mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
California Hikes Dog Friendly Hikes Hiking Trails Los Angeles County Hikes

Hiking Mt. Wilson Trail To The Mt. Wilson Observatory via Sierra Madre

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.

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide


Directions And GPS Tracks:


Key Points:

  • 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

Make sure to hike with the right gear. See my current hiking gear list. 


Hike Map And Elevation Profile:

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide


Hike Description:

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Lizzie’s Trail Inn

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).

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Trail Signage
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Trail Map

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Starting Out
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Sierra Madre Views And Trail Exposure

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
First Water Junction

From First Water, the trail trades exposure for a damp shaded grove. At 2.8 miles, you’ll pass the junction for Jones Peak. You can read about Jones Peak via Bailey Canyon Trail in another post.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Shaded Trail
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Junction

Just after passing the Jones Peak junction, you’ll see a helipad on your right before coming into the final stretch before Orchard Camp.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Helipad
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Helipad View Of Mt. Wilson

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Just Before Orchard Camp
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Orchard Camp

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).

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
From Manzanita Ridge
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Towards Mt. Wilson

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Mt. Wilson Rd.
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Mt Wilson Views

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Mt. Wilson Antenas
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
First Views

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Trash Bins
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Water

Once you’ve passed the water and trash cans, walk past the stop sign and continue on the road towards the telescopes.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Road Towards Telescopes
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
150 Ft Solar Tower

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Museum
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Museum
mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Observatory Layout

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
60 Inch Telescope

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.

Fritz Zwicky
The Hooker Telescope
Fritz Zwicky
A Tool Of Discovery

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.

mt. wilson trail via sierra madre hike hiking guide
Views Of The San Gabriels

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.


Sources:

I'm Drew, creator of Trail to Peak. Trail to Peak brings content to life on the web through breath-taking photography and captivating video. I launched Trail to Peak in 2014 with a goal to inspire readers to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. I have traveled to 19 countries, walked Camino de Santiago, hiked the John Muir Trail, trekked through the Andes of Peru, and am constantly seeking new adventures in my home state of California. Joining me on my weekly adventures is my partner, Julia, our son, Owen, and our two goldendoodles, Isla and Lilly.

14 comments on “Hiking Mt. Wilson Trail To The Mt. Wilson Observatory via Sierra Madre

  1. Sounds like a great hike to an interesting destination. So jealous that you have this kind of topography right in your backyard. It’s no wonder that you are in such great shape!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi. Great description of the walk. I am thinking of doing this next weekend. Will there be snow on the trail? What do you think the conditions will be like?

    Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Tom! There probably won’t be any snow on the trail next weekend. There might be tiny patches in the shade at the summit, but that’s about it. A small storm is expected this Sunday (March 5), but the forecast looks clear after that. The temperature should be pretty mild for next weekend. Enjoy!

      Like

  3. Lawrence

    Great write up! Thanks a bunch for all the info – I had never heard of hiking to Mt Wilson from anything other than Chantry Flats. Will be hiking this from Sierra Madre mañana 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. thanks for the great write up and gear list- a few questions:

    -is this hike safe to do in its entirety for a beginner who is in pretty good(but not great) shape?
    -about how long does the hike take up and back down the mountain?
    -what are other favorite hikes of yours that are comparable to this one?

    thanks again

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Jim,

      This is a tough hike for sure. I’d say it’s safe for a beginner given a requisite base level of fitness and hiking experience. It takes me around 5-6 hours to hike to the summit and back down on this trail. For most hikers, it takes around 6-9 hours. My advice if you plan to hike this is to assess your overall conditioning at Orchard Camp, which is about 3.5 miles into the hike. If you feel good at Orchard Camp, you can hike a little further up to the bench lookout. If you’re feeling good at the bench, the rest of the way to the summit is not too bad.

      A similar hike in Orange County is Santiago Peak. If you’re looking to stay in LA, Mt Lukens via Dunsmore Canyon is nice. Once the snow melts, there are a ton of hikes in the San Gabriels that will have similar elevation gain, ie. Mt Baldy, Ontario Peak, Cucamonga Peak.

      Like

  5. Chestine

    I have some neat pictures of my grandfather and his wife and friends riding donkeys to Mt Wilson and camping up there. this was in Aug 1906. It would have been really hot in Aug so now i’m wondering if they followed another way up.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Do you think that this trail is ok to trek solo– for a woman.

    Liked by 1 person

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