Long ago, back in the 90s – that is the 1890s, the resort built on Echo Mountain was one of the largest tourist draws in California. Thaddeus Lowe’s resort, known as the White City, was perched at an elevation of 3,200 feet, overlooking the city of Pasadena and a grand stretch of Southern California. The resort was long ago destroyed by wildfires, leaving fascinating ruins for present day visitors to explore. There are expansive views from the site of the resort, which you no longer need a reservation to enjoy. The tramcars that delivered guests to the resort are gone too, so use your leg power on this 5.8-mile hike with 1,400 feet of elevation gain.
Starting from Cobb Estate Gate at the north end of Lake Avenue, hike east on a paved walkway for one tenth of a mile. When the road turns north, continue straight on a dirt path following the sign for Sam Merrill Trail. After a few hundred feet, you will reach the start of the trail. Take a moment to look over the posted map. Then set out up the trail, which angles north across the typically dry creek below Las Flores Canyon. On the east side of the creek, the switchbacks begin, about 2.5 miles of them. Take a good swig from your canteen and get ready to climb.
Sam Merrill Trail
The trail ascends at a steady aggressive grade, but never gets too steep over the 1,400-foot climb. Views over Pasadena expand as you maneuver up the side of Las Flores Canyon past chaparral and spring windflowers.
A mile and a half up, the trail swings around the other side of the ridge for a brief glimpse into Rubio Canyon to the east. The next switchback guides you back to the Las Flores side of the ridge beneath a string of power lines.
A hiker on Sam Merrill Trail
After 2.7 miles, Lower Sam Merrill Trail comes to a T-junction with Mount Lowe Trail, which was once used as a rail line to transport guests to a tavern and other destinations deeper in the San Gabriel Mountains. To the left, one can hike a mile along this trail to the Cape of Good Hope, a scenic lookout. To the right, the road extends for 0.2 miles to the Echo Mountain ruins. Turn right and continue straight through two trail junction on the left, Upper Sam Merrill Trail and Castle Canyon Trail. Follow the wide trail out to the point along the path of the Mount Lowe Railway, which was in service from 1893 to 1936 and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
An archival image of the White City
Mount Lowe Trail ends at the foundation of the resort complex known as the White City. Remaining machinery and masonry are accompanied by numerous park-provided plaques that add history and scope to the setting. Still standing is the landing and steps where guests would exit White Chariots, the tramcars that delivered them from Rubio Canyon to Echo Mountain. The impressive incline tramline has long disappeared, but the old route is visible below. Constructing a line on this steep slope is an impressive piece of engineering, even by today’s standards.
Looking down the path of the incline tram
The resort and railway built by Thaddeus S. C. Lowe attracted over 3 million guests in its 40 years of operation, making it one of the most popular destinations in Southern California. A plaque posted alongside the foundation offers this description of the resort:
The world famous Echo Mountain House was completed in 1894. It was a beautiful “L-shaped” building, four stories high with a 400-foot wing offering a southern exposure. A massive metal dome crowned the structure. The entire interior of the hotel was furnished in natural wood and had, in addition to 70 sleeping rooms, office space, social and recreation halls, a dining room, curio shop, Western Union office, bowling alley, billiard room, barber shop, shoeshine stand, and other facilities for the comfort of guests. The hotel cost $65,000, a vast sum at the time.
From the footprint of the resort, walk northwest across the clearing to a strange looking relic. In an era before cell phones and walkie-talkies, the Echo Phone could be used to shout messages across the mountain. A series of these metal megaphones were used to communicate back and forth to the resort. Step up and give the Echo Phone a try. The booming messenger still resonates across the canyon.
The Echo Phone
Professor Lowe chose a fine spot for his resort. The sprawling vista that drew guests from around the world is now free to hikers, and every bit as exceptional. Since this is a place you will want to linger, there is a picnic area in a pine grove on the northwest side of the ruins – a peaceful spot for a sylvan picnic.
The remains of an old rail car
There are several ways to extend this hike. Upper Sam Merrill Trail continues for seven miles to Mount Wilson Road, crossing Mount Lowe Campground after three miles. Castle Canyon Trail continues for two miles to Inspiration Point and 2.5 miles to Mount Lowe Campground. These trails can be used to form a loop that extends the hike to approximately ten miles. For something shorter, the one-mile hike along the old rail path to the Cape of Good Hope is a more level option.
Another possible variation is to descend into Rubio Canyon and loop back to the start of Sam Merrill Trail for a six-mile hike that requires walking 1/3 of a mile over residential streets to connect the trails.
Walk to the east edge of the resort ruins and find the steep unmaintained track heading into Rubio Canyon on a course parallel to the old tramline. Note: From the picnic area next to the ruins there is a worn single-track heading down into the canyon. This is not the trail you are looking for. This steep track drops into Rubio Canyon above the Grand Chasm, so without repelling equipment you will be unable to exit Rubio Canyon. There are a few nice small waterfalls in this rustic upper stretch of the canyon, making it an interesting area to explore, but the hike back up to Echo Mountain is steep and loose.
The correct trail angles south down the old tramline, dropping 1,100 feet over 1.5 miles. The views are broad, but the trail is steep and unmaintained (definitely tougher if you were trying to go up this way instead of down). When you reach the canyon floor, turn up the creek and rock-hop for a tenth of a mile to Moss Grotto Falls and Ribbon Rock Falls, a double waterfall in Rubio Canyon. Return to the bottom of Incline Trail and hike down Rubio Canyon Trail for just over half a mile to the trailhead on Rubio Vista Road. Hike down the road to Rubio Canyon Drive; make a left and a quick right (to stay on Rubio Canyon Drive). After a hundred feet, turn right onto Altadena Crest Trail and hike east on this dull course through houses and water management ducts to return to the bottom of Sam Merrill Trail. Hike back out to the Cobb Estate Gate to complete the loop.
No fee or permit is required to hike Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain as it begins outside the boundaries of Angeles National Forest. Dogs are welcome.
To get to the trailhead: From the 210 Freeway in Pasadena, take exit 26 and head north on Lake Ave. Drive 3.6 miles to the end of the road and find street parking. The trailhead is on the right, just before the road turns sharply to the left and becomes East Loma Alta Drive.
Trailhead address: 3302 Lake Avenue, Altadena, CA 91001
Trailhead coordinates: 34.203811, -118.130507
Use the map below to create your own directions. Sam Merrill Trail is in green, Incline Trail is in red, Rubio Canyon Trail is in blue, and Altadena Crest Trail is in gray.
|Rubio Canyon Trail|
This 1.3-mile round trip hike ventures into a rustic canyon to a double waterfall.
|Eaton Canyon Falls|
This 3.5-mile hike goes up Eaton Wash to a narrow stretch of Eaton Canyon containing a pleasant 40-foot waterfall.
|Henninger Flats via Mount Wilson Toll Road|
This 6-mile round trip hike ascends 1,325 feet to a trail camp, tree nursery, lookout tower, and visitor center on a landing in the San Gabriel Mountains operated by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The hike can easily be extended to 8.7 miles by exploring a loop above Henninger Flats.
This one mile hike visits a 50-foot waterfall up one of the most scenic canyons in the range.
This 6-mile hike from Millard Campground leads past Millard Falls to an old gold mine.
|Inspiration Point & Mount Lowe Trail Camp|
This 7.25-mile round trip hike descends Mount Lowe Road into the San Gabriel Mountains to a historic scenic overlook and a trail camp built on interesting ruins.
|San Gabriel Peak from Mount Lowe Road|
This 6,161 foot peak is also reachable via a 3.2-mile round-trip trail from Eaton Saddle.
|More trails in the Los Angeles|
Explore other destinations in the Santa Monica Mountains, San Gabriel Mountains, and elsewhere.