The Trail to Peak SoCal “Category 5” Hiking Series

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Every now and again I’ll have people ask me about my favorite hikes in Southern California. I’ve lived here for 24 out of the 30 years I’ve spent on this earth, and have been exploring the various hiking trails in the area for the last 5 years. First, I like to lay out what I look for in a hike. My top priority is that the hike reaches a peak or multiple peaks. There is nothing like being able to look around Southern California with a bird’s eye view. My second requirement is that the hike is challenging. I really like to push myself physically, so the higher the elevation and total elevation gain, the happier I am. I have nothing against casual leisure hikes, I just know they don’t leave me feeling satisfied like a climb to a 10,000 ft peak. My third and final requirement is enjoyable scenery. Southern California is a desert, so it’s really cool to explore all of the different flora and fauna in the area, and see it change as you move to higher elevations.

So without further ado, here is my SoCal “Category 5” Hiking Series. All hikes in this series are in Southern California, reach one peak (I’ll do a multi-peak post later), and are what I consider the more challenging one-peak day hikes in the area. Try to get all of these completed this summer, maybe I’ll see you on the trail!

Hardest California Hikes The Trail to Peak SoCal "Category 5" Hiking Series

The Trail to Peak SoCal “Category 5” Hiking Series

1.) Mt. Wilson via Sierra Madre

Hardest California Hikes The Trail to Peak SoCal "Category 5" Hiking Series Mt Wilson Sierra Madre
Mt. Wilson Summit
  • Trailhead: This trail starts on the Mt. Wilson Trail which can be reached by taking Baldwin Ave North from the 210 into Sierra Madre. Take a right on Mira Monte and park on the street. Find Lizzie’s Trail Inn at the park on Mira Monte, and proceed north on the Mt. Wilson Trail.
  • Distance: ~15 Miles
  • Peak Elevation: 5,712 ft.
  • Elevation Gain: 4800 ft.
  • Difficulty: 3/5
  • Best Season: Year Round
  • Notes and Highlights: This is a great hike that starts climbing right away. The first 3.5 miles takes you to Orchard Camp at 2960′, which is the turnaround point for the Mt. Wilson Trail Race. Be prepared for warm temperatures, as parts of this trail are pretty exposed. It’s always fun to reach the summit of Mt. Wilson and explore the Observatory while taking in the views of Los Angeles.

*Bonus* Since writing this, I have discovered a more difficult route to the summit of Mt. Wilson from the Old Mt. Wilson Trail. Give Bastard Ridge a try, it’s a hike that lives up to it’s name!

2.) Mt. Baldy via Bear Canyon (Old Mt. Baldy Trail)

Hardest California Hikes The Trail to Peak SoCal "Category 5" Hiking Series Mt Baldy Bear Canyon
Mt. Baldy Summit
  • Trailhead: This trailhead is reached by parking in Mt. Baldy Village (adventure pass is needed). Across from Baldy Lodge, you’ll see Bear Canyon Rd. Follow it west, and you’ll see the trailhead on the north side of the street.
  • Distance: ~12.5 miles
  • Peak Elevation: 10,064 ft.
  • Elevation Gain: 5,744 ft.
  • Difficulty: 3/5
  • Best Season: Spring/Summer/Fall (Winter is nice with crampons)
  • Notes and Highlights: This is one of my favorite trails in the San Gabriels. It makes for the perfect out and back hike to the summit of Mt. Baldy, or to add to a day including 3 T’s trail as well (20+ miles total).

*Bonus* Another great option for a steep route to the summit of Mt. Baldy is Register Ridge.

3.) Iron Mountain via Heaton Flats

Hardest California Hikes The Trail to Peak SoCal "Category 5" Hiking Series Iron Mountain Heaton Flats
Iron Mountain Summit
  • Trailhead: The trailhead is reached from the 210 in Azuza via SR39. There are great directions on the Summit Post website. The parking lot is the same destination for those hiking to the Bridge to Nowhere, so get there early. You can issue yourself a permit at the parking lot.
  • Distance: ~14 miles
  • Peak Elevation: 8007 ft. 
  • Elevation Gain: 7200 ft.
  • Difficulty: 4/5
  • Best Season: Year Round, but avoid hot summer days
  • Notes and Highlights: This is a really fun hike that climbs like few others. From the very beginning, you’ll start to gain ground at a pretty fast clip. 4.5 miles in, the grade kicks to a whole new level and you’ll feel like a skywalker. The views from the summit are really nice, and include one of my favorite vantage points for Mt. Baldy.

4.) San Gorgonio via Vivian Creek

Hardest California Hikes The Trail to Peak SoCal "Category 5" Hiking Series San Gorgonio Vivian Creek
San Gorgonio Summit
  • Trailhead: Sign up early for a weekend permit on this one via fax, or take your chances for a “walk-in” at the Mill Creek Ranger Station. From the Ranger Station continue on to Valley Of The Falls Dr and Falls Rd until you run into the parking lot and camp ground.
  • Distance: ~17 miles
  • Peak Elevation: 11,503 ft.
  • Elevation Gain: 5,840 ft.
  • Difficulty: 4/5
  • Best Season: Spring/Summer/Fall
  • Notes and Highlights: This is the highest peak in Southern California and an incredible day hike. The trail starts out easy enough and lets you warm up over the first few miles. After a few switchbacks to high camp, things really start to open up. The views are spectacular at high elevation here, which helps make this one an easy choice for my Category 5 hikes.

5.) San Jacinto via Skyline Trail (Cactus to Clouds)

Hardest California Hikes The Trail to Peak SoCal "Category 5" Hiking Series Cactus To Clouds San Jacinto
Cactus To Clouds Sunrise
  • Trailhead: For a Cactus to Clouds hike, head to the Palm Springs Art Museum and park in the parking structure adjacent to the museum. Cross the street and you’ll see the trailhead for the Skyline Trail. The first few miles are marked by dots of spray paint, after you climb a bit, the trail becomes much easier to follow.
  • Distance: 23 miles using the tram (35 miles for C2C2C)
  • Peak Elevation: 10,833 ft.
  • Elevation Gain: 10,400 ft.
  • Difficulty: 5/5
  • Best Season: Spring and Fall
  • Notes and Highlights: There is no other way to put it, this hike is brutal, but oh so glorious. Gaining over 10,000 ft in one ascent really tests your lungs, legs, and mind. This would all be hard enough, but then you add in the casual triple digit heat so common in Palm Springs to really kick it up a notch. You’re not likely to see many people on the trail with you for this one, but you can’t help but admire the heck out of everybody you come across. We all share in the struggle together. The roughest section is the first 12 miles and 8,000 ft of gain to the aerial tramway.  Once you reach the tramway, the crowds increase a bit from all of the people who took the tram shortcut up. The trail also eases a great deal, and makes you wish it took a more direct route to the top. Few things can match the euphoria of standing on the summit of San Jacinto, and looking down 10,400 ft to the place where you started.


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17 thoughts on “The Trail to Peak SoCal “Category 5” Hiking Series”

  1. This is an incredible feat (C2C2C), but donot discount the Marion Mtn trail from the Ldylwild side near Marion/Fern Basin campgrounds… 6-7 mile trail with roughly a 5,000 foot elevation gain!

  2. Great collection of hikes Drew. I’ve done all except Iron Mountain, which I’ve been told is a real challenge not only due to total elevation gain/loss but also because much of the trail is un-maintained loose scree. How would you compare the trail conditions of this hike to the Skyline trail or the Baldy-from-the-Village trail?

    Even looked into doing Telescope Peak from Badwater basin? Looks like an epic hike that seems right up your alley…

    • Thanks, Curt. Iron Mountain is a great hike. The trail conditions are more like Skyline trail with the loose scree in the steeper sections. It’s not too bad though. If you have trail shoes with adequate lug depth, the loose sections are covered pretty easily.

      Thanks for the recommendation on the Badwater to Telescope Peak hike. I’ve heard of it before, and might try it soon. I’m going to try a local hike first though. I’ll start at Potato Mountain in Claremont, then hike over Sunset Peak, and finish on Bear Canyon Trail to Baldy. Should be a solid 10kft+ of vert!

  3. Hey Drew I’m in really good shape but need a fit hiking buddy do you ever hike with anyone? I’ve done Whitney, San Gorgonio and a lot of other trails but want to do more! – Britten

  4. I agree with all of your selections spot on! They’re all on my top as well (minus “Bastard Ridge” which I haven’t done) I’ll definitely do that one some time even though via Sierra Madre is pretty classic. However, I would like to suggest one to add to your list if you haven’t tried it yet. “Triplets Rock.” It’s a great scramble and will definitely be a fun time. Let me know what you think man!

    • Bastard Ridge is a nice one. I usually only hike it up to Jones and then take the side trail down to the main Mt. Wilson Trail. I’ve researched Triplet Rocks and hope to do it soon. I left it off of the list though since I haven’t completed it and it is off trail. I love Falling Rock Canyon to Sugarloaf, Ontario, and Cucamonga, but left it off of the list since it’s a lot of off trail stuff as well.


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