Chantry Flat Trailhead to Sturtevant Falls Trail, Lower Falls Trail, Gabrielino Trail, Mount Wilson Observatory, Old Toll Road, Upper Winter Creek Trail
5,710 feet with 4,000 feet of elevation gain
5 1/2 Hours
I should learn my lesson. All of the trail guides note that the small parking lot at Chantry Flat fills up by 07:00 on weekends. I guess I was feeling optimistic. Or maybe I was just tired and wanted to sleep in for another few minutes. But on a gorgeous Sunday morning, even people who like to sleep until noon sometimes venture out for an early morning walk, and when I arrived a few minutes past 07:30, I tried not to get angry at the woman driving a huge black Escalade who seemed to think that if she just waited there that one of the spots might open up. I almost got out to let her know that all of the car owners were out hiking and wouldn't be back for hours, but she finally eased slowly forward, reluctantly rolling back out of the parking lot and onto the narrow road to look for a pullout large enough to accommodate her enormous vehicle. Luckily, I was able to pass her quickly and slip into a little nook well within the white line. I hooked up my Adventure Pass and almost jogged back up to the trailhead. I was itching to get walking. I was looking forward to the walk's beautiful scenery, but I was also on a schedule: I wanted to get up to the observatory in time to eat a little bit of lunch and then attend a performance by Katie Grinnan that was being staged as part of Knowledges, an exhibition of art installed in and around the observatory. My goal was to get to the observatory by noon.
There is something strange about descending into the canyon on the paved fire road leading to the Sturtevant Trail. It seems odd to go down before going up, but mostly I long, on this paved section, to get into the dusty parts. The faded blacktop seems to go on forever, but soon the sound of the creek comes into focus, and I finally know I am on my way.
The light was beautiful, filtered through the tall trees, as I passed the mountain cabins along the creek. I passed a bunch of walkers who were going over to the falls for picnics, but once I cut off onto the Lower Falls Trail, I was on my own. On my two previous walks on Mount Wilson, I took the Upper Falls Trail. While it does offer a pretty vista or two, I found the Lower Falls Trail to be infinitely more scenic. At first, the single track trail hugs the slope of the mountain. Then, it dances over and around the rocks and boulders, the switchbacks weaving a braid with the alternately trickling, rushing, and falling creek. I looked across the creek at one point and saw brilliant orange shapes amid the lush creekside greenery. As I neared, I realized that these were wild lilies, their brilliant orange blooms bobbing like Chinese lanterns at the ends of their long stalks.
At one point, I wondered if I'd missed a junction or if the Lower Falls Trail would not, in fact, meet up with the Gabrielino Trail that would take me to the summit. I didn't have a clock, and I was worried that, if I had to backtrack, I would lose a lot of time and maybe miss Katie's performance. But I soon rounded a bend and saw the familiar sign pointing the ways to Wilson and Zion summits. Once I'd passed that junction, I knew I had better stop for a short rest and a bite to eat: from Spruce Grove Camp, just a little piece ahead, it was nothing but a brutal upward grade for three miles to the summit. So, I sat on a rock overlooking the creek and ate my boiled eggs, cheese, almonds, and apricots. And then the real walking began.
While Mount Wilson is on the petite side and its scenery lends it a bucolic air, the trail to the summit is no joke: it's three solid miles of relentless incline. When I encountered a man taking a break just before the half-way rest, I tried to encourage him, but he just waved me on with his hat. I love that half-way rest sign, and as I turned up around the sign to the next switchback, I could hear voices up ahead. The tail end of the group soon came into view, and as I approached, the woman who was bringing up the rear of her spirited group yelled ahead, "Hiker back!" When no one in her party stepped aside at her call, she yelled out again, "Hiker back! And she's got a serious groove on!" I hadn't noticed my groove or its seriousness, but I was indeed feeling pretty good. They all stepped aside, and we chatted as I passed.
Still worried about the time, I tried to pace myself while also moving quickly. The sun wasn't kidding around at this point, and the heat coaxed dusty, musky scents from the pines, wildflowers, and sandy ground. Even though I'd walked this trail two times before, I kept finding passages that I didn't remember. Just when I thought I'd maybe taken a wrong turn somewhere, I saw one of the observatory structures in the distance and then the storm fence leading out to Echo Rock. A few paces later, I encountered a small group of people on the observatory round-about and asked for the time. When one of the men responded that it was 11:00, I asked him, "Are you sure it isn't noon?" I'd made it up in three hours, which means that I was moving at a good clip, definitely faster than my previous walks on this trail.
I found Claude and Happy. They showed me Claude's beautiful birdbath sculpture, and then I walked a mile or so down the Rim Trail to a picnic table where I sat, away from the small groups of people arriving for Knowledges, and ate some lunch. Along the Rim Trail, evidence of the Station Fire was still clearly visible. I remember the news reporters talking about the fire threatening the observatory, but I never thought it was so close. I saw the carcasses of burned trees mere yards away from one of the telescopes.
I'd first come to this mountain with Claude, for his birthday. It was April, and it was chilly as a small group of us set out in the thin morning light. We meandered upward, and when we started to see patches of snow, we took a little break. We then embarked on what I now know is one of the more difficult three-mile climbs around. I was insistent on keeping apace with (though just behind) another friend of Claude's. Rob had been leading the way the whole time, and I was determined to keep up. The snow grew thicker, and on some of the switchbacks, where the sun now beat down, it was incredibly slushy. My footing would slip at pivotal moments, and I would slide just enough to lose my footing and my stride. It was almost like walking in sand. I was so out of breath, and all of my muscles ached, but I kept going. When I got to the top, I felt just amazing. Lunch never tasted so good. As we walked back down the mountain, I knew that something had sparked in me, and it wouldn't be long before I'd go out and do seventeen miles on Mount Wilson's fantastic network of trails all on my own...
Back at the Mount Wilson Observatory grounds, I wandered around to see the artists' works. I especially liked the Center for Land Use Interpretation's weather balloon documents and Mark Hagen's obsidian beacon. Inside the sixty-inch telescope, I got to see a screening of Mungo Thomson's lovely reversal of Nam June Paik's Zen For Film, 1962-64 (The Varieties of Experience, 2008). I'd seen it once in Mungo's studio, but the setting for this was wonderful and added a lot to the piece. Then we all sat down for Katie Grinnan's Astrology Orchestra.
What a perfect setting for this really neat piece that is based on Katie's astrological birth chart. I felt really honored to be there.
After chatting with a few friends and filling up my pack with more water, I lit out for the Old Toll Road that would lead me down to Upper Winter Creek Trail, jogging most of the way. I slalomed amid the rocks, roots, and ferns, trying to avoid the verdant poison oak. I encountered no one in the two and a half hours it took me to get back down to Adam's Pack Station. I bought a "Friends of the San Gabriels" patch that shows Sturtevant Falls, a pack mule, a pine grove, and a mountain cabin to mark the day.