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.
After reading a few replies making fun of the name “Poop-Out Hill” I sent out one final text and we headed on.
The weather was great for hiking, and Vicki didn’t overheat too badly. She maintained a steady stream of spritzes from her spray nozzle, and her body stayed wet and 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. Very peaceful.
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. The hike 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 location 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 small clearing 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 down low in a protected valley where it was safe, but we decided that standing up 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. This entire area of the wilderness was closed to the public 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
We climbed up the non-maintained trail to Fish Creek Saddle. It wasn’t hard to find, although sometimes it seemed there was more than one trail. It didn’t take long. Once at the saddle, it was time to get out the GPS and start some trail-less, cross-country hiking, out along the main ridge.
Now, Ten Thousand Foot Ridge is the name of the highest peaklet on a very long ridge that extends east from San Gorgonio Mountain. There are numerous “numbered” peaks on the topo map, but almost all of them are less than ten thousand feet in elevation. We really didn’t want to bag them all, just the big one, so we decided to side-hill along the ridge as much as possible (initially) to save ourselves the trouble of going up and down and up and down. This may not have been the best strategy to use, but it was ours, and we went with it.
One of the smaller peaks, Fish Creek Peak, was directly on our route so we bagged it. Why not? It was too easy to pass up. It didn’t have a summit register box, but it did have some old pieces of wood and galvanized wire left behind by someone long ago.
After that, we were basically on top of the ridge, which was very broad, and we could see our objective directly in front of us. All we had to do was descend into a saddle, then climb up to the summit. What we weren’t prepared for was how steep the final slope was. The soil was loose, and the footing was uncertain. There were a number of “use” trails to choose from, but all of them were steeper than we liked. Vicki was glad she had her hiking pole!
We made it to the summit and took in the views, which were really quite excellent. San Gorgonio with its patches of melting snow was off to the west, and San Jacinto was across the big valley to the south. I signed our names in the summit register and took a bunch of photos and videos. We were happy that we finally bagged the peak, after trying to get here and failing for the last five years.
Panorama video from the summit of Ten Thousand Foot Ridge (Peak 10094)
It was hot by that time, so we found a shady spot under a snall pine and ate our lunch. There was a bit of snow there, probably from a drift formed by the wind passing around our shady tree, and Vicki took some and put it in her hat to keep her head cool during the next phase of our hike.
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 top of the ridge.
Once again, we had to hike through a thoroughly burned forest. The fire must have burned hot and furious as it climbed the ridge from the north, because almost everything was scorched, while the smaller branches never completely burned. Just the needles and the bark were damaged, but that was enough to kill the pines. The only wood that truly burned was the already-dead wood lying on the ground.
We took another long break on the summit of Lake Peak, and looked down on Dry Lake. The valley below us, where our campsite was, had escaped the wrath of the fire. It was nice to see green trees after hiking through the destruction that happened up here.
After that, we descended from the summit on a steep 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 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 a very tough hike, but I’m still glad that we took the crazy route.
We knew it was going to be a long, tough day, so we packed plenty of water and headed off toward Dry Lake. We went around to the far side and climbed up out of the bowl, hiking off-trail. And the hiking becane difficult immediately, over an undulating countryside filled with piles of granite boulders and thorny bushes. The dead trees didn’t help much either.
There were a couple of flat areas where water flow had left behind flat silty plains of dirt, but for the most part the hiking remained slow, and the route-finding was challenging. Did we want to hike on bad terrain, or worse terrain? Those were our only choices.
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.”
After the saga of the boulder-strewn moraine, we discovered new problems: The side of Charlton peak had a number of deep clefts, or water/avalanche courses and somehow we had to get past all of them if we were to reach Dollar Lake. And this first one was a doozy, very deep and wide. The second one wasn’t much better. 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 saw some snow on the far side of Dollar Lake, so Vicki sent me over to get some for the inside of her hat. She loves how it cools her head, and how it also wets her shirt as it melts, thus extending its cooling powers. But I think I may have gotten too greedy, as there was so much snow her hat barely fit on her head.
After that, it was time to head on down the long trail to Slushy Meadows. We headed over to the old campground at Dollar Lake, and saw what a great spot it was. It was extra-nice because the big pines hadn’t burned and the camping spots were all shady and cool. Too bad they closed it due to over-use. It really was a great spot.
The trail climbed up out of the bowl of Dollar Lake, and joined the main trail to Dollar Lake Saddle. We hung a right and began the long downhill hike. It was so much faster hiking on a trail, especially downhill, and we made great time. There were also expansive views the entire way. We had a fun time, and I took too many panorama photos, as usual.
Down at the bottom, we took a break by the water and Vicki soaked her sore knee in the icy water. Downhill isn’t good for knees, so we wanted to keep it as happy as possible, so it wouldn’t get any worse. Luckily, (Luckily?) the rest of the day’s hike was uphill, back to our campsite at Dry Lake. Vicki doesn’t like uphill very much, and it was hot work climbing back up those switchbacks.
It was slow, but we had all afternoon to get there, so we took our time. Vicki’s snow continued to melt on her hot head, and the huge pile I’d collected earlier was reduced to a tiny snowball when we arrived at Dry Lake. But it made it, and she was still cool and happy.
After a brief stop along the lake to take some photos, we finally made it back to camp. It had been a very long and exhausting day. Cross-country hiking is not for the timid!
We ate dinner and filtered some more water from the spring. We only needed enough for breakfast and the hike back to the car. Then we settled into our sleeping bag as the sun set and began reading our books. It felt good to lie down after all that bushwhacking.
While we were lying there, I felt a slow rolling motion. I asked Vicki if she was the one wiggling, and she said no. We realized right away that there had been an earthquake. We unzipped the doors to the tent and looked outside. All the trees above us were swaying gently, but there was no wind. It was an earthquake, all right. The motion didn’t last very long, and soon the trees were still once more. We zipped up the door and wondered where the epicenter had been. There was no cell service up here, and, for all we knew, all of Los Angeles had been destroyed. We might be stuck up here in the mountains, or would have to drive home the long way via the desert. As it turned out, the earthquake had been very large, but happened far to the north, in Ridgecrest, near Death Valley, in an area of low population density. Just the same, there wasn’t much we could do about it from our tent in the wilderness, so we decided to worry about it in the morning, and went to sleep.
Day 4: We packed up our gear and headed back out to the South Fork Trailhead
We woke up bright and early and got ready to leave. After three days in the same spot, our gear was spread out all over the tent, so it took a while to get everything back together. We ate breakfast and enjoyed the quiet of the morning. It looked like it was going to be another beautiful sunny day.
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.
The hike was downhill the entire way, and we made excellent time. The wildflowers were abundant and beautiful, and the burnt trees were abundant and ugly. We looked across the valley at Charlton Peak and picked out the bushwhacking route we’d done yesterday. It looked so easy from over here! Oh well, live and learn.
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, and we were no exception.
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.