Sparkling and silvery like a freshly minted silver dollar, Dollar Lake lies cupped amid a talus-frosted natural bowl, not far below the highest summits of the San Bernardino Mountains. Snow lingers late on the steep slopes overlooking the lake, sometimes into July. It's hard to believe this splendid landscape, reminiscent of the High Sierra, exists here in Southern California, only 20 air miles from the suburban tracts of San Bernardino.
Dayhiking to Dollar Lake, 12.6 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 2700 feet, is feasible for any in-shape San Diegan willing to rise early (5 a.m. or so) and arrive at the trailhead by about 9 a.m. A wilderness permit for entry into the area is needed, so you have to stop by the Mill Creek Ranger Station, at Mill Creek Road (Highway 38) and Bryant Street, east of Redlands. You'll pass this facility if you're driving into the San Bernardino Mountains via San Bernardino and Redlands. For the summer season, the station opens at 8 a.m. weekdays and 6:30 a.m. weekends. Some permits may be available by self-registration outside the door before those hours. Other permits may be available in advance by mail. You will also need a National Forest Adventure Pass ($5 per day) for parking at the trailhead. Call 909-794-1123 for more information.
To reach the starting point from Mill Creek Station, drive 18 miles east on Highway 38 to Jenks Lake Road. Turn right and proceed 3 miles to the large South Fork Trailhead parking lot on the left. Starting off on the trail, you cross Jenks Lake Road heading south and commence a moderate ascent up a shady canyon. Soon, the trail switches back, pulls out of the canyon, and climbs southeast toward a fern-filled clearing called Horse Meadows. Near the meadow's upper edge, you cross a disused dirt road (1.5 miles).
Continue your ascent through the typical mid-elevation yellow-pine belt, consisting here mostly of ponderosa pines and white firs. At around 4.0 miles, the trail draws close to the South Fork Santa Ana River. Remain on the right bank of the creek, staying right at the signed junction with the Dry Lake Trail. Off to the left is South Fork Meadows, where many small tributaries combine and funnel into the South Fork.
Your ascent continues on the crooked, mostly shaded Dollar Lake Trail. The yellow pine belt fades while stout and straight lodgepole pines appear in greater numbers. At 5.9 miles, just past a large, manzanita-covered patch on the mountainside, you'll come to a junction where a side trail starts slanting down toward Dollar Lake, a short half mile away.
The San Bernardino Mountains are the only range of mountains within Southern California that show geologic evidence of glaciation (prior to about 10,000 years ago). The pitlike depression occupied by Dollar Lake illustrates this.