The Sam Merrill Trail is both a technical challenge and a scenic masterpiece. This trail merits a 'black diamond' rating, not due to steepness, but to the difficult rock gardens and breathtaking exposure. Miss a switchback and you'll be wishing your body armor was a pair of wings!
The lower section of the trail can be used as an alternate start to the Mount Lowe Railway, but the middle section, above Echo Mountain, would be very difficult to climb. The trail is perhaps best ridden as a loop, climbing the Mount Lowe Railway and descending the middle and lower Sam Merrill Trail sections.
The middle and lower sections will be described here, starting from the Inspiration Point junction near the Alpine Tavern and ending at Lake Avenue and Loma Alta. Though the upper section, between Markham Saddle and Alpine Tavern, is technically still part of the Sam Merrill Trail, it is more commonly known as the Mount Lowe Trail, and will be described in a separate page.
Starting from the Inspiration Point junction, the trail traverses west across a densely forested mountainside. As a warning, there is a granite step right at the entrance to the trail...more granite to follow!
Fast cruising through the forest is interrupted by the occasional rock garden. The rocks get bigger and more difficult, but all are ridable for riders with moderate to advanced riding skill. The trail then bends south and the riding becomes more tricky. The views open up to the west on this section, with views across the Arroyo Seco towards Mount Lukens.
As the forest recedes, the trail crosses a ridge and turns east. Here is where the most difficult and exposed riding begins. To add to the vertigo, nearly all of the Los Angeles Basin can be viewed. On clear days, the vista includes the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara and San Nicholas Islands.
A series of switchbacks descends towards a ridge dropping to Echo Mountain. Some of these switchbacks are ridable by mortals, some are not. A section of large, loose rocks is encountered just above Echo Mountain, then the trail reaches a junction with the lower section of the Sam Merrill Trail and the Echo Mountain-Mount Lowe Connector Trail.
Here, a short section of trail continues to the Echo Mountain Funicular Station, an interesting historic site and part of the Mount Lowe Railway self-guided tour.
The lower Sam Merrill Trail continues down the mountainside, with technical difficulties easing considerably. The first big switchback is a bit rocky, but after that the trail surface improves greatly, and the trail becomes wider. There are often many hikers on this section of trail, so care is required. Also, though the trail is wider and less rough, it is still traversing a very steep mountainside with cliffs in some sections. The exposure can be a bit unnerving.
One last steep drop leads into a dry creekbed, then the trail climbs gently up to the trailhead at Lake and Loma Alta.
OUT AND BACK option:
The lower trailhead for the Sam Merrill Trail is reached by exiting the I-210 Freeway at Lake Avenue in Pasadena. Head north on Lake all the way to the end, where it meets Loma Alta. Park here, along the street. There is an iron gate to the east at the corner of Lake and Loma Alta. Pass around the gate and follow the paved road a few hundred feet to the trailhead sign-in.
Start by climbing the lower section of the trail, then take the Echo Mountain-Mount Lowe Railway Connector over to the Mount Lowe Railway, then follow this to the Inspiration Point Junction, then descend the trail.
The most direct loop option involves riding up the Mount Lowe Railway. Exit I-210 in Pasadena at Lake Avenue, go north to Loma Alta and make a left. Continue on Loma Alta to Cheney Trail (flashing yellow light) and go right. Continue up Cheney Trail to the parking area at the start of the Mount Lowe Railway. The Railway leads to the Inspiration Point junction and the start of the Sam Merrill Trail.