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Trail of the Week - Sam Merrill in the San Gabriel Mountains

Trail of the Week - Sam Merrill in the San Gabriel Mountains


Guest post by David VillalobosAt one time you would have taken a rail car up to Echo Mountain, where a hotel once stood. Today you have to take the Sam Merrill trail to see the remains of the railway and the hotel’s foundation.

My favorite route in this mountain range starts at Sam Merrill and reaches Echo Mountain, Lower Sam Merrill, Inspiration Point, Mt Lowe and the Tunnel, before looping back. 

Trail Running Sam Merrill

San Gabriel Mountains Running

The trail has many options to offer. The route has breath-taking landscape views on every switch back, such as Pasadena, Downtown Los Angeles, and the Catalina Islands on a clear day. The trail offers access to other trails that allow you to come back to experience more, such as San Gabe Peak, Mt Disappointment, Mt Lowe Camp Site, Mt Wilson, and the Cosmic Café. After you end your run, there are a variety of food options since it is so close to Pasadena. You will need to be careful of the wildlife since bears, mountain lions, and rattle snakes are common in the area, more wildlife stories later in this post. 

Strava Route Sam Merrill

Sam Merrill Trail Running

Parking and Access

The Sam Merrill Trailhead is accessed off Lake Avenue in Altadena, 4 miles above Pasadena. The parking is in a residential area and is free, but parking is not allowed until after 6 AM. The place is popular and does fill up during the weekends.

Sam Merrill Trail Head:

 Sam Merrill Trail

Sam Merrill Trailhead to Echo Mountain (3~ miles)

This section is the busiest part of the trail system. The first three miles are a steady climb that can get the heart pumping fast if you manage to run the whole way. The trails are mainly filled by chaparral, but still manage to contain that aura of the wilderness feel good beauty. At the top of Echo Mountain is where the scene begins. Here is will you will start to see the remnants of the railway and the hotel. If you look southwest, you will get a neat view of the Rose Bowl and Pasadena. 

Sam Merrill trail runningEcho Mountain to Inspiration Point (2~ miles)

I always like to take the Lower Sam Merrill to inspiration point. The climbing seems more chill than Upper Sam Merrill and it makes the out and back less redundant. Be careful in this section, at some point the trail looks like it will disappear when it hits a rock wall. Climb up two to three feet and look left, the trail will reappear. At the top you will hit a fire road and a shelter, Inspiration Point. Some more remnants of the rail way, the Rose Bowl, and a Skyline view of Downtown Los Angeles. Can you see the Ostrich farm?

trail hiking steep hiking san gabes

Echo Mountain

Inspiration Point to Mt Lowe (2~ miles)

Now you are separating from the crowds, from here you will see the random hiker and random mountain biker. This has a short flat section, but continues the “never-ending” climb (JK). This climb can also be run able if you want a challenge. The trail will eventually change to a rocky section which changes the vibe of everything you have experienced so far. By now you have reached the top of Mt Lowe and probably feel like a champ as you look out towards the panoramic view. From here you can see a better view of the LA Skyline, Catalina Islands, the Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL), San Gabriel Peak, Mt Wilson, and Pasadena.

Note: Mt Lowe can have ice on the trail during winter so I would recommend micro spikes. Hiking San Gabriel Mountains

Pull ups mountains

Mt Lowe to Tunnel (1.5~ miles)

From here you will notice more hikers pop up and wonder where they are coming from. They are coming from the Mt Wilson Red Box road which is accessible from the 2 Highway. Eventually you will run into a hidden tunnel. It might be anticlimactic, but there is something about going through a tunnel in the wilderness. 

Bonus: If you continue up the paved road to Mt Wilson, you will hit the Cosmic Café where you can purchase food and beverages. It also has restrooms and a water faucet to refill your hydration pack or water bottles.

Note: Cosmic Café is closed for the winter and the water faucets will be shut off. Tunnel Trail Running

Running in Tunnel


After we came out of the Tunnel, we ran down a single track in the Upper Sam Merrill towards the car. The four of us were running pretty fast and all of a sudden there was a Rattle Snake in the middle of the trail. Three of us were able to react quickly and jump over it, while Paul in the back heard us scream and he was able to stop in his tracks. We had a good laugh about how lucky we were and paid more attention after that. 

Rattle snake on trail

Rattle snake on trail

What an adventure. After your run or hike, you can head down to Pasadena and enjoy some food at Lucky Baldwin’s Pub, Urth Caffé, Lemonade or Veggie Grill.