Companion blog: Adventures In Stoving

Monday, November 24, 2014

Trip Report: Snow Creek to Pt. 4460

This is a fairly modest trip report, but it has some good information on the Snow Creek trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and it should give you a fairly good feel for the terrain and surroundings.  So read it, of course.

The Snow Creek trailhead of the PCT is the northernmost entry point for hikers into the San Jacinto Mountains.  This is a hot, desert area.  Recommended season is November through April.  Definitely not a good place to be on a hot day.
The San Jacinto Mountains from the Snow Creek trailhead of the PCT
Finding the Trailhead
From Hwy 111 which connects Interstate 10 with Palm Springs, turn SW on Snow Creek Road (some maps list this road as "Snow Creek Canyon Road") and drive about 1.6 or 1.7 miles (2.6 or 2.7 km) to the intersection with Falls Creek Road.  This is intersection is the trailhead.   Google Map to the trailhead.

Out of respect for the residents of the private community of snow creek, make sure you park before the "Snow Creek Village" sign visible in the photo above.  Across the street is another landmark, the "Snow Creek Wildlife Refuge" sign.
The "Snow Creek Wildlife Refuge" sign
Now, the PCT will be slightly hard to identify here, depending on whether you are north bound or south bound.   North bound, the PCT looks like a trail.
The PCT north bound from the Snow Creek trailhead
But south bound, the PCT and Falls Creek Road are one and the same.  Falls Creek Road is fairly small, but it is signed.  Simply follow the road south.  Note;  Some maps show a trail paralleling the road.  This is incorrect.  There is no trail paralleling the road.  The road is the trail here.
The battered but still legible sign for Falls Creek Road
Follow Falls Creek Road for about 1/10th of a mile until you come to a fork in the road.  Take the left hand fork.  You should soon come to a locked gate with the following sign.
DWA sign on Falls Creek Road
The sign is from the Desert Water Agency (DWA) that owns a parcel of land further up the canyon.  The sign isn't terribly clear as to its meaning, but the land the PCT goes on is National Forest Land, and public access is permitted.  So long as you are on the PCT, you're fine. If you want to know exactly which areas are public land, see "Appendix – Public Access in Snow Creek", below.

Proceed on the paved road approximately one mile south until you come to "PCT Rock" at which point you will need to turn right.
"PCT Rock"
Right next to PCT Rock is something important.  A drinking fountain with water provided courtesy of the DWA.  This is a real Godsend in the dry region north of the San Jacinto Mountains.
The drinking fountain immediately west of PCT Rock
This is your last reliable source of water for at least 16 miles/25 km.  Fill up appropriately.

It's a little creepy, but the DWA does have the area under camera surveillance.  I suppose they do need to protect the water works.  Anyway, just something to be aware of for the more modest among you.
Smile!  You're on candid camera.
The Trail Itself
As we leave the wonderful water fountain, this is where the real hiking begins.  Whereas previously we were following a paved road, we are now on a dirt trail.  My GPS track begins and ends at the water fountain:  GPS Track, Snow Creek to Pt. 4460.

The first thing you come to is an old pipeline, presumably once used by the DWA to transport water.  It now partially blocks the PCT.  It's not too hard to squeeze around on the downhill side, but it does force you off the trail, so watch your step.  I'm not sure why they couldn't do a better job of cutting the pipe to allow trail access.
Old pipeline partially blocking the PCT.
Of more concern are all these electrical wires coming out of the pipe and crossing the trail.  The wires appear to be active (i.e. not old and abandoned).  Apparently they used the old pipeline as a conduit to run wires up.  I wouldn't touch the wires, particularly in wet weather.  This just doesn't look safe to me.  This seems really iffy.  I mean surely there's a better way to run wires (underground?) rather than stringing them above ground across a major hiking trail.
Electrical cables strung across the PCT.
After passing the old pipeline, the PCT begins to climb, and we get our first looks into the Section 33 portion of Snow Creek.
Upper section (Section 33) of Snow Creek
The predecessors of today's DWA purchased the land in Section 33 in order to secure access to water.  As we climb the PCT, we can see various structures associated with the water works.
Water works, Snow Creek
 We can also see the DWA caretaker's cabin and some kind of garage/office/shop as well as a large water tank.
Various DWA structures in Snow Creek Canyon.
Front, left:  A garage/office/shop.  Front, right:  DWA caretaker's cabin.
Rear:  Large water tank with sun shelter in front housing what appears to be a generator.
The DWA Caretaker's cabin is just inside the boundary of the public land that is Section 28.  If you wanted to go exploring in Section 28, you should make sure you stay south of the caretaker's cabin so as to avoid trespassing in Section 33.  The water tank shown in the above photo is fully in Section 33 and is therefore off limits to the public.  See also the Appendix for more information about what is public and what is private land in Snow Creek Canyon.

Glancing upwards, we can see the majestic outline of the high country of the San Jacinto Mountains.  Indeed it is the mighty backdrop of the high country that makes the scenery here so compelling.
Sunrise, Snow Creek Canyon and San Jacinto Mountains from the PCT.
The immediate terrain is also fascinating, housing many jumbo boulders, some at least 30'/9m tall.
Jumbo boulders near the PCT
Looking down from the PCT, we see the small hamlet of Snow Creek, just outside of which is the trailhead where one would park one's car.
Snow Creek Village, from the PCT
The PCT in this area is in OK but not great shape.  This is a lesser used portion of the PCT, and there just isn't enough traffic or maintenance to keep the brush at bay.  There's nothing horrible, but brush does cover the entire tread of the trail in some areas.  See my GPS track for locations.
Brush across the PCT
Along the route, there are little spots where one could camp were one so inclined.  I have marked these on my GPS track.  Some are a little rough, but some, like the one below, look quite nice.
Potential camp site on the PCT.
Hiking along, we soon come to a post marked "Wild. Bdry." which is probably intended to mark the boundary of the San Jacinto Wilderness.
Wilderness boundary??  Hunh?  What's this doing here?
The odd thing about the post is that it's no where near the wilderness boundary.  According to the topographic maps, the trail crosses into the wilderness about a quarter mile after passing the old pipeline, long before we come to this post.  I have no idea why the post is located at it's current site.

Soon after passing the post, we enter a drainage and encounter a small washout which is easily negotiated.  We'll cross and re-cross this drainage four times on our trip today.
A wash out on the PCT
As we ascend the PCT further, we are allowed views into the rugged backcountry of Falls and Snow Creeks.
The trailless wild of Falls Creek and Snow Creek
Further on, we encounter another washout (see GPS track for location), this one a bit worse than the last but still relatively easy to negotiate.
Another washout on the PCT
Soon thereafter we come to PCT mile marker 200.  This marker is approximately 200 miles north of the Mexican border along the PCT (about 2450 miles south of the Canadian border).
Mile 200 for one traveling north on the PCT
As we head further up the trail, we can see some of the intensely rugged terrain in the drainage of the W Fork of Snow creek.  Almost unimaginably difficult terrain to negotiate.
Terrain in and around the W Fork of Snow Creek.
And of course, amazing views of the high country at every turn.
Looking into the high country off the San Jacintos from the PCT
Soon we come to the spot on the PCT which is just above point 4460 on the topographic map.  We've come about eight miles/thirteen kilometers since leaving the water fountain. This is about all we have time for today.  Interestingly, the slopes south of point 4460 are relatively moderate in terms of the terrain in the drainage of the W Fork.
A relatively benign slope south of point 4460
It appears that one could proceed south here and gain access to some of the upper reaches of the W Fork of Snow Creek  if someone for some reason wanted to do so.  The terrain is very rugged both up canyon and down canyon from where one would drop in using this route.  I doubt one could get far without technical equipment.

Cross Country Return Option
Now, what's the shortest distance between two points?  A straight line of course.  And what's the longest distance between two points?  The PCT – or at least that's what most hikers will swear to who have hiked the PCT.  Many sections of the PCT go for miles without really going anywhere.  The PCT meanders out and around every little terrain feature which makes no sense at all until you understand that the builders were apparently paid by the mile.  By the look of it, they went out of their way to make the trail as long as possible without overly arousing suspicions.  In any event, it is just sometimes maddening how long the PCT takes to get anywhere.

It was growing late, so I took a quick look at the topo map and decided to cut straight down the drainage, the drainage I mentioned earlier that the PCT criss-crosses back and forth over repeatedly.  This cross country route eliminates over two miles of the return trip.  However, it's fairly rough terrain with brush and dry falls.  I wouldn't recommend it unless you a) are willing to suffer b) like beating through brush, and c) like scrambling down loose rock and over dry water falls.  Note that I don't think it actually saves any time since the going is so rough.

The crux of the route occurs in the upper most section of the route where the route drops over about a 30' dry falls.  The falls is more of a rock jumble than a solid piece of rock.  It's not too bad (class 3), but there is about a 6 foot overhanging section at the end that cannot be downclimbed.  I tossed my pack down and jumped, a move not without risk.
This dry falls/rock jumble is the crux of the route
Further down in the canyon, I encountered this small pool
A small pool in the drainage
I don't know if the pool is always there, but I went ahead and marked it on my GPS track.  Below the pool was a small amount of flow, so it's possible that this pool is fairly persistent.  This isn't easy to get to or necessarily easy to find, but it's always good to know where water is in dry country.

The drainage isn't easy going, but it is negotiable.  Just a fun alternative for those crazy enough, err, skilled enough I mean, to try it.
Looking back up the drainage I just descended
One should note that there was a fire here some years ago.  My shirt had a lot of charcoal marks on it after the bushwhack.  The back of my hand looked like I hadn't washed in a month.
Charcoal marks on my hands and shirt.
One should also note that I tore a three inch (about 8 cm) gash in my trousers.  The brush was indeed thick at points although overall not really all that bad.

As I descended, I was taken by the rosey glow of the setting sun on the mountains to the north.
The fading light of the sun on the mountains north of San Gorgonio Pass.  Note wind farm.
The light quickly faded thereafter, but I had made sure to be done with the cross country section of my hike well before dark.  Off trail hiking isn't much fun after dark.  I finished the last hour or so of my hike by headlamp.  I use a two headlamp system for night hiking.   I have one headlamp affixed at belly button level on a strap.  This position gives me a lot more contrast than a headlamp on my forehead.  The light from a headlamp on one's forehead shines its light at almost the same angle as the eyes are focusing, which gives no contrast.  I therefore use one headlamp mounted near my mid section and a second, dimmer headlamp on my forehead.  The combination works well for me for night hiking.

Well, there you have it, a journey up the PCT and a cross country journey back.  Thanks for coming along,

HJ


Appendix – Public vs. Private Land in Snow Creek
The area which is public land (under control of the San Bernadino National Forest) is legally defined as Township 3 South, Range 3 East, Section 28 (hereinafter just "Section 28").  The area that is private property is legally defined as Township 3 South, Range 3 East, Section 33 (hereinafter just "Section 33").

Now, if that sounds like a lot of surveyor mumbo-jumbo to you, you're not alone.  To help you understand just where these sections of land are, I have drawn them in on the following map:  Sections 28 and 33, Snow Creek, CA.  You'll need to zoom in to make sense of the map, and you may want to toggle back and forth between the US Forest Service, Google map, and satellite views.

Basically, you should be able to go wherever you want in Section 28 on foot (motorized access is not permitted); it's all public land.  You should stay out of Section 33.  Falls Creek Road will take you into Section 33 if you go too far south.  The DWA caretaker's cabin is just before the Section 33 boundary.  Unless you have a GPS that you really trust to keep you out of Section 33, you shouldn't go south of the caretaker's cabin.  I don't know that the boundary is marked, and the DWA could try to prosecute you for trespassing even though the boundary isn't marked.

Note:  The DWA has a reputation for keeping people out of certain parts of Section 28, which is a violation of their lease.  Section 28 is public land, and you have a right to pass so long as you do not interfere with the operation of the water works.  If you are in any way harassed by the DWA (hopefully not; they should understand the terms of their lease), you should report the details of the harassment, preferably in writing, to the US Forest Service:
San Jacinto Ranger District, San Bernardino National Forest
Idyllwild Ranger Station
Attention:  Ranger H. Hoggan
54270 Pine Crest Road / P.O. Box 518
Idyllwild, CA  92549
909-382-2945 office  /  951-659-2107 fax
hhoggan [at] fs.fed.us

Again, though, hopefully everyone will play by the rules (including you), and there will be no trouble.  Go where you like in Section 28, but stay out of Section 33.  Simple enough, right?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Drought, Fire, and Stoves (How NOT to end up on the 11:00 News)

I wrote an article for Gossamer Gear on fire safety and backpacking stoves a couple of weeks ago. In light of the extreme fire weather we're having right now and the current fires now burning down in San Diego, I thought I'd post a link (below) here on my blog.

Fire currently (May 2014) burning in San Diego
Drought, Fire, and Stoves (How NOT to end up on the 11:00 News)

Stay safe out there,

HJ

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Interactive San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW) Map

In my recent Six Hiking/Backpacking Loops in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW) blog post, I featured a series of maps.  I think these maps are important because they accurately fix the positions of things like trail camps and water sources and because they identify a series of map errors.  However, these maps are static (i.e. no zoom or scroll) and are only snippets -- a section of the map relevant only to that loop.  What happens if you want to do a route that's partly on one snippet and partly on another?  Well, you have to piece things together as best you can.  Wouldn't it be nice to have a "big picture" map of the SGW?
San Gorgonio Wilderness boundary sign, Forsee Creek Trail
With that in mind, I set out to put together an interactive map of the entire SGW using CalTopo as my host.  The product of my efforts is displayed below.  Let's hope that CalTopo doesn't change their format or "go dark" or something!

The map below is probably best opened in a separate window.  You'll need to zoom in (a lot!) to make any sense of the notations.

Cautions:
As with all maps, this map is only as accurate as of my last visit to the wilderness.  Conditions, particularly in winter, could change at any time.  Wilderness travel, especially off trail, is inherently hazardous.  Plan thoroughly, carry the proper safety gear, always leave word with someone as to your route and intended time of return (and let them know when you're back safely!), and mentally be willing to turn back if conditions are unsafe.  Carrying "proper safety" gear generally means that you can survive (not be comfortable) an unplanned overnight in the wilderness in the current conditions.  Obviously you're going to need to carry a lot more gear in the winter than in the summer.
Looking north from the vicinity of the summit of Alto Diablo Peak, San Gorgonio Wilderness

Legend:
  • Trailheads are shown with a "P" (for "Parking") symbol.  There are eight official trail heads, numbered 1 through 8.  I've also shown a couple of other useful alternate trailheads, such as the East Barton Flats "trailhead" which I've numbered "5b" since it's in the same general area as the South Fork trailhead ("5").
  • Map Errors.  When the topo map is wrong, I've crossed out the incorrect markings in red.
  • Trails.  There are many perfectly good trails in the SGW that for whatever reason just aren't shown on the map.  I've marked such trails as a dashed black line.
  • Trail Camps.  There are 26 official trail camps in the SGW.  I've marked each one with a red tent icon, and I've numbered them 1 through 26.  See the cross reference in Appendix II, below.  Note that in some cases the official printed position of the trail camps is just dead wrong (e.g. Alger Creek, Mineshaft Flats Camp, Big Tree Camp).  The red tent icon marks the correct location.
  • Old Trails.  By "old" I mean trails or roads that really aren't fully followable anymore (although sections may be clear as day).  I've shown old trails with a black line that is a combination of dashes and dots.  These are trails of yesteryear that you can only find bits and pieces of today.  Sometimes it's fun to see if you can find stretches of these old trails (or roads), but they aren't really useful anymore as a means of getting from point to point in a timely fashion.  
  • Routes.  "General" routes (not specifically winter) are shown with a dotted gold line.  These generally aren't trails although use trails have formed on some of the heavily used peak routes.  Often there will be nothing on the ground that you can follow; these are cross country (XC) means of getting about.  You'll need to be familiar with map and compass work in order to follow these safely.  These routes may involve steep terrain, heavy brush, deadfalls, travel on rock up to class three, and tricky navigation.  See Backcountry Travel Classifications for a discussion of what "class three" travel is.  I have not been on every route in the wilderness.  These routes are only a very general description in the form of free hand drawings on the map.  I make no warranties as to accuracy.  I may occasionally show a route in gray.  Routes in gray are poor routes.  They're there if you want to try them, but there's going to be heavy brush or other difficult going.  Have at it if you like, but you've been warned.
  • Winter Routes.  Although you could use these routes any time, they're fairly popular when snow and ice blanket the Wilderness making trails either dangerous or hard to find.  I've shown these routes via a dotted dark blue line.  Again, these routes are only a very general description in the form of free hand drawings on the map.  I make no warranties as to accuracy.
  • Water sources.  Water sources are shown as light blue dots.  Next to the blue dot is a roman numeral from I to V which represents my estimation of the reliability of the water source.  The meaning of the numerals is as follows:
    I - Unreliable.  Assume no water unless you have a current report to the contrary.  Example:  Columbine Spring.
    II - Less reliable.  Water typically in early season although water possibly later in wet years.  Example:  The spring upstream from Fish Creek Camp.
    III - More reliable.  Water frequently into late season.  Example:  Limber Pine Springs.
    IV - Very reliable.  Water almost always into late season.  Example:  High Meadow Springs.
    V.  Extremely reliable.  Water always into late season even in multi-year droughts.  Example:  Forsee Creek. S Fork Santa Ana River, Falls Creek, N Fork Whitewater River, etc. 
  • Cautions.  If you see a little yellow triangle with an exclamation mark on it, I'm giving you some kind of warning about the condition of the route or trail.  I may also label a route or trail itself with cautions.

South Fork Meadows, San Gorgonio Wilderness

I hope you find the map useful.  If you see errors or omissions, please let me know in the comments below.

I thank you for joining me,

HJ

Appendix I -- List of Trailheads
The numbers below correspond to the numbers shown on the interactive SGW map.
1.   Vivian Creek Trailhead
2.   Momyer Creek Trailhead (pronounced "Moe Myer")
3.   San Bernardino Peak Trailhead
4.   Forsee Creek Trailhead
5.   South Fork Trailhead
5b.  East Barton Flats "Trailhead"
6.   Lost Creek Trailhead
6b.  Old Heart Bar Road "Trailhead"
7.   Aspen Grove Trailhead
8.   Upper Fish Creek Trailhead
Note:  The numbers were derived as follows:  I started at the Vivian Creek trailhead and worked my way clockwise around the perimeter of the SGW. Official trailheads got an integer. Unofficial trailheads received the integer of the nearest official trailhead followed by a lower case letter.
Allison Falls, San Gorgonio Wilderness

Appendix II -- List of Trail Camps
The numbers below correspond to the numbers shown on the interactive SGW map.
1.  Columbine Springs
2.  Johns Meadow
3.  Limber Pine Bench
4.  Jackstraw Springs
5.  Trail Fork Springs
6.  Anderson Flat
7.  Alger Creek
8.  Dobbs
9.  Saxton
10. Vivian Creek
11. Halfway
12. High Creek
13. Shields Flat
14. High Meadow Springs
15. Red Rock Flat
16. Dollar Lake Forks
17. Grinnell Ridge
18. Dry Lake View
19. Dry Lake
20. Lodgepole Spring
21. Trail Flats
22. Summit
23. Mineshaft Flat
24. Big Tree
25. Fish Creek Saddle
26. Fish Creek
Note:  The numbering system used in this list is fairly arbitrary.  I started on the left (west) side of the map and generally worked my way to the right (east) side.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Elevating" Shirley Peak – When is a Peak a Peak?

About a year ago, I published my list of Southern California Peaks Over 10,000 Feet/3048 Meters in Elevation.  When I first published my list, I included twenty four peaks.  Today, I'm adding another:  Shirley Peak (10,388'/3166m).
Peaks of the San Jacinto high country as seen from the north (from Folly Peak).
Shirley Peak is just left of center.
Note "The Rockpile" at the far right.  More on that later.
So, what, this peak just sprang fresh from the ground?  Well, no, of course not; it's been there all along.  At issue is when is a peak a peak?  I mean exactly what constitutes a peak?  Well, there is no commonly accepted definition.

The Definition of a Peak
Different web sites will talk about "prominence" (how far a given summit sticks out above everything around it) and "isolation" (how far away a given summit is from other summits around it), but there is no generally accepted values for what qualifies as a peak – and applying strict rules would disqualify many popular and well known peaks.  In reality, what people think looks like a peak generally gets recognized as a peak.  Subjective?  Yes, but that's the reality of it.

What's on My List?
For the purposes of my list, what have I done?  Well, I have included on my list any peak that I could find some form of general acceptance as a peak.  In other words, peaks generally recognized as peaks are on my list; peaks that have no general recognition are not.

Is "Shirley" a Peak?
Originally, I did not include Shirley Peak thinking that it was not generally recognized as a peak.  Yes, I knew that it had a name, but I thought that name was circulated among perhaps a single set of people (the local SAR unit) and that it really wasn't generally recognized as a peak.  But when I did not include Shirley Peak on my original list, a number of people contacted me, pointing out my omission.  It became quite clear to me that the name "Shirley Peak" was more widely known that I was first aware of.

"Elevating" Shirley Peak
Based on people's reactions, I began to consider including Shirley Peak on my list.  Then I took a photograph of the San Jacintos from about 95 miles (153 km) away.
The San Jacintos – from about 95 miles (153 km) away
Now, let's take a little closer look.  Let's zoom in a bit and look at the peaks along the main crest of the San Jacintos.  Now, notice something:  Shirley Peak can be seen as a separate, distinct summit, and Shirley has a very peak-like shape.
The main crest of the San Jacinto high country
Given that Shirley can be seen from nearly 100 miles away (over 150 km) as a separate and distinct peak-like object and that there is some general recognition that Shirley is in fact a peak, I added Shirley to my list.

Well then, what is not a Peak?
If you're going to add Shirley, why not add more?  I mean aren't there other peak-like objects out there that are over 10,000'/3048m in elevation?

Indeed there are.  So, what is not a peak?  Well, let's have another look at the San Jacinto high country.
A topographic map of the San Jacinto high country
On the above topo, I've highlighted the peaks on my list.  But what about the summit just north west of Marion Mountain?  Note that I've even labeled it "Mount Ellen."  Why isn't this on my list?

Well, the way that particular "peak" got a name is that a group of us wanted to honor a friend named Ellen, so we made a register, took a hike with our friend, and christened the peak.  However, sticking a can with a register in it on a rock pile does not necessarily a peak make.  Now, maybe the name will "stick," but until it does I think I'll hold off adding this one to my list.  Time and the outdoor community will have the final say.

Speaking of "rock piles", here's a photo of "Mount Ellen", seen on the far right.
Marion Mountain (left) and Mount Ellen (right)
"Mount Ellen," or whatever you want to call it, actually is fairly peak-like, so perhaps in time some sort of name will stick.  We'll see.

Unnamed "Peak?"
Now, on the topo map, notice another summit north and slightly east of "Mount Ellen."  I've just labeled this as "Peak?"  It's approximately the same elevation as Mount Ellen.  Would I suggest this as a peak?  Well, let's take a look; here's a photo.  The labels are a little small, so you may want to right click and open in a new window for maximum readability.
Peaks of the San Jacinto high country as seen from the south (from Marion Mountain).
To enlarge, right click and open in a new window.
The labels are a little hard to read, but the left most label says Unnamed "Peak".  That's the "peak" that I'm referring to.  Note that this "peak", while about as high as Mount Ellen, is very rounded.  There's no peak-like shape.  So, while it is a summit and it is over 10,000'/3048m, I doubt it will ever achieve general recognition as a peak.  However, if you did want to name it something, I'd submit the name "Joyce Peak" because my daughter Joyce hiked through there (well, was carried in a child backpack) when she was three years old and because a woman's name would fit with the general theme of female names on peaks in the southern portion of the San Jacinto high country.  I'm completely objective on this name of course.  ;)
My daughter, Joyce, "hiking" near "Joyce Peak"
Seriously though, I don't think this one will come to be regarded as a peak, and I don't intend to list it any time soon.

Now, note one more thing in the previous photo.  Between Folly Peak and San Jacinto Peak, there's a little summit which I've labeled as "Little Folly".  I don't think that summit is generally recognized as a peak, but who knows?  "Little" Charlton in the San Gorgonio Wilderness is considered one of the classic "Nine Peaks" of that wilderness, so perhaps in time Little Folly will gain recognition.  Will I put it on my list?  We'll see.

Admittedly, the process of determining what exactly constitutes a peak is more than just a little bit arcane, but I hope this post gives you some insight into what is and what is not a peak and how I've compiled my list.

As always, thanks for joining me,

HJ

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Six Hiking/Backpacking Loops in the San Gorgonio Wilderness

The San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW) is the largest high-altitude wilderness area in Southern California  a hiker's and backpacker's paradise.
The San Gorgonio Wilderness from Dry Lake View
But where to hike and backpack in the San Gorgonio Wilderness?  I thought I'd lay out six loops as a sort of hiking and backpacking "foundation" for the SGW.  You can then build on this foundation, making variants of your own.  I list out two example variants, the Nine Peaks Variation and the Seventeen Peaks Variation below, but I'm sure you can come up with more on your own.  In Appendix I, I describe one area that really isn't accessible via a loop hike but is so worthwhile that it needed to be included:  The N. Fork of the Whitewater River area.

For Backpackers and Day Hikers 
I happen to really like spending the night out in the wilderness.  I think the best way to do all of these loops is as an overnight trip.  But that's me.  Strong day hikers will be able to do most of these loops in a single day.  Whether you want to a day hike or to do an overnight trip, there's a lot of good information here about map errors, map omissions, and water sources.  Backpackers will find the locations of the trail camps to be most helpful; these locations are frequently wrong, sometimes seriously wrong, on topo maps including the Tom Harrison San Gorgonio Wilderness map.  In addition to the map snippets here, I've also put together an Interactive San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW) Map which covers the entire wilderness.

Notes on solitude
The Lost Creek Trail, the upper Momyer Creek Trail (above the junction with the Alger Creek Trail), and the North Fork Meadows Trail are the three least used major trails in the wilderness.  The short Columbine Springs Trail is also a lesser used trail.  For those desiring a bit of solitude, I commend to you trips that utilize those trails.
High Meadow Springs, San Gorgonio Wilderness

How to Read the Maps 
  • The principal route is highlighted in yellow.
  • Corrections to trails are shown as a bright green line.  Note that the bright green lines are hand drawn and should be considered approximate.  
  • Cross country routes are shown as a bright blue line.  The bright blue lines are also hand drawn.
  • Triangles ("r") indicate permissible camp sites.  Note that you must have a wilderness permit for all hikes (day and overnight) in the SGW and that you must have a permit for the site you wish to camp at if you are staying overnight.  See the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association (SGWA) website for further information including wilderness permit applications.
  • Water droplet shaped symbols ("S") indicate a water source.  Of course there are hundreds of other places you can get water (the entire length of a creek for example), but I've tried to mark some of the most useful ones.
  • Red "#'s" indicate a map error that I'm, in effect, blotting out.
  • A "^" symbol indicates trailhead parking.  On one map I used a bus stop symbol ("u") to indicate the trailhead parking.  Because the maps take a lot of work, I'm not at this juncture going to re-do that map.  Hopefully people can live with that slight inconsistency.  Hey, it's not like you're paying me for this.  J
The Six Loops
Here then are the six loops.  See also the appendix for other hiking options.  Click on any loop to see the details.
I.  The South Fork Loop -- From South Fork trail head to Dry Lake, San Gorgonio Mountain, Dollar Lake, and return.
II.  The Grinnell Loop -- A circumnavigation of Grinnell Mountain
III.  The Momyer - Falls Loop -- Up the Momyer Creek Trail and down the Falls Creek Trail
IV.  The Momyer - Vivian Loop -- Up the Momyer Creek Trail and down the Vivian Creek Trail
V.  The Forsee Loop -- A loop from the Forsee Creek Trailhead, including Johns Meadow Camp
VI.  The "Grand Tour" Loop -- Dry Lake, San Gorgonio Mountain, and Forsee Creek -- Best loop for the "Nine Peaks".
Appendix. N Fork Whitewater River

I.  The South Fork Loop.
Length:  21 miles round trip
This is the classic.  It's also the one that everybody does, so don't expect solitude on a summer weekend, especially at the summit of 11,500'/3505m San Gorgonio Mountain, which is one of the highlights of this trip.  Still, it's worth doing.

A strong hiker can do the hike in one day, but it's a heck of a lot of mileage.  Far better in my opinion to break it up into two or three days.  Take your time and savor the wilderness.  But each to his or her own.
The South Fork Loop.  Right click and open in a separate tab or window to fully enlarge.
One night plan:  Start at the S. Fork Trailhead.  Hike to Lodgepole Spring (reliable water year round except in multi-year droughts).  Tank up on water.  Hike, carrying your water to Summit Camp.  Camp here and savor the sunset.  The next day hike down via the Dollar Lake Trail.  Strenuous, especially when you're carrying all that water.

Two night plan: Start at the S. Fork Trailhead.  Hike to Lodgepole Spring (reliable water year round except in multi-year droughts).  Camp at nearby Lodgepole Camp.  The next day, head to the summit and savor the view.  After summiting, head to Dollar Lake Camp.  There should be water in early season or in wet years coming from a spring at the south end of Dollar Lake.  Both Dollar Lake and the spring frequently go dry.  Check the conditions before embarking on your hike.

Map Notes:
1.  Errata.
  • The USGS topo map shows the S. Fork Trail climbing up over the shoulder above the saddle just west of Poopout Hill.  Uh, no.  The S. Fork trail goes through the saddle.  I've sketched in the route that the trail really takes.
  • The topo map shows the S Fork Trail crossing another "trail" labeled the "Poopout Hill Trail."  What the map is calling a "trail" is in fact a pretty prominent dirt road.  This is the old road to the top of Poopout Hill.  The road was closed because it made access to the backcountry too easy and things were getting trampled.
  • The topo map shows a trail just south of the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain below the Sky High Trail.  The map makers were apparently smoking crack the day they drew up the map.  There's no trail there and there never has been.  Don't know who dreamed that up.
2.  Shortcuts.  The spine of the SE ridge of San Gorgonio makes an excellent short cut for those with decent map reading and route finding skills.  I've sketched it in with a blue line.  This short cut cuts off about a mile.  I leave you to determine the specifics based on your examination of a detailed topo map.  If you're unclear as to the route, you might want to just stick to the trail.

Water sources:
I'll start at the trailhead and go clockwise.  In some times and seasons, there may be other water sources; I'm just trying to hit some of the more important ones here and just those on the route.  See other sections for sources off the route.
1.  Flume.  ****  This is the flume that diverts water from the S Fork of the Santa Ana River to Jenks Lake.  Just after you pass the wilderness sign near Poopout Saddle, start looking to your left (east).  You should see water flowing in the flume below you.  The flume for whatever reason isn't shown on most maps but is a nice source of water after you've climbed up from the S Fork Trailhead.  
2.  Grinnell Crossing.  *****  Extremely reliable water, perhaps the most reliable in the entire SGW.
3.  Creek crossings in the S Fork meadows area.   *****
4.  Lodgepole Spring.  ****  There may also be water in Dry Lake.  The water quality at the spring is typically better.  There are also some small springs along the trail and at least one big spring below the trail as you come up from S Fork Meadows.  The small springs aren't typically worthwhile (too shallow, too low flow).  The one large spring is pretty worthwhile, but it's off trail and you've just passed a wonderful source down in S Fork Meadows and you'll soon get to another good source at Lodgepole, so I don't consider it vital.
5.  Dollar Lake Spring.  **  The spring is at the extreme south end of the lake, just above the lake.  Both the lake and the spring frequently run dry in late season.

II.  The Grinnell Loop.
Length:  19.5 miles round trip
This might be the easiest loop in terms of steepness and elevation.   Some of the other loops gain a lot more elevation and do so at very steep rates.  This loop has an advantage in that many parts of it, particularly the Lost Creek Trail, are in lesser used portions of the SGW.  There are real chances for solitude here.

The Grinnell Loop.  Right click and open in a separate tab or window to fully enlarge.
One night plan:  Start at the Lost Creek Trailhead.  Hike to Lodgepole Spring (reliable water year round except in multi-year droughts).  Camp at nearby Lodgepole Camp.  Hike the remainder of the loop on day two.  A one night (two day) backpack is very doable, but Dry Lake Camp is one of the most popular camps in the SGW.  You might go to the two night plan just to avoid the crowds.
Two night plan:  Start at the Lost Creek Trailhead.  Hike to Fish Creek Camp.  The spring upstream of the camp is seasonal and will often run dry in late season, particularly in dry years. More reliable water is available at the stream crossing about 0.6 miles before camp.  On day two, hike to Grinnell Ridge Camp.  Water is available at the S Fork of the Santa Ana River (100% reliable all years, all conditions) about a mile before camp.  Water may be available in difficult to find Mosquito Spring which is about 0.4 miles east of camp.  Do not count on finding Mosquito Spring and even if you do find it there may not be water.  The better option is to just carry your water in from the S Fork of the Santa Ana River.  It's about a mile hike on a relatively easy trail.  Hike the remainder of the loop on day 3.

Map Notes:
1.  Omissions.  The USGS topo map does not shows many of the trails in the area, but there are decent trails the entire route.  The following trails are not shown on most topo maps:

  • The Lower Fish Creek Trail.  This is the section of  trail along Fish Creek below Aspen Grove.   Most topo maps show this trail going only part way down the creek.  Not true.  In reality, the trail goes all the way from Aspen Grove to the Santa Ana River Trail.
  • The Aspen Grove Trail/Upper Fish Creek Trail.  This section of trail goes from Aspen Grove up to the Fish Creek Meadows where it joins in with the trail coming in from the upper Fish Creek Trailhead.  For reasons unknown, it's not shown on most maps.
  • The Dry Lake - Fish Creek Saddle Trail.  This trail goes from Dry Lake to Fish Creek Saddle.  Most topo maps show this trail dead ending at the Lodgepole Spring area.  Nope.  The trail, although not regularly maintained, goes all the way to Fish Creek Saddle.  The trail is signed at both ends.
  • The Lost Creek Trail.  A lot of topo maps don't show the relatively new Lost Creek Trail.  The Lost Creek Trail runs from Grinnell Ridge Camp to the Lost Creek Trailhead near S Fork Campground.  A lot of topo maps, particularly older ones, just show the trail going from the S. Fork of the Santa Ana River up to Grinnell Ridge Camp.  The trail goes all the way from the S Fork to the Lost Creek Trailhead.
2.  Trails that are no more.
  • The USGS topo map shows a northern trail leading from the Aspen Grove trailhead down to the Grinnell Mountain Loop that I've described.  This is actually an old road, but it's really not followable anymore.  Don't anticipate seeing this "trail" as you do the route.
  • The USGS topo map shows a trail leading east from Grinnell Ridge Camp.  The trail is kind of still there, but it's really not followable anymore.  The trail leads to what's left of Mosquito Spring (unreliable; poor water quality; difficult to find).  The spring box apparently has collapsed or filled in.  The pipe no longer delivers water.  It's now just essentially a slow seep.  It is however usable in some years.  Boil the heck out of it (guess why they call it "Mosquito" Spring).
Water sources:
I'll start at the trailhead and go clockwise.  In some times and seasons, there may be other water sources; I'm just trying to hit some of the more important ones here and just those on the route.  See other sections for sources off the route.
1.  "Crossing."  ***  This is the main fork of Lost Creek.  Possibly four stars, but I haven't spent enough time there, so I'm going to be conservative and give it three.
2.  "Crossing."  ****  This and the next five crossings (for a total of six) are all along Fish Creek.  Six is somewhat arbitrary since you're following the creek fairly closely for much of the way. The water is pretty reliable although I have seen sections of Fish Creek go completely dry in late season.  In such a case, simply go upstream (typically) for 100 yards or so, and you'll usually find water.
3.  "Crossing."  ****  This is another crossing of Fish Creek.  In particular, this is the last crossing east of Fish Creek Camp.  This crossing is important because it is the last reliable water source before Fish Creek Camp.
4.  "Crossing."  **  This is the outflow from a little spring west of Fish Creek Camp.  This source is often mentioned since it is the closest to Fish Creek Camp, but it normally runs dry later in the season.
5.  Lodgepole Spring.  ****
6.  Creek crossings in the S Fork meadows area.   *****
7.  Grinnell Crossing.  *****  This is the creek crossing where the Grinnell Ridge Trail takes off and crosses the S Fork of the Santa Ana River en route to Grinnell Ridge Camp.  Extremely reliable water, perhaps the most reliable in the entire SGW.  This is the best water source for Grinnell Ridge Camp.
8.  Mosquito Spring.  *  Difficult to find.  Low flow.  Poor water quality.  I almost shouldn't mention it, but it is a nice convenient source in the spring  if you can find it.  The map shows an old trail leading to it, but it's nearly impossible to follow the trail which is now only a trace.  If you want to try to find it, you just have to hunt around for a patch of greenery over on the ridge shown.  It's not in the drainage where the old trail is shown ending.  And it's named "Mosquito" Spring for a reason.  I've seen a lot of mosquito larvae in the water.

III.  The Momyer - Falls Loop.
Length:  22.3 miles round trip.
This is a tough one.  This loop ascends the old Momyer Creek Trail straight up to the San Bernardino Peak Divide.  You've got about a mile of vertical gain on the first day.  Make sure you've done some good training hikes with similar gain before you take this one on.  This hike is in one of the lesser used portions of the SGW.  You should have some good opportunities for solitude, particularly on the upper section of the Momyer Creek Trail which is no longer regularly maintained.  The upper section of the Momyer Creek Trail is pretty followable, but you should have some decent map reading and route finding skills before taking on this hike.
The Momyer - Falls Loop.  Right click and open in a separate tab or window to fully enlarge.
One night plan:  Start at the Momyer Creek Trailhead.  Go up.  And up.  And up.  :)  When you get to the junction with the Alger Creek Trail, stay left.  And go up.  Hit the San Bernardino Peak Divide trail and turn right (east).  Head to Trail Fork Springs*** if you need water.  Alternatively, you can stay level and head straight to Anderson Flat if you have enough water.  Camp at High Meadow Springs**** (reliable water).  On day two, head east from High Meadow Springs to Dollar Lake Saddle. Take the Falls Creek Trail south from Dollar Lake Saddle to the Alger Creek Trail.  Turn right (west) on the Alger Creek Trail and hike back to the Momyer Creek Trail (the trail you came in on).  Descend the Momyer Creek Trail back to the trailhead.

Two night plan:  Start at the Momyer Creek Trailhead.  Stay at Trail Fork Springs*** the first night.  Stay at Dobbs Camp***** the second night.  Hike the remainder of the loop on day 3.

Map Notes:
1.  Momyer Creek Trail Conditions.  The stretch of the Momyer Creek Trail above the Alger Creek Trail is the not regularly maintained section.  It's followable but a bit sketchy right at the junction.  Bring a topo map and compass and know how to use them.  You can augment your your map and compass with a GPS, but a GPS is electronic and therefore susceptible to failure.  Best practice is to always bring a map and compass and never a GPS alone.  Whatever you bring, know how to use it.
2.  High Meadow Springs Camp.  There is no trail shown on the map to High Meadow Springs, but a trail does in fact exist, and thanks to the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association (SGWA) volunteer trail crews it is now well marked.  There is a use trail from the camp area down to the springs.  The route to the springs is also marked.
3.  Camp Locations.  Anderson Flat Camp and Shields Flat camp are shown in approximate positions.  I tried not to obscure the wording on the map.  Saxton camp is just plain wrong on the USGS map.  I have marked it in the correct position.  Alger Creek camp is laughably wrong.  The USGS map shows it on a ridge east of Alger Creek.  Uh, no.  Alger Creek camp is, um, by Alger Creek.  Indeed, Alger Creek camp is just west of Alger Creek on the forested bench.
4.  Trail to Dobbs Camp and Dobbs Camp.  The trail to Dobbs camp is shown taking a sharp right turn at one point and heading directly down a steep near-cliff.  Um, no.  The trail gradually descend and reaches Falls Creek near the confluence of the east and west forks of Falls Creek as I've sketched in.  Dobbs Camp is a general area.  The best camp sites in my opinion are in the crook of the "Y" formed by the confluence, and I've placed my triangle symbol there, but there are numerous good camp sites along the east bank of Falls Creek below the confluence.

Water sources:
I'll start at the trailhead and go clockwise.  In some times and seasons, there may be other water sources; I'm just trying to hit some of the more important ones here and just those on the route.  See other sections for sources off the route.  Note that the water sources here are all pretty reliable.  When there's a drought, this is one of the best routes.  The only vital water source that is somewhat questionable in a drought is Trail Fork Springs.
1.  Trail Fork Springs.  ***
2.  High Meadow Springs.  ****
3.  Plummer Crossing.  *****  This is where the Falls Creek Trail crosses W Fork Falls Creek in Plummer Meadows.
4.  Small Spring.  **  A convenient water source if you're heading downhill en route to Saxton Camp.  If it's dry, just get water at West Prong Crossing.
5.  West Prong Crossing.  ****  This is where the trail crosses the west prong of the W Fork Falls Creek.
6.  Dobbs.  *****  Not really on route, but it won't be described elsewhere, so I'll describe it here.
7.  Alger Creek.  *****
8.  Cedar Spring.  **

IV.  The Momyer - Vivian Loop.
Length:  22 miles round trip (trail only) or 23.6 miles (including the road walk between the two trailheads).
Similar to the Momyer - Falls Loop, but traverses by means of the San Bernardino Peak Divide Trail over to San Gorgonio Mountain and then descends via the Vivian Creek Trail.  Note:  There is a either a short car shuttle or short road walk (1.6 miles per Google maps) to connect the two trail heads.

The Momyer - Vivian Loop.  Right click and open in a separate tab or window to fully enlarge.
One night plan:  One night out is frankly a bit of a stretch on this trail.  That's a lot of miles. But a strong hiker can do it.  Indeed, some very strong hikers do this as a day hike.  The real problem for backpackers is that the campsites that are about half way do not have water.  But for those willing to pack the water, you can camp at either Dry Lake View or Summit Camp.   Alternative to packing in water:  Melt snow in the spring.

Two night plan:  Camp the first night at either Saxton or High Meadow Springs.  Both camps should have water.  Spend the second night at High Creek which will have water.

Nine Peaks Variation:  For those wanting to summit the classic "nine peaks" of the SGW (San Bernardino Pk, East San Bernardino Pk, Anderson Pk, Shields Pk, Alto Diablo Pk, Charlton Pk, Little Charlton Pk, Jepson Pk, and San Gorgonio Mtn), use the upper section of the Momyer Creek Trail to go directly to the San Bernardino Peak Divide.  See the route description for the Momyer Creek - Falls Creek Loop for details.  From there, go west to bag East San Bernardino and San Bernardino Peaks.  Then come back east to pick up the remaining peaks along the western portion of the San Bernardino Peak Divide.  You will re-join the above described route at Dollar Lake Saddle.  Note however that the "Grand Tour" route is the most efficient way to bag the nine peaks in a loop hike.  The Grand Tour route is described in section VI, below.  See my list of Southern California Peaks above 10,000'/3048m for details about these peaks.

Map Notes:
1.  All comments from the Momyer Creek - Falls Creek Loop apply.
2.  The position of High Creek Camp on the USGS topo is wrong.  It is not up a side branch of High Creek.  It is just east of the main branch of High Creek.
3.  The position of Summit Camp on the USGS map is questionable.  The sites I'm familiar with are a bit east of the summit and are so marked.

Water sources:
I'll start at the trailhead and go clockwise.  In some times and seasons, there may be other water sources; I'm just trying to hit some of the more important ones here and just those on the route.  See other sections for sources off the route.
1.  Cedar Spring.  **
2.  Alger Creek.  *****
3.  Dobbs.  *****
4.  W. Prong Crossing.  ****
5.  Small Spring.  **
6.  Plummer Crossing.  *****
7.  High Creek.  ***   Possibly four stars.
8.  "Crossing" near Halfway Camp.  **.  This is the upper end of Vivian Creek.  If dry at the crossing, go upstream 100 yards or so and you may find water there.
9.  Vivian Creek.   ***   Possibly four stars.
10.  Spigot.  ****  There's a spigot with potable water on the south side of the restroom at the trailhead parking lot.  The only reason I'm just giving it four stars is because recently they had a sign saying "do not drink" on it.  Nothing had been detected in the water, but they hadn't been able to do their mandatory testing.  They can't declare the water potable unless they have a current test.  I drank the water anyway, and nothing bad happened.  This is the only traihead that I am aware of that has water at the trailhead (although there is water when the campground is open near the Lost Creek Trailhead).  There is the possibility that they could shut the water off in the winter to prevent freezing pipes.

V.  The Forsee Loop.
Length:  17.3 miles round trip.
A nice loop.  Very doable as a single overnight (or as a very long day hike).  In a lesser used portion of the wilderness, but more used than say the Lost Creek Trail which I believe is the least used of all the trails.
The Forsee Loop.  Right click and open in a new tab to fully expand.
One night plan:  Camp at Trail Fork Springs.  Reasonably reliable water here, but check conditions first.
Two night plan:  Spend the first night at Limber Pine Bench (fairly reliable water; sometimes dry in late season).  I don't recommend Columbine Springs because water is so seldom found there.   Spend the second night at Trail Fork Springs (fairly reliable water).  You could also stay at Jackstraw Springs, depending on the strictures of your schedule, but the water at Jackstraw is far less reliable.  There are a lot of "widow makers" (dead trees just waiting to come down) at Johns Meadow, therefore Johns Meadow Camp is closed for the foreseeable future.  

Map notes:
1.  No trail is shown from Johns Meadow Camp to Manzanita Spring, but there definitely is a trail, albeit no longer receiving regular maintenance.  I have sketched in the trail in bright green.  The trail is signed at both ends.
2.  The trail to Johns Meadow Camp is shown switch backing down into Forsee Creek fairly rapidly.  This is incorrect.  The trail does a couple of switch backs and then contours upstream.  I have approximated the true route of the trail in my route sketch.
3.  It is important to know that the trail west of Johns Meadow Camp goes downhill after you cross the small branch of Forsee Creek.  It's weird, but knowing that it goes downhill will help.  The first time I hiked this trail, I thought I was on the wrong trail for a while.  Nope.  It really does go downhill at first.
4.  Johns Meadow is not located at Johns Meadow Camp.  Everyone hikes through the camp and says "where's the meadow?"  It's nearby but not visible from the camping area.  In other words, if you get to Johns "Meadow" Camp and you don't see a meadow, don't worry.  You're not necessarily lost.
5.  My triangle indicating the position of Columbine Springs Camp is approximate (less accurate than my other position indications).
6.  Limber Pine Bench Camp is actually a pretty big area and fairly spread out.  The triangle only marks a small portion of the camp.
7.  There's a little spur trail marked 1E17 shown going west off of the Forsee Creek Trail (1E06.1).  There is no such trail that I've ever been able to find.

Water sources:
I'll start at the trailhead and go clockwise.  In some times and seasons, there may be other water sources; I'm just trying to hit some of the more important ones here.
1.  W. Branch Round Cienega Cr.  **
2.  "Springs" (three fairly close together).  *  A lot of the time there is some water flowing over the trail, but the deepest "pools" are usually where water has filled in someone's muddy footprint.  No easily recovered water here.
3.  Jackstraw Springs.  **
4.  Trail Fork Springs.  ***
5.  Limber Pine Springs.  **
6.  Manzanita and Columbine Springs (on spur trail).  *  Just a bit of damp ground is usually what you see here.  I didn't even mark Manzanita Springs because it's so unreliable.
7.  Two small creeks west of Johns Meadow Camp.   ****  One or both of these is normally flowing year round.  The stream just west of Johns Meadow Camp is the most convenient water source for the camp.
8.  Forsee Creek.  *****   This is the main fork of Forsee Creek.  Absolutely the highest reliability rating.
9.  E Fork Forsee Creek.  **
10.  Stetson Creek.  **
11.  Spring just east of Stetson Creek.  **  Stetson Creek itself is usually dry here, but the little spring just to the east is frequently flowing, particularly in early season.

VI.  The "Grand Tour" Loop.
Length:  26.1 miles round trip (trail only) or 28.9 miles round trip (including the road walk).
This back pack takes one on a "Grand Tour" of the SGW.  It's basically a concatenation of the South Fork with the Forsee Creek Loop.  The "Grand Tour" route is the most efficient way to summit all nine of the classic "nine peaks" of the SGW in a loop hike (San Bernardino Pk, East San Bernardino Pk, Anderson Pk, Shields Pk, Alto Diablo Pk, Charlton Pk, Little Charlton Pk, Jepson Pk, and San Gorgonio Mtn).  Note:  There is a 2.8 mile (per Google maps) road walk between the two trailheads.
The "Grand Tour" Loop.  Right click and open in a separate tab or window to fully enlarge.
One night plan:   Get real.  This is really at least a two night trip.  But if your really have a need for speed, spend the night at High Meadow Springs (reliable water)  and good luck.  Yipes!  This advice goes for most people, but  obviously there are those fit enough to do this in a single day as a day hike.  Doesn't sound like much fun to me.  Day hike not recommended for all but the fittest of the fit.  Single night out recommended only for the very fit and fast.  Two night minimum for most people.  Three nights is the best option.
Two night plan:   Water is a bit of a limiting factor here.  If there's snow up high, you might want to spend the first night at Summit Camp, melting snow for water.  You second night could be at Trail Fork Springs***.  If there's no snow, you could do a relatively short hike to Lodgepole Spring Camp (reliable water) the first day, then High Meadow Spring (reliable water) for your second night, but you'd have a very long day for your third.
Three night plan:  If you've got the time, this is a nice option.  Night one:  Lodgepole Spring (reliable water).  Night two:  High Meadow Spring (reliable water).  Night Three:  Limber Pine Bench (seasonal water, but often present  check conditions before you go).  Hike out on day 4.  This is the way to do it, in my opinion.  Savor the high country.  Spending the night at Limber Pine Bench gives one some fabulous views.

17 Peaks Variation:  There are seventeen peaks with elevations above 10,000' (3048m) in the SGW.  See my list of Southern California Peaks above 10,000'/3048m for a list of those peaks.  If one wanted to climb all seventeen of the 10,000 footers, this is the route to use.  Change the above route as follows:  Instead of going through Trail Flats after passing Dry Lake, go to Fish Creek Saddle.  There is no trail marked on the USGS topo going to the saddle, but in fact there is one.  The trail is no longer maintained regularly, but it gets plenty of use and is very followable.  From Fish Creek Saddle, you can bag Grinnell Mtn, Ten Thousand Food Ridge (the highpoint), and Lake Peak.  You'll re-join the "standard" Grand Tour route at Mine Shaft Saddle.

Map Notes:
1.  All preceding map notes apply.  See those notes for details.
2.  Trailheads.  Note that you either need to do a car shuttle or that you need to walk between the trail heads.  It's a bit of a walk between the trail heads, but I've done it, and it's not too bad.  The walk is all along Jenks Lake Road which is neither a high traffic nor a high speed road.

Water Sources:
See the South Fork Loop and Forsee Loop for descriptions.


Final Word
As you can tell, I've just outlined these trips.  I haven't gone into great detail.  The maps themselves communicate much of what I have to say.  Hopefully this gives you some ideas without taking away the challenge and fun of planning your own trip.  Now, enjoy, be safe, and preserve the wilderness.

HJ

Appendix I 
The six loops described above cover all the major hiking and backpacking areas in the SGW except one:  the North Fork of the Whitewater River area.  While no loop hike is available (at least on trail), the N Fork of the Whitewater River area is worth a visit.  This area is probably one of the three least visited areas in the SGW.
N Fork Whitewater River Area.  Right click and open in a separate tab in order to enlarge fully.
The positions of the trail camps in this area are outrageously wrong.  Mineshaft Flat Camp is shown up on the side of a hill.  Um, no, Mineshaft Flat Camp is in the flat below.  I have indicated the correct position with my usual black triangle.  The camp area is actually fairly large, so you wouldn't necessarily be looking for a precise point.  I have blotted out the incorrect position with a red hash mark.

Big Tree Camp is shown on the wrong side of the river.  The key thing to note is that Big Tree Camp is on the NNE side of the river in the crook of the "Y" formed by the river and a small side stream.  The black triangle again marks the correct location.  I have blotted out the incorrect position with a red hash mark.

The ironic thing is that there is a large tree (a white fir) near the location marked by the USGS on their topo map, but that is not the Big Tree, and that is not the correct position of the camp.  The actual Big Tree (a massive ponderosa pine), for which the camp is named, died a few years ago and much of it lies on the ground.
The Big Tree.  Imagine how tall it was when it still had its top.
Map Notes:
1.  As mentioned above, the positions of the trail camps marked on the USGS topo map are way off.  Refer to the black triangles on the map for the correct locations.
2.  There's an excellent short cut for those coming from the Dry Lake area that goes from just east of Lodgepole Spring up to Lodgepole Saddle.  There is an old mining trail here that you can follow parts of, but the trail is no longer fully followable.

Water sources:
I'll start at Lodgepole Saddle go downhill from there.  In some times and seasons, there may be other water sources; I'm just trying to hit some of the more important ones here and just those on the route.
1.  Springs.   ****  Possibly five stars for the second spring.  These springs are about 0.3 miles south of Mine Shaft Flat Camp.  Both springs are just below the trail.  The second spring is a real gusher and is pretty easy to find simply because it makes so much noise.  There's also a pretty well worn path down to the spring.
2.  N Fork Whitewater River.  *****  After you cross the meadow, you have to cross the river since the camp is on the far side of the river.  The river is extremely reliable.
3.  Small Side Creek.   ****  Small, but actually pretty reliable.  This is the most convenient water source for Big Tree Camp.  If it's dry, no worries, just back track to the nearby N Fork of the Whitewater River.

Appendix II  Water Reliability Ratings
Now, since these ratings are based on personal observation, they're going to be somewhat subjective, but at the same time you should know that I've been hiking in the SGW since the 1960's.  I actually have some basis for the ratings I give to a water source.  If you disagree, please comment to that effect below, but please tell me why.  
* Unreliable.  Assume no water unless you have a current report to the contrary.  Example:  Columbine Spring.
** Less reliable.  Water typically in early season.  Often dry in late season.  Example:  the spring above Fish Creek Camp.
*** More reliable.  Water typically in late season in normal years.  May be dry in late season in dry years.  Example:  Limber Pine Springs.
**** Very reliable.  Water typically year round except possibly in multi-year droughts.  Example:  Lodgepole Springs.
***** Extremely reliable.  Water year round even in multi-year droughts.  Example:  Forsee Creek.

Appendix III  Alphabetical List of Trail Camps of the SGW
You should be able to find the location of each of these camps on the maps in this blog post.  I've listed the loop or area the camp is in after the name of the camp.  Refer to the map of that loop or area for the location of a given camp.  Since some of the loops overlap, several of the trail camps will be listed on more than one map.  I've only listed one map per trail camp.

  1. Alger Creek (Momyer Creek - Vivian Creek Loop)
  2. Anderson Flat (Momyer Creek - Falls Creek Loop)
  3. Big Tree (N Fork Whitewater R area)
  4. Columbine Springs (Forsee Creek Loop)
  5. Dobbs  (Momyer Creek - Vivian Creek Loop)
  6. Dollar Lake Forks (South Fork Loop)
  7. Dry Lake (South Fork Loop)
  8. Dry Lake View (South Fork Loop)
  9. Fish Creek (Grinnell Mountain Loop)
  10. Fish Creek Saddle (Grinnell Mountain Loop)
  11. Grinnell Ridge (Grinnell Mountain Loop)
  12. Halfway (Momyer Creek - Vivian Creek Loop)
  13. High Creek (Momyer Creek - Vivian Creek Loop)
  14. High Meadow Springs  (Momyer Creek - Falls Creek Loop)
  15. Jackstraw Springs (Forsee Creek Loop)
  16. Johns Meadow (Forsee Creek Loop)
  17. Limber Pine Bench (Forsee Creek Loop)
  18. Lodgepole Spring (South Fork Loop)
  19. Mineshaft Flat (N Fork Whitewater R area)
  20. Red Rock Flat (Grand Tour)
  21. Saxton (Momyer Creek - Vivian Creek Loop)
  22. Shields Flat (Grand Tour)
  23. Summit (South Fork Loop)
  24. Trail Flats (South Fork Loop)
  25. Trail Fork Springs (Forsee Creek Loop)
  26. Vivian Creek (Momyer Creek - Vivian Creek Loop)