The Dawn Mine Loop Trail (or how to train for backpacking last minute)

In two weeks I’ll be heading to the great Pacific Northwest to hike the legendary Wonderland Trail. Naturally, it wasn’t until about a week ago I started thinking, “huh... maybe I should start preparing for this.”

By: Aaron Rickel Jones + Save to a List

In two weeks I’ll be heading to the great Pacific Northwest to backpack the legendary Wonderland Trail—a 9 day, 93 mile jaunt around Mt. Rainier with tons (and tons) of elevation change. 

Naturally, it wasn’t until about a week ago I started thinking, “huh... maybe I should start preparing for this.”

And so, with just under two weeks until our departure, Nicole and I decided to get a fully-loaded training hike under our belts.

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I’ll pause here to admit that my title is misleading. This will in no way advise you how to train for backpacking last minute. I don’t think there’s a way to train for backpacking last minute.

This is a story about how a last minute training endeavor turned into one of my favorite hikes in the Angeles National Forest.

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I chose the 6 mile Dawn Mine Sunset Trail Loop because A) I didn’t feel like hiking the 10 mile 2,700 ft Mt. Lowe Railway Loop in the 90+ degree heat and B) it was a pretty close approximation of our easiest day on the Wonderland Trail. Except 800 ft less elevation gain. A close enough approximation.

We weighed down our packs with anything heavy we could find laying around—a jar of peanut butter, a dozen extra water bottles, my roommate’s cat—doing our best to simulate the weight we’d be carrying on the trail.

We did a good job simulating because a quarter mile into the exposed climb up the old Mt. Lowe Railway grade my shirt was drenched in sweat. (As an aside, “belly sweat” is a fun new development that’s come up in the last year of my life. Nobody warned me that as I transition into my late-twenties sweat will start pouring out of my belly button at the slightest physical exertion. I digress…)

As we veered off the graded road and onto singletrack, our training hike became a beautiful set of switchbacks climbing up the side of a steep valley. I don’t often describe switchbacks as “beautiful” but these were an anomaly. Each turn yielded better and better views of the valley stretching down below us. The trees overhead sprawled across the trail, shading us from the afternoon California sun.

We reached the top and took in views of Los Angeles in the distance. Downtown poking up through the marine layer. West Hollywood and Santa Monica off near the coast. Palos Verdes like islands in the distance. Here was the view we sweated for. It was worth it.

The hike, however, had only just begun to show off the diversity of Angeles National Forest. As we started descending, the dark brown rocks and snarled oaks gave way to shimmering white granite and towering Douglas Firs. The trail shifted from packed earth to crumbling shale to granite-cut steps.

We stomped down the steep trail to the former site of the abandoned Dawn Mine. Poor mules, walking up and down this every day loaded heavy with ore from the mine. It’s hard to imagine doing the trail with any more weight than we’re already carrying.

The trail snaked along mostly-dry Millard Creek, weaving between trees and crossing the small stream a dozen times. Dunking my head in the cool water rejuvenated me for the final couple miles. The canyon narrowed to just a few dozen feet across, our sandy path wandering between water polished boulders.

Eventually the trail linked back up with the Mt. Lowe Railway grade. A pair of mountain bikers rolled past us on the slightly declining trail, carving through the canyon and fading into the golden light.

We got back to the car, drove back to town, and devoured a pizza. The Dawn Mine Loop ended up being one of the most diverse and satisfying trails I’ve hiked in the Angeles National Forest—and the trailhead is only a 10 minute drive from my house.

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Our longest day on the Wonderland Trail will be the equivalent of doing that trail twice. I think I have it in me. We’ll find out in two weeks, I guess.

And no, I didn’t actually bring my roommate’s cat in my backpack, though I’m sure she would’ve been up for it.

I'll post this trail as an adventure soon! I'm surprised it isn't already here.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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