BY: HARLEY PHLEGER
Length: 3.5-mile loop
Rising sharply out of the basin of Los Angeles, the Hollywood Hills cut a proud and familiar figure—the gaudy mansions, perched like brightly colored birds, the gated, winding roads, the ubiquitous sign. You’ve seen movies. You get it.
But of course, for most of us, the hills are more a sign of some unattainable echelon—a hideaway of the rich and famous who are always peering smugly down at us flatlanders—than they are a spot of any natural beauty or enjoyable recreation.
But in fact, the hills are punctuated by an array of trails, roads, and ravines, which, if utilized, can provide some of the best and most accessible hiking opportunities in the Los Angeles area. With nearly 1.8 million visitors a year, Runyon Canyon is among the most popular of those destinations.
Tucked into the slopes just above Hollywood Boulevard, the canyon is a far cry from true wilderness. But whether you’re an Angeleno looking for a moderately challenging hike (or simply a break from the bustling city), or a tourist in need of the perfect panorama, Runyon is among only a handful of options that don’t require a considerable stint in traffic. Recently, I tried it out.
Front gate at Fuller Avenue
The main entrance is at the end of Fuller Avenue, two blocks up from Hollywood, barely half a mile from the Chinese Theater. The temperature is hovering around 80 degrees when I turn up the street around 10 a.m. on Monday, July 1, a sheen of sweat already forming on my neck. A number of prospective hikers can be spotted on the nearby streets, marching up the hill toward the gates in their spandex and sunglasses, looking like a flash mob advertisement for Banana Boat. I slow down as I approach the dead end, where a thicket of cars is jostling for position. The park has no lot of its own (the result of a prematurely rushed opening in 1984, which left out the planned parking area), so hikers are left to contest for open spots on nearby streets like hyenas over a zebra carcass. This is certainly one of the park’s major downsides, and I decide against joining the fray and turn down Franklin to see what else I can find. Nearly thirty minutes later, I land a spot on Hollywood, three blocks from the Fuller Ave entrance. In this town, thirty minutes isn’t so bad.
For most others… well.
Just inside the entrance
Shortly, I make it to the front gate (where a guy with a cart sells water bottles for one dollar, FYI), and just inside I meet the first crossroads. There are a number of trails and loops that one can take through the canyon, and they range in difficulty from easy to moderate, and in distance from 1.6 to 3.5 miles. The main thoroughfare is a paved fire road which extends straight out from the main gate, wiggling up the center of the canyon. Here, easy walking abounds. But off to the right and left, smaller, unpaved tributary trails descend from a variety of angles, while a few signs indicate the presence of small dog parks and picnic areas. There is much to be done here, which in no small part explains its widespread popularity.
Naturally, I choose to get off of the pavement as soon as possible, and opt for the immediate left turn onto a connector trail which leads to what’s known as the West Ridge Trail, or West High Way.
West Ridge Trail
The West High Way
At first, the trail is relatively flat, lazily meandering its way up the initial hillside.
Eucalyptus and jacaranda trees dot the trail, and provide some much-needed shade, while people with panting dogs stroll by, gossiping. And then, rather suddenly, the path turns to face the canyon’s west ridge head-on, and the incline grows considerably. From a wide, breezy jaunt, the trail swiftly contracts into a snaking, narrow gulley, aimed directly at the park’s highest peak. At this point, the difficulty level cranks up a noticeable notch, so if you’re not prepared for some step-ups and shifty footing (or are, like one person I saw, wearing heels), now is the time to veer off to the right and head back to the paved road.
As the trail climbs steeply up the ridge’s spine, it breaks through the skimpy tree-cover, and the city begins to drop away behind me. At this point, the heat is assaulting—but it does lend the scene an air of authentic Western-ness, like you’re on the set of High Noon, and when a red-tailed hawk glides over the lip of the ridge and wails splendidly, I have to check to be sure there are no cameras rolling.
Every so often, the trail levels out in a brief plateau, and from here the panoramas really start. The city extends so flatly toward the ocean that every foot of altitude seems to add ten miles of visibility, and even from the first stop I can see to downtown unimpeded. I pass a number of red-faced hikers pausing for breathers and photo-ops at each landing, and then the trail crests a rise and I can see, for the first time, all the way to the high point. On either side, the canyon falls away steeply, and I spend some time ogling the novel bird’s-eye views of the crowded mansions and their enticingly refreshing-looking pools before pressing on.
Houses west of the trail, Beverly Hills visible in the background
The West High Way, with summit visible
The last rise to the peak is the steepest yet, and I sympathize with the child who has opted to descend it in a halting scooch. Nevertheless I press onward, and when I finally clamber onto the summit (admittedly feeling a bit jelly-legged), I take a long and sweaty break for the view.
Peak view, facing downtown
Peak view, facing the Hollywood Sign and mountains
The view is (pardon me) cinematic. In a sweeping, three hundred and sixty degree arc I can see the shimmering stalagmites of downtown L.A., the little mound of Beverly Hills, the endless grid of streets, and to the west the ranks of shadowy mountains that extend into the distance, reminding us all that the earth still has dominion here. But perhaps the most gratifying factor is the sound—or, more accurately, the lack of sound. Though the hum of the city is still partially audible, it is significantly dimmed, and the steady breeze that rises up from the valley combines with the swishing brush and clacking crickets to provide a much-sought-after serenity. I can see why the rich people move up here. And I can see also why the Tongva people used this spot as a seasonal hunting camp—down in the canyon, the priceless commodity of shade appears in abundance, and there are sheltered spots everywhere, while up on these ridges and peaks lie unparalleled vantage points and quick access to lower ground, and to the hillsides that abound (or, abounded) with game.
This moment of relative solace is a hot commodity in an area like this, and the opportunity to ponder the sprawl from a safe remove is itself worth the trip.
After catching my breath, I begin my descent. The trail drops down on the other side of the peak quite steeply again, and I nearly slip once, but stay upright. It isn’t long before the city reasserts itself, and the trail takes a right turn as it collides with Mulholland Drive. As it wheels around the back of the canyon, a series of wood bridges and stairs helps navigate the steep face, and finally the trail drops down to where it meets the paved road.
Steep descent from the peak
There are two houses at this junction, quickly and forcefully reintroducing the close proximity of human development. One even has a stable. The foot traffic is noticeably heavier once I start down the road (though not crowded, and comprising mostly tourists who have clearly just popped down the road from above for a photo, as evidenced by their lack of mouth-breathing), and on the right I pass the Rock Mandala, a large spiral of stones arranged by one Robert Wilson, an artist and one of the nearby residents, in 2008. Though it’s still blisteringly hot, the breeze and gently declining road combine to make the descent quite pleasant, and I can enjoy the scurrying lizards and sprawling vistas with considerably less sweat in my eyes.
Before long, there’s another option to step off the pavement to the left, and take the popular route down through what’s known as Inspiration Point. I oblige, and start in on what ends up being a series of steep drops (steep enough that makeshift stairs have been implanted in the hillside) combined with an increasingly urban scenery. At one point, I pass a large fence on the left topped with barbed wire, along which hundreds of padlocks have been attached, Pont des Arts–style, and later, a sign zip-tied to the chainlink: “God, will there be free wifi?”
Makeshift stairs above Inspiration Point
Small crowds of people mill around these more spacious vista points, and one man arranges a group of commendably cooperative dogs for a group photo (be assured, they looked fabulous). At one point, there’s a bench that appeared in episode forty-five of Seinfeld, and at another I see man who has apparently just done this hike in sweatpants, which is, I think, equally as compelling.
At this point, the trail meanders just a few more times before bottoming out into the paved thoroughfare that leads back to the main gates.
The home stretch
Sweaty and satisfied, I get back to my car just before noon, the hike itself having lasted the better part of an hour and a half (be advised, I do have long legs, and don’t stop much if I don’t have to, so factor that in as you will). As I pull out onto Hollywood Boulevard, the city comes crashing back in, in all of its flashing and screeching and sirens, and just like that it’s back into the freak party. I’m glad, I think as I wait for the tenth minute at a left turn, that places like Runyon Canyon exist. Despite the encroaching sprawl and the difficult parking, trails like the West High Way rise up like oases from the cramped valley, and allow us a small degree of remove from the insanity that we’ve invented. Even though it’s just a stone’s throw from the glam and the red carpets, Runyon Canyon allows us to sweat, to really feel the ground that’s so otherwise buried under concrete, and, for a moment, to see each other, and ourselves, from a higher, clearer vantage point, in all of our weird and too-human reality. I think that’s worth something.