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Echo Mountain later climbed Sat, Dec 29, 2012|
The Sam Merrill Trail is a classic of the San Gabriel Mtns. It winds its way up the picturesque Las Flores Canyon from the city of Altadena to the summit of Echo Mtn. At one time the Mt. Lowe Railway made its way from the city up to Mt. Lowe with a stop at Echo Mtn, a popular resort and tourist attraction, the brainchild of one Proffessor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, a Civil War balloonist, inventor, engineer and scientist who had made and lost several fortunes over his lifetime. At the turn of the twentieth century he moved to the West Coast where he focused his energies in building a mountain resort to rival those of the Swiss Alps. The 70-room Mountain House was built atop Echo Mtn and the Alpine Tavern was completed at the base of Mt. Lowe near Inspiration Point. But the enterprise never made any money and eventually went into receivership and sold at auction. Devastating rains swept most of the structures down the mountainside and in 1938 the venture closed for good. Some of the foundations and a few of the larger ironworks remain, but mostly it is a collection of informational signs and markers to a past age.
Having been to all the higher HPS peaks in the area including Mt. Lowe, I was interested in a handful of LPC peaks and planned to use the Sam Merrill Trail as the first stretch in reaching them from the corner of Loma Alta Dr and Lake Ave in Altadena. Parking restrictions do not allow non-residents to park before 6a in the area, so it was necessary to find overnight parking a quarter mile away in a residential area. I was the second car to show up shortly before 6a, but I waited until the hour had struck before starting out for fear of being ticketed.
I had some trouble finding my way to the start of the trail as the land appears to be owned by a local utility that allows public access, but does only a minimal job of directing one where to go. You sort of have to know where you're going to ahead of time. I found the start at the east end of a concrete sidewalk adjacent to the gated road. Within 15 minutes I was already starting to climb above the fog as the the trail made its way up the side of Echo Mtn. It took an hour to hike the initial three miles to Echo's summit. There were old cog wheels and other relics from the railway and more than a dozen signs and plaques describing the Mountain House, the railway and the various features of the enterprise. Most of the signs were placed in the early 1990s and at nearly twenty years old were showing their age, mostly through graffiti and sun damage.
I walked around Echo Mtn reading all the signs I came across, taking in the fog-dominated views and imagining what it might have been like riding the funicular to Mountain House and walking about the grounds. I was milling around the summit about 15 minutes when I found a Castle Canyon Trail junction sign set in stone. I had heard of this trail in some research the night before and decided to take it instead of the Sam Merrill Trail the remaining distance to Inspiration Point. Most of the trail was in shade as it made its way first traversing into, then steeply up Castle Canyon, just east of Echo Mtn. One gets a strong feeling for how steep these slopes are and the forces that are bringing the mountain back down to the flatlands below. Trees, rock, sand, portions of the trail and everything else can be seen getting washed away in parts or whole. It is only through the diligence of the trailbuilding crews that the trail continues to be maintained and usable.
It took about 45 minutes to make my way to Inspiration Point. A trail runner was the only other person there shortly after 8a when I arrived. There were more signs and relics as well as some sighting tubes to the various views around the LA area. All of it is housed in a rock-walled pavillion, making for a popular vista. Inspiration Point is most easily accessed from above via the Mt. Wilson Rd, but plenty of folks enjoy the hike up from Altadena as well.
My next destination was Muir Peak located about a mile to the southeast. Some maps have the location marked incorrectly, moving it northwest to Inspiration Point, but fortunately I had done my homework and knew were to find this mildly ellusive summit. The fireroad heading southeast from the pavillion sees little traffic and I found it overgrown with tall grasses and an abundance of flowers. Mt. Lowe rises up high on the left as one starts out, soon opening up to views to Mt. Wilson and vicinity to the east. There is now a maintained trail with a signed junction leading to the top of Mt. Muir. There was a wooden stake and a small cairn at the otherwise bare summit when I arrived before 8:30a, but no register. The fog was starting to burn off over the LA area to the south and west.
I retraced my route back to Inspiration Point and continued on the road leading to the saddle between Inspiration and Lowe, then traversing around the west and northwest sides of Mt. Lowe. At the point where the road takes a sudden sharp right turn heading east there is a trail junction for a little-used route heading west to Tom Sloane Saddle. The inactivity on the trail since the Station fire was evident, making it difficult to follow at times. Poison oak along the route does nothing to increase its appeal. It was after 9:30a before I reached Tom Sloane Saddle, a tangle of thicket and weeds and disuse. A sign indicated where the trail drops north into Bear Canyon but my route was further west along the ridgeline to Brown Mtn. Though I found little semblence of a trail past Tom Sloane, the route was not difficult to follow and quite picturesque. Flowers were out in greater abundance than usual thanks to the fire that burned off much of the thick chaparral that had covered the area.
One might think Brown Mtn gets its name from the color of its hilltop which has no trees, little chaparral, and a distinctive covering of brown grass and dirt, unusual for the area - but it doesn't. I was later informed that it's named for John Brown, the abolitionist. There was a red register can but no register atop a good-sized cairn at the obstruction-free summit. There was a clear view to the north of Josephine and Strawberry peaks and the numerous other HPS peaks to the east around the Mt. Wilson area. The fog was clearing more to the west and south, but still lingering to the southeast and along the coast.
I returned back across Tom Sloane Saddle to the road around Mt. Lowe, then further back to Inspiration Point. Passing by the Sam Merrill Trail junction, I climbed the highpoint just north of the pavillion. From here I followed the crest of the ridge west and southwest as I started my descent back to Altadena. I crossed over the Sam Merrill Trail and continued down the ridgeline that had a faint use trail and seemed a more scenic option than either of the several maintained trails. This took me past the Circular Bridge and Cape of Good Hope, two of the unusual features of the railroad extension that went past Mountain House. I went past a junction with the Sunset Ridge Trail, hiked along some old pavement no longer driven on, then dropped down a continuation of the use trail that descends the west side of Las Flores Canyon. Though I wasn't exactly sure where the route I was taking would lead, it seemed to be in the general direction of my start. I was happy to find that it did indeed return to the street corner I had started at, very near to the start of the Sam Merrill Trail. There was a firetruck and ambulance at the gated entrance when I returned around 1:40p. Someone had evidently gotten injured or sick on the trail and a crew had been sent in to retrieve them. The ambulance drivers were standing around, waiting for their cargo to arrive as I walked past them to my van. These hills are dangerous, it would seem...
I had a long 5hr drive back to San Jose that afternoon so I called it a day. I fueled up with gas and caffeine at Castaic Lake before completing the remaining 4hrs of driving back to San Jose. Somehow I had managed to arrange my schedule to allow me to return to SoCal only two days later after I had taken care of a few family matters. The summer of 2011 was looking very busy for me getting out to the hills - something I would have little reason to complain about...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Echo Mountain - Muir Peak - Brown Mountain - Inspiration Point
This page last updated: Fri Aug 26 21:44:16 2011
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