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Summiting San Gorgonio

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You know when you do something really difficult or traumatizing and you don’t really want to talk about it until a while after? Well, that’s sort of how I feel writing about summiting San Gorgonio (which was our training hike the weekend before Mount Whitney, along with San Jacinto). Don’t get me wrong, we had a GREAT time owning our victory at the top, but claiming the title of the highest peak in Southern California at 11,502 feet (the sign is actually 1 foot off lol), San Gorgonio is quite the beast.

This journey all started about 6 months ago when we met a friend while rock climbing in Malibu who mentioned that he had just received his permit to summit the “highest mountain in So Cal.” Of course we were intrigued and inspired, so naturally we decided that we HAD to do this too.

Upon filling out our overnight wilderness permit request, we had to decide on our top 3 choices for trailhead and camp site. We kept our fingers crossed for our #1 choices, the South Fork Trail and Dollar Lake, and luckily it worked. 2 weeks later, we received our approved permit request with our #1 choices in tact.

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There are 8 different trails to choose from (click here for all trail distances and elevations), the shortest trail, which is what makes it the most popular, is Vivian Creek at 18.6 miles roundtrip. The longest trail, San Bernadino, is 17.3 miles… oneway! We chose the South Fork Trail because it is known to be the most beautiful trail, and at 21.4 miles roundtrip with 4,622′ elevation gain, it was also the perfect training choice for our Mount Whitney trip the very next weekend, which will be 22 miles roundtrip with 6,132′ elevation gain… bring it on.

Things to note:

This is an advanced hike, if you are an occasional hiker, wait until you would call yourself a skilled hiker before summiting this one.

Whether you want to do a day hike or an overnight hike, a wilderness permit is REQUIRED and they do check.

Apply for your wilderness permits, day and overnight, 3 months in advance; both are free.

If you decide to hike Gorgonio last minute and do not have a hiking permit, you can call the Mill Creek Ranger Station and ask if they have any passes left for the day in question. Each morning, they give away day-of passes, but if you want to hike Vivian Creek, which always sells out on weekends, they recommend getting to the station 30 minutes prior to opening because they only give away 3 day-hiking passes for Vivian. Be sure to check their hours, etc. as it varies on different days and the ranger station is closed on Tuesdays.

You must display an Adventure Pass in your car for each day you are parked. These can be purchased at the ranger station for $5 a pop.

By 9am we had our Adventure Passes on the dash, trail map in hand and were on our way to the trailhead, located just off Jenks Road, there’s a big “South Fork Trailhead” sign, can’t miss it. Once parked, we gathered our hiking poles, strapped on our 30-pound packs and off we went.

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It was a steady 4-mile incline from the parking lot (6,900′) to South Fork Meadows (8,400′), taking us 2 hours. Here the trail forks, hence South FORK Meadows, and depending on where your permit allows you to camp, you can either hike into Dry Lake (9,101′), which veers you 1.5 miles off course, or hike 2 miles along the trail to Dollar Lake (9,219), which is just .7 miles off course. Those next 2 miles towards Dollar Lake were extremely steep and difficult, partially due to the weight of our packs and partially due to our bodies trying to acclimate to the drastic 2,319′ elevation change.

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Note: Water is scarce on Gorgonio, besides the small stream at Horse Meadows near the beginning of the trail, when you don’t usually need to refill, the ONLY “water” we found was halfway between South Fork Meadows (where the trail splits) and Dollar Lake and it was actually more of a mud pit. We would filter what we could, wait 10 minutes for it to fill again, and repeat. Pack in your water because dehydration can magnify the effects of altitude sickness. Click here for info on how to prevent altitude sickness.

Before arriving to Dollar Lake, we stopped to refuel and take a breather. I had never felt so exhausted by a hike and Drew was feeling quite the same.

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We whipped out our mango, almond, cashew trail mix from Trader Joe’s (omg, yum) and our trusty “Pita Pizza” ingredients that reminded us of our first camping experience together in college. Just think of healthier, adult version of Lunchables, haha!

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We finally mustered up the courage to get back up, and by 2:45pm we reached Dollar Lake. The trail forks here as well and is a bit confusing. Down and to the left is Dollar Lake camp ground and up to the right is Dollar Lake Saddle, which is 5 miles to the peak.

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We scoped out a good camping spot (1/4 mile away from the lake and trail) and set up our tent. We were debating whether we wanted to continue to summit, or wait to do so in the morning, but given the state of our energy levels and mood, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the day and save the summit for morning.

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san gorgonio, south fork trail, hiking san gorgonio, dollar lake, best trail san gorgonio, dollar lake, camp san gorgonioWe don’t usually build time in for relaxing on these kinds of trips, but let me tell you, it was really nice. We read, napped, ate, talked and had a nice dinner at sunset in the middle of Dollar Lake (photo below)… which was dry as a bone.

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Sunday morning we were up at 7:45, we had slept a good 10 hours, obviously the elevation did not affect our ability to sleep. By 9:10 we were up and at it, feeling much stronger and very pleased with our choice to wait to summit. We left our bags and everything at the campsite so we could hike the remaining 5.7 uphill miles sans extra weight.

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The trail was well marked, the weather was perfect, the trees (and Drew) were gnarly and just under 3 hours later, at noon, we finally reached the peak at 11,502 feet!

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After enjoying the fresh summit air and sharing our trail mix with some chubby little chipmunks, we decided it was time to head back to camp, pick up our goods and make it towards home.

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There is no doubt that the return trip, which was all downhill, was definitely easier, but still, not easy. A total of 17.9 miles later, we finally made it back to the car at 5:45pm.

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Feeling accomplished, exhausted, thirsty and a little nauseous, we were happy to be heading home, but grateful for the incredible weekend we just spent in the mountains.

10 Comments

  1. Reply

    Scott

    April 29, 2016

    Did reach the summit about 1pm? And then you state you were back at your car at 5:45pm,…same day,…17.9miles….? from which point to which point was the 17.9 miles? I see you stated the roundtrip for the route you chose/took is 21.4miles…?
    Thank you, just curious.

    • Reply

      mrandmrsadventure

      May 11, 2016

      We did the South Fork Trail. We took it easy the first day and set up camp/relaxed then we woke up early the next day. We left our gear at camp and headed to the summit, reaching it by 1pm. The second day would have been the day we did the 17.9 miles. This counts the distance from our camp to the summit, and then back to camp and all the way back to the parking area. It’s a great outing! Enjoy 🙂

  2. Reply

    Irwin

    September 13, 2014

    Thank you guys for the blog and the photos!

    • Reply

      mrandmrsadventure

      September 15, 2014

      Hi Irwin! Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to write us! I hope you have a wonderful adventure summiting Gorgonio, it’s a great training hike for Mount Whitney you know… 😉

  3. Reply

    Becca Taylor

    May 23, 2014

    One more question… exactly how much water did you take from your Basecamp to the summit?

    • Reply

      mrandmrsadventure

      May 23, 2014

      Between the 2 of us we had about 3 liters of water from base camp to summit (roundtrip). I would recommend calling the ranger station or stopping in tomorrow morning before starting the hike so they can tell you exactly where there are water sources to filter. We went in August so it was definitely a bit hotter and drier. From base camp to the car we basically had to sponge water out of the ground so we could hydrate on the way back. We highly recommend bringing a water filter in case you run out of water at any point. I hope you find all this helpful! Let us know how it goes and have a wonderful time 🙂

      • Becca Taylor

        May 23, 2014

        Thank you so much for sending your reply prior to our excursion! I think we may hang remaining food between two trees just to be safe. We are bringing a filter and are hoping that South Fork Meadows will be flowing, but will definitely be checking in with the Ranger Station prior to starting out. Thanks again for your great tips!

        Happy Trails!
        Becca

      • mrandmrsadventure

        May 25, 2014

        Sounds like a great plan! Can’t wait to hear how it went 😀

        Adventure always,
        Britt

  4. Reply

    Becca Taylor

    May 23, 2014

    Hi! I really enjoyed reading your post. I am doing this exact route tomorrow and I am a little nervous. I am young and in shape but still this may be the longest backing trek I have ever done! I am not sure if you will get this in time to reply to me, but just out of curiosity… When you left all your gear at your basecamp did you bear-proof all of your food items??

    Thanks!

    Becca

    • Reply

      mrandmrsadventure

      May 23, 2014

      Hi Becca – We are so excited for you! This has been one of our favorite hikes. Take it easy and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will be able to do this, reach the summit and still have smile on your face 🙂 We sort of bear-proofed our items when we went to the summit: we packed our lunch in the backpack that we summited with and all we had to leave behind was a bag of trail mix which we stuffed into the other backpack and sealed it in our tent. Another option, if you’d rather pack your tent and such away before summiting, is you could leave a bear bag in the trees with whatever food you have to leave behind. Either one will do the trick!

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