Off the Radar on Mount Lowe: Undiscovered and Overlooked in L.A.

Last week at blogging.la, Chal Pivik said, "Despite re-opening in late 2006 after nearly five years of renovations and additions, Griffith Observatory remains one of LA's relatively off-the-radar attractions, even though parking and admission is free."

I completely agreed, and spent much of the weekend thinking about some of my own favorite off-the-radar attractions. When I mentioned to my wife that I may write a column about some of those undiscovered places, she said, "Just because these places are undiscovered by you doesn't mean they're undiscovered."

Being a geek, I replied, "But until they are observed by me, they don't exist in my reality." Then, "Or, actually, the various locations both exist and do not exist, because -"

"Stop. Stop. Stop. You're getting geek all over me."

"Sorry. My bad," I said.

"I know. You can't help it."

I haven't been able to stop thinking about these places that exist for me, but may not exist for other people, so today, I thought I'd open the box and find out of the cat's dead or alive by sharing one of my favorite off-the-radar locations in all of Southern California.

Did you know that around a century ago there was an exclusive, 70-room resort hotel in the hills above Altadena? How about a casino? A zoo? An observatory? A funicular railway that climbed 1400 feet up the mountain at a 62 percent angle to get visitors there and back?

Well, it's true. All of this and more was part of a massive complex of buildings connected by railways that sprawled out across the San Gabriel Mountains from Rubio Canyon to Mount Lowe from 1893 to around 1938. Fires and windstorms repeatedly damaged or destroyed the various buildings, and they eventually gave up trying to go all Swamp Castle on the place and abandoned it, but you can still take a relatively easy hike up the Sam Merrill trail in Altadena to see the ruins, as well as some sensational views of Los Angeles.

The Sam Merrill trail starts at the top of Lake Avenue, and after about 2.5 miles and a gain of about 1500 feet, you'll find yourself at Echo Mountain. I first discovered this place while Geocaching around 2002, and it's one of my favorite hikes in the county, as most of my friends who I've dragged up the mountain at one time or another can attest. (Dave Bullock, a local acquaintance of mine who shoots awesome photos for Wired has some pictures of what you can expect to find if you make the trip. Flickr has a ton of "oh man I want to go hike there right now" pictures, as well.)

The trail is well-maintained, never too steep, and offers spectacular views of the city the entire way up. Once you get to the ruins, there are all kinds of cool things to explore, including the old foundations, a cistern, and the machinery that once powered the Great Incline funicular. If you're feeling up to it, you can continue to follow the trail up to Mount Lowe, along the same path traveled by the Mount Lowe Railway, seeing a whole lot of historical points of interest along the way. Here's a self guided tour brochure from 1973 that was helpfully scanned and posted by the Scenic Mount Lowe Railway Historical Committee, for maximum nostalgic value.

If you're interested in exploring the area yourself, I recommend heading up there soon, because once it gets warm (currently unseasonable weather excluded) you have to hit the trailhead at dawn or it's too hot to hike the unshaded trail.

I can't get over the fact that this incredible place once existed, and though I grew up not five miles from the trailhead, I'd never heard about it until just a few years ago. Do you have a favorite off-the-radar spot in Los Angeles? If we get enough, maybe we can put together a guide.

Wil Wheaton let the cat out of the box.

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