This weekend I joined four friends to take on the 9 Peak Traverse, or the San Bernardino Traverse, through the San Bernardino National Forest. The 27+ mile route has between 8,000 and 9,000 feet of climbing and is generally done as a multi-day hike. If your fitness allows it you can knock it out in a day or less and that was our goal. With the ever flowing mantra of run when you can, hike when you have to we set out to take down the route as quickly as we could. One of our team, Jess, had recently done the route in an incredible 6hrs and 40 mins. Fortunately, we took a slightly more relaxed pace through the day and finished in just under 8 hrs.
The day started with a 4:00AM wake up call and we all met to carpool from San Diego. The drive wasn’t too bad (says the guy who didn’t have to drive any of it) and we actually made good time. We dropped a car at our end location (Angelus Oaks Trailhead) and all rode together to the Vivian Creek Trailhead for the start. As we were getting ready and making our trips to the bathrooms the ranger came by to check our permit and ask if we were prepared to get a little wet. As I looked up at the beautiful, cloud free sky I assumed he was nuts and told him our route plan for the day. He seemed quite confident that we were in for bad whether and told us he didn’t want to have to make any rescues today so again asked if we were prepared. I told him we knew of the bailout options to get down the mountain if we needed and Toby showed him the map and confirmed that they were good ways to get down if we needed to before the finish. Still thinking he was nuts I grabbed my new North Face Verto Jacket and tossed it in the mesh pocket of my pack. At only 3.2 oz it wasn’t going to be much extra to carry and I figured better safe than sorry. (Lesson of the Day: The Rangers are there for a reason and know more about the area, weather, trails, and consequences than you do. Listen to them!)
We started off on the hike and headed to the trailhead of Gorgonio, I remember from the 8,000 Meter Challenge that this was going to be my least favorite part. The trail starts with a mile of tough, steep switchbacks. Just be prepared to suck it up until you finally make it to the “Welcome Sign.”
This is the only trail I have done so far that requires so much work just to get to the sign marking the area. It’s well worth it though because the rest of the hike to the San Gorgonio Peak is absolutely amazing. Even if you aren’t up for a huge effort and want to check it out more casually, I would highly recommend taking a multi-day hike here. The camp areas are nice and the trails and views are fantastic!
We hit the summit of Gorgonio in just about 3hrs which was significantly faster than during the 8,000 Meter Challenge and since these are the only two times I’ve been on the mountains I have nothing to compare it to. I do know we were pushing it though and it was a new PR to the top for Toby and Dax who have been out there multiple times. Once we were at the top we stayed long enough to take in some calories, get a couple pictures, meet an interesting/unsual guy and see the start of what the Ranger was warning us about. Dark clouds started to roll in but there was no rain in view so we headed down from the peak and set off along the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail which would be our course for the next 5 hours.
The one troublesome part of this route is that you don’t actually summit the 9 peaks (if you stay on the trail) so if you are running along and doing a ton of work but never hitting peaks, don’t worry you are still on course. The trail follows the ridge line and actually skirts along most of the peaks, all over 10,000 feet, but still provides incredible views and challenging terrain. The trail is pretty rocky for most of it but still really enjoyable. Running the route we chose, the peaks are (in order):
- San Gorgonio (11,500’)
- Jepson Peak (11,205’)
- Little Charlton Peak (10,676’)
- Charlton Peak (10,806’)
- Alto Diablo (10,563’)
- Shields Peak (10,701’)
- Anderson Peak (10,864’)
- San Bernardino East Peak (10,691’)
- San Bernardino Peak (10,649
After about 5 hours of fantastic trail time the weather started to turn, and turn fast. The last 3 hours were spent in heavy rain, hail the size of, and sting inducing feel of, air-soft pellets, thunder and lightning. Throughout the run we’d stop and regroup every so often but as the rain kept up and at times intensifying it made this really tough to do. Huddling under tree branches only works so well, however the Verto Jacket held up really well and I have to give it high marks after it’s first trail test.
Once we reached the peak of San Bernardino we had a slight gap in the group and it was raining really hard. Thunder clouds were starting to roll in and it was only a matter of time before the lightning started. Over 10,000 feet on an exposed peak or ridgeline is not the place to be when this happens. We waited for quite a while and when our last runner didn’t show David went back to check for him. When he returned with no sign we decided (read: hoped) he had taken the trail the bypasses the peak and starts descending the mountain. As soon as we started down the thunder started cracking loudly directly overhead and the lightning strikes started. It’s incredible how no matter how hard you are pushing you can find a new gear when the alternative is spending more time on a mountain with lightning. It’s an incredible sensation being on a mountain like this in a storm. I’ve never been that high up during a lightning storm and while it’s scary, it’s also breathtaking. We pushed the pace down the hill and were hugely relieved when we ran in to a Ranger and some hikers who said they had seen our missing runner down the trail ahead of us. Dax was charging the downhill by this point and dropped the rest of us. I for one was just happy to be getting further from the storm and still feeling good after the miles and climbing and knowing there was no way I could keep up with him was content to sit off the back and cruise down the rest of the trail.
By the time we hit the parking lot the rain had stopped so we got changed, passed around some delicious IPAs and took a few minutes to enjoy the accomplishment.
All in all it was another epic and hugely enjoyable day in the mountains!
If you are considering doing this there are two directions you can go, Vivian Creek Trailhead to Angelas Oaks Trailhead (what we did) or the reverse. This is best done with two cars (one at each trailhead) but can be done with one car if you are comfortable hitchhiking back to your start point. Here are some worthwhile logistics to help you plan your adventure.
Route Map via snwburd.com:
Map to Angelus Oaks Trailhead: http://goo.gl/maps/xytoI
Map to Vivian Creek Trailhead: http://goo.gl/maps/vNUzj
Permits: You will need three permits for this route. You will need an Adventure Pass for parking each car, which can be purchased at A16, REI, and numerous forest service locations. You will also need a permit to use the trails. The permit for trail use is free and it’s easy to apply but if you are planning to do this during peak times, apply early to make sure you get it.
- Adventure Pass: http://goo.gl/7AAIt (includes vendor locations)
- San Gorgonio Wilderness Permit: http://www.sgwa.org/permit.htm
Water Stops: The direction we took works really well for water. We were able to start light (~ 1 Liter) and stop at High Creek about 6 miles in to fill our reservoirs and bottles. We made sure to fill enough here to sustain us the rest of the trip. Always make sure water is flowing before relying on the streams. If you are attempting this route in reverse there is water access at Columbine Camp (mile 4.7) and again from a spring at .3 miles past Limber Pine Camp (mile 7).