Hike Keller Peak on the Exploration Trail
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance (?)||12.5 miles (20.1 km)|
|Hike Time||4-6 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||2,200 feet (671m)|
|Highest Elevation||7,882 feet (2402m)|
|Fees & Permits||Free|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||San Bernardino National Forest|
|Weather & Forecast||Latest Conditions|
|Stay Safe||Copy this webpage link to the clipobard and share with a friend before you hike. Let them know when to expect you back.|
Off the radar of most hikers, the Exploration Trail to Keller Peak is a scenic adventure that’s not too hard but also packs in some great trail highlights. The entire area you hike through was devastated by the 1970 Bear Fire; today, as you hike, you can experience what a half-century of recovery looks like (it’s good). Along the way, you’ll get some epic views of the Angeles National Forest and the surrounding high peaks. At Keller Peak, you can experience the oldest standing fire tower in Southern California, dating back to 1926.
Where is the Exploration Trail?
The Exploration Trail is point-to-point and has two trailheads. We’re going to start this hike at the lower trailhead and then hike uphill to Keller Peak. You can find the quiet trailhead just off of busy Rt-18, past the Deer Lick Fire Station at:
Exploration Trail 2W09X, Keller Peak Rd, Big Bear, CA 92314
There are no bathrooms or water fills at the trailhead.
Gear For the Hike
While this isn’t an extreme mountain hike, you are still in the high country and I recommend regular hiking gear.
- I usually take about 2L of water in normal conditions.
- Bring extra layers in case the weather changes.
- The trail has a good amount of shade.
- The last 1.5 miles is on pavement, so having trail runners or non-clunky hiking footwear is a good bet.
- In the winter the trail can be covered in snow and offers a great opportunity for snow-shoeing.
Garmin InReach Mini 2
I’m a firm believer in carrying a satellite communications device which works where cell phones don’t. I use a Garmin InReach which lets me send text messages back and forth to my family to let them know that I’m okay or if my plans change when I’m out in the backcountry. It also has an SOS subscription built-in so that you can reach first-responders in an emergency. The devices also offer weather reports, GPS, and navigation functionality (what’s the difference between a GPS and satellite communicator?). For a few hundred bucks they could save your life, so for me it’s a no brainer to have something like a Garmin InReach. If you use a smartphone to navigate and want a more affordable option that integrates with your phone easily, check out the ZOLEO.
Latest Prices: Amazon | REI
Altra Lone Peak 6
For most people, the Altra Lone Peak is a solid choice that will leave your feet feeling great at the end of any hike. The feel is cushy and light, and if it had a car equivalent, this would be a Cadillac or Mercedes Sedan. The grip is great and they’re reasonably durable for this type of trail runner, which I think is better in most conditions than a hiking boot, and here’s why. The downside of this shoe is that it won’t last as long as something like the Terraventure 3 or Moab 2 (see alternate footwear choices at the bottom of my gear page). I’ve been using mine for many miles and my feet always feel great. I have a video on the details of the Altra Lone Peak 6 here.
Women’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon
Men’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon
Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles
I’ve gone back and forth on trekking poles, but I think for most people they are a good investment. They help you dig in on the uphills, provide stability on loose downhills, act as a brace when crossing streams, and can probably poke away aggressive wildlife in a pinch. The Trail Ergo Cork poles are a good balance of light weight, durability, affordability, and ease of use. If you want something ultralight and a little more pricey, I’ve had great luck with the Black Diamond Z Poles too.
Trail Ergo Poles: REI | Amazon
Z-Poles: REI | Amazon
Gregory Zulu 30 & Jade 28
After testing quite a few backpacks, the Gregory Zulu 30 (and Jade 28 for women) is, for most hikers, the best all-season day-pack. First off, it’s very comfortable, and the mesh “trampoline” back keeps your back dry. Its 30L capacity is enough for all the essentials and plenty of layers for winter hiking. External pockets make it easy to grab gear. It’s hard to find something wrong with the pack; if anything, it could be a bit lighter, but overall, it’s not heavy. And its price-point makes it not only affordable but generally a great value.
Women’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon
Men’s Latest Prices: REI | Amazon
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated June 2022.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps keep the website ad and promotion free. There is no cost to you.
The section of the hike on the Exploration Trail is a gradual uphill dirt trail. Keep your eyes and ears open for mountain bikes that share the trail. You’ll have a short but very scenic walk up paved Keller Peak Rd to reach the summit and fire tower when the Exploration Trail ends.
Explore Map on CalTopoView a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File
If you try to download the GPX file and your browser adds a “.txt” or “.xml” extension to it, simply rename it as a “.gpx” file.
How Are You Going to Navigate This Hike?
Here’s what I use. If you are a hardcore hiker and/or hike in extreme conditions, I recommend getting a dedicated GPS like a GPSMAP 66sr or 66i, or a wrist-based GPS with maps like the Garmin Fenix 7 or Epix. If you only hike in fair weather and a touchscreen is fine, or just want a solid tool, I highly recommend downloading the smartphone app, Gaia GPS. It’s a piece of cake to use and very powerful, just make sure your phone is in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get a big discount here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.
- It’s impressive how healthy this area is after half a century of recovery from the 1970 Bear Fire, which burned 51,000 acres, including this hike route. Hopefully if you’re still hiking in 50 years, the areas damaged by recent fires will be as healthy as this. Everything you see on the Exploration Trail has grown back in the half-century since then, and is called “second-growth forest.”
- The Exploration Trail was built in 2000, and included input from the nearby National Children’s Forest Youth Leaders. Today they still help maintain the trail. There are several Children’s Forests located in the USA, created to help kids and families connect with the outdoors.
- As you approach the summit of Keller Peak, you’ll see a memorial to a B-26 bomber crew that lost their lives here in 1941 when their plane slammed into the mountainside. Originally from a squadron in Virginia, the bomber had been rushed out west in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. The plane flew from Edwards AFB to March Field in Riverside when it crashed trying to navigate the Cajon Pass in bad weather. The rest of the squadron went on to fight in the battle of Midway.
- The Keller Peak Fire Tower, built in 1926, is the oldest standing fire tower in Southern California. It’s still used today by fire watch volunteers, and is sometimes open to the public. It’s also one of the only fire towers built before the Great Depression.Click Here To View
- Keller Peak is named for Ally Carlin Keller, the son of early pioneers and an employee of the Forest Service.
Exploration Trail to Keller Peak Hike Directions
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This guide last updated on April 21, 2022. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.