Mt. Wilson

Chantry Flats – Gabrieleno Trail – Sturtevant Trail – Sierra Madre Trail – Old Toll Road – Upper Winter Creek Trail

Difficulty: Strenuous
Distance: 14.6 Miles
Elevation gain: 4,000 feet.
Critters seen: a thriving community of grey squirrels

Even though I’ve been hiking for years, I still don’t really feel like I’ve been “hiking.” Crazy to say since I’ve been all over the Santa Monicas, the Sierras, and a number of other points in Utah, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and San Diego County. The principle reason is that I have never, until now, climbed a legitimate mountain. I could consider Boney Mountain legitimate since that presents more than 2,000 feet of gain and has enough prominence to at least look the part of a mountain. However, Boney barely pokes its nose over 3,000 feet. I’ve spent plenty of time climbing up slopes at elevations over 7,000 feet, but I’ve never summitted anything more significant than a bump in the surrounding topography. The closest I have come to climbing a legitimate mountain was an aborted attempt on Mt. Langley in the eastern Sierras. I started around 10,000 feet and ultimately made it to 13,000 feet before turning around. However, Mt. Langley pokes its head over 14,000 feet, so I fell well short.

Today I climbed Mt. Wilson, which, although small-ish at 5,712 feet, still counts as a legitimate mountain within the following (and probably slightly arbitrary) criteria. First, it gets snow. To me, a mountain isn’t a mountain unless it can get covered in snow. Second, coniferous trees adorn the summit. This is important merely on the grounds of perception, and this criterion becomes negated when altitude exceeds the tree line. Third, it is over 5,000 feet. Fourth, one must climb over 3,000 feet to get there. And finally, it doesn’t hurt if the mountain is named after somebody, place, or a thing, preferably something or somebody of which or whom you have never heard.

Mt. Wilson fits all of those criteria, and then some. Furthermore, it is part of an informal collection of Los Angeles area peaks known as the “six-pack of peaks,” which includes Mt. Wilson, Cucamonga Peak, Mt. San Antonio (Baldy), Mt. San Bernadino, Mt. San Jacinto, and Mt. San Gorgonio. This collection of peaks is, like my own criteria, somewhat arbitrary since there are many other peaks that could easily be included here. However, the main criteria seems to be “degree of difficulty,” with altitude, distance, and gain being the determining factors. In my quest to feel like I’ve accomplished something as a hiker, I am determined to complete the six pack, as well as Mt. Whitney, Alta Peak (Sequoia N.P.), and several other local peaks in the San Gabriels, San Bernadinos, and Peninsular ranges.

Mt. Wilson was the first step. It was also the most difficult hike I have done so far, and it indicates both how far I have come as well as how far I have yet to go. I completed it, and at a reasonably pace. And yet, I struggled with the ascent, although partially because I still hadn’t fully recovered from Sunday’s 14.5 mile odyssey. 

This is also the most memorable and beautiful hike I’ve done in the Los Angeles area – so far, at least. The trail began at the woefully overused Chantry Flat (parking lot full by 7 am on weekends), which is also the trailhead for Big Santa Anita Canyon, which, over the last year, has quickly become one of my favorite local hikes. The trail drops into the canyon to a gentle 4 mile ascent along Santa Anita Creek. Around the turn of the century, hiking became a popular pass-time in Los Angeles, and numerous cabins were built in the canyon and used for private ownership and weekend getaways. Those cabins are still there, and they are still privately owned. Each cabin ranges between 6.5 and 9.8 on the quaintness-factor scale, and I always spend the first two miles dreaming about how great it would be to own a tiny cabin on a river in a forest and know that I’m still within county limits of one of the largest metro areas on the planet.

The creek, lined with white alder, California bay, canyon live oak, and big leaf maple, ascends for four miles until arriving at Spruce Grove campsite, which features six or so backpacking sites situated underneath Sturtevant Camp, which was also built at the turn of the 20th century, but is now owned by a Methodist church. At this point, one can opt to return to Chantry Flat and complete the more humble ten-mile loop, or one can opt to climb Mt. Wilson.

The trail ascends away from the creek and gradually crosses from riparian creekside vegetation into a mixed evergreen forest composed primarily of Douglas fir, canyon live oak and bay. From here, it is a relentless 2,500 foot climb through switchbacks up to the summit of Mt. Wilson. The trail at the summit opens up to the Mt. Wilson Observatory complex, where several telescopes, a museum, a cafe (closed), restrooms (closed!), and a separate complex of transmitter antennae are situated upon a broad, roughly flat “peak.” As a peak, it’s fairly anti-climactic since there is no well defined point where one can stand with chest puffed out and hoot like the ferocious beast one is. I certainly didn’t; I was busy looking for a place to pee.

However, once one witnesses the view, one is assured that this is indeed a real mountain. The entirety of the L.A. basin stretches out below, and one can easily identify downtown, Pasadena, Palos Verdes, Catalina, LAX, Hollywood, the San Fernando and Conejo valleys, San Gabriel valley, Orange County the Peninsular ranges in San Diego county, Mt. San Jacinto, Mt. Baldy, and even Mt. San Gorgonio. In other words, you can see the entirety of the L.A. metro area. Sadly, I did not charge my camera, and I have no pictures to post. Rule number one of hiking: BE PREPARED. I’ll have to go back, I suppose.

After a bit of searching for the exit trail, I descended the mountain, looking back occasionally to marvel at just how high I had climbed. Like any accomplishment, one rarely has a true perspective of what one is doing while they are doing it. It is simply putting one step in front of the other, completing this task, turning in that assignment, dotting that ‘i’ and crossing that ‘t.’ However, once I was able to look back from 3,000 feet below at the microscopic structures that were once towering above me, and once I realized just how far away and how high up it was, I got the sense that I actually accomplished something. I know it’s really only a first step, but 14.6 miles and 4,000 feet later, I am that much closer to feeling like I’ve hiked a thing or two.

January: 51.7 Miles
Year to-date: 51.7 Miles

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