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Mt Wilson Trail to Manzanita Ridge

On a clear day, you might see the Pacific Ocean as you look back down the mountain

On a clear day, you might see the Pacific Ocean as you look back down the mountain

The Mount Wilson Trail was built in 1864 by Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson. He had planned to use it to bring down timber for his ranch. Not much timber was cut, and the trail was repurposed to construct the first Mt. Wilson Observatory, established by Harvard College in 1889. Hiking up this trail you can feel the history.

Trail Details
Distance: 10.2 miles
Time: 6 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 3,700 ft
Dogs: yes
When to go: Year-round
I’ve been up Mt. Wilson before, but this was my first hike on the Mount Wilson Trail. It is a steep, relentless climb from the foothills of Sierra Madre to Manzanita Ridge — sometimes called Santa Anita Ridge.  The strenuous hike climbs over 3,500 feet  in just five miles thanks to some up and down. By the time you reach The Bench on the ridge, you’ve earned the right to sit for a bit.

Getting to the Mount Wilson Trail

The trail itself begins in a quiet residential neighborhood. There is a good amount of free street parking, but bear in mind that this is reserved for residents only at night.

Park on the street near the intersection of E. Mira Monte Avenue and Mount Wilson Trail. You’ll see signs for The Richardson House and Lizzie’s Trail Inn — which also serves as a small museum. If you’re lucky, it might be open!

Richardson House

The Mount Wilson Trail

Head up Mount Wilson Trail, which begins as a paved residential road. You soon see the official trailhead splitting off to the left. This out-and-back trail is pretty easy to follow; if you’re heading uphill, you’re doing it right.

The Trail Map

Up, Up and Away

Old Man and the Trail

At the 1.25 mile mark we reached the junction with First Water — so named because it’s the first place where you can get water. There is a junction here that leads down a short spur trail to the creek, where there is in fact water running most of the time. I wouldn’t rely on this as a water source. As with all my day hikes, I brought enough water to fuel me for the entire day — three liters in this case.

First Water

The trail continues to climb up the Little Santa Anita Canyon, and soon the views stretch out over the LA basin. At 3.25 miles we arrived at Orchard Camp. This was roughly the halfway point up to the summit of Mt. Wilson, earning it the nickname of the Halfway House.

At one time there were a number of cabins and buildings here to support the construction of the Mt. Wilson Observatory. Today all that remains are some concrete steps and fragments of the foundations. But it’s still a good place to take a snack break and catch your breath.

Rest break at Orchard Camp


The climate changed as we climbed, with more pine trees covering the rugged slopes.

Tricky footing


Finally at the 5.1 mile mark, we reached what is often referred to as The Bench. Why? Because as you reach the junction at Manzanita Ridge, you practically hike straight into an actual bench. From this junction it’s another 2.4 miles to the summit of Mt. Wilson.

The views here are fantastic. It was a beautiful, clear day and we could easily see the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island many miles away.

Although the most challenging vertical gain was behind me, this was my turnaround point. The shorter winter days meant that if I wanted to be sure to return to my Xterra before dusk, I’d head back now. Keep in mind the time — know when it gets dark, and plan a turn around time.

Yoda on Manzanita Ridge

As you will see in the elevation profile below, this out-and-back hike is mainly uphill all the way to this point. I was glad to have the climbing out of the way, and “coasted” downhill, retracing my steps down the Mt. Wilson Trail back to the trailhead.

Mount Wilson Trail to Manzanita Ridge Map

Download file: mt-wilson-trail-to-manzanita-ridge.gpx

Photo Gallery

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Mt. Wilson Trail Tips

  • Bring plenty of water. This can be a dry, hot trail especially in the summer. I carried 3 liters of water and had some (but not much) left over at the end of the hike.
  • Calculate your turnaround time. Know when it gets dark, and when you want to get back to the trailhead. Figure out how much time you have to hike, divide it in half. You now know your turnaround time. If you don’t make it as far as you hoped, don’t sweat it. The mountain will still be there next time.
  • Carry the 10 Essentials. Remember to bring layers. It can (and does) snow on Mt. Wilson in the winter!
  • No special permits are required to hike this trail, but always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.

Mt. Wilson Trail Resources

Sierra Madre Weather Forecast

[forecast width=”100%” location=”91024″]

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