It's amazing how few Angelenos have ever heard of — much less been to — the hiking trails in the San Fernando Valley.
Between the steep slopes, the breathtaking vistas and the incredible history, there’s plenty to explore in the not-so-low-lying area between the Simi Hills, the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Padres National Forest and Angeles National Forest-San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
Here are five great places to hit the trails in the Valley and see L.A. from its vast urban expanse to the north.
1. Brand Park, Glendale
What draws me to any trail? Usually, it's some sense of history — which there is plenty of in the Valley. Case in point: Miradero, the estate of Leslie Brand, the so-called "Father of Glendale." This spot was central to the era of private flying parties, as Brand had his own airfield just south of the mansion and estate that now constitute Brand Library in Brand Park. Climbing the trails behind Brand Library, you can see some of the remnants of those private flying days, most notably a light beacon, perhaps having served Brand's airfield, perhaps Grand Central. But there are plenty of other mysteries surrounding the old Brand estate, including some post-Brand city of Glendale developments whose vestiges (like some mysterious concrete footings) that litter the historic trails. Down below, along the fire road that becomes the Brand Motorway past the Debris Basin, you can find plenty of other ruins — your garden variety stairs-to-nowhere from once-razed structures, etc. Equally mysterious is the Brand Cemetery, which was once the family's dog cemetery while they still resided at Miradero, and where the family is now laid to rest. Start your hike past the American Green Cross statue and behind the library, by ascending the Boy Scout’s nature trail. You can stop at the top, rest on a bench and continue down the American Green Cross trail, or you can continue all the way up to Mt. Thom (once known as "Mount Verdugo"). Either way, be prepared for some slippery scrambling — but the payoff you get in the form of the view is worth it.
2. Stough Canyon Park, Burbank
In Stough Canyon, you can hike a short distance into the canyon past wildflowers, scenic overlooks and lots of spring greenery. For your return path to the car, be sure to take the Old Youth Campground Loop trail, a single-track, hiking-only trail where you might find something that someone has left behind. There’s one foundation left from the Old Youth Campground, a Boy Scout camp built in the mid-20th century, and vandalized after its closure, burning down to few remains. You can see why it would have been such a good location for a Boy Scout camp because you're so close, yet so high, and on a clear day you can see the whole city below. The trail is easy enough to navigate on your own, but the Stough Canyon Nature Center also offers docent-led hikes for fitness, during full moons and for birdwatching and wildlife viewing.
3. Wildwood Canyon Park, Burbank
If you’ve got a fear of heights like I do, Wildwood Canyon is a good place to face that fear. Just keep in mind that it might actually make your fear worse. This canyon park — next to Stough Canyon — is a good example of a small conditioning hike that’s not too far away from Burbank's commercial district, but just far enough into the Verdugo Mountains to be appropriately wild. You don't have to drive too far out of an urban area to get there, and the hike (which is a good workout) won’t take up much time. It's also small and simple enough to navigate easily, with four trailheads that all lead up to the same ridge trail (which you can then take up farther into the mountains for a bigger workout). When you get to the saddle at the top of the trail, you’ll have to wind your way back down — either all the way down to the bottom of the main road (and Trailhead #1), or braving the notoriously steep Trailheads, #2 and #3, which are probably easier to climb up than down. For views, this is a nice, scenic way to go, with downtown L.A. visible in the distance. But for those of us with any issues with heights or vertigo, it can be a nail-biter.
4. Stoney Point Park, Chatsworth
Right off Topanga Canyon Boulevard, shortly after exiting the 118 Freeway, right along the Santa Susana Pass, you happen upon a giant boulder outcropping called Stoney Point. This confluence of boulders forms caves, dens and alcoves for climbing and exploring. Some unusual rock formations remain unmolested, while others bear markings that you might see on rain rocks, mortars used by native tribes (in this case, the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe). Hiking and bridle trails take you around the rocks, though most people come here to climb them. For trainspotters, the park also provides a good view of the railroad tracks that pass through a tunnel cut out of the rock, Stoney Point being a mile marker for the Southern Pacific Railroad and originally part of the larger (planned) Transcontinental Railroad, which never ended up connecting the entire country via one railroad as it once intended. The train’s path marks the division between the Simi Hills and the Santa Susana Mountains, between Los Angeles and Ventura counties, where sandstone rises out of chaparral. This tunnel, built in 1904 and renovated with concrete reinforcements in 1921, cuts through the rock under the Upper Cretaceous outcroppings (more than 65 million years old) and goes all the way under the Santa Susana Mountains and Pass. For decades, the narrow tunnel has served such modern trains as the Metrolink commuter and Union Pacific freight lines, their shared single track unfortunately resulting in a disastrous train collision in September 2008, just east of Stoney Point along the curved part of the track.
5. O’Melveny Park, Granada Hills
Second only to Griffith Park in terms of size for urban Los Angeles parks, O'Melveny Park (formerly C.J. Ranch, then named after one of the original members of the California State Parks Commission, Henry W. O'Melveny) is big enough to get lost in if you don’t have a good map or trail guide. There are several different ways up to get to Mission Point at the top, so you really can’t go wrong hopping onto any trail you find — including the equestrian trail — and just heading up. It feels like you can see everything from up there in the Santa Susana Mountains — so much so that with each overlook, you might think you’re already at the top. Use the sight of the Los Angeles Reservoir in the distance as a beacon to keep oriented. And don't worry — you'll find your way, as long as you keep going down. Just make sure you’re descending a real trail (like perhaps the Grasslands Trail) and not a firebreak.