Difficulty: Easy to rigorous
Time: About 1 hour
Los Angeles has many public stairways, but only one drops into the heart of a 15,000-acre urban wilderness park known as the Big Wild. You reach the stairs via the obscure Rustic Canyon entrance of Topanga State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains. From Sunset Boulevard, just opposite the Riviera Country Club, turn north on Capri Drive and continue 0.6 miles to the Casale Road junction; bear right and park (but not on Capri, which is restricted).
Walk 150 yards along Capri to its end, which is also the beginning of the Sullivan Canyon Ridge fire road. After a brief length of dirt road, the paved road starts. Walk for about 15 minutes, keeping an eye out for a chain-link fence on the left. Enter the break in the fence and follow a 30-foot dirt path to the top of the stairs. They were built to access portions of the so-called Murphy Ranch, which is believed to have been a compound run by Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s. Don’t get spooked. Begin descending the 504 steps to the bottom of Rustic Canyon. If you feel like you’re taking baby steps, well, you are. These stairs have a rise of 5.5 inches (compared with the typical 7.75). Nevertheless, they add up.
By the time you go down and up, you might as well have climbed to the top of a 23-story building. At irregular increments the steps are punctuated with landings from which you can admire the view of narrow, steep, and dramatic rock walls. Once you’ve hit bottom, a short path leads to a trail along the banks of Rustic Creek, one of the few waterways in the mountains that flows year-round. Canyon flora includes the usual riparian growth plus the stray cactus, aloe, jade, and periwinkle.
Climb back up to where you started. If you have any breath left, head up the road to another break in the chain-link and more steps—40 of them lead down to a water tank. A bit farther up the paved road is a substantial wrought-iron gate and a crumbling flagstone wall, the onetime entrance to Murphy Ranch. Poke around to find the creepy burned-out and graffiti-marred remains of concrete and steel structures.