This is an excellent, fairly easy hike and it surprised us that we waited so long to discover it. The hike is mostly shady except for one section and there are several easy stream crossings that only require stepping across rocks. This a great family hike. Read more
Category: Southern California
The Altadena Crest Trail is not very well known, which makes it a great place to hike, mostly free of mountain bikers or horses. The trail winds through excellent chaparral in the low foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
It has steep sections and switchbacks to climb out of the small canyons but the views at each outside turn make it work the minor effort. Read more
We’re very fortunate to live so close to Eaton Canyon. Only blocks from our home, we hike there several times each week and it has been our preparation spot for bigger hikes like Mt Whitney, Mt Shuksan and even the Himalaya of Nepal. One of the greatest adventures in our own back yard is canyoneering down Lower Eaton Canyon and its myriad of large and small waterfalls.
People who never venture out of the city don’t realize how natural and ‘alive’ the canyons are just above their city.
Before you read further, please know the following: This is one of the best day adventures in the San Gabriel mountains but ONLY for those with climbing skills and the right equipment. This should also NOT be confused with attempting to climb the sketchy trails that go up the canyon (that often end in rescues and have resulted in deaths).
You should have, as a minimum, the following gear:
- Full length climbing rope (50 m/160 ft)
- 30 m (100 ft) of webbing for anchors
- Rappel devices like an ATC or Figure 8
- Dry bags for anything that can’t get wet
Sometimes the most amazing adventures are found really close to home. If you live in LA, there are few more beautiful places to visit as close by as Santa Barbera County Wine Country. And there are few better ways to see it than by motorcycle. Santa Barbara is just a couple of hours away but is a world apart from very busy Los Angeles.
We loaded up the bike in our truck (we don’t ride on freeways) to take it first to Jalama Beach, an amazing Santa Barbara County park on the sea just south of Vandenburg Air Force Base, the site of most missile launches on the West Coast. What makes Jalama special is its isolation. It sits at the end of a beautifully winding 22.5 km (15 miles) road that keeps away the traffic, as the only destination for anyone traveling this stretch is one of the few farm houses or the park itself. Read more
Mt San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino Mountains is more than the highest peak in Southern California at 3506 m (11,503 ft)…it is also also the 18th most prominent mountain in the United States. The peak is visible from great distances and nicknamed “Old Greyback.” It has the strange distinction of claiming the lives of Frank Sinatra’s mother and the son of Dean Martin in separate plane crashes.
While there is camping along the trail at the campsites listed below, we chose to climb Mt San Gorgonio in a single day. Even though we chose the shortest path to the summit, it made for a very long hike of 29 km (18 miles) round trip.
We started off at 7am on an unusually cold but sunny day for the end of May. The trail started as a gravel road that continued from the parking lot along the bank of an enormous and rocky wash. After turning at the second “Trail” sign (there are actually two…don’t take the first one). We made our way across to the forest on the other side and the start of what we called, “The Big Wall.”
Don’t be too alarmed by the first section of the trail. It is the steepest and climbs an enormous wall on the north side of the wash. It has a southwest exposure and as such, has the chaparral and loose rock typical of this exposure in Southern California. Once at the top, the trail levels out and begins to follow Vivian Creek in a cool, shaded valley.The difference from the first section is so stark that it makes the Vivian Creek watershed seem even more lush.
To High Creek
After following Vivian Creek for a couple of kilometers, the trail leaves the stream and begins to climb over a ridge to the next watershed, High Creek. There are now enormous pine trees and rock formations that are reminiscent of hiking in Yosemite or Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevadas. Adding to our enjoyment, the temperatures rose during the day but we also increased our elevation at a rate that kept the temperatures consistently cool and pleasant.
High Creek is a beautiful camp site and the final place to find water before the summit. It is our recommendation that anyone leaving this spot for the top should have a minimum of three liters of water. We were in good shape so we continued upward and began the climb to the ridge that accesses the summit.
Some of the first great views of the day start at the beginning of this ridge. The trees approaching the ridge began to thin until the ridge itself, where the vegetation became low and eventually disappeared entirely as we crossed above the treeline. The ridge was one of the steeper sections of the climb, but with the summit approaching, our energy made it easier to summon the strength. The air was noticeably thinner at this point as well. At the top of the ridge, we made the right turn toward the summit, clearly visible in the distance.
The summit is one of the best views from any mountain top. It is a 360 degree panorama of Southern California that’s hard to find anywhere else.
We were fortunate to be among the first to arrive for the day and had the summit mostly to ourselves for the first few minutes. That changed as large groups arrived behind us, but the view more than made up for the relative crowds.
Any hike of this length needs a warning that the summit is only ‘halfway there.’ Mt San Gorgonio by Vivian Creek is a very long day, and while every hiker is energized by standing on the top, the very long walk down is the most dangerous and difficult part of the day. We were exhausted and sore by the time we reached the bottom of the The Wall as it entered the rocky wash.
This is an excellent hike, but shouldn’t be done in one day unless you have experience hiking such distances and elevations.
Keep in mind this is the second most popular trail for reaching the summit of Mt San Gorgonio. It can be busy with day hikers, overnight backpackers, and even casual hikers walking up from the picnic area. Camping on the trail can be accomplished in the following areas:
- Vivian Creek at 2 km (1.2 miles ) and 2164 m (7100 ft). This is a very wooded camp.
- Halfway Camp at 5 km (3 miles) and 2469 m (8100 ft). This is also a wooded campsite.
- High Creek at 8.5 km (5.3 miles) and 2804 m (9200 ft) and last water. High Creek is in tall pines but less wooded than the lower campsites.
Click here to download the GPX file from our hike (right click and choose ‘save as’):
For the latest in trail conditions, including water availability, check with the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association.
Passes and getting to the trailhead
Before you start, you’ll need to either plan ahead for a day or overnight permit (permits are required for day hiking or overnight camping). Passes can be faxed back to you, mailed (if you have 3-7 days for deliver) or can be picked up in the office or in a small box by the door when the Mill Creek Work Site isn’t open. Their phone number is 909-382-2882 and their official site is found here.
Mt San Gorgonio’s Vivian Creek is one of the easier trailheads to reach. From the Mill Creek Work Site, continue to follow Highway 38 to Forest Falls Road. Turn right and follow Forest Falls until it ends at a picnic area (which is obviously a former campground). The trail starts immediately off the end of the parking lot and initially follows the left bank of the rocky stream bed that you’ve been following since turning on Forest Falls.
This is an extremely popular hike in the San Gabriel Mountains and one of the most popular hikes in Los Angeles and for good reason. The trail is easily accessed off the 210 Freeway in Pasadena by traveling north on Lake Avenue until it ends at a sharp left turn and becomes Loma Alta Avenue. On the outside of the curve are enormous stone pillars and gates of the Cobb Estate. You’ve found the trailhead. Continue on the paved part until it becomes dirt and then forks, and stay to the right.
More than just a hiking trail, Echo Mountain is a piece of Southern California history. It was the location of two famous hotels, the Echo Mountain House and The Chalet, an observatory and a zoo. Unfortunately, all that remains today are the bull wheel of an incline railway and the foundations of the buildings that were destroyed by wind and fire over the years. Beyond ruins, there are picnic tables in the shade of pine trees, great views of Pasadena and Los Angeles, and an echo phone as a great diversion.
The trail is mostly comprised of switchbacks as it climbs from the relatively level edge of Altadena to the top of the mountain. It is extremely well-maintained and mostly unaffected by runoff, unlike many other trails in the San Gabriels. The lower sections are also very smooth and hard packed which makes for quick hiking without worries about ankle turning. The upper sections, however, become much rockier and good shoes are a necessity to prevent sore or injured feet. Don’t take this advice lightly.
Where this trail is truly exceptional is in its views of Pasadena, Los Angeles and the LA basin. Hiked shortly after a rain, the views are incredibly clear to Downtown LA and beyond. Even better than a continuous exposure to views, the trail emerges from Las Flores Canyon every so often with a reminder of how quickly you are climbing and how flat the LA Basin is compared to the San Gabriels. There are often views of the switchbacking trail below as well. The trail ascends Echo Mountain at a remarkably steady grade.
We always take turns using the echo phone even though the results never vary. It is one of those pleasures that can’t be easily explained to someone who’s never done it before. Beyond the echo phone, there are ruins to explore, views to take in, and a break to be taken before the steady downhill hike back to the car. Echo Mountain is a great, reasonably short way to get in a workout and enjoy nature on the edge of the city.
There are typically crowds if you go in the late morning or early afternoon, but for those willing to start early or end late in the day, it isn’t unusual to have the top to yourself.
There are patches of poison oak on both sides of the trail. They are easily avoidable by keeping to the center, but be careful.
We have always heard great things about Runyon Canyon and know it as one of the most popular hikes in Los Angeles. Even with high expectations, we were pleasantly surprised by this fairly urban getaway.
Parking is the biggest challenge since there is no specific lot and the street parking is competitive to say the least. We arrived early afternoon and needed to park a few blocks away.
The lower section of the trail is very busy and if that level of crowd had persisted, we wouldn’t be recommending this trail. Fortunately, as you begin to make choices to hike higher and steeper sections, the crowds thin considerably. We chose to take the early turn to the right and to make a counter-clockwise trip around the Canyon.
The first significantly steep section is a staircase that is fairly eroded to the point that people walk to the left, right, and up the high steps of the wooden timbers that were used to unsuccessfully hold back the soil.
The trail rejoins a paved road above the stairs and continues upward at a more gradual pace until it leaves the ‘dog park’ section, where dogs are allowed off leash. If you watch to the left, you’ll find the trail that continuous up to the highest point of the park.
We found our way up to the highest point on the trail which by that point was not crowded and limited to those who you’ll typically see in tougher places to reach. It involved some steep sections that didn’t have the best footing but were no challenge for Mitch and Gwenn.
The way down was even more challenging with Gwenn eagerly pulling over very rough and loose terrain. Once down the steep section, though, it was easy going the remainder of the hike.
Runyon Canyon is a good getaway but we wouldn’t consider it to be a very difficult or long hike. It is close to the city and has great views of Los Angeles and is also a great off-leash dog park.
An excellent spoof on Runyon Canyon, check out Modern Hiker.
San Gabriel Peak was once thought the highest in the area close to Pasadena at 1878 m (6,161 ft) but is now considered the second highest after Strawberry Peak at 1879 m (6,164 ft). It was named for the Spanish mission that dominated the valley to the west and also lies at the head of Eaton Canyon, the site of many of our hikes. Eaton Canyon is the watershed for Mt Wilson, San Gabriel Peak and Mt Markham and has year-round water flow, regardless of rainfall.
To get to the trail, we took the Angeles Crest Highway (Rt 2) from La Canada to Red Box Road, the narrow, windy road to the buildings and antennas atop Mt Wilson. About halfway along the road, we parked at the trailhead.The lot was fairly full, not surprising for a beautiful March Saturday.
We were somewhat surprised (I guess we could have researched) that we were at the other end of the very familiar Mt Lowe Fire Road, once the site of the Mt Lowe Railway. It was such a well-developed road, in fact, that it even has a tunnel through a particularly vertical section of rock at the very head of Eaton Canyon. There aren’t many fire roads with tunnels in this area. We walked for a while with a Forest Service employee who was just taking down the signs from the 2010 Station Fire closure.
A few minutes from the other end of the tunnel, we came to a trail junction that offered three alternatives. To the left, a small trail that would take us to Mt Markham and Mt Lowe, continuing forward on the Mt Lowe Fire Road toward Pasadena, and to the right, which was our path to Mt Disappointment and San Gabriel Peak.
San Gabriel Peak Trail
This section of the trail was much narrower and threaded its way along the steep flanks of San Gabriel Peak itself. The Station Fire had done enormous damage here and there were few large plants that weren’t scorched. The renewed growth was remarkable, however and there was no shortage of vegetation starting over where a generation had been wiped out.
We reached another saddle where we could continue straight ahead toward Mt Disappointment and its communication towers (not interesting) or to the right, our choice, toward San Gabriel Peak.
The trail became steeper and began to switchback its way up the mountain. For the first time, we were very aware of the strangely-named poodle-dog bush, a plant similar to poison oak that doesn’t make its effects known for 24-36 hours after touching it. We were just as concerned about the dogs touching it and then spreading it to us as we were paranoid about our own movements. We haven’t experienced its effects and we didn’t want to find out.
Just before the peak, we found both snow and pine forest, which was a refreshing site after seeing so much fire damage, rock and little shade. The ground was actually muddy in places and it was pleasantly cool in the shade of the conifers. It was a very short time before we were standing on the peak.
The summit was one of more distinct we’ve climbed, with the highest spot being a US Geological Survey benchmark and an actual bench that was occupied by groups the whole time we spent at the top. We made our way down after talking with several people, including a gentleman who just starting blogging about his own hikes in the Angeles National Forest.
We moved quickly on the way down, as always, and were back at the Mt Lowe Fire Road in thirty minutes. We debated eating our lunch but didn’t find a spot to sit, so chose to press on to the car.
San Gabriel Peak requires a longer drive to the trailhead than most of our peaks, similar to Mt Baden-Powell, so it doesn’t have some of the appeal that local hikes have in the LA Basin. We realized after looking down on Mt Lowe that we were close enough to reach San Gabriel Peak in either a very long day hike or a rigorous two-day hike from the Sunset Ridge trailhead in Altadena. This may be a great hike for another time.