I have just spent more than an hour crawling along the Los Angeles freeway system at morning rush hour, painstakingly navigating the 134 to the Harbor to the Santa Monica, thankfully avoiding the dreaded 405. Yes, I’m in Southern California now, so I’m required to use the definite article when identifying freeway names. Deal with it, my Nor Cal homies.
Along the way, I saw lots of concrete barriers, overpasses and culverts, most graffiti-tagged but some fashioned into stunning ethnic murals. Still, slap as much paint on it as you want, it’s a concrete jungle all the same. And then I had glimpses of what they laughingly call the Los Angeles River – paved, of course, and tagged like a Hell’s Angel’s bicep, barely a trickle of water moseying along. Once off the freeway and climbing on Sunset Boulevard, strip malls gave way to sprinkler-saturated lawns of tony estates, ringed by non-native palm and eucalyptus.
I negotiated this urban milieu in order to escape into nature – irony duly noted – by exploring one of the many backcountry trails to be found in Los Angeles County. You read that right. Despite what the band Missing Persons sang in that ’80s novelty song, people do walk in L.A. And run. And climb. And ride mountain bikes and horses. They do it on trails carved into three ranges – the San Gabriel and Santa Monica mountains and the lesser Verdugo Hills – forged by seismic activity over many millennia.
At last, nearly two hours after leaving downtown Los Angeles, I found peace in the wilderness. Alone on the Backbone Trail deep in the Santa Monica Mountains headed toward Malibu Canyon, I felt as if I was immersed in wilderness. All freeway noise receded, the omnipresent tourists dwindled, and it was just me and a dusty single-track trail lined with manzanita and chaparral sloping into the canyons, with views of the glimmering Pacific Ocean on one side and its obverse, the smog-choked San Fernando Valley, on the other.
You can go for miles and miles on just this one trail, which connects Topanga Canyon State Park to Malibu Creek State Park and rambles on clear to Point Mugu near Oxnard, more than 60 miles in all, with side trails that lead to such geologic wonders as Sandstone Peak and the gaping maw that is Temescal Canyon. The Santa Monica range actually begins at Griffith Park, smack dab in the smoggy center of Los Anglees, but somehow manages to carve 53 miles of hiking trails amid the observatory, golf course, zoo and horse stables.
Choices are even more plentiful to the northeast in the San Gabriels, which begin east of Mount Baldy and run a gantlet of craggy peaks from Mount Wilson well into the Angeles National Forest, encompassing part of the Pacific Crest Trail. All trails are freeway-accessible, since the 210 and the 14 lasso the San Gabriels on each side.
Mix in the Verdugo Hills in the Valley and various parks and open spaces along Interstate 5 heading to Santa Clarita and the county line, and the options grow. Dare I say that Southern California, for such a dense population center, may claim more trails than we Northern Californians boast. Sure, we’ve got them easily beat when it comes to lushness of the flora and diversity of the critters to be encountered, but for a parched landscape that depends heartily on our water to survive, they do all right.
Granted, often it takes a protracted drive to reach nature, but if you find yourself in Southern California for any time at all, you owe it yourself, and your sanity, to escape all that mass of humanity and commune with nature.
Here are four trails, in four locations, to get you started. Just try to not get that Missing Persons song (“Walkin’ in L.A/Nobody walks in L.A.”) stuck in your head.
Mount Wilson Trail
There are two ways up to Mount Wilson from the greater Pasadena area. Neither are “easy,” per se, but taking the 16-mile Mount Wilson Toll Road, a wide, smooth, packed-dirt fire road starting in Altadena certainly will put less stress on the joints.
But where’s the fun in that? The preferred way to get to Mount Wilson’s observatory and rows of communication towers for local TV and radio signals is to traverse the Mount Wilson Trail, a winding 14.3-mile (round trip), mostly single-track trek through pine, cedar and oak trees that starts in the bedroom community of Sierra Madre. Fair warning: You’ll climb more than 5,000 feet in the roughly 7 miles to the summit and, though it’s often shaded, bring plenty of water.
Climbing Mount Wilson is a point of pride to many Angelenos, judging by their Yelp posts raving about their accomplishment. And it’s long been known as a good workout and even a social outing.
In his book “Los Angeles County: A Day Hiker’s Guide,” John McKinney writes that in the late 1800s entrepreneurs built “trail resorts” along the path to refresh the hikers and, by 1905, a trolley dropped passengers off in Sierra Madre right near the trailhead in Little Santa Anita Canyon.
The so-called “Great Hiking Era” ended almost as quickly as it began – L.A. being fad-crazy even back then – but Sierra Madre residents preserved the trail and the canyon from a damming proposal. Each May since 1908, the town has held the Mount Wilson Trail Race, a 4.3-mile jaunt up to Orchard Camp and back down to town.
But to make it to the summit, you need to push on beyond Orchard Camp for another 3 miles and about 2,500 feet of elevation gain. McKinney reports that hikers in the 1920s saw a “tall bronzed hermit” called “Nature Man” who carried an ax to blaze trails and greeted folks on their way up. Then again, maybe the altitude gain made the hikers a touch hallucinatory.
The climb is consistent but not too taxing for the first 2 miles to the trail sign marked “First Water.” It may be dry in the height of summer, but the day after an early April shower, you could hear the stream gurgling below. A trail to the right leads to the water, but you’ll want to keep pushing upward on the main trail to the left.
You are rewarded for your climbing efforts shortly thereafter when the trail flattens out a bit as it winds through the ridgeline. At some junctures, it even provides a downhill respite, where you can stop hyperventilating enough to take in dappled sunlight filtering through the oak and spruce trees that overhang the narrow, at times rocky, trail.
Once you reach Orchard Camp, where farmers tried and failed to grow apples and cherries late in the 19th century, you’ll see a sign with an arrow pointing left and the inscription “Mt. Wilson 3.3 (miles).” Yes, you are more than halfway, but don’t be fooled: The latter part of the trek is taxing, with some steep climbs through dense manzanita-lined ridges and under a few downed trees. At Manzanita Ridge, you turn left on the Winter Creek Trail, which features some steep switchbacks.
At several points, the peak of Mount Wilson pops up, with its observatory orb and spiky TV towers, but you still have a ways to go. You’re getting close when Winter Creek Trail dead-ends with the Mount Wilson Toll Road. Here, you’ll meet up with the people who took the “easy” way for the final mile to the summit, where on clear days you can see beyond downtown L.A. to the ocean and even, faintly, Santa Catalina Island.
On weekends, Skyline Park at the summit is open and you can get sustenance – and, yes, free Wi-Fi – at the Cosmic Cafe at the observatory.
Then it’s back down the mountain, joint-crushingly steep, to the trailhead. Unless you wanted to do a heretical deed and use the pay phone at the summit to hail a cab to drive you back down a paved road on the other side of the mountain.
Will Rogers Park
and Backbone Trail
Once you’re done gawking at the multimillion-dollar estates along Sunset and Chautauqua boulevards, just off the Pacific Coast Highway, you make a right and drive into Will Rogers State Historic Park, the humorist’s 186-acre retreat in the Santa Monica Mountains. You will park next to the polo field, which, fans of director Garry Marshall’s vast oeuvre will recall, was used as a setting in “Pretty Woman.”
This trek is a 13.2-mile out-and-back – but obviously can be easily shortened by just turning around – that begins by doing the first half of the 2-mile Inspiration Point Loop. Even as early at 6 a.m., the trail is peppered with hikers, runners and one or two equestrians. But when you reach the junction on the left that leads to the Backbone Trail in the Topanga State Park, you might not see another soul for a long time, though jackrabbits scurry back and forth with impunity. The Backbone, so named because it runs up the ridge’s spine, is said to be a popular mountain biking trail, but perhaps because it was early, no bike was in sight.
What you experience instead is quiet and solitude. It’s almost too quiet, eerily quiet, after the cacophony that is the the bustle of L.A.’s Westside. The continental curve of the Santa Monica beach is so vivid below that you can see waves breaking. At 1.5 miles, you’ll cross a rickety wooden bridge and reach a rocky stretch, mostly exposed to the sun, where the real climbing begins. You’ve climbed more than 1,000 feet by the 2.9-mile mark when you reach a giant oak tree that marks a left-hand turn to stay on the Backbone.
From there, the trail becomes more rolling and much more scenic, trees joining branches as you reach a high point of 2,000 feet. Your views will change, too. Gone is the ocean, replaced by the vast expanse of Burbank and the San Fernando Valley in all its sprawling splendor. You don’t have to peer in the distance, though, the morning mist rising from Temescal canyon is pretty enough.
A good turnaround point is the junction of the Backbone and the Temescal Fire Road, called “The Hub”; look for the sign. Of course, you can push on for miles and miles on the BackboneTrail, deeper into Topanga Park to Trippet Ranch and Cold Creek Preserve, then into Malibu Creek State Park to Zuma Canyon and end at the Ray Miller Trailhead at Point Mugu State Park. But that’s for crazy ultra-runners.
A more sane out-and-back will get you back in time for a late breakfast at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.
La Tuna Canyon Loop, Verdugo Hills
Often an after-thought, the Verdugo Hills in “The Valley” between La Crescenta and Sun Valley feature some less-trod paths known only to locals. And, in a nice only-in-L.A. twist, there are lounge chairs for hikers to stretch out upon at certain viewing spots.
Its trailhead only 1.3 miles off the 210 Freeway, this La Tuna Canyon trek is a cobbled-together loop. The final three-tenths of a mile is on – gasp! – a paved road. But other than that final stretch, the 6.7-mile loop is as wild as it gets. According to McKinney’s book, it is one of Southern California’s newest trails, carved unobtrusively into the hills by Conservation Corps workers. Boy Scouts, incidentally, provided the lounge chairs.
For a relatively short loop, it’s quite taxing. You’ll gain 1,800 feet in the first 4.5 miles, as the winding single track takes you up the hills via long switchbacks lined with oak and sycamore trees. Weaving in and out, you get periodic views of the traffic on the 210 Freeway heading east into the L.A. basin, sights that made you glad your morning was being spent on single track, not changing lanes to avoid gridlock.
At 2.2 miles, you leave the single track and reach a fire road (some call it the Verdugo Mountainway, but there’s no signage). That’s when you encounter the first of the two lounge chairs that give a view of two other freeways below, I-5 and the 101. (Both looked bad.) It’s a 2-mile uphill trek on the fire road, which the Conservation Corps has kindly labeled with markers every half-mile.
Keep climbing past the radio towers until reaching a sign with the inscription “Plantation Lateral.” Make a left there and follow a fire road down a bit to the right until you see an unsigned single-track trail the guidebooks call the La Tuna Canyon Foot Path. It’s the only trail in the canyon off limits to bikes, and you quickly learn why. It’s a wild ride: steep, rocky downhill on a path that fades in and out. You’ll eventually reach a dirt lot, where you go left on the paved La Tuna Canyon Road 0.3 of a mile back to the trailhead.
Sure, it’s a cheesy tourist thing, but people want to get up close and personal with the Hollywood sign.
Sorry, the Mount Lee Trail, off Beachwood Drive, is now closed to trail users. I thought I could sneak up the 3-mile, round-trip path by going early one morning. But when I reached Beachwood Drive, there were a series of orange cones, a sign flashing “Trail Closed” and a bored-looking security guard in a Dodgers cap.
OK, on to Plan B. That would be the Mount Hollywood Trail in Griffith Park, where the 3.3-mile semi-loop from the Observatory parking lot to Dante’s View and the summit provides plenty of selfie-photo moments.
Be prepared, however, for the crowds. At 6:30 on a Monday morning, the parking lot was packed, and the Charlie Turner Trail, a wide, smooth fire road that curved to the Mount Hollywood summit, was bustling with people in baggy shorts toting cameras.
A high school cross country team was doing hill repeats – there’s an 800-foot elevation gain on the 1.25-mile ascent – and a group of Filipinos all wearing blue-and-red “Team Manny Pacquiao” jackets power-walked skyward.
I’d like to report that it was a pleasant jaunt, but I had to dodge groups walking slowly, four-abreast, and was twice asked to take people’s pictures with the Hollywood sign in the background.
At least I can say I saw the sign, close-up. And the crowds made me long for the relative tranquility of the American River Canyon back home.