Hiking Echo Mountain via the Sam Merrill Trail is a rewarding experience, rich with history. First, Echo Mountain itself is the site of the ruins of the Echo Mountain House — a hotel built in the late 1800’s by Thaddeus Lowe. There were no roads to this hotel — you reached it by an incline railway that climbed over 1,000 feet. The hotel burned to the ground in a fire, but there are remnants of the grandeur that once shone brightly atop Echo Mountain.
In the 1940s, Sam Merrill felt it was important to maintain a hiking trail to the ruins, and worked tirelessly to clear a path. As a young man, Merrill had spent time with John Muir — and the experience had a profound impact on him. And so the trail bears his name.
Sunset Magazine declares the Sam Merrill Trail one of the “Top 45 Hikes in the West,” and USA Today include the Sam Merrill trail in a list of “Ten Great North American Hikes.” Whether it lives up to these claims is for you to decide, but it is a great hike, with a climb that will give your legs a workout, and reward you with expansive views over Los Angeles.
Getting to the Trailhead
The trailhead begins at the intersection of East Loma Alta Drive and Lake Avenue in Altadena, at the entrance to the Cobb Estate. You can park on the street, but read the signs carefully. When I went, I found the best parking on East Loma Alta, but there is no parking after 10pm. Consider yourself warned.
Pass through the gates to the Cobb Estate and follow the decrepit driveway to the first bend. You’ll see a sign taking you off the driveway to the right, and towards a ravine.
Walk all the way up to the ravine, then turn left, heading toward the mountain.
You’ll cross the ravine along a spillway, and the trail quickly begins it’s ascent, climbing for another of switchbacks with few opportunities for shade. As you climb, you’ll pass a series of power line towers that roughly mark the half-way point to the summit. It’s a good time to stop for a drink of water and to catch your breath.
Soon, you’re looking down on Altadena, Pasadena and Los Angeles proper beyond. It’s surprising how quickly you climb, and how much the view expands!
The trail is well-engineered and well maintained. There are a few points where the trail has been shored up with boards, creating a steep drop if you were to step off the trail. Keep your eyes on the trail and you’ll be fine. If you want to soak in the views, stop first, then look around.
As you reach the top, you’ll find several other trail junctions. These lead further up the mountain to Inspiration Point, Mt. Lowe and beyond to Mt. Markham and San Gabriel. Bear to the right, as the trail levels out and heads southeast. You’re now walking on what used to be the bed of the Mt. Lowe Railway.
You’re almost to the summit. As you get closer, you’ll run across reminders of the once-great mountain railway, including a section of rail and parts of an old engine. It’s hard to imagine, but over a hundred years ago, the wealthy Angelinos would ride up to these mountains, where they could bowl, or play tennis, or raise a pint at the pub. Now we earn that frothy beverage with sweat and many steps.
The trail ends at the ruins of the Echo Mountain House. There are steps leading up to the foundation of the long-gone hotel, and a number of interesting historical markers that tell the story of Thaddeus Lowe’s ill-fated venture.
The gears from the incline rail are massive.
As you explore the ruins of the Echo Mountain House, you’ll see the “Echo Phone” pointed over Rubio Canyon. Don’t be shy… shout into it, and discover why this is known as Echo Mountain.
From the top of the steps, we shared a potluck with cheese, crackers, chips and dips. We watched the sunset, and the lights of the City of Angels rise. The air cooled, but not uncomfortably so in the summer.
We hiked down in groups of 3 or 4, using our headlamps to illuminate the path. The trip down goes much faster, though we had to exercise extra caution in the darkness. Did the hike live up to the hype? I wouldn’t put it at the top ten in North America, but it’s a wonderful hike that is worth tackling. And doing it in the evening to catch the sunset? Breathtaking.
History of Echo Mountain and the Mt. Lowe Railway
Here’s a great video that shows what it was like riding the funicular up the 1300′ climb to the Echo Mountain House. A lot easier than hiking it, but not nearly as rewarding.
This video details the history of the ill-fated Mt. Lowe Railway and the other sites Thaddeus Lowe had built on the mountain.
Echo Mountain via Sam Merrill Trail Map
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Tips for Hiking Echo Mountain
- This trail has a lot of exposure. If it’s a warm day, it will be a hot trail. Plan accordingly.
- There is no water available. Bring more than you think you’ll need.
- Plan time to check out the remains of the historic Echo Mountain House.
More Echo Mountain Resources
- Thanks to the great folks from SoCal Happy Hour Backpacking Meetup for letting me join them on the trail. They have been hiking this trail (almost) every Wednesday night for over five years. And special thanks to my son Dan for joining me on the trail during his visit from Florida.
- For a longer hike and a different perspective, read about Modern Hiker’s Echo Mountain plus Inspiration Point hike.
- Apres-hike libations? Check out the Altadena Ale House.