June 28, 2010

Photo Essay: Heart-Pounding Hike to a Lost City

I haven't had that easy of a time setting up meetings for this trip to LA. I think it's actually easier when I'm in town only for two days rather than two weeks. A sense of urgency is usually enough to cram a lot in.

So, even though technically it's a work day, I haven't got that much work to do right now, so I decided to take a day for hiking and photography, recapturing a bit of my Joshua Tree routine from a year ago.

After my attempt to hike Debs Park's more rural trails was thwarted by the LAFD yesterday, I was less than thrilled to discover that the Angeles Crest Highway - my planned adventure for today - was closed. I was even less thrilled when I drove to my Plan B trail - part of the La Canada Flintridge system - and found even more road closures.

So I reverted back to an idea for a hike that I'd already discounted, thinking it was too high, too long, and too solitary for me: the Mount Lowe Railway.

There are actually two ways to explore the old incline railway grounds: on the official rail trail itself, and by hiking a much shorter distance from Altadena to the apex of Echo Mountain, where the former railway originally reached its peak, in a tiny mountain resort town called White City. I chose the latter once I drove to the trailhead and spotted a few fellow hikers heading in. At least I wouldn't be alone.

The trail to Echo Mountain and White City is about five and a half miles with a 1000 ft. elevation change. I knew I'd be pushing my physical limits, especially with it already approaching noon, and the cool morning breeze slowly being overpowered by the intensifying sun. But I like hiking to somewhere or something, with a big payoff at the end, and was willing to take my chances.

The first two miles up and around the mountain are steep, sturdy, well-traveled and surprisingly green and, in spots, shady. But they're also dusty, gravelly, with a ton of switchbacks in a sweaty ascent.

I got passed in both directions by young locals from the neighborhood, carrying a small bottle of water and a dog on a leash while I struggled to climb with my backpack, hiking guidebook, and liter-sized water bottle. The sweat was dripping off my face as though I'd splashed myself with drinking water in order to cool off.

I was still waiting for the sky's overcast to burn off, but the higher I got, the hazier everything looked.

I climbed so high that I not only approached the power lines...

...but I walked right through them.

After huffing and puffing, gasping audibly and taking increasingly frequent rests in shaded areas, some fellow hikers who'd passed me in both directions assured me that I was only five minutes away from the top. At only about 2.5 miles, it had taken me about an hour and fifteen minutes - almost double my usual walking time.

I finally reached what I came for: White City, the railway's original terminus, and today's remaining vestiges of the historic landmark site.

power plant foundation

estate foundations

replica of megaphone-like contraption to show off Echo Mountain's unique quality

There's a certain amount of satisfaction I felt at the top of Echo Mountain, having conquered self-doubt and physical discomfort to reach its peak. But mostly I just wanted to cry - out of relief, gratitude, awe, sadness, loss - decades, or centuries, of emotion, crashing down on me. And when I was ready to leave, I felt it pushing me back down the mountain, so much more quickly than I ascended, back down to civilization, where real buildings still stand and I still have some control over what becomes history.

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