On the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, about halfway from Downtown LA to San Bernardino, sits the exceptionally charming college town of Claremont. It’s doesn’t hold any major attractions; there’s a couple small art museums and a lovely botanical garden, but the real draw—for those in the know—is simply the charming atmosphere of its various college campuses and its active town center, situated next to a convenient train station. And really, for this alone, Claremont ought to be regarded alongside San Juan Capistrano and Santa Barbara as one of those delightful towns that make for an easy and rewarding day trip on the train.
Claremont is one of the stops along the Metrolink San Bernardino Line. In contrast to the rest of Metrolink’s lines, which operate strictly as commuter rail service, the San Bernardino Line has a fairly consistent and reliable level of service throughout the day. Trains run every hour or two from the morning into the early evening, and do a good job running on time (so make sure you check the schedule so you don’t miss your train!). Tickets are bought from machines at each station, and from Union Station it costs $7 one-way, $14 round trip, although if you go on the weekend you can take advantage of Metrolink’s $10 weekend day pass.
Upon arriving in Claremont, the first thing you’ll see is the town’s quaint train depot, which is itself an attraction. The station has two platforms separated by the tracks, and the main crossing is in the middle, where it will actually be blocked by parked trains. So if you get off on the southern platform, you just have to wait a moment for the train to leave so you can cross to the old depot.
The ornate Spanish Revival train depot, built in the 1920s by the Santa Fe Railroad, has been converted into a small art museum, the Claremont Lewis Museum of Art. Outside on the platform, you’ll see a couple of playful sculptures of larger-than-life objects related to trains, like a conductor’s pocketwatch. The museum itself hosts changing exhibitions of work by local artists, open only Fridays through Sundays, with free admission on Fridays (check website for hours and admission prices).
Crossing 1st Street, on the other side of the depot from the tracks, leads you into the town’s charming business district, with plenty of historic buildings, shops, and restaurants. If you happen to visit on a Sunday, you’ll get to enjoy the bustling farmers market, which takes place every Sunday morning along Harvard Avenue, directly across the street from the train depot. As farmers markets go, this one is quite impressive, with two blocks of vendors, a lot of variety, and plenty of patronage.
This stretch of Harvard Avenue essentially acts as Claremont’s civic center, lined with cute storefronts and lovely tall trees. A block up, at the corner of 2nd, you’ll find city hall, the library, and the town post office, all with very nice landscaping. Another block up, at the corner of Bonita Avenue, is a really charming set of local businesses, particularly the set inside what appears to be a former auto repair shop on the northwestern corner.
Inside, you’ll find an acai bowl shop facing the corner, with a vintage store and a really nice nursery, Noren’s Nursery, around the back facing the Bonita Avenue side. And tucked around the other side facing Harvard Avenue is the really excellent Nosy Neighbors Coffee & Donuts, where you can watch their delicious mini donuts be made fresh before your eyes, with a little conveyor belt system dropping them in frying oil before they serve them up to you in a little bag with your topping of choice. Each one is a fluffy slice of heaven and it makes for a perfect walking around snack. And if all the outdoor seating at the donut shop is taken, you can also just cross the street into the very pleasant Shelton Park on the other corner, which has a lawn, a bandstand, and plenty of nice benches.
Just a block to the east on Bonita is the Benton Museum of Art, an outgrowth of Pomona College and a fairly prestigious art museum given its small size. Admission is free (check the website for hours) and it’s well worth popping in to see what’s on view. The building is very contemporary, with lots of concrete and steel on the outside, but inside you’ll find really pleasant, soaring gallery spaces holding excellent art. The exhibitions are quite varied, with work from both local and nationally-renowned artists, and a large range of mediums, with large-scale installations as well as more typical exhibitions.
Continuing across the street, you’ll enter the first of the Claremont Colleges, Pomona College. The Claremont Colleges are a consortium of several colleges, the idea of which was for each one to maintain the focus of a small liberal arts college (each college has a student population of only around a thousand) while sharing certain resources (namely a large central library that’s shared by all the colleges) to draw on the advantages of a larger university. Pomona College is the oldest and largest of the group, with a very nice campus to match.
From the Benton Museum, walking up College Avenue just a block will take you past a row of old Victorian houses (now converted into various college functions) and right into the heart of campus. Here, Marston Quad stretches for a couple blocks from the striking neoclassical Carnegie Hall (formerly a Carnegie library) to the Bridges Auditorium (a large performing arts venue) at the other end. The quad itself is really nice, with a small grove of redwood trees framed by Spanish Revival buildings.
The south side of the quad is adorned by the Bridges Hall of Music, a lovely building dating back to 1915 and made to resemble a small Spanish church. The music hall was designed by Myron Hunt, who in addition to coming up with Pomona College’s campus master plan, was an incredibly prolific architect who was beloved by the Pasadena elite of the early 1900s, designing numerous mansions, hotels, and civic buildings, including the Pasadena Central Library, the Rose Bowl, and the Huntington Mansion and Library.
On the north side of the quad is the student center (“the coop”), which has a pleasant courtyard with a fountain out front where you’ll find a coffee shop and a store which sells plenty of merch featuring Pomona College’s surprisingly cute mascot, the Sage Hen.
The east end of the quad is marked by Bridges Auditorium. If you continue east behind the auditorium, you’ll reach the edge of the college’s athletic complex, which consists of several fields scattered around the eastern side of campus. Just to the southeast and across the street from Bridges Auditorium is the Studio Art Hall, a rather impressive modern building with a large courtyard cut through the middle. And if you continue past the Art Hall, you’ll reach Pomona College’s most hidden feature.
Surrounded by the campus’ various athletic fields is a natural wooded area called The Wash, which contains some unique attractions. A stone gate marks an entrance to The Wash directly behind the Studio Art Hall, where you’ll also find Brackett Observatory, a small astronomical observatory built in 1908, with the dome sitting atop a building made of stone. Just a bit further on is the Sontag Greek Theater, an outdoor amphitheater in a quiet area of campus.
Continue downhill to the back of the Greek Theater and you should find an opening onto a small gravel road that cuts through the woods. Continue to the south, and the road will take you to the Pomona College Farm, a student-run organic farm that’s open to the public. In addition to the numerous flower and vegetable beds and even a chicken coop, the highlight is a small earth house that sits in the middle of the garden. When we visited, we found the front door (which is elaborately carved with garden motifs, like something out of the The Hobbit) wide open, allowing us to enter and admire the earthen architecture.
Returning to Marston Quad and continuing north, 6th Street separates the older section of campus from the residential dorms and more modern science complex of Pomona College. The main attraction here is easily James Turrell’s Skyspace installation, Dividing the Light, which is tucked away in a courtyard in the science complex (more specifically, between the Lincoln and Edmunds buildings on the northwestern corner of 6th & College Way—it helps to use the maps posted around campus to find it).
The premise of the Skyspace is simple, but incredibly effective. Within the courtyard is a metal canopy with a square hole cut in the middle, giving you a view of the sky through the canopy. Benches surround a reflecting pool in the middle of the courtyard. It’s a lovely place to sit anytime of the day, but the real draw are the light “shows” at sunrise and sunset, when the whole canopy is bathed in changing colors that create a vivid contrast between the artwork and the framed sky. The evening show starts 25 minutes before sunset and continues for an hour, and shouldn’t be missed.
Just to the east of the science complex are the residential halls of Pomona College, where a nice little pedestrian mall leads to a large courtyard holding the campus’ clock tower. Just around the corner from this is a large lawn referred to as “The Beach,” (why it’s called that is beyond us, although there is a sand volleyball court and a few palm trees) which has a long retaining wall along the northern edge covered in graffiti art made by the college students.
“The Beach” is the northern extent of Pomona College’s campus. Across the street is the Claremont Colleges Library, which serves all of the separate colleges. From here, the other college campuses are quite a bit smaller, with some being barely more than a block wide. A good example of this is Claremont McKenna College, whose modernist buildings bathed in orange sit just across 8th Street from The Beach. Claremont McKenna’s campus is centered around its narrow western end, where two rows of buildings frame a long pedestrian mall.
Claremont McKenna’s curriculum is mainly focused on poly sci, economics, and public affairs. Compared to the older and grander Pomona College, the campus here is rather dull. The only visual highlight is a large glass cube holding a study room, surrounded by a reflecting pool in the shadow of the giant orange building at the entrance. The landscaping of the pedestrian mall is quite nice, with some native plants and fountains, although the architecture itself is decidedly midcentury, down to the motel-style dorm rooms.
Once you cross the thin campus of Claremont McKenna, you’ll enter the lush campus of Scripps College, a women’s college named for Ellen Browning Scripps, the wealthy newspaper magnate whose name adorns many San Diego landmarks. Along with Pomona College, it’s one of the pretty campuses full of shady trees and Spanish Revival architecture.
The campus was designed in the 1920s by Gordon Kauffman, a renowned Southern California architect who later went on to embrace Art Deco and design numerous local landmarks, including Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, the Santa Anita Racetrack, the LA Times Building, and most notably, gave the Hoover Dam its Art Deco flourish. Scripps’ campus isn’t quite as grand as Pomona, but it is beautiful and a bit cozier, with some lovely gardens and tranquil spaces.
Entering from the corner of 9th and Columbia, the main student commons will be on your right, with a little cafe with outdoor seating. Poke around inside the building and you’ll find a wonderful shady courtyard with seating for the coffee shop, which will be crowded with students on any day during the semester. The highlight of the courtyard is a koi fountain in the center adorned with a pair of sea lion fountains (turned off when we visited, but still cute) and an elaborate and beautiful tile mosaic of marine life around the base.
The main quad forms a L-shape on campus, splitting from the student commons towards the east and the north. The side going east stops after a block at a historic house. If you take the leg going north (towards the mountains), you’ll pass the administration building on your left, which has a couple of hidden courtyards that are well worth exploring, with some nice artwork and burbling fountains.
Continuing up the quad and around the corner to the right, you can find a secret, walled-off garden, the Margaret Fowler Garden, tucked on the north side of the Humanities Building. It’s only open on weekdays, but well worth a visit if it’s open. Inside you’ll find a Medieval cloister-style garden with a fountain, elaborately carved columns, beautiful murals along one side, and even a small chapel in the corner.
Returning to the quad and continuing north, the grassy lawn gives way to a rose garden, with a trellis marking the path out of the northern edge of campus. At the gate is a unique feature, a wall covered in farewell messages from graduating classes of Scripps College students, dating back to the founding of the school. The designs can be quite elaborate and you can even get a sense in changing tastes in art over the decades, not to mention that a lot of them are quite creative and funny.
From here, you can cross the street into the heart of Harvey Mudd College, or, if you don’t mind the detour, head east along the street past Scripps’ various dormitories and recreational facilities to Pitzer College, which sits at the northeast corner of the Claremont Colleges. Pitzer’s curriculum is focused on the social sciences, with a big emphasis on social justice. The campus here has a very strong 1970s architectural style and a pretty strong adherence to xeriscaping and native plantings, giving the whole campus more of a desert garden aesthetic and making for a pretty shocking transition from the lush landscaping of Scripps.
The only truly historic structure on campus is the Grove House, a gorgeous California bungalow that was moved to the very center of campus and which serves as a student hangout today. The house is surrounded by a lush desert garden and a citrus grove, with a shady trellis sheltering a set of picnic tables. It sits directly across from the modernist clock tower, which you can spot from just about anywhere on campus.
Returning west, the very last college is Harvey Mudd College, which sits at the northern edge of the Claremont Colleges. Like Claremont McKenna, it’s another long, thin campus that’s only a block wide with buildings lining a central mall. Harvey Mudd is focused on science and engineering, with a 1960s modernist campus designed by Edward Durell Stone, whose most notable buildings include the U.S. Embassy in India, the Kennedy Center, and MoMA in New York City. His most recognizable building in L.A. is probably USC’s Center for International and Public Affairs (the one in the center of the USC campus with the big globe on top).
Despite the prestige of the architect, the architecture of Harvey Mudd has not aged well with people. The older buildings at the heart of campus all have the distinctive feature of being dotted by rows of little concrete squares that protrude out of the walls, which feel a little bit like an abstracted version of textile blocks, but a lot less interesting. There is at least one building that has a bit more going for it, that being the very contemporary Center for Teaching and Learning at the heart of campus, which is covered in shiny tan panels, has a massive courtyard, and a rooftop succulent garden that is easily accessible by elevator and offers some good views.
The other noteworthy feature is a sunken courtyard, heading towards the tall building at the west end of campus, which has a beautifully decorated koi fountain adorned with a classical statue, some aquatic plants, and surrounded by jacaranda trees. From the staircase above, you can watch the koi lazily bask in the sunlight or swim around the fountain.
We’ve wrapped up the colleges, but there is another attraction further north: the California Botanic Garden. Walking there requires crossing Foothill Boulevard at Dartmouth Avenue, on the northwestern corner of Harvey Mudd College (this is the only place you’ll find a traffic light for several blocks), then walking along the sidewalk of a frontage road on the north side of Foothill a block to College Avenue, where you then make a right and walk up the street, between the campus of the Claremont School of Theology on your left and the Bernard Biological Field Station on your right, which preserves a large section of native chaparral that managed to escape development and has now been set aside for study. Take note that while this section of the walk isn’t difficult, there’s also not a whole lot of shade on the way either, so it might be something to avoid in hot weather.
After a few blocks, the sidewalk ends just shy of the botanic garden’s entrance, although crossing the small parking lot shouldn’t present too much of a challenge. The standard entrance fee is $10 (see their website for hours), but you’ll have a lot to look at.
The California Botanic Garden covers about 80 acres on the north side of Claremont, and is the largest botanical garden anywhere devoted entirely to California native plants. The garden is broken up into three large sections, covering a different facet of California flora: the SoCal Gardens, the Mesa Gardens, and a large section in the back called California Habitats.
SoCal Gardens is the first section you’ll enter upon entering the garden. A wildflower meadow is the first feature you’ll encounter, with a snake path winding through the garden. From here you can follow the main trail up to the rest of the SoCal Gardens or take the ramp up to the Mesa Gardens. The rest of the SoCal Gardens are situated alongside a small oak woodland, with some nice shady paths alongside the main trail and an impressive “majestic oak” at the northern end.
The Mesa Gardens, per their name, cover the top of a short mesa that sits astride the SoCal Gardens, with a pair of ramps leading up to the mesa. The administration building sits at the front of the mesa, with a lovely water-wise garden out front with a paper crane sculpture. The Mesa Gardens are very shady with lots of meadows full of native flowers, a pair of small ponds that attract wildlife, and some kid-friendly displays explaining the local ecology and how wildlife interact with the plants.
Behind the SoCal Gardens and Mesa Gardens, the bulk of the garden is taken up by the California Habitats section. The (extremely not-to-scale) map that you might have picked up at the entrance suggests that the three sections are equivalently sized, but in fact California Habitats is about three times the size of the other two sections put together. A web of pathways runs through this section, although you can just stick to the Loop Trail, marked with a green dotted line, to see all the highlights.
The California Habitats section is mostly scrub and chaparral, with the occasional grove of trees scattered throughout to represent certain California ecologies. On your loop through this section, you’ll pass groves of laurels, conifers, pinyon, junipers, palms, and oak trees, separated by huge sections of low-lying scrub. The most surprising find is a grove of Joshua trees, which seem to be thriving.
Returning to the train station, Claremont “Village” (or Downtown Claremont if you prefer) has plenty of nice shops and restaurants to enjoy. As the day comes to a close, an excellent place to eat while you wait for your train back is the Claremont Packing House, which sits on 1st Street just a couple blocks west of the Metrolink station. This part of Claremont is a bustling business district, with an outdoor mall, Village Square, across the street. The Packing House is a former citrus packing warehouse where produce from the numerous citrus groves of the Pomona Valley was brought and packed for shipment by rail. Today, it has been refurbished into a dining and entertainment center, with some historic displays and community functions like an art center and a bookstore inside.
Along with the various restaurants and shops, a great attraction of the Packing House is the Lost Levels Arcade, a video game store with an arcade in the basement with lots of retro arcade and pinball machines. Rather than accepting quarters at each machine, a single $10 pass covers everything in the arcade for an hour. But if you don’t want to pay to play, you can admire the used game collection in the store, which also has a couple retro consoles hooked up so you can enjoy some classics. I got to relive some childhood nostalgia playing Simpsons Hit & Run on a GameCube.
The last Metrolink train returns to Los Angeles from Claremont at 7:27pm on the weekdays, and 8:21pm on the weekends (again, make sure you check the schedule). Make sure to get back to the station on time, as this train line is actually pretty reliable!