Roads Less Traveled Off Mulholland

Mulholland Drive has long been a road to remember. “Fifty-five miles of scenic splendor” said its boosters when construction on the road began in 1924.

L.A.'s mountain highway has been featured in dozens of movie chase scenes. During the 1950s and ‘60s, it was a place to race and a place to park; some of the city’s best-known “make-out” spots were Mulholland’s scenic turnouts.

But Mulholland Drive is more than a link to the city’s history; it appeals to today’s traveler as well. The road offers a chance to explore the crests and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains, from Universal City west to Leo Carrillo State Beach on the Ventura County line. En route are clear-day views of the San Fernando Valley to the north and Santa Monica Bay to the south. Motorists with an eye for architecture will gape at some of the amazing hillside haciendas, while geology buffs will find millions of years of mountain history revealed in the roadside cuts.

It’s not all pretty, of course. Below many a “deadman’s curve” are the rusting carcasses of abandoned autos. Litter mars the scenic turnouts, and has been dumped at the side of the road.

In recent months, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has been promoting the concept of a “scenic parkway"--the original idea for Mulholland Drive--that would literally and symbolically link the far-flung parks and reserves of the Santa Monica Mountains.


For the hiker, Mulholland offers a great backdoor approach to the mountains, though some of the very best hiking begins from the very worst stretches of the road. The seven miles of dirt road between the San Diego Freeway and Topanga Canyon Boulevard are like a little bit of Baja--dusty and bone-jarring.

But the drive is well worth it, because between Mulholland Drive and Pacific Palisades, on the backside of Topanga State Park, are the tributaries of wild Rustic and Garapito canyons.

Far less traveled than the trails in the main part of the state park, the paths off Mulholland appeal to the hiker who wants to get away from it all. Bay Tree Trail follows a creek bed for much of the way. It is subject to the whims of winter rains and the seasonal creek and, consequently, is the kind of trail that’s very difficult to maintain.

Allow yourself plenty of time for this hike. You’ll want to linger in the canyon bottoms and you’ll find that it takes a lot longer to climb out than to climb into the canyons.

Directions to trail head: From the San Diego Freeway (405), a few miles south of its junction with the Ventura Freeway (101), exit on Mulholland Drive and proceed 5 1/2 miles west to a yellow-gate fire road on your left. Landmarks along the way: an old missile tracking station is 2 1/2 miles before (east of) the trail head; Caballero Trail (a fire road) is a quarter-mile east of the trail head on your right.

From the valley, another way to go: Exit the Ventura Freeway in Woodland Hills on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, head south to Mulholland Drive, turn left and continue 3 3/4 miles to the trail head on your right.

The dirt portion of Mulholland is best negotiated in a vehicle with high ground clearance.

The hike: Follow the dirt Temescal Fire Road on a gentle descent half a mile to a place where power lines cross the road and look for signed Garapito Canyon Trail on your right. (At this trail junction, you’ll notice Bent Arrow Trail leading east while Temescal Fire Road swings south; you’ll be returning to this junction via one of these routes.)

Garapito Canyon Trail descends through dense thickets of chaparral--ceanothus, mostly, along with some mountain mahogany. Tunneling through the tall brush, the trail switchbacks down to the sycamore-shaded canyon bottom, crossing two forks of narrow Garapito Creek.

From the canyon bottom, the trail then ascends out of its namesake canyon. You regain all of the elevation you lost during your descent, plus a couple hundred feet, and arrive in 1 1/2 miles at a junction with Eagle Springs Loop Road. To your right is Eagle Rock, which can be a pleasant side trip.

Turn left on the dirt road. Half a mile’s travel brings you past a bump on the ridge that is known, somewhat unimaginatively I would say, as Peak 2104, high point around here. Another half-mile walk brings you to The Hub, Topanga State Park’s major trail junction.

Feeling a bit leg-weary? Take the Temescal Fire Road north back to the trail head.

Otherwise, you’ll take fairly level Temescal Fire Road south half a mile to another junction. The fire road continues south, bound for Temescal Gateway Park and Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades, but you head left on the signed Backbone Trail (also known as Rogers Road/Trail because it leads to Will Rogers State Historic Park). Proceed only a short quarter-mile, keeping a sharp lookout left for unsigned Bay Tree Trail.

Bay Tree Trail plunges down a rugged canyon wall. During late fall and winter, watch for the green leaves and bright red berries of that most festive of flora--toyon, or Christmas berry.

The trial delivers the promised bay trees and much more. Enjoy the pungent smell of the bay laurel, and relax in their shade. You’ll pass a little trickle of a spring where coyotes like to drink.

Once you reach the canyon bottom, the somewhat faint trail travels down-canyon half a mile to an unsigned junction with Rustic Canyon Trail. (Continuing another half-mile down-canyon brings you to a fork; the trail turns south, but another, trail-less branch of Rustic Canyon beckons to the north. Here, the determined hiker will find Blue Gorge and may boulder-hop up-canyon to a narrows filled with ferns, bay trees, maples and even a couple of tiny seasonal waterfalls.)

For your route back, head up-canyon. The washed-out path crosses the creek many times. While the creek itself isn’t much to behold, it provides evidence in support of that adage, “still waters run deep.” The creek has little surface water but evidently much underground because it supports a healthy tangle of creekside vegetation, including willow and sycamore.

The ascent out of the canyon, relatively mellow for three-quarters of a mile, gets wicked about the time you sight Mulholland Drive above, and the last half-mile of climbing on eroded trail isn’t much fun.

Once on Mulholland, you can turn left and walk along the dirt drive 1 1/4 miles back to the trail head. A more enjoyable return route is via Bent Arrow Trail. Join it 50 yards down Mulholland Drive on the south side of the road.

The path contours half a mile southwestward to a junction with Temescal Fire Road. Retracing the first steps of this hike, you ascend half a mile back to Mulholland Drive and the trail head.

HIKING / Santa Monica Mountains, Garapito, Bay Tree Trails Where: Topanga State Park. Distance: 7 1/2 miles round trip, with 900-foot elevation gain. Terrain: Steep canyons, chaparral-covered ridges. Highlights: Rustic and unspoiled canyons, bay tree-shaded retreat. Getting there via Mulholland Drive is half the fun. Degree of difficulty: Moderate Precautions: Rough, indistinct trail in some places. Dirt portion of Mulholland is best driven with a high-clearance vehicle. Experienced hikers will enjoy this hike far more than novices. For more information: Contact Topanga State Park at (213) 455-2465, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation (Santa Monica Mountains District) at (818) 706-1310.