Throwback Thursday | The Great Hiking Era

Hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains was enormously popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s

PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | News | Hiking party poses for a group photo, San Gabriel Mountains (1922)

During the first half of the 20th century, the local mountains were alive with hikers, health and adventure seekers – much like today. The contemporary writer and local historian, John W. Robinson refers to this time as the Great Hiking Era in his book The San Gabriels.

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | Travel brochure – hiking trails, travel, and overnight accommodations (1918)

Beginning in the late 1880s, hiking was wildly popular in our local Sierra Madre Mountains (today known as San Gabriel Mountains, or simply, San Gabriels). The health benefits coupled with year-round sunny days, offered adventure seekers a deep canyon trail or rambling tree-covered stream to explore. Soon camps strung up along the trails and canyon waterfalls offering refreshments and overnight accommodations.

The mountain camps provided adventure seekers a launch point in which to ride horseback gaining access to more remote areas of the mountains.

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PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | Mt. Wilson trail (1901) was accessible to hikers, horses, and later automobiles from 1912-1936
PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | News | Silver Spray Falls, Arroyo Seco (1899)

Commodore Perry Switzer built the first resort camp in the San Gabriels. Switzer’s first camp in 1884 was modest: a couple of canvas tents, a log cabin, some kitchen equipment, and a few guests riding mules and toting rifles. Room and board were $1.50 a day.

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | Switzer-land in the San Gabriel Mountains (1929)

Pictured above are the Rock Room in the background and a charming stone bridge. The new owners, Lloyd and Bertha Austin, changed the camp name to Switzer-land and installed new buildings made of arroyo stone and upgraded amenities. Switzer-land was successful for nearly 20 years attracting celebrities such as Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, and Henry Ford – until a massive flood swept through the canyon.

Note: Switzer-land was accessible by automobile – the road and bridges crisscrossing the Arroyo Seco riverbed – before the Angeles Crest Highway was completed in 1935.

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | Christ Chapel near Switzer-land in a mountain canyon of the Arroyo Seco (1928)

Lloyd Austin was a profoundly religious man and built Christ Chapel made of arroyo stone as his crowning glory to God. An organ was hand-carried by two men to the chapel over a narrow trail in 1924.

Note: After Austin’s lost control of the resort shortly after the 1938 flood, the U.S. Forest Service demolished Switzer-land, including the church.

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | The Great Incline allowed hikers to gain easier access to higher-elevation mountain trails (1917)
PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | Rubio Falls and wooden staircase was located at the transfer point from streetcars to incline car to Mt. Lowe Tavern (1911)

The canyons of the San Gabriels all seemed to have at least one major waterfall. Thaddeus Lowe boasted that his Rubio Canyon had the most waterfalls of any canyon in the mountain range, building elaborate staircases and wooden platforms for guests to get up close and personal with each one of them.

Throwback Thursday is written and produced by Rick Thomas


Rick Thomas
Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.