Mt. Wilson Loop (via Sturtevant and Winter Creek Trails)
- Location: Angeles National Forest north of Arcadia. From Interstate 210, head north on Santa Anita Avenue (right if you are coming from the east, left if you are coming from the west). After passing through a residential area, you reach a vehicle gate. The road starts climbing up into the mountains, and arrives at the Chantry Flats parking lot after about 3 miles. A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required. Click here to purchase.
- Agency: Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles River District
- Distance: 14 miles
- Elevation gain: 3,900 feet
- Difficulty Rating: R (Distance, elevation gain, steepness)
- Suggested time: 8.5 hours
- Best season: October – June
- USGS topo map: “Mt. Wilson”
- Recommended gear: Hiking Poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot & Afield Los Angeles County
- More information: Trip report here; Everytrail guide here
- Rating: 9
Even if you’ve never hiked before, if you live in Los Angeles, chances are Mt. Wilson plays a role in your life. Many L.A. radio and television stations broadcast from the 5,710-foot summit; the observatory and telescopes are also a popular tourist destination up here. You can drive to the summit, but what fun would that be?
For hikers, there are many different routes to the summit. Some hikers use the difficult Mt. Wilson trail from Sierra Madre; some continue up the toll road from Henninger Flats in Pasadena. Another popular starting point is Chantry Flats, which is described here. There are two viable routes to the top from Chantry, and this route uses them both to make a loop.
As with the Mt. Zion Loop, head downhill on the paved road as if you were going to Sturtevant Falls. The Winter Creek Trail branches off at the bottom of the hill; stay straight and head up into the canyon. Where the trail to Sturtevant Falls branches off to the right, bear left onto the Top of the Waterfall trail. (The longer trail, accessible with a hard left, is an alternative designed for horses.) The trail climbs up the side of the canyon, occasionally requiring scrambling over rocks and getting pretty close to the edge of the cliff. You get a nice view of Sturtevant Falls from above.
The two trails rejoin at Falling Sign Junction, and you continue to the right, passing the Cascade Picnic Area in 2.8 miles and the Spruce Grove Trail Camp in 3.5 miles; a good place to stop and rest.
Shortly beyond Spruce Grove, the Gabrielino Trail branches off to the right. Stay straight and take a left just before the sign to Sturtevant Camp. Carefully cross the top of a check dam, and stay right at the next junction, where the trail to Mt. Zion branches off.
At this point, Mt. Wilson is only three miles, but over 2,000 feet of elevation, away. The trail climbs steeply through the woods, still almost entirely shaded. “Halfway Rest” (really just a sign at a switchback) marks the halfway point between Sturtevant Camp and the summit. Shortly afterward, the grade becomes a little less steep, and your efforts are rewarded with glimpses of the L.A. basin below. You work you way through some manzanitas and chapparal, and finally you’ll see a metal railing above. This is Echo Rock, a large outcrop on the mountain’s east edge.
At 6.8 miles, you arrive at the Mt. Wilson summit. You can enjoy a great view from Echo Rock by walking along a fenced-in trail. At the end, you can see San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, the Saddleback, Catalina Island and more.
After taking in the view, you can walk across the summit on the road, passing by the white dome of the observatory and the telescopes. From April to October, the Cosmic Cafe is open. There’s also a short nature trail you can visit.
To continue with this loop, however, head east, past the Rim Trail, along the paved road. It leads to a big parking lot, where you can get nice views of San Gabriel Peak and points west.
From the south corner of the lot, take a trail signed for Sierra Madre and head downhill. When it joins the dirt road, take a left and continue your descent. As you go downhill, you’ll get nice views to the east.
After half a mile, look for the Mt. Wilson trail branching off to the left; the dirt road continues all the way down to Henninger Flats and Altadena. In another half mile, you come to a junction where the Mt. Wilson Trail heads left down toward Sierra Madre. There’s a bench where you can sit and enjoy the views before beginning a steep descent.
Head left on the Winter Creek Trail, which drops over 2,000 feet in the next two and a half miles. There are a few fire breaks which criss-cross the trail, but the main route descends in switchbacks. (If you end up on a fire break, odds are you’ll rejoin the trail soon). You pass by a few buildings, and soon you arrive at the junction with the trail ascending from Hoegees (on the Winter Creek Loop). You’re now three miles from Chantry Flats. Head briefly uphill (the last climbing of the trip), and follow the Winter Creek Trail to its end at the service road. Take a left and walk a half mile down the hill, back to the parking lot.
As with other famous hikes in the San Gabriels such as Mt. Baldy and Mt. Baden-Powell, climbing Mt. Wilson is a rite of passage for L.A. hikers. It’s a nice feeling to see the antennas on the peak from the L.A. basin and know that you’ve not only been there, but done it the hard way.
Text and photography copyright 2012 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.