Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Southern California's 5 Finest Mountains: Climbing and Hiking

The Tallest mountains in Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, Riverside County, Orange County, and the tallest coastal mountain in So-Cal.
Mt San Jacinto from Mt San Gorgonio
Southern California is home to some epic mountains. Geographically speaking, some of the country's most prominent mountains are in Southern California. (Prominence is a scientific measure of a mountain's heights against the surrounding topography). These mountains have proved themselves to be formidable challenges for both day hikers and mountaineers alike. Best of all, some of the best views in the state can be seen from their summits. So here we go, the 5 most epic mountains in Southern California!
Sandstone Mountain, Malibu, CA
#5 Sandstone Peak, Santa Monica Mountains, Ventura County
      Elevation: 3,111ft/948m

While not a particularly challenging ascent, Sandstone Mountain has one of the best views in California. Its located within the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu California and is preserved by the National Park Service. The Sandstone Peak Trail is only 3 miles long and will take you to the top of the mountain. On a clear day, you can see most of the Channel Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Also, you can the entire San Fernando Valley and parts of Santa Monica. This area also has some great sport climbing areas in nearby parks such as Malibu Creek State Park. This mountain makes a great day trip and can be easily climbed by inexperienced hikers. Use the US National Park website for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area maps and trail guides.
View from Santiago Peak, Orange County
#4 Santiago Peak, Santa Ana Mountains, Orange County
      Elevation: 5,687ft/1,733m

Santiago Peak is the tallest point in Orange County and part of the conspicuous "Saddleback" that can be seen from anywhere in the county. Santiago Peak always "looks so close" but getting there and hiking it are challenging. The Holy Jim Trail is the most popular route up but its still a 14 mile round trip hike with 4,000ft of elevation gain. This trail can have notoriously bad weather; I have been caught in a blizzard on this trail! Needless to say, you need to be prepared and have a good amount of physical fitness before trying this trail. Additionally, the trailhead is in a surprisingly rural part of Orange County (believe it or not). Its located within Trabuco Canyon, California which has more horses than people. The trail is located 5 miles up the 4x4 Trabuco Creek Rd.
The Devils Backbone, Mt Baldy
#3 Mt San Antonio (Mt Baldy), San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles County
      Elevation: 10,068ft/3,068m

Mt Baldy is the tall point in Los Angeles County and a part of the rugged San Gabriel Mountains. It is not uncommon for it to still have a snow capped summit in late May. Its possible to hike the mountain in the summer easily. Winter ascents are more technical and difficult. The best summer trail leads from the town of Mt Baldy at the forest visitor center. The Bear Canyon Trail is a simple 12 mile roundtrip hike. This is more challenging than the previous mountains, but the hiker is rewarded with greater views of the San Gabriel Mountains and LA skyline. The other option is the Devil's Backbone Trail, which starts near the Mt Baldy ski resort. In fact, if you opt to cut out some elevation, you can take the ski lift up a couple thousand feet in the summer. The trail starts at the forest road near Manker Flats Campground otherwise.
The summit of Mt San Jacinto looking towards Mt San Gorgonio
#2 Mt San Jacinto, San Jacinto Mountains, Riverside County
      Elevation: 10,834ft/3,302m

San Jacinto is the 6th most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States meaning that it rises higher than most mountains do out of the surrounding terrain. To give you an idea of how "prominent" San Jacinto is, the north face of the mountain rises from the desert at 500ft of elevation to the summit at 10,834ft in just over 7 miles! San Jacinto is a unique mountain with fabulous views. There is a tram which hikers often elect to take which removes 8,000ft of climbing. From the top of the tram, the trail to the summit is a moderate 12 mile hike and often done by less experienced hikers. It does snow and thunderstorm at this elevation, so again, be prepared. Of course, there is the ultimate hiker's challenge of doing the famous "Cactus to Clouds Trail". San Jacinto is located near Palm Springs, California and Tram Way will take you to the Aerial Tramway.
Looking Northwards off of the San Gorgonio Summit
#1 Mt San Gorgonio, San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County
      Elevation: 11,499ft

San Gorgonio: the king of Southern California mountains! When it come to hiking, this will be the most challenging and longest of So-Cal's finest. There are two trails which can bring you to its lofty, treeless summit. Vivian Creek is the slightly steeper more direct route with great views of San Jacinto and Riverside County as you climb. This is a 16 mile round trip hike with a good 5,400ft of elevation gain. Its located just past the town of Forest Falls, CA which can be reached on Forest Falls Road, about 14 miles up Highway 38. Your other option for climbing is the longer and more rugged South Loop Trail. This trail penetrates the glorious wilderness of the San Bernardino Mountains and leads you by several mountain streams and alpine lakes. Its a 22 mile trek which is often done as a 2 day backpacking trip. Either way, you will be climbing So-Cal's highest mountain!

I will be posting more detailed information on the hikes in the near future, stay posted!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!


  1. Joe, this is great! Just found your blog through Google and I love it! It is a great resource and inspiration!! It is also my passion to travel, be outdoors and explore the beauties of the US! My goal is to visit all National Parks, too. And I am thinking of hiking all of SoCal's 5 finest mountains - not only for fun but also to get ready to climb the Kilimanjaro in Aug/Sept. 2013! Seriously! Thanks again for the great travel tips and pictures, as well. :-)) Anita

    1. Thank you so much! Southern California's mountains are great for training. I used them to train for some ascents in the Sierras and Cascades although I'm sure Kilimanjaro is a different story. Best of luck and thanks for the feedback!

  2. Thanks for the info. It's nice to hear it first hand from someone with experience. My friend and I are just starting out climbing mountains and plan on doing each one that you mention here. Baldy and Santiago are checked off the list already. Thanks for helping to inspire those who dare.

  3. I just moved to Southern California and appreciated this post.
    Thank you

    1. You're welcome! I certainly miss all the outdoors of Southern California!

  4. Thank you for your post. I've been intrigued by mountain climbing for awhile but didn't quite know where to begin. This provides great visuals and info. Can't think of a better place to start than SoCal.

  5. Really nice post and good images too. I like to travel and recently I visited Ventura.I hired a taxi from to visit.