First off, I will say that this trip was 100% worth it and a must do if you live in Southern California. At 11,503 feet, it is the highest mountain in Southern California and when you reach the top, you can definitely tell.
We took this trip in mid-June and made a weekend of it. All-in-all, the whole trip ended up being about 23 miles but that comes with a caveat that I will explain later in this post. The weather was ideal. It was sunny but not too hot due to the altitude. There was still about a 12’x12′ patch of snow near the summit but that was it. We ended up staying at the Mineshaft Flats campground which is located about a mile off the main Fish Creek Trail to the summit.
It’s important to realize that getting to this trail head is half the battle. After turning on the Heart Bar Park Rd. sign, there’s a little paved section, followed by a long smooth dirt road. After that, it gets a little rough. There is about an 8 mile section of dirt road that is rugged (to say the least). We drove my ’02 2WD Ford Escape and the whole time I was praying to every god there is that we wouldn’t pop a tire. Anything with less clearance than that would have a really hard time getting up there.
Once we got to the trail head, the parking isn’t too bad. We got there in the late morning on Saturday and were still able to get a spot. The parking lot is one of the few you don’t have to pay for in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, so no need for the “Adventure Pass”. We put on our gear and were on our merry way.
The hike starts out rather tame. A little down-hill and flats. You pass into the bottom of a little valley and cross the trail’s namesake creek after about a mile. At this point, we started to feel the altitude. This also happens to be where you really start gaining altitude. It’s all uphill from here until you get to the top.
We passed the first campground after about a mile and a half and were stopped there by a pair of rangers who wanted to check our wilderness pass. Definitely get this pass if you are going out there. They don’t do email, so the easiest way to get the pass is to download and fill out the PDF here: http://www.sgwa.org/permit.htm and fax it over to them for approval. Give them a few days to get it back to you. The ranger wished us well and left us with an ominous, “it should be nice, IF you make it.” We didn’t have any doubts we would make it, but for me, that planted a little seed of doubt that I could have done without.
We trudged on however. We stopped around mile 4 and planted our asses on a rock to eat some Uncrustables and dried fruit. After that we kept going to the turnoff on the trail for Mineshaft Flats campground. A little note on the Fish Creek Saddle Campground: It’s nice and shady, but a little crowded for my taste. At least it was on a Saturday evening.
We ended up not quite making it to the actual campground. It seemed like we were there because there is a wide flat area of trees and sandy patches, but we found out later that we still had about another 3/4 miles to go. The whole first day was about 6 miles. Where we did camp was great though. Since we were technically in the wrong spot, it was nice and private. We finished out the night by downing some Mountain House Mac and Cheese mixed with Mac and Beef (excellent combination), and polishing off a bottle of Fireball between the 3 of us.
Due to some shenanigans (having nothing to do with the Fireball, I’m sure), we ended up spilling the remainder of our water (mostly all over my sleeping bag and tent), which required us to hike the rest of the way down the trail, buckets and filter in hand, to fetch some more water in the morning. The water comes out of the ground in a stream about 1/4 mile past the actual Mineshaft Flats campground. That added a good 2 miles to our day, which is the caveat I mentioned earlier, we wouldn’t have had to go those 2 extra miles if we had been more careful with our water. The water from the stream is great though, nice and clear and cold. I don’t know how far into the summer it runs though, it was a very small stream.
After we had gotten our water, we hiked back to camp, broke everything down, and were on our way. Pretty much the rest of the way to the top was a series of rather brutal switchbacks. I was definitely dragging ass on the way up, but the views were absolutely to die for, and there is a military airplane wreckage from 1953. The debris is strewn on either side of the trail, so you can’t miss it. It’s a sad sight, but of course fascinating at the same time. Once we got to the top, the view was ridiculous. You almost feel like you’re in an airplane, the scenery surrounding the mountain looks so small. The landscape opens up like a quilt, with squares of fields and housing. At the top there are rock shelters about waist high that you could conceivably set up a tent in if you wanted to make camp at the summit. There is a sign with the altitude carved into it which you can hold for the all important photo op. When we arrived, there was a group of tourists that took pictures with the sign for about 30+ minutes. I think they got a picture of every possible combination of their group of about 10. But hey, making it up there certainly feels like an accomplishment, so might as well take advantage of it.
We headed all the way back down after some Cheeze Wiz and Ritz at the top. Down hill is definitely where the injuries took place. I’m still waiting to see if my big toenails will decide to stay attached. We were all exhausted the entire way down. I mostly stumbled down the mountain. My car was a welcome sight when we finally arrived at it just as it was getting dark. We hit In-N-Out on the way back home, all sore but feeling happy. We did 17 miles on the second day. Next time I think we’ll try to split it up a little more evenly. Maybe even check out the Vivian Creek Trail.
Some Final Thoughts…
-Flora– Tons of gorgeous wildflowers all the way up the trail. There were also some huge, gnarly pine trees that were cool to look at. If you pay attention, there is one big tree right by the trail that was hit by lightning and had its core burnt out. It looks like a little cave.
-Fauna– We kept hoping to see a bear, but alas, nothing. We may have seen a bird or two, but that’s about it.
-Difficulty– 7/10 due to the prolonged, steep elevation gain.
-Really make sure you get the permit, it makes everyone’s life easier. Also make sure to bring enough water (and snacks!).