Thursday, February 21, 2013

C50 Training: Altadena to San Gabriel Peak Superloop

Standing on Mt. Lowe with Mt. Wilson behind us.
By late December snow had arrived in the Cucamonga Wilderness, forcing me to look elsewhere for adequate training scenarios. Thus, unlike hikes one and two, which covered parts of the actual C50 course, this trip took place further west, in and above the city of Altadena. Also, this time I would not be traveling solo. A new friend, Sue, had taken an interest in the C50 after joining me on a trip up the Lone Tree Trail a few weeks prior. Neither of us had anything better to do on Christmas Day, so at 7:10 AM we met at the Rubio Canyon debris basin and started a 25-mile superloop to San Gabriel Peak.

Aerial imagery showing the location of Camp Huntington Road in Altadena.
Across from the basin, the unsigned Camp Huntington Road quietly snuck northward along Rubio's east bank. At a vehicle barrier, the paved, private drive bent to the right, providing access to a couple residences, while our path continued straight, beyond the barrier, morphing into a dirt road used by the water company. Past a second split leading up to a reservoir, the road then ended at a fenced in well--and the entrance to narrow Rubio Canyon.

Sue and I briefly followed the use path up-canyon, passing a junction on the right for the SCE Tractor Road trail, which squeezes behind the reservoir and takes off eastward toward Pine Canyon. Our plan, however, sent us crossing the dry creek bed, following the well-defined Camp Huntington Trail westward and ascending 150 feet up to the Rubio Right-of-way.

The Right-of-way is an old train route once used to transport passengers into Rubio Canyon for the historic Mt. Lowe scenic attraction. Today this deteriorated railbed supports a footpath that begins between two houses at the corner of Rubio Vista and Pleasantridge and concludes 0.4 miles later at the ruins of Rubio Pavilion, where in 1893 an incline tram carried tourists straight up the mountainside to a hotel on Echo Mountain.

Lower Old Echo Mountain Trail seen from high up on the Lone Tree Trail.
Sue and I turned left onto the Right-of-way, but after a mere 125 feet down-canyon, we turned sharply right onto yet another historic trail, the Lower Old Echo Mountain.

Lower Old Echo traces part of the original 1892 walking route to Echo Mountain. Thanks to a few local caretakers, this trail is returning to life after much neglect. It is free of bushwhacking and offers a heart-pounding, 0.7-mile ridge route up to the Sam Merrill Trail junction at some electrical towers.

From these towers, we hurried up 1.2 miles of the Sam Merrill to another old railbed called the Alpine Division, which long ago took tourists 3.5 miles along the Mt. Lowe system from Echo Mountain station to a remote Swiss-style hotel called Alpine Tavern, located at the southwestern base of Mt. Lowe.

We stepped onto the first portion of this route, now called the Echo Mountain Trail, and crossed the head of Las Flores Canyon, hugging steep, rocky cliffs. Less than a mile later, the path safely deposited us onto the Mt. Lowe fire road near Cape of Good Hope. This is where the old railroad used to turn right, heading up and through Millard and Grand canyons.

The 2009 Station Fire badly burned this area, destroying much of its beauty, but the road was in good condition, still handling regular hiker and biker traffic. We passed through some interesting landmarks, such as Horseshoe Curve and Granite Gate, accompanied by informative signs next to the road. Despite observing extensive fire damage, we also experienced some delightful forest canopy, particularly in Grand Canyon, where many trees survived the conflagration. Among these majestic oaks and pines rested the ruins of Alpine Tavern, where the old railroad line had ended and now existed the building's foundation and a modest campground.

Here we transitioned to the West Mt. Lowe Trail, found immediately above the campground alongside a dry streambed. A short distance up this gully Crystal Spring could be heard flowing, locked behind a spring box door. This drainage was tapped over a century ago for the Alpine Tavern. The outlet pipe still fills an old water tank above the ruins, and overflow leads back into the gully. But this scheme no longer works properly due to several holes in the disintegrating tank. Rather than pour naturally down the gully, almost all of the water is diverted onto the hillside beside the leaky tank, which rarely, if ever, reaches capacity.

Looking across devastated Bear Canyon at Mts. Deception
and Disappointment.
After Crystal Spring, the West Mt. Lowe trail crossed the switchbacking fire road once before continuing its 1.5-mile ascent across Lowe's west face. Only a year or two ago rocks and overgrowth prevented a casual journey along this route. But workers have re-established it as a comfortable and perhaps slightly more attractive alternative to the East Mt. Lowe approach, which spends considerable time highlighting charred slopes, a downhill mountain biking course, and the tower complex on Mt. Wilson.

Climbing out of Grand Canyon, West Mt. Lowe provided inspiring vistas of the hearty forest around the campground. Higher up it then moved us into view of the devastated upper reaches of neighboring Bear Canyon. Looking across this burned gulch, we could see Mts. Deception and Disappointment, as well as our primary objective, the cone-shaped San Gabriel Peak. We then zig-zagged up the rocky, northwest shoulder of Mt. Lowe, reaching the 5,603-foot summit at 10:18 AM.

The rocky path up Mt. Lowe's northwest ridge.
Another hiker had beaten us to the top and was occupying the bench. He too had started from Altadena, but from Cobb Estate instead of Rubio. He kindly snapped a picture of me and Sue, before heading down. Despite the chilly, overcast weather, visibility was decent, allowing views of all the surrounding peaks, including nearby Mt. Wilson with its large array of antennae. Locating tubes placed upon the summit pointed out various landmarks. Some tubes had also been positioned along the trail from the campground. They were originally part of the scenic Mt. Lowe attraction, intended for guests of the Alpine Tavern who would walk or ride a horse up to the summit.

Lowe is a worthy destination all by itself. One-way from Rubio we totaled approximately 7.3 miles with 3,950 feet of gain in three hours. But it was only the first of three planned peaks for us. Next on the agenda was Mt. Markham.

After signing the register, we left Lowe and descended 0.3 miles to its east side, where there was a trail junction. Here the East Mt. Lowe path contoured southward, forming an alternative route back to the campground. A second trail, usually referred to simply as Mt. Lowe, split off to the left, heading northward.

Mt. Markham and San Gabriel Peak seen from Mt. Lowe.
We followed this second trail for another 0.3 miles, to a point where it intersected Markham ridge, which cut eastward. A clear use trail propelled us 0.4 miles along this rocky spine and elevated us 420 feet to the long, flattish summit, where at 10:59 AM a register awaited our signatures.

Taking a moment to sightsee, we spied a small group atop Mt. Lowe, and another on the East trail. Directly below us Eaton Canyon's impressive vastness stretched out for miles, and immediately to our north, fire-ravaged San Gabriel Peak looked very close and very conquerable.

Returning to the Mt. Lowe Trail, it now leveled out, gently snaking across Markham's northwest slope for approximately half a mile. This stretch paralleled the Mt. Lowe fire road and finally joined it at Markham Saddle, which is a popular pass between San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Markham.

A trailside memorial for someone's dog, Eragon.
Here the fire road continued east. Sue and I instead chose the unsigned trail that climbs northward from Markham Saddle, along the west face of San Gabriel Peak. We located the path to the left of a water tank. It passed through a mostly blackened and destroyed landscape. But the trail itself was adequately maintained and easy to follow. We found ourselves skirting the headwall of Bear Canyon and admiring a few rock formations. Some exposure kept us alert. At one of the switchbacks, a memorial cross had been placed for a dog named Eragon. I suppose he fell off the cliffs.

After 0.7 miles the trail reached another saddle, this one being between Mt. Disappointment and San Gabriel Peak. A left turn would have taken us to a paved road for Mt. Disappointment, host to some telecommunications equipment. But we went right, skipping Disappointment and continuing on our way to San Gabriel Peak.

This last summit trail climbed 400 feet in 0.4 miles. That's not terribly steep. But having started five hours earlier and several thousand feet below in Altadena, Sue and I were struggling a little, moving steadily but slowly, feeling the weight of every step. At 12:10 PM we finally trudged onto the 6,161-foot highpoint and plopped down on a bench, resting our legs and sucking in the cold air. It was time for lunch on San Gabriel Peak, and time to gaze upon some of the backcountry and snow-capped peaks to the distant east.

Snow-covered Mt. San Antonio is visible from the Mt. Markham summit.
Done with lunch, and failing to find a register, we considered our day so far. Three peaks had been bagged. We had accumulated about 10.5 miles and 5,300 feet of total gain. The bulk of the climbing had been completed. Yet we still faced fifteen miles back to the cars.

Retracing our route, we dropped down to Markham Saddle and backtracked on the Mt. Lowe Trail. The East Mt. Lowe alternative then swung us around the south slopes of Lowe, where dead branches rose up from the new chaparral like skeleton hands from a graveyard.

I was running low on water, so we revisited the campground and old tavern site. I scrambled to the hole-filled water tank and, hoping no small animals had recently died in there, refilled my Camelbak from one of the spouting leaks. The water appeared crystal clear, which eased my mind a bit, even though I knew it proved nothing.

A tranquil setting in the heart of Eaton Canyon.
Via the Mt. Lowe fire road we marched 0.2 miles to the unsigned Idlehour Trail, located at a junction which also included the fire road to Inspiration Point and the Middle Sam Merrill (Sunset) Trail. At 1:54 PM, we found Idlehour next to the Inspiration Point road and began hastily covering its entire 4.5-mile length. Along the way we experienced a spectacular canyon and a healthy forest. We trod upon a beautiful blanket of newly fallen leaves and boulder-hopped across two bustling creeks. We chatted with a solo backpacker spending his Christmas holiday in isolated bliss. Then it was necessary to say goodbye to this wonderful place and ascend 760 feet from the canyon floor to the relatively boring Mt. Wilson Toll Road.

By 4:47 PM the road had conducted us to Henninger Flats, a developed campground with a one-room visitor center and museum. We rested on the benches, took advantage of the water fountain, and tended to our aching feet. The sun was already setting, so down the road we went for another 2.6 miles, periodically checking out the panoramic views of all the twinkling cities below. We crossed the bridge at Eaton Wash around 5:40 PM, nearly an hour after sunset, and with flashlights beaming into the darkness anxiously started on the Altadena Crest Trail (ACT), our journey's final leg.
Viewing the sunset on Christmas Day 2012 from the Mt. Wilson Toll Road.

The ACT stretched across the northern boundary of Altadena, sometimes riding slopes directly behind residences. Being very worn out and tired, our pace slowed considerably while tackling another 900 feet of gain, rolling up and down, in and out of the little foothill gullies. Thankfully the trail was in good condition and prompted only mild cursing on my part.

Recent volunteer work made it possible to hike the 2.5 miles from Eaton Wash to Rubio Canyon without using the surface street detour from Zane Grey Terrace. We instead utilized a brand new section of trail that climbed out of the last gully and down to the trailhead at 1101 E. Loma Alta Drive, where we were parked right across the street from the Rubio debris basin.

The time was 6:45 PM.  Tallies for the day amounted to 25.3 miles, 7,136 feet of gain, and we had been out and about for 11.5 hours. Not bad for a Christmas Day hike.

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