Head for Hollywood's Hills
In Los Angeles, Five Off-Ramp Hikes With Star Attractions

By Laura Randall
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 14, 2006

As far as 19th-century fugitive hideouts go, this spot just a dozen miles from downtown Los Angeles must be as good as it gets. The hilltop clearing that was home to Owen Brown, who settled here after surviving the antislavery raid at Harpers Ferry led by his father, John, is surrounded by chaparral-covered mountains to the north and sweeping city views to the south and west. It can be accessed from several trails in the Angeles National Forest, including El Prieto Canyon, a four-mile trek through thick brush, oak forest and year-round waterfalls.

El Prieto Canyon is just one of many hidden-from-view trails that makes one forget all about the freeway snarls and strip malls often associated with the city. Tucked behind freeway exits, at the edge of tract developments and on the sites of former movie and TV show sets, these paths lead to wide-open ocean vistas, rocky promontories and other sights that turn an ordinary walk in the woods into an unforgettable experience.

Here are five hikes of varying levels of difficulty and personality that are guaranteed to add an unexpected dose of serenity to any visit to Los Angeles. Note: Lengths given are the hikes' round-trip measures.

1. Bronson Canyon Trail (Griffith Park)

Length: 1.5 miles

Rating: Difficult

The hike: Just two miles northeast of Hollywood and Vine, this trail leads to chiseled rock caves that have served as a set for everything from outer space serials to episodes of "Star Trek" and "MacGyver." Most famously, Adam West careened the Batmobile out of one of the caves each week on his way to thwart wrongdoers in the 1960s series "Batman." Today, you're more likely to find dog walkers and tai chi practitioners than camera crews hanging out by the caves. Tourists occasionally show up, too, though they tend to favor the nearby and decidedly more congested Mount Hollywood Trail. The caves sit only a quarter of a mile from the trailhead, but this hike can be extended another mile by taking the narrow dirt trail to the right of the biggest cave up to a narrow mountain ridge. It's a rigorous uphill scramble, but the reward is a bird's-eye view of the caves and sweeping panoramas of Griffith Park, including the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign.

Getting there: Exit the Hollywood Freeway (101) at Gower Road and head north to Franklin Avenue. Turn right, then make a left on Bronson and continue until it intersects with Canyon Drive. Follow Canyon about a mile north until the road dead-ends at a small parking lot just before a gate marked Hollywoodland Camp.

2. El Prieto Canyon (El Prieto Trail in Angeles National Forest)

Length: Eight miles

Rating: Moderate

The hike: Before the Brown brothers arrived in Los Angeles in the 1880s, El Prieto Canyon was home to Robert Owen, a former slave who built a fortune by supplying firewood and lumber from the canyon to the U.S. Army. The dirt trail, which zigzags up a narrow canyon, remains one of the most tranquil and undisturbed patches of wilderness in the area. It ends at a paved fire road near a couple of mountain cabins. To get to Owen Brown's grave site (which extends the hike by about a mile), turn right and follow the fire road past a chained gate and around a knoll toward three electricity towers. Last year, a local hiking group sued -- and won -- to gain public access to the grave, which sits on private land. The grave stone disappeared several years ago, but a few potted flowers and a cross made out of police tape marked the clearing on a recent visit.

Getting there: Take I-210 to the Arroyo Boulevard/Windsor Avenue exit. Drive three-quarters of a mile north and turn left into the small parking lot just before the stop sign at Ventura Avenue. Walk past the fire road gate across the street from the parking lot and follow the road north until you see signs for El Prieto Canyon. The trail branches off to the right.

3. Paseo Miramar (Topanga State Park)

Length: Five miles

Rating: Moderate

The hike: On a clear day, you can see as far as downtown Los Angeles from this trail near Malibu -- but the Pacific Ocean is the real star of this hike. The trail begins in a dense Pacific Palisades neighborhood, disappears into chaparral and coastal sage scrub, then emerges into wide-open views of Santa Monica's crescent-shaped coastline. The trail can get crowded with mountain bikers and runners on weekends, but the path is wide and seems quieter than other coastal hikes in the area. In the spring and early summer, the weblike orange California dodder, purple lupine and other wildflowers blanket either side of the path. After a series of moderate uphill climbs, the trail gives way to a grassy meadow and Parker Mesa Overlook, a wide clearing with two large wooden benches and front-row views of the deep blue Pacific.

Getting there: From Santa Monica, take Pacific Coast Highway north to Sunset Boulevard and turn right. Make a left onto Paseo Miramar and follow it uphill until it dead-ends at the trailhead.

4. Reagan Ranch Loop (Malibu Creek State Park)

Length: Three miles

Rating: Easy

The hike: Ronald Reagan used this 305-acre ranch, known as Yearling Row, as a weekend retreat in the 1950s and 1960s before he was elected governor. Now part of the state park system, it has several little-used trails that meander past rolling meadowland, oak and eucalyptus forest and a couple of seasonal duck ponds. To do the loop, walk past an old barn and horse stables that have been converted into park offices. After a quarter-mile, continue straight on the Yearling Trail and follow it for a mile across a meadow that in the spring is covered in hummingbird sage, white milkmaids and other native wildflowers. If the chaparral-blanketed hills surrounding the property look familiar, that's because the site that doubled for North Korea in TV's "M*A*S*H" is less than a mile away. Return to the trailhead via the single-track Deer Leg Trail, which branches off to the right and winds under a canopy of oak trees and a shaded clearing that looks like the perfect spot to throw a political fundraiser. When I told a park ranger I planned to hike this trail on a weekday in early spring, he said I'd likely have the property all to myself. He was right.

Getting there: From U.S. 101 in Agoura, exit on Kanan Road and head south. Turn left on Cornell Road and follow to the intersection with Mulholland Highway. Park in the small lot on Cornell Road. The trailhead begins at the southeast corner of the intersection near a cluster of park office buildings.

5. Walnut Forest Trail (Ernest E. Debs Regional Park)

Length: Three miles

Rating: Easy

The hike: Tucked between the Pasadena Freeway and the east L.A. neighborhoods of Highland Park and Boyle Heights, this 300-acre hillside is home to California black walnut trees, more than 130 species of birds, and pristine trails that are rarely crowded. The Walnut Forest Trail begins at the fire road gate near the park entrance and meanders up a gradual incline past coastal sage scrub, walnut and eucalyptus trees, and views of the hillside neighborhoods that surround the park. When the trail reaches a paved fire road, hang a right and walk a half-mile to your reward -- a bucolic pond overlooking the city to the south. Framed by pine trees and a few large rocks that invite sitting, it makes a great place to rest and regroup before heading back down the hill. I've seen people with fishing poles here on weekends, but fishing isn't allowed, according to park officials.

Getting there: Exit the 110 Freeway at Avenue 52. Head east and follow the road until it turns into Griffin Avenue. Park entrance is on the left across from a baseball field.

For general information on travel to Los Angeles: Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-228-2452, http://www.lacvb.com.

Laura Randall, a frequent contributor to Travel, is the author of "60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Los Angeles" (Menasha Ridge Press, 2006).

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