San Gorgonio Wilderness: 2 Miles Above L.A.

Sierra scenery at L.A.'s backdoor.
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Sierra scenery at L.A.'s backdoor.

When life in L.A. has you ready to reenact Michael Douglas' role in the movie Falling Down (that's the one about the average guy who goes ballistic), don't worry because relief is in sight. Well, it is on smog-free days. Off in the distance and a mere 2-hour drive east of downtown (an easy commute in these parts) is 11,499-foot Mt. San Gorgonio. Here you'll find virgin forests, small lakes, vast open slopes, and a resident herd of bighorn sheep-if you're willing to sweat. "Old Grayback" towers more than 5,000 feet above most approach routes.

Visiting this area will leave you wondering whether set designers in Hollywood recreated the Sierra Nevada at the city limits. Picture an east-west running ridge that cruises at the 10,000-foot level for more than 10 miles, building to a grand finale at Mt. San Gorgonio. Falling away to either side are 59,000 acres of federally designated wilderness. Running up to the ridge, like so many ribs to a crooked spine, are a half dozen trails that start at elevations ranging from 5,500 to 8,000 feet. Trails in the wilderness interconnect to give backpackers a variety of trip choices in the two- to four-day range. All the huffing and puffing to reach the crest trails (Summit Ridge and Sky High) is worth it for the views that stretch from the Sierra to Mexico.

Just as notable are the beguiling ecosystems--and the campsites--tucked away on the mountain flanks. Savvy hikers know the double crossing of Mine Shaft Saddle is worth the effort required to visit the secluded Big Tree site on the North Fork of the Whitewater River. Your reward is abundant wildlife, the soothing sound of gurgling water, and views of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree National Park.

Looking for a perfect weekend expedition? Then hike the loop that goes up Momyer Creek Trail and east 3 miles along the crest to a descent of the Vivian Creek Trail. This 19-mile trip features one of the quietest trails in the area (Momyer), a spectacular ridge walk, and the opportunity to bag the big peak with a half-mile side trip.

QUICK TAKE: San Gorgonio Wilderness, California

DRIVE TIME: The wilderness area is about 100 miles (2 hours) east of Los Angeles.

THE WAY: East of Redlands on CA 38.

TRAILS: A network of 12 trails, all of which are open to pack animals, covers 102 miles. Horse use is concentrated on the Fish Creek, Lost Creek, and South Fork trails. San Gorgonio is snow-free between June and December.

ELEVATION: The lowest point is Stubbe Canyon at 3,200 feet. Mt. San Gorgonio, at 11,499 feet, is the high point.

CAN'T MISS: The lush ferns and wildflowers of Vivian Creek in late June or early July.

CROWD CONTROL: Backcountry visitation peaks between May and September. South Fork (Old Poopout Hill) receives 51 percent of wilderness visitors.

PIT STOP: The Oaks Restaurant on CA 38 in Angelus Oaks is known for its home cooking.

WALK SOFTLY: Trowels to bury human waste are mandatory. So is packing out your toilet paper. South Fork Meadows area deserves especially gentle treatment.

MAPS: Get Trail Map Of The San Gorgonio Wilderness from Tom Harrison Cartography, 2 Falmouth Cove, San Rafael, CA 94901-4465; (800) 265-9090; $7.95.

MORE INFORMATION: Mill Creek Ranger Station, San Bernardino National Forest, 34701 Mill Creek Rd., Mentone, CA 92359; (909) 794-1123. Backcountry camping is free but requires a permit, which should be applied for in advance. Also, the San Gorgonio Volunteer Association maintains an informative Web site for permit application and much more; http://www.edgeinternet.com/sgva/.