Southern California is known far and wide as the home of Hollywood, Disneyland, and surfers. What is not as well known is that there is a rare treasure only 75 miles east of Los Angeles where you can escape from the freeways and congestion of the big city: The San Gorgonio Wilderness. The San Gorgonio Wilderness is the climax region of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. Located on the San Bernardino National Forest, the Wilderness receives approximately 200,000 visitors each summer. Its 58,969 acres harbor two small lakes, meadows, streams, 100+ miles of trails, densely forested northern slopes, and rugged terrain. Elevations in the Wilderness range from 4,400 feet to 11,499 atop namesake Mt. San Gorgonio.
All eleven U.S. Geological Survey recognized peaks are over 10,000 feet in height, with Mt. San Gorgonio being the highest. As the highest peak between the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Mexican border, Mt. San Gorgonio offers unparalleled views of metropolitan Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert.
For most of history, San Gorgonio rose above the encroachment of civilization. In 1852, Colonel Henry Washington of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was assigned the task of establishing an initial point from which an east-west base line and a north-south meridian could be surveyed. This point would provide land surveys for all of Southern California. His choice? The 10,624 foot San Bernardino Peak looming high over the San Bernardino Valley and visible from Los Angeles. From this point, 5 ½ miles distant he spotted the bald mass of San Gorgonio Mountain — the first official notice of the peak. The first documented ascent of San Gorgonio was in 1872 by Watson A. Goodyear of the California Geological Survey and Mark Thomas of San Bernardino. Ascents of San Gorgonio became quite common by the mid-1870’s. By the 1890s, resorts were beginning to move in on its isolation. By 1894, guided groups were being led up both San Gorgonio and its neighbor to the west, San Bernardino Peak. New trails and wagon roads soon followed.
Protecting the Wilderness
By the mid-1920s, drastic changes had occurred. Approximately 75,000 to 100,000 people ascended upon the San Bernardino Mountains yearly. It seemed the area would soon be run down without protection. However, in 1923, the Western Rangers’ (a boys outdoor club) Harry James led a group of 185 boys to the summit. One of the boys spoke of his fear that the beautiful high country would soon be spoiled by imminent development. That thought inspired James and a delegation of Western Rangers to propose to Angeles National Forest Supervisor Rushton S. Charlton that the area be preserved as a wilderness. However, the Forest Supervisor had already begun developing plans for widespread development in the high country for maximum public use. But, in January 1929, a new national forest recreation plan was announced to the public — one that provided for protection of the San Gorgonio high country as the San Gorgonio Recreation Area. This plan set aside 11,800 acres where no roads would be allowed and only sufficient trails to make the area accessible for hiking parties. On April 23, 1931, the Chief Forester reclassified the San Gorgonio Recreation Area as the San Gorgonio Primitive Area and expanded the area by an additional 20,000 acres. The San Gorgonio high country would be protected — at least for now.
By 1941, the area was considered by many factions looking to develop the San Gorgonio area as “the ONLY area that can adequately meet the tremendous local need for ideal outdoor winter recreation.” In July 1941, after much study, the Forest Service developed a “compromise plan” to appease interested parties. Under this plan, the Primitive Area’s north boundary line would be drawn inward (south) to South Fork Meadows where lodges, a ski resort, and rope tows up the north slopes of Jepson Peak and San Gorgonio would be installed. A public hearing was then held on the matter during which many advocates for the protection of San Gorgonio expressed their grave disappointment and total opposition to the Forest Service decision. The Forest Service decided to withhold its end decision until after the end of World War II.
In December 1946, under intense pressure from skiers, the Regional Forester announced notice of a plan to develop the San Gorgonio Primitive Area under the outline described above. A ninety day notice was given and a public hearing was to be held. On February 19, 1947, the San Bernardino Civic Auditorium was packed with an emotional crowd which showed up to save the Primitive Area. The majority of those present were opposed to the modification and development, but there was no call for a vote. The Forest Service would deliver a decision as soon as possible.
On June 18, 1947, Chief Forester Lyle F. Watts (victoriously) announced that the “San Gorgonio Primitive Area has a higher public value as a wilderness and a watershed than as a downhill ski area”. The victory seemed won, although still, no federal law protected the primitive area. The decision to change this designation in favor of development could occur anytime, with the decision and imminent development being irrevocable. For conservationists, the battle was temporarily won, but certainly not over.
In 1939, under the then new Forest Service regulation U-1, unbroken tracts between 5,000 and 100,00 acres could be declared “Wild Areas”. Finally, by 1955, the San Gorgonio Primitive Area had now become the San Gorgonio Wild Area. No protest of any kind was received against the designation, although the region was still too small to qualify as federal wilderness.
By December 1962, the continuing threat from ski associations prompted the formation of the Defenders of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, an amazing group headed by Harry James and Joe Momyer (a retired San Bernardino postal superintendent) and secretary Alice Krueper.
Developers attempted to prevent the area from being included in the new proposed Wilderness Bill. Finally, on July 30 1964, to the disappointment of developers, the federal Wilderness Bill sailed through the House of Representatives. The Wilderness Act promised to “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness….. an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. Thus, the San Gorgonio Wilderness was born.
It was only through the tremendous efforts of the Defenders of the Wilderness, the Sierra Club, and legions of conservationists that the present-day San Gorgonio Wilderness survived the onslaught of skiers. Even after the signing of the bill, developers continued their efforts. The last big effort at development was in 1971, but once again the Defenders foiled the developers’ plans.
Further reading about the formation of the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association
Authored by Michael Gordon and Karen Saffle, with the invaluable help of John Robinson’s ‘San Gorgonio – A Wilderness Preserved‘. Read this book for the complete history of the San Gorgonio Wilderness.