My Favorite Hike in SOCAL: The Little San Gorgonio to Galena Peak Traverse
Yet behind these little mountains lies one of the best hikes in Southern California.
Verdi, with the San Jacinto Hiking Club, posted a hike that traversed these mountains with sections of “class 3 and class 4 scrambling.” I was intrigued so I signed up on the waiting list. I sent Verdi a separate message telling him that I had the skills and the fitness to meet the challenge and he graciously allowed me to come along.
Galena Peak Traverse Quick Facts
No permit needed, but Adventure Pass is required to park
Crampons and ice ax needed in winter
Allow 12+ hours
5,100′ of elevation gain
Little San Gorgonio Peak (9,133′)
Wanat Peak (9,045′)
Cuchillo Peak (8,868′)
Galena Peak (9,324′)
The hike ended up including Verdi, Francis, Masayo, and myself. By the time the day was over, this hike had become my favorite hike in Southern California. It had everything: long and steep elevation gain, waterfalls, ice, exposure, beautiful views above a sea of clouds, more ice, and a breathtaking sunset finish. What more could you ask for?
The Steep AscentThe hike started at the Vivian Creek Trailhead, but instead of crossing Mill Creek to summit San Gorgonio, we turned right to follow a small creek drainage toward the summit of Little San Gorgonio Peak. We scrambled up this drainage, gaining 3,000′ in about two miles, climbing over a series of waterfalls along the way.
The higher we went, the more we encountered ice. In fact, one waterfall was completely iced over. I had honestly never seen an iced waterfall in Southern California. How cool is that?! The scrambling was so much fun, but I did regret leaving my snow spikes in the car.
Eventually, we reached the summit of Little Gorgonio Peak. As we walked the last 100 feet out of the north-facing drainage, we finally saw the sun for the first time that morning – shining over a sea of clouds. Only Mount San Jacinto was visible across the valley. I reveled in the euphoria of this gorgeous 55-degree clear day with incredible views 360 degrees. And no wind!
Traversing the Yucaipa RidgeBuoyed by the warmer temps on the ridge, we just kept moving without any break toward our next destination: Wanat Peak. There was more scrambling along the ridge, and at one point we down-climbed a short slope with fatal exposure. Verdi kept a 3o-foot piece of nylon webbing that we were able to use as a handline to protect ourselves through this section and it worked great.
There were no trails. The traverse of the narrow ridge involved intermittent scrambling, hiking, and bushwacking with steep elevation gains along the way. To the south were steep slopes. To the north were sharp drop-offs with up to 1,000′ of exposure all the way down to Mill Creek. We reached Cuchillo Peak after a solid class 3 section where we saw our final objective: Galena Peak.
Reaching Galena PeakWe reached Galena by about 3:00pm and took a short break. Because of the short daylight hours, we didn’t have the luxury of taking long breaks. We knew we had to get to the Mill Creek drainage by sunset or we might be stuck up at high altitude for the night. Route-finding on the descent would be difficult and dangerous at night, given the steep slopes and icy conditions.
Getting a Little Stuck
We made our descent down a fairly straightforward route that led to the Mill Creek Jump Off that we could see far below. However, the north side of the mountain was full of ice and soon we found ourselves stranded on a very steep slope with slick ice. Verdi was going to use his nylon handline to work as a modified rappel, using the tree trunks as natural projection, but it slipped out of his hand and slid down the mountain.
It was time for Plan B. Verdi grabbed a rock and began to carve steps into the ice. We each followed by digging deeper steps that we all used to traverse 500 feet to the safety of dry ground. It was a slow arduous process that took 20 minutes. Our hands were throbbing and frozen by the time we reached the other side, but it felt good to have a safe route we could continue our descent.
Descent into DarknessAt sunset, we reached the top of the Mill Creek Jump Off. This feature marks the beginning of Mill Creek. It’s a steep, loose scree slope that is highly prone to rock fall. Verdi went first, scree surfing in a controlled slide all the way to the bottom. We had to take this section one at a time because of the possibility of those above kicking big rocks down on those below.
The sun was setting as I surfed down the slope. It was a magical red and orange glow above the clouds that filled the valley in the distance. Despite my need to stay focused on what I was doing, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by this scene.
We ended up scrambling along the creek bed for one mile in the dark before the terrain flattened out into sand, and eventually, a trail. It was really hard to tell what was ice and what was rock in the dark so we kept our helmets on. Fortunately, none of us took any falls and we ended up getting back to the car about 6:30 p.m.
It had been an 11-hour day with 5,000 feet of elevation gained in about 10 miles. For me, this was one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on in southern California. As hard as it was, I am looking forward to doing it again.