Dry Lake is an ephemeral subalpine lake filling a glacial basin nestled under the northern shoulder of Mt. San Gorgonio. Although the lake lived up to its billing on this warm spring day, the name “Dry Lake” is usually a misnomer, at least for half of the year. This lake comes and goes with the precipitation, but whether its dry or wet, this is a beautiful spot set within the lofty San Bernadino Mountains.
Note: You will need a wilderness permit to day hike or backpack in San Gorgonio Wilderness. The permit is available at the Mill Creek Ranger Station or online here. Be aware that there is relatively more red tape to hike here than most other places. If you want to hike here over the weekend, it’s best to reserve your permit months in advance due to the Wilderness’s popularity.
People from Southern California often like to brag about how they can ski and surf in the same day. In our varied landscape, you can go from desert to forest or from beach to forest in a matter of minutes. Today, I woke up a block away from the beach. By lunchtime, I was snoozing in the sun at 9,000′. Granted, I had to get up at 4:30 AM and drive two hours and twenty minutes to do it. But I did it. So there.
It was worth it, too. The San Gorgonio Wilderness is a wild, relatively pristine, and generally dramatic landscape that requires hard work from the hiker but offers rewards similar to what might find in the Sierras. Mt. San Gorgonio itself stands at 11,503′, but most of the wilderness here stands above 7,000′, which means abundant opportunities to stroll under towering conifers, pass through sunny meadows, and, in some cases, lounge around on the shores of a lake.
I got the bug up my ass to do this hike as I was looking for a way to start enjoying the higher elevations, now that the weather is warm. I knew I didn’t have time to do a backpacking trip to San Gorgonio, which is almost a must since it’s such a hard peak to reach. However, I could day hike, so I reviewed my maps and found that Dry Lake was a reasonable, but satisfying day hike that I could satisfying some of my alpine wanderlust.
As a bonus, my friend Kyle was also toying with the idea of dayhiking in the wilderness, albeit on the south side of the mountains. As I was on the north side of the wilderness, Kyle quickly realized that he could take on the epic endeavor of hiking up Mt. San Gorgonio from the Vivian Creek Trail and then hiking down the north side on the South Fork Trail. Due to me being on the other side, I would meet him at the lake, hike down with him, and drive him to his original trailhead. Lucky bastard that he is, it worked out just like that, much to my jealousy. Although, I bet he’s feeling pretty drained right about now.
The South Fork Trail is a great intro to the San Gorgonio Wilderness. To reiterate, this is generally not an easy place to hike. Most trails gain thousands of feet, often doing so in a pretty direct way. No matter where you hike here, you will have to work hard. South Fork, however, is relatively gentle, with numerous flat segments. That pretty much changes after the lake, but if you just go to the lake, you can gain one of the easiest 2,200′ you can gain, as it is stretched out over 6+ miles.
That said, this is an enormously popular trail, and given the red tape I outlined at the start, careful planning should go into trips on this trail. Permits can vanish months in advance for weekend hikes. Therefore, it is imperative to either plan this out well in advance or try hiking during the week. The week may be the way to go. Aside from Kyle, I didn’t see another soul on the trail until we were a couple of miles from the trailhead on the return. Go ahead. Take a day off. Play hooky and go hiking. Doesn’t this look nicer than being stuck in an office?