An engineering marvel when built in the 1890s, the Mt. Lowe Railway above Pasadena and Altadena lived a checkered past full of both glory and destruction. Before its final abandonment in the mid-1930s, the line carried over 3 million tourists. Unheard of by millions of Southland newcomers today, the railway was for many years the most popular outdoor attraction in Southern California. Today you can hike parallel to and sometimes directly on the old rail bed, using your imagination to reconstruct what it was like to ride the rails a century ago.
The line consisted of three stages. Passengers rode a trolley from Altadena into lower Rubio Canyon, then boarded a steeply inclined cable railway that took them 1300 feet higher to Echo Mountain, where two hotels, a number of small tourist attractions, and an observatory stood. In the third phase, a mountain trolley climbed another 1200 vertical feet along airy slopes to the end of the line -- a lodge called Ye Alpine Tavern.
For the most complete hiking tour, 11.2 miles with an elevation gain and loss of 2800 feet, you begin at the Cobb Estate trailhead, at the north end of Lake Avenue in Altadena. Walk east past the stone pillars at the entrance and continue 150 yards on a narrow, blacktop driveway. The driveway bends left, but you keep walking straight (east). Soon you come to the rim of Las Flores Canyon and a sign indicating the start of the Sam Merrill Trail. This trail goes left over the top of a small debris dam and begins a switchback ascent of Las Flores Canyon's precipitous east slope.
Inspired by the fabulous views (assuming you're doing this early on one of L.A.'s sometimes crystal-clear fall or winter days), the 2.5 miles of steady ascent on the Sam Merrill Trail may seem to go rather quickly. Turn right at the top of the trail and walk south over to flat-topped Echo Mountain, which is more like the shoulder of a ridge. Poke around and you'll find many foundation ruins and piles of concrete rubble. An old "bullwheel" and cables for the incline railway were left behind after the Forest Service cleared away what remained of the buildings here in the '50s and '60s.
Next, you'll go north on the signed Echo Mountain Trail, where you walk over railroad ties still imbedded in the ground. Interpretive panels posted at intervals tell the story of this segment of the railway. The original line from Echo Mountain to Ye Alpine Tavern had 127 curves and 114 straight sections.
At 1.6 miles from Echo Mountain you'll pass the site (and some concrete footings) of the Circular Bridge, an engineering accomplishment of worldwide fame, where startled passengers swung into midair over the upper walls of Las Flores Canyon.
At 2.4 miles from Echo Mountain, you pass through Granite Gate, where a narrow slot was blasted out of solid granite on a sheer north-facing slope, a process that took eight months to complete.
You arrive at the site of Ye Alpine Tavern 3.4 miles from Echo Mountain. Today it's the Mt. Lowe Trail Camp, where backpackers can stay overnight. The rails never got farther than here, although it was hoped they would one day reach the summit of Mt. Lowe, 1200 feet higher.
Hike on another half mile to Inspiration Point, which follows a proposed extension of the rail line. Sighting tubes in place there then (and now) helped visitors locate places of interest below.
Inspiration Point is the last station on the self-guiding trail. The fastest and easiest way to return is by way of the Castle Canyon Trail, which descends directly below Inspiration Point. After two miles you'll arrive back on the old railway grade just north of Echo Mountain. Retrace your steps on the Sam Merrill Trail.