Nobody walks in L.A. to get anywhere in particular, but fitness-obsessed Angelenos sure do love powering steep staircases and meandering dusty paths for hours. The weather’s always amiable, the views are scenic and diverse, and hiking is a welcome alternative to sitting in commuter traffic, so take a cue from the locals and step it up. There are more than 500 miles of hikeable public paths zigging and zagging through the Santa Monica Mountains, consisting of everything from easy-peasy loop-de-loops to staggeringly steep climbs to quick, historic in-and-outs. With such a trail mix, how do you decide where to go? If you can’t see the forest for the trees, here are five quintessentially L.A. walkabouts to give you a push in the right direction.
Get your steps in and then some on the steep and narrow staircases of Beachwood Canyon, located in the quaint Hollywoodland neighborhood. The ‘LAND’ chunk of the iconic sign is long gone, but it was originally an advert for a 1920s housing project, until the funding dried up. The stone arches of that gated community still stand, and that’s where you should park and start the tour, near the Beachwood Café at 2695 North Beachwood Drive (fuel up with a quinoa bowl and some basil lemonade, or reward your efforts post-hike with a damn fine piece of pie, maybe a glass of Prosecco). This is a challenging, rigorous romp that is not for the faint of heart, but it’s got charming wrought iron handrails to boost you along, and you can take your own sweet time, as it’s rarely crowded. You’re essentially walking through backyards, and you’ll be rewarded with voyeuristic peeks into quirky manses and fake castles (Moby sold his a couple of years ago for $12.4 million), as well as expanses of Lake Hollywood and the Griffith Observatory.
When silver screen characters are having walk-and-talks in the Hollywood Hills, chances are you’re looking at Runyon Canyon. People love to bitch about the crowds, and sure, finding parking can be an uphill battle. Thanks to the off-leash dog policies, there’s often an earthy whiff in the air, and the trails tend to be populated by Lululemon-heads with 2 percent body fat. But is it worth a visit? Hell yes. It’s the best place to spot celebrities like Amanda Seyfried, Channing Tatum, Natalie Portman, and Justin Bieber, who flock to it for its West Hollywood location (the main trailhead is a few blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard), over-the-top views, and strong cell phone signals. A freshly renovated irrigation system provides drinking fountains, and there’s a sweet little cart stocked with waters and power bars near the entrance at 1854 North Fuller. Look for street parking or leave the car in the vast Hollywood and Highland lot and walk a couple of blocks up the hill.
Franklin Canyon Park
For a family- and dog-friendly outing in the heart of Beverly Hills, or for anyone looking for a woodsy respite from swimming pools and movie stars, you can’t beat Franklin Canyon. The park has five miles of high roads and low roads, and some are indeed challenging, but there’s a chill one-miler that won’t even break your sweat. It winds through shady redwood, oak, and walnut trees around a pond inhabited by ducks, koi, and dozens of sunning turtles. Franklin has long been a go-to location for directors looking to stage country scenes, and has filled in for the Pacific Northwest on episodes of Twin Peaks and for Mayberry, North Carolina on The Andy Griffith Show. There are ample free parking areas (punch 2600 Franklin Canyon Drive into your GPS), tables for picnicking, clean bathrooms, and a nature center/gift shop named after Sooky Goldman, one of the conservationists who saved the park from developers in the 1970s. The park is notorious for traffic tickets, so keep in mind, stop means stop.
This isolated, craggy area in the southwest section of Griffith Park has become a mecca for sci-fi and Western nerds, who make the trek to Bronson Caves to see where hundreds of low-budget movies and TV shows were filmed. The location was quarried for stone to build roads and railways in the mid 1910s, and abandoned in the 1920s, leaving the ‘caves’ (actually tunnels) behind. They’re best known as the Batcave entrance from the 1960s, but have also been featured in Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, Gunsmoke, and five versions of Star Trek. Holy Instagram backdrop, Batman! It’s a short, easy stroll to the caves from the parking lot at the northern end of Canyon Drive, but there are a few paths continuing up to the main trail that takes you to the Observatory or close to the 45-foot-tall Hollywood Sign, if you’re so inclined.
When you don’t have a ton of time, forgot to pack sturdy shoes, or you’d really rather be walking around the Grove but you still want to see what this whole L.A. hiking thing is all about, TreePeople (in the 45-acre Coldwater Canyon Park) is the perfect place to have a satisfying, easy hour-long roam with a view. The nonprofit group was founded by an eco-minded teenager more than 40 years ago, and its volunteers keep the fragrant shady paths well-manicured. Go down the steps from the free parking lot at Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Mulholland Drive and circle up and around to take in panoramic Studio City and Sherman Oaks vistas. The vibe is friendly and mellow, there are water fountains and loos to use, dogs are welcome on leash, and it abuts Wilacre Park’s hiking trails into Fryman Canyon, for those who want a more ambitious thigh burner. TreePeople has a seasonal program of outdoor concerts, staged celeb readings, movies, and guided night tours during full moons, so check the schedule before your visit.