Southern California has more than its fair share of historic hiking destinations, but visiting places where the lines between the past and the present are blurred comes with its risks.
That is, you have to be willing to encounter some spirits. And some of those spirits may be restless.
Now, you can dismiss a lot of these “haunted” hiking trails as a bunch of malarkey – and that may be true. Stories about bloody brides and white witches and cars full of cheerleaders tend to be concocted anywhere there’s a forest or cemetery or fog-filled, spooky outdoor site, anywhere in the country.
But some of these legends aren’t pure Hollywood fabrications. And the only way to debunk them is to get on the trail and explore for yourself.
So here are the five best haunted hikes in Southern California – for ghost hunters and skeptics alike. Take only photos, and leave only footprints, so the spirits stay wherever they may dwell.
The Haunted Forest, Altadena
You’ve got to walk through something nicknamed “The Haunted Forest” to reach the Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain in Altadena – but you probably know it better by its more historical name, The Cobb Estate. Designated, as its sign says, as “A quiet refuge for people and wild life forever,” that may have extended into the afterlife, given the stories of spectral sightings and weird noises at the vacant estate in the mid-1950s. Prior to that, it had been occupied by lumber magnate Charles Cobb who built it in 1918, then the Pasadena Masons, and then some Catholic nuns. The house itself was torn down and the supposedly haunted forest became public land, now owned by the U.S. Forest Service, in 1971. As you walk through, you can still see some building foundations on your left – but if you hear or see anything weird, even in the middle of the night, it might just be teenagers or night hikers taking a break. Then again, it could be one of the Marx Brothers, who owned the property and razed the estate in 1959.
Bonus: Drive over to Loma Alta Drive at the northeast perimeter of the Rubio Wash Debris Basin to take a ride on the Altadena Haunted Gravity Hill. Start at the bottom of the hill, put your car in neutral, and experience as your vehicle defies gravity by rolling uphill. Supposedly, it’s the spirits dragging you to face a similar demise as theirs. For extra spooks, sprinkle baby powder on the hood of your car before you start and inspect it afterwards for hand and fingerprints.
Elfin Forest, Escondido
The site of the former Elfin Forest Vacation Ranch, this recreational reserve seems innocent enough, its trails commonly used by hikers, mountain bikers, and horses alike. Its name comes not from any elves who inhabit it, but from the dwarf trees and shrubs that formed its chaparral. It first opened in its current incarnation in 1992 – and because it lies along the Escondido Creek watershed, you can actually find some water there. Back in 1978, the campsite got a little too much water when a “40-year flood” broke the dam and washed away the man-made lake. There are multiple overlooks with good views of the communities below (and beyond), but just make sure you leave by sunset, when the park closes – and when the spirits come out.
Bonus: Swing by the nearby Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association to hear the stories of the “white witch” and other spirits who’ve been known to frequent the forest over the course of history.
Black Star Canyon, Silverado
Dubbed by the former Mexican inhabitants as Cañon de los Indios (Indian Canyon), Black Star Canyon in Orange County’s Santa Ana Mountains has a rich – and somewhat disturbing – Native American folklore. There’s a famous fable that in 1831, a group of white fur trappers took up arms, entered the canyon in search of a stolen herd of horses, and launched a surprise attack on the Indians that presumably stole them. Few of the tribesmen managed to survive and escape the massacre, making it the bloodiest spot in the area and resulting in a number of subsequent urban legends and ghost stories. The story may have been made up altogether, but rest assured that this hike takes you into the last frontier of Orange County, through some seriously wild backcountry. Although the road is paved (thanks to the defunct Black Star Mining Company coal mine nearby), it isn’t maintained. It’s also surrounded by private property, as many “No Trespassing” signs will remind you. But according to parks authorities, just ignore the signs: The public has been more than welcome since 2011 when it first opened as parkland. If you don’t get the heebie-jeebies, at least you’ll get to experience what’s considered the largest intact natural landscape remaining in coastal SoCal.
Bonus: Take a guided walk during the day or – if you dare – at night with any number of local naturalists, paranormal experts, and amateur ghost hunters.
At the northwestern edge of Riverside, along the Santa Ana River whose water flow appears to be long gone, a hill has been designated Mt. Rubidoux – named after early Mexican land grant settler Louis Rubidoux, a successful rancher, miller, and winemaker. Once private property, its owner Frank Miller (of The Mission Inn) built a road to the top and erected a (now controversial) cross in 1907 in honor of Father Junipero Serra, founder the California Missions. The cross moves in and out of view from above as you wind around the mount along the paved road, as does the ever-shrinking Downtown Riverside from below. As you pass the Peace Bridge and Tower, climbing along the path of phantom wagons, cars, and bicycles, you get closer to reaching the stony peak that has served as a mini altar for sunrise service on Easter since 1909. Given all those symbols for peace and piousness, you might not expect any ghost stories to be associated with this relatively easy hike in the Inland Empire – but people have reported seeing apparitions, ghostly figures, and even the image of Jesus Christ himself up at the top (especially at night). Urban legends also tell of rocks piling up on their own as well as secret passages to catacombs (perhaps leading to the Mission Inn).
Bonus: Visit the Evergreen Memorial Historic Cemetery next door, whose first burial occurred in 1872. Mt. Rubidoux founder Frank Miller was buried there in 1935, which doesn’t give his spirit very far to go to return to his beloved mountaintop cross. The cemetery itself is rumored to be haunted – so if safety in numbers is your thing, visit at night during their “Tombstone Cinema” film series.
Hollywood Sign at Mt. Lee
Between its Old Zoo and its haunted picnic table, Griffith Park is probably full of ghosts. But its most famous landmark – the Hollywood Sign – is also perhaps its most legitimately haunted site. Why? Because failed Hollywood actress Peg Entwistle famously jumped off the letter “H” to her death in 1932 at the young age of 24 in a presumed suicide – on a Friday the 13th, no less. While it’s true that you can’t exactly hike right to it (and you most definitely cannot climb on the letters), you can stand directly behind the letters (separated from them by a fence) near the top of Mt. Lee and try to catch a whiff of gardenia, reportedly Peg’s favorite scent. Or climb a bit farther up to the Hugh Hefner Overlook to view the letters from above and look out for a spectres or a shadowy presence in 1930s garb. This tale actually seems legit and not a Hollywood fabrication, mostly because the majority of credible sightings have actually been reported by park rangers. You can legally visit the park in the dark at night – but only until 10:30 p.m. Watch out for the coyotes that begin to emerge at sunset.
Bonus: Stop by the Beachwood Café, where Peg Entwistle is thought to have gone (then Hollywoodland Drugstore) before taking her fatal tumble into the ravine below the sign. Patrons have reported seeing her retrace her steps through Beachwood Village from inside the café, so grab a snack, settle in by the window, and keep an eye out. You’ve got till closing time (9 p.m.) to catch a glimpse of her.