A 10.5 mile loop from the top of Mount Wilson to two trail camps along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, then back up to the top of the mountain. This trail is entirely along the mountain’s cooler, more forested north face, and the route follows seasonal streams and rivers that can provide nice swimming holes. A few dangerous stretches of track and the down-then-up route make this a strenuous day hike, or a more moderate overnighter.
Mount Wilson has more routes to the summit than any other mountain in the San Gabriels. This route actually starts at the top, then sinks down to a canyon and climbs back up the mountain’s northern and eastern slopes. It’s a shaded route that’s fine for warm days (especially if you go during the spring, when the San Gabriel River will have a good flow of water).
This route starts at a parking lot near the observatories — just past the little loop of Audio and Video Roads. Park just north of the visitor center and then backtrack along the road toward the antenna farms you just drove past.
Where Audio Road intersects with the Mount Wilson Circle, look to the north. There is a small sign marking the beginning of the Kenyon Devore Trail (on some maps, called Rattlesnake Trail). Before I went in, I crossed the road for a great view of some of the nearby peaks (L-R: Mount Lowe, Mount Markham, San Gabriel Peak) …
… and then it was off the road and into the forest.
Almost immediately, the pine-needle blanketed trail drops along the north ridge of Mount Wilson. It is a nicely graded descent, mostly-shaded and well-marked. In fact, it might be too well marked. Large portions of this route are part of a popular trail-running route, and the runners have left all sorts of ways to mark the trail along the way — from bright orange streamers hanging from the trees …
… to prominent white arrows, chalked into the ground and along rocks:
Regardless, the trail here is very nice as it descends through the trees along rocky ridges and shaded gullies.
At about 1.4 miles, the trail takes a few switchbacks and meets up with a seasonal brook running down one of the north slope’s side canyons. It was just a trickle at the end of summer, but the stream bed itself looked like it’d have a healthier flow with a little bit of snowmelt helping it out. It also had a locked brick hut off to one side. Don’t know what it’s for, but it’s a landmark.
Hop across this (potentially dry) stream and continue along the trail as it descends along a minor ridge to the east of the streambed. You’ll occasionally get a few fleeting glimpses of the radio towers you just hiked away from.
Shortly, the trail crosses the streambed again, which by now has become a wide, boulder-strewn gulch. The trail drops down to the edge of this gulch and runs alongside it for a short distance, before making a sharp turn back to the south.
At the turn, the trail crosses the stream just above a small but moderately deep pool. Here, the rock on the trail is sheer and slick, as it’s almost permanently coated in running water. When I was here, toward the end of the dry season, there was still a slight trickle pouring down.
Someone has anchored a rope here to help people across the stream. It feels a bit loose, but it does the job.
This is the only section of trail that is lacking shade — and has much more in common with the south-facing slopes of the front range San Gabriels — by which I mean lots of low lying brush and Spanish Bayonets.
Another mile through this scrub and partial-pine forest will take you to the West Fork Trail Camp, a lovely site at the confluence of Rush Creek, Shortcut Canyon Creek, and the West Fork of the San Gabriel River.
There are plenty of picnic tables, camp sites, fire pits, and outhouses here … as well as the foundation of the first US Forest Service cabin built in California (circa 1900), which you’ll walk past as you enter the campground.
The campground makes a nice place to stop for a quick snack or airing-out-the-boots break — or, if it’s early enough in the season, a nice place to take a dip in the river.
When I came into this campground via Shortcut Canyon back in February, the water was flowing fast, surrounding the camp sites and providing wonderful white noise:
But by mid-August, the water around the site was reduced to stagnant pools and slow trickles. I would have been knee-deep in rushing water while taking this shot in February.
In the middle of the campground, the prominent Rincon-Red Box Road ascends in an eastward direction away from the West Fork canyon. This route eventually meets up with the road again, so if you’ve had your fill of the riverside you can hop onto the road instead — but you will be doing yourself a disservice, as most of the great scenery on this hike is along the riverbed.
To continue this route, hop across the boulders (or river), heading east from the camp. You’ll see a small metal “Pack it Out” sign, and a clearing along the river’s eastern bank that leads up to a visible trail.
From here, it’s 1.5 miles of hiking along a trail of varying-degrees of maintenance — but crossings are well marked (often with those same orange streamers) and the trail is difficult to lose. There are a few areas overgrown with nettles and poison oak, but if you’ve got a wary eye and a cautious foot (or better — long pants), you’ll be fine. Be sure to stop and enjoy the tranquil and secluded surroundings while you’re down there — it’s really some of the most pleasant stretch of riverside hiking in the San Gabriels.
The Devore Trail Camp is at the end of this stretch of trail, just before the San Gabriel River makes a bend to the northeast — it’s on a broad slope on the south side of the river with lots of space for tents, and plenty of fire pits to go around.
From here, you can either keep exploring down the river down an old angler’s trail that continues about 5 miles to the Cogswell Reservoir … but only the first mile or so has been reworked by volunteers. After that, you’re on your own.
This route continues on the trail you’ve been on – part of the Gabrielino Trail – which now begins a seemingly-endless ascent back up to the top of Mount Wilson. Hopefully, your legs are still in good shape after all that downward pounding, because it’s all work from here on out. The trail makes an immediate turn to the south, and starts climbing up Wilson’s north slope directly and in numerous switchbacks.
The Gabrielino Trail crosses the Rincon-Red Box Road again after a mile of tough ascent, including portions of trail that are cut into steps in the side of the mountain. Thankfully, almost all of this part of the trail is heavily shaded, so you won’t have much sun to worry about.
Cross the road and continue on the Gabrielino Trail .3 miles to Newcomb Pass – a nice resting spot before the last major ascent up Wilson’s east ridge.
This is the Rim Trail, which stays mostly just to the north of Wilson’s actual ridge, through fern-covered slopes that look like they’d be more at home in Oregon than Southern California.
It’s a straightforward 3.5 miles back up to the Mount Wilson Observatories, but be sure to remain cautious on this stretch of trail. There are several places where the route is severely eroded or thin — often near the steepest drops you’ve seen on the mountain so far. There are times when you’ll be holding on to tree roots for support as you edge your way along the trail.
Eventually, you’ll reach the summit plateau on Mount Wilson, near the easternmost observatories, at a vista point that’s probably much nicer when the air’s not clogged up with haze and smog:
Regardless, this is a much more satisfying way to summit Mount Wilson than coming up from Chantry Flat — I’ll take a few lonely observatories to crowded parking lots any time.
Continue along the trail as it parallels the Observatory Road, eventually meeting up with it on the way back to the parking lot where you started. For extra knowledge, be sure to check out the plaques along the road, explaining how to tell the difference between the San Gabriels’ most prominent plant life.
Good. Junctions and crossings are all very well marked, and there are only a few sections of trail between West Fork and Devore camps that get overgrown. There are a few dangerous sections on the Rim Trail near the top of Mount Wilson, where extra care should be taken. If attempting this route during the winter, be prepared for ice, snow, and very steep drop-offs. This area was damaged by the 2009 Station Fire, so conditions will likely have changed from this write-up.
There are 7 campsites at West Fork Trail Camp and 6 at Devore. All are first-come, first-served. Campfire permits are required and can be obtained at any Forest Service office.
From the 210 in La Canada Flintridge, go east on CA-2 toward the mountains. Continue for 13.9 miles, then take a right onto Mount Wilson-Red Box Road. Continue for 4.2 miles, then bear right at the roundabout onto Mount Wilson Circle. After .4 miles, bear right at the gate onto Mount Wilson-Red Box Road again. Continue approximately .2 miles to a small parking area. There is a sign that prevents vehicular traffic beyond this point. Park here and display your Adventure Pass.