Discover the lost “White City in the Sky.”
There’s no shortage of world-famous hotels in Los Angeles, California—The Beverly Hills Hotel, The Roosevelt, The Chateau Marmont…Echo Mountain House. Well, unless you’re a time-traveler or a regular on Southern California hiking trails you probably haven’t heard of that last one. But if things had gone differently, its grandeur and ambitious origins may have landed this now bygone property onto that list.
The story of Echo Mountain House is entwined with that of the Mount Lowe Railway. In the late 19th century, Thaddeus Lowe established the railroad just north of Los Angeles as a way for tourists to easily ascend the San Gabriel Mountains. The railway welcomed its first passengers on the Fourth of July in 1893. Then, in the fall of 1894, the Echo Mountain House, located at the summit, opened its doors. It was a luxury hotel said to rival San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, with 80 rooms as well as amenities such as a dance hall, a casino, and a zoo. There was also a telescope and observatory as Lowe was very interested in astronomy and even brought on esteemed astronomer Dr. Lewis Swift, who would discover nearly 100 nebulae from the site’s observatory.
People came from all over to visit the railroad and stay at the luxurious property. The hotel made for a striking sight, even from far away. The Pasadena Daily Evening Star, at the time, wrote that, “Tourists coming from the east got their first glimpse of Pasadena from the car windows upon seeing the beautiful white structure, seemingly perched among the clouds. At night it was like a huge stellar body with all its electric lights and was visible for miles, even at sea.”
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But this period of excitement and interest wouldn’t last. In 1898, Lowe would lose his ownership of the railroad. The government realized that the railroad was on federal land and hadn’t been built with a proper lease. Then, in 1900, Echo Mountain House—dubbed “The White City in the Sky”—caught fire. No guests or staff were injured, and the hotel might have staged a comeback if it had been appropriately insured. Reportedly, it had only been insured for one-fifth of the damage that the fire caused. Just six years after its opening, the hotel would be consigned to the realm of history.
More disasters followed. Swift went blind and left the observatory. Another fire destroyed the casino. In 1936, the Mount Lowe Tavern burned down as well. A flood destroyed the pavilion. Then, finally, after a destructive rainstorm, the railroad was officially abandoned. By the time the middle of the century rolled around, any remains of the railroad and its accompanying structures that couldn’t be salvaged for scrap were dynamited away. Most of it anyway.
In the early 1990s, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places with a handful of artifacts to help transport you back to the turn of the century. If you’re thinking of visiting, however, make sure you leave your petticoats and cravats behind as you’ll be relying on your own two feet to get you there. The hike (via the Sam Merill Trail) starts in Altadena at the Cobb Estate (another seemingly cursed Southern California structure, but that’s a story for a different time). It’s a moderately difficult 5 and a half mile hike round trip with little cover, so make sure you bring plenty of water if it’s a warm day (or even if it’s not that warm, hydration is important!).
When you reach the summit you’ll be able to see some of the railway’s surviving remnants—some wheels and gears—as well as the foundation of the once-grand hotel. One of the surviving pieces of the site is the “echophone.” The bit that goes without saying (or has until now, anyway) is that Echo Mountain got its name because of how well voices echo off the surrounding canyon. So these “echophones,” which are essentially mounted bullhorns, were set up so that when you “call” into them, they would be aimed at “sweet spots” for echoing.
But then one of the most rewarding parts of this hike is one of the things that dazzled its visitors over a century ago—the incredible views of the Los Angeles Basin. Though it’s certainly filled out since visitors arrived via the railway, you’ll no doubt share their admiration for the wonderful view stretching out below.