Switzer-land Resort: A Gem of the Great Hiking Era

For many of us, summer in Southern California means enjoying the outdoors. Two of the most renowned areas of our region for outdoor fun are the beaches and the mountains. This month’s artifact spotlight concerns the Switzer-land Resort in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Established by Harvey Walker and Perry Switzer in 1880, according to a newspaper interview Switzer gave in 1906, the camp was located about 15 miles up the Arroyo Seco in the mountains above Pasadena, Altadena, and La Cañada-Flintridge.

The going was a little tough, though, with some 60 stream crossings, either on foot or, twice a week, on a pack-mule. The reward, however, was the ability to camp in a gorgeous spot, including a nearby waterfall, just a short distance from “civilization.”

In 1894, the property was leased out, but a forest fire two years later led to its closure. It was a decade before the camp reopened, courtesy of two Pasadena men, Brainerd and Martin, who refitted the facility.

In 1911, Lloyd Austin assumed ownership of Switzer’s Camp and embarked on an ambitious improvement program, including a rustic, but beautifully decorated lodge, improved cabins, a tennis court, and, most spectacular, a stone chapel perched on the edge of the steep mountainside near the camp.

As the so-called Great Hiking Era (roughly from the 1890s to the 1930s) boomed, people flocked to the San Gabriels to enjoy the scenery, waterfalls, mountain air and other amenities.

The heyday of what Austin playfully rechristened “Switzer-land” was during the 1920s and a steady stream of real photo postcards, like the one shown here from the Homestead’s collection, depict the resort in its glory days. Note that, through an opening in the oaks behind the lodge, the chapel is visible!

Switzer-land Lodge in the 1920s
A real photograph postcard of the lodge at Switzer-land in the San Gabriel Mountains, ca. 1920. In the distance, up on a hill, is a view of the chapel.

In 1936, Austin retired and it is likely that the Great Depression had an effect on the viability of the resort. The physical end came for “Switzer-land” during World War II when the buildings were leveled for the construction of a dam downstream.  Actually . . . here is an update on the later history of the resort thanks to Ken Fitzgerald, whose family continued to operate it after the war:

“My grandparents Edgar & Libby Swanson began operating the resort, which had been neglected for years, in 1945, when my mother was 10 years old.  My two uncles were born at the resort over the next five years.  My father met my mother during his visits as a band member entertaining guests on the weekend in the lodge. They, Leo & Norma Fitzgetald, ended up marrying in 1956 . . . in the chapel.

With my parents married, my grandparents moved up the hill to Mt. Wilson and operated that resort until 1965, when the Forest Service leased the land to MetroMedia (KTTV) and bulldozed the hotel, cabins and swimming pool. My parents continued operating Switzers, raising the first three of my siblings there.  A horrible fire in 1959 made the Forest Service realize they could not protect the people at the resort. It was forced to close and the Boy Scouts were allowed to use the resort as of 1960. It didn’t take long to realize the scouts were vandalizing the property, so the Forest Service bulldozed the cabins/lodge, and dynamited the chapel.

Oh . . . there was a restaurant, up where the existing parking/picnic area now are, called the “Inlet”. My mother and brother walked the mile from the lodge to the inlet most days to catch the bus to school in La Canada[/Flintridge]. There are retaining walls along the hike down from the parking area that have my family’s name inscribed on them. There is a spring 100 yards upstream from the lodge, where pipes carried the water downstream for the lodge.  And yes . . . lots of famous people visited the resort on weekend getaways from the city. We still have the guestbook.”

Today, though, hikers and campers can get to the site, pitch a tent, note some ruins of the resort, and see the falls, such as they are in these drought-stricken times.

But, if there is a good rainy winter, as some meteorologists predict, maybe Switzer’s Falls will have some of the volume of the good old days of the Great Hiking Era!

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Thanks to assistant director, and outdoor enthusiast, Paul R. Spitzzeri for this contribution.

15 thoughts

  1. Came across a collection of photos and RPPC postcards from someone who had been around Southern California circa 1920. From what I culled, one snapshot of Switzer’s in 1924 shows a lawn area below the wall on the right where they are playing croquet. This is bordered by an outer wall above a stream, all running toward the photographer who is just beyond a stone arch bridge focusing toward the lodge at a 3/4 angle.

  2. Hi Al, thanks for the additional information about outdoor recreation at Switzer’s Camp/Switzer-land. Glad you saw the post!

  3. You’re glad? Are you kidding…I was so excited to find some decent documentation that I went back and acquired the rest of the photos. They cover five different hikes between 1919 and 1924 including one in deep snow. And for icing, a 1924 snap of Malibu with May Rindge’s massive No Trespassing sign.

  4. Hi Al, glad that the information on Switzer’s Camp and Switzer-land were helpful. Interesting, as well, to hear about the Malibu photo and Rindge’s infamous sign!

  5. I have a RPPC of the chapel interior with its rustic furniture. But the windows have fake scenes painted on them. Any idea what that was all about?

  6. Hi Christopher, thanks for your comment and question. The Homestead’s collection has a real photo postcard labeled “Muir and King Windows, Switzer-Land Chapel,” showing two of the stained-glass windows just inside the open amphitheater showing mountain and forest scenery. These refer to naturalist John Muir, renowned for his lobbying to protect Yosemite and other natural areas and a name still known to some today, and to the virtually forgotten Thomas Starr King, a minister famous for his pro-Union speeches during the Civil War but also for his love of and advocacy for Yosemite. Incidentally, a statue of King was placed in 1931 in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection as a representative of California, but it was replaced in 2006 by a state legislature joint resolution with one of Ronald Reagan. King’s statue was “downgraded” and, in 2009, placed in a Civil War memorial grove at the park surrounding the state capitol in Sacramento.

  7. Thank you so much for this! Wow, who knew? It never dawned on me that it would be stained/painted glass.

    We have a beautiful Starr King statue in Golden Gate Park here in San Francisco. As he is buried here (not in the park) so his name is more well known in these parts. (I am the Historian in Residence for San Francisco’s parks)

  8. Hi Christopher, sure, we’re happy we were able to shed some light on the matter. What part of the park is the Starr King statue located? Thanks.

  9. The Starr King statue is in the Music Concourse, prominently located at the entry just off of JFK Drive.

  10. Some inaccuracies on the history of Switzer’s.

    My grandparents(Edgar & Libby Swanson) began operating the resort(which had been neglected for years) in 1945, when my mother was 10 years old. My two uncles were born while at the resort over the next five years. My father met my mother during his visits as a band member entertaining guests on the weekend in the lodge. They Leo & Norma Fitzgetald) ended up marrying in 1956… in the chapel.

    With parents married… my grandparents moved up the hill to Mt. Wilson, and operated that resort until 1965 when the Forest Service leased the land to MetroMedia(KTTV) and bulldozed the hotel, cabins and swimming pool. My parents continued operating Switzers raising the first three if my siblings there. A horrible fire in 1959 made the Forest Service realize they could not protect the people at the resort. The resort was forced to close, and the BoyScouts were allowed to use the resort as of 1960. It didn’t take long to realize the scouts were vandalizing the property… so the Forest Service bulldozed the cabins/lodge, and dynamited the chapel.

    Oh.. the was a restaurant up where the existing parking/picnic area now are, called the “Inlet”. My mother & brother walked the mile from the lodge to the inlet mostvdays to catch the bus to school in LaCanada. There are retaining walls along the hike down from the parking are, that have my family’s name scribed. There is a spring 100 yards upstream from the lodge, where pipes carried the water downstream for the lodge. And yes… lots of famous people visited the resort on weekend getaways from the city. We still have the guestbook.

  11. Hi Ken, thanks very much for adding these great elements to the Switzer’s Camp/Switzer-land history. That guestbook must really be fascinating! It’s also good to know the family connection to the Mt. Wlson resort. Again, we appreciate the additional info.

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