“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone…”– Joan Didion
It’s a risk to lead with a Didion quote when writing about L.A., and while she is the de facto cultural ambassador for California, it might be about time to stop just taking her word for it. Possibly, it’s the perfect moment to hit the road and look for the lonelier Los Angeles landmarks with our own eyes—and with the city’s plethora of cultural alcoves, its spinal coastline, and its artistic strongholds, what if some of its best offerings are those now abandoned?
You can gain a lot from a place that has been left behind: history, adventure, an amazing photograph, and silence. Not to mention it’s a chance to stray from the trodden path—to ditch the touristy landmarks and crowded favorites. When the spirit moves you to see some of Los Angeles’ more remote offerings, here are five of our favorite places to start.
A day in Los Angeles certainly comes with a certain promise of photograph-worthy moments at well-trodden landmarks. But what about one 2300 feet above sea level?
Topanga Lookout is the perfect spot to take in L.A.’s storied canyon views and Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a relatively gentle hike and it will have you traversing paths with names like Backbone Trail and Stunt Road Crossroads. Imagine the bragging rights this will give you with friends…
Though the trail itself offers some pretty extraordinary panoramic views, the real payoff comes when you arrive at the lookout: A concrete slab that once served as the foundation of an old fire tower. Covered in graffiti, the colorful slab stands out in the sun-scrubbed terrain like an abstract art piece. Simultaneously with your commune with nature, you can read the messages and scribblings of those who discovered this lookout before you—a testament to just how much people in California love their scenic views. In fact, one hiker even lugged a piano up the trail, back in 2015.
2. Llano del Rio
If the Antelope Valley weren’t already alluring enough, how about throwing in an abandoned and largely forgotten former socialist utopian commune? Picture it: It’s 1914 and you’re leafing through a socialist newspaper when you see an advertisement: “This is an opportunity of a lifetime to solve the problem of unemployment.”
This is the exact message Job Harriman— the founder of Llano del Rio—ran in a 1914 issue of The Western Comrade. With failed runs for the vice presidency and for mayor of Los Angeles, Harriman wanted to build a commune apart from it all. A room of one’s own, so to speak—of course, a 10,000-acre room of one’s own called Llano del Rio.
There were feminist houses (read: kitchenless). There were 1100 residents by 1917 (problematically, only white colonists were allowed). And there was, of course, eventual mutiny, with offshoot gangs revolting against the Board of Directors. Your basic Hollywood underdog story.
Today, Llano del Rio is whittled down to the skeletal remains of its emblematic stone cottages. But the history embedded in these traces is enough to earn a visit.
3. Shoemaker Canyon Tunnels
There are few things quite as unsettling as a road that goes nowhere. But what makes something unsettling is also often what makes it particularly interesting. And this is the case with the Shoemaker Canyon Tunnels.
The tunnels were developed as an escape route during the Cold War era, should Angelenos face a nuclear attack. But they only made it through four miles of the planned 25-mile route before abandoning construction altogether in 1956.
In 1980, reporter Paul Dean called the tunnels a road to “memories of nuclear paranoia in America.” And so the historical weight of this side trip speaks for itself. But the scenic pull of the San Gabriel Mountains and the chaparral-streaked Angeles National Forest in which the tunnels are situated will have you reeling in history and the pastoral West.
4. Keller House
Full disclosure: You can’t actually go inside this historic abandoned cabin. But if you follow the Solstice Canyon Trail—tree-canopied and sun-dabbled—you’ll get close enough to see everything.
A little different than the typical Malibu cliff-verging villa or oceanside estate, Keller House was built by Henry Keller after a wildfire in 1903. Reeling from the loss of his home, Keller wanted to craft something that might withstand any future fires. He turned to stone for his project.
The basic structure of the house has endured, even in the face of the 2007 Corral Fire that burnt away a wooden porch once affixed to it.
A testament to perseverance and resilience, Keller House is also a monument to just how many lives and homes have been changed in the face of California’s wildfires.
5. Kelso Ghost Town
The Kelso Ghost Town looks like a scene borrowed straight from a Hayao Miyazaki film. The washed-out grays of the long-ago post office makes it look borderline 2D. The surrounding Mojave is surreal in its sparseness and the wind-rifled huts are just another hiccup on the landscape.
Once a resting place for passing trains, Kelso was developed in 1905, the depot coming in 1924. Nearby iron mines made Kelso a bustling little community. But when the mines closed, the town began to mimic the desert in its emptiness.
Still, recognizing the town’s place in history, The National Park Service took over in 1994 and restored the depot in 2005. So you get a bit of everything here now: The faint traces of all that used to be here. And the current Kelso Visitors Center, a representation of classic California Mission Revival architecture with terracotta-tiled roofs, red window awnings and bleached yellow walls.
If you’re up for an afternoon field trip, stop in; the depot museum is free, the desert is beckoning, and the ghost of the rail life that once struck through Kelso will make you think about just how hard it is to vanish history altogether.
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