Scaling the Ghostly Ruins of Echo Mountain Resort

JOHN McKINNEY, McKinney is the author of hiking books and a regular contributor to The Times

Thaddeus Sobreski Coulincourt Lowe--a professor, inventor, Civil War balloonist, and man of fame and fortune--was the quintessential California dreamer. One of his dreams was to build a railway into, and a resort complex atop, the San Gabriel Mountains high above Pasadena.

In the 1890s, his dream became a reality. During the height of its popularity, millions took Lowe's "Railway to the Clouds" to fine hotels to see spectacular views of Southern California.

From Pasadena, visitors rode a trolley up Rubio Canyon to a pavilion and hotel. After taking refreshments, they boarded the "airships" of a great cable incline railway that carried them 3,000 feet (gaining 1,300 feet in altitude) up to Echo Mountain Resort Area.

"Breathtaking" and "hair-raising" were the most common descriptions of the ride that thrilled visitors from 1893 to 1936. Atop Echo Mountain were hotels, an observatory and a magnificent searchlight purchased from the Chicago World's Fair. When the searchlight swept the mountaintop, the white buildings of the resort were visible from all over Los Angeles.

This historic hike visits the ruins of the "White City" on Echo Mountain. From the steps of the old Echo Mountain House are great clear-day views of the megalopolis. Energetic hikers can join trails leading to Inspiration Point and Idlehour campground.

Pasadena and Altadena citizens long have been proud to share their fascination with the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains. This pride has extended to the trails ascending from these municipalities into the mountains.

It was the local citizens, under the auspices of the Forest Conservation Club, who built a trail from the outskirts of Altadena to Echo Mountain during the 1930s. During the next decade, retired Los Angeles Superior Court clerk Samuel Merrill overhauled and maintained the path. When Merrill died in 1948, the trail was named for him.

Sam Merrill Trail begins at the former Cobb Estate, now a part of Angeles National Forest. A plaque placed by the Altadena Historical Society dedicates the estate ground as "a quiet place for people and wildlife forever."

Directions to trail head: From Interstate 210 (Foothill Freeway) in Pasadena, exit on Lake Avenue and travel north 3 1/2 miles to its end at Loma Alta Drive. Park along Lake Avenue.

The Hike: From the great iron gate of the old Cobb Estate, follow the trail along the chain-link fence. Sign in at the trail register.

The path dips into Las Flores Canyon, crosses a seasonal creek in the canyon bottom, then begins to climb. As you begin your earnest but well-graded ascent, enjoy good over-the-shoulder views of the San Gabriel Valley and downtown Los Angeles. Two long, steep and mostly shadeless miles of travel bring you to a signed junction. Bear right and walk 100 yards along the bed of the old Mount Lowe Railway to the Echo Mountain ruins. Just before the ruins is a drinking fountain, very welcome if it's a hot day.

Up top, you'll spot the railway's huge bull wheel, now embedded in cement, and just below is a pile of concrete rubble, all that remains of the railway depot after it was dynamited by the Forest Service in 1959.

The steps and foundation of the Echo Mountain House are great places to take a break and to enjoy the view straight down precipitous Rubio Canyon, the route of Lowe's railway. A bit down the mountain to the east stood the other hotel--the Chalet--but nothing remains of it.

Echo Mountain takes its name from the echo that bounces around the semicircle of mountain walls. I've never managed to get very good feedback; perhaps even echoes fade with time.

Sam Merrill Trail

Cobb Estate to Echo Mountain : 5 miles round trip; 1,400-foot elevation gain

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