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San Gorgonio Hike Vivian Creek Trail

San Gorgonio Hike on the Vivian Creek Trail

In This Guide
  • Video and Turn-by-Turn Directions for the San Gorgonio Hike
  • Parking and Permit Information for the Vivian Creek Trail
  • Maps, Elevation Profile, and Things to Know Before Going
  • Insider Tips and Recommendations
Total Distance (?)18 miles (29 km)
Hike Time9-11 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Very Hard
Total Ascent (?)5,470 feet (1667m)
Highest Elevation11,503 feet (3506m)
Fees & PermitsParking Fee & Free Day Use Permit
Dogs AllowedLeashed
Alerts & Closures (?)Mill Creek Visitor Center
Park Phone909-382-2882

Easily the most popular San Gorgonio hike route, the Vivian Creek Trail is an iconic adventure up to the highest point in SoCal, at 11,503 feet. Vivian Creek is popular because it’s the shortest and most accessible route, but it’s also the steepest, so expect a good workout on your way to the summit. It’s a beautiful hike through pines, cedars, and streams and then up to the barren moon-like landscape above the tree line. From the summit, you’ll enjoy sweeping views from Nevada to the Channel Islands. Many people hike it in a day, but you can also make it an overnight backpacking trip. In this guide, I’ll give you everything you need to know for either option.

Permits & Planning Your San Gorgonio Hike

Snow On San Gorgonio
San Gorgonio is part of the Sand to Snow National Monument. Guess which part of the monument is the snow part? Yea, being the highest point in SoCal, this hike is often covered in snow during the winter months. If that’s the case, give this hike a skip unless you’ve done the trail before and have winter hiking and mountaineering experience. You can read some tips on checking for snow on the trail here. Photo Boscco

Assuming the weather is on your side, you will need a permit to day hike or overnight to San Gorgonio. The good news is that it’s easier than ever to get. Go to the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association’s permit page and fill out the online form. There is a quota system in place to limit human impact on the wilderness. Once you get your permit, save it (offline) to your phone or print it and take it with you.

Backpacking San Gorgonio

Even though the hike clocks in at 18 miles or so, many people hike San Gorgonio in a day. But you can also do it as an overnight backpacking trip. You just need to pick a date and your campsite(s).

Vivian Creek Camping Permit Options
The online permit system lets you pick the camp area that you’d like to stay at.
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Here’s a typical (larger) tent site at High Creek Camp. There are no facilities, it’s just a cleared area. Make sure you get a free California campfire permit if you are going to use a stove.

All the campsites, aside from the summit, are close to water sources, most of which stop flowing at some point in the summer. If you want to check on the status of water, I’d look at the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association’s  (SGWA) forum pages.

Your permit only allows you to camp in the designated campsites within the San Gorgonio Wilderness, although you will see some dispersed tent sites along the route. I’ve marked them on the map and GPX file for reference, but don’t consider them an option unless there’s an emergency. Before the Lake Fire, an Explorer pass allowed you to camp at these sites, but not anymore. If this changes, please let me know.

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Here’s an example of an unofficial dispersed site (on the left).

Also note that camping on the summit can be very windy. Most of the summit tent sites have stone walls around them to help block the wind. There’s also an official “summit campsite” to the southwest of the summit that’s flat, sandy, and reasonably protected from the wind. I’ve marked both areas on the map and in the GPX file.

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This is a campsite with stone wall enclosure at the summit.
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And here’s the official “summit campsite” which is less popular but more camping-friendly.

Training for San Gorgonio

If you’re not used to doing this type of distance and climbing, I recommend building up your hiking fitness before you tackle this hike. A good progression is:

  1. Sugarloaf Mountain (12 miles, 3300 feet of climbing)
  2. Ontario Peak and Bighorn Peak (14.7 miles, 4200 feet of climbing)
  3. San Gorgonio (18 miles, 5400 feet of climbing)

And if you bag San Gorgonio, it’s probably time for you to bag Mt Whitney next.

Where is the Start of the Hike?

This route up to San Gorgonio Mountain starts at the Vivian Creek Trailhead, just past the Falls Picnic area in Forest Falls, CA. Use this trailhead address: 41900 Falls Rd Forest Falls, CA 92339.

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There’s a small parking lot right by the trailhead, and more spaces farther back toward the picnic area.
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You need a parking pass for the trailhead. I use the affordable National Parks Pass, which gets me in every park, monument, and national forest. You can also use a (Southern California only) Adventure Pass, or buy a $5 day permit from the ranger’s office.
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There’s a toilet at the trailhead, just behind the parking area.
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If you have to park farther away, note that the hike starts at the far eastern part of the parking area at this trailhead, not the nearby Big Falls Trailhead.

Gear For the Hike

This is a serious hike and you need to be well prepared with layers, water (3L), and food. The summit is in an alpine zone and is exposed. Check the summit weather and be prepared for changing conditions, including potentially spending the night if something goes wrong. Trekking poles help on the way down, especially on the section just before Mill Creek.

Lone Peak 5

Altra Lone Peak 5
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 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. Watch my video explaining why they are a great shoe here.

Latest Price on Women’s ShoeREI | Amazon
Latest Price on Men’s ShoeREI | Amazon

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.

Gaiagps

Gaia GPS Mapping App
Smartphones are not backcountry instruments, but almost everyone has one today. And they all have GPS onboard. So I recommend getting a good GPS hiking app like Gaia GPS that supports offline maps. Just make sure to put your phone in airplane mode so the battery doesn’t drain. GaiaGPS not only has smartphone and tablet apps, but also an online planning tool. You can drag the GPX hike tracks from my (or any) guides into the online map and they will sync to your phone. You can also check for wildfires, weather, snow, and choose from dozens of map types with a premium membership (HikingGuy readers get up to 40% off here). Note that I also carry a paper map with me in case the phone dies or gets smashed.

Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated July 2021.

My July 2021 Top Gear Picks

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.

Vivian Creek Trail Maps

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Overall the trail is well-marked, the junctions are signed, and the route is easy to follow. This is a popular hike and you can usually expect to see other hikers along the way.
Click Here To View

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.

Fenix 6 Pro

How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 Smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). The GPS smartwatch is nice because it’s rugged, works if your phone dies, and also has a billion other features like sleep tracking, workout recording, etc.

Elevation Profile

San Gorgonio Vivian Creek Elevation Profile
The first mile and half are very steep, then there’s a long middle section of gradual uphill. With about 2 miles to go you have another steep section, and then it’s gradual to the summit.

Landmarks on the Hike

LandmarkDistanceElevation
Trailhead06080
Mill Creek Crossing0.56200
San Gorgonio Wilderness Boundary1.57050
Vivian Creek Camp1.77100
Halfway Camp38100
High Creek Camp5.39200
Ridge Viewpoint6.810000
Tree Line810700
Peak Divide Trail8.511250
Summit911503

3D Map

San Gorgonio Vivian Creek Elevation 3d Map
From this 3D map you can see the steep sections. The first section up from Mill Creek is steep, then a long gradual middle section, and then a steeper section past High Creek Camp and the summit.

Hike Brief

Lukens On San Gorgonio=historic
The first recorded ascent by gringos on San Gorgonio Mountain was in 1872. Shortly after that, it became popular with other outdoor enthusiasts, including Theodore Lukens, pictured here in 1898, who you might know from his namesake, Mount Lukens. The original footpath, called the Government Trail, followed today’s Vivian Creek Trail. Photo California State Library

San Gorgonio on Vivian Creek Hike Directions

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Video Directions

Watch This Video In 360/VR Why 360/VR Is Great

Turn by Turn Directions

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Take the small path just past the trail board and continue on the (dirt) Falls Road.
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Go straight up the rocky Falls Road.
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Avoid any driveways or private property on either side and keep hiking up the main road.
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This is the important sign to look for. When you see the sign on the left of the road, make the left turn and hike across Mill Creek.
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Follow the trail across the (dry) Mill Creek. The other side of the trail continues just a few feet upstream. During heavy rains Mill Creek will flood and it is not passable to cross. 
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Look for the continuation of the trail on the other side of Mill Creek.
San Gorgonio Hike Vivian Creek Directions 16
There’s also a sign letting you know that you need a permit once you reach the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area boundary. Start the tough climb from here.
San Gorgonio Hike Vivian Creek Directions 17
The climb is very steep and is up a series of switchbacks.
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As you approach the top you’ll have nice views across Mlll Creek.
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And after about a mile of climbing you’ll reach the boundary of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The first big climb is done and the trail levels out, following along Vivian Creek.
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You need a permit to do any hiking or backpacking past this spot.
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At around 1.7 miles you’ll see the turnoff for Vivian Creek Camp. Keep left to head towards the summit.
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Here’s a closeup of the sign at that last junction.
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Shortly after the junction you’ll cross Vivian Creek.
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The next few miles are mellow and gradually uphill, passing through the canyon along Vivian Creek, which has some huge cedars.
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If you look at the elevation profile here, it’s uphill, but on the ground it feels more level. Enjoy it while you have it.
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Around 3 miles in, bear left at the junction for Halfway Camp, which is roughly halfway to High Creek Camp, not the summit.
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Now the gradient gets a little steeper and you start climbing up broad switchbacks.
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As you climb you’ll start to get glimpses down to Mill Creek where you started earlier.
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And you’ll also see directly across to the peaks across Mill Creek, including Wanat Peak (left) and Little San Gorgonio Peak (right). Wanat Peak was just named in 2014 after lobbying by Paul Melzer, who works for the Wildlands Conservancy in Oak Glen. Wanat is a Serrano word for mountain lions.

Want to choose the name of an unnamed peak? You can if you have the right circumstances.

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At some points you’ll hike away from the view, with the impressive slopes of Dobbs Peak in front of you.
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Soon the trail winds around toward High Creek. There’s a nice viewpoint at the bend to the right.
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Follow the trail around to the left, above High Creek, which you can often hear roaring below.
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As you approach High Creek Camp, you’ll see some signs asking you not to camp in sensitive habitat areas.
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And then at around 5.3 miles you’ll reach High Creek and the campsite, which has tent sites dispersed around the area.
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If you’re camping here, look for dispersed and cleared campsites along the stream. This is often your last chance for water as well.
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Start hiking up about a dozen long, sweeping switchbacks.
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You’ll notice the notches and nailed markers in the trees. These are older trail markers but are still useful when there’s snow on the route.
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At the top of the switchbacks, the trail continues to the left. On the right is a nice viewpoint.
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Here’s the viewpoint at the top of the ridge, with Mount San Jacinto prominent. This is a good place to fuel up before the last push to the summit.
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As you hike up from the ridgeline you’ll see the line where the Apple Fire’s advance stopped (right).
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Now you have a steep climb with short switchbacks up the ridge.
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And then the climb ends and the trial levels out.
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And soon you’ll leave the tree line behind and hike up the rocky slope.
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At about 8.5 miles you’ll reach the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail. Go straight toward the summit.
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And shortly after that you’ll see the Sky High Trail branch off to the right. Go straight.
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You’ll crest a ridge that’s a false summit.
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And then see the real summit ahead.
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Here you are at the summit! Climb the rocks up to your left to hit the peak.
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You’ll notice the stone shelters for camping around the summit area.
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There’s a trail register.
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And today just a flag at the peak. Usually there’s a sign or two, but sometimes people take them home.
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There’s a lot of visitors to the summit, and the rodents aren’t shy about going for a Clif Bar, so watch your pack.
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In addition to the peaks we saw earlier, you’ll also be able to see the peaks to the north in the Big Bear area, including Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point across the valley.
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From the summit, just turn around and head back the way you came!
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Be careful at the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail, it’s easy to go straight, which won’t be a good thing if you want to go back.
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Luckily there’s a sign on that trial as an extra warning.

This guide last updated on July 24, 2021. Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.

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