The 10 Coolest Historical Ruins in the LA Mountains

You don't have to go far from the city to find traces of Los Angeles's past in the surrounding mountains. At the turn of the century little 'roughing it' camps were a huge fad and tons of Angelenos swarmed into the mountains to get away from it all. From a specatular resort hotel and rail car to the smallest of rustic camps, folks at the end of the 19th century flocked to find the wilderness. And you can still find traces of those places if you know where to look.
Photo: Thomas Hawk / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

  • Echo Mountain House

    Construction began in 1894. It was the dream of Professor Thaddeus Lowe to create the ultimate getaway experience for the busy denizens of Los Angeles. Believe it or not, but a rail used to run from Downtown LA (and Long Beach) all the way up to Altadena. It was just orange orchards then, but the trains would deliver people to the foot of Echo Mountain where they would hop on the great incline funicular that would carry them straight up the side of Rubio Canyon.

    There, guests could stay in the white, 4-story hight hotel - finished in natural wood and containing 70 rooms, a 40 x 80 foot social hall, a dining room, souvenir shop, Western Union office, bowling alley, billiard room, barbershop and shoeshine stand. There was also a no-smoking ladies drawing room filled with rocking chairs perfect for crocheting, or whatever ladies were supposed to pass the time with back then. AWE-SOME.

    Naturally, fires and floods were an issue -- this being the Angeles, after all. Although, ironically, it wasn't a forest fire that got the hotel in the end, it was a kitchen fire that started - they think - from a faulty flue in one of the stoves.

    Oh. My. God, how much do I wish this thing was still there?

    To get there now: you park at the top of Lake Avenue in Altadena. From there, follow the trail up Echo Mountain for 2.7 miles to the area where you can still see remains of the train tracks, the foundation of the hotel and other bits and pieces of awesomeness. Keep going another 2 miles up Castle Creek to Inspiration Point to see the turn of the century lookout built there --- OR --- hike up the old rail bed that used to carry to Mt. Lowe Camp for a more rustic experience. Which leads us to our next entry:
  • Mt. Lowe Tavern

    Mt. Lowe Tavern
    Photo: Pierce, C.C. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Say you took the train from LA to Altadena and then were lifted up to the Echo Mountain House for the weekend. And, say, you wanted MORE adventure than that? What's a wool-clothed-outdoorsman to do? How about hop on the Mt. Lowe Railway to the Clouds to the AMAZING Ye Old Alpine Tavern?  (Please, WHY? Why is this all gone? Someone build it back, STAT!)

    Look at this place, you guys. I can't even talk about it, it's so awesome. The Professor wanted the Tavern built without damaging the surrounding trees (as little as possible) and they accommodated.  In 1905, after that spectacular main hotel on Echo Mountain was burned down, this Tavern became the main attraction on the mountain. Round trip from LA cost 2 bucks. If you wanted to stay the night, it was $5.50... $7 if you wanted a bath. In the 20s, additional cabins were built, shuffle board, and ping pong were added.

    All that's left now is some rock walls and ancient wires hanging in the trees from where they used to run power to the little 'tents' the more adventurous campers would stay in. Keep walking up the road, and you will come to Inspiration Point .4 miles up with views of the entire LA basin.

    To get there now: There are a couple ways, but the best one is to start from the top of Lake Avenue where it bends. Hike the 2.7 miles up to the top of Echo, visit the ruins of the hotel, and then follow the signs to the "Cape of Good Hope"... this is the old rail trail that used to take visitors up to the Tavern. It's not very steep, and you will pass more history in the form of the old mule trail down to Dawn Mine and see remains of the old rail here and there. Follow the road up, and when the trail bends sharply, keep your eyes to the left for picnic tables and a ruined stone wall. That's all that's left of the Tavern. Keep going up the road another .4 miles to Inspiration Point... totally worth it. Go back down to Echo Mountain via Castle Creek trail. It's beautiful.

  • Mt. Lowe Railway

    This railway would take you from the hotel on Echo Mountain up to the Tavern. I've hiked this route many times, and... wow. What fun it would have been to take this INSANE train! Look at that thing! I can't even.

    This is the little spiel the conductor would recite when they came to the "circular bridge". (This was the midpoint between the hotel and the tavern and it required a bit of engineering magic to allow the electric rail to continue its ascent). "

    "We are now coming to the world-famous Circular Bridge. As we approach it, the precipice on the right is a sheer drop of almost 1,000 feet. This bridge was the first bridge in the world designed for both the curve and an ascending grade. It is almost a complete circle nearly 400 feet in length with better than a 4 percent grade. Looking to the right and below us, we again view the Las Flores Canyon and Echo Mountain where you changed from the Incline to this car."

    I'm sorry, can we invent a time machine now?

    To get there now: To follow the exact route of the Railway to the Clouds, you need to start at the top of Echo Mountain, where the hotel remains are. Follow the signs to 'Sunset Trail/Cape of Good Hope'. This will take you on a narrow trail along the side of the mountain where you can see many bits and pieces of the old bullwarks for the train bed. Once you hit the larger road (now called Sunset Trail), turn right and head up. You will see evidence of the electrical structure here and there  as well as a LOT of recent fire damage on the historical sign markers. Follow it up till you get to a very sharp elbow in the road. On the left you will see the remains of the Alpine Tavern, and this was where the track ended.

  • Solstice Ruins

    These ruins are not so old as they really deserve to be called "ruins," but they are the remains of a unique and unusual dwelling in  Malibu.

    Back in the 30s, a man named Fred Roberts slowly began to purchase land in Solstice Canyon. By 1952 he and his wife had accumulated enough money and land to start building their dream: "Tropical Terrace". They hired famed African-American architect Paul Williams to design a Polynesian-style home. Way up the canyon and near a year-round waterfall, it was to be their dream home. Roberts brought in exotic plants and animals like camels, giraffes, buffalo and other non-native animals... because, Malibu.

    Sadly, Fred died in the 70s before he could see it completed... and then, the whole thing burned down in the early 80s. Hard to imagine a home burning down in Southern California, but there you have it. If the fires don't get you, the floods or mudslides will. Oh, earthquakes, too.

    Today, you can still see the original foundation, fireplaces, the *bomb shelter* (because, of course), and a lot more. It's a beautiful hike, and you can choose either the canyon or up on the valley wall to walk.

    How to get there: Off the PCH, turn up Corral Canyon Road. It's right there... parking is probably scarce, but you can usually find a spot along Corral Canyon. 

  • The Old Zoo

    In 1912, LA opened a zoo in Griffith Park with a grand total of 15 poor, poor, POOR animals (Jesus, those poor animals).  It was built on the site of Griffith J. Griffith's defunct ostrich farm (God, I love this town). In the 20s, Hollywood dude William Selig donated a bunch of animals from his private collection. (Ok, I need to know about that.)

    As LA grew, this terrible place was increasingly criticized as an "inadequate, ugly, poorly designed, under-financed collection of beat-up cages". I've been to the place many times and I can only imagine. Thinking about animals in these spaces gives me nightmares. It was closed in 66 when they built a "better" zoo nearby.

    Today, it's a totally accessible picnic area, and one my own kids have spent countless hours scrambling about and playing in... but trust me when I say that you can still feel the horror in these spaces. The chain link to keep people out is habitually clipped open so we can scramble through the dark, graffiitied spaces of the claustrophobic enclosures and climb up the fake rocks. It's gloomy and awesome at the same time.

    How to get there: Head into the Valley side of Griffith Park over by the existing zoo. Head south past it, through the golf course, turn right as if you are going up to the kiddie park, Shane's Inspiration, but keep going past the parking lot. At the next left, turn into the parking lot and drive to the end. Park. There's a paved walkway that leads, unmarked, up into the old zoo picnic area.
  • Dawn Mine

    There's not much of a trail left, but if you are up for an adventure and a moderately strenuous hike, see if you can find Dawn Mine.

    Back in 1895, some unknown prospectors discovered gold in Millard Canyon below Mt Lowe. There was enough of it recovered to keep people at it, and small claims were staked. Bradford Peck was one such claim-staker, and he named his mine after Dawn Ehrenfeld, the daughter of a friend. He didn't have much success with it, and it was bought by Micheal Ryan in 1902. Ryan bored tunnels into the canyon walls and was successful enough that he built a narrow trail up the steep slope to the Mt Lowe Railway.

    The mine was moderately successful until Ryan's death when it sat idle for a while until it was leased out for a few more years till the gold petered out. Curious looky-loos kept prying it open for decades after, and the last time I was up there, it was open to those with no fear of tight spaces and a good headlamp.

    How to get there: Turn up the Chantry Trail road off Alta loma road in Altadena and driving up to the Sunset trailhead. You will need an Angeles Adventure Pass (can be bought at Sports Authority) to park. Walk up the paved fire road until you see a sign for Millard Canyon that forks a proper dirt trail off down into the canyon on the left. The trail has recently been improved by volunteers, making this a totally beautiful little hike in a lush, tight little canyon.  Once you get to the top of the canyon, you will see the remains of the Mine. Hang for a bit, then use Ryan's old mule trail to climb out of the canyon. It's faded with disuse, but if you look hard, you can see it snaking up the south side of the canyon wall. It will hit the paved Sunset trail. Walk back down till you get back to the car.