Tucked amid the tall, straight trunks of lodgepole pines at nearly two miles high in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, the wind-sheltered and mostly bug-free Trail Fork Camp is a peakbagger's delight. Just above the trail camp lies the lightning-tortured roof of Southern California -- the crest of the San Bernardino Mountains -- containing four named highpoints within reach of a half-day stroll from the camp. Farther east a few miles lies the big daddy of Southern California summits -- 11,499-foot San Gorgonio Mountain.
The trek to Trail Fork Camp and the crest beyond can be done in one long and exhausting day with a light daypack, but most hikers opt for the more leisurely weekend-backpack strategy. The high peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains tend to create their own afternoon thunderstorms starting about mid-July, so check out the weather forecast beforehand, and bring appropriate rain-protective gear regardless of the predicted weather.
To reach the trailhead from Interstate 10 east of San Bernardino, take Highway 38 east through Redlands and Mentone and past the San Bernardino National Forest's Mill Creek ranger station. That is where you'll pick up the required wilderness permit for your trek (call 909-794-1123 or 909-383-5588 for particulars). At a point 18 miles beyond Mill Creek Station, turn right on Jenks Lake Road. After 0.3 mile turn right on a rough dirt road signed "Forsee Creek Trail," and proceed cautiously another 0.6 mile to a large clearing used for parking.
On foot, make your way steadily uphill under shade-giving Jeffrey pines, incense-cedars, white firs, and black oaks, and a few sugar pines, quickly passing a side trail to Johns Meadow. After an hour or two of unrelenting labor, you leave the "yellow-pine" vegetation behind and enter a zone dominated by lodgepole pines. Much higher up, the lodgepole pines (with two needles per cluster) are joined by limber pines (having five needles per cluster and rubbery branch tips).
At 4.2 miles, the mosquito-infested Jackstraw Springs trail camp lies down a side path to the right. At 6.2 miles, the trail bends sharply right and arrives at a junction. Just below, hidden in a clump of bushes, lies Trail Fork Springs -- the first trickle in the headwaters of Forsee Creek. Retrace your steps about 100 yards on the Forsee Creek Trail to find the steep, narrow side path leading east up to Trail Fork Camp. A bald area on a flat ridge just northeast is the perfect spot to admire a view stretching north toward Big Bear Lake and to toast the setting sun.
If time and energy permit, pay a visit to nearby Shields and Anderson peaks, 0.7 mile and 0.4 mile away, respectively. A further foray to the west might include a visit to both of the "San Bernardino" peaks, plus the historic Colonel Henry Washington Monument, which commemorates the original San Bernardino baseline and meridian survey point, established in 1852. The monument lies off-trail; you'll find it by walking 160 yards straight up the ridge from the southwesternmost switchback in the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail.