of Southern California and we reveled in making it to 11,503 ft with our packs.
With 11 miles left, we headed out by 8 AM. Descending in not our favorite task! We headed down the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail to make a loop back. Here you have the option of hiking to the summit of Jepson and Charlton Peak, as you make your way back. Rounding to Dollar Lake Saddle where you can turn for Red Rock Flats Camp, you continue to the right down South Fork Trail to the Dollar Lake Trail split. In the early season Dollar Lake is a good water source. A .5 mile hike from the main trail and close to a few campgrounds. This lake can dry up, please check! This portion of the South Fork Trail is relentless with hot sun and loose rock. Be sure to have enough water, and sure footing. We were happy to have our hiking poles! With 2 miles left to South Fork Springs, remember this from earlier?! we continued onward with ‘half mile water checks’ until we reached the refreshing cold water at the springs.
4 miles back to the trailhead, we loaded up on water.. and weight and continued down. A beautiful reminder of the monstrosities that can occur below the high peaks, we walked back through the skeleton like meadows. We welcome the arrival of our car with cold pizza awaiting in a cooler! A humbling and generous time in the wilderness, we are constantly reminded of nature’s fierceness and caress.
Total Mileage for Day 2: 15 miles
As Always, please remember to Leave No Trace! (that includes TP!!) For more pictures, please visit the photography section!
Permits are needed for backcountry overnights, but not necessary for day hikes. Recommend: Book a week or two in advance (or further out for High Meadows camp or Summit camp). There is space available at most campgrounds but the best locations fill quickly.
Maps and Trail Resources
Purchase a trail map—I can’t tell you how helpful and essential this is to bring. You will lose cell service. You can find these at REI or http://www.SGWA.org
I found the trail system (having never been) to be quite confusing. Hikin’ Jim is a trusted source of information, I encourage you to check his page.
The SGWA forum is great to check trail conditions and water sources *CHECK WATER SOURCES TO ENSURE WATER IS PRESENT
6 fantastic beginner backpacking loops, courtesy of Hikin’ Jim. Loops can be combined, or extended pending your night limit:
*If you are experienced, I would encourage you to look into Big Horn Peak and Dragon’s Head peak, both require off trail hiking. I’ll let you do some research here.
Read more from Sam & Jon's 'Life on the Move' here.
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Covering those four miles an hour seemed like a distant dream. I moved at a pace dictated by the desert. The quicker you moved, the more you slipped about. It could be agonizing. This was a discomfort unique to the desert, one that I knew well from previous sandy sojourns in the Mojave and White Sands. My twisted mind invited the discomfort in. Let’s tango, desert.
My pack was stocked to survive three days in the backcountry. Though there were a good amount of clouds in the sky, the sun somehow found a way to shine through. And my skin found a way to chafe in the only place the sun don’t shine. My feet felt the burning heat from the sand through my lightweight trail runners. My calves punished me for subjecting them to such a rigorous sandy workout.