The Mt. Lowe Scenic Railway, the “railway to the clouds,” was the Southland’s leading tourist attraction from the 1890s to the 1930s, carrying more than a million passengers from the outskirts of Altadena to a fine hotel and stunning views on Echo Mountain.
Sometimes I hike the old railway bed, whose 7% grade makes for easy walking. But I prefer the more direct Sam Merrill Trail, which leads to the top of Echo Mountain and the ruins of the resort, often called White City because of the glow of its electric lights. Fit hikers can continue on to Mt. Lowe.
Residents built a trail along the route to Echo Mountain in the ‘30s. During the next decade, a retiree named Samuel Merrill overhauled and maintained the path. When Merrill died in 1948, the Sierra Club named the trail after him.
Today hikers can reach the trail head by following Interstate 210 to Pasadena, then taking Lake Avenue 3 1/2 miles north until it ends at Loma Alta Drive. Park along Lake.
The Sam Merrill Trail begins from the intriguing ruins of the nearby Cobb Estate. A plaque from the Altadena Historical Society dedicates the grounds as “a quiet place for people and wildlife forever.”
From the stone pillars and iron gate, follow the driveway east about 100 yards to the trail sign for Echo Mountain. The path switchbacks up the steep east wall of Las Flores Canyon to great views of downtown Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.
After 2 1/2 miles, the trail tops out at a signed junction. Detour right and walk south a short way to the cement ruins of the train depot and the railway’s huge bull wheel. The steps and foundation of the old hotel are great places to take a break.
Hikers can turn around and retrace their steps back to their cars, completing a five-mile trek. More ambitious folks can continue on the Sam Merrill Trail, following the old railway bed eight-tenths of a mile to the Sunset Ridge Fire Road and a rocky promontory known in the old days as Cape of Good Hope. Interpretive signs point out attractions that thrilled train passengers back then: Horseshoe Curve, Circular Bridge, Granite Gate.
After 2 1/2 miles of climbing, you’ll reach Mt. Lowe Trail Camp, a shady place to rest. From here, hikers have two options:
You can continue up the road, past the junction with Idlehour Trail, to a signed junction with Upper Sam Merrill Trail. It leads back down to Echo Mountain. You’ll love the woodsy feel of the first part of this descent and the metropolitan views in the latter part. Watch your step and avoid washouts and eroded segments of the trail.
You also can depart the Mt. Lowe camp and hike half a mile to Inspiration Point and more great views. From here signed Castle Canyon Trail drops a fast two miles back to Echo Mountain, where you pick up the Sam Merrill Trail leading back to the car.
John McKinney offers more tips at www.thetrailmaster.com.