December 01, 2013

Photo Essay: Getting to Echo Mountain via Mt. Lowe, Past the Hard Part

For my third time summiting Echo Mountain, I went up the hard way. And I had a hard time. The steep climb - which required a lot of scrambling with hands and absolutely zero fear of heights - was just enough beyond my skill level to bring me to tears, a condition worsened by a know-it-all intruder who decided to help out by yelling at me that I was going to fall, and barking orders at me to grab his rope.

Of course, that only made me cry harder.

Amidst the thoughts of "My God, what have I done?" and "There's no turning back now" and "How am I ever going to get through this?", it did occur to me that maybe I shouldn't have even tried this hike, despite the fact that my Sierra Club hiking companions didn't discourage me from it or even remotely warn me how bad it was going to be. I didn't have to pass a physical or psychological test to climb Echo Mountain the hard way. I just had to show up early on a Saturday in the rain.

And there I was, having gotten through the worst of it, having hung off the side of a cliff supported only by a thin nylon rope, my white knuckles, and my hiking boots in crumbling footholds, about to embark on the section of the hike that made the whole ordeal worthwhile:

...the old path of the Mt. Lowe Railway.

At the top of the last steep climb, we met up with a paved fire road that led us to the juncture of Sunset Point, a popular junction for mountain bikers as well, as clouds hung low.

The paved road continued up the mountain (which I believe I had ridden up and down during our carpool trip to the Alpine Tavern site and Inspiration Point two years ago)...

...but we proceeded down the dirt trail which would led us to our destination, Echo Mountain, the original dropoff point for the Mt. Lowe Incline Railway (which climbed to Echo Mountain's White City from Rubio Canyon down below).

We hadn't gone that far distance-wise, but I'd taken a long journey physically, mentally and emotionally already.

After all, in the heyday of the Mt. Lowe Railway, the only way for people to get up this mountain was to buy a ticket for a trolley that would zig-zag its way to the top.

Along the old railway bed of the Alpine Division of the Mt. Lowe Railway, you can see a lot of preserved relics of the train's path, including retaining walls and supports.

We humans teetered along the ridge trail, where only a couple railings might keep us from falling if we leaned over too far.

It's a marvel how modern engineering (at the time) was able to cut through the granite...

...and how some of the ties still remain underfoot.

Thanks to interpretive signage posted by the U.S. Forest Service and the Scenic Mt. Lowe Railway Historic Committee, many of the well-known features along the route to the Alpine Tavern (which ran from 1893-1936, until an electrical fire burned the tavern down) can still be identified... Sentinel Rock...

image courtesy of the Mt. Lowe Preservation Society Inc.

...a popular subject for postcards... well as where wooden trestles like High Bridge used to cross the deep Los Flores Canyon below.

The original rail trip was so harrowing that it required three bridges (High Bridge, Circular Bridge, and Vertical Rock Bridge) to navigate the steep inclines and hairpin turns. It's an amazing feat to imagine, and a real treat to walk along its path.

I was able to recover quickly (and relatively easily) from my terror of hanging off the side of a cliff just a few minutes earlier.

Walking along that path, I was reminded that sometimes you have to take the long way to get where you're going. In the case of Mt. Lowe, the railway required over a mile of track just to travel about 1/5 of a mile as the crow flies.

And it would take 15 minutes to travel a mere 1.75 miles of track.

Trekking downhill, it didn't take us very long to make our way over to Echo Mountain...

...looking back, barely believing the way we'd gotten up there...

...finally reaching a trail and its markers that looked familiar.

When you get to Echo Mountain - either via the Sam Merrill Trail or the Hard Way - you have the choice of heading up the Castle Canyon trail to Inspiration Point...

...or taking some time to explore the ruins of the former White City at Echo Mountain, which once housed an observatory and a luxurious Victorian hotel (which also burned down).

I was glad we had some time to explore Echo Mountain, though I'd been there twice before, because I find something new upon each visit.

I hadn't remembered the old power station...

...and although I recalled the Great Incline's terminus...

...whose remaining tracks now drop off to nowhere...

...I'd never spotted the extant concrete footings at the top of the incline...

...or really realize that these stairs were the platform from which passengers would embark and disembark from the incline railway.

I hadn't even noticed that you could still see a bit of track embedded in the hillside.

On this hiking trip, we lingered around the ruins for a while to catch our breath and explore, but we'd taken a long time to get up there, and as the sun began to peek through the cloudy sky, we had to return to our cars on Lake Avenue for the rest of our day.

Thankfully, our return trip took us down the familiar and far easier Sam Merrill Trail, from which we could visually trace our steps up the ridge trail, past the reservoir, where we saw other hikers pausing to consider their route.

For us, it was all downhill from there, our vertical climb a slowly fading memory. But my tearstained face, the dirt under my nails and the aching in my lower body were all a constant reminder of how we'd gotten there.

I won't be going up to Echo Mountain the Hard Way again. Ever. But next time I summit Echo Mountain, I think I'll take an extra walk over to where the trolley once careened around Mt. Lowe on its way to the Alpine Tavern, just to have another look.

Related Posts:
Echo Mountain, The Hard Way
Photo Essay: Pasadena to the Mt. Lowe Alpine Tavern
Photo Essay: Mt. Lowe's Inspiration Point to Altadena
Photo Essay: Heart-Pounding Hike to a Lost City

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