The mountains took their name from Jose Maria Verdugo, who in 1784 received one of the earliest Spanish land grants in California. Rancho de Los Verdugo was a cattle ranch that took in land between Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Fernando.
Conservationists, primarily Small Wilderness Area Preservation, rallied to halt a proposed scenic parkway at the crest of the Verdugos, prevented the subdivision of the mountaintops and preserved a portion of the mountains as parklands.
La Tuna Canyon Trail visits some quiet oak- and sycamore-lined canyons and ascends to the range’s principal feature and its main attraction for hikers: its ridge top, which extends the length of the range. Along the ridge top, the hiker will discover a pine grove and dramatic clear-day views of the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Mountains and downtown Los Angeles.
Directions to trail head: From the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) in Tujunga (between the communities of La Crescenta and Sunland), exit on La Tuna Canyon Road. As you head west, look sharply left, and you’ll spot what looks like a frontage road paralleling the freeway. This road, closed to vehicular traffic, is the road you will be descending from the ridge top if you elect the longer loop option of this hike.
One mile from the freeway exit, you’ll spot a turnout on the south side of the road with a Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy sign. (A short trail leads to a grotto and a seasonal waterfall.) Continue another three-tenths of a mile to a second turnout on your left and park.
The hike: The unsigned trail descends into the mouth of a narrow canyon, then promptly ascends the canyon wall to a little wooden overlook. The path then switchbacks up brushy slopes out of the canyon, tops Horny Toad Ridge and descends into a second, unnamed canyon. Beneath the trees are ferns, tangled vines and luxuriant patches of poison oak.
At the canyon bottom, the trail joins a very steep, crumbling dirt road. Below the road are a couple of old pickup trucks; one guesses their owners drove them down the steep grade but couldn’t get them back out of the canyon. The road climbs at a 25% grade for half a mile, then joins Horny Toad Ridge, so-named by the trail builders for the abundance of spiky-looking, brown-, tan- and cream-colored horned-toad lizards found here.
Another half-mile ascent along the ridge brings you to a junction with Verdugo Fire Road. Looking sharply to the east, you can see the hike’s next destination: the radio towers and pine plantation near Verdugo Peak.
Turn left (east) on the Verdugo Fire Road, sometimes called Backbone Road, and begin a moderate ascent. Enjoy the great ridge-top views of the San Fernando Valley. Near the top of the range, you’ll reach Fire Wardens Grove, planted by the Los Angeles County Department of Forestry more than half a century ago. The department’s fire wardens patrolled the Verdugos until 1953, when the agency was combined with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The mixed stand of assorted conifers planted by the fire wardens offer some welcome shade.
From the ridge just above Fire Wardens Grove, enjoy the views, particularly to the south, of Griffith Park, the Santa Monica Mountains and downtown Los Angeles. On a clear day, even the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Los Angeles Harbor and Catalina Island are visible from this vantage point.
From Fire Wardens Grove, continue east on the ridge road, and you’ll soon pass the second-highest peak in the Verdugos, a 3,120-foot, antenna-topped (again we have a shortage of names here) peak. Continue toward Verdugo Peak and you’ll soon reach a junction; Verdugo Fire Road continues along the top of the range, then descends to Glendale, but you turn left and begin descending on unsigned Hostetter Fire Road toward La Tuna Canyon.
As you descend the north slopes of the Verdugos and look north, particularly prominent is Mt. Lukens, bristling with antennae and the highest peak within the city limits of Los Angeles.
As you descend, you’ll also get a good look at the Glendale Freeway and narrow Verdugo Valley, which separates the mountains from its smaller sister range, the San Rafael. A bit more than a mile’s descent from the top brings you to a water tank, and two miles along to an apiary.
The Foothill Freeway comes into view, the road turns to asphalt, and you’ll travel the frontage road half a mile to La Tuna Canyon Road. Here you’ll head west 1.3 miles back to the trail head.
La Tuna Canyon Trail
La Tuna Canyon Road
to Horny Toad Ridge
6 miles round trip;
1,000-foot elevation gain
La Tuna Canyon Road
to Fire Wardens Grove
9 miles round trip;
Return via Hostetter
10 1/2 miles round trip