A 13 mile, strenuous partial loop up to the one of Southern California’s most well-known peaks, with a wide range of Southern California geography. This leg-busting, bush-whacking route is just one of the 5 Sierra Club-recognized summit paths. There are more ways to climb this mountain than any other in the San Gabriels.

Mount Wilson is a mountain that almost everyone in Southern California knows. Not for its scientific importance or geography, but because just about every single radio or television station in the Southland has a of tower set up on top of it.

To hikers, it’s that big mountain the middle of the front range that we skip because cars can drive right to the summit. There’s nothing worse than sweating your arse off for 4 hours to get to the top of a mountain and seeing a minivan full of kids with ice cream pull up, make a lot of noise, litter and leave.

This is a trail where the old saying “it’s the journey, not the destination” rings very true – this route is full of leg-busting ascents, thick forests, epic mountain ridges, and idyllic streamside camp sites. It just happens to end at a peak with a parking lot.

It also starts at a rather busy parking lot at Chantry Flats. This is the same trailhead for the popular hikes in the Santa Anita Canyon, so be sure to arrive early – especially if you’re hiking on the weekend.

I usually have to circle a few times before giving up and paying to park at the Adams’ Pack Station, but on this day I lucked out and nabbed a National Forest land spot. I packed up and headed up past the picnic areas to a small paved road.

Signs here point toward the Winter Creek Trail, and it’s very easy to spot if you stick to the road. This road crawls up the slope in a series of long switchbacks and there is a series of use-trails that cut through them on a more direct ascent. Stick to the road or take the use-trails – but be aware that the use-trails are overgrown in spots and there is poison oak along the way.

Mount Wilson 007

The road itself is gently graded and in very good shape. It’s not necessarily the most interesting part of the hike, but I could see this being a great place to get outside and do a little bit of trail running. The road is long, winding, and mostly shadeless. But again, it’s not very steep – and you’ll be done with it in just about four miles.

(At the first major switchback overlooking the L.A. basin, it is possible to take a very steep use trail from behind a helipad. The trail runs along a firebreak on the ridge, and will cut off a large amount of distance but add a significantly quick elevation gain).

From the beginning of the ridge trail at the end of the road, I noticed I had a lot more work ahead of me before I got to the summit.

Mount Wilson 009

Mount Wilson 010

Where the fire road ends, look to the north side of the road for a use-trail leaving the road behind. This turns into a strenuous firebreak trail that makes some very steep climbs and descents along some minor peaks and bumps. It is a grueling, completely exposed trail that – when it’s hot out – will make you sweat gallons. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

As the trail cut through low brush and grasses, I had to stop and steal a few glances backward and the omnipresent haze, covering all of the sprawl of Los Angeles except for the distant mountains of the Cleveland National Forest.

Mount Wilson 013

Mount Wilson 016

I didn’t want to spend too much time on this section of the trail standing around, though. Not only was it getting toastier by the minute, but I was also being joined by a small cloud of various flying insects, who all seemed very interested in landing on every exposed piece of skin I had.

If I kept moving though, I could pretend there was a breeze blowing to cool me off. And with each peak in the trail, I got closer and closer to the actual mountain.

Finally, after about 2 miles of shadeless trekking, the fire break meets up with the Upper Winter Creek Trail at a memorial bench, and then takes a much-needed dive into some tree cover. The temperature dropped about 15 degrees in the shade, so I took a little bit of time out here to relax and cool down.

Mount Wilson 019

After a short stint in the woods, the trail meets up with the old Mount Wilson Toll Road, an historic early motorway that was used to haul observatory parts up the mountain, as well as delivering hikers and outdoorsmen to the forest’s interior before the Angeles Crest Highway existed. It’s got a pretty interesting history, but for the purposes of the hike it’s just a nice break from the steep incline of that firebreak.

Oh, and it’s got some good pine-framed views of the mountains to the east, like Twin Peaks peering out through the haze:

Mount Wilson 033

With the radio tower farm in clear sight and striking distance, the final ascent of the mountain went quickly …

Mount Wilson 022

On the summit of the mountain, you’ll be greeted by a communications center, a giant parking lot, and a small picnic area near the observatory. There’s nothing approaching a feeling of remoteness or solitude here but hopefully you knew that going in. Just think of how bad ass you’ll look to car-cramped sightseers when you emerge from the woods, sweaty and covered in dirt.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a great view of the urban sprawl below you – or the seemingly flat summit of nearby Mount Markham to your west.

Mount Wilson 029

After a short rest at the top, I made my way back down the mountain, this time taking the Lower Winter Creek Trail back to Chantry Flats. The Lower Trail was more wooded, more rugged, and much, much steeper than the Upper Trail. It’s also almost completely lined with poison oak on both sides. The scenery is nice, but there are a healthy number of switchbacks on the Lower trail … so if they bug you when climbing, I really don’t recommend trying to come up this way.

Mount Wilson 032

I do, however, recommend stopping at the Adams’ Pack Station when you’re done. If the weather was hot, you’ll probably need some liquid refreshment – and the staff is always friendly and happy to hear about your hike.

At the very least, you can show off your hikers’ dirt tan:

Hiker's Dirt Tan

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Casey Schreiner

Founder and Editor at Modern Hiker
In addition to writing about the outdoors since 2006, Casey has also been producing and writing television since 2003.He was the Head Writer on G4's "Attack of the Show," co-writer and host of "The MMO Report," and the Series Producer / Head Writer of pivot's "TakePart Live."His work has received several honors, including Webby, Telly, and CableFAX awards.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on June 6, 2007

25 Comments

  • Martin says:

    I “rediscovered” this after losing it 30 years ago. However I went up from the helipad. I told my 13 year old son about this “shortcut’ to Mt. Wilson. So we went— August —at 94 degrees,— starting at I think 2PM. I ended up giving him half my water since I trail run five days a week. On the way back, we had to run down the north Creek trail to get out before the gates were locked. Once we got home he said that was the “shortcut from hell”, and declared I can call him a man now. All other hikes seem easy after that. Another great (new) ridge hike that is half the distance is in Altadena. At the top of Lake Ave is a firebreak ridge. This is NOT the Sam Merrill trail. You do not even enter the Cobb estate. You simply go up the ridge as if Lake Ave continued north. At the 3010 foot level the their will be a small trail off to the left. It is about 3-4 minutes to connect to Mt. Lowe road. This connection was there many years ago, and was remade last year. Mt. Lowe road up for about .7 miles to the Mt. Lowe railway trail off to the right. Another .7 at a slight decline to Echo Mt. From there, the Sam Merril trail, about 3 miles back down to Lake Ave. For those not familier, there are a couple place you might miss direction. You can see the new connection by looking at Google Earth. Note the connection is at the 3010 ft level. I have never made the direct path north of that, and few do. I wouldn’t try that one. The total elevation gain is about 1700 ft, but the ridge is a serious workout.

    • I’ve spied that route near the Cobb Estate and thought about tackling it one of these days, myself. Thanks for the recon and congrats on your son making up the Mount Wilson shortcut from hell :)

  • MaryAnne says:

    Really liked this hike although don’t let anyone tell you if you do the loop going up Sturviant Trail and down Winter Creek that it’s 14 miles. It is actually 18! 10 miles up and 8 miles down. What I really liked about it is that most of the trail (95%) is covered so you aren’t exposed to the sun. It’s difficult but I am training for Mt. Whitney so it was a good one for that!

    • This is a great training hike for Whitney – lots of gain, lots of distance, and ice cream at the end :)

      • Nicky says:

        I need a professional advise. I just got into hiking and I have my eyes on Mt. Wilson. Living in the city way too long has made me just plain scared of wild animals. Should I worry about mountain lions, bears etc…?

        • Not particularly, no. Your chances of having an encounter with a bear or mountain lion are unbelievably rare – on average, kill 2-3 people in the U.S. and Canada each year compared to the approximately 90 people each year killed by lightning. Only 20 people have been killed by mountain lions in North America between 1890 and 2011.

          It’s helpful to know what to do if you encounter an animal like a mountain lion, bear, or rattlesnake, but odds are you’ll never see them on the trail.

  • virtualshan says:

    We did a variation on this a few weeks ago: took the firebreaks starting at the Helipad, and then the Sturtevant Trail on the way back. Didn’t see another person until we hit the bench where it joins with the Winter Creek Trail. Some in our group took another firebreak from there, but I enjoyed the shaded switchbacks. Rough hike – but so pretty and worth it.

  • Carly says:

    I tried this trail today. It’s a lot more interesting than ascending from the upper or lower winter creek trails. Some parts of the trail was overgrown, so long pants are recommended. This is a good trail if you want to hike in solitude and not run into anybody.

    • Glad you liked it, Carly. This is one of my favorite butt-kicking routes for Mount Wilson and you’re right – not too many others are brave enough to try it :)

      • Carly says:

        Butt kicking is right! I’m dead tire today. haha. The only thing I would do differently is not hike it alone. Being female, I felt a little vulnerable on the firebreak trail. Like if something was to happen, nobody would find me. I was relieved to finally arrive at the bench/upper winter creek trail and see people. :)

  • Rebecca says:

    Mike P … We did this hike early February and did the loop starting on the chantry flat side and coming back down the winter creek. It took us 7 1/2 hrs and we stopped for 1/2 lunch at the top. (peanut butter and jelley sandwiches, fruit and nuts). I really enjoyed this hike. We’re doing again on the 19th of November just to see if we’re still in shape to do it. We hike once a week. Modern Hiker I love your site! Thank you, i’ve used your site to find new hikes.

  • mike p says:

    Once again Modern Hiker, nice work with these write ups…

    Did this hike on 5/7 from chantry flats. As always parking lot was jammed so i had to park about a mile down from the trail head (bummer). If you dont like hiking up and back on the same trail, this can be done as a great loop by going up winter creek and returning via the sturtevant trail past spruce grove, cascade, sturtevant falls and roberts camps – back to chantry. roughly 14-15 miles total took me about 6-7 hours with breaks. some good free maps are available at the pack station.

    As an overall hike, i loved this one, however the highlight was coming down through santa anita canyon after summiting wilson. The summit of wilson was eerily vacant with lots of utility trucks and chain link fences everywhere – not very serene or worthy of the hard work you need to put in to summit. The nice thing is they have a cafe on the summit! Enjoy everyone…

  • Kevin Jiang says:

    hi, im kevin and im 16 and im in high school, i actually hiked up to Mt Wilson, on the old mt Wilson trail and back with my cousin jimmy who completed the PCT trail this year. but as i read your comment Bob Powers, its actually not that far of a hike, you can make it in like 6-7 hours. i took a while because it was my first time hiking a trail w/ this elevation gain and its a very good conditioning hike for Mt. Whitney, and Modern Hiker, i saw your post on your trip to Mt, Whitney, i cant say for sure but i think my cousin Jim, went around the same time (if not a couple weeks earlier). But the trail was pretty scenic and there were some tough spots… but we did this trail on a cooler day and to my surprise it was my first time seeing snow on any hiking trail. but this is a very great hike but probably not one for beginners

  • Helen says:

    Just did this hike yesterday with the Caltech hiking group! We didn’t take the lower creek trail back (just doubled back the way we came up), but it was still an awesome trail. I think one of the cool things about this trail is if you go now (till end of summer? or so…) – they have these walking tours of the observatory starting at 1PM. We got an inside tour around the solar telescope (while they were taking data from the sun) + a look around the 100″ where Hubble first discovered that the universe was expanding.

    Science history in the making! :)

    As always, thanks for posting this!

  • Bob Powers says:

    We did a car shuttle many years ago…we were driven to the top of Mt. Wilson, and hiked down to Sierra Madre on the old Mt. Wilson Trail. We left our car at the little park at the bottom of the trail in Sierra Madre at Mountain Trail and East Mira Monte. For Sturtevant Falls, I believe you would have to drop a car at Chantry Flats and then head up to the top. Let me know if I am wrong.

  • Eric gardner says:

    Is it possible to hike from the top of MT. Wilson to Sturtevant Falls using a car shuttle?
    Has anyone done it?

  • Matt says:

    I hiked Mt. Wilson yesterday from the other side, via the Spruce Grove Camp route. I’ll have to try your suggested route some other time. The nice part about my route was that you summit on the east side of the observatory… far away from where any fat kids with ice cream might dare to tread.

  • Antler says:

    On a second look, I think that is indeed Lukens. Sweet.

  • Modern Hiker says:

    Good catch, Antler.

    I’m not sure, but when I was looking at it I thought that distant peak *might* be Lukens – as it’s got a healthy looking radio farm on its summit, too.

  • Antler says:

    Nice hike. FYI, the flat topped mountain in your picture is Mt. Markham, not Mt. Disappointment. Mt. Lowe is to its’ left and San Gabriel Peak is to its’ right. Not sure what peak is in the distance between Lowe and Markham though.

    Mts. Disappointment and Deception are hidden behind San Gabriel Peak.

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