Mt. Wilson

Mt. Wilson is one of the more well-known “peaks” in the San Gabriel Ranges due to its accessibility, visibility, its significant astronomical history, its campus of telescopes, and the presence of a small city of communications arrays. This long, flat ridge isn’t a summit in the traditional sense, but any hike to the top is a reasonable facsimile of mountain climbing.

Distance: 13.7 Miles
Elevation Gained: Approx 4,000′
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time: 6:40
Critters: Grey squirrels, two does

Get there like this. (The Chantry Flat trailhead is only one of several, but this where I started this hike)

Note: You will need an Adventure Pass to park at Chantry Flat. It also won’t hurt to get there early on a weekday, as Chantry Flat is usually a zoo.


Right now, I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is an autobiographical account of her attempt to hike the PCT as a way of fixing her messed-up life. I can’t say that I love it, as I find it to be a cautionary tale on throwing a pity party in the wilderness and showing up painfully unprepared. However, as an account of the experience of long distance hiking, it does stir something in me that, admittedly, does not require much stirring to get going. Reading the book makes me want to hike.

At the onset of December, I had big designs to hike like a madman in an attempt to reach 999.9 miles. This was partly a last-ditch milestone, as well as a reminder that milestones are silly, since it would likely take 100 additional steps to hit the rounder, more “significant” number of 1,000. However, I already met every goal for the year, and I was starting to feel more and more drained given work, the increase in socializing/traveling about from the holidays, and so I abandoned the goal. However, the recent storm that dropped a touch of snow above 5,000′ and the account of a thru-hiker inspired me to take one last ass-kicker before the year turned over.

While far from insurmountable, Mt. Wilson qualifies as an ass-kicker. There are a number of ways to climb up to the top of the mountain, and each one will make you pay the toll. The San Gabriels present countless 45 degree angle challenges, and the relatively flat hike is almost non-existent. There are no Palomars or Mt. Lagunas here, offering mountain scenery without the mountain exertion. Hikes in the San Gabriels are typically relentless, and any approach on Mt. Wilson is no exception. I chose my favorite to date, which travels through cool, shady Santa Anita Canyon, up the cool, shady Sturtevant Trail, and then down the cool, shady forest along the Winter Creek Trail. Notice the theme?

The most recent storm left a decent amount of rain along this drought-parched range. The creek’s volume was slightly higher, and the soil was a bit more saturated. Meanwhile, the alders along Santa Anita Creek were actively dropping leaves, creating a pleasantly damp detritus that padded my footsteps and further contributed to the otherworldly feeling of Santa Anita Canyon. I like this route best because there are few places in Southern California that feel so opposite of Southern California. The sense of separation from the city is almost complete, in spite of the linear distance between it and 20 million people.

The going is relatively easy along the Gabrielinio Trail until it reaches Spruce Grove campground, which is an awesome trail camp with fire pits, restrooms, and a merrily-singing creek just below. The real work begins on the Sturtevant Trail, which climbs 2600′ over 3 miles to the flat summit of Mt. Wilson. Fortunately, this occurs almost entirely on the wooded north slope of a ridge, which spares the hiker from the dual cruelties of relentless slopes and sun exposure. On this day, the trail was still cold and damp, and at about 4,500′, I saw the first traces of snow lying in shaded patches.

The Santa Ana Mountains, with the Palomar Mountains indistinct in the background to the left.

As the trail comes closer to the summit, it rounds the edge of the ridge onto less wooded terrain, revealing expansive views of the Los Angeles basin, as well as the Peninsular Ranges to the south. Spectacular views of the high country of the San Gabriels open to the east, and Mt. Baldy loomed large with its fresh coat of snow. The air was hazy from evaporating moisture over the basin, but the mountains sparkled with pristine clarity from a storm that scrubbed the atmosphere clean.

A few more switchbacks, and the Sturtevant Trail spit me out onto a small campus of telescopes and support buildings. This is the Mt. Wilson Observatory, which, for a time, was the center of the astronomical science community. Using the 100′ Hooker Telescope, which was the largest until the 200′ Hale Telescope opened on Palomar Mountain, folks like Edwin Hubble discovered scientific wonders, while Albert Michelson used the line of sight between Wilson and Mt. Baldy to record the speed of light. In addition, Mt. Wilson’s unobstructed view of nearly all of the L.A. region make it home to a huge array of communications telescopes. It’s not the wilderness, but it’s a very interesting place all the same.

Mt. Harvard

I followed the recently plowed road from the telescopes to the parking lot where the trailhead for Mt. Wilson Toll Road lies. Along the way, I enjoyed a thin blanket of snow that persisted on the shaded north slope of the ridge. I know the snow won’t last as the weather is expected to warm up again, but it was nice to enjoy a last day of Fall that looked decidedly like winter.

After the half-mile stroll along Mt. Wilson’s long, flat ridge, I headed down the Mt. Wilson Toll Road to its junction with the trail that runs along the south slope of Winter Creek Canyon. This delightfully shaded trail is punishing to the knees going down and equally punishing to the leg muscles going up, but it is a fast, efficient, and temperate way to get back down the mountain. The scenery is somewhat monotonous due to the uniform forest of canyon live oak and bigcone Douglas fir, but the monotony is conducive to getting lost in thoughtful reverie.

6 hours later, I wrapped up the hike at Chantry Flats. Even after all of the hiking I’ve done in the LA area, this still remains my favorite place to hike. The combination of great views, challenging trails, beautiful isolation, and cool, shaded, damp canyons is difficult to top, at least as far as my preferences go. I look forward to coming back here to do a more thorough backpacking trip and exploring the north slope of Mt. Wilson a bit more.

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