More than 100 years ago, an ambitious man by the name of Thaddeus Lowe began planning for a scenic mountain railway that would take passengers from Pasadena to the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains. The railway opened on Independence Day 1893 at the corner of Lake Avenue and Calaveras Street in Altadena. The electric traction railway consisted of seven miles of track that took passengers up to Echo Mountain and The (Ye) Alpine Tavern. On the top of Echo Mountain was a 70 room Victorian hotel called the Echo Mountain House, the 40 room Echo Mountain Chalet, an astronomical observatory, a casino, and a dance hall.
Over the years the railway ran into a series of troubles with floods and fires. The Mount Lowe Railway was officially closed in 1938 after a flood destroyed what was left of the facilities. Only the ruins of this once shining venture still remain, and can be visited by hikers willing to make the trek up.
Directions And GPS Tracks:
- To hike the Mt. Lowe Railway Loop To Inspiration Point And Echo Mountain, drive to Mt Lowe Rd, Altadena, CA 91001. The final turn onto Cheney Trail Rd from W Loma Alta Dr can be easy to miss, so be vigilant. There is a small parking area next to the gated trailhead, and more parking available down the road.
- Download GPX
- See my track on Strava
- Distance: 11.2 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2744 ft
- Minimum Elevation: 2110 ft
- Maximum Elevation: 4540 ft
- Time: 5-8 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
- Permit Required: No
- Parking: Parking lot at trailhead and overflow lot
- Season: Year Round
- Trail Condition: Lots of asphalt to begin, then a mix of fire roads and single-track
- Cell Phone Reception: Poor
Hike Map And Elevation Profile:
0.0 miles- From the parking area on Chaney Trail, pass the gate blocking the entrance to the Mt. Lowe Railway. The major downside to this hike is that the first quarter of it is on asphalt. There is an option to avoid the asphalt that I will highlight in the next mile marker.
0.3 miles- You’ll come across the junction for the Sunset Ridge Trail. I took the Sunset Ridge Trail downhill, but you can also take it uphill without missing Echo Mountain or Inspiration Point. The Sunset Ridge trail is far more beautiful and scenic when compared to the asphalt Mt. Lowe Rd.
1.6 miles- You’ll see a side trail veer to the right of the Mt. Lowe Motorway. This is for a steep firebreak. You can take this trail or stay on the road. As you can see in the map below, you’ll get to the same place either way. The trail GPX that I had downloaded on Alltrails included this section of firebreak. I did not check it beforehand, otherwise I would have stayed on the road.
Be mindful that the firebreak trail is very steep. Do not attempt this unless you have experience with class 3 scrambling. Most hikers should continue hiking on the Mt. Lowe Rd.
2.0 miles- You meet back up with the Sunset Ridge Trail. (If you decided to take the Sunset Ridge Trail on the uphill and avoid hiking on the 2 miles of asphalt, you can continue the guide from here.)
2.0 Miles- The two mile marker is also where the loop around Inspiration Point, Mt Lowe Campground, and Echo Mountain begin. I suggest you hike clockwise to start on the Mt Lowe Motorway to see Inspiration Point and Mt. Lowe Campground first and then finish with Echo mountain. I will write this guide for hiking this loop clockwise.
The interesting thing about Mt. Lowe Campground is that it was once the site of the Mt. Lowe Alpine Tavern… If only those rocks could talk.
This is also the point at which the asphalt ends and the trail becomes a fire road, making things much more pleasant on the legs.
Just after beginning your clockwise loop, you’ll see what was once the longest straight stretch of track on the Mt. Lowe Railway. This stretch was only 225ft long! The 3.5 mile stretch of trail from Echo Mountain to the Mt. Lowe Campground (Alpine Tavern) had 127 curves with 114 straight segments of track.
2.5 miles- You’ll come to what used to be Dawn Station and get to see the Three Levels view. This view lets you see the three levels of track switchbacking up the mountains to cover the 225 ft of elevation change between Dawn Station and Sunset View.
Just after the Three Levels view, you see what used to be the Mt. Lowe Railway Circular Bridge. The bridge edged out over the side of the cliff and was the feature image on Mt. Lowe souvenir photos. The circular bridge allowed the Mt. Lowe Railway to reach into the upper sections of Millard Canyon. At 400ft in length and a diameter of 150ft the bridge climbed a 4.5% grade to end 20ft higher than it started. The bridge has since crumbled, but the views this area offers of Echo Mountain are still quite nice.
Shortly after seeing Circular Bridge, you’ll come to an area that used to be the Halfway Bridge that marked the half-way point between Echo Mountain and The Alpine Tavern. The bridge was later removed for the construction of the road.
4.8 miles- You’ll see the Mt. Lowe Campground on the foundation of what used to be The Alpine Tavern. The original Alpine Tavern was made of pine on a granite foundation, and was intended to blend in with it’s surroundings as per Thaddeus Lowe’s request. When buildings on Echo Mountain were lost in 1905, the Tavern became the mountain’s main attraction, with tennis courts, shuffle board, and ping pong. The round trip from Los Angeles cost visitors $2.00. Rooms were $5.50-$7.00 a night and a little extra for an included bath.
5.0 miles- After leaving the Alpine Tavern, you’ll reach a junction with the Sam Merrill Trail, the Idlehour Trail, and a fire road heading to Inspiration Point. Take the fire road towards Inspiration Point.
5.3 miles- You’ll reach Inspiration Point and the “Wold Famous” Telescope View at 4540ft.
Leaving Inspiration Point behind, you’ll take the Castle Canyon Trail to descend towards Echo Mountain. It is a 2.0 mile hike from Inspiration Point to Echo Mountain. After the early stretches of asphalt and fire road, the lush single track of Castle Canyon is a nice change of pace.
7.3 miles- You’ll reach a junction with an option to head out and explore the ruins of Echo Mountain.
Echo Mountain was once adorned by a casino dance hall, tennis courts, a power plant, a car barn, and the Victorian Echo Mountain House.
Echo Mountain gets it’s name from the echoes that carry throughout Rubio Canyon. In the early 1900’s, the Mt. Lowe Railway installed an Echo Phone so that visitors could amplify their voices. The original echo phone was lost, but it’s foundation still remains right in front of the newer one.
Once you’ve explored Echo Mountain, head back towards the trail that your arrived on and look for a junction. Take the Mt. Lowe Railway Trail to finish your loop of Inspiration Point and Echo Mountain.
8.5 miles- You’ll have finished the loop and will have returned to the asphalt Mt. Lowe Rd with an option to take the Sunset Ridge Trail back to the parking area. Take the Sunset Ridge Trail and enjoy the pleasant downhill hike back to your car.
11.2 miles- End of hike.