Sky High Trail a Mile from the Top of San Gorgonio Mountain
Time flies when you’re having fun, and except for kayaking the upper Santa Ana River and a ski ascent or two, the last time I’d been on the north side of San Gorgonio was before Poopout Hill closed in 1988. Curious to refresh my memory of the area and compare a South Fork trail run to those on the Forest Falls side of the mountain, I started thinking about what would be an interesting route to do.
Running in shorts and short sleeves, I’d left the South Fork trailhead about 7:30 and was now about a half-hour into the run. Up ahead was the turn-off to Poopout Hill and not far beyond that the wilderness boundary. I’d been doing a mix of fast hiking and running and enjoying the morning. A black-capped chickadee had stopped on a branch to say hi, and a Steller’s jay was complaining loudly from the top of a pine. Earlier I’d passed Horse Meadows, an iconic scene with sunlight filtering through the trees, green meadows and rustic brown cowboy cabins.
About a quarter mile past Poopout Hill my jaw dropped as I rounded a corner and was suddenly in a sizable avalanche path. A tumult of interleaved firs and pines lay in a hundred yard wide swath that extended thousands of vertical feet up the mountain.
This avalanche likely occurred within a few days of January 23, 2010, following (or during) a multi-day rain and snow event in Southern California. Over the seven day period from January 17 to January 23, the rain gauge at Mill Creek recorded 7.82 inches of precipitation. According to a NWS report, Mt. Baldy recorded 7′ of snow at the 8600′ level. The source area of the avalanche appears to have been in a cirque near peak 10,230.
Working up the hill toward South Fork Meadows I stopped to chat with a Ranger, who checked my wilderness permit and mentioned a group of day hikers had left South Fork very early and were ahead of me.
At the Dry Lake/Dollar Lake fork at South Fork Meadows I turned left onto the Dry Lake Trail. I already heard water, so one question was answered — there was plenty of water at South Fork Meadows. Comments on the Water Info Collector had said Lodgepole Spring was low, but “flowing OK,” so the plan was to top off my water there.
Dry Lake was indeed dry, but the meadow in its place and backdrop of sculptured mountains was still impressive. The next stop was Lodgepole Spring; I just had to find the use trail leading to it. This was one of those situations where it’s important to note the details of the topography. There are two areas that people camp at Dry Lake (noted on a sign) and the use trail is in the drainage above the second, more southerly camp.
After talking to some campers I followed the trail around the east side of Dry Lake and into the primary camping area. After working up the drainage a couple tenths of a mile I found a small spring flowing out of some willows. Rather than taking the time to use a UV pen, I used a makeshift cup to fill a one liter collapsible water bottle with a built-in filter. Hopefully that, and what was left in my pack, would get me up to the peak and back down to South Fork Meadows.
The “use” trail from Lodgepole Spring was not too difficult to follow and it took about 30 minutes to get up to Fish Creek Saddle. The trail between Fish Creek Saddle and Mineshaft Saddle more or less follows the 9880′ contour line and was reasonably runnable. It passes through an area of lodgepole pines killed by the mountain pine beetle.
In a few minutes I rejoined the regular Dry Lake route at Mine Shaft Saddle and started up the increasingly scenic Sky High Trail. About a mile up the trail from Mine Shaft Saddle is wreckage and a memorial to the personnel of a Douglas C-47 that crashed in a snowstorm on December 1, 1952. The C-47B “Gooney Bird” was a military version of the venerable DC-3 airliner.
The Sky High Trail earned its name as it switchbacked up to 11,000′, and wrapped around the south side of Gorgonio’s summit. From the airy trail there are stunning views past The Tarn to Banning Pass and Mt. San Jacinto. The Sky High Trail joined the Divide Trail a little east of the Vivian Creek Trail junction and in a couple of minutes I was jogging east across the summit plateau to the blocky summit of San Gorgonio Mountain.
According to the Trail Mileage Handout (PDF) from the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association the descent from the summit by way of Dollar Lake Saddle and the Dollar Lake Trail is about 10.7 miles — which is a little shorter than the 11.4 miles listed using the regular Dry Lake route. (Mileage doesn’t include the side trip to Lodgepole Spring.) Even so, I think the Dry Lake route is the preferred route from South Fork Meadows. It’s more scenic and aesthetic.
The running was technical, but good down to Dollar Lake Saddle. Below Dollar Lake Saddle the trail was often very rocky. This lightning-scarred pine was on one of the last switchbacks before South Fork Meadows. I was happy to get down to South Fork Meadows, get some water, and get onto a better trail! By about 3:30 pm I was back at the car and enjoying an ice cold bottle of water.