In memory of Craig Cambra
Mt. Wilson Trail
- Location: Mt. Wilson Trail Park, 165 E Mira Monte Ave., Sierra Madre. From I-210, take the Baldwin Ave. exit, head north for 1.5 miles (through downtown) and turn right on Mira Monte. The park will be on the left in 0.2 mile. Park where available.
- Agency: Angeles National Forest/Los Angeles River Ranger District; City of Sierra Madre
- Distance: 14.2 miles
- Elevation gain: 4,900 feet
- Suggested time: 8 hours
- Difficulty rating: NC-17 (Elevation gain, steepness, distance)
- Best season: November – June
- Dogs: Allowed; make sure they are prepared for the length and incline of the hike and exercise caution during warmer months
- Cell phone reception: Fair from bottom of the trail to First Water; very sporadic and unreliable afterward
- Water: Available at the restroom at the lower end of the trail (Mt. Wilson Trail Park.) Decker Spring is unreliable, but may be a possible water source if you bring a filter. Note: as of this writing, water in the restrooms and spigots at the summit is UNAVAILABLE due to current drought conditions. Check the link to the Observatory page below for updates.
- Restrooms: Full service restrooms at the bottom of the trail and at the summit (check park and observatory hours)
- Camping/backpacking: Orchard Camp, located halfway between Sierra Madre and the summit (but closer in elevation to Sierra Madre) is not an official campground but is still an ideal spot for setting up camp. Make sure you are aware of fire restrictions that are in place. If you spend the night on the trail, you will need to purchase a $5 temporary parking permit from the City of Sierra Madre, assuming you are leaving a car at Mt. Wilson Trails Park. Hikers parking at the observatory will need a National Forest Service Adventure Pass. Note that the gate is closed from 5pm to 10am and also during snowy conditions.
- Recommended gear: Sun hat, sun block, hiking poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield Los Angeles County
- More information: Trip descriptions here, here (to Manzanita Ridge) and here; SummitPost page here; Mt. Wilson Observatory page here
- Rating: 9
Note: the Mt. Wilson Trail was closed following a bear attack in October 2016, but has since been re-opened.
Los Angeles might not be known for history, but just outside of town is one of the oldest continuously operating hiking trails in the country. The Mt. Wilson Trail was built in 1864 by “Don Benito” himself, considerably predating the Appalachian Trail or Yosemite National Park. In fact the trail is only a decade and change younger than the state in which it can be found.
Of course, the original purpose of the trail wasn’t recreational; it was built by Benjamin Wilson as a route for moving timber from the mountain that now bears his name to the San Gabriel Valley. It soon became a popular recreational route, though its functionality became obsolete with the establishment of the Mt. Wilson Toll Road and later the Angeles Crest Highway. Of the major routes to Mt. Wilson, it is the most challenging and in the opinion of many, the most scenic.
The strenuous climb and descent are not for all tastes, which is why some hikers opt for one-way routes, doable with a car shuttle of approximately 45 minutes. But hikers who are up to the challenge can knock off both directions in a day. The first 3.5 miles to Orchard Camp are covered in greater detail here. Orchard Camp is almost exactly the halfway point distance-wise, although only 2,100 of the 4,800 feet of elevation gain have been achieved by this point. The peaceful spot is a suitable place to charge your batteries for the stiff climb ahead as the trail gains 1,500 feet in less than two miles en route to the next major stop: Manzanita Ridge.
The trail makes a few steep switchbacks and continues north from Orchard Camp through a mixed forest of alder, fir and black oaks. A few openings allow glimpses of an increasingly panoramic view of Little Santa Anita Canyon and the distant San Gabriel Valley. At about 4.5 miles from the start, the trail makes a pronounced bend and starts heading east, reaching Manzanita Ridge (elevation 4,480, 5.2 miles from the start.) The Winter Creek Trail leads down to Chantry Flats from here. A wooden bench makes a perfect resting spot to catch your breath and enjoy the view to the west.
Continue north along the Mt. Wilson Trail (ignoring a fire break that cuts up the ridge). The next stretch, climbing almost 500 feet in 0.6 mile to reach the toll road, is thankfully almost entirely shaded. At 5.8 miles from the start, you reach the toll road, which climbs gently for half a mile, gaining 200 feet and providing views of Mt. Baldy and company to the east. Additionally, the sight of the summit antenna installations will be a good motivator at this point.
You reach a hub where the Mt. Wilson Toll Road continues uphill and a paved road leads back south to Mt. Harvard. Look for an unsigned but clear trail branching off to the right. This is the last leg of the Mt. Wilson Trail, which climbs 500 feet in 0.7 miles up a mostly shaded slope, taking in some panoramic views to the south and west before finally reaching its upper end, Skyline Park. Here, you can celebrate the ascent in any number of ways: continuing up to the Cosmic Cafe where you can grab a bite on weekends from April to November (or just enjoy the view from the pavilion); walking over to the observatory or simply sitting at the picnic table and enjoying the view, relaxing your legs for the long descent.
If you found the hike to be too easy, there’s always the Mt. Wilson Trail Race.
Text and photography copyright 2016 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.