Rock of Ages

Explore the campus of Caltech for geological secrets

It’s not easy to tap into the mind-body connection. But it’s definitely possible if you wander the campus of one of the world’s top scientific institutions, Caltech. It has a best-kept geological secret, discovered on this 1.75-mile out-and-back walk.

Find street parking at the southwestern corner of Caltech (we recommend along San Pasqual between Catalina and Wilson Avenues), take a picture of the campus map, and head south along Wilson toward Mudd Hall, home of the Geological Sciences Department and a world-class seismology lab. (Throughout the walk, look for busts and plaques denoting famous scientists and their groundbreaking work here over the years.) Head east through a floral garden with bonus sculptures, passing the Arms Laboratory, which has a gem room, home to a myriad of minerals and ancient volcanic rocks and even a saber-tooth skeleton display. Continue to the tallest building on campus—Milliken, home to a top-floor library—for expansive views of Pasadena and the San Gabriels.

Walk east past the spaceship pond where, if you’re lucky, robotics students might be testing equipment, and on to the top of the Throop Memorial Garden. This beautiful oasis sees a smattering of ponds amid trees, with benches and plentiful rocks. Look out for loads of local turtles basking in the sun, or egrets looking for lunch.

Most importantly, check out the plaque on the boulder at the base of the garden: You’ve just walked through 2 billion years of geological history! The prehistoric rocks are grouped by age and type and come from local sources, such as pink granite from Echo Mountain. You can spend hours here, but when you are ready, walk east toward the Athenaeum (named after the Greek god of wisdom), a stately building with fine dining and a swanky bar.

Circle back to Milliken and head north toward Beckham Auditorium. Fondly nicknamed the “Wedding Cake” by students, this building is surrounded by light fixtures shaped like atoms. Be sure to look at the serene “Gene Pool,” whose name will become obvious when you look closely at the tile pattern (we won’t give it away here). 

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BONUS FOOD & DRINK: Grab a bite at Cross St. Café. Known as “Pencil” at their old location, owner Snow and her team have been satisfying locals for years with home-made sandwiches (spicy roast beef with kimchi is a must!), Korean food (try the rolls or bulgogi cupbap), and refreshing juices (we love their mango lemonade). {Covid-19 update, June 2020: Cross St. Café is currently open for Takeout only.}

To get to Caltech and nearby street parking, take the I-210 to the Lake Ave. exit and exit south. Head east on Corson St. for 3 blocks before turning right onto Wilson Ave. After heading south for 1 mile, you will reach San Pasqual Ave. Turn right and find street parking (2 hours, except Sunday). *Covid-19 Update (June 2020): Please be sure to follow all health and safety guidelines provided in county ordinances, and respect signage and regulations on-site. Honoring health safety works to mitigate Covid-19, and allows a better chance of keeping outdoors access open. Dog-friendly!

Story and photos by Matt Pawlik.

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