San Bernardino National Forest is full of hiking opportunities for backpackers and day hikers alike. Several trails lead to the summit of San Gorgonio (Old Grayback), the highest peak in Southern California. This article focuses on the trails that are easily accessible from Forest Falls (off Highway 38).
I hiked trail 1E13, which began in the parking lot at Forest Falls, near the picnic area. (If you are looking for this trail on the map available at the ranger station, it is labeled “Big Falls.” However, the sign literally just said “Trail” and pointed west.) The trail is about 0.6 miles and ends with a great view of Big Falls. I followed the trail down into the creek bed and easily crossed on some rocks. The trail goes along the creek bed for a bit before continuing up a hill, which is to the right of a large yellow sign that warns about falling rock and other dangers in the area. Before coming to that sign, the trail is in an open area and is marked only by its stone border. With all the other rocks, it is easy to wander off the trail if you are not paying attention, but just follow the creek downstream and you will be fine. The hike up the hill took me less than 10 minutes, but I was going slow and enjoying the scenery (and trying not to slip on the snow and ice, since I went at the end of November).
If you are not interested in hiking up the hill, you can still get a decent view of Big Falls. Just keep walking along the creek. When you come to the “no-trespassing” signs, go down into the creek bed until you get past the big trees and can see the falls. The creek bed is drying up, and you can walk down in there without getting wet.
Vivian Creek Trail is another that is easily accessible from Forest Falls. We walked through the day use area where people were enjoying picnics and others were sliding down the hills on snow tubes and plastic discs. The trailhead is usually at the top east end of the parking lot. In November 2010 signs were posted for a detour because of fallen trees that had not yet been cleared. The makeshift trailhead follows a creek bed east and is easy to find and will probably be used through the rest of the season.
Vivian Creek Trail is the shortest and steepest route to the summit of San Gorgonio. Hikers may go only about a mile without a permit. Vivian Creek Camp is just beyond the border into the San Gorgonio Wilderness. San Gorgonio Peak is 8.6 miles from the trailhead, with a few stops for water and shelter (Vivian Creek Camp, Halfway Camp, and High Creek). Most people pick this trail for its views of the Yucaipa Ridge and Galena Peak. Panoramic views from San Gorgonio Peak at nearly 11,500 feet are a great reward for those who make it up that far.
The ranger said Vivian Creek Trail is the second most popular trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (after South Fork Trail) and a very popular trail for hiking in Southern California. Permits go fast.
Forest Falls had just one open bathroom while I was there. It was just a hole and some toilet paper. It was disgusting and not well-ventilated. There is no sink, so you may want to bring some hand sanitizer.
All of the parking areas in the San Bernardino National Forest require an Adventure Pass ($5/day or $30/year) or an Interagency Pass ($80/year for most people). Because of the popularity of this hiking area, you must obtain a free permit for all hikes into the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Many of the trails that begin in the San Bernardino National Forest end up in this area. Posted signs notify you of how far you can go without the permit. Permits and passes are available from the ranger stations in the area. The one most conveniently located to the trails mentioned in this article is located on Mill Creek Road in Mentone, California. Call the Mill Creek Ranger Station at 909-382-2881 for more information about hiking in Southern California.