In case you haven’t noticed, it’s hot out, my fellow denizens of Southern California. It’s hot even at the beach.
And it’s only going to get worse. Just wait till September!
But there’s a bright side to these heat waves that hit earlier in the summer, when the days are longer and night falls a little later: It gives you a little more time to hike late in the day without the sun being directly overhead and beating down on you.
So, you don’t have to abandon some of your favorite trails and some of the most scenic hikes in L.A. just because the mercury is rising. Thanks to an abundance of hike leaders who dare to guide you through the darkness, you can see these places through the lens of sunset, dusk, twilight, and, ultimately, night.
Fortunately, because it’s usually relatively clear overhead, you can stand in the dim of the end of day and yet be dazzled by the night sky, finding moonlight in the darkness or spotting a planet or two in the sky.
Since Angelenos don't let a little darkness keep them from their trails, here are five of the best hikes to do at and around nightfall. You’ll not only beat the heat, but you’ll also learn to see the city below with the finely-tuned eyes of a night hiker.
1. Franklin Canyon, Beverly Hills
If you’ve already hiked Franklin Canyon and its Hastain Trail during the day, but the heat has kept you off the trail while the sun is out, going back to a familiar place on a familiar trail in the coolness of night with a group is a good way to get back in the swing of things. You may not see much, and you may not go very far, but you should know that the park has served as a shooting location for numerous film and TV productions, perhaps most famously as the fishin' hole in The Andy Griffith Show. Although Franklin Canyon isn’t really remote, it's still a wild park full of creatures of the night. And at some point, it’s likely that they’ll make themselves known — even if it’s just the slow croak of toads and frogs or the hooting owls. The upward trail can be a little rougher than you might think — with ankle-cracking crevices and rocks to trip you up in the dark, especially if there have been any recent rains. But it's a straightforward trail, and it’s hard to lose your way if you just keep going up until you hit a fence. If you can reach the top, snap a photo of the 1952 USGS survey marker to commemorate the moment, and then turn back around and just keep going down till you get back to your car. It’s not safe to hike alone in this canyon, but fortunately the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and MRCA provide volunteer naturalists to lead the way anytime there’s a full moon. Consult its quarterly calendar for upcoming dates.
2. Los Liones Canyon Trail to Parker Mesa Overlook, Pacific Palisades
This is a breathtaking hike, not only because of the cold wind whipping through your lungs at the top, but because it provides the opportunity to look down on the lights of Santa Monica and its Ferris wheel at the Pier. Starting off at the Los Liones Canyon trailhead (sometimes spelled Los “Leones”), you’ll be urged on by the laments of mourning doves as the single-track trail winds through the canyon. As you gain some elevation, ribbons of color illuminate the horizon, peeking out through the trees in the distance. While there are some trail markers and Topanga State Park signs that your flashlight will pick up on, give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness — especially after you spill out onto the first overlook, climb the wide dirt East Topanga Fire Road to the top, and let the city light glow make up for any lack of moonlight. On the way back down, however, use that light to your advantage — because the canyon can become pitch-black and the already-rocky path can become much more treacherous, tripping you up even when you can see it. You might spot a coyote or two here, and no matter how late you start your hike and come back down, you’ll certainly encounter other hikers approaching you from the opposite direction, just starting their hikes.
3. Griffith Park, Los Feliz
You can’t go to Griffith Park at the end of the day without running into some hiking group or another that’s about to set off on a trail — most likely on their way to Mount Hollywood (a.k.a. Dante’s Peak). But there’s more than one way to hike to Mount Hollywood, even if you start at the Merry-Go-Round parking lot like everybody else. Griffith Park has got 50+ miles of trails, after all. Regardless of which way you take, most of your walk will be relatively shadowy even if you start before sundown. If you get high enough — early enough — you can benefit from some Magic Hour glow and marvel at the long shadows you and your fellow hikers cast upon the hillside. You might even get to see the sun set behind the Hollywood Sign (at least, from afar). And you’ll most certainly end up walking back to your car in the dark, the absence of street lights making your return blacker than you might expect, especially if there’s no moonlight to speak of. For something a little easier and more direct, you can start your hike in the historic Fern Dell canyon of Griffith Park off Los Feliz Boulevard, a fern garden with terraced pools, bridges and concrete railings that look like they’re made of logs. Park near The Trails Café on Fern Dell Drive, and from there, it’s a straight shot up the hill to the Griffith Observatory. It’s a nice, lit-up beacon on a dark night — and, on the right night, you may encounter the Los Angeles Astronomical Society during one of their public star parties (usually on the Saturday nearest to the first quarter moon). Be on the lookout for coyotes, which are abundant pretty much any time of year in Griffith Park as soon as the sun begins to dip behind the mountain, as well as tarantulas, all manner of insects, and even some small (and probably harmless) snakes. No matter how sure you think your footing is, wear closed-toed shoes to protect your little piggies.
4. Runyon Canyon Park, Hollywood
Runyon Canyon may be one of the most beaten paths when it comes to hiking in L.A., but something really special happens there when the sun goes down. During the glare of the daytime sun, it’s easy to overlook the creepy ruins of Runyon — the old building foundations, the abandoned tennis court, the graffitied chimney, and such – but they seem to come alive and jump out of the shadows once the crowds dissipate and the light softens. Now, Runyon will always be busy pretty much any time you go — and that includes when darkness falls, which is when some hikers are getting a post-work workout and others have just recovered from the prior night’s festivities. You’re not likely to be completely alone on the loop trail at any given time, though it’s safer to stick to the paved fire road rather than trying to climb up or down the eroded stairs of “the hard way,” where it’s so easy to slip and trip even when you can see where you’re going. The Runyon trail does benefit from some artificial lighting — not just the park lights at the bottom but also the ambient light pollution of Hollywood and beyond, below — but it gets dark enough to allow some nocturnal wildlife to emerge out into the open. Keep your eyes open and put the earbuds away, and you might spot an owl swooping down to land on top of a fence, undisturbed by the notion of you walking by. As always, there’s safety in numbers — so, bring a buddy for your evening stroll, no matter how many times you’ve looped the canyon on your own. Besides, you never know what might crawl up the canyon from Hollywood, once the night takes hold.
5. Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, Culver City
The Machu Picchu of Culver City is the only hike I’d ever start by myself in the dark — because it is absolutely full of local folks trying to get a hike, a stair trek or a trail run in before the end of the day. In fact, it may be one of the only trails that’s actually busier at night than it is in the morning or anytime during the day. At the bottom, you can park along the street or in the small lot off of Jefferson Boulevard (which, though once free, is now metered). There, you’ve got your choice of climbing the unbelievably steep stairs straight to the top or winding your way up the paved road. (Conversely, you could pay to park at the top, work your way down and then climb back up.) You’ll find plenty of people taking both paths in both directions — and, when you get to the top and turn your gaze westward, you can catch the last vestiges of the waning sun as it sets at the horizon of the Pacific Ocean. Turn east and you can see the twinkling lights of downtown Los Angeles. There’s a nice, landscaped area at the top with a visitor’s center and some public restrooms — but you’ll need to get there early to catch them before they close (typically at sunset, but check the Facebook page for updated hours). Even if you can’t see them, enjoy the scents of the native plants on this hill — and, no matter how many people you see cut the trail, stay on the designated pathways in order to preserve the habitat and prevent further erosion.
Safety tips: Don’t be that hiker that needs to be airlifted out! It can be easy to get turned around even on a familiar path when the light has changed from what you may be used to. Carry flashlights (and spare batteries) to help you spot landmarks and any perils underfoot — ideally in colors like red, green or blue, so as not to blind yourself or your fellow hikers. Cell phone signals are notoriously spotty even in our urban environment, so rely instead on a satellite-based GPS device (and/or paper maps) to find your way back. If you’re new to hiking at night, join an established hiking group — especially one that won’t leave you behind (like the L.A. chapter of the Sierra Club) and one that is very familiar with the route (like the San Gabriel Valley Trail Walkers, who hike Bonnie Cove in Glendora at night at least once or twice a month). Leave your pets and small children at home, and don’t feed or even approach the wildlife!
Top Image: Hikers walking at Griffith Park | Sandi Hemmerlein