The Mount Lowe Railway is an old railbed winding from the town of Alta Dena up to the site of the Alpine Tavern in a canyon on the southern side of Mount Lowe. The Railway used to service Thaddeus Lowe's Alpine Tavern, a rustic mountain resort that was opened on December 14, 1895. Since it's opening, it was a popular destination during what is known as the Great Hiking Era in the San Gabriel Mountains. According to this brief biography, Thaddeus Lowe was famous for pioneering the use of balloons for reconnaissance during the Civil War.
The original Railway led from Alta Dena to the Rubio Pavilion in Rubio Canyon, where it joined the funicular railway to the top of Echo Mountain. From this point, the route switchbacked up the mountainsides and climbed into the head of Grand Canyon, where the Alpine Tavern was built. Since that time, a paved section of road was built connecting Cheney Trail near Millard Campground to the Railway route about 1/2 mile above Echo Mountain. Another section above the Tavern was built connecting to the Mount Wilson Road at Eaton Saddle.
Historic sites abound on this route. There is a 'self-guided tour' of interpretive signs along the route, and many old structures and ruins can be found. Most impressive of these old sites is the Echo Mountain funicular station. There is a section of rails, some old gear and cable works, a water tank, and some old foundations for cabins. Some of the original ties supporting the Railway can be seen on the section of trail connecting Echo Mountain to the top of the paved road up from Millard Campground.
On the way up the mountain, the rider passes through Horseshoe Curve, a section of the Railway that was supported entirely by a semi-circular bridge. Granite Gate is another landmark, where the railbed was cut through a large outcrop of white granite, high above the depths of Grand Canyon. An old observation deck at Inspiration Point has been continuously maintained over the years, and makes a nice shady rest stop on summer days. The site of the Tavern is not too impressive, but the original foundations endure. A trail camp exists on the site now, frequently hosting Boy Scout campouts.
This route, aside from being an interesting ride in itself, provides access to numerous high-quality singletrack trails. Along the way there are access points for the Sunset Trail, the Sam Merrill Trail, the Idlehour Trail, and, once you reach the Mount Wilson Road, the Valley Forge Trail, the Gabrielino Trail, and the West Fork Road.
Trail DescriptionFrom the parking area at the top of Cheney Trail, pass the locked gate and begin to climb. A brief flat section passes by a large cistern, then the climbing begins in earnest. This is a steep, sustained grade for the next 3 miles. Just after the climbing begins, a trail to Millard Falls branches to the left (northwest). This is a flat, easy, but exposed singletrack leading into the canyon. An upper branch of this trail leads to the Dawn Mine, but is not recommended for bicycles.
The road continues to climb steeply for a couple switchbacks, then follows a ridge up to the end of the pavement and the junction with the Echo Mountain connector trail. Here is where the route begins to follow the old Mount Lowe Railway. This point is also where the Sunset Trail begins on the left (west).
Now on dirt, the grade slacks a bit and the riding becomes downright pleasant. The next couple miles follow two huge switchbacks, passing the famous Horseshoe Curve along the way. Just past the switchbacks, a gazebo is encountered, where the upper end of the Dawn Mine Trail connects. This trail is narrow and in poor shape, not recommended for bicycles.
The route now traverses north across an increasingly rocky mountainside into Grand Canyon. As the route bends to the east into the canyon, it passes through another famous landmark, Granite Gate. This is a large outcrop of white granite, with a few old wood posts about, and an interpretive sign. Above Granite Gate, the riding slowly improves, with less rubble on the road and more shady oak forest. Old rock walls line the roadway, covered in moss and ferns. This pleasant forested trek continues all the way to the Alpine Tavern.
At a point where the road does a switchback, the Alpine Tavern site (now the Mount Lowe Trail Camp) is off to the left. There are several old foundations and rock walls, and many interpretive signs describing the Tavern and some of its history. There are picnic tables and pit toilets, but no piped water here. There is a small stream, but the water must be filtered, boiled, or chemically treated. This point is also the lower terminus for the western Mount Lowe Trail. Leaving the Tavern, the route bends south and continues a short ways to the Inspiration Point junction.
The Inspiration Point junction is where the Mount Lowe Railway, the road to Inspiration Point, and the Idlehour and Sam Merrill Trails meet. Inspiration Point is a shaded observation deck overlooking Pasadena and the western San Gabriel Valley, and is about 1/4 mile east along this spur road. The spur road continues for more than a mile, but dead-ends at a cistern (a more impressive viewpoint, but not very shady). The Idlehour Trail leaves the junction and dives into Eaton Canyon, only to climb out the other side up to the Mount Wilson Toll Road above Henninger Flat. The Sam Merrill Trail actually crosses the junction, the upper portion coming in from the north on Mount Lowe, and the lower portion leaving the junction to the south, headed ultimately for Echo Mountain.
The route continues north from the junction, slowly bending west and climbing the southern side of Mount Lowe. This portion of the route is no longer part of the original railway. Views to the south and west become more spectacular as the route nears the top of the ridge at a junction with the Bear Canyon Trail (closed to bicycles). At the top of the ridge, the route bends east again and climbs the northern slope of Mount Lowe the rest of the way to its high point at Markham Saddle at 5300' elevation. Markham Saddle is a junction, where the upper portion of the Sam Merrill Trail leads over to the Mount Lowe Trail, and the San Gabriel Peak Trail heads north.
The final stretch of the route now drops east from Markham Saddle and crosses the head of Eaton Canyon, traversing high cliffs. Pass through a tunnel and gain the Mount Wilson Road at Eaton Saddle at 5000' elevation, where there is a large parking area. To access the Gabrielino Trail, make a left on the Mount Wilson Road and continue to Red Box Ranger Station. The Valley Forge Trail starts immediately across the Mount Wilson Road from the parking area. The summit of Mount Wilson is to the right, about 4 miles further up the Mount Wilson Road.