The 'front range' of the San Gabriel Mountains is a string of 5000'-6000' peaks running roughly east to west, in an area between San Gabriel Reservoir on the east and Mount Lukens on the west. The northern boundary is comprised of the West Fork San Gabriel River in the east, and Tajunga Creek in the west. The southern face of this sub-range directly fronts the Los Angeles Basin, hence the 'Front Range' designation. For purposes of connectivity and continuity, Strawberry Peak and Josephine Peak will also be included here.
The San Gabriels are a relatively young mountain range for their size. They are generally very steep, rocky and exposed. The 'soil' is mostly decomposed granite, providing some of the best terrain for all-weather cycling. Though the terrain is generally 'high desert' and chaparral, the north faces of these mountains are mostly covered in dense pine and oak forest.
Wash-outs, landslides and rockslides are common, and trails here require a bit of maintenance. There are many organizations that do volunteer for maintenance crews, like Boy Scouts of America and the Mount Wilson Bicycling Association, but the US Forest Service does the bulk of the work. Unfortunately the Forest Service has taken to using the Bobcat rather than the McCloud, so a few trails have lost their 'lovingly hand-built' feel. C'est la vie.
The most popular trails are primarily centered around Mount Wilson (5710') and Mount Lowe (5603') directly above the town of Alta Dena. This portion of the Front Range has a rich history that includes the so-called 'Great Hiking Era' when folks like John Muir, Stuart O'Melveney, Thaddeus Lowe, and John and Ruth Mendenhall roamed these peaks and named many of the features. In particular, Thaddeus Lowe was famous for being the founder of the Alpine Tavern, a resort destination to which the Mount Lowe Railway was built. Though the route of the Railway has been graded into a fire road, portions of the original rail bed can still be seen between Echo Mountain and the top of the Sunset Trail. Echo Mountain had it's own railway...a funicular, or incline, railway that ran directly up the mountainside.
The trails in the Mount Wilson-Mount Lowe area are world-famous for mountain biking. If Marin County and Mount Tamalpias are the 'motherland' of mountain biking, then Mount Wilson is the 'new world.' This is the stomping ground of some of mountain biking's latter-day legends like MBA's Zapata Espinoza and Richard Cunningham, founder of Mantis Cycles (whom I met once on the Mount Lowe Railway!).
The best seasons for riding are spring and fall. Temperatures are moderate and rain infrequent. Spring brings beautiful wildflower displays, while fall brings brilliant color to the big-leaf maples. Summer can be brutally hot (110F/43C) and very dry. During summer months, rattlesnakes are common and a bit touchy. Winter can be cold (40F/4C) with snow in the higher elevations. Winter also adds another challenge. The creeks can be flooded, making crossings problematic.
Getting ThereFrom points west, south, and east, easiest access is via the I-210 Freeway that runs parallel to the San Gabriel Mountains along it's south side. The I-210 connects to the I-5 in the west, and the I-15 in the east. Several access roads penetrating the front range can be reached from the I-210:
1) Highway CA-39 in the east leads past San Gabriel Reservoir, and can be used to access the lower reaches of the West Fork San Gabriel River in the vicinity of Monrovia Peak. Exit the I-210 at Azusa Ave. in Azusa, then head north towards the mountains. This route provides access to the West Fork San Gabriel River and Cogswell Reservoir.
2) Chantry Flat Road leads to the mouth of Santa Anita Canyon, on the east slope of Mount Wilson. Exit the I-210 at Santa Anita Ave. and head north. The road ends at the Chantry Flat pack station. This route provides access to the Mount Wilson Trail and trails leading to Hogee's Camp, Sturdevant Falls, and Mount Zion.
3) Mount Wilson Toll Road starts at a trailhead in Alta Dena. Exit the I-210 at Rosemead Blvd. and head north, continuing when Rosemead becomes Orange Grove Blvd. Turn right on Alta Dena Drive, and another right on Crescent Drive, and another right on Pinecrest Drive. There is no parking immediately near the trailhead, but parking is available on nearby streets. This route provides access to the Mount Wilson Toll Road, the Mount Wilson Trail, and the Winter Creek Trail.
4) Lake Avenue in Alta Dena leads to the bottom of the Sam Merrill Trail on the west slope of Echo Mountain. Exit the I-210 at Lake Ave. in Pasadena, then head north and continue uphill to the end of Lake Ave. Park on either Lake or Loma Alta. This route provides access to the Lower Sam Merrill Trail leading to Echo Mountain, which is a junction for the Middle Sam Merrill Trail and the Sunset/Mount Lowe Railway connector.
5) Cheney Trail leads to Millard Campground and the start of the Mount Lowe Railway. Access is via Lake Ave., but make a left onto Loma Alta at the top of Lake, and continue downhill to the flashing light at Cheney Trail. Make a right on Cheney Trail and go uphill. The parking for Mount Lowe Railway is at the top of the hill (many cars parked here), and continue down Cheney Trail for Millard Campground and the lower terminus of the Sunset Trail.
6) Angeles Crest Highway (CA-2) climbs up the Arroyo Seco between Mount Lowe and Mount Lukens before traversing east across the range. Exit the I-210 at Angeles Crest Highway (CA-2) and go north. This route provides access for the east side of Mount Lukens, the middle portion of Arroyo Seco Trail, Josephine Peak, Strawberry Peak, the top of the Gabrielino Trail, the head of the West Fork San Gabriel River (including Valley Forge Trail), the Mount Wilson Road (top of Mount Lowe Railway, Mount Wilson Toll Road, Mount Wilson Trail).
7) Big Tajunga Canyon Road leads up Tajunga Creek on the north side of Mount Lukens. Exit the I-210 at Sunland Blvd. and go east. Make a left on Oro Vista Ave. and continue to where Oro Vista ends. Make a right turn onto Big Tajunga Canyon Road and head east into the mountains. This route provides access to the Stone Canyon Trail on Mount Lukens, as well as the Trail Canyon Trail and Condor Peak Trail.
From the north, easiest access is either via Angeles Forest Highway to CA-2, or by Highway CA-14 to Highway I-5 to Highway I-210, enabling access to the south side.
Red TapeA National Forest Adventure Pass is required to park at developed sites like Millard Campground, Switzer's Picnic Area, Red Box Station, Vogel Flat, and Clear Creek Station.
External LinksAdd External Links text here.
CampingThe Angeles National Forest Campgrounds page has current status of campgrounds in the area.
Near the bottom of the Mount Lowe Railway is Millard Campground (Google Maps hybrid), which is the start of the Brown Mountain Road and the end of the Sunset Trail. Millard is technically a walk-in campground, and has only a few sites. It is free, but the parking requires a Forest Adventure Pass.
Along the West Fork San Gabriel River are two small campgrounds, Valley Forge (TopoZone map), and West Fork (TopoZone map). These also require a Forest Adventure Pass. Though the road down the West Fork has been open in the past, according to the USFS page referenced above, it is now closed, and these two campgrounds are hike/ride-in from Red Box Ranger Station.