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 seasons in the alpine high country, allowing you to look 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.
It's unlikely, however, that you'll be able to climb Mt. San Gorgonio and return in a single day. The Forest Service has relocated the trailhead, and what was once a long (16-mile) day hike is now a very long and very steep 21 miles.
"But that makes it impossible to reach the peak in a day," you object.
Yep. Forest Service planners figure that foot traffic through fragile alpine areas will decrease if the great peak is harder to hike. And to the Forest Service, fewer hikers means fewer administrative problems and fewer rangers sent out on patrol. The Forest Service also figures that hikers will enjoy the new trailhead and that the day hike's increased length will lead to increased solitude at South Fork Trail's intermediate destinations: South Fork Meadows and Dollar Lake.
And these destinations--along with Dry Lake and some inviting meadowland--are lovely. Of course, ambitious hikers in top form will want to make the 21-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, you can also pick up maps and the latest trail information. The ranger station has a self-service booth outside that dispenses permits. Permits are limited; alternative routes may be offered at the ranger station.
Follow the highway 19 miles past the ranger station to Jenks Lake Road. Turn right and proceed 3 miles to the new South Fork trailhead. The Forest Service closed the Poopout Hill trailhead and opened this one in 1988.
The hike: From the parking area, you cross Jenks Lake Road and pick up the unsigned trail. The path ascends moderately through a mixed pine forest. Enjoy the occasional views of Sugarloaf Peak behind you and San Gorgonio ahead. About 1 1/2 miles from the trailhead, you'll intersect Poopout Hill Road, now closed to vehicle traffic. Continue straight ahead and another three-fourths of a mile of travel brings you to an intersection with the old Poopout Hill Trail. Bear right here.
Continue 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 can also 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 back-country 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.
South Fork Trail
\o7 South Fork to South Fork Meadows: 8 miles round trip; 1,500-foot elevation gain South Fork to Dollar Lake: 12 miles round trip; 2,500-foot elevation gain \f7