Wednesday, May 25, 2016

San Gabriel Peak

View of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean at sunset from San Gabriel Peak
4 miles round trip, 1150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $30 annual or $5 one-day Adventure Pass required. Mount Wilson Road is narrow and winding and maybe not recommended for trailers and RVs.

The San Gabriel Range rises abruptly from the plains of the Los Angeles Basin, quickly transitioning from sea level to over 10,000 feet at Mount Baldy. This vertical relief makes the San Gabriels a particularly dramatic mountain range. One of the greatest viewpoints of the range is also easily accessible: it's only a short hike of less than 2 miles each way to the summit of San Gabriel Peak from the Mount Wilson Road. San Gabriel Peak is the second highest point in the front range of the San Gabriel Range and offers a sweeping view of the range along with the entire Los Angeles metropolis and the Pacific Ocean. This hike fits the bill for anyone seeking maximum views for just a slight challenge. The hike described here visits not just San Gabriel Peak, but also neighboring Mount Disappointment, which adds just an extra half mile round trip but provides a slightly different view.

I hiked this trail on a November day, just a little while after some storms had dusted the higher peaks around Los Angeles with snow. I drove to the trailhead from West Los Angeles, taking I-10 east to downtown, then skirting to the west of downtown on Route 110 north, connecting to I-5 north, then taking Route 2 north towards Glendale and La Canada Flintridge. After passing the Verdugos, I merged onto I-210 east from Route 2 and then left on the first exit on I-210 for Route 2 heading north at La Canada Flintridge. Coming out, I turned left and headed north on the Angeles Crest Highway. I followed the windy mountain road uphill to the junction with the Angeles Forest Highway; here I stayed to the right and continued onward to the junction with the Mount Wilson Road at Red Box Gap. I turned right and followed the Mount Wilson Road uphill to the trailhead at Eaton Saddle, where there was parking on both sides of the road.

I put up my parking pass and then started hiking down the gated Mount Lowe Road, which headed off to the west (off to the right side of Mount Wilson Road). The road cut across the open slopes of San Gabriel Peak, offering immediate views of rocky Mount Markham and the endless grid of the Los Angeles suburbs near Pasadena. The trail itself- having been a former road- was quite wide and still in decent shape, which made for easy hiking with just a slight elevation gain.

View of the city from Mount Lowe Road
The south slope of San Gabriel Peak became increasingly sheer: at one point, the rocky face of the mountain was steep enough that the road circumvented that segment by a tunnel. The Mueller Tunnel was dark and a little damp but was short enough to not require a flashlight.

Mueller Tunnel
Soon after passing through the tunnel, at about two-thirds of a mile from the trailhead, the road arrived at Markham Saddle, nestled between San Gabriel Peak and the sharp form of Mount Markham. A water tank lay off to the right of the trail at the gap; I walked past the tank and the gap itself to find the trail to San Gabriel Peak itself, which was unmarked and branched off to the right just past the saddle. I followed this much narrower trail to the right and began a stiffer ascent up a set of switchbacks that led to the slopes of the mountain above the saddle. From this vantage point, I had a remarkable view of Mounts Markham and Lowe and Eaton Canyon down below. The trail itself cut through a barren slope that had burned just a few years earlier in the 2009 Station Fire. After the initial switchback ascent, the trail began cutting north along San Gabriel Peak's west face, ascending as it headed towards the gap between San Gabriel Peak and Mount Disappointment. The trail was quite narrow and eroded in places, so be mindful if you're uncomfortable with heights.

San Gabriel Peak Trail
Once the trail reached the saddle between San Gabriel and Disappointment, I chose to visit the lower peak of Mount Disappointment first. I took the left fork at the saddle and quickly came to a helipad and then a fire road. I followed the left switchback of the fire road uphill to the summit of Mount Disappointment. Small patches of snow remained in shady areas near the peak: snow had apparently reached this fairly low elevation already.

In a way, the summit of Mount Disappointment lives down to its name. Disappointment is not a wilderness peak: it's a mountain capped with numerous communications towers, with many views obscured by a fence protecting the towers at the true summit. However, the views are still quite good, and by walking around the fenced-off towers, I was able to piece together a 360-degree view of the area. The most notable section of the view was to the west: There was a direct view down to Red Box Gap and out to Strawberry Peak, the tallest peak in the front range of the San Gabriels. This part of the view wasn't visible from San Gabriel Peak, since from that angle it's blocked by Mount Disappointment.

Strawberry Peak and the Front Range from Mount Disappointment
The pyramid of San Gabriel Peak itself dominated the view to the east; I could also see snow-coated Mount Baldy and the other high peaks of the back range. I stayed at the summit for about half an hour and had no company, even on a holiday weekend.

San Gabriel Peak from Mount Disappointment
I returned via fire road to the saddle between San Gabriel and Disappointment. This time, I went straight across the gap and began heading uphill on the trail that climbed San Gabriel Peak. The trail switchbacked and climbed aggressively up the mountain. Sections of the trail were fairly narrow or eroded and steep, making for occasionally uncomfortable hiking. In addition to the excellent views outward towards Los Angeles, the plentiful succulents on the mountain slope made the trail quite scenic.

Succulents along the way to San Gabriel Peak
A final push brought me to the summit, about half a mile from the saddle between the two peaks. The summit has a 360-degree view, but it's necessary to walk around a bit to see all parts of the view, due to the plentiful vegetation.

Mount Wilson Observatory was visible just to the east: the collection of domes and towers was built atop of the next mountain down due to the clear skies of the past. Light pollution and smog now render the summit of Mount Wilson a less excellent site for astronomy than before, but they haven't erased Mount Wilson Observatory's place in the history of science. The observatory's Hooker Telescope was once the largest in the world and was used by Edwin Hubble to show that the universe was expanding, an observation that was key to formulating the Big Bang theory.

Mount Wilson Observatory from San Gabriel Peak
The Three Saints were visible to the east. In the distance, the peaks of Mount San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Peak rose above the horizon. These two peaks, the tallest in their ranges, have some of the greatest prominence of any mountains in the lower 48; San Jacinto rises over 8,300 feet directly from San Gorgonio Pass. Closer in, the snowcapped summit of Mount San Antonio- better known as Mount Baldy- glowed in the light of the setting sun.

Mount Baldy
The rest of the view was equally impressive. The north was dominated by the higher peaks of the San Gabriel back range, while the lower peaks of the front range stretched off to the west. To the south, I could see a large portion of the endless sprawl of Los Angeles and its attendant suburbs; far beyond, I could make out Palos Verdes and Santa Catalina. To the west, the sun set over the Pacific Ocean as the evening lights in San Fernando Valley began to glimmer.

The San Gabriels from San Gabriel Peak
Sunset on the Pacific Ocean
Dusk on the San Fernando Valley
I stayed at the summit for nearly an hour, taking in the view until sunset. At dusk, I retraced my steps back to the trailhead. There's much to recommend about this hike: the view at the summit and the surroundings visited along the trail itself were both excellent, and the trail is just enough uphill to make it seem like an actual summit hike while simultaneously being short enough that most reasonably fit people can finish it.

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