Pedal Into L.A.'s Trolleyed Past

Echo Mountain
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This ride begins at 2,080 feet, at the top of Chaney Trail above Altadena, where there is a BROWN MOUNTAIN ROAD 1 MI sign. You don't go down the road into Millard Canyon, but instead take your bike around the gate and begin climbing up from the Sunset Ridge area. This area had, until they were destroyed in a windstorm, Camp Sierra (a resort) and several private cabins, famous for their views not only of the valley but also of the trolleys climbing up toward Ye Alpine Tavern. Even though the road is paved, it is a tough climb, and it would be even harder work except for the extremely low gears of the typical mountain bike.

Almost immediately, you pass a picnic table, a horse trough and a drinking fountain. Although recently it has worked, for years it was dry, and I wouldn't depend on it.

At mile 0.90 Millard Canyon Falls can be seen below you.

After about 45 minutes of hard climbing, at 2.40 miles and 3,600 feet, you reach the turnoff to Echo Mountain. From this trailhead, you get good views not only of Altadena but also of Echo Mountain, now below you a little over 1/2 mile away. On the ridge to the left of Echo Mountain, what appears to be an old chimney is really the support for the telescope of the old Mt. Lowe Observatory.

Now you leave the pavement and begin cycling down a trail signed 12W14. This is the best-preserved section of the roadbed of the old Mount Lowe Railway. Many had dreamed of a railway into the San Gabriels, but it was not until an engineer, David Macpherson, and an investor, "Professor" Thaddeus Lowe, were brought together, that the dream became a reality. From its opening on July 4, 1893, until the floods of 1938 caused its closure, thousands rode from Los Angeles on streetcars, transferred to a steep incline railway in Rubio Canyon, and then completed their journey to Ye Alpine Tavern on the trolleys of the Mount Lowe Line.

When he had started the railway, Lowe had been financially independent. He gambled his entire fortune on the system. Unfortunately, it was never financially successful. By 1896 he was in debt, and 3 years later the courts sold the railway to pay off Lowe's creditors. It was acquired by Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric in 1902. Just 0.01 mile down the trail, 80-some years later, you can still clearly see the results of the Pacific Electric's takeover. Here, and at several other former bridge sites around Las Flores Canyon, are the original rock foundations laid in the Lowe-Macpherson era, and the sturdier concrete foundations that were added as reinforcements by the Pacific Electric. Here also is the first of several places where you ride over some of the original ties.

At 3.15 miles you meet the Sam Merrill Trail coming up from Altadena, and at 3.19 miles you reach a water fountain and the start of the Castle Canyon Trail to Inspiration Point.

At 3,207 feet and 3.31 miles, after 1 1/4 hours, you reach the ruins of one of the great features of the Mount Lowe Railway.

Lowe's system had 4 hotels: the Rubio Pavilion at the bottom of the incline, the Echo Mountain House and the Chalet at the top of the incline, and Ye Alpine Tavern at the end of the line. Although all four have been demolished, the most complete ruins are found in the Echo Mountain area.

At one time this area was known as the White City. It featured two hotels, a small zoo (once managed by John Brown's son Jason), a museum, a huge searchlight and an observatory. Even though most evidence of these facilities has been destroyed, demolished or vandalized, you can still see almost 100-year-old proof that the mountain cyclist is not the first to use spoked wheels to explore the San Gabriels. Also spoked are the two pulleys and the old bullwheel that gripped the cable of the incline cars. After over 93 years of use and exposure to the elements, most of the fingers that held the cable still work perfectly.

Although the Forest Service has provided picnic tables, I, like many visitors to Echo Mountain, prefer to sit on the steps of the old hotel and, as I view the city below, try to imagine the scene in its prime.

Even though the actual railway was never popular enough with the public to make money, today the "fantasy" railway has a small but enthusiastic cult following. Several small books and one large volume have been written about the system. A local real-estate firm restored an old substation, and until early 1987 it housed not only their offices but also the Mt. Lowe Museum. One of the firm's brokers has "2 Mt. Lowe" as her personalized license plate. And I myself bought a charming, if run-down, house that features 160 feet of the system's former right-of-way in its backyard.

On the way back, you reach the Mt. Lowe Road at 4.20 miles. You can either turn left and in a fast five minutes ride back to the start or turn right and begin climbing toward Inspiration Point and Panorama Point.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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