Bear Canyon/Tom Sloan Loop
If you don’t mind bushwhacking and negotiating potentially treacherous rock slides and washed out terrain, this loop offers about as much of an adventure as can be found in the San Gabriel front country, short of requiring wilderness survival skills. The main challenge of this route is the upper leg of the Tom Sloan Trail, a 1.8-mile scramble that some adventurers will find exciting and inspiring while others will curse enough to make the “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Scarface” seem like Disney productions. The author belongs in the second category.
The hike starts off innocently enough by following the Mt. Lowe fire road through Mueller Tunnel and past Markham Saddle. Continue following the fire road, which feels more like a single track, as it traverses Mt. Lowe’s north slope, taking in views of Bear Canyon and distant Mt. Lukens. At 1.8 miles, you reach the top of the Bear Canyon Trail, the start of the loop. I strongly recommend hiking counter-clockwise; this will allow you to descend rather than ascend the steepest stretch, ascending the Tom Sloan Trail. Since the terrain on that route is challenging, hiking downhill won’t feel much easier and you’ll have the steep ascent on the Bear Canyon Trail to deal with.
The Bear Canyon Trail crosses a plateau and then drops sharply, occasionally overgrown but usually easy to follow, providing more great views as it drops to Tom Sloan Saddle, three miles from the start. This shaded spot is a good place to rest before the ordeal ahead.
Two obvious trails leave the saddle: the Bear Canyon Trail continues northwest, dropping deep into the canyon, while the Tom Sloan Trail continues south. Locate the Tom Sloan Trail but DON’T follow it, unless you have a car shuttle parked in Altadena or don’t mind taking an expensive “Uber” back to Eaton Saddle. Instead, work your way between the clear Tom Sloan Trail and the stretch of trail you were just on. As you pick your way southeast, generally keep as high on the slope as possible and focus on the next ridge ahead of you. There are several spots where the trail is simply nonexistent, requiring scrambling over or under trees and crawling across rock slides.
At 3.8 miles, you reach a ledge where you can sit and rest, enjoying a great view of Grand Canyon, a tributary of Millard Canyon. The trail then makes a hairpin left turn and continues east, clinging to the side of the ridge. Your going becomes easier here, although there are still a few washed out spots that can be tricky. At 4.4 miles, you’ll enter an attractive grove of black oaks. The trail is easier to follow now, although the very last stretch before Mt. Lowe Road is steep and loose.
At 4.8 miles, you reach Mt. Lowe Road. Your efforts are now rewarded with the remaining 2.8 miles which, though mostly uphill, are a piece of cake compared to what you’ve just been through. Turn left and follow the road as it ascends gradually, taking in panoramic views that may extend to the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains if visibility is good. In about one mile you reach the Bear Canyon Trail, completing the loop portion of the hike. Keep following Mt. Lowe Road 1.8 miles back to Eaton Saddle.
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.