San Gorgonio Wilderness

On and around Southern California's Highest Peak
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San Gorgonio at al Glance

Location: San Bernardino and Riverside Counties; 2 miles north of Morongo Valley

Size: 94,702 total acres (37,980 acres of which is BLM land)

Elevation range: 2,300 to 11,502 feet

Administration: BLM Palm Springs Resource Area Office; San Bernardino National Forest

Maps: Desert Access Guide Yucca Valley #14, Palm Springs #17; AAA San Bernardino County; San Bernardino National Forest


The San Bernardino Mountains aren't your typical desert range. For one, they are well watered and forested. They are also extremely high, rising like a fortress and walling in the eastern edge of the Los Angeles Basin. This is the rooftop of southern California, with a number of ridges and peaks that rise above treeline including 10,806-foot Charlton Peak, 11,205-foot Jepson Peak, 10,624-foot San Bernardino Peak, 10,630-foot East San Bernardino Peak, and 11,502-foot Mount San Gorgonio—the highest peak in southern California. On a clear day from the broad summit plateau of Mount San Gorgonio, exquisite views are possible, with the Sierra Nevada and much of the Mojave Desert visible. The peak is also the southernmost glaciated landscape in California and includes the glacial landforms of Dollar Lake, Dry Lake, and Poopout Hill.

The San Bernardino Mountains are fault-block mountains defined by very active faults, including the San Andreas Fault along the southern edge of the mountains. The Mill Creek Fault slices through the range, providing an easy target for erosion and hence the deep canyon of Mill Creek. A mix of rocks including granite, gneiss, and limestone can be found in the range.

The San Bernardino Mountains have one of the most diverse species of flora of any southern California mountain range. At lower elevations on the eastern slopes there are Joshua tree, pinyon pine, and juniper, whereas the western low-elevation slopes are dominated by chaparral. Higher up are magnificent forests of Coulter pine, ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, white fir, incense cedar, sugar pine, black oak, California dogwood, and bigleaf maple. At the highest elevations grow lodgepole pine and ancient limber pine, often forming open forests of barely-alive gnarled and twisted snags. Quaking aspen reaches its southernmost US distribution in the Fish Creek drainage and Arrastre Creek, whereas narrowleaf cottonwood (a Rocky Mountain species) is found in Holcomb Creek. A few meadows dot the range, adding to the attractive mix. Wildlife includes bighorn sheep, mule deer, mountain lion, and black bear.

Mormon settlers from nearby San Bernardino were the first whites to exploit the mountains. They cut timber on the slopes and crest, setting their first sawmills in Mill Creek—hence its name. By 1854 there were six sawmills operating in the mountains. In 1859, William Holcomb discovered gold in his namesake valley near Bear Valley, setting off a minor rush to the area. More gold was discovered in Bear Valley, and by 1860 several gold rush communities with as many as 2,000 residents dotted the crest of the San Bernardino Mountains. Eventually, the placer deposits gave out and most of the miners moved away. However, hard-rock underground mining continued well into this century.

In the 1880s, water was the new lure of these mountains. Several major dams were constructed to hold back water, including Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead. Roads were built to bring supplies and people to build the reservoirs, and later to enjoy the lakes. The Rim of the World Highway was completed in 1915, setting the stage for the latest and last major rush—recreation. Several ski areas were proposed for development in what eventually became the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Fortunately wilderness proponents won out and the ski developments were never constructed. Although heavily used by hikers, the impact from recreationalists is minor, very concentrated, and nothing more than cosmetic compared with the effects of logging, mining, and housing development that has influenced the rest of the range.

The area now encompassed by the San Gorgonio Wilderness was first part of the San Bernardino Forest Reserve set aside in 1893. Its special qualities were recognized when the Forest Service chief designated the high country around San Gorgonio a primitive area in 1931. Its name changed to San Gorgonio Wild Area in 1956, and again in 1964 when it was officially designated the San Gorgonio Wilderness. In 1984 the wilderness was enlarged by 23,720 acres. The 1994 California Desert Protection Act added another 37,980 acres (managed by the BLM) to the southeastern corner near the Whitewater drainage. Today the San Gorgonio Wilderness encompasses 94,702 acres. More than 100 miles of trails, most in the highest elevations, are managed by the Forest Service and allow for everything from day hikes to extensive multiday treks. Yet much of the wilderness is trailless, particularly the upper Whitewater and Hell For Sure drainages, offering potential solitude for the more intrepid hiker.

The recent addition of BLM wilderness lands on the southeastern corner of the existing Forest Service wilderness has increased the amount of low-elevation terrain, which is covered with chaparral and other shrub communities like rabbitbrush. These lands are of scientific interest because they lie at a transition zone where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts overlap with coastal vegetative communities. The mixture and diversity of plants found in this area is unusual as a consequence. Additionally, important riparian habitats including beautiful groves of cottonwood are found along Whitewater Canyon, Cottonwood Canyon, and Mission Creek. During bird migration these riparian habitats are populated with dozens of different species.

The area also supports some unique intergrades between desert and coastal reptile species. For instance, the banded gecko, glossy snake, and gopher snake all exhibit morphological characteristics of both coastal and desert variations. Two subspecies of collared lizards (Crotaphytus insularis vestigium and C.i. bicinctores) are located here, and some scientists believe they warrant separate species status.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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