HIDING within the concrete and stucco of our great megalopolis is a parallel universe -- a place where transit arteries are not clogged, passersby don’t avert their eyes, billboards are ocean vistas and the hovering aircraft are hawks, not helicopters. You can find this refuge on the vast network of trails that crisscrosses the mountains and canyons of Southern California. Stride into the Santa Monica Mountains above Leo Carrillo State Park or high into the Santa Anas, and you’re a thousand miles from the nearest SigAlert. Here life is in full flower, particularly after the deluges of winter. There’s a trail for every taste and topographical interest, but some stand out. So lace up for a spin through 10 of the region’s most essential trails.
1. Top Ocean Vista
Paseo Miramar, Pacific Palisades
Ridgelines along the Pacific give hikers some of the better payoffs on the trail circuit: a front-row seat to the world’s largest swimming hole. Though there are more rugged trails with ocean overlooks, few can rival Paseo Miramar for instant wide-screen grandeur.
Step off a mansion-lined street to the trail head and you’re in deep blue horizons within minutes.
The trail winds uphill most of the way to the viewing stand of Parker Mesa Overlook, a five-mile round trip with 1,200 feet of gain on the roomy Santa Ynez fire road, leaving plenty of space for sidekicks. Part of the 36-mile coastal trail system in Topanga State Park, Paseo Miramar is no secret. One muddy spot on the trail last month offered a snapshot of the passersby: a boot print, a mountain bike tire track and a cougar’s paw print. Nearby were hoof marks wandering from mustard to lavender lupine. Everyone likes a view.
From Parker Mesa Overlook you can, depending on the particulate level, gaze from Palos Verdes to the Channel Islands. Mix it up by walking the fire road one way and ridgeline trails back.
Though bikers whiz by and meditators stake out their spots, the pain of sharing is far outweighed by ease of access and sudden spectacle.
-- Emmett Berg
How to get there: Take Pacific Coast Highway to Sunset Boulevard, turn left at Paseo Miramar and take it to the dead-end. Park on the street.
2. Top Waterfall
Rose Valley Falls Hike, Los Padres National Forest
The natural world comes alive with the free fall of water diving off precipices -- and this year more than most after the nonstop drenchings. Rose Valley Falls is one of Southern California’s best waterfalls, yet few hikers take advantage of it. Not just another small SoCal cataract, Rose Valley rivals any waterfall south of Yosemite during rainy years.
A series of three drops totaling more than 300 feet of hurtling foam, Rose Valley Falls is the highest waterfall in the Los Padres National Forest. The first drop -- a mere 20-foot cascade -- is often overlooked. The second is an impressive 90-foot plunge as Rose Valley Creek spills over a near-vertical face. At almost 200 feet, the upper falls is a replica of Bridalveil Falls.
The hike is a treat, easy enough for children yet rewarding for experienced hikers. Begin the trek at Rose Valley Campground, where a wooden sign leads you to the path skirting Rose Valley Creek. It’s a mere 10 minutes to the base of Lower Rose Valley Falls. For the upper falls, backtrack about 25 yards to a trail spur that heads up the hillside to a view of the falls you’ll never forget.
-- Chris Shaffer
How to get there: Highway 33 is closed near Wheeler Springs; call (805) 646-4348 for updates. From the 101 Freeway, take Highway 33 north, turn left for Wheeler Springs and continue for 8 miles. From the Wheeler Gorge Campground, continue 6 1/2 miles to Rose Valley Road. Turn right to Rose Valley Campground.
3. Top City Lights
Mt. Hollywood Hike, Griffith Park
Is that a skunk? Oh , no, it’s a rock with a white stripe. And there -- up in the tree -- is that a cat? But wait, cats don’t hoot. That’s an owl.
It’s another night hike in Griffith Park, where I’ve been a regular on a 4 1/2 -mile round-trip route between Crystal Springs Drive and Mt. Hollywood for a little over 20 years. I don’t use a flashlight. Full moons help, of course, but so do overcast nights when the city lights reflect off the cloud cover. Is it dangerous? For the most part, no, although I wound up breaking my ankle once when I slipped into a ditch while talking to a friend.
The route to Mt. Hollywood’s panoramic nightscape starts just north of the Old Zoo Picnic Area. Follow the trail to the water tank at Vista Del Valle Drive, make a right and take a paved road about 200 yards, turn left onto a steep uphill section that most Griffith Park hikers refer to as Cardiac. Another left at the top of Cardiac, and it’s three-quarters of a mile to Mt. Hollywood -- altogether a gain of about 1,100 feet.
I never tire of the view from the top. The glowing grid spills out in all directions, broken only by mountains and the ocean. From Mt. Hollywood, three runways of lights stretch out to the south -- Vermont, Normandie and Western avenues.
To the west there’s Hollywood and the Westside, where the towers of Century City are usually visible. Downtown skyscrapers dominate the horizon, with the deep bluish spaceship of the Staples Center also distinctive. And the entire twinkling tableau is topped off by a steady stream of dots descending over the basin toward LAX.
In the summer, you can tell at a glance if the Dodgers are at home or on the road. More people are on the trails then, and the rattlesnakes are out. I accidentally stepped on one once in the dark but emerged without a bite.
On damp winter nights you have the whole park pretty much to yourself. Frogs and toads make the most glorious sounds. When there’s low cloud cover, the city below can disappear. The top of Mt. Lee -- where the Hollywood sign has stood since the 1920s -- can appear like an island floating on the clouds.
Any time of year, there is the possibility of running into a TV, movie or ad shoot. About a year ago, I started out on a hike and noticed there were two moons in the sky -- the real moon and a lit-up balloon being used for a movie scene.
You can learn this route and others in the park by going on free Sierra Club hikes that leave at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from the upper merry-go-round parking lot. Once you’ve got the hike down and feel nocturnally footloose, go on your own or with friends.
-- Mike Eberts
How to get there: From the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive, take Crystal Springs Drive into the park about a mile and a quarter and then the first left (the visitor center is on the right). Continue through the first parking lot, keeping to the left, to the second parking lot near the merry-go-round. The trailhead is just north of the entrance to the Old Zoo Picnic Area.
4. Top Grasslands
La Jolla Valley Hike, Point Mugu State Park
For those who have mowed one too many lawns over the years, this La Jolla Valley route offers sweet vengeance, a vision of a Black & Decker-free world you may have only dared to dream. The epiphany occurs a couple of miles up the 6 1/2 -mile route, the last major trail in the Santa Monica Mountains before Oxnard -- and one of the best, packing in everything from ocean vistas to waterfalls, mountain summits and a floral fiesta.
From the parking lot, take the trail straight up the canyon. It gets vertical quickly as you wind above the creek bed on steep, lush hillsides out of Kauai. Wear shades to take in the blinding yellow coreopsis blanketing the scene from February to April. Hop boulders to the trail’s two waterfalls, splashing overtime this year, and then hang a left at a fork in the trail.
Before long you’re stumbling onto a fire road (make a left here) and a scene out of some long-lost “Bonanza” episode, a vast plateau covered in head-high grasses. Little Joe, Adam or Hoss could come galloping across the plain at any moment. It’s a sight for sore lawn trimmers -- the largest stand of native grassland in Southern California rippling wild and free in the breeze, unscalped by human hands. It can get emotional seeing those wild blades reaching for the sky like cornstalks. Be sure to pack some Kleenex.
For another double take, instead of following La Jolla Valley Loop back to the canyon, run in slo-mo through the rippling grasses like some Bollywood leading man or lady, and in minutes you’re face to face with the Pacific Ocean, dropping several hundred feet below you -- and your stomach along with it.
It’s one big scenic pullover as you straddle slope and ocean on the cliffside Mugu Peak Trail. You’ll wind down back to the canyon trail -- a changed hiker, content that this time, at least, the grass won.
-- Joe Robinson
How to get there: Take Pacific Coast Highway north past Leo Carrillo State Beach and Sycamore Canyon to La Jolla Canyon at Point Mugu State Park.
5. Top Overlooked Hike
Harding Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest
The Harding Truck Trail isn’t on everyone’s list of hikes, but it’s a springtime beauty, delivering clear sky views all the way to Catalina on one side and miles of mostly solitary hiking through lush, rugged sage scrub on the other.
Blue lupine, scarlet Indian paint brush, wild cucumber, and delicate, lavender-colored sweet pea are already in bloom in spots, as is the persistent but nonnative yellow mustard.
The dirt-road trail begins at the metal gate behind the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in picturesque Modjeska Canyon in the Cleveland National Forest. New caretaker Birkin Newell has spruced up the area, including adding a hand-painted sign pointing the way. Drop off a donation in thanks.
There is no summit to be bagged on the long hike to Laurel Spring, but there are several “aha” vistas. Keep your eyes on the white rocks high on the far peaks -- you’re headed to just below those. Prepare for heat and cold. There’s no shade, and temperatures plunge as you climb.
The trail climbs quickly past Flores’ Peak and makes a bend at a lovely view of interior Harding Canyon. It’s a perfect vista of the Santa Ana Mountains as they looked 100 years ago.
From the “goat shed” -- a few wooden beams set against the open sky about a mile and a half into the hike -- you follow a series of long, sloping switchbacks along ridges crowded with manzanita and scrub oak. The occasional mountain biker tumbles past, and if you’re lucky, you may catch the gaze of a shy bobcat crouched in the brush.
A large cairn precedes the spring by a quarter mile. It dries up by summer, so go now. While not safe to drink, the burble of cool water is welcome before beginning the long climb down to reality.
-- Janet Wilson
How to get there: Take Santiago Canyon Road (S18) to Modjeska Canyon Road. Follow Modjeska to the end. On your right, you will see the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. Park on the gravel pad on that side. The trail head is on the left, behind the sanctuary office, up a 50-foot driveway.
6. Top River Hike
San Gabriel’s West Fork, Angeles National Forest
I’m not that fussy about my wilderness, so hiking along the West Fork of the San Gabriel River on an asphalt road is hardly a deal breaker, especially when it connects you to one of the better riverside jaunts in the area.
The route is hardly pure; all you have to do is stop at a sandbar below the road and gaze down at the frothy, rain-swelled river as it cuts through the wooded canyon.
All that’s visible are high rock walls that hug the stream, springtime waterfalls flowing in silvery strands and patchy blue sky.
Stand closer to the churning river and notice the drop in temperature. It feels as if you are intruding on wildness. Just hold onto that thought and hike with it. Pretty soon you won’t want to leave this place. To be sure, amenities dot the route, which climbs only 500 feet over 6 1/2 miles, 13 miles round trip. There are four wheelchair-accessible fishing platforms, several bathrooms and Glen Campground at the turnaround point.
So, no, it isn’t the John Muir Trail. But on an overcast Monday, just a few miles from the metropolis, the rushing river brings refreshing solitude -- and unwound muscles.
-- Bill Sharpsteen
How to get there: From the 210 Freeway, exit Azusa Avenue (Highway 39), drive north 13 miles. Trail head and parking lot are on the left just before a bridge that crosses the river.
7. Top Desert Hike
Murray Canyon Trail, Palm Springs
Sometimes nature tosses humans a bone. How else can you explain oases that serve up bodily pleasure in the otherwise thorny desert?
The bone, in this case, comes courtesy of California’s native palm colonies, which are concentrated in the Indian Canyons just south of Palm Springs. The Murray Canyon Trail is the best way to immerse yourself in that lost-in-paradise feeling.
As you approach across a plain, watch for the crowns of palms hidden in a ravine ahead of you. The stream can be dry in the hottest months, but if you pass drenched teenagers, it’s a good sign the stone pools are brimming.
Drop down into the canyon into a forest of Washingtonia filifera palms, known for their plump frond skirts and their comforting grandmotherly aura. Strings of black dates dangle overhead. The combination of water and shade attracts all sorts of life, from bats and orioles to coyotes.
You can continue up the canyon about two miles to a 12-foot waterfall and the Seven Sisters pools.
But just this once, put ambition aside. Bring a bandanna, soak it in the stream and squeeze oasis water over your steaming bod. Crisscross your chest with crushed desert lavender and paint your ankles with black creek mud.
-- Ann Japenga
How to get there: In Palm Springs, exit Highway 111 at South Palm Canyon Drive. Head for the Andreas Canyon parking area and look for signs to the Murray Canyon Trail. There’s a $6-per-person fee at the gate.
8. Top Woods
Chantry Flat Loop, Angeles National Forest
While damage has repeatedly closed the road to Chantry Flat over the past few years, that’s no reason not to put this route on a futures list. There are so many distractions on this loop -- thundering waterfalls, old stone-and-wood cottages, a detour to a hidden overlook -- that it’s easy to miss the trees for the forest. That would be a mistake in this arboreal haven.
Grab a guidebook -- the loop can be tricky -- and detailed map before taking the Gabrielino Trail to the heart of Santa Anita Canyon and its fast-flowing creek and looping around to the Upper Winter Creek Trail. A sign at the start of this woodsy canyon begins with a cosmic reminder that says something like: “Be kind to the earth, one day you’ll be part of it.”
Fortified with wisdom, you are soon amid a canopy of trees along the creek that seems endless. Stately alders, at least three kinds of oaks, big-leaf maples and sycamores with their mottled trunks form a lush overhang as you repeatedly boulder-hop across the creek.
About two miles up the canyon, past a series of Hansel-and-Gretel-like cottages whose residents are supplied by the last mule train in L.A. County, you’ll be tempted to make Sturtevant Falls your destination.
Continue uphill on a narrow track that leads to a series of little rock-scoured pools. (In what passes for winter in Southern California, the trees here shed enormous yellow leaves that will transport you to a fall day in New England.)
Stop to crush a few leaves of a California bay -- during any season -- between your fingers to get a whiff of the dreamy aroma, but beware of touching the eternally healthy stands of poison oak that abound along the trail.
About six miles in, a short access trail shoots up to the diminutive Mt. Zion and panoramic views of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Again, resist. Revel, instead, in the dense cover of oaks, with whom you will be, at some distant time, sharing common ground.
-- Mary Forgione
How to get there: Exit the 210 Freeway at Santa Anita Avenue. Drive north six miles to the top and the trail head. A word of warning: The last few miles of the road are closed indefinitely; call (626) 574-1613 for updates. Hardy souls can hoof or bike up the steep paved route, adding about four miles round trip.
9. Top Sweat Hike
Mt. Baldy Ski Hut Trail, San Gabriel Mountains
If you like your hikes vertical, Mt. Baldy’s Ski Hut Trail will get you upwardly mobile in a hurry. It gains a lung-busting 3,904 feet of altitude over just 4.6 miles. Mt. Baldy, formally Mt. San Antonio, is the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, at 10,064 feet. Though not as high as nearby Mt. San Gorgonio, the view is better and the route is definitely more cardio-worthy.
There are four approaches to the top, but my favorite is the steep trip from Manker Flats. The hike begins at the start of a gravel road that leads to Baldy Notch. Soon an unmarked trail veers off to the left and seriously skyward.
As you come around a bend, the Sierra Club ski hut comes into view a few miles up the trail, but it’s still a long, hard climb away. You should be soaked by the time you reach the hut, but you’re only halfway there. Soon you cross an ancient rockfall that shot truck-size boulders miles down the canyon. As you gain more altitude, you’ll ascend through lodgepole pines and pass a saddle below the final leg to the summit.
Only from the summit can you grasp the vast scale of this familiar yet faraway range -- not to mention the effort it takes to get here.
-- Ralph Vartabedian
How to get there: Snowed in now. Wait till spring thaw. Take the 10 Freeway to Mountain Avenue in Claremont. Follow Mountain Avenue north to the end. Begin the hike at the road to Baldy Notch.
10. Top Birding
Arroyo Seco Hike, Altadena
An ideal birding hike has a variety of habitats, which means a variety of birds, and the Gabrielino Trail -- a 6-mile route in Arroyo Seco, through a wooded canyon above Altadena -- has just that.
The first section, along a marked paved trail that skirts a chaparral-covered hillside, isn’t particularly scenic but here’s where you can tick off the chaparral birds -- California quail, spotted towhees, wrentits and the like. Look for a variety of hawks in the sky and on the telephone poles.
At the bottom of the hill, keep going north into the canyon, and any time you have a choice of trails from this point on, keep to the one closest to the stream. The farther you go, the more beautiful -- and birdy -- the hike gets.
In the spring, especially April and May, the alders and oaks along the streambed play host to mixed flocks of migrating warblers, and at dawn and dusk, you’re guaranteed owls.
At the second bridge past Gould Mesa campground, look up. This is a great place to see the spectacular yellow and orange Western tanager. Also look down into the water.
There you may see the best bird on the hike: an American dipper, the only North American songbird that can swim. Scan carefully from the bridge for a dark gray, 7 1/2 -inch bird swimming in the stream.
If you don’t see one, this is still a lovely, shady spot to just relax and enjoy the scenery -- and keep your eyes open.
-- Sue Horton
How to get there: Take the Windsor Avenue exit north from the 210 Freeway. Park in a lot at Windsor and Ventura.