As a Los Angeles resident who spends most of my time at or near sea level, it’s always special when I can get up to higher elevations. I’d had a hankering to stretch my legs in the mountains for the past few weeks and finally embarked on a hike to Granite Mountain and Roundtop to scratch that itch. At 12 miles and just under 2,400 feet in elevation gain, and with an off-trail traverse, this route isn’t for the faint of heart. However, if you’re up for the challenge, you’re rewarded with sweeping western San Gabriel Mountains views and many moments of solitude and reflection.
After driving for about an hour, we parked in the Pony Park Day Use Area, just past the Mill Creek Summit Fire Department. The lot was big enough to hold 10-15 cars and featured a vault toilet and trash cans. Since this was a longer trek along an exposed trail, we made sure to load our backpacks with plenty of food, water, and sunscreen before heading off.
Several trailheads converge here, including the Pacific Crest Trail. For this hike, head to the entrance of the parking lot, turn right, and walk past the iron gate and onto a fire road. You should immediately see a sign for Forest Road 3N17, confirming you’re on the right path. While this is a multi-use trail open to all different kinds of travelers, we didn’t see a single soul the entire hike.
The first section takes you generally east / southeast on a gradual but constant uphill climb past several switchbacks. You’ll initially hear loud voices from the fire station speakers and cars zooming by on the Angeles Forest Highway, but after hiking for a bit these sounds fade away and are replaced with the peaceful silence of nature. Around you, you’ll see typical chaparral flora, including chamise, California buckwheat, and Chapparal whitethorn. You’ll also notice many burned trees – scars of the 2009 Station Fire. It was encouraging though to see several small pine trees slowly growing in their place.
At 0.5 miles, you’ll find a helipad to your left and 0.2 miles later, a trail junction. Continue straight to stay on the correct path.
As you ascend, the views of the mountains and Palmdale get more and more expansive. Finally, after 3.1 miles you’ll reach a saddle, allowing you to fully take in the panoramic vistas. It’s also here where you’ll turn right and onto Forest Road 3N90 – if you accidentally continue straight you will end up at Pacifico Mountain. Having climbed about 1,300 feet in elevation, the environment starts to feel more alpine, with grassy fields and large thriving pine trees.
At mile 3.5, the trail finally starts to descend, giving your legs a nice break from the relentless uphill grind. Don’t get too comfortable, however, as you have several hills and an off-trail climb ahead of you.
At mile 4, there is an interesting cylinder-like concrete structure to your left, which according to forest service maps is a water tank. To your right is a small wooden post, marking the start of your off-trail adventure to the top of Granite Mountain.
While the climb up to the 6,603-foot summit is straightforward – you mostly follow the ridgeline to the top – it was still decently challenging. The mountainside was much steeper than the trail and consisted of loose dirt, which made hiking noticeably more difficult than if we were along a well-defined trail. Luckily, it only lasted for a third of a mile and there wasn’t too much bushwhacking involved. Still, I recommend you have a map and compass or GPX track downloaded so you know where you’re going.
Once at the top, you’ll notice many burned and fallen tree trunks, as well as juvenile pine trees planted to take their place. There were also interesting boulder formations to explore.
While the ascent up Granite Mountain was free of dangerous plants, the way down was a different story – go the wrong way and you’ll run into thorny bushes blocking your path. As you begin heading down, there is a boulder facing southeast. We found that sticking to its left helped us mostly avoid the worst of these treacherous plants (although I still got stabbed by one of them in the calf). We then carefully traversed the eroding mountainside to rejoin the trail, where I promptly pulled off seeds and other hitchhikers clinging to my hiking socks.
Back on the trail, we continued toward the summit of Roundtop, which we reached at just over mile six. True to its name, the top of this 6,316-foot mountain was bald and, well, round. Standing on its peak, you’re treated to 360 views of the San Gabriel Mountains, including Pacifico Mountain to the north and Mount Baden-Powell to the east. We rested here for a few minutes, eating the lunch we carried with us and enjoying our surroundings.
After taking in the view, head back on Forest Road 3N90 to its junction with 3N17. Here, you can either turn left and head back the way you came for 3.1 miles to return to the trailhead (which is what we did) or veer right to extend your hike by an additional two miles. If you choose the latter, after about 0.2 miles you’ll take the leftmost trail and continue for 1.3 miles to join the PCT. Turn left and hike for 3.7 miles on this storied trail to complete your hike.