The clouds look bruised and weepy where they're not shot through with golden evening sun. The sky breaks blue to the south. The air is moist with the scent of rosemary and sage, and wildflowers dot the scrub that tumbles down the hillside. A line of horses picks its way along the winding trail to the crest of the hill. Los Angeles sprawls below, a jumble of sharp, crystalline forms caught at an angle by the waning light.
This is the scene at 6:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, half an hour after the moonlight trail ride set out from Sunset Ranch, a couple of cozy red barns and corrals nestled in the foothills at the top of Beachwood Drive. The trail takes riders through Griffith Park, over the hill and down into Burbank for dinner at Viva Mexican Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, then back to the ranch.
Thirty riders, mostly locals made up of couples and small groups of friends, stop to take photographs of the view and each other. For many, this is the first time on a horse. The stable hands have gone to great pains to match riders to horses that suit their ability and would not set out until all had learned their horses' names.
The ride to Viva in Burbank takes 1 1/2 hours. The experience of living without the automobile, even for a day, is heady stuff for any Angeleno, a feeling of power bordering on the sublime. The city below seems more intimate, more accessible than it did seen through the windshield.
Soon the trail turns down into the valley, under dramatic cloud play. A hawk watches from a naked branch. The group sights an owl, a jack rabbit, some teen-agers kissing in the bushes. Eventually, three tunnels cross under the Ventura Freeway, and a narrow wooden bridge takes six horses at a time over the Los Angeles River.
From there, it's a short distance to Viva, where the riders tie their horses to the hitching post and head in for a leisurely candlelight dinner.
Viva is a sprawling hacienda, the kind of place where you wouldn't feel foolish getting down on one knee to propose to your sweetheart, but also a place where it's OK to walk in fresh from the trail.
Longtime friends Sherry and Rick Miller and Nicole Rodriquez of San Pedro have brought Joe Gasparav on the trail ride to celebrate his 28th birthday.
"It was perfect that it rained beforehand, and the clouds were separating, and the light was coming down on L.A.," Rodriquez says.
"It seemed like we were miles and miles from home," Sherry Miller says, "yet it was a short drive. It's funny to be on the freeway, and then all of a sudden to be up in the hills, on horses."
Outside the restaurant again, it immediately becomes clear why you had to learn your horse's name. The group is a little bit looped after one or two of Viva's excellent margaritas.
"Hey, somebody moved Elvis," one rider calls out in the dark. "Who's got Elvis?"
"Wahooo!" another cries.
"Something tells me the ride back is going to be funner," a young woman remarks serenely, watching the dim figures in the moonlight grappling for stirrups.
The guides recognize all the horses from the back, in the dark, which is fortunate and amazing. Soon the party is on the trail again, a little looser, a little merrier--and a little saddle sore. The uphill trek back to the ranch takes a little longer than the ride down.
After a few rounds of "Home on the Range," everyone settles down into a quiet, meditative mood as the horses head for home.
There's a brief moment of excitement when one horse bolts on a flat stretch, but the guides quickly give chase and rescue horse and rider without a hitch.
When the horses finally file into the ranch at midnight, all is silent, save for the occasional wince and groan from the novice riders. And there's the rub: This journey makes for a wildly romantic evening, one surely not to be missed--but it's probably best to plan on going to bed alone with a hot water bottle.
* Where: Sunset Ranch, 3400 N. Beachwood Drive, in Griffith Park; (213) 464-9612 or (213) 469-5450.
* When: Fridays, 6-11 p.m. (Arrive between 5 and 5:30 to register and get your horse, and plan on returning as late as midnight.)
* Cost: Trail ride: $30. Tips appreciated. At Viva Mexican Restaurant, margaritas are $3.25-$10.95 (12 ounces to 46 ounces), dinners $5.75 to $9.95.