Early SoCal springin’

Wild sweet pea
Wild sweet pea along the Sam Merrill Trail in the San Gabriels foothills.

Spring in February. A strange concept for us Midwestern transplants to Southern California, but hey, we’ll take it.

Despite several years of drought, hillsides still green up in late winter and wildflowers somehow persevere. But it seems way too early and dry for any flower displays, so the blooms I encountered during a late-February hike on the Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain were totally unexpected.

Grassy hillsides line the trail to Echo Mountain.
Grassy hillsides line the trail to Echo Mountain.

More a conditioning hike than wilderness adventure, this trek in the hills above Altadena gets the blood moving with 1,400 feet of elevation gain over 2.2 miles to the top of Echo. Not even a mile in, I came across a single Wild Canterbury Bells plant. Not exactly a showstopping display, but a pleasant purple surprise:

Canterbury bell

This kept me on the lookout and I soon came across clumps of Indian Paintbrush seemingly growing out of the rock lining the trail:


Glancing down into the canyon, I noticed bushes of lupine:


A single clump of California Poppies clung to a hillside:


Although it was cool day, a certain canine wearing a backpack (empty) was glad to make it to the top:

Blue:top of Echo

For those who haven’t been on this hike, all that rusted cable, machinery and concrete foundation are ruins from the old Mount Lowe Railway, which operated from 1898 to 1936 and transported visitors to a resort at the top of Echo. Here’s an older photo from the site, looking toward the L.A. Basin on a moody day:

Top of Echo

Along the way on my recent hike, I unfortunately also noticed a more unpleasant sight: lots and lots of graffiti on the rocks along the trail, a sad reminder of how close this trail is to civilization. I’ve seen this here in the past, but not to this extent. An attempt to cover the tagging resulted in big blue blotches on the rocks. I didn’t bother taking photos, not wanting to glorify the boneheads who feel the need to desecrate nature.

At any rate, with wildflower season developing, it’s still a pleasant time to experience the SoCal foothills. You can keep track of local wildflower blooms through native plant nursery Theodore Payne’s Wildflower Hotline, an online update which starts up again this month and is posted every Friday from March through May. A great way to find our what flower it is you’re looking at is through the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s Wildflower Finder, an online search tool that IDs flowers by time of year, size, color, etc.



One more thing about Colby Canyon and Strawberry Peak

I forgot to mention something else the Angeles National Forest folks told me about the Colby Canyon Trail, which goes to Strawberry Peak and Josephine Peak and is still closed after the 2009 Station Fire — new seasonal “frog” restrictions will be taking effect after Colby Canyon reopens, hopefully this summer.

The restrictions are going to involve rerouting the trail around mountain yellow-legged frog habitat for part of the year, similar to the rerouting near Mt. Williamson that I wrote about in November. To recap: the frog is endangered in Southern California, and believe it or not, there’s enough riparian habitat for them that intersects with hiking trails in the San Gabriels, hence the trail rerouting.


There wasn’t alot of detail yet about the Colby Canyon restrictions, which will occur in the summer. For those of you who think that puts the kibosh on any hiking there — given that in years when it actually rains and snows, the trail would be covered in snow — that’s not really true. Strawberry Peak is indeed impressive, at 6,164 feet, but it gets only an occasional dusting of snow, so is accessible almost year-round. So that frog restriction shouldn’t put too much of a damper on your hiking. Once the trail actually opens again. If it ever does. Stay posted for more info. And hoppy hiking.

Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior/USGS
U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Adam Backlin