Hiking by Design at Echo Mountain

It was a clear, warm day in Los Angeles, as usual. Our group met at the foot of the trail in Altadena, in front of the 1918 Cobb Estate.

For its third installation, Hiking by Design trekked to the remnants of Echo Mountain in the hills just north of Pasadena. One of Southern California’s original resort destinations, the White City was built in 1893 by Thaddeus Lowe (namesake of Mt Lowe, also a popular hiking destination). Holiday makers were lured by the dry, temperate climate of Los Angeles, purported to cure everything from tuberculosis to existential ennui. Perhaps LA’s current reputation for top-notch plastic surgeons is a continuation of the med-spa legacy started over 100 years ago.

At its peak – or should I say heyday? – the resort consisted of four hotels, tennis courts, an observatory, a dance hall and its own water and power. Echo Mountain was reached by a scenic incline railway, similar to the Angel’s Flight funicular in Downtown LA, from the basin 1,800 feet below. Another stretch of mountain railway careened around the cliffs and delivered guests to the Alpine Tavern another 3-1/2 miles back into the canyon.

Echo Mountain House, Courtesy LA Public Library

After a steady hour and a half hike our design-inclined group arrived at the terminus of the old incline railway. The funicular journey took about 30 minutes, but we think we had the more enjoyable journey. Bits of disused track line the trail, and the remnants of massive old gears and wheels we saw must have rusted slowly in the dry temperate climate. One of our Hiking by Design regulars pored over the plans of the original power plant that perched on the hill. The plant that lit the resort was also the cause of its early demise just a few decades later: power lines caught in wind ignited a fire that razed the White City.

A few meters further on you pass the site of old tennis courts and picnic area. The courts are gone, but the picnicking continues with tables installed by the state park. The foundations of the hotel have a prime spot on the southeast verge of the cliff and overlook the entire Los Angeles basin. Characteristically hazy the day we visited, after a rain the views are stunning: the skyline of Downtown Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory, and the Pacific Ocean glittering beyond.

We were fortunate to have building expert and excellent hiker Ron Ortiz from I. Grace along to help us decode the ruins. He explained that the gaps in the foundation were for crawl space, affording access for services as well as facilitating natural ventilation. Bearing in mind that we had temperatures in the mid 70s on an early January day, that ventilation would be a boon in the summer months.

No visit to Echo Mountain would be complete without a trip back behind the property where the Echo Phone aims your voice across the next ravine and bounces the sound back to you. We tried to get a four-legged hiker to try it, but couldn’t coax his muzzle to just the right spot.

-Valerie Thomas

For more about Mount Lowe:

Amazing footage of the railway in action:

More about Hiking by Design:
Hiking by Design is a regular series of hikes to sites of architectural significance. Led by Valerie Thomas and sponsored by Remains Los Angeles our hikes cover varied terrain and are a great way to exercise a penchant for nature and the built environment. If you have suggestions of hike locations or questions about our events, please contact Valerie at Valerie@remains.com. We invite you to join our next outing for the design-inclined. We promise it will be fun.

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