If someone wrote a book about hiking Smith Mountain, it would be called A Tale of Two Trails. It was the most gradual of times, it was the steepest of climbs… This classic hike in the San Gabriel Mountains begins with three miles of single track that easily gain a thousand feet to Smith Saddle. What follows is an 800-foot scramble to the summit in less than half a mile. The two segments of the hike could not be more different, but they do have one thing in common, extraordinary views. The sweeping 360 degree panorama from the 5,111-foot summit of Smith Mountain definitely justifies the effort.
Upper Bear Creek Trail begins from a turnout on Route 39 north of Azusa near Coldbrook Campground. The trail angles south from the trailhead, climbing into a draw in the gaping canyon above the North Fork of the San Gabriel River. The trail gains a couple hundred feet in its early goings, climbing a few switches around a saddle overlooking Lost Canyon. The great views continue throughout the hike. Smith Mountain towers to the west and would be about a mile away if not for the grand bowl-shaped canyon in between.
Follow the trail around the edge of Lost Canyon past several creases where seasonal creeks spawn riparian vegetation. Outside of these oasis, the slopes of the canyon are covered in sage, yucca, and brush like young manzanitas. Scared trunks and branches linger along the trail, evidence of oak forests that preceded the 2002 Curve Fire. The fire blazed through the canyon, removing forests and closing the trail for several years. New vegetation is returning with vigor, while providing open views at almost every step of the trail.
The last two miles of Upper Bear Creek Trail make a grand curve around the fingers of Lost Canyon. The trail becomes incredibly gradual, almost level at times, luring you into a false comfort zone as you approach Smith Saddle. Do not be fooled – a climb is coming!
When you reach Smith Saddle at 4,290 feet, stop to admire the new view to the east. The trail actually continues down the east side of the saddle into Bear Creek Canyon in the San Gabriel Wilderness. To reach the top of Smith Mountain, you will leave the trail and turn left up a fire break toward the summit.
A dirt track zigzags up the line of burnt branches, coming to the top of the fire break after 0.15 miles. Here things become quite steep as you tackle 325 feet over the next 0.15 miles up a rocky slope spotted with oaks and pines. Climb a worn path over and around granite boulders leading up to a false summit. Things taper out as you turn east and ascend the final 150 feet over 0.15 miles. Follow cairns stacked on boulders to reach the small round summit. It is a rapid climb from the saddle, but if you take a couple breaks along the way, you can reach the top without your heart pounding out of your chest.
The views from Smith Mountain are breathtaking. To the south, the San Gabriel Mountains taper off toward the San Gabriel Valley. To the west Bear Creek Canyon is cradled by Twin Peaks and Mount Waterman. Mount Islip rises to the north beyond a neighboring summit on the ridge north of Smith Saddle. Mount Hawkins looms to the northeast, and to the east is the most recognizable high peak, Mount Baldy.
There is a small clearing at the summit, circling a summit marker and register. The USGS summit marker reads Headlee, the name the peak went by in the 1930s.
Do take in the entire view before returning the way you came. It is downhill all the way! Be sure to watch your step descending to the saddle. The steep slope of dirt and rocks is trickier going down than it is coming up. From the saddle, it is a relatively quick three miles back to the trailhead, completing a 7-mile round trip hike with 1,800 feet of elevation gain. No permit is required to hike Upper Bear Creek Trail to Smith Mountain, but an adventure pass is required to park at the trailhead. This day-use pass may be purchased from the East Fork Ranger Station located on Route 39 at the base of the San Gabriels (and at several other distributors).
To get to the trailhead: From the 210 freeway in Azusa, take exit 40 and drive 18 miles north Route 39 to the trailhead. You will pass the East Fork Ranger Station at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Continue past San Gabriel Reservoir and go straight through an intersection with East Fork Road (the turnoff you would take to reach the Bridge to Nowhere hike). From the intersection, it is another 6.3 miles to the paved turnout on the left for the trailhead. (If you reach Coldbrook Campground, you drove 1/3 of a mile too far.) Upper Bear Creek Trail begins next to the bathroom at the north end of the lot.
Trailhead address: San Gabriel Canyon Road (Route 39), San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, Azusa, CA 91702
Trailhead coordinates: 34.287381, -117.842672 (34° 17′ 14.57″N 117° 50′ 33.61″W)
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