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


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