There were quite a few hikers and recreational wanderers at the bottom of the Mt. Lowe Railway Trail in Pasadena, but as the grade of the trail increased, the number declined. Papa K and I were an hour into our two-hour trek up this fine and dusty trail through the chaparral of the San Gabriel Mountains when a pair of girls clomped pass us on their way down. “There’s a rattlesnake up there,” one of the girls said. “A big one.” And then she turned ’round the switchback and we were left wondering where, precisely, this big rattler might lie.
Obviously, many snakes live in these desert mountains. We had several minutes before stepped over a sinuous track in the dust, slithering from one shoulder of the trail into the underbrush opposite. But this curvy footprint was a shadow of a snake, an afterthought. A sighting…well, that made the rattlesnakes quite present. But… where? Was it curled in the trail? Shaking it’s tailfeathers, waiting to strike? Was it lingering in the steep mountainside to our left, in the rocks that brushed our shoulders as the switchbacks cut into the sharp grade?
Our conversation stopped as we stepped up the steep slope, waiting for this snake to jump around every switchback, for it to lash its head or tail into our domain. The mountain unfurled abruptly down to the right (and then left, as we traversed switchbacks). “Remember,” Papa K said, “You don’t want to get surprised, step back, and fall off the cliff.”
Up we climbed, to the trailhead of the former Mt. Lowe Railroad—which, beginning here, at 4,420 feet, teetered through these mountains with grades up to 62 percent. We stood in the ruins of the once-expansive Mt. Lowe Tavern, which burned to the ground in 1937, catalyzing the abandonment of this historic railroad. There was the Great Hall, a plaque read, and there was its square cinderblock skeleton.
And so we headed down, and had a much more lovely descent, having forgotten (nearly) all about the snake that awaited us.