You may have found yourself at one of the California State Parks in our beach communities — Topanga, Malibu Creek, Will Rogers, Leo Carrillo — but the greater Los Angeles area (all the way up to its northernmost point, the Antelope Valley) has plenty of inland treasures where you can go hiking on lands that have been protected by our great state.
Whether it’s because of their historical significance, their geologic oddities or their natural plant wonders, our state parks each preserve their own piece of California’s culture, topography and diverse ecosystems. And they each tell a story as to how the people who’ve come out West — and the plants and animals that originate here — must have a tough constitution in order to survive the sometimes harsh conditions.
Here are six great state parks where you can hoof your way through history — whether your interest lies in prehistoric rock, 19th century transportation or mid-century civil engineering failures.
1. Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park, Chatsworth
In the mid-1800s, after the pioneers who managed to survive their arduous cross-country trip got here and got settled in, there was only one way to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles: a stagecoach. And since we’ve got airplanes and freeways and railways that have taken stagecoaches out of commission, now you can hike those historic passes — and witness firsthand what a harrowing trip it must’ve been. Around 1860, a route was carved out of the ancient sandstone (dating back 60 to 80 million years) in the Simi Hills, located in the west end of the Valley, known as the Old Stagecoach Road. The Stagecoach Trail at Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park seems innocuous at first — until you realize that you’ve got to go up over those rocks up there. And that’s exactly what the stagecoach used to do. This pass was so steep, along exposed rock face of the hills, that it earned its nickname "Devil's Slide." It was a treacherous path for the wagons that came down over it, primarily carrying mail. In certain sections, you can still see the ruts left by the wagon wheels. Reportedly, in order to make it over "Devil's Slide," the horses drawing the wagons had to be blindfolded. The passengers, however, didn’t even bother — they got out and walked. It is hard to imagine anything with wheels making it over terrain like this, which feels more like rock-climbing (or at least bouldering) than hiking. It's a feat impressive enough to warrant a historic plaque and a portion of the trail being designated a historic monument. Ultimately, in the early 1900s, a train tunnel was bored out of the Simi Hills, still in use by Amtrak and Metrolink. You can see the tunnel and some open tracks from the Stagecoach Road. Enjoy the views, but watch out for some lazy lizards and a rogue rattlesnake or two along the trail.
2. Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, Culver City
The nearby Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook (also a state park) may get all the foot traffic in Culver City, but the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area — tucked behind those oil fields you see while driving along La Cienega on your way to or from LAX — has a ton of history worth exploring on foot. A state park that’s operated by L.A. county, it's a large community park in the Baldwin Hills area where you can find the site of the former Baldwin Hills Reservoir — though it’s been filled in, creating a green basin now known as Janice's Green Valley. In 1963, the dam broke and the resulting water spillage (perhaps as much as 180 million gallons) flooded hundreds of homes below, killing five people — though, because the play-by-play was aired on live television at the time, many more residents had enough advance warning to evacuate. Two decades after the reservoir emptied, it was instead filled with earth to form the valley — and, in 1984, the park was opened. There’s a hiking trail with interpretive signage (the “Bowl Loop”) that takes you around the basin, but then head down the access road (the “Community Loop”) to the Native Garden, past the Gwen Moore Lake, with its geese, ducks, pigeons and maybe an egret. There, through the trees, you’ll see the rigs of the Inglewood Oil Field pounding away, repetitiously, mesmerizingly, unavoidably. But turn around, climb back up the hill to the City View Trail, and you’ll realize that on a clear day, you can see L.A.! Kenneth Hahn provides a great vista point, with views all the way to downtown Los Angeles. There are various scenic overlook pavilions planted atop the park (“Christine’s Point,” “Autumn’s Peak,” “Michael and Emilia's Inspiration Point”) where you can have a quick rest in the shade, but you’ll want to continue your walk up there to find the Olympic Forest, named for the grove planted in commemoration of the former “Olympic Village” from the 1932 Summer Games, located nearby in Baldwin Hills. There are a few hiking guides for this state park that have been published, as well as a relatively helpful trail map, but this is one park where I’d say park at the top or the bottom and wander. To get back to your car, head up or head down. And if you get disoriented, follow the sound of the oil being pumped out of the ground.
3. Saddleback Butte State Park, Lancaster
Created in 1960 and formerly known as Joshua Tree State Park because of its dense population of Joshua trees, Saddleback Butte State Park’s hiking trails start off modestly at the ranger station / visitor center by the day-use area. There's a little nature trail that winds around a flat basin, partially paved for a wheelchair or a stroller or just anybody looking for an easy walk. But once you set off on the trails to Little Butte (which you can also summit) and Saddleback Peak, the elevation changes dramatically and the terrain becomes rocky in just a couple of miles. On the way back to the day-use area, the Saddleback Trail gets sandier and — because of the slog it necessitates — even less traveled than the other trails, which generally aren’t busy, either. There, the windblown sand appears rippled, like drifting dunes. In spring, you’ll be treated to snow-capped mountaintops in the distance with wildflowers of white, pink and yellow aside the trails and Joshua trees intermingling with fiddlenecks and sumac. But anytime of year, go there to enjoy the granite rock formations at the western edge of the Mojave and stay for the picnic grounds and campground facilities. (There’s even an equestrian trail, though horse camping isn’t available.) Keep your eyes open for rare, protected species like the desert tortoise, as well as more commonly-observed denizens of the desert like jackrabbits, cottontails, lizards and, of course, rattlesnakes.
4. Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Lancaster
We Californians have this thing about poppies. But if it’s our state flower you’re after, during the spring bloom season you’re better off searching off the side of Munz Ranch Road or Elizabeth Lake Road, or even right off of Lancaster Road outside the entrance to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. If you’re looking for a nice hike, however — with rolling hills and gradually shifting vistas — then head on into the reserve. While the interpretive center is only open March 1 through Mother’s Day, the state park itself is actually open daily all year. There are eight miles of trails within its 1800 acres to explore and — because it’s not very busy outside of the peak season for those little “cups of gold” — you’ve got a good chance of spotting some raptors or other birds of prey, as well as maybe even a coyote or a bobcat. Make sure you stay on the designated trails, even if there are no park rangers around to shoo you away, since the fields are a good place for rattlesnakes to hide from the heat. Your $10 parking receipt is actually good for same-day admission to any of the other California state parks that charge the same fee or less, so there’s no use in dodging the “Iron Ranger.” Temperatures can peak into the triple digits and winds can gust up in those hills all year long. So, bring plenty of water and wear layers for protection from the elements.
5. Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park, Lancaster
The half-mile nature trail and the mile-long Rare Juniper Trail don’t provide much ground for hiking, but you can get a nice, leisurely and relatively flat walk out of them in one of the last virgin Joshua tree forests in the Antelope Valley, an area known better for its poppies than any other plant. Both trails loop around the forest, though, as with much desert hiking, it can be difficult to discern the designated trails from the unofficial spur trails that have been created by the treads of hiking boots that have come before you. These mature Yucca brevifolia are smaller than most in, say, Joshua Tree National Park or Death Valley, barely rising above 14 feet in height. The juniper bushes and a variety of other desert flora — like beavertail cactus, sage and Mormon tea — that surround the Joshua trees somehow make the whole outside world feel far away from this little desert garden. Cell phone service can be spotty to non-existent, so prepare yourself with paper maps or a satellite GPS (or offline maps) rather than relying on your favorite smartphone map app. Park signage can be easy to miss, but your diligence will pay off once you find the pedestrian entrance along the north side of Lancaster Road and park off to either side of the road. When you get there, send a little “thank you” out into the Universe to alfalfa farmer Arthur “Archie” Ripley, who donated the land upon his death in 1988.
6. Antelope Valley Indian Museum, Lancaster
In 1928, thanks to the Homestead Act, theatrical set painter and artist Howard Arden Edwards got 160 acres of land in the Antelope Valley, where he built a home for himself, his wife and teenage son into the side of a natural rock formation, known as Piute Butte. Of course, Southern California is full of stories about people who found a way to overcome obstacles of weather, water and terrain — but not all of those success stories became historic landmarks or state parks, the way that today’s Antelope Valley Indian Museum did. The Tudor-style home that Edwards built (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) is so integrated with the butte that the rear part of the house is literally inside the rock. As you walk upstairs into the area that now houses Edwards' personal collection of Native American artifacts, you’re literally on a slippery, wobbly rock-climbing expedition. But that’s not the extent of the hiking you can do here. Outside, there's a nature trail that allows you to explore the surrounding natural area and, at the right time of year, spot some wildflowers. There are unusual granite rock formations behind the current museum that are also part of Piute Butte, once an area of spiritual significance for the various American Indian groups which once populated it. Some pictographs were once painted on these rocks, but they have severely faded and eroded over time. Edwards once used a natural amphitheater in the rock formation to stage his “Theater of the Standing Rocks” — an annual, outdoor pageant that became a tourist attraction. On your walk, you’ll also see an old barn and corral, both built by Edwards in 1932, which are still standing (though cannot be entered).