10 Intense Southern California Trails For Avid Hikers
If you provide the boots and the gumption, we’ll get you there. A secret waterfall. A lost mountain city. A wild river gorge. Time to hit the trail
1. Fish Canyon Narrows, Angeles National Forest
Living in cities, we forget how empty spaces affect us—when walls disappear and the limitless horizon pours out. Wilderness like that—wilderness that drove Thoreau into paroxysms of terror on Mount Katahdin (“What is this Titan that has possession of me!”)—is rare around L.A. and, Thoreau’s freak-out notwithstanding, restorative. Several miles past Valencia, atop the Grapevine’s first grade, a right turn on Templin Highway leads into a landscape so cinematically vast, it could have wowed Sergio Leone: red gorges large enough to pilot a DC-10 through, mountains like mastodons. Park where the highway ends at a traffic barrier. Follow the faded asphalt that runs past it into a broad valley, where two large streams exit a pair of converging canyons. A left turn on a dirt track paralleling the farthest creek begins your trek to Fish Canyon Narrows. The lower reaches are wide and dry, but down in the streambed, water pools in crystalline troughs beneath sycamores, ideal for swim breaks. Nearby palisades make the Pyrenees look like sand castles, and the smell that leaves them when wind careers off a million acres of chaparral is an olfactory sucker punch. After a couple of hot but undemanding miles, you slip into the cool narrows, 50 feet wide in spots, noisy with falling water, and illuminated by aspen groves exploding in sunlight. Beyond, the canyon reopens into lush riparian meadows, but for now these tight walls are a meditative shelter from all that emptiness waiting outside.
2. Mount Lowe Railway, Altadena
Professor Thaddeus Lowe made his bones as chief aeronaut for Lincoln’s balloon corps before taking on a seemingly impenetrable foe: the San Gabriel Mountains. Armed with dynamite, Lowe blasted through granite in 1891 and raised a railway that carried visitors several miles up to his Mount Lowe Tavern, where they did the foxtrot beside the outdoor orchestra. All is gone now—Lowe’s enterprise bankrupted him before it burned in 1936—save for a path that leaves the summit of Altadena’s Chaney Trail. Walk a few hundred yards along the saddle’s adjacent fire road to the Sunset Ridge Trail. It slips into Millard Canyon’s cool shade, climbing more than a thousand feet through miner’s lettuce and wild cucumber to join the old railway bed by a rock dome named the Cape of Good Hope. In front of you, across Las Flores Canyon, sits Echo Mountain, where a pair of hotels once operated. Walk along the dismantled rail line for an easy three-and-a-half miles that trace piney ridgelines to a spring at the tavern’s remains—a jumble of rock wall, twisted metal, and ghosts. Find the self-guided tour, complete with photographs of the old resort, which 3 million people visited in the early 20th century. Today you are alone in what is now a campground. If you packed well, you can stay the night.
3. La Jolla Valley, Point Mugu
The initial leg of the Chumash Trail may be the most amazing footpath in Southern California. It is certainly the oldest. Dating back 7,000 years to when the Chumash traveled between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific, the route was in use before the invention of the sail. The opening stretch leaves a dirt parking lot on Pacific Coast Highway north of the Ventura County line at mile marker 8.7. It makes a heart-pounding half-mile run through flowering succulents straight up a mountainside without offering a switchback for relief—either a window into a lost way of interacting with the natural world or a reminder of what a flabby tribe we’ve become. From the summit, a pass 900 feet above your car, you can gaze north up the coastline to Santa Barbara. Ahead is La Jolla Valley, a wide bowl-shaped hollow whose slopes, soft as Marin heather, once held Chumash villages. Soon you meet a junction with the La Jolla Valley Loop Trail, which circles through savannah and grass as high as your head, pausing midway at a tule pond, where you can stop for lunch. Direction signs are posted occasionally on the path, but do not attempt this hike without a map. After 7,000 years of inhabitation, the land is a matrix of ancient tracks, and the sight of stranded hikers begging for assistance is common.
4. East Canyon Trail, Santa Susana Mountains
The dry southern front of the Santa Susana Mountains never looks inviting to Angelenos. Maybe that’s why the northern slopes—crisscrossed by streams and preserved in patches within the Santa Clarita Woodlands—are a revelation to anyone exploring them for the first time. The East Canyon Trail begins beside noisy Interstate 5, exactly two miles from the In-N-Out drive-thru in Newhall, and ends two miles later in a Douglas fir grove at the crest of the Santa Susanas. Exit I-5 onto Calgrove Boulevard, and after a right turn, drive one mile to the trailhead’s parking lot on the right. The trail is a small fire road that follows a creek through valley oak covered in mistletoe and bigleaf maples alive with red-tailed hawks and towhees. The highway buzz falls away, and soon the serpentine path climbs above the dense woodland, passing over meadows that dot a long ridgeline. Stop for lunch with a view before continuing to the relic stand of Douglas fir, probably a leftover of a forest that grew 20,000 years ago. From there it’s an hour back to the car and the modern world.
5. Cooper Canyon, Angeles National Forest
Angeles Crest Highway begins next to a La Cañada mall and ends under a bantam-size Half Dome in the heart of bighorn sheep territory, a trip of about 40 miles into a gorgeous frontier that few people ever take. This is the top of the world: The road winds eastward past remote hoodoos bleached white by unfiltered sunlight, through ancient sequoia groves, and over Cloudburst Summit (elevation 7,018 feet), where you can look out across the shimmering Mojave Desert and spy snowcaps in the faraway southern Sierra. The trail into Cooper Canyon leaves a hikers’ parking lot in the Buckhorn Campground near the summit, dropping along the back slope of the San Gabriel Mountains past stands of incense cedars and following a musical creek that pings through a series of stony cataracts. The air billowing off the desert floor arrives so pure, you can taste outer space on your tongue; on this side of the range, everything feels different. You can’t see, sense, or even imagine the city, 40 miles away. Along the canyon bottom, two miles down, a trio of creeks merges into a mountain river within a shady glen—perhaps the most beautiful and pristine hiking destination in the Angeles National Forest. There are grassy islands for picnicking, refreshing falls for immersing, and nothing to do till sunset. Lie back. The sky overhead is an infinite cerulean blue with orange flecks, ladybugs surfing the inland current.
6. Sandstone Peak, Santa Monica Mountains
Boney Mountain, at 2,825 feet, dominates the western terminus of the Santa Monicas—a massive summation of everything wild in the coastal chain. Its higher slopes, overlooking the Oxnard Plain, are mild enough in parts to hold secret valleys that in winter come awake with waterfalls. The Mishe Mokwa Trail circumnavigates Boney Mountain, leading up to the highest point on the volcanic formation, Sandstone Peak, where views include the sweep of the Channel Islands. To find the trailhead, take Mulholland Drive west from Kanan Dume Road to Little Sycamore Canyon. Turn right and head four miles to the parking area on the right. The footpath rises through chaparral into a sycamore-shaded canyon, passing Balanced Rock, one of several colossal outcroppings found along the trail, before crossing a stream and climbing up and under Sandstone Peak. Near the summit a short bypath leaves the trail for the peak’s apex. Your descent afterward will pass through a series of switchbacks; look for a cutoff trail that appears after them on the left. It leads back to the opening stretch of the Mishe Mokwa Trail, where a right turn will return you to your car.
7. Griffith Park, Hollywood Hills
We’re all familiar with Griffith Park’s crowded attractions: the packed observatory, the zoo that is the zoo. We know of its well-trod footpaths like Mount Hollywood and Ferndell. Yet there is also an entire backcountry in the park: a half-dozen peaks that rise above 1,500 feet; wild canyons where springs flow; remote hillsides that foxes, mule deer, and bobcats call home. That Griffith Park, the outback in L.A.’s center, is little explored, even though a piecemeal trail system of some 50 miles ties it together. With planning, perseverance, and water, serious hikers can go off on their own grand tour, beginning at almost any trailhead they choose. Remember that few trail signs will be found along the way, and the cartography can be sketchy. We wish we could MapQuest the directions for our favorite. If that were possible, the trip would look like this: Start out heading NORTH on CRYSTAL SPRINGS DRIVE from the AUTRY SOUTHWEST MUSEUM; turn RIGHT onto CONDOR TRAIL; at MINERAL WELLS PICNIC AREA take MINERAL WELLS TRAIL through AMIR’S GARDEN; turn slightly left onto MOUNT HOLLYWOOD TRAIL; turn left on HOGBACK TRAIL toward FERN CANYON; turn right on VISTA DEL VALLE DRIVE and then make an immediate left on FERN CANYON TRAIL; turn left on CRYSTAL SPRINGS DRIVE; end at GOLDEN SPUR CAFÉ at the AUTRY SOUTHWEST MUSEUM. You can take other routes (this one offers a vista of L.A. in the round), but don’t underestimate the terrain. This is true wilderness.
8. Stunt High Trail, Santa Monica Mountains
Think of Stunt High Trail as a quiet classroom, and tread lightly. Spiraling up through red rock on the Santa Monica Mountains’ inland flank, the path traverses the Cold Creek watershed. Among the most biologically diverse in the entire range, it supports riparian woodland, oak groves, chaparral, and meadow. Were you trekking the lonely western peaks, that list might seem about right. Yet Stunt High Trail leaves a dirt lot off Stunt Road, a mile from Mulholland Drive’s hum, and is directly in view of the West Valley’s suburbs. For the first half mile the route drops under oaks and past vales of purple flowers, chasing Cold Creek as it moseys through fern beds, attracting hummingbirds and dragonflies. The trail is well used, especially on weekends, though on any weekday you can have it all to yourself. Soon it angles upward into fields of chamise and redshank that attract sunning rattlesnakes (so keep watch). In no time you hit Stunt Road again. Cross it and follow the path as it passes through oak forest on its way to the crest. The trail always stays close to the road during this rigorous climb, but with so little traffic and so much wilderness, you’ll forget it’s there.
9. Mount Baldy, San Gabriel Mountains
Mount San Antonio—aka Mount Baldy, elevation 10,064 feet—is not the highest peak shadowing Los Angeles. Two other mountains, San Jacinto Peak (elevation 10,834 feet) and San Gorgonio (elevation 11,499 feet), surpass it. Yet in local imagination Baldy remains our Everest, the gnarled and menacing alpine climax of the San Gabriel Mountains. Its ascent—nearly 4,000 feet of elevation in a bit more than six miles—is daunting, but for any serious trekker, the climb is worth making. To reach the trailhead, drive 15 miles north of Claremont on Mount Baldy Road, and leave your car a half mile below the ski area’s parking lot. Walk along the Baldy fire road, beyond the adjacent gate, which leads up around a ridge past the 100-foot drop of San Antonio Falls and into Baldy Notch. Look for a sign pointing left to Mount Baldy—it leads to a second fire road that switchbacks through cedars and sugar pines, ending below the Devil’s Backbone—a razor-thin escarpment that can shed hikers like loose shale. Now the trail climbs along the oxygen-starved hogback, crossing the tree line before its last heave over a barren boulder field. Breathe in (no kidding—altitude sickness is common); then have a look. The panorama runs from San Diego to the Owens Valley.
10. Bridge to Nowhere, East Fork of the San Gabriel River
Starting off as Mount Baldy snowpack, the east fork of the San Gabriel River has carved out the most impressive gorge in Southern California, depositing over the aeons alluvial plains that have become prime Azusa real estate. Also washed out in the river debris are the remnants of an old highway project begun in the 1930s. Back then, the river was having none of it, and the road was swept out of the gorge before it could be completed, leaving behind only a dramatic single-arch cement bridge, five miles upstream. Travel north through Azusa on Route 39, and turn right on East Fork Road to find the Bridge to Nowhere’s trailhead, located in a parking lot at the highway’s terminus. The path (often the old roadbed itself) passes through groves of alder and oak and fields of spiny yucca before meeting the river—30 feet wide in places and teeming with rainbow trout. It is a river to reckon with; wild water this challenging exists no place else near Los Angeles. You will ford it 14 times before you get to the bridge, often on shaky legs in swift currents that could carry off a young child. (Do not attempt the trip after rains.) Above, the landscape is desolate and scarred by decades of gold prospecting, but the canyon floor, with its tree-lined waterway, resembles one of the western mouths of the Sierra, providing its own weather and shade. Restore your strength on the bridge, then venture into the deepest recesses of the granite gorge. You are about to feel very small.
Maps by Peter Hoey