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!
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. When I did this hike, there was also apparently a Search and Rescue mission going on. This is one of those trails that doesn’t seem like it can be dangerous … until it is. If you’re planning on taking the mountaineers route / scramble to the top, you should know what you’re getting into before you do it.
The trail at Colby Canyon starts out by dropping a bit from the road to the canyon floor. It’s heavily forested and you should enjoy it … because this is pretty much it for the shade on this trail.
This early section also had a small seasonal creek. 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.
In this lower section of Colby Canyon there is a lot of poison oak – especially near the seasonal stream. Just watch where your arms and legs are going and you should be fine. After a short distance, the trail climbs the east wall of the canyon and leaves most of the vegetation behind it. From here, you’ll get your first views of the south face of Strawberry Peak.
After one more quick dip into the creek bed, the trail rises into classic SoCal chaparral with some nice views of both Strawberry Peak in front of you and the front range behind you. From here on out, it’s pretty much a shade-free journey, so I hope you brought sunscreen and lots of water.
At about the 2 mile mark you’ll come upon Josephine Saddle, where the trail splits toward Josephine Peak to the west and Strawberry Peak to the north at a water tank that may have some interesting graffiti. If you’re looking for the more fun mountaineer’s route to Strawberry Peak, walk north toward the Strawberry Peak Trail but keep your eye peeled for a short use-trail on the east side of the path very close to the Saddle. Make a quick scramble up to the ridge and walk about 0.2 miles to what looks like the end of the trail at 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 don’t know where you’re supposed to be going.
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.
The trail makes a steep but steady climb until you reach the 2.9 mile mark. You’ll meander through giant boulders, dive under chaparral, and avoid Spanish bayonets along the way.
And eventually, you’ll hop over a large pile of broken rocks and come face to face with this:
The face of Strawberry Peak looks steep because it is. In the next quarter of a mile, you’ll be gaining over 400 feet in elevation on a steep class 3 scramble. 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. Soon you’ll be back on (relatively) flat ground … and if the air is clear, you’ll have great views.
When you’re finished hanging out at the summit, either return back the way you came or continue down a 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.
In a mile you’ll reach the bottom of the eastern trail, where you can tack on a scramble up Lawlor or head back to Red Box for a car shuttle. Instead, turn north on the Strawberry Trail to start the long loop around the north side of the peak you just bagged. Enjoy the shaded, slightly declining trail as it loops north and west, passing a seasonal spring at the 5.2 mile mark.
This section of the trail is very pleasant and seemed 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 around the 7.5 mile mark, 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.
From the Meadows, it’s about a mile and a half back to Josephine Saddle. Head back to the trailhead the way you came in.
His stories for Modern Hiker have brought regional and national attention, and have been featured on Good Morning America, NPR, and the Associated Press.
Casey is also an award-winning television writer-producer, and was Series Producer of pivot's TakePart Live and Head Writer of G4's Attack of the Show.
This post was written by Casey Schreiner on May 21, 2007