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

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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:

  • http://www.mountwilsontrailrace.com/HISTORY.html
  • http://www.smhps.org/museums.html
  • http://www.simpsoncity.com/hiking/orchard.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Wilson_Observatory
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42 thoughts 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!

  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

    • 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!

  3. 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 🙂

  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

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. I’d love to hear more about the trail race! I just finished the whole thing in 4 hours. Thinking about doing the trail race.

  7. Excellent write up and photos! One recommendation is to list a number to call for latest trail conditions / closures. I just spoke with the Sierra Madre Police at 626-355-1414 about any potential trail closures caused by the fire last week. They were very helpful and confirmed that the trail is still open.

    • It’s still burning strong, unfortunately. It will be interesting to get up there for a reconnaissance hike once things die down. The Station Fire in 2009 was the last real big one in the area. Hopefully this one is minor in comparison.

  8. Hello Drew–Hey I’m planning to hike this trail in a couple of weeks. I’d prefer to not hike down, just up. Do you know if Uber drivers ever pick people up from the top of Mt. Wilson and take them back to Sierra Madre to their cars? Thanks, Bill

    • I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I just tried scheduling this online, and it didn’t seem to have a problem. I guess it will all depend on a driver accepting the fare. I’m getting a fare estimate of $50-$70 though.

  9. i want to run it but from the bottom starting on sierra madre blvd and mountain trail. Are there any good trainings and shoes for that?

  10. I Recently went up the Mt. Wilson trail from Sierra Madre. I went .75 miles up the trail and couldn’t go any further. I have a bad case of acrophobia. At .75 miles the trail has a sharp turn, exposure and a pretty good size drop off that freaked me out a bit. Is this a bad spot on the trail? Does it get worse? Is the Chantry route less of an issue in this area? Thanks for your help.

    • You must have a really bad case of acrophobia. If you didn’t like that spot, I’m not sure if things would be better for you further up. Not to many spots like that from Chantry Flat, but I’m not one to notice as it doesn’t bother me.

      • Thank you for your response. I am very interested in getting up there, or to other hiking destinations – so any other advise you have I would welcome! Thanks again! – Jeff

    • Hi Jeff,

      I’m scared of heights as well. The first 1.25 miles or so is probably the most rough on the trail. The trick is to power through it. You can also turn around when you feel unsafe and then try to get past that point next time. Sometimes it just takes knowing that what looks dangerous isn’t really so bad. After the first 1.25 miles, the trail is rarely so exposed (which makes it better). Try it out!

    • Late last year, I hiked the Eaton Canyon trail. There are some cliffs, but I think it’s much less a problem than the Mount Wilson Trail. Once you get to Henninger Flats, it’s a fire road to the top. Though it’s a longer trail, I believe it’s less strenuous, due to more miles for roughly the same elevation.

  11. Thanks for this nice write up. I used to hike this trail in the 70’s. I’d stay in the half way camp overnight. There was still a building there. Usually there were other hikers that stayed there for the night also. Than, off to the top the next morning. It was just a trail then, not marked the way it is today.
    Thanks for the nice pictures, they brought back some nice memories of backpacking this trail when hair was long, and life was simple. Thanks, terry

  12. Did this hike today. Took 5 hours including a brief stop at orchid camp (3 hours to summit, 2 hours down). Have done Mount Wilson starting from Chantry Flats a few other times and I definitely prefer this route. Parking was super easy as was finding the trail head. It’s no doubt more challenging than starting from Chantry Flats.

  13. I hiked the trail on Sunday. Beautiful day, temps okay … nice sunny So Cal spring day!

    I’m more of a weekend warrior type, who is a weekend warrior a little over a dozen times a year, so not in great shape, but we’ll say I’m an experienced hiker.

    The first section to the split (Bailey Canyon) got me sweating – a really good workout! Then I started running out of energy. No breakfast – not smart! I stopped a couple times for a powerbar and Gu Gel. I made it to the helipad very tired and shocked how much this trail was beating me up! Rested for a few minutes, then headed up. I reached Orchard Camp and took a well earned breather. Met a couple nice hikers heading down. It’s amazing how friendly people are when hiking! Another Gu Gel and off to the top. A little past the water crossing, I had a terrible leg cramp! I rarely get cramps, so I sat on a rock and massaged it out. Back on my feet and 5 minutes later, it came back. I almost turned back, but I was motivated to reach the summit, so a bit more massaging and off I went. I favored that leg/muscle and about 10 minutes later, another leg cramp, but in a different muscle! Same ritual, then back on my feet. 5 minutes later, my left leg had a cramp! I sat for a good 10 minutes contemplating my situation. I got up a final time and started up hill, but at a slower pace. I made it to the bench! I laid down and let my legs rest. I had drank about 80% of my 110 oz pack, so I don’t think I was dehydrated. I don’t know.

    I rested for a good 15 minutes, then I headed to the top. I reached the fire road and the cramps were completely gone … well, I could feel them deep inside, but I wasn’t in pain anymore. I felt pretty good and since I’ve taken the toll road to the top before, I knew what was in store. I kept on the fire road and I didn’t find the trail to the right (Mt Wilson Trail). Maybe it was where the road to the left met the toll road – I saw a trail to the right, but it wasn’t marked. Anyway, I continued and made it to the area where the antenna’s are.

    I took a short walk to the Cosmic Cafe and had a chili dog, Gatorate and slice of apple pie! Something told me to put salt on my dog, so I sprinkled a package of salt on it. I enjoyed my lunch with a great view of the greater LA area. The food and electrolytes were what I needed and I felt so much better!

    I roamed around the observation area for a while – went inside the 100″ telescope building, Mt Wilson museum and the CHARA display building. I walked to the Mt Wilson 5,713 sign. What a great view! Though I am a little confused – it seems like I walked down from the observatory to get to the sign???

    It started feeling a little chilly, so I figure it’s time to head back. I reached my starting point at around the 9 hour mark. I spent about 1 1/2 hours at the top, so roughly 7 1/2 hours round trip. If it weren’t for my leg cramps, maybe an hour or so less.

    Late last year, I started at Eaton Canyon and hiked to Mt Wilson via Henninger Flats. That’s a lot longer hike, but I think it’s less strenuous. For people who are concerned about the difficulty, I’d try the Eaton Canyon route. If you feel good at Henninger Flats, then you’ll be fine getting to the top. If you’re in good shape at the end of the trip, then try this route.

    Next time I’m going to try Chantry Flats, but I’m not looking forward to the parking situation. Maybe I can have someone shuttle me to the lot?

    There’s an article in the current Outdoor magazine about the therapeutic healing properties of being out in nature. My message to you: the most import thing you can do is to get out and enjoy nature!

    See you on the trails!

    Greg

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