San Gorgonio and San Bernardino, the same day, the hard way
Back in 2003 when I was training for the Pikes Peak Marathon, I heard about a rarely attempted hike across the San Bernadino mountains called the "San Bernardino Mountains Traverse" or "the Nine Peaks." The Boy Scouts even have a patch to recognize those that have backpacked across this route (even they don’t attempt to do this in one day).
Basically, this 26-mile hike goes up 8 miles, across 10 miles, and then down 8 miles. You start at the Vivian Creek TH (6,080’) just above Forest Falls. From there, you ascend 5,400’ up an 8-mile trail to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio
(aka, "Old Grayback" due to its large barren top). San Gorgonio is the highest peak in Southern California (11,500’). From the peak of SanG, you take a 10-mile trail west across the ridgeline that leads you to the following eight other peaks:
~~San Bernardino East Peak
~~San Bernardino Peak
The 10-mile trail across the ridge dips only as low as 10,000’ at Dollar Lake Saddle between Charlton and Alto Diablo. From San Bernardino Peak, you then descend 5,700’ down an 8-mile trail to the Angelus Oaks TH (5,960’). This makes it a 26-mile trek and what a trek it is since half of it is at 10,000’ or higher.
But the day isn’t over yet for me. Since I’ve done this hike solo, I leave my bike at the Angelus Oaks TH so I can get back to my vehicle at the Vivian Creek TH. It’s a 10-mile bike ride, but a tough one. The first 6 miles are all downhill (no pedalling required), but the last 4 miles go up 1400’. The quads just don’t want to cooperate at that point of the day. So the entire circuit is roughly 36 miles (26 hiking and 10 more biking).
One of the toughest things about this hike is carrying enough liquids. In 2003 when I did this hike, I took 5 quarts and that was barely enough. Knowing it was supposed to be a very hot day today, I took 8 quarts this time (and used all of it by the time I finished biking). That’s 16 pounds of liquids alone as I start up the steepest part of the hike (the first mile above Vivian Creek). That’s a lot of weight to lug up and across all these mountains, but there’s little water on the trail and you definitely don’t want to be under-hydrated.
In 2003 when I did this hike, I actually "bagged" all Nine Peaks and signed the log books for all of them (except Alto Diablo which I never found). Today, I was only interested in hiking 26 miles (preparing for the Crater Lake Marathon in August) so I technically only bagged 3 of the peaks and signed those log books (San Gorgonio, San Bernardino East, and San Bernardino). I was within just a couple of hundred feet of the other peaks, but I didn’t take the extra time to bag those. I just stayed on the main traverse trail.
In 2003, the entire power-hike/trail-run across all nine peaks took me 9 hours, 40 minutes total. Today, I finished the hike almost a full hour faster (8 hours, 48 minutes). Most of this is due to the fact that I didn’t take the extra time to bag six of the peaks, and also I intentionally was trail-running more this time than last.
Today, I was actually 30 minutes slower getting to the first peak (San Gorgonio) than in 2003. Part of this was due to the fact that I lost the trail for about 10 minutes after crossing Mill Creek. But shortly thereafter a very unexpected event happened that caused me to lose more time.
After I had crossed Mill Creek and had just started up the trail (even before the first major switchback), I looked up to find a huge black bear walking up the trail ahead of me about 20-30 yards. I was only about a half mile into the hike and thought, Oh great, what do I do now? Well, I watched him slowly lumber his way up the trail (he was definitely a full-grown adult) and I looked to see if there were any cubs (you certainly don’t want to mess with momma and the cubs!), but I didn’t spot any. (A picture of the bear’s big rear-end will be posted shortly.)
The bear went around the bend, never knowing I was there. I waited a few minutes and slowly went up the trail and carefully went around the same bend… not wanting to meet the bear face to face! I saw him exiting the trail at the first switchback. I let him go on his merry way. When I got to that switchback, I looked down below and saw the bear looking up at me about 30 yards away. He didn’t move. He just watched and I went hiking up the trail… with a very high heartrate.
Since it was a Saturday, I saw quite a few people on the trails today… actually on all parts of the trails. I asked those that had come up from Vivian Creek if they saw the bear, but none of them had. I did talk to a guy on San Berardino peak who saw a bear near there last week when he hiked SanG. Probably the same bear (hanging out near the campgrounds for scraps).
After that unexpected encounter less than a mile into my hike, the day went along very smoothly. I had great weather (a few fluffy clouds to block some sunshine, but no threat of thunderstorms). There was little wind… just enough to keep me cool, but not enough to blow my hat off. My body responded well to the hike, but I did end up with a couple of blisters (nothing too unusual). It was a long day to say the least, and it’s good to be home.
I couldn’t help but think as I hiked today that a bunch of runners in Leadville, Colorado were also going 26 miles today, but all
of their course was above 10,000' (and as high as 13,180’). Yes, the Leadville Trail Marathon was being held today. That was on my mind because that’s high on my to-do list for next summer (no pun intended). I guess I’ll have to do my own personal San Bernadino Trail Marathon again next summer to prep for that… but hopefully without the company of a bear.
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