Distance (round-trip)

12.8 mi

Time

7 hrs

Elevation Gain

3545 ft

Season

Spring
Summer
Fall
Winter

Weather

A 13 mile, strenuous partial loop to Mount Wilson — a not-very-well-known route 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 to Mount Wilson. 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 (although the mountain’s observatories were home to several groundbreaking scientific discoveries), 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 Flat. 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 San Olene 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 3.4 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 significant amount of elevation gain.

Mount Wilson 009
Mount Wilson 010

Where San Olene 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

The towers of Mount Disappointment to the left

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 at 5.6 miles, 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 Upper Winter Creek Trail back to Chantry Flat. The Upper Trail was more wooded, more rugged, and surprisingly much, much steeper than the firebreak route. 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 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

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





Camping

Dog-Friendly

Historical Interest

Multi-Use Trail

Potable Water

Solitude

Views / Vista

Trail Map

25 Comments

Addie Davis Jan 15, 2018 15:01

We hiked this trail yesterday and just a heads up-- it looks like the loop back has been washed out after some recent wildfire. We took the Sturtevant Trail back to Chantry Flat and had a fun time, but couldn't follow the GPX route. Beautiful trail on a beautiful day!

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Casey Schreiner Aug 11, 2015 15:08In reply to: Garrett

Wow - consider yourself very lucky! I've been hiking in SoCal for about ten years now have yet to see a bear down here. You did exactly what you're supposed to do, too - give 'em lots of room and make noise to let them know you're coming.

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Garrett Aug 10, 2015 20:08In reply to: Casey Schreiner

I actually DID see THREE bears coming down. I took the Sturtevant trail down. Two were play fighting about 100 ft off the trail (I watched at a safe distance til they walked away) and one was very close to the trail but I saw him probably 100 feet away and stopped. He saw me, then ran off up the mountain (which was amazing to watch).

I think as long as you are noisy, travel in groups, and keep a safe distance when you see bears, you should be fine. It was kind of awesome to see them.

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Casey Schreiner Jun 11, 2014 12:06In reply to: Martin

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 :)

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Martin Jun 11, 2014 01:06

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.

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Casey Schreiner May 22, 2014 18:05In reply to: Nicky

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.

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Nicky May 22, 2014 17:05In reply to: Casey Schreiner

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...?

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Casey Schreiner May 19, 2014 10:05In reply to: MaryAnne

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

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MaryAnne May 18, 2014 18:05

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!

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virtualshan Mar 26, 2014 10:03

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.

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