Friday, January 28, 2011

Hike 2011.007 -- Big Falls and Vivian Creek

Hiked Friday, January 28. Between the two hikes, I think I just covered my three mile minimum.

I came across several mentions of "Big Falls" over the past few months, and saw that it was near where I have been before. Finally pulled a few stories off the Internet to find out exactly where it was.

The trail head is at the end of Valley of the Falls Road. To get there from the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10), you exit at Orange Street, which is also CA-38. If you're coming from the west, Orange Street is the first exit after the 210 Freeway interchange. Go straight at the first light, then turn left at the second. That takes you under the freeway and up Orange Street, through downtown Redlands. Watch for the sign indicating when CA-38 makes a right turn, at Lugonia Avenue.

After about three miles, Lugonia Avenue changes its name to Mentone Street. About two miles later, it changes name again, this time, to Mill Creek Road. Three miles later, CA-38 makes a sharp left turn. You stay on Mill Creek; if you went right off of Mill Creek, you'd have been on Bryant Street. The Mill Creek ranger station is right where Mill Creek and Bryant Street meet. It's open Th-Sun, and if you don't already have an Adventure Pass or if you need a wilderness permit for your hike, here's where you'd get it.

Mill Creek Road continues parallel to the water for about five miles. Then it makes a hairpin turn to the left, and begins a steep ascent into the San Bernardino Mountains.

There are plenty of trails up that way. However, if you are heading towards Big Falls, you go straight where the highway makes the hairpin turn. You are now on Valley of the Falls Drive, and heading into the village of Forest Falls. I noticed several "general stores" and real estate storefronts on the way through town.

Here, the speed limit slows to 25 mph and the road gets narrower. At the very end, it becomes one-lane, in parts. As long as you stay on the main road, you're on the right track.

Finally, you reach the end of the road. This is Falls picnic/day use area. An Adventure Pass is required to park.

From the lower parking area (the only one accessible today--the upper lots were gated closed), the trail to Big Falls begins near the north end of the lot and proceeds parallel to the south side of Mill Creek, downstream, a few hundred yards. The trail here is ill-defined. When you reach the posted "No Trespassing" signs, it's time to make your way down to the water. Today, a couple of nice logs made crossing the water easy.

Once across the river and over the lip of the erosion line, you'll see a rushing cascade, coming towards you from the north. A short use trail takes you to an 8-10 foot cascade.

The trail to Big Falls, however, climbs steeply to the right.

However, you barely get started climbing before you are "there." The viewing area has metal railing and keeps you quite far from the falls. The main falls looks to be perhaps 150 feet in height, but it's hard to tell. The base of the falls is still several hundred yards away, up a narrow and water-covered path that a sign at the start of the trail warned you in no uncertain terms to stay away.

Somewhat disappointed by the briefness of this walk and the lack of reasonable alternatives to get closer to the falls, I returned to my car. Fortunately (for me), a ranger was writing tickets for the cars that had parked in the lot without displaying their Adventure Passes. So I asked him about other hiking alternatives here. Turns out this Falls picnic area is also the starting point for the Vivian Creek Trail.

Vivian Creek is the shortest and steepest way to get to summit of Mt. San Gorgonio: 8 miles and 5,400 net feet of altitude gain. Even during the summer, I was pretty sure it was too far, too steep, and ending at too high of an altitude for me to do as a day hike. I may eventually try it, but obviously not today.

Today, I just wanted something to make me feel like I got enough walking in to make the drive worth it. Heading up a mile or so up this trail seemed to fit the bill.

Normally, you'd park in the upper lot of Falls picnic area to hike Vivian Creek. From there, it's 1.2 miles to the San Gorgonio Wilderness boundary. Starting at the lower lot added maybe a 1/10th or a 1/5th of a mile. So, between this walk and my Big Falls saunter, that's the magic three mile qualification for a hike.

The Vivian Creek trail begins by heading east, parallel to Mill Creek, but sticking to the southern tree line. Because recent snows were still solid on the ground (having melted and refrozen several times), I could walk in parts right up the creek spreading area. I enjoyed nice views up the creek at snow covered mountains, and down the creek, all the way back to the San Gabriel Mountains.

After about 7/10ths of a mile (from the lower lot), the trail crosses Mill Creek and begins a swift climb up a south-facing slope. Unlike the flat area around Mill Creek (which was almost completely covered with snow), the slope was snow-free.

At the base of the climb, a sign announces that a Wilderness Permit will be required one mile ahead. If that one mile figure is correct, then I suspect the sign announcing you are entering the San Gorgonio Wilderness is actually placed somewhat south of the true boundary.

Climbing up this southern slope gave a very impressive view across Mill Creek, to the north-facing slope across the way. In stark contrast to the dirt beneath my feet, the north-facing slope was thick with snow.

My trail was snow-free until just after the San Gorgonio boundary sign. I continued past the sign about 1/4 mile, looking to see if there would be a good viewpoint I could visit without breaking the spirit of the Wilderness permit require-ment. (The ranger I talked to in the parking lot actually did tell me I could go "a little" past the sign without a permit if I wanted to, which reinforces my belief that the sign is actually placed before you reach the statutory boundary). Regardless of the permit issue, however, the trail here became more snow-covered as the ground here was relatively flat and no longer had southern exposure. I don't think I reached the official Vivian Creek trail camp (which is supposed to be 1.2 miles from the upper lot), but I'm pretty sure I was quite close.

Starting elevation was about 6,000 feet, with a net gain of about 1,000 feet for the day.

On my way out, I stopped at the Mill Creek ranger station and bought a couple of hiking maps. I'll definitely be coming back in this area come spring and summer. Not sure if I'll try for San Gorgonio itself, but, time-permitting, I'll be spending some time in the San Bernardino Mountains next year. In the meantime, I have some new maps and flyers to ogle! :D


  1. Looks like a cool area. Glad to hear the good news on the tick situation!

  2. My throat's feeling a little funny, but still no fever or muscle aches. :D

  3. Dude, let's do this! Vivian creek trail to summit and camp overnight.

    A few of my friends from work and I try to do a few adventures each year and I remember researching this trail last year. I just read your post and the matchup seems perfect! You have the maps and trailhead savvy and I have the drive to summit this with you.

    I know its short notice but I propose we go August 13-14. I know a few of my buddies would love to come along and they are far better hikers than I. I'd have to clear these dates with my wife but what do you say? Let's make it happen. Call me on my cell (805) 701-6123.


    Jeremy (the thousand hike guy :))

  4. Hi, Jeremy,

    Not possible, unfortunately. I'm leaving within the next day or two to take a temporary job in Kentucky. Hope to be able to move back next May (unless I find other employment out of state before then, in which case I may need to move out of the area permanently).

    I was never sure if I could do Gorgonio as a day hike, as, for all except the fittest, it really does require an overnight stay. You definitely have the right idea. But, for me, it's moot, at least for another year. . . .

  5. Kentucky!!! Isn't that the Bluegrass state? I used to live in Ohio so I've been through Kentucky quite a few times. There are some cool places to hike. Hills, mountains, etc. Are you going to keep hiking and blogging?? Hey, can I have some of your Cali maps? I'm heading toward LA later today. Maybe it's possible we can meet up for a moment? I know you must be busy moving, etc, but if it's possible, call me.

    Hey, either way, I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your blog and I appreciate the comments you have left on mine. By the way, thanks for the snake update. It probably wasn't a good idea to stick my hand out less than a foot from his face to take a picture with my phone lol :)

  6. They don't want to bite you even more than you don't want to be bitten!