Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino National Forest is the highest peak in southern California. The grand mountain stretches skyward to an impressive 11,502 feet. Only 80 miles east of Los Angeles, the snowcapped peak can easily be seen on a clear and smogless day.
The Mount San Gorgonio area was included in the Wilderness Act of 1964, a step toward careful management and preservation of wildlands. Developers looking to build ski resorts had been eager to acquire land in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area.
In 1941, the Forest Service was to accommodate developers’ requests and allow them to build on the northern slope of Mount San Gorgonio. A public hearing was held and conservationists attended in an attempt to save the wilderness. A final decision was delayed due to the involvement of the United States in World War II. Five years later, the proposal was at the table again. Conservationists rallied in full force, and the development plan was denied the following year. (Source: San Gorgonio Wilderness Association)
The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 to preserve wildlands and protect them from development. The Mount San Gorgonio area was included in the lands to be protected as wilderness. The Act defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Preservation is the primary objective. Human use is secondary.
The Wilderness Act disallows permanent roads and commercial activities in wilderness areas, with exceptions, of course, for administration of the wildlands and the healthy and safety of personnel. Motorized vehicles, human habitation, and permanent improvements are prohibited.
All of this deemed necessary to preserve and protect the land and its natural environment.
The San Gorgonio Wilderness is accessible only to permit holders. These permits ensure that the wilderness area is not overused. Only a specific number of permits are issued for each trail. Low impact hiking and camping are of the utmost importance in the Wilderness. Free permits can be obtained at the Mill Creek ranger station.
The area is avalanche prone when snowfall is high. The rangers can inform you of the trail conditions to the best of their ability. The responsibility of traveling safely through snow-covered backcountry is ultimately yours.
I snowshoed South Fork Trail to Horse Meadows and then on toward the San Gorgonio Wilderness boundary. The trailhead is about 2.5 miles east on Jenks Lake Road off Highway 38 and is at an elevation of 6,880 feet.
A large paved parking area is across from the trailhead. The air was frigid, and the wind that blasted my face erased all memories of the scorching southern California summer. The scenery was gorgeous. Dense forest alternated with windswept brush-covered hills.
Dark clouds belonging to an incoming storm were in the far distance, and the bright winter sun on the opposite side highlighted the perilous, charcoal gray clouds. As I ascended the gently to moderately graded trail, I stopped often and looked to the north to the ever-expanding view and to the south at the grand Mount San Gorgonio.
Parts of the trail were fairly narrow and one wrong step in my oversized snowshoes would have had me sliding down a hillside. (Thank goodness for crampons.) I’d avoid the area when there is ice or heavy snowpack. Snowshoers have slid down icy slopes here and the area is certainly avalanche prone. It was early in the season, and there were only several inches of snow, so the trails were easily traversable.
About 1.5 miles up the mountain, I reached Horse Meadows. I only had about another mile to Poopout Hill at 7,840 feet in elevation. As I approached Poopout Hill and neared the Wilderness boundary, the storm clouds quickly approached and the sun lowered to the horizon. I reluctantly turned back to return home. My goal for the day was to at least make it to the Wilderness Area boundary, but the setting sun, storm clouds, and snail’s pace precluded me from doing so.
Although I did not reach my goal, I did not leave disappointed. I was glad to have enjoyed the solitude of the wilderness, and I was thankful for the people before me that had been persistent about vowing to protect these lands.
Mill Creek Ranger Station, 34701 Mill Creek Road, Mentone, California, 92359
San Gorgonio Wilderness Association (http://www.sgwa.org) for the information on the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area’s early history and potential development.