The Dawn Mine
Back in the early days of Los Angeles, gold mining was a common pursuit in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena. One of the most famous mines of the times — the Dawn Mine — can still be found today … if you know where to look.
A Search for Gold in the San Gabriels
In 1895 two long forgotten prospectors stumbled out of Millard Canyon with freshly mined gold nuggets in their fists. Almost immediately, the Los Angeles gold rush was on as prospectors flocked to the San Gabriel Mountains to stake their claims.
The Dawn Mine in Millard Canyon was one such claim that provided access to a two-mile-long vein of ore. The mine occasionally produced a fair amount of gold, but over time it was definitely a boom and bust affair — mostly bust.
A Visit to the Dawn Mine
You know you’ve arrived at the Dawn Mine when you see the remnants of abandoned mining equipment, and old water pump, mounted atop a granite wall.
The Dawn Mine has two levels — a lower level and an upper level. The entrance to the lower level, although slightly concealed behind an outcropping of rock, is relatively easy to find. But most people miss the the upper level, which requires a Class 3 scramble up the canyon walls.
Once upon a one time both entrances were blocked off with wooden doors. These barriers proved to be minor inconveniences for thrill-seeking spelunkers. Eventually these doors were lost and/or decayed, and for many years the cramped interior tunnels were open for any brave soul to enter. Since 2017, however, each entrance has been blocked off by a solid metal grate, preventing access to the mine’s dark corridors.
Anatomy of a Mine
The Dawn Mine’s lower level has around 700 feet of tunnels and passageways and traversing them has been reported to be quite treacherous. Puddles of water regularly pool on the floor, making footing uncertain and concealing potential dangers.
Shortly inside the lower entrance, the mine splits into two passages, one to the north and one to the west. The passage to the north opens into a 55-foot deep pit. This is an old winze (mining speak for an internal shaft) that was blasted out sometime around 1935 to allow better access to the gold vein. This pit is often filled with water, making it dangerously hard to see, especially when the rest of the mine floor is covered with water. Beyond this pit a small waterfall trickles into the tunnel.
The ceiling in the lower level is relatively low. For much of the tunnel’s distance, clearance tops out between five and six feet with a few spots allowing for a bit more headspace. Where the mine forks, though, the ceiling opens up with a shaft leading to the Dawn Mine’s upper level, a 17-foot climb above (or a 17-foot fall if you’re on the upper level).
The upper level is comprised of nearly 200 feet of tunnels, and unlike the lower level, usually remains dry.
A (Very) Brief History of the Dawn Mine
The Dawn Mine is said to be named for Dawn Ehrenfeld, the daughter of a business associate of one Bradford Peck, the mine’s first recorded owner. Peck worked the mine for seven years and met with just modest financial gain.
In 1902, Peck sold the mine to an Australian by the name of Michael T. Ryan, an experienced miner who worked the vein until his death in 1929. Under Ryan’s watch, the Dawn Mine was a fairly lucrative endeavor. To get the mined gold out of Millard Canyon, Ryan built a narrow trail up to the Mt. Lowe Railway. Ryan used two mules, famously named Jack and Jill, to haul his goods up this trail (which still exists today) to the Railway’s Dawn Station.
After Ryan’s death, his widow transferred the mine to a group of miners who spent a lot of money digging new tunnels (it’s this group that’s though to have dug the aforementioned 55-foot-deep winze). This group managed to pull a good amount of gold out from the existing vein, but they spent a lot of money to do so. They even built their own mill in Millard Canyon to process the extracted gold. But their investment in improving the mine’s yield eclipsed any profits they realized from gold sales.
By the time World War II rolled around, when explosives needed to dig out new tunnels were funneled to the war effort, the mine was mostly done. A few different people worked it during the ensuing decade, but those ventures never produced any significant finds, and mining operations shut down completely in 1954. Today, it sits sealed and dormant, an artifact from the early history of Los Angeles.
Getting to the Dawn Mine
The only way to get to the Dawn Mine is on foot, and there are two main routes (each with a number of variations) — and both can be somewhat challenging.
The first route follows Millard Creek in Millard Canyon from Millard Trail Camp. This route includes a visit to the spectacular Millard Falls.
The other route branches off from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail in Altadena. it takes you along the Mount Lower Motorway (also known as the Mount Lower Railroad Trail) and down the steep switchback trail that Michael Ryan built in the early 1900s.
An excellent guide to day hikes in and around Los Angeles from Casey Schreiner, the fellow behind Modern Hiker. A great resource for anyone who wants to see what Los Angeles offers in the way of nature. Includes the hike to the Dawn Mine and Sunset Ridge Trail listed above.
The Dawn Mine
- Millard Canyon, Angeles National Forest
- GPS Coordinates: 34.2265528,-118.1297606 [ Google Maps ]
- what3words: ///guises.paid.tables
- Nearby Geocaches