In preparation for Mount Whitney this summer, I took on the Six Pack of Peaks challenge, a series of hikes designed by Jeff Hester of SocalHiker.net, featuring a progression of six peaks in Southern California. I also started an adventure club called Shoestring Adventures LA and invited you all to join me. Here are the tales of our journey.
Sharing adventures with friends is a true privilege. After hiking 13 hours together, you become part of the same brain, sharing a memory that will last long after the journey ends. My talented friend Justin Sullivan joined Rachel and I on the summit of San Gorgonio, our final challenge before Mount Whitney. Justin’s photo account of our journey is accompanied here by my words.
I always struggled with the pronunciation of Mount San Gorgonio, until a friend of mine called it Mount San DiGiorno. Pizza is one of the top 10 foods I fantasize about near the end of a strenuous day hike. The tallest mountain in SoCal is also known as “Old Grayback” for her unimpressive hill-like appearance from afar, but do not be fooled. At 11,503’, the summit is a respectable right of passage for any Southern California hiker.
The Vivian Creek Trail is the shortest and steepest route to the summit, climbing 5,840-ft in less than 8 miles. (8/5/14 – Due to recent flash flooding, this trail has been temporarily closed. Please check the Forest Service website before attempting this hike.)
Despite our best intentions, we started late at 8AM. The beginning of the trail through Mill Creek Canyon was a nice warm-up in the woods and over a dry wash. That’s when our work began.
A few weeks before, a troop of Boy Scouts earning a merit badge for Baldy warned me about the first set of switchbacks. After climbing 1,000 feet in just one mile, we reached Vivian Creek Campground. The next section of the trail was a pleasant reprieve along the creek and through the forest. If it were not for the mosquitos eating through my pants, I might have been tempted to stay here. (Don’t forget to bring bug spray!)
The trail continued to climb past Halfway Camp on the right. We stopped to refill our water supply before passing through High Creek Campground, since the rest of the trail is notoriously hot and dry during the summer months.
As we continued to climb the switchbacks beyond High Creek, we met quite a few hikers returning from the summit. Some were more prepared than others, but we did not let their visible exhaustion discourage us.
At last, we reached the final stretch to the summit along the ridge line. From our high perch, we waved at Mount San Jacinto, where we stood just one week before.
Still no peak in sight, I found it hard to breathe as we forged above the trees around 10,000-ft. I demanded frequent “mini’s,” similar to power-naps-on-foot. I carried this technique on with me to Mount Whitney where altitude was an even greater challenge. Often a short 60-second break to catch my breath provided the extra boost I needed to keep going.[blockquote]Often a short 60-second break to catch my breath provided the extra boost I needed to keep going.[/blockquote]
Nearing the summit, I held back to watch my friends climb the last 100 feet. Three years ago, I could not sit through dinner because of chronic back pain. Now here I was, about to summit the tallest mountain in SoCal with two strong, supportive, amazing friends. If I wasn’t so exhausted, I might have cried for joy.
We reached the peak around 5PM and celebrated with some fellow hikers. Toward the end of June, a few patches of snow were still visible. We were losing light, so we took some photos and began the second half of our journey back down.
Few things compare to hiking through a forest at golden hour. The light sustained us as we glided down the steep mountain at record pace.
We held out as long as we could before illuminating our headlamps and continued through the thick darkness created by the forest canopy. After what seemed like forever, we descended the first set of switchbacks, crossed over the dry wash and ended our hike through Mill Creek Canyon.
Just thirteen hours after our journey began, we rolled out of the parking lot. (IMPORTANT: The forest service locks the gate at 10pm, so make sure you finish with enough time to spare!)
During the Six Pack of Peaks Challenge, it was difficult to judge my progress from one summit to the next, since each peak got progressively taller, steeper and farther away, but after summiting Gorgonio, I finally felt prepared for Whitney (and hungry for several pizzas).
Mount San Gorgonio via Vivian Creek Trail
- About this Hike: 17.3 mi; 5,840-ft climb; 11,503-ft summit elevation
- Time: 9-13 hours (Depending on your pace)
- Fitness Level: Strenuous
- Permits: Advanced permits are required for day and overnight hikes. You may download the application online and submit by fax. This is a popular trail, so apply early! Adventure Pass is required for parking.
- Trailhead Address: Big Falls Picnic Area, Forest Falls, CA 92339
- Trailhead Directions: From I-10, exit at Tennessee Street and turn left. After .5mi, turn right onto W Lugonia Av for 3.5 miles. Continue onto Mentone Bl for 2 miles. Continue on Mill Creek Rd for 9.4mi. Turn slight right onto Valley of the Falls Dr for 4 miles and continue onto Falls Road for .5 mi. The trailhead is located next to Big Falls Picnic Area. If the upper parking lot is full, you can park in the lower parking lot near the entrance gate. Gate closes between 6am-10pm
- What to Bring: Do not underestimate being prepared for this hike! Bring plenty of food and water (at least 3 Liters) and a filter to treat water on the trail. I went through more than 3 liters. I found hiking poles to be very useful and a headlamp to finish in the dark. And don’t forget the bug spray!
- Dogs allowed on leash.