Prof. Thaddeus Lowe, Civil War balloonist, man of fame and fortune, was the quintessential California dreamer. His dream was to build a railway into, and resort complex atop, the San Gabriel Mountains high above Pasadena. In the 1890s, his dream became reality. During the height of its popularity, millions took Lowe’s “Railway to the Clouds” to fine hotels and spectacular views of Southern California.
From Pasadena, visitors rode a trolley up Rubio Canyon, where there was a pavilion and hotel. After taking refreshment, they boarded the “airships” of the great cable incline, which carried them 3,000 feet (gaining 1,300 feet) straight up to the Echo Mountain Resort Area. “Breathtaking” and “hair-raising” were the most common descriptions of this thrilling ride. Atop Echo Mountain was the White City, with a hotel, observatory, and a magnificent searchlight purchased from the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. When the searchlight swept the mountaintop, the white buildings of the resort were visible from all over Los Angeles. From Echo Mountain, tourists could board a trolley and ride another few miles to Mount Lowe Tavern at the end of the line.
This historic hike follows the old railway bed, visits the ruins of the White City and Mount Lowe Tavern, and concludes with some fine views of Los Angeles from Inspiration Point. The old railway bed with its gentle 7% grade makes easy walking.
Along the trail, the Forest Service has established 10 historic markers keyed to a pamphlet explaining Mount Lowe’s colorful past. You can pick up the free 24-page pamphlet, “Self-Guided Hiking Tour of Historic Mount Lowe,” from Angeles National Forest Service headquarters in Arcadia. You can also receive a copy of the pamphlet by mail. Direct your request to: Public Affairs, Angeles National Forest, 701 N. Santa Anita Ave., Arcadia 91006.
Directions to trailhead: Exit the Foothill Freeway at Lake Avenue and follow it north to its end. Turn left on Loma Alta Drive. Go one mile to Chaney Trail Road and turn right. At a Y, take the right fork to the Sunset Ridge parking area. The trailhead is located at the locked gate, which bars vehicles from Sunset Ridge Fire Road.
The hike: The trail begins just past the locked gate. Follow the paved Sunset Ridge Fire Road. You may follow the fire road two miles to its junction with the Echo Mountain Trail, but a more attractive alternative is described below.
Follow the road one-fourth of a mile to the signed Sunset Ridge Trail on your left. Join this trail, which for the most part parallels the fire road and leads into peaceful Millard Canyon. Near the canyon bottom, the trail forks at a signed junction. Bear right and ascend back up to Sunset Ridge Fire Road. Follow the fire road about 75 yards and on your right you’ll spot the signed junction with Echo Mountain Trail.
Side trip to Echo Mountain: Bear right on Echo Mountain Trail, which leads one-half of a mile over the old railway bed to Echo Mountain. Echo Mountain takes its name from an echo that bounces around the semicircle of mountain walls. I’ve never managed to get very good feedback; perhaps even echoes fade with time.
On Echo Mountain are the foundations of Echo Mountain House and the chalet. The most prominent ruin is the large, iron bull wheel that pulled the cars up the steep incline from Rubio Canyon. A fire swept Echo Mountain in 1900, leveling all of the White City except the observatory. Picnic tables suggest a lunch stop among the ruins. Leave behind the ruins of the White City, return to Sunset Ridge Fire Road and bear right.
The paved road soon becomes dirt and an interpretive sign at “Cape of Good Hope” lets you know you’ve joined the Mount Lowe Railway tour. Continue along the railroad bed, passing the tourist attractions that impressed an earlier generation of travelers: Granite Gate, Horseshoe Curve, and the site of the Great Circular Bridge. Near the top, you’ll come to the site of Mount Lowe Tavern, which burned in 1936. Almost all signs of the tavern are gone, but this peaceful spot under oaks and big cone spruce still extends its hospitality. On the old tavern site is Mount Lowe Trail Camp, which welcomes day hikers with its shade, water, restrooms and picnic tables.
Before heading down, follow the fire road east and then south for 1/2 mile to Inspiration Point. Where the fire road makes a hairpin left to Mt. Wilson, go right. At Inspiration Point you can gaze through several telescope-like sighting tubes aimed at Santa Monica, Hollywood and the Rose Bowl. After you’ve found a sight that inspires you, return the same way.
Mount Lowe Railway Trail
Sunset Ridge to Inspiration Point: seven miles round trip; 1,100-foot elevation gain.