Los Angeles Top Trails
CHALLENGE YOURSELF: Autumn's typically clear, cool, stable weather is perfect for climbing the highest peak in southern California. The Vivian Creek route described here is the easiest (but by no means "easy") way to reach the summit.
Finding the Trail
From Interstate 10 just east of the city of San Bernardino, exit at Highway 38 (Orange Street) in Redlands. Turn left (north), proceed 0.5 mile north to Lugonia Avenue, and turn right (east), remaining on Highway 38. Continue 8 miles to an intersection with Bryant Street. The Mill Creek Ranger Station, where you can secure the necessary wilderness permit for hiking the Vivian Creek Trail, is located at this intersection. Opening hours vary according to season, and some permits may be available by self-registration outside the station's door early in the morning. Call (909) 794-1123 for more information. Back on the road again, continue driving east on Highway 38, now signed Mill Creek Road, for 6.2 miles. Turn right at Valley of the Falls Boulevard, and proceed the remaining 4.3 miles to the road end, where a large paved parking lot, the Vivian Creek Trailhead, accommodates forest visitors (with a National Forest Adventure Pass, of course).
From the Vivian Creek Trailhead, walk east (uphill) past a vehicle gate and follow a dirt road for 0.6 mile to its end. Go left across the wide, boulder wash of Mill Creek and find the Vivian Creek Trail going sharply up the oak-clothed canyon wall on the far side. The next half mile is excruciatingly steep (it's worse on the return, when your weary quadriceps muscles must absorb the punishment of each lurching downhill step).
Mercifully, at the top of this steep section, the trail levels momentarily, then assumes a moderate grade up alongside Vivian Creek. A sylvan Shangri-La unfolds ahead. Pines, firs, and cedars reach for the sky. Bracken fern smothers the banks of the melodious creek, which dances over boulders and fallen trees.
Near Halfway Campground (2.5 miles) you begin climbing timber-dotted slopes covered intermittently by thickets of manzanita. After several zigs and zags on shady north-facing slopes, you swing onto a brightly illuminated south-facing slope. Serrated Yucaipa Ridge looms in the south, rising sheer from the depths of Mill Creek Canyon. Soon thereafter, the sound of bubbling water heralds your arrival at High Creek (4.8 miles) and the trail camp of the same name.
Past the High Creek camp the trail ascends gently on several long switchback segments through lodgepole pines, and attains a saddle on a rocky ridge. The pines thin out and appear more decrepit as you climb crookedly up along this ridge toward timberline. At 7.2 miles, the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail intersects from the left. Stay right and keep climbing on a moderate grade across stony slopes dotted with cowering, stunted pines shaped by gales, smothering snow, and months-long droughts. Soon, nearly all vegetation disappears.
On the right you pass Sky High Trail, which curls up the mountain slope from the east. Keep straight, and don't give up! A final burst of effort puts you on a boulder pile marking the highest elevation in Southern California (7.8 miles from your starting point). From this vantage, even the soaring north face of San Jacinto Peak to the south appears diminished in stature. On the clearest days the Pacific Ocean appears in the southwest, and the northern view may include Telescope Peak, 180 miles away, in Death Valley National Park.
When it's time to leave, do a few leg-stretching exercises first to limber up. The return is relentlessly and at times jarringly downhill.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication