Anna and I drove to Los Angeles to visit family and friends for the 2013 holidays. We packed the car with maps and gear and a big sense of adventure. We had no reservations or expectations. A few days before Christmas we race west with the sun. We pulled into Las Vegas just before dark, ready to rock and roll. Some might head to the nightclub or casino. We laced up our boots and went for hike.
We set out for Lone Mountain, a tiny but rugged suburban peak that is a short 20-minute drive north of the Vegas strip. It is an easy scramble to the top. The rocky summit provides a huge view of the Vegas metropolis. We lose our race with the sun.
But let's get back to the beginning of the trip, as I gas up the car in Boulder on a cold December morning. We would drive 3000 miles by the end. This became a familiar sight.
A cold front moved into Colorado overnight, glazing the roads with a thin layer of ice. The morning drive is damp and dreary and the going is slow.
A few hundred miles later, Utah welcomes us with blue skies.
The wrong way? Never.
Beautiful drive-by scenery.
Driving through the San Rafael Swell.
Thelma's last stand?
80. God bless Utah.
The rugged Great Basin landscape fades from the rear-view mirror. Soon we stumble into the dusty Mojave Desert for sunset.
We decide to make an honest attempt at San Gorgonio Mountain. It is the highest peak in Southern California. This is our story.
San Gorgonio Wilderness, San Bernardino County, California
Elevation: 11,503 feet
Prominence: 8,294 feet (ranked number 7 on the lower 48-state ultra-prominence list)
Trailhead: Big Falls, elevation 6,005 feet
Trail: Vivian Creek to summit
Total distance: 17.3 miles round-trip (GPS data)
Vertical gain: 5,600 feet (GPS data)
Hike time: 11 hours, 40 minutes
Terrain: class 1 hiking, some snow and ice
Weather: mostly sunny, temps in the 40s down low, cold wind chill up high
This map shows the location of the three most prominent peaks surrounding the Los Angeles basin. San Gorgonio stands highest.
Our post-hike GPS track.
In California the signage always seem to include the words MUST, PAY, NO, DON'T, and OBEY. The trail head was no different. The first sign declares that the parking lot would be gated shut from 10 pm to 6 am. The next sign declares that an Adventure Pass is required to park. After that comes the standard warnings that prohibit bad behavior. A little further up is a sign that declares bad things would happen if we stepped off the trail. And the last sign pretty much summed it all up: we would probably die if we continued further up the mountain. Have a nice day.
At first, the trail meanders through tall trees beside a boulder-strewn dry creek bed.
The authorities give one last warning and then we are on our own.
The stones are settled until the next big rain.
We regain the marked trail on the other side of the creek bed. The Vivian Creek Trail begins a steep ascent.
We enter a beautiful forest.
The grade is gradual.
Sharp and spikey rule the roost around here.
We reach a switchback in the trail and gain our first view of San Bernardino far below.
We reach the Wilderness boundary. It's the first trail sign that doesn't order us to do something. I know the true meeting is welcome and enjoy.
We go down the rabbit hole.
And things turn larger than life.
We walk. Miles tick-tock away like the woodpeckers.
In the details.
We reach a break in the forest and get our first glimpse of the upper mountain.
Go hug a tree.
The city gets bigger as we get higher.
We continue up a series of switchbacks.
The trail continues to the distant ridge.
San Jacinto Peak dominates our view to the south.
We have hiked six miles in four hours. It's now noon and we are two miles from the summit. My motivation ebbs and flows with each step.
My attitude improves when I see the summit ridge. The actual summit is out-of-view another half-mile beyond.
The view at our backside is incredible.
On our way to the summit.
We're 8 miles in and get closer with each step.
A group of hikers leave the summit before we arrive.
We reach the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain at 2 PM. A cold wind rushes over us, a reminder that winter's cold embrace is never far away.
The summit register could double as a bank vault. Made of steel and set in concrete, it provides an invincible home for a bunch of...junk.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The view east, out over convoluted folds of sand and rock in Joshua Tree National Park.
The view south, towards San Jacinto Peak.
The sun keeps a watchful eye on us.
The sky turns a subtle shade of peach. It's time for us to go down.
Shadows turn long and deep.
We descend into the warm forest.
The golden hour is here.
The audience gathers for the sunset showing.
In winter repose.
When sun kisses earth.
Day leaves for night. And we still have miles to go.
Headlamp beams create twisted shapes in the darkening forest. We stop for a drink. Everything goes quiet. The brisk mountain air cools our sweat-laced skin. One last picture and then I put the camera away.
We put our heads down and move. My focus becomes the trail ahead, illuminated by my headlamp, as we descend steep switchbacks to the dry creek bed far below. This section goes on forever and the steep pitch is hell on tired knees. At the valley floor we smell sweet campfire smoke. 10 minutes later we step onto cold dry pavement at the trail head. It feels good to be back at the car.