Monday, May 7, 2012

Hike 2012.027 -- Mount Wilson via Toll Road

Hiked Sunday, May 6.

I considered several trail possibilities on Sunday before settling on the Eaton Canyon to Mount Wilson route. It's little long, considering I haven't managed much hiking the past few weeks. However, it's a short drive, which would give me the most time hiking versus driving. Also, there are several logical turn-around points on the way to Mount Wilson, so if I got tired, I could always bail early and head back down.

The Eaton Canyon route strikes me as the easiest way up Mount Wilson, and it's probably the way I've gone the most frequently over the past few years. The shortest way to do this is to park near the corner of Crescent Drive and Pinecrest Crest Drives, in Altadena.

To get there, take the 210 Freeway to Altadena Drive. Head north about two miles, passing a park and several lights along the way. As you pass New York Drive, you'll see the entrance to Eaton Canyon Nature Center on your right. You might choose to park there and visit the nature center or take some of the nature trails down there. However, if your destination is Mount Wilson, continuing north will knock two miles off your hike.

Continue another mile past the nature center. The road will reduce back down to one lane each way and make several sweeping curves as you continue north, then northwest, then north, again. When your road begins another turn to the west, you'll see a road splitting off, to your right. That'll be Crescent Drive. Turn right there, and start looking for somewhere to park.

The stop sign about 50 yards up this road is Pinecrest. There's no longer-term parking (over two hours) on Pinecrest (and, on weekends, there's no parking at all on Pinecrest), so aim to park somewhere before the stop sign.

Park carefully, turning your front wheels appropriately to set yourself against the force of gravity. Then walk right at Pinecrest, keeping an eye out for traffic. About 80 yards this way and you'll see the gated entrance to Eaton Canyon, on your right. If you plan to get back before dark, there's no problem. If you don't get back before dark, this gate will be locked, and you've got a two mile detour to get back to your car. That's something to keep in mind as you begin your hike.

Fortunately, it's now late spring, and it doesn't get dark around here until about 7:45pm. So even starting relatively late (about 9:30am, for me, that morning), there's plenty of time to make the hike. It usually takes me about eight hours, roundtrip. That's with a modest, 20 minute rest at the top, plenty of short stops for pictures, but no long rest periods either way. Depending on your own hiking speed and rest or picture taking requirements, you could do this slightly quicker or it could take you a whole lot longer.

The trail starts out as a paved road, but it's only paved to the old bridge that crosses Eaton Canyon Wash. After that, it's mostly a broad dirt road, wide enough for truck travel. It's used by the Forestry Department to staff their station up on Henninger Flats, and for deploying fire crews elsewhere along this route.

That makes this a pretty easy route up, even if there's snow on the ground. That's part of why I head up this way so often--in the winter time, I usually try to manage at least one hike up from the lowlands to the snow line. Didn't make it this year, though

The first incline was frequently covered by rock slides, so they put in a really large set of fencing and rock blocks to hold the hillside back. I saw an interesting red flower, which I assume to be some sort of poppy. It's the first time I remember seeing this flower anywhere, and right along this incline was the only place I saw it today. I suspect they scattered some seeds for it during their last construction period here.

From the bridge, it's about 2 1/2 miles to Henninger Flats. That's a logical turnaround point, and my first bailout point if I got tired. Normally, it's just where I turn around when I'm doing a short conditioning hike. I can do the hike from the Pinecrest entrance to Henninger Flats and back in somewhat less than two hours, so I know if I want to, I can park on Pinecrest for that. Nonetheless, I usually park down on Crescent just so I always have the option during my hike of turning around on heading on.

At Henninger, there's a soda vending machine, flush toilets and a number of campsites. The campground had been closed for quite some time, but it's been open for a while, now. Still, never camped there.

The vast majority of hikers and mountain bikers turn around there, so things usually thin out somewhat after Henninger. No body passed me going up from here besides maybe one or two mountain bikers. Coming down, the mountain bikers were pretty common, but even more so when I began my return trip, many hours later.

I've hiked and blogged on this hike a number of times, so I'll keep my comments here as brief as my longwindedness will allow.

Along the way, I noticed it was pretty hazy to the south, so there were no expansive views to be had today. There was the mysterious sound of bagpipes, however. I couldn't figure out where they were coming from, either there was a troop of bagpipes not too far away, or someone in town had their stereo set at ear-blasting volume. I'm pretty sure it was the former.

I also ran into a huge influx of hikers heading down as I neared Mount Wilson. I'm pretty sure they took a bus up there, because several stopped and asked me how to get to Chantry Flat. I'm assuming their ride was going to meet them there, and I did my best to convey accurate information.

Meanwhile, there's another rock slide partially obstructing the Toll Road, just 1/5 of a mile or so past the junction with the Jones Saddle firebreak. It's pretty much exactly where rock slides have been the past two years. I'm assuming it's been cleared and re-covered, though it's possible I've never noticed that the original slide was never cleared.

Also, just past the rock slide, I came across a gopher snake. It's the third time I saw one just stretched out across a path. Seems like a dangerous way for a snake to lay, since these gopher snakes never seem to move when I approach them. I'm not convinced they'd move out of the way in time if a mountain biker were coming down to bisect them.

Seemed like hundreds of lizards. And I discovered on this hike that garter snakes eat lizards. I small one (maybe ten inches) tried to catch a lizard right in front of me, and the blur of the snake chasing the lizard startled me.

In addition to the little garter snake, I saw a larger one (two feet long or so, maybe more) slithering off into the grass. Unlike gopher snakes, that just lay there, and rattlesnakes, that rattle and hiss at me, garter snakes just seem to scurry off quickly when ever they become aware of me. Don't think I've ever seen one staying still.

The main wildflower I saw on the way up were wild mustard, but I've got plenty of pictures of them, already. In addition to the red poppy I mentioned above, there was a single bush of California Poppies and quite a bit of phlox in bloom.

Among the times I noted along the way, it was just over an hour from the start of the trail to Henninger Flat. I think it was 3 hours to the Jones Saddle firebreak, and about 4 1/2 total to the top. Got back to my car just about eight hours after I left. About 14 miles of walking for the day.


  1. I'm surprised you didn't come across any gopher snakes with tire treads across their middles. We came upon a gopher snake in Rice Canyon a couple of weeks ago, also stretched out across the trail. We finally got it to move but took some coaxing.

    1. As I noted in the blog, this is the third time I've come across a gopher snake with a death wish. You'd think they'd be sitting ducks (so to speak) for any crow or hawk that comes along, too.

      When I came back down, several hours later, there was no sign of the snake, so I assume he moved on to greener pastures.

  2. Cool red poppy. I don't think I've ever seen one of those. Mt. Wilson has such an incredible variety of wildflowers. Watch out for those snakes!

    1. Yep, first time I remember seeing the red poppy anywhere.

      After a surge of rattlesnake sightings in March and April, this was my first snake in over a month, I think.

  3. Hi, I read somewhere that total mileage from the toll road is about 18 miles. I noticed you said you knocked off a couple miles by going beyond the nature center. I would like to do this hike, but I really don't want to do 18 miles!

  4. That's the Pinecrest access point, which drops you on the west side of the bridge that spans the mouth of Eaton Canyon. It's about a mile north of the nature center, so I estimate it knocks off about two miles, roundtrip. The key is to know that the gate to access this trailhead is locked at "dusk," so if you don't get back until after dark, you're kind of screwed.

    From the corner of New York and Altadena, continue north, past the nature center. Stay on Altadena as it narrows to one-lane each way, and makes a few curves. After roughly a mile, as Altadena makes a sharp turn to the left (west), turn instead to your right, at Crescent Drive. Continue to the stop sign, and park in that vicinity.

    There is no weekend parking on Pinecrest east of Crescent, and only two-hour parking on weekdays. So park on Pinecrest west of Crescent, or (my preference) park on Crescent, just south of the stop sign.

    Then walk the 100 yards or so east on Pinecrest, to the gate. Enter from there, descend to the bridge, and cross over to begin your ascent.

    No matter how you climb Mt. Wilson, it's still a long day's hike. It's just my impression that the toll road from Pinecrest feels the easiest.

    Can't stress this part enough: If you take this route, be sure to get back before dark, or you've got a long detour to get back around to your car. Should be plenty of time to do this in the summer, but, in the winter, it can be a pretty tight timetable.