Strawberry Peak, Switzer’s and the Old Colby Trail

Strawberry Peak and Colby Canyon
Strawberry Peak and Colby Canyon

The Colby Canyon Trail is one of the historic trails of the San Gabriel Mountains. When Switzer Camp was established in 1884, Colby Canyon was an irresistible gateway leading deeper into the wilderness. The compelling and sometimes snow-covered peak at its head was one of Switzer’s many attractions.

Jason and Owen Brown (1884). Photo: Los Angeles Public LIbrary
Jason and Owen Brown (1884). Photo: Los Angeles Public LIbrary

In the History of Pasadena Hiram A. Reid recounts the story of how the peak was named in 1886 “by some wags at Switzer’s camp” because of its resemblance to a strawberry. He goes on to describe how one of them irreverently added, “We called it Strawberry peak because there weren‘t any strawberries on it.”

While Strawberry may have been climbed previously, the establishment of Switzer’s made it possible to climb the peak recreationally. In Early Mountain Ascents in the San Gabriels (100 PEAKS Lookout, Jul-Aug 1971) John Robinson notes an 1887 ascent of Strawberry Peak by Owen and Jason Brown — sons of abolitionist John Brown. Robinson describes the “Brown Boys” as the first local “peak baggers.”

Colby Canyon and Arroyo Seco from high on Strawberry Peak.
Colby Canyon and Arroyo Seco from Strawberry Peak.

Climbing Strawberry via Colby Canyon has been a long-time favorite. Last Saturday I’d done Strawberry via Colby Canyon as part of loop — ascending the Colby Canyon Trail to Josephine Saddle, climbing over Strawberry Peak, running down to Red Box and then down the Gabrieleno Trail to Switzer’s. A 0.3 mile connection along Angeles Crest Highway completed the route.

Today I did a variation of the same loop, this time bypassing Josephine Saddle and following (more or less) the route of the old Colby Trail up the ridge at the head of Colby Canyon to Strawberry’s main west ridge.

Overview of the route of the old Colby Trail from Strawberry Peak
Overview of the route of the old Colby Trail

As shown on this USGS Tujunga topo map from 1900, a century ago the Colby Trail was much more direct. It linked Switzer’s Camp in upper Arroyo Seco to the Colby Ranch and other ranches and holdings in Big Tujunga Canyon. It was a much shorter alternative to the roundabout route that ascended to the head of Arroyo Seco (then Long Canyon), and then continued past present day Red Box to Barley Flats and down to Wickiup Canyon. More on the history of Colby Ranch and Big Tujunga Canyon can be found in the Winter 1938 edition of Trails Magazine (12.6 MB PDF).

Ridge that was the route of the old Colby Trail.
Ridge that was the route of the old Colby Trail.

A well-used game trail wanders up “Colby” ridge, but the path is far from ideal and not always distinct. Our four-legged friends don’t necessarily follow one path, especially where the route is steep and loose. Deer are well-suited to this kind of terrain, their long, skinny legs being perfect for following an overgrown path lined with thorny buck brush. In a couple of places there were short segments of trail that look like they might be remnants of the trail indicated on the 1900 topo.

Bear tracks on the west side of Strawberry Peak.
Bear tracks on the west side of Strawberry Peak.

It’s easy to understand why the old route on the ridge was abandoned; the route to Josephine Saddle is far better and MUCH faster!

These sections of the 1934 Mt. Lowe Quadrangle advance sheet and 1939 Mt. Lowe Quadrangle shows the dramatic changes in the area with the construction of Angeles Crest Highway (LRN 61) between La Canada and Colby Canyon. The 1934 sheet shows the reroute of the Colby Canyon Trail to Josephine Saddle and then contouring around Strawberry, as well as the trails along the west and east ridges of Strawberry and connecting from Lawlor Saddle to Colby Ranch. The updated 1939 sheet includes the Josephine Fire Lookout and the Josephine Fire Road.

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