A great hike in the lower San Gabriels to incredible vistas, forested mountain canyons, and the ruins of a turn-of-the-century mountaintop resort. Bonus enjoyment for history buffs, in the form of plaques and markers placed along the ruins and the route of an old railroad through the mountains.
NOTE: The upper Sam Merrill Trail is still within the Station Fire Burn Zone and is off-limits to hikers. It is still possible to hike to Inspiration Point, but you won’t be able to complete the loop as described here until the Burn Zone opens up.
Hiking from Altadena to the ruins of the Echo Mountain resort was the first double-digit hike I ever finished, and I figured this weekend would a). be a good time to revisit and b). the trail would serve as a nice reintroduction to long-distance hiking to my legs … without the added calf-murder of the Mt. Baldy ascent I’d been weathered-away from last week.
I drove out to Altadena and parked off Lake Avenue. One of the first things you’ll see on the trail is a marker placed by the Altadena Historical Society, marking the entrance to the former Cobb Estate, and the Echo Mountain trailhead. You will see many more plaques along the way. The Historical Society has really done a fantastic job of researching, maintaining, and marking all of the points of interest along this route — and there are plenty of them.
The Cobb Estate belonged to a wealthy lumber magnate, and had several gold mines and water wells on its property before the buildings were completely razed in 1959. One year later, the Marx Brothers bought the land and wanted to turn the area into a cemetery. Luckily, students from the aptly named John Muir High School bought the land and donated it to the Forest Service. Now the land houses several miles of equestrian trails, a small botanical garden, and the entrance to the Echo Mountain Trail.
The trail crosses a flood control area and begins zigzagging its way up the southwest base of Echo Mountain. This section of the trail is very heavily-traveled, but is in excellent shape – especially for such a popular trail. The path is very well maintained, and I only noticed a few minor examples of trail trash on the way up. The grade is nice and easy, too — it’s about 3 miles from the bottom of the mountain to the resort ruins, at just over 1400 feet of incline. There’s a lot of switchbacks, yes, but you’ll feel like you’re making enough progress where it won’t bother you.
The trail does get more rugged the further along you hike, but nothing’s too bad on this stretch. If you’re hiking in the morning, you’ll get plenty of shade while climbing the west side of the ridge — otherwise, you’re not getting much of any shade. The first time I hiked this was in the middle of May in jeans and a long sleeve shirt. Needless to say, I lost a lot of water weight that day. But be sure to enjoy the views as your rise above the cities and into the mountains!
At around the 3 mile mark, you’ll reach a plateau and come upon a silver plaque from the National Register of Historic Places — which is always a way to catch my eye, if you’re ever wondering. It marks the section of the trail where you’ll meet up with the old grade for the Mount Lowe Railroad – a twisted series of cliff-side rails that used to bring paying customers to the Echo Mountain Resort from a nearby stop-off point.
Today, all that’s left are a few sections of iron track, the grade, and some abandoned gears near the old hotel…
The hotel itself is almost entirely gone, but a series of plaques and laminated photos around the site does an excellent job of recreating the splendor of the place in its heyday. At the main foundation of the Echo Mountain House, you can still easily make out the different rooms on the floor plan — and you can also see Inspiration Point in the distant mountains (in the saddle on the left). But you’ll probably have more fun imagining yourself at the same site at the turn of the century, comparing the old pictures with what’s left over.
If you want to make some noise, you can even walk around to an old ‘Echo Phone’ — basically just a ground-mounted megaphone that you can shout through to hear an echo. There was another one installed up at Inspiration Point, so patrons could yell to each other. The local wildlife must have loved it.
When you’re done learning and exploring, head back the way you came and hang a right onto the Castle Canyon Trail. This is a thin, rugged, fairly secluded stretch of trail that will take you far from the (relative) crowds at the old ‘white city’ ruins and deep past Rubio Canyon into the narrow, steep Castle Canyon.
There are a few stretches along this trail that I remembered as being fairly harrowing when I first started hiking, but this time along I didn’t even notice them. Once the path gets into Castle Canyon, though, it doesn’t take much time climbing up and out of it. It’s a steep, switchbacked, leg-burner. But the great thing about it is that you can’t really see the Inspiration Point pavilion until you’re almost there. So when you’ve just about lost your motivation, you get it all back again in one nice visual.
At Inspiration Point, you can get even more of your history on with a few more plaques, and take a look through some restored "finding tubes," which show viewers a certain location on the horizon — if you can cut through the haze.
From here, you can explore the site of old-time Sunday services, or keep traveling up another old railroad grade to the site of another burned down hotel at the Mount Lowe campground, and continue on to Mount Lowe — or you can take the Sam Merrill trail back down to the Echo Mountain ruins.
The Sam Merrill Trail is another treat to travel down — the first section is entirely on the north side of the mountain. The trail is cool, rugged, and well-shaded — which will surely be a welcome environment after trudging up the Castle Canyon Trail.
On the south side of the mountain, though, the trail returns to shadeless chaparral, and has a few sections with deep gouges — both from water erosion and mountain bikes. Just north of the Echo Mountain hotel, you can also stop off at the ruins of an old observatory, and gaze down on the L.A. that is while sitting near the L.A. that was.
Read more about the Mount Lowe Railway, and its major investor Prof. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe — a New Hampshire self-taught meteorologist, chemist, and Chief Aeronaut of the U.S. Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War. Really interesting guy.
This post was written by Casey Schreiner on October 2, 2007