Long gone are the days when tourists traveled to Inspiration Point — high above Pasadena in the San Gabriel Mountains — by way of the Mount Lowe Railway. The railway, Southern California’s premier tourist attraction for a time, carried more than three million passengers between the 1890s and the 1930s. These days, only occasional hikers make their way to Inspiration Point to gape at the now-almost-completely-transformed Los Angeles Basin.
To get to Inspiration Point in the most expedient way, navigate by car to L.A.’s Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210), and exit at Angeles Crest Highway in the community of La Canada Flintridge. Drive 13.5 miles north and east to Red Box Station and the intersection of Mount Wilson Road. Turn right on Mount Wilson Road and proceed 2.4 miles to a roadside parking area at Eaton Saddle. The remainder of your journey is on foot, six miles round trip, with a drop of about 1500 vertical feet and a climb back up. Make sure you save most of your energy for the trip back, and do take snacks and water!
From Eaton Saddle, walk past the gate on the west side and proceed up the dirt road (Mount Lowe Fire Road) that carves its way across a sheer slope and through a short tunnel. At Markham Saddle (0.5 mile) the fire road starts to descend slightly. Don’t continue on the fire road. Instead, find the Mount Lowe Trail on the left (south). Using it, you contour southwest above the fire road for about 0.6 mile, and then start climbing across the east flank of Mount Lowe without much change of direction.
At 1.3 miles, there’s a trail junction. Go either way (straight for the east trail, sharply right for the west trail), but plan to use the other trail on your return. These two alternate trails were popular during the era of the railway, and both were reconstructed for modern-day hiking in the late 1980s.
Either way (east or west trail) you’ll end up descending to meet the Mount Lowe Fire Road at a spot near the Mount Lowe Trail Camp, a popular site for overnight backpackers. Go south on the fire road to Inspiration Point (3.0 miles from the start), where the view is indeed inspiring as long as the marine inversion layer lies low across the L.A. Basin. On very clear days (more characteristic of winter than summer) Santa Catalina Island and San Clemente Island can be seen far to the south.
Inspiration Point marked the terminus of the Mount Lowe Railway, but by 1915 tourists could jump on board a mule-pushed (not drawn, so passengers could avoid dust) observation car that rolled along narrow-gauge rails leading one more mile to an even more panoramic spot known as Panorama Point. You can do that same side trip today, not by riding but rather by walking along a near-level roadway that ends at a concrete water tank. Views of the L.A. Basin from that spot are probably more fantastic than from any other land-based vantage point. On a clear night, the view of millions of lights almost a mile of elevation lower is surreal. From this close-in point, less than two beeline miles from the edge of the city, the soft droning of a hundred thousand engines, accented now and again by an accelerating motorcycle or unmuffled car, floats upward on the updrafts.
Return the way you came, except in circling Mount Lowe.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Hike to Inspiration Point in the San Gabriel Mountains, where the L.A. Basin lies at your feet.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 150 miles
Hiking length: 6 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous