One thing about living in Los Angeles is you tend to get lost in the magnitude of the city. It’s a large, congested place and it’s necessary to stop from time to time and view the city from above in order to stay sane. One place built precisely to watch the city is Inspiration Point. Standing on a plateau on Mount Lowe in Angeles Forest, it provides Los Angeles explorers the ability to look through fixed looking tubes aimed at iconic L.A. neighborhoods. One visit to this serene perch and you will hike down with a newfound appreciation for the expansive city we call home.
Reaching Inspiration Point is not an easy task. The only way up requires a taxing 12-mile round-trip hike with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet. The trail is well-maintained and easy to follow but it ascends quickly and has areas of erosion that require sure footing. It may not be the most dangerous trail in the park but it does demand your attention.
The trailhead is in Altadena on the corner of Lake Avenue and Loma Alta Drive. This is where the Cobb Estate once stood. It was the home of Charles H. Cobb, a member of the Freemasons who made his money in the lumber industry. He passed away in 1939 and after a few exchanges in ownership, the property became part of Angeles Forest. Its iron gates still stand and now mark the beginning of the Sam Merrill Trail. Once through the gates, you walk up the broken driveway that once took cars up to the main house. At the end of the road, you cut left at a flood control channel and leave the property behind to enter Angeles Forest.
A friend from work invited me on this trip. He’s an avid hiker who knows of my love of the city’s history. We walked through the gates at 7 AM and there were plenty of other people taking on the same challenge; including a large mixed-age party of Asian adventurers. We would cross paths with them throughout the day as they formed smaller groups depending on their hiking pace.
The hike takes you through multiple switchbacks along the side of the mountain. My left knee began hurting within 30 minutes as we quickly gained altitude. We went up about 800 feet within the first hour.
The trail is in good condition with metal barriers in various places to preserve the path and prevent erosion. Some areas have slight rockslides that narrow the trail for a step or two but the average person should be fine as long as they pay attention to where they step.
Aside from the rate at which you ascend, the biggest hazard on this part of the trail is the number of people on it. Even at this hour there were hikers behind us, ahead of us, and some already on their way down the mountain. We stopped constantly to let others pass, including trail runners and a few mountain bikers.
It was 9 o’clock when we reached the top of Echo Mountain. The first thing you spot is what looks to be the iron base of a rail car. It’s all that is left of the old Alpine Division railway that once ushered White City patrons to surrounding mountain destinations. It sits rusting in place providing a vision of a time most of us cannot imagine. It’s the first of many such relics at Echo Mountain.
The top of Echo Mountain once held the White City; an ostentatious resort built by Thaddeus Lowe in 1893. It consisted of an 80-room hotel, an observatory, tennis courts, and a small zoo. There are signs and pictures all around depicting the grandeur of the retreat. You can take a walk down to what used to be the picnic area and tennis courts. This part of the grounds sits below the more conspicuous ruins. It’s possible to hide out from the big crowds, have lunch, or just let time pass you by.
At the other end of the plateau is the stop where the Mount Lowe Railway carried passengers up and down the mountain. The funicular consisted of two open-air cars known as Echo and Alpine. The cars traveled along a track with a steep incline reaching over 60% at certain points. This impressive feat of engineering was known as the Great Incline. The massive gears that pulled the rail cars up Echo Mountain are still here, as are the steps where people would get out of the rail cars. Standing on these steps provides a peek of what riders would see as their seats forced them to stare down the mountain they were scaling.
Riders of the Mount Lowe Railway would exit onto the steps to the Echo Mountain House. Here, guests would be treated to extravagant parties high above the city to forget the mundane life below. This continued until 1905 when a fire fueled by strong winds destroyed the hotel, the grounds, and of course, the railways.
The biggest attraction on the old foundation of the Echo Mountain House is the historic Echo Phone. The rusted hollow cone beckons hikers to yell to their heart’s content and hear their voice as it reverberates through the canyon below.
After about a half hour at the ruins of the White City, we were off to the start of the Castle Canyon Trail for the second leg of the hike. It was understood this part was tougher than it was to reach Echo Mountain but there was no turning back at this point. The reason for the hike was Inspiration Point.
The trail descends into the canyon and curves away from the White City. We spotted the large group of hikers well ahead of us as they snaked through the trail in a single file. After about 20 minutes, the terrain changed to a more traditional forest. We stood in moist soil and watched a stream fall from above and continue down the canyon. This beautiful area marks the spot where you begin to climb the other side of the canyon. Before long, the lush greenery is replaced with the more traditional granite and dry brush of Angeles Forest.
While you have an idea of where Inspiration Point sits, it’s invisible for most of the hike. It’s not until you are about 15 minutes away that you finally spot the famed site. It’s incredibly exciting to get the first look but the trail teases you and pulls away from the destination as it takes you to the final switchback and final stretch of the hike. It was noon when we finally made it.
The hiking group we had tailed all day reached Inspiration Point some time before us and was gathered at the picnic benches under the roof. We walked past them and proceeded down to the viewing tubes. We were isolated, had the best view, and were protected from the sun. We dropped our packs, took a few deep breaths, and started our lunch. Before long, every person departed and all that was left was silence.
The telescopes of Inspiration Point are fascinating representations of the neighborhoods below. Appropriately, the Los Angeles tube is beautifully weathered and rusted from years of getting battered by the elements. The other tubes can only aspire to one day reach the historical heights of the heart of Los Angeles.
We made our way down the Sam Merrill Trail to the White City and back to Altadena where the day began. The hike that started at 7 AM concluded as we crossed the gates of the Cobb Estate once more at 4:55 PM. We drove a few blocks down and stopped for tacos to finish the day. There really is no better way to finish such an exhausting Los Angeles hike.
Echo Mountain and Inspiration Point are remnants of a Los Angeles forgotten long ago. Today’s well-off Angelenos prefer to delight in opulent clubs and rooftop bars where they can be spotted and photographed by paparazzi. Hopping a trolley that perilously scales the side of a mountain to escape and hide out in nature is not necessary when there are plenty of hideaways in Malibu that don’t defy death. The ruins of the White City, the legendary Echo Phone, and the telescopes of Inspiration Point are now hidden gems reserved for those willing to leave behind our paved, congested streets in favor of the untamed side of Los Angeles.