Where to Find the Most Fascinating City Peaks of L.A. | KCET
Where to Find the Most Fascinating City Peaks of L.A.
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From Malibu to the Valley, the Santa Monica Mountains to the Santa Susanas and the Verdugos, Los Angeles is surrounded on three sides by mountains.
We’ve even got the Hollywood Hills – which are actually small, but legitimate, mountains – cutting straight through the middle of our major metropolis.
And that makes this big city as wild as it is historic.
If you ever lose your sense of direction in L.A., just look for the mountains. They’ll navigate you home better than the position of the sun or any star.
Whether you’re an expert peakbagger or just a casual trail trekker, here are six of the most intriguing mountains in the L.A. area to ascend and explore.
1. Mt. Lee/Cahuenga Peak, Griffith Park
Did you know that Mt. Hollywoodland – now known as Mt. Lee, where you can find the Hollywood Sign – originally sported a rounded top? It’s there that pioneering filmmaker Mack Sennett (best known for slapstick comedies like the "Keystone Cops") hoped to build a dream house upon his 18-acre parcel of land – but his plans for a sprawling estate required him to shave 69 feet off the peak, which was unbelievably graded by steam shovel. But in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929, Sennett went bankrupt in 1933 – and he never built his mountaintop palace. But the flattened summit made a perfect candidate for broadcaster Tommy Lee to purchase the site in 1939 and install L.A.'s first television studio there, subsequently renaming the mountain after his late father, Don Lee.
Having come to signify all that is glamorous in the movie-making business, the Hollywood Sign – built in 1923 as a temporary hillside advertisement for the “Hollywoodland” real estate development down below, now known as Beachwood Canyon – was kept on the southern slope of Mount Lee even after the development fizzled (though the last four letters were eventually removed). Originally constructed of telephone poles, metal, wood, wire, pipes, and illuminated at night, the sign has figured prominently in tales of murder, arson, suicide and comebacks. Unfortunately, the sign is no longer visible at night, as incandescent bulbs aren’t screwed into each 45-foot letter to light them anymore.
The most popular trail to the top of Mount Lee was never the longest or most strenuous hike ever. But now that a locked gate has cut off vehicular access to the Hollyridge trailhead – and parking is restricted on the residential streets until way down Beachwood Drive – it’s become a lot more inconvenient. However, there’s another surefire legal way to get right behind those bright white letters and look through them down onto Hollywood: you can scramble along the Aileen Getty Ridge Trail from Cahuenga Peak (which, at 1,821 feet, is actually the tallest peak in Griffith Park and higher than Mt. Lee).
Cahuenga Peak is a rocky little patch of Griffith Park whose exposed stone alternates with loose, gravely San Gabriel silt (and sometimes sand), so sure footing is necessary. Starting from Lake Hollywood, the path starts out steep and rugged, but not impossible. Soon, you’ll reach the Wisdom Tree – a popular rest stop and photo opp on this parcel of land that was permanently saved from private development in 2010, when Hugh Hefner donated his own money and rallied his friends to save the Hollywood Sign and Cahuenga Peak. A narrow, rugged, single-track trail connects Cahuenga Peak to Mt. Lee’s peak, at 1,708 feet. After you get your fill of the sign, you can go back down the way you came.
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2. Mt. Hollywood, Griffith Park
Not to be confused with Mt. Hollywoodland (see #1 above), Mt. Hollywood is another of Griffith Park’s most popular destinations. Most easily accessible via the Charlie Turner Trailhead on its south slope (near Griffith Observatory), several official and unofficial trails that start from down below (the Greek Theatre, the Merry-Go-Round, the Bird Sanctuary) will also get you there. And once you reach the top (a.k.a. Dante’s Peak), you’ll want to spend some time taking in the panorama of Los Angeles below – and the Hollywood Sign off to one side.
There, you’ll find a nice rest area with some picnic tables, occasionally used by community groups for potlucks. It’s not much compared to what Griffith J. Griffith once envisioned – including as the original planned location for the observatory and, with that plan scrapped, other “park improvements” like a revolving restaurant. The summit was even bulldozed in 1942 in preparation for the development – but the plans stalled as World War II trudged on and was followed by the Korean War. In the decades that followed, though, pretty much every real estate developer salivated over the idea of building some eatery, hotel, or tourist attraction – most notably, the scheme to build the Hollywood Hall of Fame, to be accessible by aerial tramway. That plan was voted down in the late 1960s – having been opposed by both Griffith J. Griffith’s son, Van Griffith, and grandson, Harold Griffith.
Even flattened, it’s second only to Cahuenga Peak in Griffith Park – clocking in at either 1,625 or 1,640 feet (depending on who you ask). Frequented by human visitors from sunrise until way past sunset, Mt. Hollywood is also home to a number of wild inhabitants – from coyotes to snakes, tarantulas, and more (including perhaps Griffith Park’s resident mountain lion, P-22). Tread lightly and carefully, and stick to the official trails and fire roads.
3. Mt. Lowe, Altadena
Mt. Lowe was originally known as Oak Mountain – but it was renamed in honor of balloonist and professor Thaddeus Lowe, whose railway allowed recreationalists to traverse “the Highlands” and ascend to its highest peak (which tops out at over 5,600 feet). Along the way, they could get dropped off at the so-called “White City” resort on Echo Mountain (3,200 feet) or transfer from the incline railway to a trolley that went up Mt. Lowe to old Alpine Tavern (circa 1895), where they could even stay overnight in one of the surrounding cottages. Unfortunately, Lowe lost control of his railway in 1897 – and the structures on both Echo Mountain and Mt. Lowe suffered devastating fires, winds, storms and vandalism.
The original path of the trolley’s former Alpine Division is actually open to the public, but not to vehicular traffic. Walking along Mt. Lowe Railway's old right-of-way – some of which is paved, other parts dirt with extant rail ties – it’s easy to imagine the perils passengers faced as the trolley traveled a tightrope track around the mountain. And it’s hard to imagine that trolley crossing a bridge that traversed the mouth of the canyon. Interpretive signage and historic photographs mark the former sites of the old Circular Bridge, Cape of Good Hope, Dawn Station, and more – although the former Alpine Tavern, now the Mount Lowe Camp, only bears a few vestiges after having burned down in 1936 (when it was then known as Mount Lowe Tavern).
There are various hiking routes you can take to hike to Mt. Lowe – either from Echo Mountain or elsewhere. When you arrive, look closely around the campground to discover terracotta flooring, kitchen walls, and even a snowplow that used to be attached to the front of the trolley. Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service dynamited pretty much anything else that remained up there In 1959, after taking over control of all of the Mount Lowe Railway-related sites as part of Angeles National Forest.
Every December, the Scenic Mt. Lowe Railway Historical Committee hosts your only chance to drive up Mt. Lowe – its annual trip to commemorate the opening of the railway. While you’re up there, you can take a short walk to Inspiration Point, where the wind whips around your head and through your teeth, even as you stand sheltered under the restored Ramada (a.k.a. pavilion), originally built in 1925. Look for an ostrich farm that no longer exists, and pause for a moment at Easter Rock, where sunrise service on Easter Sunday was held for years. And finally, tip your hat to Thaddeus Lowe himself – the aeronaut who the Los Angeles Times called the “quintessential California dreamer.”
4. Mt. Wilson, Angeles National Forest
Before the Angeles Crest Highway, the only way to get to the top of Mount Wilson in Angeles National Forest was via the Mount Wilson Toll Road – a 19th century wagon road that had become popular with pack animal teams and hikers alike. Both the road and the mountain were named after former L.A. mayor Benjamin Wilson, responsible for recording his exploration of the mountain along a trail that was based on an established Native American route. The first non-Hispanic owner of the former Mexican land grant Rancho San Pascual, “Don Benito” Wilson also co-commissioned Benjamin Eaton to build a zanja ("Wilson's Ditch") to bring water from the Arroyo Seco to the foothill communities below his namesake mountain (including Pasadena).
Today, you can actually hike the Mt. Wilson Toll Road – it runs through Henninger Flats in Eaton Canyon. Or, you can drive up Angeles Crest Highway and turn off Mt. Wilson Red Box Road – but an Adventure Pass is required to park at Mt. Wilson. Either way, you’ll explore the peak on foot, under the shadow of a number of radio and TV towers. At nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, you can take a peek at the world below from its edge, as you hike along the Sturtevant Trail to Echo Rock.
Mt. Wilson Observatory Skyline Park is open seasonally, but check conditions online before you go (especially in winter months). Grab a snack at the Cosmic Café, where docent-led walking tours of the Mount Wilson Observatory grounds depart twice a day on weekends through December. There, you’ll see three solar towers – a 60-foot, a 150-foot, and a snow solar telescope – built to study the magnetic pull of the sun. Most people probably know the site better, however, for its 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes – the latter of which was the largest telescope in the world from 1917 to 1948. Even Albert Einstein visited in 1931. And now, you can follow in his footsteps.
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5. San Vicente Mountain, Encino
San Vicente Mountain Park is a former NIKE Missile Control Site (LA-96C), located above an unpaved portion of Mulholland Drive between Bel Air and Encino in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. If the gate is open, you could drive 0.8 miles up the dirt road – but the walk is a scenic, natural extension of the Mulholland Scenic Parkway and Corridor, overlooking the Encino Reservoir to the north. The Cold War-era (1956-1968) NIKE observation tower is visible right from the entrance to the park, which is also the old entrance to the site, replete with a restored security booth and gate.
Most of the relics, though, are actually gone – leaving a vast expanse of wilderness before you, with 360-degree views. At nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, it’s easy to understand why the U.S. Army chose San Vicente Mountain as a key vantage point for heavy-duty radar to identify and strike enemy bombers (namely, from the Soviet Union). You can see the full sky, and everything below.
All of the radar operators and lookouts disappeared, too – long before the area transitioned from federal surplus land to public parkland in 1996. Tons of side trails lead into the canyons and open spaces that surround the old missile site, stretching for miles along the ridges. Some may appear as though they’ve remained unhiked for ages, especially if nobody’s been able to clear the overgrowth after a wet winter. Look for lots of California buckwheat, even in drier seasons.
6. Mt. Lukens, Sunland-Tujunga
The tallest peak in the City of Los Angeles is named after two-time former Pasadena mayor Theodore Lukens – also a former supervisor of the Angeles National Forest, Sierra Club activist and friend of John Muir. At 5,066 feet, the former Sister Elsie (or “Else”) Peak gives L.A. the distinction of being the largest city with the highest and lowest elevation difference in the country. Unfortunately, its height means that radio, TV, and cell transmission towers litter its summit.
The most common way to start the climb up the leg-busting trail is from Deukmejian Wilderness Park – which is also where you’ll find the easiest parking, as no Adventure Pass is required. From there, the hike is about 10 miles round-trip, either as an out-and-back or a loop. Both ways start out the same: near the Le Mesnager stone barn, past the trail board that marks the Rim of the Valley Trail. From there, you’ll eventually cross over into the Big Tujunga area of Angeles National Forest along a combination of single-track trails and dirt roads – both of which you’ll be sharing with mountain bikers.
Considering how tall the peak is, it’s no surprise that you’ll gain about 3,000 feet of elevation, as you’ll start out at about 2,100 feet in the park. There are several other ways to go, and from other starting points in different parks at different trailheads – and each hiking guide has its own preferred route. For a navigational no-brainer, try HikingGuy’s turn-by-turn directions.
Bonus: Mt. McGroarty, Tujunga
Poet John McGroarty is perhaps known best as the creator of The Mission Play, a long-running pageant production that also gave rise to The Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel. But throughout his life and career, he was also an editor, journalist and even Congressman. He wrote his own column for The Los Angeles Times, mostly about life near the Verdugo Mountains, where he moved from Pennsylvania in 1901 to ease respiratory issues. The former home of California’s Poet Laureate of 1933 is now the McGroarty Arts Center, situated under the shadow of “Mount McGroarty.” At 2,000 feet above sea level, his namesake “mountain” bears a cross that was erected the same year that the rock house below was built.
A mason (a.k.a. "Nature Builder") named George Harris built this 30-foot monument out of native materials from the rocky hillsides of Sunland/Tujunga. The “San Ysidro Cross” served as a beacon for the "Little Landers," a group of pioneers who'd "landed" in the Crescenta Valley to replicate their ideals of living "little." (They wanted to do little work for a little land, where they could succeed a little on their little farms.) Ysidro (a.k.a. Isidro or Isidore) is traditionally known as the patron saint of farmers and ranchers, but these pioneers appropriated him as the patron saint of "little homes."
Locals have flocked to the cross for sunrise service on Easter Sunday since its completion – though the trail that leads to it is open for hiking the rest of the year as well. You’ll find a dirt path to it where Verdugo Crestline Drive meets Esteban Way. (This is a residential neighborhood, so keep noise levels down and don’t block anybody’s driveway when you park your car.)
A note on omissions:
Mount Baldy (a.k.a. Mt. San Antonio) might be LA County’s tallest peak – but clocking in at 40 miles northeast of downtown L.A. as the crow flies (a 50+ mile drive), it’s a stretch to consider it an “L.A.” mountain.
Sandstone Peak (a.k.a. Mt. Allen) is the highest summit in the Santa Monica Mountains – but it’s technically located in Ventura County.
Top Image: Sandi Hemmerlein
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