The most challenging peak in the front range of the San Gabriels. This trail loops through a shaded canyon, brush, and exposed rock-face Class Three bouldering before descending to idyllic meadows in the shadow of Strawberry Peak’s dramatic north face. Hands down, one of the best hikes in Los Angeles.
NOTE: THIS TRAIL WAS HEAVILY DAMAGED IN THE STATION FIRE AND IS CURRENTLY OFF-LIMITS TO HIKERS. Hiking on this area may result in fines and citations, as well as damage to an already fragile environment. Please try a different hike!
- Distance: 11.2 miles for the loop. A direct assault and return on the Peak is about 6 miles from Colby Canyon trailhead.
- Elevation Gain: 2600 ft.
– Time: 6.5 to 7 hours. Those bouldering sections’ll slow ya down.
- Trail Condition: From Colby Canyon to Josephine Saddle, the trail clearly marked and easy to travel. The "mountaineer’s route" is a semi-maintained, unofficial trail that traverses through noticeably tougher terrain. You’ll have to fight your way through some thick brush, steep slopes, and class 3 bouldering. While the route is marked, caution should be taken – especially on the bouldering sections. The trail that winds through Strawberry Meadow to the north of the mountain is another official trail. While seldom-used, it is easy to follow and not too steep.
- How To Get There: From the 210 in La Canada Flintridge, take the Angeles Crest Highway 10.1 miles toward the Angeles National Forest. There are two small dirt lots on the north side of the road at Colby Canyon, marked with trailhead signs and distances. It’s just past the turn-off for the Switzers’ Picnic Area and trail. Display your Adventure Pass and hike away!
- Map It
- Fantastic views and a sense of accomplishment on the steepest peak in the front range.
– The chance to get your hands dirty with some class 3 bouldering.
– Secluded meadows on the north side of the peak – one of my favorite areas in all of the San Gabriels.
Last Sunday, I’d planned to head back to the north side of the San Gabriels to try to bag a few more peaks on the list, but as I was driving toward La Canada Flintridge on a warm, sunny morning, I made a last minute change and decided to plot and explore Strawberry Peak instead.
Strawberry Peak was one of the first hikes I did in the San Gabriels that reminded me that hiking is more than just strolling in the woods. It starts out with a swiftly ascending canyon trail, moves to an unmaintained, thorn-lined use-trail, and tops off with some straight-up class 3 rock climbing. It is, as they say, a doozy. But it’s also a lot of fun, and one of the few peaks close to the city that feels like a real-life mountain climb.
As I parked at the busy trailhead, I could see the deceptively rounded summit peeking out from behind two shorter hills. I laced up, stretched out, and headed up.
The trail at Colby Canyon starts out by dropping from the road to the canyon floor. It’s heavily forested – which is nice, because this is pretty much it for the shade on this trail.
This early section also had a small creek. It’s seasonal, though – when I hiked this in October there was nothing but dust in the riverbed. Today, it was full of croaking frogs and the occasional bathing bird.
Oh, also a metric TON of poison oak. The stuff is crawling everywhere in the canyon. Thankfully, the trail soon leaves the canyon and climbs up onto the east wall. On the positive side, you’ll be (mostly) away from the poison oak. But you’ll also start to give up your shade, which gives you your first unobstructed views of the south face of Strawberry Peak:
The trail dips down to cross the creekbed one more time, and there’s a small unofficial fire ring underneath the thick canopy of tree cover. It strikes me as a little odd that someone would make a trail camp less than a mile from the trailhead, but hey – I’m not judging. This is your last chance for serious shade before you get near the summit, so soak it all in while you’re there.
After that, the trail gets a bit rockier and uneven as it switchbacks through the brush and chaparral. On the day I decided to hike this trail, it was about 85 degrees and relentlessly sunny. Needless to say, this was not the most enjoyable section of the hike that day. But if you start looking back south – and maybe ignore the occasional roar of a motorcycle – it’s pretty easy to start thinking you’re miles away from anyone else … which is one of the main reasons I go out on the trail.
It may feel like a long trek if it’s sunny, but it’s not very far from the streambed to Josephine Saddle, where the trail splits toward Josephine Peak to the west and the north side of Strawberry Peak. If you’re looking for some good bouldering, you don’t want to take either of these routes. Instead, walk north toward the Strawberry Peak trail, but keep your eye peeled for a short use trail on the right hand side of the path. It’s very close to the Saddle. Take this, scramble up to the ridge, and walk along to what looks like the end of your trail – a rugged rock face.
I remember the first time I got to this part of the trail and thought about going back and taking the long way around. If you’re not used to rock scrambling – or in a fiesty mood – this can get very intimidating very quickly. But it’s really not as tough as it looks. A kind vandal was nice enough to mark a suggested path up the rocks which – while technically graffiti – is actually pretty helpful when you get lost.
After a short climb, you’re rewarded with a small sense of accomplishment and some great views.
… and the knowledge that you’ve got a tougher climb ahead of you.
On its way to Strawberry Peak, the trail gets a bit overgrown. Generally, it’s not bad, but there are places where Spanish bayonets and other nasties can feel like they want to hike alongside with you.
When I hiked this section of the trail, I heard the faint but unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake around a bend in the trail. As I slowly kept walking, I spotted a couple with their digital camera in hand, doing their best to take snapshots of the irritated snake.
I continued past them without spending too much time gawking at the rattler, but did get a little paranoid about where I’d be putting my hands on the remaining scrambles. I don’t know if it made a difference or not, but I was sure to make a lot of noise before moving toward somewhere I couldn’t see.
After a small climb down and up a slide of shattered rocks, you come face to face with the west side of Strawberry Peak.
Here, you’ll run into the sheer-looking face of Strawberry Peak. Again, there are marked stones to help you along the way, and the route is not especially difficult if you’ve done any sort of climbing before. I’ll admit that while this section of the trail is very exhilarating, and definitely the highlight of the trip, I still get nervous when I’m up there. There are a few spots where your eye line makes it seem like you’re grasping onto the edge of a straight-down drop-off. Just keep your cool and take your time and you’ll be fine. In about 500 vertical feet, you’ll be back on (relatively) flat ground … and if the air is clear, you’ll have great views.
Although the chances of you getting clear air in the summer are pretty low, I was lucky enough to get a decent view of the backside of the Baldy Bowl.
After hanging out at the summit for a little while, I couldn’t muster the courage to climb back down the way I came up. For me, going up is always easier than coming down … but as I wanted to explore the north side of the mountain anyway, I continued on the trail.
There’s another steep, rugged trail that runs along one of the eastern ridges of Strawberry Peak. It’s not nearly as adventurous as the western ascent, nor are there any fun climbing spots … but the trail is fairly easy to follow and only runs into Bayonet gauntlets a few times along the way.
You’ll also get some nice views of the neighboring – and less heavily traveled – ridge of Mount Lawlor.
From the bottom of the eastern trail, you can tack on a scramble up Lawlor or retreat back to Red Box, which was my ill-planned escape route the last time I didn’t want to scramble back down the rock face. Let me tell you, that is not a pleasant way to get back to the Colby Canyon trailhead. The distance is long, the scenery’s not that great, and you’re walking on the side of the Angeles Crest Highway for the vast majority of the return. Drivers will also give you very confused looks when they see a hiker with a CamelBak and trekking poles chilling out on a road.
To avoid the embarrassment and worn out soles – and to do a bit of exploring – I took the trail north of Strawberry Peak, which immediately dove down under some much-appreciated shade.
But even more notable were the sweeping views of the central Angeles National Forest. Looking north toward Colby Ranch and Coldwater Canyon, there are no paved roads crossing your sight … and the feeling of wilderness is all-encompassing.
This section of the trail is very pleasant, and looked rarely traveled. I didn’t see any other sets of recent footprints in the dirt, nor did I come across any other hikers on this leg. Scenery wise, it really picks up when you get to Strawberry Meadows, a large stretch of flat grassland and pine trees in the shadow of Strawberry Peak – which looks much more impressive from the north.
Gaze up and know that you just climbed that. Pat yourself on the back. Snack on a CLIF bar. And enjoy the completely silent, faux-alpine field feeling of the Meadows.
After saving a fallen mylar balloon from some brush and putting it out of its misery, it was an easy and peaceful hike back to Josephine Saddle, and a nice downhill back to the Colby Canyon Trailhead.
Making sure, of course, to avoid the blankets of poison oak along the way.
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