Hiking in Hollywood: On Foot and Off the Street in Los Angeles

THE FIRST THING THEY TELL YOU IS THAT NOBODY WALKS IN LOS ANGELES. Which is probably why I was so excited when I was asked to do a travel story about hiking in the City of Angels – three days bouncing from Hollywood to Malibu to take in the city’s trails and green spaces on foot. It sounded like a challenge, perhaps even a dare, and there was no way I was going to turn down an opportunity to see a side of L.A. that very few tourists see – and perhaps not even that many locals.

Los Angeles fascinates me. I overcame my stupid east coast aversion to the place years ago, mostly by spending a couple of years on the movie press junket circuit, which meant flying in every month or two for a screening and a series of interviews with movie stars, usually in a very nice hotel. Walking along the beach at Santa Monica one foggy morning, I could suddenly see why half the world wanted to go there at one point or another, and why people stayed even when the inevitable odds crushed their dream of stardom. Hollywood had spent a century creating its mythology, much the way that Los Angeles had created a city – out of nothing, in a place where nobody was probably supposed to live. Who wouldn’t find this fascinating?

My first base in L.A. was Loew’s Hollywood, a hotel I’d stayed in before when it had a different name. Recently refurbished, it remains the epitome of location – right by the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, next to both the famous TCL Chinese Theater (formerly Grauman’s) and the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theater, the home of the Oscars. My windows opened on to fantastic views of the homes hugging the nearby Hollywood Hills, and the rooftop pool sits in the shadow of a recreation of one of the walls of Babylon from D.W. Griffiths’ landmark silent film Intolerance, courtesy the adjacent Hollywood & Highland Center mall.

It goes without saying that Loew’s is a big deal during the Academy Awards, with rooms booked well in advance, stars in all the suites, and the helipad in frequent use. The hotel’s PR manager offers to take me up there during a private tour, and of course I say yes. When not in use the helipad hosts yoga classes; the city stretches out beneath its safety net barriers, the towers of downtown Los Angeles visible far in the hazy distance.

Brush Canyon Trail

Rested and refreshed after my flight, my first hike is a pilgrimage to a Hollywood landmark. The Brush Canyon Trail sits between two other landmarks – the Hollywood Bowl and the Griffith Observatory – in Griffith Park on the slopes of Mount Lee. It’s a roughly six mile walk from the entrance by the parking lot at the end of Canyon Drive, curving around the rim of the canyon, with views of downtown’s skyscrapers peaking over the hills. The trail is a popular spot for dog walkers as well as photographers, and like nearly every trail I’ll explore over the next couple of days, it’s full of views familiar from movies, TV shows and magazine profiles.

It’s a smooth hike upwards along the Brush Canyon Trail to the end of the canyon, at which point you’ll find yourself joining the Mulholland Trail heading back toward the city on the other side of Brush Canyon. The sign will come in and out of view until you suddenly find yourself right below it, in a clearing that’s likely to be full of selfie-takers, some of whom arrived there by taxi or bus. Not on the trail maps is the walk back down into the city through the streets of Hollywoodland, the neighbourhood below the sign that it was originally meant to advertise, back when it had four more letters.

The original Hollywood sign is long gone; neglected, repaired and replaced piecemeal over the decades since it was erected in 1923. It was only supposed to stand for eighteen months; the first major restoration was led by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner in 1978, with major donors sponsoring each letter including Hefner, singer Andy Williams, cowboy star Gene Autrey and rock legend Alice Cooper. Nearby residents have been complaining for years about tourists arriving in cars and coaches that clog the narrow streets, but plans to create a tramway to the sign and a visitor’s centre – or even a duplicate sign on the other side of Mount Lee – have never happened. In the meantime, the long hike through Brush Canyon is still considered the friendliest way to arrive beneath the sign.

Despite the pedestrian theme of my trip, I take the opportunity offered by a break in my schedule to tick off a bucket list item – a visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile. Occupying an old department store, the Petersen houses one of the greatest collections of cars and vehicles in the world. My visit coincides with a display of classic Bugattis, and a show called Precious Metal, featuring cars finished in gleaming silver and chrome. The museum also features a permanent exhibit of movie cars, including Steve McQueen’s Jaguar, Herbie the Love Bug and Lightning McQueen, a Batmobile and a Bat-bike, Elvis Presley’s Pantera and the DeLorean time machine.

My next hike begins near sunset on the other side of the hills above Hollywood. Fryman Canyon and Laurel Canyon are home to a network of hiking trails, with trail heads all over the area from Mulholland Drive on the ridge above the canyons. Nearby Coldwater Canyon Park is the home of Tree People, the environmental conservation organization that has done so much to agitate and preserve green space in the Los Angeles area. I begin my hike at the Nancy Hoover Pohl Overlook at Fryman Canyon Park – one of a series of scenic overlooks on Mulholland.

Looking over Studio City at sunset

The adjacent Betty B. Dearing Trail is full of dog walkers at the end of the day, and I take the trail in both directions through the canyon and hills while the sky fills with light from “magic hour.” Music fans will know that Laurel Canyon was home base for L.A.’s folk and rock scene in the mid- to late-sixties, with names like Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Cass Elliot, Frank Zappa, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and members of the Eagles, the Monkees, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and others living in modest little homes dotted all over the hills. Looking across Studio City to the mountains on the far side of the San Fernando Valley, it’s hard not to see why they gravitated to this nearly rural retreat in the middle of the city.

Musch Trail, Topanga Canyon State Park

The next morning’s hike follows the late ’60s hippie exodus from Laurel Canyon to Topanga Canyon, where the roads leading to my trailhead in Topanga Canyon State Park are still full of counterculture holdouts, ensconced in ranches, cabins, villas and ramshackle mansions dotted among the hills adjacent to the 11,000 acre park in the Santa Monica Mountains. Topanga is an old Shoshone word, but the area didn’t really see much settlement until the 1920s, when it became a weekend destination for Los Angelenos, who built summer cabins along Topanga Creek.

Topanga Canyon State Park

Among those weekend people were the Trippet family, who built a ranch around which the state would build a park, opening it in 1974. The Musch Trail starts near the old ranch buildings, just by the Entrada Road entrance to the park, and it begins with a walk down a road surrounded by stately trees – exactly how you’d imagine a fine old ranch in a western. The landscape along the trail changes with almost regular precision, from ranch to pastures to meadow to hills covered in winding thickets. By the time you’ve walked the two miles or so to its end, to where it meets up with the Backbone Trail and then the East Topanga Fire Road that takes you back to the park entrance, it’s opened up into a picture perfect badlands of raw weathered sandstone outcrops and scrub brush.

It all seems so familiar, until you realize that Hollywood has been filming in and around Los Angeles for a century, and the parkland and ranches of places like Topanga have appeared in countless westerns – the backdrop for gun fights and stagecoach rides and running battles with outlaw gangs or natives on horseback. It’s just another one of those places where Los Angeles feels like a half-remembered dream.

For me at least, Topanga Canyon was where Neil Young, having decamped from Laurel Canyon, recorded most of his seminal album After The Gold Rush in his basement. Young was inspired by a screenplay written by Topanga neighbour, actor Dean Stockwell, about the canyon after an apocalyptic flood. Tracks from the record play on a loop in my head as I walk, providing a soundtrack to the scenery.

Topanga retains its hippie Eden image to this day; my hike along the Musch trail was a mostly solitary one, but at one curve I crossed paths with a pair of slender, pony-tailed young men chanting “Hare Krishna” to the chiming accompaniment of the Baoding balls they’re twirling in their hands. My hike over, I head to “downtown” Topanga and the Inn of the Seventh Ray, a restaurant nestled among leafy terraces that’s been pioneering organic cuisine since the ’70s. I have the avocado toast. It’s sublime.

The shadows are getting long when I arrive at my final hike for the day – the Murphy Ranch Trail by Will Rogers State Park. It’s a trail that hugs the steep sides of Rustic Canyon, and the payoff for hikers is at the bottom, where the abandoned buildings of Murphy Ranch sit by Rustic Creek. The ranch was a compound for a group of die-hard American Nazis, who expected to sit out the chaos after Britain was invaded by Hitler and await their moment to take over the USA. They ended up being arrested in 1941 and the ranch was abandoned, becoming a graffiti-covered ruin.

It’s a story from Los Angeles’ rich history of cults, oddballs and fanatics, and while my aim was to capture the ruins in magic hour light, the day was too far gone and parts of the path simply too steep to navigate in the twilight. Instead I had to console myself with a dusk walk down to Sunset Boulevard through the Riviera neigbourhood (streets are named after Mediterranean destinations like Capri, Monaco and Amalfi) and its impeccable landscaping. Even if you’re not hunting for the homes of the stars, it’s always worthwhile to take a stroll through L.A.’s tony precincts like Bel Air and Beverly Hills, mostly because, as a pedestrian, you’ll almost always have the sidewalks to yourself.

Malibu Beach Inn
Malibu Pier

The road through Topanga empties out onto the Pacific Coast Highway not far from Malibu. I’m booked for a night at the Malibu Beach Inn, a luxury motel hugging Carbon Beach, where every room features a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean and nearby Malibu Pier. Once co-owned by music and movie mogul David Geffen, it has exemplary service, an excellent restaurant, and easy beach access. I use it as the trailhead for my final, informal hike of the trip – up and down the beach at sunrise.

It would be neglectful to visit Los Angeles and skip the beach – even if, like myself, you keep your shoes on and your feet dry. The beach in Los Angeles feels like the end of the world, and it was, not just for the generations of dreamers who came here looking for a new life, stardom, or better weather, but for America, whose pursuit of manifest destiny ended, among other places, on these perfect stretches of sand.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Discover Los Angeles, which did not approve or review this story.

Photos and story © 2016, 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved