Most of us in the Southland have looked east and marveled at Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California. The 11,499-foot mountain is most striking in winter when its snow-covered peak can be seen reaching far above the metropolis. In summer, the view from the basin is not so spectacular; the dull gray granite summit is hard to find among the hydrocarbons.
But summer and early autumn are the best times in the Alpine high country, looking down at what you left behind. From the top, there's a 360-degree panoramic view from the Mexican border to the southern Sierra, from the Pacific Ocean to the far reaches of the Mojave Desert.
Luiseno Indian legend has it that San Gorgonio and San Jacinto peaks were brothers and among the first born of Earth Mother, who made all things.
Animals and Birds
It would be hard to improve on Earth Mother's handiwork. Mt. San Gorgonio's Alpine vegetation includes carpets of buttercups and that venerable survivor of inclement weather, the limber pine. Mountain lions, mule deer and bighorn sheep roam the high slopes, and golden eagles soar over the summit.
The mountain got its name from an obscure 4th-Century Christian martyr. Irreverent Americans began calling the mountain "Grayback." It's bare, gravelly summit stretches laterally for some distance above the timberline, giving the appearance of a long, gray back.
Below the peak is some fine hiking on good trails that tour the heart of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. One good day hike takes you about halfway to the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio. Joining Whitewater River Trail and South Fork Trail, you will pass through lovely meadows and visit two small lakes, Dry and Dollar. Ambitious hikers in top form will want to make the 17-mile round-trip trek all the way to the top of Old Grayback for the best view of Southern California available to a hiker.
Directions to the trailhead: From Interstate 10 in Redlands, exit on California 38. As you head up the highway into the San Bernardino National Forest, remember to stop at the Mill Creek Ranger Station just beyond the hamlet of Mentone and pick up your wilderness permit. At the station (open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), you can also pick up maps and the latest trail information. The ranger station has a self-service booth outside that dispenses permits.
Follow California 38 for 25 miles to Jenk's Lake Road West. Follow this road for 2 1/2 miles, turn right on Poopout Hill Road and follow that for 4 miles to a large parking area.
(Permits are limited; alternative routes may be offered at the ranger station. A new trialhead will be constructed in the next few months; check with the station for trail changes.)
The hike: From the northeast edge of the parking area, you follow the beaten path to the top of Poopout Hill, where you can look up at the great mountain. You then dip down the hill and begin ascending through the woods. In a mile, South Fork Creek appears on your left, and you parallel it toward South Fork Meadows, also known as Slushy Meadows.
Dozens of tiny streams, which form the headwaters of the Santa Ana River, roam through the ferns and wispy waist-high grasses. Lower South Fork Meadows Trail Camp and Middle South Fork Meadows Trail Camp offer places to picnic.
You also can locate an idyllic picnic spot beneath the ponderosa pine and white fir. If you're not feeling especially energetic, you could spend a day in South Fork Meadows and be quite happy.
The more energetic will continue on the trail as it skirts the west edge of the meadow and reaches a junction. The left fork, Whitewater Trail, heads toward Dry Lake (another fine day hike destination) and the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio. You take the right fork, South Fork Trail, and begin switchbacking up wooded slopes.
After a mile of climbing, first through ponderosa pine and then through lodgepole pine, you'll begin a long contour around the wall of the basin that holds Dollar Lake. The trail passes a manzanita-covered slope and reaches a junction 1 3/4 miles from South Fork Meadows. Go left.
In a few hundred yards you reach another junction and turn left again. Follow the easy quarter-mile trail down the basin wall to the lake.
Dollar Lake, so named because it gleams like a silver dollar, is one of the most popular backcountry spots in the San Gorgonio Wilderness and is another ideal place to picnic or laze away a day. Return to the main trail the way you came.
Once back on the main trail, you can return the same way. Or if fit, frisky and well prepared, you can complete the 17-mile round-trip journey to the top of Southern California's highest peak.
Whitewater River Trail
\o7 Poopout Hill to South Fork Meadows: 3 1/2 miles round trip; 600-foot gain. Poopout Hill to Dollar Lake: 7 1/2 miles round trip; 1,400-foot gain. Wilderness Permit required: (714) 794-1123\f7 .