Mt. San Gorgonio via the Vivian Creek Trail

By Heather

Way back before it was even officially summer this year, I finally went and climbed the tallest peak in Southern California: Mt. San Gorgonio, or Old Greyback as she’s known to locals.

What a fun, cool hike! It has it all: Stream crossings, multiple zones, amazing views and a triumphant photo opportunity on the summit to celebrate your accomplishment.

Getting the permit

Yep, this is a permit-required hike. I was checked for a permit, and by most accounts it seems like most people are checked.

The permit is free, however, and it’s not the stressful lottery process that Half Dome and Mt. Whitney can be.

But jeezopete, it’s not easy to find the link to download the permit. If anyone at the National Forest Service wants to pay me to clean up their websites and web presence, please call me! You have to be very persistent to find some things and it’s not a fun user experience at times.

Anyway, since I’m one of those persistent types, here you go:

You generally shouldn’t have a problem getting a permit if you fax in your requested date(s) no sooner than 90 days before your hike. If you’re going at the last minute, weekday slots are easier to get than weekends.

If you don’t get your permit in advance, you can arrange to have it left for you at the ranger station on the way to the trail head.

sunrise san gorgonio vivian creek trail

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

Parking and early starts

You may see some information online that tells you the upper lot at the trail head doesn’t open until 6 a.m. That is no longer true! It’s now open 24 hours a day.

I arrived at 4 a.m. on a Saturday and had no trouble, though there were just a couple of spots left. It’s a teeny, tiny lot. Get there early!

You will also need your Adventure Pass to park in the lot. You can get an Adventure Pass in zillions of places. Where to buy an Adventure Pass ›

If you hike a lot, the $30 pass is a great deal. If you’re going only occasionally, the $5 day pass might be a better option.

Water and bears

This is a long hike with a lot of exposure, especially as you get closer to the summit, so you’re going to need a lot of water.

There are several opportunities to fill up, especially earlier in the season, so bring your filter and spare a little water weight. I brought my little Sawyer water filter, and it worked like a dream. That water is delicious.

Regarding bears: I watched The Revenant the night before going on this hike. Don’t do that.

revenant bear attack leonardo dicaprio gif

The San Gorgonio Wilderness is bear territory (bearritory?), so take the usual precautions:

For the record, I didn’t see one and I’m okay with that!

San Gorgonio Wilderness Association bear safety tips ›

The hike

Gorgonio has been on my list for a few years. I wanted to do it last year, but a massive fire swept through the area and the trails were shut down for most of the summer.

The trail begins at the parking lot, going up a paved road that soon becomes gravel. Eventually you come to a sign that says simply “Trail,” which directs you to cross a wash. Follow that. Once you’re across the wash, the switchbacks begin.

vivian creek trail switchbacks

On the switchbacks.

SoCal Hiker says a lot of people view the switchbacks with dread, but I’m with him: They’re not that bad at all. Not by a long shot.

Eventually you pass a camp, then walk along a stream for a while. Between the trees, the morning light and the stream, I found this to be the prettiest and most peaceful part of the hike. There were even a few deer hanging out.

As you gain elevation, the views really begin to open. Mt. Baldy looks downright tiny at this point. Mt. San Jacinto looks impressive from Gorgonio. Mt. San Bernardino is beautiful (that’s another one on my list).

A ranger checked my permit at High Creek. He signed it, we chatted for a few minutes and he showed me a route around some icy switchbacks, which I very much appreciated because I didn’t have crampons with me.

view of mt san jacinto from mt san gorgonio vivian creek trail

After this part is where things seemed to get a lot harder and I needed more breaks. It gets steep, exposed and everything seems to take a really long time. I found the very last stretch to the summit especially killer.

While resting, I made some new hiking friends – Lea and Christian. They stopped to make sure I wasn’t dying, and then we continued on to the summit together.

All three of us were following the directions to Gorgonio from SoCal Hiker, which at one point say there’s a junction. Never so badly have I wanted a junction, because just beyond the junction is a brief and relatively easy stroll to the summit.

junction sign mt san gorgonio summit

The junction!

After the junction was a first for me: A big ice patch. It was well packed and slippery, but once again I give all the credit to my poles. Those things continue to come in handy in ways I never considered when I first got them.

ice vivian creek trail mt. san gorgonio

Ice ice, baby.

Just beyond that ice field is the summit, which is a bit anticlimactic for being on the highest point in the region.

It’s so large that the expansive views of something like Cucamonga Peak or Mt. St. Jacinto aren’t really there. Still, it’s fun to see the sign and lift it up in victory, knowing you conquered SoCal’s mightiest beast.

mt san gorgonio summit with sign

Lea, Christian and I got up there at the same time and we had it to ourselves for a long while. That’s always a treat! We ate snacks, took pictures of ourselves posing with the sign and talked about our hiking bucket lists. It was nice making some official hiking friends – my first!

The trip down was a long one. And the litany of false trails didn’t help.

Gaia GPS app

mt san gorgonio gps

The Gaia GPS app in action. Accuracy confirmed.

This is a good time for me to recommend the Gaia GPS app. It’s $19.99 and worth every penny. And believe me: I don’t like spending any money on apps, not even $1.99. So, for me to recommend an app that costs this much… It has to be good.

You can download GPS tracks from hikes you want to do, which is what I use it for most frequently. You can also record your own tracks.

For me, though, it’s a tool to prevent me from getting lost and dying. It works in airplane mode, and I check it throughout my hike to ensure I’m on the trail and going in the right direction.

I’m here typing this, so it must be working!

Gaia has no idea who I am and no one is paying me or blackmailing me or anything of the sort. I’m just a big fan.

False trails on the way down


I got the app just before this hike and am so glad I did! That’s because I wound up off trail several times, thanks to probably about 10 false trails. Once I sensed something wasn’t right, I could call up the app and see where I had gone and make my way back to the main trail.

The GPS can pinpoint your location most accurately when you’re not surrounded by canyon walls and tall trees, but even in the latter cases, it still works really well.

Whatever you do, have some kind of map or other way to avoid getting too far off course.

This is a hike I can’t wait to do again. Next year, I plan to tackle it at least once as part of the Three Peaks Challenge (I’m going for the 72-hour one).