Most hikers making their way to the summit of Mt. Wilson begin their journey from Chantry Flat. The Chantry Flat hike is very pleasant, but can be a real nightmare when it comes to finding parking. An alternative, and the subject of this guide, is my favorite route to the summit of Mt. Wilson, The Mt. Wilson Trail. Not only is the Mt. Wilson Trail easier to access, it’s also a greater physical challenge, while providing far more solitude on trail. In this guide I’ll be providing directions, photos, maps, and a hike description.
The Mt. Wilson Trail has a history unlike any other in California. The very first trails in the area were blazed by the Gabrielino Indians. These were the trails they used to carry timber down the mountain in 1771 for the construction of the San Gabriel Mission. In 1864, a man named Benjamin Wilson built the Mt. Wilson Trail that is in use today.
Directions And GPS Tracks:
- To hike the Mt Wilson Trail, you’ll start at Mt. Wilson Trail Park located at 189 E Mira Monte Ave, Sierra Madre, CA 91024. There is residential parking along E Mira Monte Ave. Make sure to be respectful of noise when starting early.
- Download GPX
- See my track on Strava
- Distance: 14 miles
- Elevation Gain: 5334 ft
- Minimum Elevation: 1001 ft
- Maximum Elevation: 5710 ft
- Time: 6-9 hours
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Dog Friendly: Yes
- Permit Required: No
- Season: Year Round. Very hot in the summer.
- Trail Condition: Well maintained
- Cell Phone Reception: Service for first 2 miles, then spotty
Hike Map And Elevation Profile:
The trailhead for the Mt. Wilson Trail can be found right next to the historic Lizzie’s Trail Inn. From 1906 to 1950, the The Pacific Electric railway brought thousands of aspiring Mt. Wilson hikers to Sierra Madre. In 1890, a lunch stand was created at the base of the Mt. Wilson Trail to serve the hikers heading up and down the trail. From 1925 to 1935, the stand was operated by Lizzie McElwain, and this is when Lizzie’s Trail Inn became famous. A menu of fried chicken, ravioli, and distilled spirits (in the age of prohibition) was a hit! The business closed in 1948, and is now preserved as a museum for the public good.
0.0 Miles- From Lizzie’s Trail Inn head north on the asphalt road until you see the trail signage for the Mt. Wilson Trail. This is a strenuous hike, so I like to break it down into three sections. The trailhead to Orchard Camp (3.5 miles), Orchard Camp to Manzanita Ridge (5.2 miles), and Manzanita Ridge to the summit of Mt. Wilson (7 miles).
The first mile of this hike gains 700ft, so make sure your legs are ready to climb. There are a few spots of exposure on the trail that can be pretty extreme in the warmer summer months.
1.3 Miles- Just as you pass your first mile of hiking, you’ll come across the junction for the aptly named First Water. Stay left, unless you want to take a short detour to a flowing stream.
Just after passing the Jones Peak junction, you’ll see a helipad on your right before coming into the final stretch before Orchard Camp.
3.5 miles- Orchard Camp is the halfway point on this hike to the summit of Mt. Wilson. Orchard Camp is also the turnaround point for the Mt. Wilson Trail Race. I’ve run the Mt. Wilson Trail Race before, and it is a very difficult competition! All that remains of Orchard Camp today is a stone foundation alongside a creek in a shady glen. Benjamin Wilson, who created the Mt. Wilson Trail, built Orchard Camp as a midway stop. In 1890, a man named James McNally developed the spot into what would become a popular mountain hotel for adventurous visitors. As I mentioned earlier, only a stone foundation remains, and it makes a wonderful spot for a short or long break.
From Orchard Camp the climbing continues! Look for the trail sign on the right had side of the photo above. This is where the trail continues from Orchard Camp. At 5.2 miles you’ll come upon a bench that marks Manzanita Ridge. This is also the point that the Mt. Wilson Trail meets up with the Gabrielino Trail (The Mt. Wilson route from Chantry Flat). Take a left at the bench and continue on towards Mt. Wilson. Make sure to follow the trial and not the use trail heading up the ridge (you can use the use trails as a shortcut).
5.5 Miles- The Mt. Wilson Trail meets up with the Mt. Wilson Rd with about 1.5 miles before reaching the summit of Mt. Wilson. This wide road is used by mountain bikers so make sure to keep an eye out.
At 6 miles, the Mt. Wilson Trail picks back up to your right and parallels Mt. Wilson Rd. The final mile gains a little over 600 ft. At 7 miles you’ll have reached the summit of Mt. Wilson. Enjoy the views and then continue on through the asphalt parking lot towards the Cosmic Cafe. The cafe has wifi and few menu items to choose from. Make sure to check their website for hours of operation.
Now that you’ve made it to the top of Mt. Wilson, it’s time to explore the observatory. You’ll see a trash bin at the far end of the parking lot. Walk past the trash and continue on the road behind it. On the right hand side of the trash, you’ll see a spigot for water. The water is seasonal, so don’t rely on having it to refill.
Once you’ve passed the water and trash cans, walk past the stop sign and continue on the road towards the telescopes.
One of my favorite places to stop when visiting Mt. Wilson is the Astronomical Museum. The museum was built in 1936 and showcases the history of the Observatory. The museum also houses a 256 seat auditorium for lectures and other special events.
After visiting the museum, you’ll walk by the 60 inch telescope. First operated in 1908, at the time of it’s “first light”, it was the largest telescope in the world.
After passing the 60 inch telescope, you’ll see the 100 inch Hooker Telescope. The Hooker Telescope was the world’ largest from 1917 to 1949. The Hooker telescope was even used by the famous Edwin Hubble shortly after its completion. This telescope helped Hubble prove that our universe goes far beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, and that the galaxy is and has been expanding. The Hooker Telescope radically changed the scientific views of how we saw the universe. If that’s not enough, the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky discovered dark matter with the Hooker Telescope.
The Hooker Telescope has a visitor center. There is a stairway on it’s north side that allows visitors to walk up and see the telescope up close.
After passing the Hooker Telescope you can follow the signs toward the Sturtevant Trail for a nice view of the San Gabriels. This is the final stop on this hike. From here, you’ll want to turn around and head back towards Sierra Madre the same way you arrived.
I hope you enjoyed this hike write up! Leave me a comment or question in the section provided below. Here are are a few bonus pictures of Isla and Lilly hiking this trail last year in a light rain.