For a nice hike that offers up some challenging spots and good elevation gain but is also easily accessible from the Pasadena area, the Inspiration Point Interpretive Site is a great destination. Designed in the early 1900s for guests at ‘The White City,’ the historic Echo Mountain resort along the Mt. Lowe railway, Inspiration Point is the place for great panoramic views of the Los Angeles Basin and the San Gabriel Valley below. On a clear day, you can even see Catalina Island 70 miles away off the California coast.
I actually did this hike earlier this morning. I am familiar with Inspiration Point, however I have not done this popular climb from Echo Mountain. It is a mostly gradual downhill trek from Eaton Saddle to Inspiration Point, and thus is much more palatable to Samantha, who does not love strenuous hikes. As I was solo hiking this morning, I opted for something that would lend itself to a good climb. I had considered doing another peak hike, however I also wanted to stay within range of cell service in case the kids, who all decided to sleep in, wanted to get ahold of me. Fortunately, Altadena’s front country does have a few hikes that fit this bill.
I started the morning before 8 am at the entrance to the Cobb Estate located at the end of Lake Avenue and Loma Alta. The familiar climb to Echo Mountain along the Lower Sam Merrill Trail went fairly quickly. This is a hike that I’ve done many times prior to the pandemic with the kids and our dog. With a 1400 elevation gain over 2.6 miles, it is considered moderate. There were many people on the trail heading up and down the mountain before 8 am, hikers likely trying to beat the expected afternoon heat. On the plus side, the trail is pretty well-maintained, and while narrower than some of the fire road trails, it is for the most part wide enough to allow people to pass. Even our large Golden retriever does well on this trail.
As I arrived at Echo Mountain and walked toward the ruins, I chatted with a couple of hikers who were coming off the Castle Canyon trail to Inspiration Point along with their two dogs. I inquired about the trail conditions, and they let me know that the trail was ‘there’ and fairly steep but that after the first major turn it would be shaded. This was consistent with what I read about the trail being steep and rather difficult. After a water break and a snack at the ruins, I backtracked to the Castle Canyon Trail and began the second portion of the trek.
The assessment of the hikers was pretty spot on. The trail was pretty flat for the first half-mile or so, but was not shaded at all, and while it was wide enough for comfort in most places, to the right was a steep drop-off into the canyon. After that first stretch, the trail did become more shaded. The flora went from plants found in dry chaparral to riparian trees and bay laurels. There was a small spring that provided water for these plants and it added to the charm of the canyon.
That said, this is where I thought the trail got much more difficult. I began the real climb, and while the trail stayed pretty well shaded for the most part, this is where the pleasant comments end. The Castle Canyon Trail proved to have more than a few areas that required some concentration, and there was even a spot around that first mile where I almost lost the trail. The trail continued up a rocky ledge that was easy to miss. On the plus side, Google maps worked pretty well on this trail, and while this trail was not very popular on this particular Saturday, there were enough hikers to make it clear the correct way to go.
After a hot second of panic, I headed up the rocky ledge and resumed the trail. It was slow going for another half mile and as I hit 4.36 miles on my Strava app, I hit a wall. I had to remember to take my own advice and remind myself that it’s not about how fast you get up a mountain. I put one foot in front of the other on the narrow, rocky trail and made sure that I stayed hydrated. I went through my first liter and then some before reaching the 4.5 mile point on my app. I got a second (or third) wind and continued on. As I was about to run out of steam again as I approached five miles, the Inspiration Point pavilion came into view, a welcome sight sitting above the trail against a clear summer sky.
From there is was only about a quarter-mile up to the interpretive site. The temperatures were very pleasant at the top, and the clear day yielded some spectacular views. There were not too many people at Inspiration Point so it was easy to commandeer a nice bench to enjoy a trail lunch and more water. I took my time at the site and just enjoyed the view and the summer breeze, along with a fruit cup. It was pretty perfect.
After a good twenty minutes or so, I decided it was probably time to head back. The day was only going to get warmer as I headed back down, so I reluctantly peeled myself from my perch and headed back. I debated on whether to return via Castle Canyon or try the Upper Sam Merrill Trail, both of which would head back down to Echo Mountain. While there is not too great a difference in distance, I chose to go the slightly shorter route back through Castle Canyon. It didn’t take too long to hike the 2.25 miles back down to Echo Mountain, even while being careful to pay attention to those more technical areas. This time I knew approximately where they would be. I also didn’t run into very many people this late in the day. The early afternoon was bringing more intense heat and sunlight, so there were fewer people heading up the trail.
After returning to Echo Mountain, I stopped at the picnic area for another snack of fruit and water. The breeze was very nice and the quiet was very enjoyable. After a few minutes, I headed back down toward the car. As the sun was beating down on the trail, I reapplied sunscreen very consistently, and lamented that I had once again forgotten to bring a hat. Once I reached the car, I treated myself to the largest ice cold Sprite money can buy at the Altadena McDonald’s nearby. The dollar drink was the perfect after-hike treat on a warm summer day.
Some things to consider:
Parking for the Cobb Estate and Lower Sam Merrill Trail is street parking in a residential area. Forest adventure passes are not required. Just be sure to observe any posted signs, and be considerate of the residents who live there.
The trail up to Echo Mountain is, for the most part, not shaded. Please bring plenty of water and sun protection. Also remember to bring a hat. It would make the hike a bit more comfortable.
Echo Mountain is very popular, with its easy access from the Altadena/Pasadena area. The Castle Canyon Trail is considered heavily trafficked, however there are fewer hikers on this trail. While the hike to Echo Mountain is rated moderate, Castle Canyon to Inspiration Point is considered hard. The trail is indeed narrow and steep at many points, and there are some areas that require a good amount of focus. I would recommend trekking poles for the hike down. I did not use any on this hike, but I do feel that could have made hiking Castle Canyon a bit more comfortable coming down.
This was a fun hike even with its challenges. According to Strava, my total distance was 10 miles with a 2878 foot elevation gain. The views from Inspiration Point were really spectacular. The next time I hike up to Inspiration Point, I plan on taking Sam Merrill on the way back. While it adds about another half-mile, other hikers said that it is a bit more friendly on the knees and is a little wider. Either way, this is a great hike for those who enjoy great views. Happy trails!