Wilderness Gardens Preserve

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Wilderness Gardens Preserve, Pala, CA

View of Wilderness Gardens Preserve from the Upper Meadow Trail

Oaks and sycamores in Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County, CA

Oaks and sycamores on the Upper Meadow Trail

Wilderness Gardens Preserve

  • Location: Highway 76 between Pala and Pauma Valley, 27 miles east of I-5 and 9.7 miles east of I-15. Turn right onto Bodie Blvd, signed for the park.  From the Riverside/Temecula area, take I-15 south to Temecula Parkway. Turn left and go 0.9 miles to Pechanga Parkway. Follow it for a total of 9 miles (it becomes Pala Road and Pala-Temecula Road en route) to its ending at Pala Mission Road. Turn left and follow Pala Mission Road 0.5 miles to Highway 76. Bear left onto Highway 76 and follow it 3 miles to the park entrance. Parking is $3 per vehicle (cash only).
  • Agency: San Diego County Parks & Recreation
  • Distance: 2.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 200 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: G
  • Suggested time: 1.5 hours
  • Best season: October-June; preserve is open Fridays through Mondays, 8am – 4pm. Closed during the month of August.
  • USGS topo map: Pala
  • More information: here; Yelp page here; articles about the park here and here
  • Rating: 6
Wilderness Gardens Preserve trail head, San Diego County, CA

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This attractive 676-acre park occupies the site of a former retreat of Los Angeles newspaper magnate Manchester Boddy. The park’s vegetation is a mix of non-natives such as eucalyptus, holly, oleander and native oak, sycamore and even a few cacti.

Fire road in Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County, CA

0:02 – Junction with the Upper Meadow Trail (times are approximate)

There are several miles of trails, making for multiple possible routes. One can enjoy a stroll here without having a particular destination or itinerary but a complete circuit of the park, as described here, doesn’t take much time or effort.

From the parking area, follow the main dirt road heading west, almost immediately crossing the San Luis Rey River (virtually dry as of this writing, but during rainy winters, expect calf-high water) and arriving at a junction with the Upper Meadow Trail. The loop can be hiked in either direction but by going counter-clockwise, as described here, you’ll save the most interesting scenery for last.

Indian motreros, Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County, CA

0:07 – Motreros

Follow the fire road, keeping an eye out for some Indian morteros in a rock on the left. You pass by a few nice oak specimens before arriving at a junction. The two routes soon rejoin so take either. Once they meet up again, turn right and walk a short distance to the Pond Trail. Turn right and follow it 0.2 miles around the circumference of a small seasonal pond and continue to a junction with the Camelia View Trail. This 0.7 mile loop (part single-track, part fire road) can be hiked in either direction, taking you to the western boundary of the preserve.

Pond at Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County, CA

0:20 – The pond

After completing the loop, head back, following the trail past the pond to the beginning of the Upper Meadow Trail. You begin ascending (the only significant climbing on the entire route) through an attractive oak and sycamore woodland, arriving at Upper Meadow, where you get a good view of the Palomar Mountains. Shortly beyond is a bench located at a spot with panoramic views to the west of the entire preserve and beyond.

Upper Meadow Trail, Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County

0:50 – Start of the Upper Meadow Trail

After enjoying the vistas, make a steep descent on a wooden beam staircase, soon arriving back on the river bed floor. Bear right and follow the trail back to the first junction and to the trail head. If you have time consider exploring the half-mile Alice Fries Nature Trail, which starts and ends in the parking lot.

Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

0:58 - View of the Palomars from the Upper Meadow Trail

0:58 – View of the Palomars from the Upper Meadow Trail

 

Covington Crest (Joshua Tree National Park)

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Sunset on the Covington Crest Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

Sunset on the Covington Crest Trail

Joshua Tree at dusk, Covington Crest Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree on the Covington Crest Trail

Covington Crest (Joshua Tree National Park)

  • Location: High desert near Yucca Valley. From Highway 62 (23.6 miles east of I-10 and 18 miles west of Twentynine Palms), head south on La Contenta Road. It becomes dirt after a mile when it crosses Yucca Trail. Continue on the dirt road, which is generally in good condition and should be passable by all vehicles. After 1.9 miles, bear left at the fork, following the signs for the park and Covington Flat. Follow this road into the park for a total of 6 miles and turn right on another dirt road. Follow it to its end, turn left and drive 1.8 miles to Covington Flat.
  • Agency: Joshua Tree National Park
  • Distance: 3.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 100 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: G
  • Suggested time: 1.5 hours
  • Best season: October – April
  • USGS topo maps: “Joshua Tree South”, “East Deception Canyon”
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire
  • More information: Trip description here; Flickr album here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
Covington Crest Trail Head, Joshua Tree National Park

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This short trail is a little bit off the beaten path, but it is well worth the effort to reach it. Highlights include views of some of the biggest Joshua trees in the park, pleasantly cool high desert air (almost a mile above sea level) and an exceptional view of the Coachella Valley at the end. The trail’s remote location gives it a very isolated feel.

Grove of Joshua Trees on the Covington Crest Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

0:19 – Grove of Joshua Trees (times are approximate)

From the parking lot, follow the signed Trail south. You walk through a forest of Joshua trees, some towering more than thirty feet high. Other vegetation includes cacti and junipers; at about 1.2 miles from the start you walk through a hallway like passage with the trees close on both sides.

Soon after, Toro Peak, San Jacinto and San Gorgonio all come into view. You will notice the land dropping off not far in front of you and then you reach the lip of Covington Crest.

Juniper trees on the Covington Flats Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

0:32 – “Garden” of junipers

Here, you get as dramatic a view as you will find of the Coachella Valley.  The Santa Rosas in particular look spectacular from this angle, rising above Palm Springs and off course the “Saints” never disappoint.  Sunsets are excellent here so take your time and enjoy them; the route back is short enough and easy enough that with a headlamp, or a good phone flashlight, it can be done fairly easily in the dark.

Dusk view of San Jacinto Peak from the end of the Covington Crest Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

0:45 – Dusk view of San Jacinto and the Coachella Valley at the trail’s end

Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

San Mateo Peak

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View from San Mateo Peak, Santa Ana Mountains, Riverside County, California

Lake Elsinore and San Gorgonio Mountain as seen from San Mateo Peak

San Mateo Peak

  • Location: Santa Ana Mountains in eastern Orange County.  From I-5 in San Jaun Capistrano, take highway 74 northeast for 23 miles.  Just past the ranger station, turn right (south) on South Main Divide Road.  Drive 2.8 miles and park at a dirt turnout on the right side of the road.  From Lake Elsinore, drive 5.1 miles southwest on Highway 74 and turn left on South Main Divide Road (ranger station=too far).  Go 2.8 miles and park in the dirt lot on the right side of the road.  A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) are required.  Click here to purchase.
  • Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Trabuco Ranger District
  • Distance: 4.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 950 feet
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo map: “Sitton Peak”
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; insect repellent; hiking poles
  • More information: Trip description here; Peakbagger page here
  • Rating: 7
View from the Morgan Trail Head, Cleveland National Forest, Santa Ana Mountains, CA

0:00 – Morgan trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

San Mateo Peak (elevation 3,591) is the unofficial name of the highest point in the Santa Ana Mountains south of the Ortega Highway. Despite the panoramic views from the top and peak’s proximity to the heavily traveled Ortega Highway, the mountain remains somewhat off the radar of So Cal hikers, not being mentioned in any major guides. The trail appears to receive light but regular traffic from hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. A few spots are rough but overall it is in good shape and easy to follow.

Junction on a hiking trail in the Santa Ana Mountains, Riverside County, CA

0:05 – Turnoff from the Morgan Trail (times are approximate)

Begin on the Morgan Trail, following it for 0.2 miles through pleasant rolling terrain. Just before the register box, take a hairpin left turn and follow an unsigned trail. A few tree branches block the way but they are easy to bypass. A sign reading “Rancho Cap. 2, Loop 5″ can be seen on the left. The trail follows the upper reaches of Morrell Canyon, passing through more attractive woodlands, crossing the stream bed a few times. At 0.4 miles, turn right at a T-junction and follow it deeper into the woods.

Trail junction in the Santa Ana Mountains, Riverside County, CA

0:10 – Right turn at the T-junction

At 0.7 miles, take a hairpin right turn on a trail marked with a dinosaur(!) The trail soon leaves the woods, climbing sharply to a bench where you can see the ridge of San Mateo Peak to the left. You pass another dinosaur on a post as the trail continues to follow the exposed ridge, providing views of San Jacinto Peak and Lake Elsinore to to the east.

At about 1.5 miles, you dip sharply, dropping about 50 feet. After crossing the saddle, you begin your final push to the summit, climbing 400 feet in 0.6 miles. At the summit, a wooden marker generously lists the peak’s elevation at 4,000 feet and a register can be found in a coffee cup, signed by about a dozen or so people monthly.

Trail marked by a dinosaur in the Santa Ana Mountains, Riverside County, CA

0:18 – Dinosaur marking the trail to San Mateo Peak (take a hard right)

The wide summit is strewn with boulders that are easy to climb; from this vantage point, you can enjoy a wonderful 360-degree panorama. If visibility is good, you can see (clockwise from the south) the ocean, Catalina Island, the northern Santa Ana Mountains, Baldy, San Gorgoino, San Jacinto, the Santa Rosas, Palomars and Cuyamacas. After enjoying the view, retrace your steps, exercising appropriate caution on the loose, steep sections of the trail.

View of mountains in the Cleveland National Forest, Riverside County, CA

0:25 – View of the San Mateo Ridge from the top of the first steep ascent

Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Sunset over the ocean from San Mateo Peak, Cleveland National Forest, Riverside County, CA

1:10 – Sunset from San Mateo Peak


Lost Horse Loop (Joshua Tree National Park)

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Eastern panorama from the Lost Horse Mine Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Looking east from the Lost Horse Mine Loop

Desert landscape, Lost Horse Mine Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua trees on the Lost Horse Mine Trail

Lost Horse Loop  (Joshua Tree National Park)

  • Location: Joshua Tree National Park. From Highway 62 in the town of Joshua Tree (about 6 miles east of Yucca Valley, 27 miles east of I-10 and about 15 miles west of Twentynine Palms) take Park Blvd. (signed for the park) south, past the entrance booth, and drive for a total of 15.6 miles. Bear right onto Keys View Road, drive 2.4 miles and turn left onto Lost Horse Mine Road. Follow the dirt road (should be easily passable for all vehicles) a mile to its end at the Lost Horse Loop trail head. The park entrance fee is $15 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or $30 per vehicle for an annual pass. The America the Beautiful inter-agency pass ($80 per year) is also accepted here.
  • Agency: Joshua Tree National Park
  • Distance: 6.9 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season:  October – April
  • USGS topo map: Keys View
  • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here (only to the mine); Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
Lost Horse Trail Head, Joshua Tree National Park

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The Lost Horse Mine, one of the more successful gold mines in the area, is a popular Joshua Tree attraction. It can be reached with a moderate 4 mile out and back hike, but it’s worth allowing extra time and energy to hike the entire loop trail, adding challenge and scenic variety. Keep in mind however that this area is only open from sunrise to sunset. The trail head sign indicates the distance is 6.2 miles, but it is closer to seven if you make the extra trip to the mine.

Panoramic view of Joshua Tree National Park from the Lost Horse Mine Trail

0:30 – View from a saddle, just over a mile from the start (times are approximate)

The loop can be hike in either direction, but you might want to consider hiking clockwise, which will bring you to the mine more quickly, allowing you to shorten the hike if necessary. From the parking area, follow the signed trail uphill. As you ascend you get good views of San Gorgonio to the west. A mile of moderate climbing brings you to a saddle with a view of Ryan Mountain and it’s surrounding plains. The trail dips briefly, makes a wide semi-circular curve and the mine comes into view on the opposite ridge.

Lost Horse Mine, Joshua Tree National Park

1:00 – Lost Horse Mine

A short spur heads left, leading up a switchback to the Lost Horse Mine. Unfortunately the stamp mill is fenced off but you can still enjoy a panoramic view of the desert and read about the history of the mine, including how it got its name.

Steep descent on the Lost Horse Mine Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

1:16 – Starting the steep descent

From the mine, retrace your steps back down to the loop trail. Continue climbing to a saddle where you can enjoy an excellent view to the east. Malapai Hill stands above the wide expanse.

Here, the trail drops steeply and dramatically into a wash. Even as you appreciate the panorama, make sure you respect the steep and sometimes loose trail. You pass by two filled in shafts that mark the site of Lang Mine and then the trail reaches a saddle.  A brief descent brings you to a tall cairn with abandoned metal equipment strewn beneath it. This is the former site of Optimist Mine; it is the approximate halfway point (although if you are hiking clockwise you will already have done the majority of the climbing by now).

Geology and sunlight on the Lost Horse Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

1:24 – Crossing the wash

Continue your moderate ascent to the top of a ridge where you can see the Santa Rosas, San Jacintos and San Bernardinos (about 4 miles from the start). The remainder of the hike is a gradual descent in and out of various washes, passing Joshua trees of many shapes and sizes. The trail is never difficult to follow; the few places where it becomes at all ambiguous are well signed. At about 6.2 miles, keep an eye out for something that may seem like a contradiction of terms: a shade Joshua Tree, whose branches spread out enough to actually provide some shelter.

Optimist Mine, Lost Horse Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

1:35 – Optimist Mine

At 6.7 miles, just before the dirt road, a side trail branches off to the right. Take it 0.2 miles to the parking lot, completing the loop. If you got off to an early start don’t be surprised if the lot is considerably more packed; on busy days, latecomers may likely have to park farther down on the dirt road.

View of San Jacinto Peak from the Lost Horse Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

1:46 – View of San Jacinto

Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Joshua Trees on the Lost Horse Trail, Joshua Tree National Park

2:48 – “Shade” Joshua Tree near the loop’s end

Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve

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View of Rodriguez Mountain in the Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

View of Rodriguez Mountain on the descent to Hell Creek

Sunset, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

Sunset in Hellhole Canyon

Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve

  • Location: Inland San Diego County near Valley Center. From San Diego, take I-15 north to E Via Rancho Parkway. Turn right and follow Via Rancho Parkway, which soon becomes Bear Valley Parkway. After 6 miles, turn right on East Valley Parkway and go 1.3 miles. Turn right on Lake Wohlford Road and go 5.9 miles. Turn right on Paradise Mountain Road and go 3.3 miles. Turn right on Los Hermanos Ranch Road and make an immediate left on Kiavo Drive (signed for the preserve). Go 0.5 miles to the end of Kiavo Drive and turn left into the parking lot. From the north, take I-15 to Gopher Canyon Road. Turn left, cross the freeway and turn right on Champagne Blvd. Go 0.2 miles and turn left on Old Castle Road. Go 5.5 miles and continue onto Lilac Road for another 3.3 miles. Turn right on Valley Center Road, go 1.2 miles and turn left on Woods Valley Road. At 3.9 miles, Woods Valley Road crosses Lake Wohlford Road and becomes Paradise Mountain Road. Follow it for another 3.3 miles to the intersection with Los Hermanos Ranch Road. Turn right and make an immediate left on Kiavo Drive. Follow it half a mile to its end and turn left into the preserve. Parking is free but donations are encouraged.
  • Agency: San Diego County Parks & Recreation
  • Distance: 4.9 miles
  • Elevation gain: 750 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season: November – May; preserve is open Fridays through Mondays, 8am – sunset. Closed during the month of August.
  • USGS topo map: Rodriguez Mountain
  • Recommended guidebook: California Hiking
  • Recommended gear: sun screen; sun hat; hiking poles
  • More information: here; Yelp page here; trip description here; Friends of Hellhole Canyon page here
  • Rating: 7
Trail head, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

How does an attractive wilderness preserve in northern San Diego County get a name like “Hellhole?” One explanation is that in the 1800s, ranchers had a “hell” of a time getting their wagons across the creek, a tributary of the San Luis Rey River. Indeed, history abounds here in the remains of the Escondido Canal which diverted water from the San Luis Rey River to Escondido Creek.

Oaks on the banks of Hell Creek, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

0:19 – On the banks of Hell Creek (times are approximate)

There are over 13 miles of trails throughout the preserve, making several possible routes of varying difficulty levels. The balloon-shaped hike described here offers a good workout that takes in a nice sample of the area’s scenery. Keep in mind that like most hikes in the preserve, it’s a reverse hike that requires a 300-foot ascent out of the canyon on exposed terrain, notoriously hot during the summer.

From the parking area, descend the main trail, enjoying an excellent view of Rodriguez Mountain and an aerial perspective on Hell Creek. On the way down, interpretive plaques describe the plant life including black sage, inland scrub oak and laurel sumac. At about 0.7 miles, you reach the stream bed (dry as of this writing, but sometimes high waters can make it treacherous). You climb along the north side of the creek under the shade of some oaks before entering the open again.

Trail junction, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

0:32 – Junction with the Horsethief Trail

At 1.3 miles, you reach a junction with the Horsethief Trail. The loop can be hiked in either direction, but by going clockwise, you can hold off on the major climbing. Follow the trail over a footbridge and continue around the side of Rodriguez Mountain. An interpretive plaque points out the canal, visible on the opposite side of the creek.

Canyon View Trail, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

0:50 – Start of the Canyon View Trail

At 1.9 miles, stay straight as the Horsethief Trail rejoins. Soon after you reach another junction where you’ll stay straight, now on the Canyon View Trail. You begin a steady ascent, ignoring a side trail branching off to the left just before you briefly drop down to a shallow and usually dry stream bed. At 2.6 miles, you reach the high point of the loop, a junction with the trail leading higher still to Rodriguez Mountain. Here, you an enjoy a panoramic view of the valley before continuing.

Trail crossing over a stream bed, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

1:00 – Crossing a stream bed on the slopes of Rodriguez Mountain

From here, the trail descends and makes one more ascent to a junction with the Paradise Mountain Trail (3.2 miles from the start). Take a hard right and continue downhill, soon meeting up with the Horsethief Trail. Bear left and follow it a short distance to the main Hell Creek Trail. Turn left and retrace your steps back to the parking area.

Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Panoramic view from the slope of Rodriguez Mountain, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

1:10 – Panoramic view from the junction with the Rodriguez Mountain Trail (high point of the loop)

 

Earl Canyon Motorway

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View of Strawberry Peak and the San Gabriel Mountains from the top of the Earl Canyon Motorway, Angeles National Forest, CA

View of Strawberry Peak from the top of the Earl Canyon Motorway

Sunset on the Earl Canyon Motorway, San Gabriel foothills, CA

Sunset over the Verdugo Mountains as seen from the Earl Canyon Motorway

Earl Canyon Motorway

      • Location: La Canada Flintridge, corner of Palm Drive and La Sierra Drive. From the 210 Freeway, take the Ocean View exit and head north (turn right if you’re coming from Pasadena; left if from the Valley) and go 0.4 miles to Foothill Blvd. Turn right and go 0.7 miles to Palm Drive. Turn left and follow Palm for 0.8 miles. Park where available near the intersection of Palm and La Sierra (a short spur leading to a metal gate). From the south, take Highway 2 to its end just beyond the 210 Freeway. Turn left on Foothill Blvd,. go 0.2 miles and turn right on Palm Drive. Follow it 0.8 miles to the end. A nearby alternate trail head can be found on Jessen Drive.
      • Agency: City of La Canada Flintridge/Angeles National Forest (Los Angeles River Ranger District)
      • Distance: 7.2 miles
      • Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
      • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (elevation gain, distance)
      • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
      • Best season:  October – May
      • USGS topo map: Pasadena
      • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat
      • More information: Yelp page here; Everytrail report here; video of a mountain biker descending the route here
      • Rating: 8
Start of the hike on the Earl Canyon Motorway

0:00 – Start of the hike on La Sierra and Palm Drive (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This scenic–but grueling–hike climbs from a residential neighborhood on the edge of La Canada to a junction with the Mt. Lukens Truck Trail. Here, hikers both human and canine (this trail being popular with the latter) can enjoy an excellent view for their efforts. This hike could be described as a longer version of the La Canada Teepee hike; that structure is visible from the motorway.

View of Mt. Lukens from the Earl Canyon Motorway

0:39 – View of Mt. Lukens (times are approximate)

Whether you start from La Sierra or Jessen Drive, the two paths converge after one hundred yards or so. You continue through a pleasant oak and sycamore woodland which, sadly, serves as a bit of false advertising as trees are few and far between for the majority of the route.

The trail takes a hard left at a junction with a blocked off private road, and you begin the bulk of the climb. The fire road makes its way steadily up the ridge, offering panoramic views all the way. At 1.3 miles and 800 feet of elevation gain, you reach a small turnout with an impressive view of Mt. Lukens. The trail continues its switchbacks to a saddle at 2.1 miles and 1,300 vertical feet. You get views of Mt. Lukens to the west and the San Gabriel Valley southeast. Sharp-eyed hikers may be able to pick out the La Canada Teepee on the opposite ridge. If you are short on time and energy, this can be a good turnaround point, although the rest of the hike is easier and more scenic.

Looking southeast from the Earl Canyon Motorway, San Gabriel Foothills, CA

1:03 – View from the junction

If you decide to continue, resume your ascent on the Earl Canyon Motorway, which soon effectively becomes a single-track trail. A few more switchbacks bring you to a pleasant, pseudo-shaded stretch along a north-facing ridge and soon after (about 3.3 miles) you get a view of San Gabriel Peak, Mt. Disappointment and Mt. Wilson. A fairly level and enjoyable 0.3 miles more brings you to the Mt. Lukens Truck Trail. A path leads a few dozen yards more to a concrete water tank.

View of the San Gabriel Mountains from the Earl Canyon Motorway, San Gabriel foothills, CA

1:33 – View of the San Gabriels

Here you can enjoy a 270-degree panorama including Strawberry Peak and the other front country summits of the San Gabriels, Old Saddleback, Catalina Island, the Hollywood Hills, the Verdugos and the Santa Monica Mountains. After enjoying the view, return via the same route or if you want a real challenge, continue 3.6 miles northwest to Mt. Lukens. You can also make the hike into a loop by descending the Mt. Lukens Truck Trail to the Crosstown Trail, bringing you back to the Palm Drive trail head in just over 4 miles, 1.5 of which are on city streets.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean as seen from the top of the Earl Canyon Motorway, Angeles National Forest, CA

1:45 – Ocean view from the top

Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Mt. Lowe Railway Loop

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Descending the Castle Canyon Trail from Inspiration Point

Descending the Castle Canyon Trail from Inspiration Point

Sun through the trees on the Castle Canyon Trail

Sun through the trees on the Castle Canyon Trail

Mt. Lowe Railway Loop

  • Location: Altadena (North of Pasadena), on the corner of Lake Avenue and Loma Alta Drive.  From I-210 in Pasadena, take the Lake Avenue exit and head north (left if you are coming from the west, right if from the east) and go 3.6 miles to where Lake Avenue meets Loma Alta Drive.  Park on the corner.
  • Agency: Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles River District
  • Distance: 11.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2,800 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, distance)
  • Suggested time: 6 hours
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo maps: Mt. Wilson, Pasadena
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot & Afield Los Angeles County
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Yelp page here; Meetup description here; Wikipedia article about the history of the Mt. Lowe Railway here
  • Rating: 9
Sam Merrill Trail Head, Echo Mountain, Altadena, CA

0:00 – Sam Merrill trail head at the Cobb Estate (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

It might not be well known today, but in its time, the Mt. Lowe Railway was one of Los Angeles’s most popular and impressive tourist attractions. The railway didn’t survive the Great Depression and was quickly forgotten as Disneyland and Universal Studios became more famous, but intrepid hikers can still experience some of the history of it, enjoying the same panoramic views of the passengers.

View from the Sam Merrill Trail near Echo Mountain, Altadena, CA

1:05 – View from near the junction with the Echo Mountain Trail (times are approximate)

There are several ways to visit the sites of the Mt. Lowe Railway. This post describes the most common route: a 2.5 mile climb on the Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain (the Mt. Lowe Railway’s lower terminus and a popular and worthwhile hiking destination in its own right), followed by a loop of about six miles, tracing the route of the railway on the ascent and descending via Castle Canyon – highlighted by the outstanding views at Inspiration Point. The hike is a strenuous workout but navigation and terrain are easy and the mix of history and scenic variety makes it very enjoyable.

Plaque describing the history of the Mt. Lowe Railroad, Echo Mountain Trail, Altadena, CA

1:19 – Interpretive plaque

From Lake Avenue, follow the Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain, steadily climbing a series of tight switchbacks with dramatic views of the L.A. basin especially on clear days. Near the top of the ridge the trail levels out and you reach a junction. If you haven’t already been to Echo Mountain, head straight for a short distance where you can enjoy some great views and see equipment from the railroad. (Echo Mountain was the top end of the Great Incline segment of the train and the start of the Mt. Lowe Railway).

Sentinel Rock, Echo Mountain Trail, Mt. Lowe Railway site, Altadena, CA

1:25 – Sentinel Rock

To follow the railway’s course, take a hard left on the Echo Mountain Trail. It continues uphill at a more moderate grade, heading northwest. Soon you pass the first of several interpretive plaques describing the history of the railroad, including vintage photographs. Continuing past “Sentinel Rock” you soon reach a junction known as the Cape of Good Hope.

Millard Canyon from the Sunset Ridge Fire Road above the Cape of Good Hope, Angeles National Forest, CA

1:30 – View of Millard Canyon from the Sunset Ridge Fire Road above the Cape of Good Hope

Turn right onto the Sunset Ridge Fire Road, which soon provides you with excellent views of Millard Canyon. Continue up the fire road, passing a tight horseshoe curve that the railroad had to negotiate and the site of the circular bridge, one of the technical and visual high-lights of the trip. The trail traverses a pleasant north-facing slope, shaded by pines and black oaks, reaching the site of Ye Alpine Tavern (now the Mt. Lowe Trail Camp.) Though it was hoped that the railway would reach what was then called Oak Mountain – now Mt. Lowe – this was the highest it ever got.

Fall colors on the Echo Mountain Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA

2:30 – Fall colors shortly before the Ye Alpine Tavern site

The trail makes a hairpin right turn and heads south to a four-way junction. Take the middle of the forks (the right fork is the upper end of the Sam Merrill Trail which also leads back to Echo Mountain; the left fork leads to Mt. Lowe). Soon you reach Inspiration Point, where you can enjoy the best view of the trip: the Santa Ana, Santa Monica and Verdugo Mountains, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, downtown L.A., Catalina Island and if visibility is good, Santa Barbara Island. Viewing tubes help you pinpoint certain locations.

View from a saddle between Echo Mountain, Mt. Lowe and Mt. Wilson, Angeles National Forest, CA

2:35 – View from the four way junction at the saddle

From here, take the single-track Castle Canyon Trail downhill. The trail is steep and loose in some places, although not too difficult. You drop into the pleasant shade of the canyon’s upper reaches, cross a seasonal stream and take in a few more views to the southeast before the trail levels out, returning to the ridge of Echo Mountain. Turn right and retrace your steps down the Sam Merrill Trail.

View of the Los Angeles Basin from Inspiration Point, Angeles National Forest

3:00 – Panoramic view from Inspiration Point

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

View from the Castle Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles County, CA

4:00 – Looking southeast from the Castle Canyon Trail, shortly before rejoining the Echo Mountain Trail