Long ago, back in the 90s – that is the 1890s, the resort built on Echo Mountain was one of the largest tourist draws in California. Thaddeus Lowe’s resort, known as the White City, was perched at an elevation of 3,200 feet, overlooking the city of Pasadena and a grand stretch of Southern California. The resort was long ago destroyed by wildfires, leaving fascinating ruins for present day visitors to explore. There are expansive views from site of the resort, which you know longer need a reservation to enjoy. The tramcars that delivered guests to the resort are gone too, so use your leg power on this 5.8-mile hike with 1,400 feet of elevation gain.
Starting from Cobb Estate Gate at the north end of Lake Avenue, hike east on a paved walkway for one tenth of a mile. When the road turns north, continue straight on a dirt path following the sign for Sam Merrill Trail. After a few hundred feet, you will reach the start of the trail. Take a moment to look over the map. Then set out up the trail, which angles north across the typically dry creek below Las Flores Canyon. On the east side of the creek, the switchbacks begin, about 2.5 miles of them. Take a good swig from your canteen and get ready to climb.
The trail ascends at a steady aggressive grade, but never gets too steep over the 1,400-foot climb. Views over Pasadena expand as you maneuver up the side of Las Flores Canyon past chaparral and spring windflowers.
A mile and a half up, the trail swings around the other side of the ridge for a brief glimpse into Rubio Canyon to the east. The next switchback guides you back to the Las Flores side of the ridge beneath a string of power lines.
After 2.7 miles, Lower Sam Merrill Trail comes to a T-junction with Mount Lowe Trail, which was once used as a rail line to transport guests to a tavern and other destinations deeper in the San Gabriel Mountains. To the left, one can hike a mile along this trail to Cape of Good Hope, a scenic lookout. To the right, the road extends for 0.2 miles to the Echo Mountain ruins. Turn right and continue straight through two trail junction on the left, Upper Sam Merrill Trail and Castle Canyon Trail. Follow the wide trail out to the point along the path of Mount Lowe Railway, which was in service from 1893 to 1936 and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Mount Lowe Trail ends at the foundation of the resort complex known as the White City. Remaining machinery and masonry are accompanied by numerous park-provided plaques that add history and scope to the setting. Still standing is the landing and steps where guests would exit White Chariots, the tramcars that delivered them from Rubio Canyon to Echo Mountain. The impressive incline tramline has long disappeared, but the old route is visible below. Constructing a line on this steep slope is an impressive piece of engineering, even by today’s standards.
The resort and railway built by Thaddeus S. C. Lowe attracted over 3 million guests in its 40 years of operation, making it one of the most popular destinations in Southern California. A plaque posted alongside the foundation offers this description of the resort:
The world famous Echo Mountain House was completed in 1894. It was a beautiful “L-shaped” building, four stories high with a 400-foot wing offering a southern exposure. A massive metal dome crowned the structure. The entire interior of the hotel was furnished in natural wood and had, in addition to 70 sleeping rooms, office space, social and recreation halls, a dining room, curio shop, Western Union office, bowling alley, billiard room, barber shop, shoeshine stand, and other facilities for the comfort of guests. The hotel cost $65,000, a vast sum at the time.
From the footprint of the resort, walk northwest across the clearing to a strange looking relic. In an era before cell phones and walkie-talkies, the Echo Phone could be used to shout messages across the mountain. A series of these metal megaphones were used to communicate back and forth to the resort. Step up and give the Echo Phone a try. The booming messenger still resonates across the canyon.
Professor Lowe chose a fine spot for his resort. The sprawling vista that drew guests from around the world is now free to hikers, and every bit as exceptional. Since this is a place you will want to linger, there is a picnic area in a pine grove on the northwest side of the ruins – a peaceful spot for a sylvan picnic.
There are several ways to extend this hike. Upper Sam Merrill Trail continues for seven miles to Mount Wilson Road, crossing Mount Lower Campground after three miles. Castle Canyon Trail continues for two miles to Inspiration Point and 2.5 miles to Mount Lowe Campground. These trails can be used to form a loop that extends the hike to approximately ten miles. For something shorter, the one-mile hike along the old rail path to Cape of Good Hope is a more level option.
No fee or permit is required to hike to Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain as it begins outside the boundaries of Angeles National Forest. Dogs are welcome.
To get to the trailhead: From the 210 Freeway in Pasadena, take exit 26 and head north on Lake Ave. Drive 3.6 miles to the end of the road and find street parking. The trailhead is on the right, just before the road turns sharply to the left and becomes East Loma Alta Drive.