This trail gains about a 1000 feet of elevation in the first 3 miles and is a steep start to Smith Saddle before the trail levels out a short while. After that is an 800-foot scramble to the summit in less than half a mile. The last section of the hike is essentially bouldering up a rocky face to get to the summit. This hike has some of the most amazing sweeping views all around of the mountains in desert shrub and foliage. This still remains one of my favorite hikes in Socal because of the mountain views. The 360 degree panorama from the 5,111-foot summit of Smith Mountain definitely makes the journey worth it in the end. There are sweeping views of several different peaks and mountain ranges from the summit and the whole hike has amazing views unlike many other hikes where there may only be one panoramic viewpoint from the top.
How to get there
Smith Mountain trailhead is about 50 minutes outside of LA city via I-10 E and state route 39 N and a bit over an hour outside of Orange County taking CA 57 N and state route 39 N.
To get to the trailhead: From the 210 freeway in Azusa, take exit 40 and drive 18 miles north Route 39 to the trailhead. You will pass the East Fork Ranger Station at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Continue past San Gabriel Reservoir and go straight through an intersection with East Fork Road (the turnoff you would take to reach the Bridge to Nowhere hike). From the intersection, it is another 6.3 miles to the paved turnout on the left for the trailhead. (If you reach Coldbrook Campground, you drove 1/3 of a mile too far.) Upper Bear Creek Trail begins next to the bathroom at the north end of the lot.
Trailhead address: San Gabriel Canyon Road (Route 39), San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, Azusa, CA 91702
Miles: 6.6 miles (roundtrip)
Elevation: 1843 feet gain
Type: out and back
Time: around 3.5 hours
The best seasons to do this hike are spring, fall and winter. This hike in the fall is beautiful with lots of color and warm temperatures but not too hot on a very exposed trail. There are several slippery and narrow bends on the ridge as well as the last rocky slope bouldering section to summit and should be avoided in winter with snow or ice.
The trail begins in a large parking lot just before Coldbrook Camp. There is a bathroom in the parking lot that is right next to the start of the marked trailhead. Upper Bear Creek Trail begins from a turnout on Route 39 north of Azusa near Coldbrook Campground. The trail angles south from the trailhead and climbs into a crease in the gaping canyon above the North Fork of the San Gabriel River.
No permit is required to hike Upper Bear Creek Trail to Smith Mountain, but you need a California Adventure Pass to park at the trailhead. A day-use pass may be purchased from the East Fork Ranger Station located on Route 39 at the base of the San Gabriels.
This trail gains about a 1000 feet of elevation in the first 3 miles and is a steep start to Smith Saddle before the trail levels out a short while. After that is an 800-foot scramble to the summit in less than half a mile. The last section of the hike is essentially bouldering up a rocky face to get to the summit. This hike has some of the most amazing sweeping views all around of the mountains in desert shrub and foliage. This still remains one of my favorite hikes in Socal because of the mountain views. The 360 degree panorama from the 5,111-foot summit of Smith Mountain definitely makes the journey worth it in the end.
Upper Bear Creek Trail starts from a turnout on Route 39 north of Azusa near Coldbrook Campground. The trail heads south from the trailhead and ascends into a crease in the gaping canyon above the North Fork of the San Gabriel River.
Upper Bear Creek Trail gains a couple hundred feet in its ascent in the first portion, around a few switch backs around a saddle overlooking Lost Canyon. Smith Mountain towers to the west and would be about a mile away if not for the grand bowl-shaped canyon in between. The trail follows around the edge of Lost Canyon filled with desert shrub and brush like sage, yucca, and manzanitas.
The last two miles of Upper Bear Creek Trail are a bend around the fingers of Lost Canyon. When you reach Smith Saddle at 4,290 feet, take in the beauty all around of mountain views. The trail continues down the east side of the saddle into Bear Creek Canyon in the San Gabriel Wilderness. To reach the top of Smith Mountain, you will leave the trail and turn left up a fire break toward the summit.
Here is the steepest part of the hike as there is a section of rocky face boulders that you must scramble up 325 feet over 0.15 miles that contains oaks and pines. The summit is a beautiful plateau on Smith Mountain with a 365 degree view of several different mountain ranges and peaks in every direction. You can see the San Gabriel mountains and valley in the distance as well as Mount Islip towering nearby. The most recognizable peak is Mt. Baldy to the east.
Crystal Lake recreation area is in the Los Angeles Nation Forest which has campgrounds with nearby trails, lake recreation, fishing, rentable cabins & more. This camping area is at the base of the Los Angeles Forest and the San Gabriel Canyon at an elevation of 5,600 feet offering a quick getaway for the weekend outside of the city. Outdoor adventures lie around every corner – including hikes to spectacular peaks of Mt. Islip and Windy Gap or fishing in Crystal Lake. It’s only a mile hike to Crystal Lake from the campground.
Things to do nearby
Bridge to Nowhere Hike
For outdoor lovers, Bridge to Nowhere is the affectionate name of a local treasure near LA, of an abandoned bridge on a washed-away road in the San Gabriel Mountains that spans across the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. You’ll find excessive fun on this 10-mile round trip hike with 900 feet of elevation change. This is one of those hikes that is a right of passage of the area and you must do at some point. You hike along the San Gabriel River in the beautiful Sheep Mountain Wilderness for about 5 miles, and then, out of nowhere, there’s a huge, 120-foot high bridge! You may even see some old California gold panners in the streams like we did the day we hiked. The hike is fun, especially on a hot summer day, because there are plenty of stream crossings and water holes to cool off in. It’s a classic Southern California hike that every local knows about, so give it a try.
Socal Six Pack of Peaks
The six pack of peaks is an epic hiking challenge in the outdoor community in southern California to conquer the six highest peaks in the area. These are six of the best hikes in CA and I highly recommend checking out these hikes. There are several that are right next to Smith mountain and can be seen from the summit.
Devil’s Chair Hike
Devil’s Chair Hike is found in the Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area in the Los Angeles National Forest. This hike is not too far from Smith Mountain. Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area is a park with a 300-ft.-deep canyon off of the San Gabriel Mountains that offers hiking, picnics & a Nature Center. California has may fault lines, but few have struck fear in the heart like this fault and the earth quakes that could wreak havoc. If you dare to climb this epic hike you can sit in the Devil’s Chair and pray that there will be no earthquake on the fault line when you are there. The Devil’s Chair is a rocky promontory overlooking the eastern Punchbowl. This hikes has some of the most unique geology in the area with lots of textures and shapes. This area is a shared zone of the Mojave Desert and the San Gabriel Mountains located on the eastern side of the Los Angeles mountains and you drive all along the Mojave Desert to get there in a pretty remote location.