We backpacked up the South Fork Trail to Dry Lake the first day, day-hiked to the summits of Ten Thousand Foot Ridge and Lake Peak on the second day, and traversed cross-country to Dollar Lake on the third day. We hiked out on the final day. This trip was our first visit to the South Fork Trail since the Lake Fire back in 2015, and we wanted to see just how badly the forest got burned.
Day 1: South Fork Trail to Dry Lake
Vicki and I arrived at the trailhead just after dawn on Wednesday July 3rd, and the parking lot was essentially empty. Which was just the way we like it. We put on our big backpacks and headed out. We had six miles to hike, and 2300 feet to climb. We’d call that a good solid day of hiking.
We hiked uphill through the (mostly) burned forest, and noticed that the wildflowers were blooming extraordinarily well this year. Not only was there a lot of rain and snow last Winter, but the lack of shady trees also helped. The trees made us sad, but the flowers did a lot to cheer us back up again. Life goes on.
Soon enough, we arrived at Horse Meadows, where there were a couple of historic buildings that survived the fire. We took a rest in the shade with our boots off and enjoyed the view of the lush, grassy meadow.
We continued upward on the trail. There were several cienegas (soggy sloping hillsides where water seeps out of the ground) along the trail, and we made our way around them, careful not to get our boots all wet. In other spots, the trail kept climbing, and the burnt trees allowed for better views (except for the dead tree carcasses).
We arrived at Poop-Out Hill, just before the wilderness boundary. We climbed up the short access trail and took in the “Classic” view of San Gorgonio Mountain, which now sported a new, unburnt sign. We took a short rest there, and I sent a few texts and photos out to friends and family. They were all at work, and needed to feel a bit jealous. I also knew that we wouldn’t have cell signal much longer, so this was our final communication with the civilized world for the next four days.
The weather was great for hiking, and Vicki didn’t overheat too badly. She kept up a regular series of spritzes from her spray nozzle, and her body stayed cool in the breeze. After an hour or so of hiking, we came upon the trail junction where the Dollar Lake Trail heads to the right, and the Dry Lake Trail to the left. We headed left, and the trail immediately crossed the South Fork of the Santa Ana River, which was flowing quite well. This entire area was full of springs and creeks, and was colloquially known as “Slushy Meadows.” We stopped for an extended rest, and cooled our feet in the icy water. It felt good after all that uphill hiking. We ate lunch and enjoyed listening to the sound of the water.
The last time we stopped here for lunch, back in 2014, a thunderhead grew, high above San Gorgonio Mountain, then slowly drifted toward us, so that it rained and hailed for quite some time. It was quite fun, but that weather also caused us to abort the trip early. This time, the skies were wonderful, with some harmless cirrus wisps drifting by, and we weren’t worried about lightning striking us on mountaintops. No, we planned for a peaceful hike this time.
Video of the South Fork of the Santa Ana River where it crosses the trail
After that, it was simply a matter of climbing some switchbacks for another two miles until we reached Dry Lake. It was hot and steep, but we just kept slogging onward. There were plenty of wildflowers on the hillside, and great views across the way toward Charlton Peak. But by the time Vicki made it to the lake, she wasn’t paying much attention to the scenery; she was starting to fade, and was mindlessly placing one foot in front of another.
We reached the lake and I took some more photos. San Gorgonio Mountain and Jepson Peak were reflecting in the waters, and it was extremely picturesque. It was July, and there was still plenty of snow up there at eleven thousand feet elevation.
Vicki decided to take a short nap while I headed off to the Lodgepole Campground to find a good spot for our base camp. We would be staying here three nights, so we wanted to get a good spot with some privacy. I found a spot and headed back to help Vicki with her pack. She was pretty whupped, so I carried it up to camp. Then we got everything ready for the evening.
We enjoyed a mellow evening. There were only a few people camping nearby that night, so it was peaceful. We were happy to see that Lodgepole Spring was running strong, and we filtered enough water for dinner, breakfast, and the next day’s hike. We went to bed early because we’d woken up at 2am and left San Diego at 4am in order to beat the LA traffic.
Day 2: Cross-Country hike to the summits of Ten Thousand Foot Ridge and Lake Peak
Back in 2014, before the Lake Fire, we tried this same exact trip, hiking in to Dry Lake so that we could bag Ten Thousand Foot Ridge, one of the few 10k peaks we hadn’t climbed in SoCal. We hiked to the lake, but, sadly, there were big thunderstorms happening that weekend. Getting wet was fun on the way in, hiking safely down in a protected valley, but we decided that standing on top of a mountain under those conditions was madness. So we aborted the trip the next day.
I had planned a return trip the next year, in 2015, but the Lake Fire began a week or so before that, and our hopes of bagging the peak were dashed for the foreseeable future. Luckily, the San Gorgonio Wilderness has a great volunteer association affiliated with it, and they got to work right away. It still took several years to fix things up, but at least it’s open now, and we were able to bag the peak this time. Hooray!
Video of the excellent water flow at Lodgepole Spring in July 2019
Panorama video from the summit of Ten Thousand Foot Ridge (Peak 10094)
We hiked along the top of the ridge this time, headed west toward Lake Peak. Apparently, some folks from the Sierra Club left a number of small ducks to mark the trail. They helped, I guess, but it wasn’t that hard to figure out, namely: Stay on the ridge.
After that, we descended steeply on an angle back to Fish Creek Saddle, then headed down the use trail to Lodgepole Camp. We ate some dinner and took an after-dinner constitutional down to the lake.
Day 3: We foolishly decided to traverse to Dollar Lake from Dry Lake by staying at 9000 feet elevation
We foolishly decided to traverse to Dollar Lake from Dry Lake by staying at 9000 feet elevation (or so) the entire way. We saw this cross-country route on Hikin’ Jim’s awesome San Gorgonio CalTopo Map, and thought that it might save us from hiking all those extra miles on the main trails, and also from dropping down to 8200 feet along the way. The direct route was only two miles, rather than five, so it had to be better. Right? Right? Wrong. It was the shortcut from hell, and it took us five hours to get to Dollar Lake. On the way back, we wisely chose the main trails and it only took us three and a half hours. All in all, it was tough, but I’m still glad that we took the crazy route.
This area was supposedly under the influence of a glacier situated on the northern slope of San Gorgonio Mountain during the last Ice Age. These piles of rocks are evidence of the glacier advancing and retreating a number of times during that period. Hikin’ Jim calls this area the “Glacial Chop Country.”
I checked the map but we didn’t have much choice. Except to climb higher to a flatter area, but Vicki didn’t like that idea at all. The whole point of this entire crazy hike was to stay at the same elevation, wasn’t it? So we dropped a bit into the two big clefts and climbed back out. After that, we’d simply be hiking along the north slope of Charton Peak. How hard could that be? Well, we’d soon find out.
Eventually, of course, the traverse ended. We arrived at Dollar Lake. Vicki was totally whupped. We sat down under a tree and ate our lunch, then Vicki took a well-deserved nap. I took out the GPS and checked it out. We had hiked 2.3 miles and it had taken us almost five hours. This wasn’t an unheard of speed for difficult bushwhacking, but it certainly wasn’t great either. I also decided that there was no way we were going to hike back the way we came. Vicki would have to bite the bullet and take the trail with all its elevation losses and gains. It’s the mountains. They go up and down. That’s what they do. Trying to stay flat in the mountains is just asking for a heartache.
We finally made it back to camp, after a very long and exhausting day. Cross-country hiking is not for the timid!
Day 4: We packed up our gear and headed back out to the South Fork Trailhead
I had expected that the campgrounds would be packed with people, considering that it was the Fourth of July Weekend, but there really weren’t all that many folks out there. Maybe it was because the fourth was a Thursday. And we were leaving on a Saturday. Maybe everyone would arrive as we left! But we never saw crowds of backpackers as we hiked back out. Just day-hikers enjoying the wildflowers.
It had been a remarkably fast downhill hike from Dry Lake – and it was definitely time to go home. We could feel our soft bed calling. And better food, too! But not until after a good hot shower. Like the old saying goes: Fish and Backpackers stink after three days.
The rest of the trip’s photos and videos can be found on my Flickr Page.
For an interactive topographic map of our hike, including GPS Tracks, please see my CalTopo Page.