Text and photography copyright 2011 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. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
- Location: Across from Mt. Wilson Trail Park in Sierra Madre. From I-210, take the Baldwin Ave. exit, head north for 1.5 miles (through downtown) and turn right on Mira Monte. Park on the street across from Mt. Wilson Trail Park.
- Agency: Angeles National Forest/Los Angeles River Ranger District
- Distance: 7 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,100 feet
- Suggested time: 3.5 hours
- Difficulty rating: PG-13 (Steepness, distance, elevation gain)
- Best season: November-May
- USGS topo map: “Mt. Wilson”
- Recommended gear: hiking poles
- More information: here
- Rating: 8
This is one of the more challenging and enjoyable hikes accessible from the north edge of the San Gabriel Valley. The historic Mt. Wilson trail climbs steeply, quickly moving hikers away from suburbia and into the peacefulness of Little Santa Anita Canyon. The camp was a mountain resort until 1940, and some stone foundations of the buildings are still visible.
From Mira Monte, head uphill on Mt. Wilson Trail Drive and turn left onto the trail. After a quarter mile of steep climbing, head left on a fire road and continue the ascent. The trail continues to go uphill at a steady grade, and soon you are rewarded with great views of the mountains above and the San Gabriel Valley below. Following recent rains, the creek in Little Santa Anita Canyon is flowing, and several waterfalls can be seen from above.
The trail hugs the side of the canyon, and although it never feels too precarious, some hikers may find hiking poles to be helpful. After making a few switchbacks, climbing some stairs and negotiating a short but steep and loose stretch, the trial arrives at a split at 1.5 miles from Sierra Madre. Downhill (right) brings you to First Water, a pleasant stop where the trail meets the creek. The main route continues to the left. The trail levels out for a little while, makes a few more ascents and enters a pleasant wooded area.
At three miles, you make a slight descent and reach the creek again, just below Decker Spring. This is a particularly attractive place to take a break, although you are only half a mile from the end. To the left of the trail, notice a small waterfall cascading over a giant fallen tree. After crossing the creek, you make one final ascent and then it’s more or less level hiking into Orchard Camp. The only tricky part is crossing under another huge tree that’s fallen and blocks the trail.
Orchard Camp is located right next to the stream, and makes a peaceful, pleasant setting to enjoy before heading back down to civilization. Die-hard hikers should know that, yes, the trail does continue all the way to Mt. Wilson. If you’re going to make the trip, you can add 7 miles round trip and 2,700 feet of elevation gain to your tab.
The trail in from Bailey Canyon connects just a bit (maybe 1/4 to 1/2 of a mile?) above First Water. It comes down a side canyon on your left, with rocks and logs usually laid across the way to keep hikers on the main trail. Sometimes there’s a sign or a rock duck there, some times not. It’s a steep climb up to Jones Saddle from there, so I suspect very few people head up that way. It’s easier to do it the other way–up Bailey Canyon to Jones Peak or Hastings Peak, then down from Jones Saddle to the Mt. Wilson Trail. The two trailheads (Mt. Wilson and Bailey Canyon) or only about 1/2 mile apart, so you can make a good loop of it.
By the way, Bailey Falls is actually running now, so it’s worth a quick detour, if you do plan to do the loop. Of course, if it’s immediately after a rain, Sierra Madre will have the trails closed, so you may need to wait a few days, or check with the Sierra Madre PD before you go.
One last thing: I think you’ve got a typo on your suggested time. It’s probably more of a 3-4 hour hike, right?
THanks for catching the typo – I fixed it. I actually did swing by Bailey too yesterday but the trail is still closed. I’ve been thinking of doing Jones, I’ll have to check out your post on it.
You should also correct “stay left at the junction” to “stay right at the junction” — the trail up to Jones Peak, the one you didn’t see, goes up a stream bed off to the left, while the main trail curves off to the right.
This trail has been rerouted in more recent years. Before getting to First Water there are parts where the trail is very dangerous. Especially coming down, if you zoom zoom zoom and overshoot the switchbacks. Mess up here and fall straight down hundreds of feet to the creek.
At first water, you can cross the stream and follow a trail for about .25 miles upstream. Look for a faint trail on the left. In .1 miles it will connect with the main trail. This .25 mile stretch is very nice.
We did this hike again today (9.12.19) – 8 years after we’d first done it. To update some of the info above, the trail is very well maintained. There are now 2 ways to go from about half a mile in to almost to First Water… there’s a “Charlie Trail” that was cut in higher up. I think the lower trail was marked as dangerous in 2011, but it is extremely well maintained now – maybe even better than the “Charlie Trail.” There’s lots of maintenance equipment stashed at various places along the trail – so it looks like an ongoing process. At least 4 benches – some of them quite new – in various spots. It’s also well-traveled. We saw about 2 dozen people on a weekday trek. We thought both the stops – First Water and Orchard Camp – were lovely. There are 2 nice panels with photographs of the “old days” and info. And the cross-trail to Jones (which we took in ’13 and ’15) also is clearly well-maintained and officially marked. Some may query whether the open, dry mileage (which is more than half of the mileage) has enough of a pay-off. We thought it did. BTW, First Creek is about 1,000′ of the 2,000′ of elevation – not “most” of it. [The park at the trailhead also has a well-maintained bathroom and water.] I dropped- and lost – my print-out of your info in the first mile of the hike – or we might have tried that trail behind First Water mentioned above!
Hi Dianne, always good to hear from you, glad to hear you had a good hike. I took out the bit about “most of the climbing” – it’s been a while since I’ve done this hike (I now live on the east coast) so feedback about the accuracy of the descriptions is always helpful!