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: San Gabriels
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
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.
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.
We love to find new hikes in Los Angeles, and this time we made a late decision to hike Mount Lowe, a 1,708 m (5,603) peak just north of the more-famous Mount Wilson and stepped onto the Sunset Ridge Trail at 2pm. The sky was ominous but the forecast called for clouds and not rain, so off we went…without our waterproof jackets and only Jeanne with gloves and a hat. For people who try to be prepared for anything, we were prepared for little this time.
We knew the first part of the trail very well, as we’ve hiked as far as Mount Lowe Trail Camp several times. It is an excellent picnic destination in the Summer. Each time we’ve had a reason not to press on to the Summit, but this time we were determined to make it. We very quickly made our way through the paved section, past the areas left black by the Station Fire, the trees denuded of their bark by the ferocious windstorm two months ago. We passed the Cape of Good Hope, a curious name for the flat saddle just before the pavement ends. We continued past Circle Bridge, the turnoff for Dawn Mine, and the photogenic Granite Gate. We were moving very quickly and the dogs were in fine form.
As we completed switchback after switchback, the temperatures grew colder and we soon found ourselves at the cloud level, with mist blowing past as we hiked. Just as we reached the rocky sections where the trial turns away from Millard Canyon, it began to rain.
For only a few minutes, we were pelted with enormous drops before it changed to ice that was large enough to hurt as it struck our arms and heads. We found shelter under a rocky ledge for a few minutes while we polled the team about turning around or continuing. The dogs were both ready to go, and Gwenn even made a noise that could have been a doggie ‘yes’. We set off again quickly, aware that daylight was in limited supply.
We reached unexplored territory at Trail Camp and followed the signs for the East Mount Lowe Trail.
After completing nearly a 360 degree spiraling single track around the mountain, we finally reached the top of Mt. Lowe. To the south was Mount Wilson with its enormous white observatory and absurd number of antennas of all types. To the east we could see sunny skies and snowy mountains toward the High Desert. There was even a bench at the top with ruins of hitching posts and a shelter.
Our hands were so cold that we could barely open the bag and use the camera. It was a record short amount of time enjoying the view before we headed quickly back down the slippery trail. Without our waterproof layer, we were wet, very cold and losing sunlight very quickly. Finding the single track trail and navigating the snow-covered rocks needed to be done with as much light as possible.
Other than a brief stop to take a photo with Inspiration Point in the background, we walked non-stop and very fast to the car, arriving well after dark (we did remember our headlamps) but with a great view of the lights of Pasadena and Los Angeles along the way. While the air is always warmer as you go lower, it was also dark by that point and much colder than when we started.
We loaded up the dogs and drove home in a hurry for a hot bath and dinner. It was exhausting but great to have another summit under our belts. It was also a great reminder of the importance of going through a quick checklist and taking more than you actually expect to use for the conditions. We made it and felt great about the summit, but also feel a bit sheepish for the unnecessary suffering and risk.
Reaching the trailhead
To get to the Sunset Ridge Trail access to Mt Lowe, go north on Lake Avenue until it makes a 90 degree left turn and becomes Alta Loma Drive in Altadena. Stay on Alta Loma until you reach a flashing red signal and make that right on Cheney Trail. Follow Cheney Trail until you see the eight or so parking spots on the right side of the road, about halfway to Millard Canyon Campground from the first switchbacks. Photo of the trailhead here.
- Local Hikes Mt Lowe Railway Loop
- Mt Lowe Railway Historical Committee
- Mt Lowe Preservation Society
- Mt Lowe Trail Camp Forest Service page
This is one of our favorite hikes in Los Angeles and is also just blocks away from where we live. The Eaton Canyon Nature Center and the first part of the Eaton Canyon Trail are part of Los Angeles County and are well maintained but also very, very popular on weekends and holidays. If you like avoid crowds as we do, choose your time to go very carefully.
This is also a very popular hike with local dog owners and is just long enough to be good exercise for our very active brittanys. You will see other dogs on the trail and you’ll also see the evidence they leave behind. If you take this trail with your dogs, please pack out your dog poo!
Parking to Bridge
The first part of the trail is mostly exposed and can be uncomfortable on hot days. Once leaving the parking lot, the trail crosses the Eaton Canyon Wash, which is a dry creek bed in the dry season but can be tricky to cross if there has been significant rain.
The trail turns left just after the wash and heads north until it reaches the turnoff for the First Waterfall. Along the way, there is a different turnoff for what we call “The Horse Trail” but is actually called Walnut Canyon. This is a very steep trail that connects to the Mt Wilson Toll Road, cutting off several miles of hiking for those willing to make a fast climb, but bypassing the trail to the First Waterfall.
Many people miss the left turn off the main trail at 2 km (1.2 miles) which comes just before the bridge. There is a small sign at the on the left and newer sign right at the merge point of the two trails that makes it easy if hikers are aware that they need to leave the main trail.
Bridge to Waterfall
The trail continues under the bridge and past the first of a set of old dams that created reservoirs for irrigation when Pasadena was known for its orange groves. There are many points where water crossings need to be made but rocks have been placed strategically to make it easy.
This narrow section in the canyon floor is our favorite as the continual crossings of the streams make it a fun challenge to move as quickly as possible. The dogs never hold us back and often will jump into the deeper pools of water. This is also the shady part of the trail and very comfortable in the Summer.
Once you reach the waterfall, it is immediately obvious why it is such a popular hike. The falls drops about 14 m (50 ft) from a narrow split in the canyon. It falls into a shallow pool that is often filled with children on the hotter and busier days. It is such a unique spot that there will oftentimes be people playing music or writing, especially on the quiet days. The water is quite cool, even in the warmest part of the summer and we often take our shoes off and enjoy the moment with our feet in the water. For the dogs, the waterfall is a great chance to jump in and cool off.
The reason this is called the First Waterfall is because there are a whole series of waterfalls further up the canyon. The Second Waterfall can be reached from the same trail but requires a turn just before the First Waterfall and a climb up a very steep spine of rock known as the Razor Back and then a traverse across a very exposed rockface. Many people have been rescued from the cliff face and several have died, including two just this Fall.
This is a fairly easy hike that takes you out of urban Los Angeles and into a cool, shady canyon in a short period of time. If you want a shorter distance, enter from the back gate on Pinecrest Drive between dawn and dusk (The Fire Service locks the gate at night). There is also a side entrance higher on Altadena Drive that shortens the overall hike but has more poison oak than the main trail and is hard to follow. We recommend either the main or back entrances.
Poison oak is prevalent in the canyon, so stay off the sides of trails. Remember to bring water! Many people think this hike is short and easy and don’t bring enough, and keep in mind that stream water must be treated. Lastly, sunscreen should be worn as the first half of the trail is very exposed and sun burns happen quickly.
For Dan Simpson’s very good write up on this hike, click here.