Los Angeles has a reputation for endless urban sprawl, but in fact it’s quite easy to find scenic hikes within the metro area. The Santa Monica Mountains reach almost to downtown, cleaving the city in two and sheltering the mansions of local multimillionaires. The range also contains several beautiful parks open to the public, the largest of which is Griffith Park, home to the Griffith Observatory, the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens and numerous hiking trails. On this visit, we opted to explore four smaller parks, two near Hollywood and Beverly Hills and two outside Malibu. The latter were damaged in last year’s Woolsey Fire, and I was curious to see how they were recovering.
I could find few locals who had hiked this park, perhaps because it overlooks the Valley, rather than the more spectacular downtown Los Angeles skyline. Few tourists know about it either, making it an ideal escape for those seeking a quiet hike of moderate difficulty. We started at the top, at the Nancy Hoover Pohl Overlook, where there is a small parking lot. Take the trail leading to the right, which slopes gently downhill, and ignore the sign warning that the trail ends. Keep to your left, turning briefly onto the Briarcrest Fire Road before heading back uphill, again to the left. Here the trail can be steep ( I find going up easier than sharply down). Aside from the Briarcrest Fire Road, this circle follows part of the Betty B. Dearing Cross Mountain Trail, a 5-mile route connecting Fryman Canyon with Coldwater Canyon, Wilacre Park and Franklin Canyon. Here, the loop passes through fragrant chaparral and sometimes opens to panoramic views of the San Fernando Valley. (Note that the trails in the park are poorly marked, and the map on the park’s website is misleading. Google Maps has the easiest-to-follow plan of the park.)
The most famous of the parks we visited, Runyon Canyon came highly recommended by every local we asked about hiking. And indeed, our walk here proved memorable in every respect, taking in sensational views of the Century City skyline, the downtown Los Angeles skyline and the iconic Hollywood sign. The people-watching also proved to be quite good. We started at the Fuller Avenue entrance and kept to the right, taking the East Trail, so that we had a steep uphill climb followed by a long, slow downhill walk (much pleasanter than the reverse), taking the first left off the East Trail in order to make a loop of approximately 2 miles. Much of the walk is paved, although the steepest uphill section was quite rocky. Many locals enjoy walking their dogs here, and on some sections of the trail, leashes are not required (most dogs we encountered were well-behaved). Keep in mind that Runyon Canyon has no parking lot. We found a space along Hillside Avenue, but because of the park’s popularity, it’s wise to take a taxi or other car service, especially at busier times. If you’re not feeling up to hiking the entire loop, I still highly recommend a walk up to Inspiration Point.
This 2-mile hike through Malibu’s Saddlerock Ranch includes a tasting of three wines, but the mediocre bottlings aren’t the draw. Come instead for the gorgeous landscape of hilly vineyards and the adorable rescue animals living on the ranch. For the moment, at least, hikers check in at an Airstream trailer and make use of portable washrooms. The ranch was particularly hard hit during the Woolsey Fire, losing almost all of its buildings. Yet when we visited, the landscape glowed with green, a result of the ample spring rains. The vineyards, too, remained intact (grapevines tend to be fire-resistant).
Our Malibu Wine Hikes group of seven followed Elena, our delightful guide, along mostly easy trails of dirt, gravel and sometimes pavement. Cone-shaped hills with caps of rugged rock bore steep, picturesque vineyards, and the higher parts of the trail afforded splendid panoramic views of the Santa Monica Mountains. In flatter valleys, we paused sometimes to feed rescue llamas, alpacas and zebras, animals that had outlived their usefulness to movie studios. The highlight was feeding romaine leaves to Stanley, the giraffe, an experience that costs an extra $30. I also enjoyed the wine tasting, in a pretty outdoor space filled with picnic tables, if only because it gave us the chance to chat with our fellow hikers. Wine “safaris” in open vehicles are also available on the ranch, but they have more of a party sensibility. I was glad we opted for the hike.
Like Saddlerock Ranch, the nearby Paramount Ranch suffered serious damage in the Woolsey Fire. Its “Western Town,” built in the 1950s, served as a set in numerous television shows and films, including, most recently, “Westworld.” As we saw firsthand, the fire destroyed almost all of the town, reducing it to piles of charred metal. Only a small church and a train station-like building remained intact. But even with the ranch’s star attraction in ruins, it’s still well worth a visit. I very much enjoyed our short hike there, winding around the slopes of mountains almost fluorescent with fresh green grass, contrasted by brightly colored wildflowers and the black, skeletal forms of burned trees and shrubs. It was an otherworldly landscape of devastation, and yet it was already bursting with life. Trail maps are available in the visitor center next to the ample parking lot.