While hiking in and around LA, it's not uncommon to see people on the trail -- even rough trails -- wearing just flip flops, carrying a small bottle of water, without even a bag. As I've strapped on my hydration pack and taken a sip out of my bite valve, I've wondered if they're even carrying ID, or where they've stashed their car keys. Where is their compass? Are they going to be okay out there, all alone, even if there's two of them?
All the trail work that's been done in the last couple of decades has made our open spaces much more accessible to the public, no matter how unprepared people may be. These days, you'll not only witness these unequipped hikers, but also hear reports of them being searched for and airlifted out of our urban parks (Runyon Canyon, Griffith Park) and remote mountains, canyons, and waterfalls.
On the other hand, some people might be so intimidated by the wilderness that surrounds us -- and not know where to go, or how to get around once they get there -- that they don't dare attempt it on their own at all. Fortunately, for over a century, the Sierra Club (founded by legendary naturalist John Muir in 1892) has provided a safe way to explore our wilderness areas, led by competent guides who can identify dangerous issues and know how to deal with them.
We've come a long way since the Golden Age of hiking, when the sport was a formal affair replete with Victorian suits, gowns, and parasols. A number of options other than the Sierra Club have emerged since then. If you're looking to meet new people, or want to walk a trail without worrying about navigating yourself, there are plenty of options throughout Los Angeles County -- some groups without membership dues or bylaws, and some that have codes of conduct.
Here are a few notable hiking groups where you can find safety in numbers, suited to your interests and personality:
The New Twist on the Establishment: Sierra Club 20s and 30s
This 122-year grassroots organization has kept up with the times by launching niche groups that don't require membership dues, including "Sierra Singles" outings and a section of the Angeles Chapter dedicated to active adults in their 20s and 30s. Although SC2030 is a specialized group that focuses on younger people, it doesn't actually restrict participation based on age, and its leaders don't check ID. But there are other rules that must be followed.
According to outings chair Jose Mendez, their first priority is always safety -- which means they will turn around in inclement weather or on an unsafe trail. They will also turn away people at an improper fitness and experience level or those sporting insufficient gear. If you're not comfortable hiking solo, are looking for a free social experience, and are willing to keep with the group pace (going only as fast as the slowest hiker), the Sierra Club's two hike leads (one in the front and a sweep in the back) will make sure you come back alive. Reserve a spot on one of their hikes on their website or in their Meetup group.
Difficulty: Beginner to Advanced
The Really Popular One: Los Angeles Hiking Group
If don't like to hike with restrictions or don't want to abide by the Sierra Club's rules, there are other free, more easygoing options. Los Angeles Hiking Group founders Barry Craine and Lee Zebold (who still manages the group) first met in Griffith Park in 2006 on a Sierra Club hike, and decided to create their own group to become purveyors of fun -- to laugh, joke, and appreciate the great outdoors with other people.
With over 15,000 members in their Meetup group (a third of whom are considered "active"), Los Angeles Hiking Group is by far the largest hiking Meetup in the L.A. area. That means when the number of RSVPs is not limited on a particular hike, the group size can get very large: their most popular events sometimes draw crowds of 30, 50, even 100 hikers. It's an opportunity to be incredibly social, but since they don't require participants to stay between two hike leads -- or even require a minimum of two hike leads -- the group can spread out pretty far, with some hikers racing ahead and others lagging far in the back. They also haven't instituted an official sign-in and -out process, so you have to keep up in order to not get left behind (especially during one of their popular after-work night hikes).
With about 50 events a month at varying difficulty levels, there are a lot of options -- even in Griffith Park alone, which the group uses as their home base (though they branch out to many other areas). Just be careful not to overestimate your own ability, lest you have trouble on the trail. Sign up for one of their hikes through their Meetup group.
Difficulty: Beginner to Advanced
The New One: Go Hike L.A. with Modern Hiker
Despite being more of a solo trekker, Modern Hiker's creator Casey Schreiner recently decided to get into the group hiking game. His hike series is just getting started, with a few sporadic hikes over the past couple of years, and now occurring on a monthly basis. The primary goal of Modern Hiker, Schreiner says, has always been to inspire people to get outside, so putting together these group hikes has been something he'd been wanting to do for a long time.
For the time being, he's experimenting with how to promote, who to partner with, and whether or not to charge a fee. Although some of the hikes are free, tickets were sold for an interpretive hike to Echo Mountain with AtlasObscura.com, and participants donated money on a fundraising hike to Sturtevant Camp to support the Friends of the San Gabriels purchase of the historic property.
If you're laid back enough to be part of the experiment, and your tastes lean a bit more on the informal end of spectrum, find out about upcoming events at Modern Hiker's official website or Facebook page.
Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
The Crazy One: The Big Parade
What can be crazier than walking in circles all day? If you think enjoy an 11-mile walk in a three-square-mile area, The Big Parade might be for you. Best known for its annual two-day epic urban hike -- also called "The Big Parade" -- this group actually hikes all year, with monthly hikes designed and often led by Dan Koeppel, who says he designs the routes "to show people how crazy the city is," but so that anyone can join -- or leave -- the group at any time.
This hiking group is decidedly urban: you're walking on paved roads, sidewalks, bridges, and lots of stairs, with occasional forays on a dirt trail in Elysian or Griffith Park. But the Big Parade is less about fitness than about showing off LA as a walkable city -- with its people, streets, history, culture, and stairways. As though the neighborhoods, historic and cultural sites weren't enough to keep the paraders captivated, The Big Parade entertains its walkers with programming along the way: historians, architects, and even musical acts.
The Big Parade has become so popular over the last five years that it can now attract as many as 200 people at any one time, requiring a team of hike leads and sweeps, live tweeters who regularly update their location, and collaborators like Bob Inman who help strategize and design the routes. Like the Sierra Club, Koeppel does impose his own set of rules, which require you stay with the group, mingle with others, and gracefully be sent home if in distress. Noting that his group is (and always will be) free and staunchly non-commercial, Koepell says that the only cost of the Big Parade is adherence to its Code of Civility.
If you'd like to walk slowly with a group for 20 miles, with plenty of opportunities to hop on or hop off (often near Metro stations or bus lines), join The Big Parade Facebook group.
Difficulty: Beginner to Advanced