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Hiking the Angeles: Mt. Wilson Trail to First Water and Orchard Camp

The early morning fog along the trail

I feel incredibly lucky to live where I do in Southern California; the San Gabriel Valley, just under the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains is a gateway to many adventures. For here it seems that at the end of every quaint foothill street, there is a hiking trail to take one high up into the mountains above, with spectacular views of the valley below.

One such trail is the Old Mount Wilson trail at the end of Mountain Trail Road in Sierra Madre, California. The Mt. Wilson Trail’s terminus would take you up to Mt. Wilson, a peak in the mighty San Gabriels, and one of historic and modern importance. For while it is not the highest peak- that distinction belongs to Mt. San Antonio– it does have billions of dollars in television and radio equipment, as well as an observatory that was the ground for uncovering how huge the universe really is.

The hike up to the peak is a seven-mile journey with about a 4200 foot elevation gain. I have yet to make it to the peak via this trail, but I have gone on parts of it, and it is on my list of peaks to climb this coming season.

Starting in Sierra Madre at the Mt. Wilson Trail Park on Mira Monte Avenue, the Mt. Wilson trail is a popular hike for hikers of different skill levels. We have used the first 3.5 miles of trail to Orchard Camp as a moderate training hike. While parts of the trail are exposed, most of the trail is nicely shaded, and has lovely views of the mountains above and the valley below. Also, we tend to go in the late spring, which happens to be while the wildflowers are in bloom. We saw many lovely flowers all along the trail.

After about a half-mile from the first trail sign, there is a turnoff to the left for Charlie’s New Trail. This trail makes a mile loop, and while it doesn’t change the distance or elevation much, it does tend to be less trafficked than the Old Mt. Wilson Trail which can get very busy on weekends.

After about another three-quarters of a mile, we came to the trail’s first major landmark, First Water. From the trailhead to the turnoff to First Water, the trail has an elevation gain of about 700 feet, which provides a nice warmup to the rest of the hike to Orchard or Mt. Wilson. When the kids were smaller, I remember heading up here and stopping at First Water. At that time, a mile-and-a-half was enough with four small kids, including baby in a hiking pack. It still is a popular stop, especially for those with dogs.

First Water is aptly named, as there is always some water flowing in the stream, but it is especially enchanting after a good rainy season. The hike to First Water follows the trail from the Mt. Wilson Trailhead along Little Santa Anita Canyon. After about a mile-and-a-half, there is a turnoff to the right and down toward the stream. At the stream, there are some nice sitting spots, and plenty of fun for hiking pups. I don’t recommend drinking the water especially without purification, but Owen seems to enjoy it.

To get to Orchard Camp, stay to the left on the trail, rather than veering right to the stream. It is another two miles up, and another 1600 feet or so of gain. Orchard Camp marks the halfway point between the trailhead in Sierra Madre and Mt. Wilson’s peak. Back in the late 1890s and early 1900s, So Cal’s ‘golden age of hiking,’ the camp was a popular resort along the trail. It was flooded out in 1938, and today only the stone foundation remains. For us, it is a nice stopping point on our summer training hikes. Nestled in the frontcountry forest with some easy places to sit among the ruins, it is a pleasant spot to enjoy a trail snack and hang out with friends.

Orchard Camp

Some things to consider:

Parking in Sierra Madre does not require a Forest Service adventure pass, however street parking can get a little tight especially on weekends and holidays. I often park a couple blocks away from the trailhead, even when arriving early on a Saturday morning.

While the trail is shaded in many parts, there are some stretches, especially along the side of Little Santa Anita Canyon that is exposed. Be sure to bring plenty of water, trail snacks, and sunscreen. We usually hike this trail early in the morning so that we’re back out by mid-morning before it gets too hot. I have taken Owen on warmer days, and we do have to take it slow, especially on the incline.

The Mt. Wilson Trail is a fun hike, with beautiful views of the valley below and much adventure to be had, even if you don’t get to the peak. Happy trails!

Chris the Puppy exploring Orchard Camp

*This article was first published on January 19. It has been updated for clarification and new photos.

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