In recent months, I’ve written about cooler places, just a short drive away, that will appeal to hikers at any level.

This month, for the more-experienced hikers and avid outdoor adventurers, I’m going to discuss a few really cool but strenuous trails—involving the two highest peaks in Southern California.

Mount San Gorgonio, or “Old Greyback,” is the highest peak in Southern California at 11,503 feet—and it’s on my bucket list to summit. Mount San Gorgonio is located in the San Bernardino National Forest, and is, as of this writing, open for hiking; trails had been closed due to fires, and some portions may still be closed.

According to the San Bernardino National Forest website, there are 81 miles of trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, including a small portion of the Pacific Crest Trail; several trails lead to the peak. According to AllTrails, the Vivian Creek Trail is the steepest and most challenging, but is rewarding thanks to amazing panoramic views and a waterfall along the way. It’s my preferred route, as I’m currently training to summit Mount San Gorgonio. The Vivian Creek Trail is 19 miles round-trip (an estimated 10 hours) and climbs more than a vertical mile, over less than 8 miles, to the summit. Water may be available along this trail, but don’t count on it, and always bring a filter just in case. Dogs are allowed but must be kept on a leash. The trail is best used from March until October, and a wilderness permit is required; they’re free and can be requested up to 90 days in advance online.

Here are a few tips from that will help make your hike to San Gorgonio Peak more enjoyable:

Apply for your permit early. This is the second-most-popular trailhead in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and permit quotas often fill up in advance.

Start hiking early. Trailhead parking opens at 6 a.m., and the parking lot fills up fast. It’s a long day, and by starting early, you’ll avoid the worst of the heat.

Be prepared. For an all-day mega-hike like this, preparation really counts. Carry the 10 essentials. It’s a long trail. Don’t underestimate the water and electrolytes you’ll need.

A view from San Jacinto Peak.

The second-highest peak in Southern California is right in our backyard—Mount San Jacinto. With an elevation of 10,834 feet, it is the mountain that towers over Palm Springs. There are several routes to the peak, but most people take the route that begins in Long Valley, after taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up to Mountain Station. It’s 11 miles round trip (approximately 5-6 hours) from Mountain Station, and the hiking is best from March until November. I have done this hike many times, and it is by far the quickest, easiest and smoothest route—that is, if you don’t get caught up in a sudden thunderstorm, which happened to me one time. (That trip quickly became an adrenaline-pumping adventure, but it turned out well.) The views from the San Jacinto Peak are absolutely breathtaking, making the trek to the top worthwhile. On a clear day, you can see the Salton Sea and beyond to the east, and the Pacific Ocean and even Santa Catalina Island to the west. Being at the top of Mount San Jacinto is beyond amazing!

For a longer and more-challenging route, take the Skyline “Cactus to Clouds” Trail that starts on the desert floor behind the Palm Springs Art Museum; it’s best used from October until May. This route is a grueling 21 miles—and that’s taking the Aerial Tramway down the mountain. It’s 16 miles to the peak, and then 5.5 miles to Mountain Station. I took this route and made it as far as Mountain Station; that was enough for me—and at the time, I considered myself to be in great shape. As AllTrails points out, this trail is not for the fainthearted. The elevation gain is more than 8,000 feet in the first 12 miles, with much of that in hot, dry conditions. Then it’s another 2,600 feet to the summit from Long Valley. If you choose to hike this trail, please use caution, and plan accordingly. Note that there is a fee to use the tram; get tickets at

Another option to summit San Jacinto Peak is to take the less-crowded approach from Marion Mountain, aka the Idyllwild side. This is my favorite route, and it is best used from June until October. (I’ve been on this trail in March—and found myself in snow up to my knees.) The Marion Mountain Trail begins just north of Idyllwild and is the shortest route to San Jacinto Peak—but it’s a steep and a brutal climb of more than 4,600 feet in less than 6 miles. It’s just as difficult coming back down as it is going up. Although water is available at the ranger station in Long Valley, among your hiking essentials, you will want to bring plenty of water, food, a warm jacket and gloves.

San Jacinto Wilderness day use permits are free but required. They are available at park headquarters in Idyllwild; the Long Valley Ranger Station from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; the Marion Mountain parking lot kiosk; and at the Stone Creek Campground (for the Marion Mountain trail) at the kiosk to the right, just before entering the campground registration area.

Let me emphasize that the trails mentioned here are not for beginners. They’re all very strenuous and should be taken seriously—and you probably won’t have cell service. When on the higher trails, make sure you are acclimated to the altitude, or you may find yourself more short of breath than usual. Hiking these trails requires planning, preparation and permits. Be prepared for unexpected weather; high winds and storms could blow in at any time. Always hike with a buddy, and make sure someone knows where you’re going. Bring more water than you should need; stay hydrated; follow all safety protocols; and always expect the unexpected.

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Theresa Sama

Theresa Sama is an outdoor enthusiast who writes the Independent’s hiking/outdoors column. She has been running and hiking the Coachella Valley desert trails for more than 10 years and enjoys sharing...

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