Distance (round-trip)

8.5 mi

Time

4 hrs

Elevation Gain

2945 ft

Season

Spring
Fall
Winter

Weather

A strenuous ascent up the south face of Mount Lukens – the highest point of elevation within Los Angeles City Limits. This particular route travels a secluded and steep, but rarely traveled and slightly overgrown canyon to the summit. A good leg-burner, but the bushwhacking and ticks may not be worth the trouble. There is, however, a shortcut trail that leads to a fire road, which is one of the nicest stretches of single-track trail I’ve seen in the San Gabriels.

NOTE: This area was badly burned in the 2009 Station Fire. The trail is open and has had some restorative work done, but your hiking experience may differ from this. Hikers who have attempted the trail since its reopening have reported dense, overgrown shrubs, trails in need of maintenance, and lots and lots of ticks. Consider yourself warned.

The trailhead is at the end of the aptly-named Haines Canyon Drive in Tujunga. There is a gate at the end of the road, that will take you next to a debris dam with a very small (and very eroded) dirt lot. If the lot is full or the ground looks too rough for your car, you can park about a quarter-block down on Haines Canyon Ave. Pay attention to signs marking where you can’t park.

Head north on the road, past the open gate and another, locked gate to the dirt road version of Haines Canyon Ave. This road curves east around the small lake behind the dam and continues a gradual ascent past several flood control dams.

At 1.29 miles, the dirt fire road comes to a T intersection. The road continues south, past a gate, and takes a long and meandering route to the summit of Lukens. The trail to Haines Canyon cuts north, passes a small concrete foundation and water tank, and gradually narrows from a road to a wide path, to a narrow trail.

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If you’re hiking during the wet season, you may start to hear the distant babbling of a small brook. As you hike, you’ll notice the beige surroundings start to give way to a more lush green as the sound of the water gets louder. The trail hops a sluggish creek, then skirts up the east bank of the canyon through some nice tree cover. When I was there, I was lucky enough to catch a bit of the ivy in bloom. It’s getting to be wildflower season in SoCal …

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At 1.94 miles, a faded wooden sign marks the junction with the Sister Elsie Trail and a shortcut trail that switchbacks up to the fire road. Veer to the left to hop onto the Sister Elsie trail — and say goodbye to the well-maintained path you’ve been hiking on so far — because now the trail looks like this:

The Sister Elsie trail winds its way through tall brush and grass, often skirting the edge of a very eroded section of the canyon. The ground is loose, and footing can be spotty. You’re not in danger of any big falls or anything, but it’s easy to slide off the trail.

When you do force your way through the overgrowth, you’ll also want to check yourself for ticks. In early March I figured it was too early for ticks to be out, but a quick glance down at my pant leg spotted three of the little beasts. I tucked my pant legs into my socks and my shirt into my pants, but it still didn’t stop them from crawling all over me. At one point, two adventurous specimens tried to crawl into my shoes.

Man, I hate ticks.

Chances are, if you’re taking this route, you’re probably going to be the first big warm-blooded body going through in a while — so check for ticks often.

The trail continues through the brush, then hits some trees in the upper reaches of Haines Canyon. This is your long stretch of shade, so enjoy it. You’ll follow several switchbacks up a fairly steep canyon before emerging in an area of chaparral and Spanish Bayonets.

Here, the trail gets into another dicey area — on the one side, you’re going to be dodging those nasty pointed leaves. On the other, you’re facing very loose dirt and a slide down into other pointed leaves. And all this with a 35% grade.

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Take solace in knowing this is the last difficult section of the trail — and as soon as you get to the top of the saddle, you’ll have some impressive views of the wide open Big Tujunga Canyon to the north.

At 2.86 miles, you’ll meet up with the Stone Canyon Trail – a much better maintained route that crawls up Mount Lukens’ north face. From here, both the route to and view of Lukens’ summit tower farm are clear.

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It’s just under a mile to the summit, and should be much easier than the time you’ve spent on the trail so far. There was a short section of overgrown brush, which I don’t remember from the last time I hiked the area. It may be cleared out by the time you get up there.

This trail makes a few long switchbacks before reaching another, higher saddle to the west of Lukens’ peak. The Stone Canyon trail meets up with the same fire road you split away from at the bottom of the canyon, and you can either follow it to the summit or take a quick and easy scramble to a more direct footpath to the top.

The summit of Mount Lukens is topped with humming, fenced-off radio towers of all shapes and sizes. While it’s not exactly wilderness solitude, it is a prominent summit and still takes a good amount of effort to get to the top. If it’s a clear day, enjoy the distant snowcapped peaks and blanketing urban sprawl views.

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I was originally planning on making a return route down Haines Canyon, but I had no desire to get covered in ticks again so I chose a fire road / trail descent instead. Plus, I kind of wanted to see that wrecked Beetle on the trail again during better weather.

The route down the fire road is pretty much your basic, run-of-the-mill fire road descent. It’s easily graded, generally smooth, long and shadeless. You’ll have clear views of downtown L.A. and the Santa Monica Mountains if the haze isn’t too bad.

After about 1.7 miles of hiking, keep your eyes peeled on the right hand side of the road. A small boulder marks the beginning of a quick shortcut trail back to the bottom of Haines Canyon. You don’t have to take it, but it’s a lot faster than the fire road, with more shade and – honestly – some of the nicest stretches of trail I’ve seen in any of the San Gabriels.

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It’s a single-track trail that makes some long switchbacks along steep ridges, under a healthy amount of shade and canopy. Also, near the top of the trail, there’s a wreck of an old VW Beetle. I don’t know how the heck it got up there, as the fire road is not exactly something someone would take a standard passenger car onto — but maybe that’s why it’s wrecked.

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Take the time to enjoy this great section of trail as it descends into the ivy-covered bottom of Haines Canyon. From there, rejoin up with the fire road and hike back on out.

For an alternate take on this peak, try ascending from the north via Stone Canyon.

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





Historical Interest

Solitude

Views / Vista

Trail Map

32 Comments

Mark Jul 4, 2016 14:07

I hiked up from Haines Canyon road, turning right at the gate and using the old fire road on the south side of the mountain. Hot and sunny but i was prepared, so enjoyed the spectacular views and clear, relatively smooth path. I thought perhaps i passed the VW trail on the left but didn't notice a boulder so wasn't sure until looking back from much higher up I could see the bug way down there. Thought I'd take sister Elsie back down, basically reversing the route described above...DON'T do that unless you have been up it before. The trail is so insubstantial that every 10 yards or so you have to look around and make a best guess as to if you're still on it or not. I ended up going a mile or so down the ravine / drainage creek in the crease of the mountain, which was pretty tight and difficult. Felt pretty sure it must be the tick infested part of the trail but only found one or two on me. Then at a break in the bushes I actually saw what looked a bit more like a trail a few yards above me so now I'm wondering if that ravine adventure wasn't sister Elsie at all. Ravine is the wrong word, not sure what to call it. Anyway, it's an overall rewarding loop hike with a lot of payoff, and I'll probably do this again, going up Haines canyon and sister Elsie and back down via the VW. Going up rock scrambles is so much better than going down them.

I'll just repeat, the big takeaway is, don't attempt to descend via sister Elsie and Haines canyon if you're not already familiar with the path.

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JS Jun 18, 2016 16:06In reply to: Marie

I did the hike today. Started from Deuk. Center and took Rim of Valley trail up to Haines motor way. Then about a mile later took that trail head down to the VW and tried to find that connector trail to top Luken. Cannot find. Keep looking at my elevation from my watch and really noticed dropped so much and went so far out. Over a mile later, I knew I can't find it. I did see a very nice flat area with picnic table and some benches. I had to bushwhack to get there. The trails are there and visible good but I did not see the cut off trail. I ended up went through a loop back to motor way and head back to top of Rim of the World trail and continue back to top of Luken and back down on the Crescenta Trail for 15 miles in 4 hours. I am a runner so I did it pretty quick...

I want to go back there and find that trail again, I saw the possible connector from the google map, but I bet it will be very hard to find and trail is possibly need a lot of work..

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Marie Jun 12, 2016 10:06

We tried using these directions yesterday and got SO LOST!

Warning to others: there is no sign and no obvious evidence of where the "Sister Elsie" trails begins, or where it connects to the top of Lukens. In fact, there are no signs anywhere on the trails up from Haines.

Could someone give a more specific description of this junction? Does it start where the copse of trees are on the left? We kept looking for it, but ended up taking the Old Mt Lukens Trail all the way up. It took us 3 hours.

At the top, we wandered around the radio towers, but couldn't find the elevation marker (a real bummer). Based on these directions we had no idea how to properly descend. Doubling back there was a weird flat concrete disk. Is that the top of Elsie? Since it didn't look like a "fire road" as described here we headed down what DID look like a fire road, and descended the opposite of the way we came. After a mile we saw a trailhead on the right marked with a boulder.

Thinking it was the "shortcut" described in this post, we took it down. Imagine our horror 3 hours later when we stumbled down to the Deukmejian Center, 2 miles from where we'd parked, having taken the "Crescenta Trail" down! We had to take a Lyft back to our car!

For anyone attempting this hike, keep in mind that it is VERY easy to get lost. The trails are very narrow.

If anyone has done this loop correctly and can post more specific geographical markers, I am sure it would be much appreciated by others.

Sadly, I still have no idea what part of the trail the blue bug is on!

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J Feb 14, 2016 15:02

The Sister Elsie trail to Lukens is in sad shape. Not much left of her. And lot of poison oak. The Old Mt. Lukens Trail however is in great shape. Come and get it.

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Kimberly Flesch Apr 17, 2015 15:04In reply to: Aidan

Did you encounter any ticks when you were there? Thinking about heading up there this weekend, but am worried about ticks as Casey noted in his post. Thanks!

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Casey Schreiner Feb 2, 2015 10:02In reply to: Aidan

Good to know the trail's still in good shape! I'll have to get out on this one again soon, too!

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Aidan Feb 1, 2015 16:02

Did the hike up to Mt Lukens today on the Haines Canyon Mountainway and then back down past the blue beetle. Awesome views, trail generally in a good condition. Especially liked the change in scenery coming back down past the beetle. Another one of the "must do again" category.

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Casey Schreiner Jan 2, 2015 15:01In reply to: jpneus

Thanks for the update! I'll have to get up there soon to check out the terrain for myself, but like a lot of areas damaged in the Station Fire - the trails here are definitely in need of a little TLC.

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jpneus Jan 1, 2015 16:01

I did a version of this hike yesterday. So clear and beautiful out (and so cold that my watch battery failed!). So, although we attempted to do the 8.5 lollipop loop as described by Casey in 2008, we managed to turn it into an 11.5 mile mostly out and back adventure. Significantly, there is no longer a sign (faded or otherwise) at the 1.94 mile point (where one would split off to the left to get onto the Sister Elsie trail). So, not knowing any better, and seeing a cairn there, we went up to the right. That, it turns out, was the longer way to the summit via the amazing blue Beetle. It was of course very windy during parts of the hike and especially close to and at the summit. We then tried to get to the Sister Elsie trail via Stone Canyon from the summit (essentially doing that part of the loop in the reverse direction from what Casey did in 2008). We estimated and did our best and we do think we got onto the Sister Elsie trail (there are pretty much no signs whatsoever on the trails at issue). However, it really was not clear to us that we were on the Sister Elsie trail so we turned back and went back to the trailhead the way we came. So, we ended up hiking about 11.5 miles (4.7 miles the longer way to the summit, plus about two miles to-and-from where we tried to find the Sister Elsie trail and another 4.7 miles back down). Totally worth it. But, I have a feeling that the Sister Elsie trail is really not for most hikers (if one can even find it).

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George Nov 25, 2013 15:11In reply to:

Even before the station fire and its aftermath it was in very rough shape: overgrown, tons of ticks, and the upper part was crazy steep before it transversed to the ridge line. It needs a thorough overhaul and a new routing in places, a very big job.

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