Beating a Path Up the Mt. Wilson Trail
The Mt. Wilson Trail up Little Santa Anita Canyon is the oldest trail into the San Gabriel Mountains. It was built in 1864 by Benjamin Wilson, who overhauled a Gabrielino Indian path in order to log the stands of incense cedar and sugar pine on the mountain that now bears his name.
The first telescope was carried up this trail to Mt. Wilson in 1889. During the Great Hiking Era (1895-1938), thousands of Southern Californians rode the Pacific Electric red cars to Sierra Madre, disembarked and hiked up this path to the popular trail resort at Orchard Camp. Forty thousand hikers and horseback riders passed over the trail in 1911, its peak year.
After the passing of the Great Hiking Era, the trail was all but forgotten until the late 1950s when rebuilding efforts began. The good folks of Sierra Madre, aided by Boy Scout troops, rebuilt the trail all the way up canyon to its junction with Mt. Wilson Toll Road. Today the trail is maintained by the “grand old man of the mountain,” Ambrose Zaro, with the help of other volunteers.
Preserving the Canyon
Sierra Madre citizens also prevented county flood control engineers from bulldozing and check-damming Little Santa Anita Canyon. The aroused citizenry established Sierra Madre Historical Wilderness Area to preserve the canyon. This area is patterned after federal Wilderness areas; that is, the land is to be preserved forever without development or mechanized use.
This hike takes you up Little Santa Anita Canyon, visits Orchard Camp and climbs to the top of Mt. Wilson. Families with small children will enjoy traveling as far as First Water, a shady spot where the trail crosses Little Santa Anita Creek. More ambitious hikers will ascend to woodsy Orchard Camp. And hikers in top form will relish the challenge of climbing to the top of one of Southern California’s premier peaks. There are many routes up Mt. Wilson; this is one of the nicest.
Directions to trailhead: From the Interstate 210 (Foothill Freeway) in Arcadia, take the Baldwin Avenue exit and head north. Proceed 1 1/2 miles and turn right on Miramonte Avenue. Park on Miramonte Avenue near the junction of Mt. Wilson Trail Road. The trail begins 150 yards up this road and is marked by a large wooden sign.
The Hike: Mt. Wilson Trail passes a couple of homes before arriving at the signed trailhead. You’ll also pass a trail register. Sign in.
The trail wastes no time in heading steeply uphill along the brush-covered west slope of Little Santa Anita Canyon. Soon you’ll have a bird’s eye view to the south of the race track at Santa Anita Park.
After 1 1/2 miles, you’ll reach First Water Trail Junction. The main Mt. Wilson Trail continues high above the creek. The lower trail, a more scenic route, leads to the nearby canyon bottom. Here at First Water, you can lean against an old oak, cool your heels in the rushing water, relax and watch the river flow. (The main Mt. Wilson Trail and the lower trail meet up again in a mile. Take either route.)
The trail climbs higher and higher above the canyon floor onto sunny, exposed slopes. Clouds of blue- and white-flowered ceanothus overhang the trail. After a good aerobic workout, you’ll arrive at Orchard Camp, a shady glen dotted with oak and spruce trees. The word camp is something of a misnomer, because there are no facilities. However, this is a fine place to picnic. You can eat your lunch under a huge antiquarian oak or next to the cement foundations of the old trail resort.
When Wilson was building his trail, a construction camp called Halfway House was built here. In later years, homesteaders planted apple and cherry trees--hence the name Orchard Camp. During the Great Hiking Era, a succession of entrepreneurs utilized Orchard Camp as a trail resort and welcomed thousands of hikers.
Mt. Wilson Trail continues its ascent through thick chaparral, and past an occasional oak and spruce, up to the head of Little Santa Anita Canyon. The trail then angles east to Manzanita Ridge, the ridge that separates Little Santa Anita Creek from Winter Creek. At a signed junction, you’ll intersect Winter Creek Trail, and turn left (west).
The trail climbs steeply half a mile along a fire break to a junction with Mt. Wilson Toll Road. Turn right on the old Toll Road and follow it one mile as it ascends through scattered spruce to Mt. Wilson Road, just outside Skyline Park. The park has a snack bar, restrooms, and water fountains. Clear-day views from the park pavilion are superb.
Mt. Wilson-bound hikers will want to take along a map produced by the nonprofit Big Santa Anita Canyon Historical Society. Their publication, “Six Hiking Trails to Mount Wilson,” maps and describes the extensive trail network along the canyons and ridges of the great mountains.
To obtain a copy, send your name, address and $2 to the Big Santa Anita Canyon Historical Society, 7 North 5th Ave., Arcadia, Calif. 91006. Mt. Wilson Trail
Sierra Madre to First Water, 3 1/2 miles round trip; 1,000-foot elevation gain.
Sierra Madre to Orchard Camp, nine miles round trip; 2,000-foot elevation gain.
Sierra Madre to Mt. Wilson, 15 miles round trip; 4,500-foot elevation gain.