A Calm Between Two Storms

I went hiking last Thursday between the two storms that finally brought some rain to drought stricken California. My hike started with the clouds from Wednesday’s storm slowly breaking up and giving way to mostly blue skies as I made my way from the Cobb Estate Trailhead to Mt. Lowe.

Lower Sam Merrill Trail

Lower Sam Merrill Trail

 

With a freshness to the air that comes after a rain and the corresponding intensified smells that damp ground and wet vegetation produce, the landscape felt more alive to me than usual. The interplay of sunlight breaking through and then being hidden by clouds added a compelling dynamism and energy that clear skies don’t produce for me.

View coming down the Upper Sam Merrill Trail from Mt. Lowe.

View coming down the Upper Sam Merrill Trail from Mt. Lowe.

By the time I made it down to Mt. Lowe Campground and found the water tank Chris told me about, the sun was out and the skies were mostly clear. I enjoyed a short rest sitting at one of the picnic benches feeling confident I was going to see a fantastic sunset on my way down the Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

Water Tank above and behind the remains of the concrete retaining wall of the Old Alpine Tavern.

Water Tank above and behind the remains of the concrete retaining wall of the Old Alpine Tavern.

It’s just over a mile from Mt. Lowe Campground to Sunset Point along the Middle Sam Merrill Trail. The terrain is easy hiking but views are blocked by the north face of an unnamed mountain (that I sometimes refer to as Inspiration Peak for quick reference). While I covered that short amount of ground, the weather changed dramatically. I arrived at Sunset Point to discover it was engulfed in the foggy moisture of clouds making their way over the mountain. The coming storm was making its presence felt. Further down the trail, light from below began breaking through foretelling my pending descent below the clouds.

Light breaking through the clouds from below along the Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

Light breaking through the clouds from below along the Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

When I got below the clouds, the view was clear and expansive. With clouds forming above the mountain but not off in the distance, the nuanced subtle changes in light made the night portion of my hike extra special.

View from the Middle Sam Merrill Trail close to Echo Mountain.

View from the Middle Sam Merrill Trail close to Echo Mountain.

Not being able to predict what I’m going to experience is part of what makes hiking so enjoyable for me. Every hike seams to produce it’s own story. Starting my day with clouds breaking up from Wednesday’s storm and ending it with the arrival of clouds for the storm that started late Thursday night intensified the feeling that I was just able to squeeze this one in–a calm between two storms.

Underappreciated Muir Peak

I mentioned in an earlier post why I like to do my training hikes from the Cobb Estate in winter. Like any area with numerous interconnected trails, the number of people one sees gets significantly smaller as the distance to get to a spot increases. In the case of the numerous spots reachable by day hiking from the Cobb Estate, the first two most people attempt to reach are Echo Mountain, and Inspiration Point. On weekends the hike to Echo Mountain is packed, but at Inspiration Point, there are usually only a few people. So, it’s easy to strike up a conversation. After hiking to Muir Peak last winter–which is only about 0.7 miles east of Inspiration Point, I’ve started asking people if they have hiked to the peak. Nobody has told me yes yet–which I find unfortunate. To be fair, Muir Peak is not labeled on most maps, others have it improperly placed to the west of Inspiration Point, and I haven’t yet seen any map that shows the Muir Peak Trail.

View toward Mt. Lowe from Muir Peak.

View toward Mt. Lowe from Muir Peak. (click to enlarge)

Part of my hike last Sunday included reaching the summit of Muir Peak. After having another four conversations where nobody had visited the Peak, I decided to finally add this hike to my blog (which is more direct than my Sunday hike that included Mt. Lowe).

View from Inspiration Point down the One Man & Mule Railway Trail and toward the West Bump of Muir Peak.

View from Inspiration Point down the One Man & Mule Railway Trail and toward the West Bump of Muir Peak.

While Inspiration Point has a great view, being located in a saddle results in it having blocked views east and west. Also, from Inspiration Point, Mt. Lowe is close by and blocks views of Mt. Markham and San Gabriel Peak. It is worth the effort to make the trek to Muir Peak and its 360 degree views far enough from higher peaks to take them in fully, and its better vantage point to see the city below.

View along the One Man & Mule Railway Trail.

View along the One Man & Mule Railway Trail.

The Muir Peak Trailhead is reached after a short half mile walk on The O.M. &M. Railway Trail. The first time I hiked it I was surprised to find such a well-maintained trail. There is a small sign on the trailhead marker reading “This trail reconstructed by volunteers from the J.P.L. Hiking Club” (now known as JPL Hiking +). I appreciate their efforts as the short trail to the summit is in great shape and offers a nice variety of views.

View toward Mt. Wilson from the Muir Peak Trail.

View toward Mt. Wilson from the Muir Peak Trail.

You are likely to have this peak to yourself–even on weekends.

Snow Hiking in Los Angeles: Echo Mountain and Inspiration Point

Los Angeles has numerous places to hike in the snow during winter.  Of course, it’s the LA version of being in the snow; we need to drive to it—which I guess makes sense as even our subway stations have parking lots.  To be clear, I’m not talking about the Hollywood version; the snow is real.  Surprising as it may sound to some, getting to snow in Los Angeles is easy and numerous opportunities exist that don’t require special equipment (like tire chains) to make the journey.  For most residents, the drive time to find snow is similar to the time it takes to commute to work.

Having lived in Los Angeles my entire life, I didn’t realize how easily I could get to snow until a few years ago—at least as easy as getting to the beach from most of the places I’ve lived in LA.   I didn’t learn about snowshoeing until last year, and I didn’t learn about microspikes until a couple weeks ago (thanks Chris, the Kahtoola microspikes you told me about work great).  I’ve now become part of the subculture of Angelenos who own some array of snowshoes, crampons, and/or microspikes primarily for hiking in our local mountains.  I’ve already snowshoed twice this year and I’m looking forward to getting to the snow every week or two for the rest of winter.

Standing on Mt. Baldy in snow (for the first time) a few weeks ago, I thought about how much I enjoy snowshoeing and how much the places in the forest that I’ve hiked numerous times in the other three seasons look and feel different in snow.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about all the spots I want to get to this year that I haven’t seen in snow yet, as well as those places I’ve already been in snow.  I realized I could create a winter series (of undetermined periodicity) about snow hiking in Los Angeles to share my experiences and perhaps inspire others to give some form of hiking in snow a try.

On New Year’s Day, my family and I went to the Long Beach Aquarium.  As we got further away from the mountains it became easier to see how much snow had accumulated on them.  I thought about the Rose Parade and wondered how many people realized that the parade was taking place closer to the snow than the beach.

View toward Downtown LA from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail just below Echo Mountain.

View toward Downtown LA from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail just below Echo Mountain.

For this first post of the series, I’ve decided to highlight the ease of getting to snow by starting with a hike that is about a 15 minute drive from Pasadena.  It is also a good introductory hike because driving conditions will not be an issue as they can be on other hikes in Angeles Forest because this hike starts below snow level.  The cost of starting at a low elevation is that it requires somewhere between a 2 and 3 mile hike to reach the snow.  This is one of the most popular hikes in the forest (probably due to easy access).  As a result, lots of people are guaranteed to be there. This hike starts from the Cobb Estate Trailhead where most people hike to Echo Mountain.  Many people continue up from Echo Mountain and hike to Inspiration Point via the Castle Canyon Trail, or  they hike to Inspiration Point via the Middle Sam Merrill Trail, or they do a loop hiking up one trail and down the other.

Zoom in view looking down on a lightly snow covered Echo Mountain with Downtown Los Angeles in the background from the Castle Canyon Trail.

Zoom in view looking down on a lightly snow covered Echo Mountain with Downtown Los Angeles in the background from the Castle Canyon Trail.

Being on the south face of the San Gabriel Mountains and at comparatively low elevations, the snow will probably only last a day or two after a storm on Echo Mountain (elevation 3,207′) and not much more than a week after a storm near Inspiration Point (elevation 4,510′).  Therefore, I suggest checking the snow levels after a storm to determine if these spots have snow.

Castle Canyon Trail

Castle Canyon Trail

In the past when I’ve hiked the Castle Canyon Trail in snow (as far back as February 2011 when these pictures were taken), I’ve done so without snowshoes, crampons, or microspikes because I didn’t have them.  The depth of snow on the trail rarely had my normal hiking boots deeper than about 8″ in the snow.  So, this hike is achievable without special equipment, but would be made a little easier if you happen to have one of the above mentioned boot accessories.

View toward west hump of Mt. Muir as seen from the Castle Canyon Trail near Inspiration Point.

View toward west hump of Muir Peak as seen from the Castle Canyon Trail near Inspiration Point.

View from the Castle Canyon Trail near Inspiration Point.

View from the Castle Canyon Trail near Inspiration Point.

View toward Mt. Lowe (partially blocked by clouds) from Inspiration Point.

View toward Mt. Lowe (partially blocked by clouds) from Inspiration Point.

View toward Mt. Wilson (blocked by clouds) from Inspiration Point.

View toward Mt. Wilson (blocked by clouds) from Inspiration Point.

View down Castle Canyon from Inspiration Point.

View down Castle Canyon from Inspiration Point.

If I hike up to Inspiration Point via the Castle Canyon Trail, I typically hike down using the Middle Sam Merrill Trail which goes around the north side of an unnamed peak.  This means its snow lasts longer and is often deeper.

Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

Making it around to the west side of the unnamed peak yields excellent views of the Pacific Ocean on a clear day, JPL, and the city below.

The Middle Sam Merrill Trail on the west side of the unnamed peak with the Pacific Ocean in the background.

The Middle Sam Merrill Trail on the west side of the unnamed peak with the Pacific Ocean in the background.

Middle Sam Merrill Trail

Middle Sam Merrill Trail

Another good thing about the Middle Sam Merrill Trail is it has a fairly unobstructed view back into the forest looking northwest toward Brown Mountain.

View toward Brown Mountain from the Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

View toward Brown Mountain from the Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

Castle Canyon

The Castle Canyon Trail connects Echo Mountain to Inspiration Point.  So, you need to reach one of those two end points from another trail to hike Castle Canyon.  One way to get to the Castle Canyon trail is to start from the Cobb Estate and hike up to Echo Mountain using the Lower Sam Merrill Trail.

Like the Lower Sam Merrill Trail, Castle Canyon begins without shade.

However, a large part of the trail is shady and even meets up with a small stream in a couple places (that may not have water in summer).

After enough rain or snow, a seasonal waterfall (or water-trickle) emerges.

The trail starts at an elevation of about 3200′ and reaches close to 4500′ and will sometimes be covered in snow.  Usually, just enough snow to make it interesting and hike-able without snowshoes or crampons.  So, several times during winter or spring you can park at the Cobb Estate in Altadena and fairly quickly hike up to snow along this trail (2-1/2 to 4-1/2 miles from parking depending on snow level).

Unlike the Lower Sam Merrill trail where at any time you can look out to views of the city, much of the time the view of the canyon and what is surrounding you on the trail is introspective and is blocked from city views.

At other times there are great views of the city and of Echo Mountain from above.

A significant portion of the trail gets a little steep compared with the rest of the trail–which is great if you are training.  Even if you aren’t training, the reward of making it to Inspiration Point is worth the effort.  At Inspiration Point there is shade, picnic tables, signage with history of the area, and remnants of the old one man and mule railway.

On a clear day, there are excellent views down the canyon and of the city, the ocean, and Catalina Island.

Hiking to the White City Ruins at Echo Mountain

The White City Ruins are what remain of a resort that existed at Echo Mountain in the early 1900’s.  There are remnants of of the resort and associated structures, incline railway leading to it, and the electric railway leading from Echo Mountain to the Alpine Tavern (now Mt. Lowe Campground) near Inspiration Point.  In addition, there are several signs throughout the ruins sharing the history of the resort and the people who built it.

View overlooking remains of the incline railway landing from what is left of the stairway leading to the hotel.

An extremely popular way to get to Echo Mountain is to take the Lower Sam Merrill Trail.  This trail offers great views of the city and on a clear day the ocean and Catalina Island are easily seen.  These views are the primary appeal of the trail itself until one reaches Echo Mountain.  Significantly, there isn’t much shade on this trail.  Therefore, a great time to hike it is in the winter, early in the morning, or at dusk.  I prefer to hike it at dusk or even after sunset.  Several hikers make their way up to Echo Mountain in the evening, so it’s relatively safe to travel at night when compared with other areas of the forest.  With the ocean off in the distance, sunsets are typically magnificent.

"Zoomed in" view toward the ocean from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail

Another way to get to Echo Mountain is to take the Sunset Ridge Trail from one of the two trailheads off of Chaney Trail in Millard Canyon.  The shorter path starts from the gate and meets up with the Upper Sunset Ridge Trail and ends up at the Cape of Good Hope.  Unlike the Lower Sam Merrill Trail, the views are essentially of the forest.  The trail is often shady and there are nice views of Millard Falls.  Presently however, access to the falls is closed.  There is also a nice picnic area with a view of the city at Sierra Saddle just over half way to the Cape of Good Hope.

Upper Sunset Ridge Trail

The longer path starts near the Millard Canyon Campground.  It includes the short lower part of the Sunset Ridge Trail (about 0.8 miles) and is a shady trail leading up to the Upper Sunset Ridge Trail.

Lower Sunset Ridge Trail

From the Cape of Good Hope, the Lower Mt. Lowe Railway Trail leads to Echo Mountain.  This trail is interesting as there are remains of the old electric railway and several railway bridges.  Along the way, there are signs throughout showing pictures of the train at the time it was running.

Lower Mt. Lowe Railway Trail

If you are going with a group and taking multiple cars, another option is to leave a car at the Cobb Estate Trailhead and a car at one of the two trailheads off of Chaney Trail and do a shuttle hike.