Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hike 2011.037 -- Mt Lowe

Hiked Monday, May 23.

The starting point for this hike is the same as the one for Echo Mountain or Inspiration Point, both of which I've hiked numerous times since 2010. However, both the middle Sam Merrill and Sunset Ridge Trails (both of which start near Echo Mountain and lead you up towards Mt. Lowe) crossed into the old closure area and so were off-limits under the previous Station Fire Recovery Order. Last week, the closure on those areas was lifted. This was my first hike into the newly opened areas.

From the top of Lake Avenue in Altadena, the way to the Sam Merrill trail is through the gates that lead east from the end of Lake. This is the Cobb Estate. Straight ahead on the broken pavement leads you to a few trail signs. If you make a left turn at the end of the east-leading pavement, you'd be on the westbound Altadena Crest Trail, which loops just north of the Cobb Estate for less than a mile before petering out near someone's backyard. At least as of last year--I don't think it's been completed all the way through to the Millard Canyon road.

If you go over the curb of the pavement and continue down into the drainage, that's the eastbound Altadena Crest trail, which heads south for a bit, running for about 3/4 mile before emptying on to Rubio Canyon Road. A 1/2 mile segment has you walking along Rubio Canyon Road (which changes to Loma Alta Drive after about 200 yards) as you head east, then south. Turn left on Zane Grey Terrace, and the trail leaves the pavement and continues all the way to near the Pinecrest entry point of the Mt. Wilson Toll Road.

For the Sam Merrill trail, however, you avoid the Altadena Crest trail entirely. Instead, after you've left the pavement of the Cobb Estate, turn left. This trail makes a looping turn around as it crosses the wash, then heads up towards Echo Mountain (described several times previously).

Just as you're making the final straightaway towards the ruins at Echo Mountain, you'll pass three trail options, one after another, all on your left. The first option is the Sunset Ridge Trail. That one heads mostly to the west, generally following the old rail path to The Cape of Good Hope, then continues along a wider rail bed all the way towards Inspiration Point. The second option is the Middle Sam Merrill trail, which intersects with the rail bed just west of Inspiration Point. And, of course, the Castle Canyon trail (previously blogged) goes straight up to Inspiration Point.

Today, I took the Sam Merrill up, continued to Mt. Lowe via the East Mt. Lowe trail, then returned from Mt. Lowe via the rail way bed and Sunset Ridge trail.

Plenty of flowers still in bloom. At the start of the trail and at several points along the way, the Spanish broom was thick and fragrant, as was the sage. Purple primrose were covered in water droplets, and bundled closed in the cool air.

Yes, it was cool. In fact, by the time I got near Echo Mountain, I had to stop to put on my sweater. Although the sun was shining on spots down below, I saw very little sun during this entire hike. Clouds rolled over the hills and completely hid Mt. Lowe from view. Not surprisingly, when I did get to the top of Mt. Lowe, I could see nothing but clouds.

But that's getting ahead of the story. First, I had to walk up the middle Sam Merrill trail. Despite a foreboding warning at the start, most of the trail is outside of the burn area. It's not until I reached "Sunset Point" that I came around a ridge and confronted the dead trees. Most of the oaks were dead. Most of the coniferous trees, however, seemed to survive.

Once over this ridge, it was an easy but surprisingly long way to the north and west before reaching the main railway bed. "Surprising" might be a strong word, since I did have the mileage indicated on my map. However, in appearance, the canyon to my west penetrated further into the front range than it appeared from the start. The same phenomenon occurred on my return trip, when I found myself "surprised" by how far I needed to go west before the road turned south, and, eventually, back east, towards Echo Mountain.

It's 2.7 miles from the start of the upper Sam Merrill until you reach the rail bed. From there, if you make a right on the road, you'd reach Inspiration Point in .3 miles. However, the clouds were thick enough that I knew I'd see very little from there, so I had no interest in making that detour. Instead, I held out some hope that the summit of Mt. Lowe might peek above the clouds. To go there, I made a left turn and walked along the very wide road/trail.

After no more than .2 miles, a metal sign on the right indicated the start of the East Mt. Lowe trail. I was thus obviously quite close to the summit of Mt. Lowe already, but the clouds gave me no view of my final destination.

This trail climbed a bit, and gave me a slightly higher view of dead trees and blooming wildflowers. Desert Poppies were common. They are distinguished from their relatives, the California Poppy, by the lack of a reddish disc at the base of the bud. They were also yellower than the California cousins.

After another short (less than .2 mile), the trail to the summit split off to the right, while the "straight" path would have taken me to Mt. Lowe Camp.

From here to the summit, things were a little confusing. I climbed and switchbacked up, but the thick clouds hid all significant geographic reference points, as well as the sun. By the time I reached the summit (decorated by a couple of historical signs, a lightning rod, a "shelter" that had lost all its roofing, and numerous site tubes pointing to other peaks in the vicinity), my mental map no longer matched the hidden reality. The site tubes for Mt. Baldy and Mt. Wilson felt like they was pointing west, while the Mt. Markham and San Gabriel Peak tubes seemed to be pointing south. So, lesson one for the day: 5,600 feet isn't always high enough to get above the low clouds rolling over the San Gabriels. Lesson two: don't rely on your sense of direction if you have no firm points of reference.

Although the site tubes promised a very impressive view under clear conditions, today I just collected a lot of shots of grey. I'll have to come this way on a clearer day.

I didn't have the motivation to push to the north the 2.5 miles or so to San Gabriel Peak (6161), in part, because I wasn't sure what sort of a view I would find there, either. Instead, I backtracked down the east Mt. Lowe trail, then returned to where the Sam Merrill Trail intersected with the railbed. However, rather than backtrack the rest of the way, I took a right just before the signed Sam Merrill trail, and headed down the unsigned rail bed.

Mt. Lowe trail camp was only 1/10th of a mile or so down this way. A small creek trickled just above the camp. Numerous interpretive signs dotted the area. A large rock retaining wall rose adjacent to a picnic area, with rails to tie your horses.

I enjoyed the peace-fulness there for a number of minutes before resuming my trip down the rail bed. Interpretive signs continued the rest of the way. Many had historical photos, so you could compare the landscape in front of you in 2011 with how the place looked like during its heyday.

This wide road way could be followed to Millard Canyon. There was also a very clear trail that split off from the road and similarly continued to Millard Canyon. Not sure if both are open all the way through, or if either crosses into the remaining Station Fire Recovery Order.

Not sure what this arrow was about. If you know what it's pointing at, let me know!

Just after you reach the very obvious "Cape of Good Hope" section of the rail bed (about 3.5 miles below where the Sam Merrill trail intersected with the rail bed), the Sunset Ridge trail heads off to the west (left) from this road. The sign was somewhat overgrown, but the path (if you are looking for it) is not hard to see.

This section of the trail is narrower. The concrete foundations of numerous trestle bridges remains, as are, in some sections, the wooden ties that held the rails in place. Along this section, most of the historical interpretive signs were damaged by heat. Although the paper within the signs appeared undamaged, the plastic cover to the signs were melted into odd and opaque shapes.

Eight-tenths of a mile later, you're back near Echo Mountain. Two and six-tenths miles later, you've back on Lake Avenue.

So, total mileage for the day was about 14.3 miles (5.2 miles roundtrip from Lake to Echo Mountain, 2.7 miles from Echo Mountain to the rail bed, 2.4 miles roundtrip from there to Mt. Lowe, 3.2 miles on the railbed to Cape of Good Hope, .8 miles from there to Sam Merrill, according to the Tom Harrison map). It felt good to have a nice, long, yet relatively easy day of walking. Definitely cleared my head and let me ponder the challenges I'm still facing in a less-panicked state of mind than what I was feeling on Sunday.


  1. Very cool! I've never been to Mt. Lowe and will probably visit it this weekend. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sounds like a fun adventure. Nice pics. With more of forest open now, I need to get up that way to get a first-hand glimpse of the fire damage...I think I'm dreading it.

  3. Clouds were a bummer. I didn't expect them this thick on Tuesday. Very limited view. Definitely lots of dead trees, but also a surprisingly large number of living conifers along much of the Sunset Ridge trail.

    Not sure when I'll have time for another long hike in the area, but I'm definitely hoping for clearer skies the next time.

  4. Looks almost like snow up there.

  5. Nope, just that fractured, crumbly whitish yellow rock that is so common in the San Gabriels.

    Snow's up about about 9,000 feet, now. Still plenty near the top (especially the north-facing tops) of the tallest peaks, but that's about it.

  6. Great blog. I just did the mt lowe trail via millard Canyon this last weekend. Its a paved road but as we got further up towards dawn mine it was less and less of a paved road, actually follow along the old rail road route.
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  7. Love your blog!! I'm looking for a short hike to test some new backpacking gear. I thought we might try Mt. Lowe Trail Camp as an overnighter, but I've never been there. Does it seem like a nice place to camp, or is it still blackened and denuded? I couldn't quite tell from your pictures. Anyway, thanks for a great trail description!

  8. Well, it was pretty foggy, so I couldn't see very far. ;D

    The top of the trail, up near Sunset Point, was totally devastated. On the front side, following the rail bed, there were several of those informational historic signs where the plastic covering to the sign was completely melted. Still, it was a nice hike, and it's had another year to recover. The camp itself, as I recall, was still very forested.