January is unequivocally the best time to hike in Southern California, and even more so after record-breaking rains have reactivated dormant waterfalls and painted the foothills neon green. So it’s pretty much the most ideal moment to buy the essential Day Hiking: Los Angeles, the new book by Modern Hiker’s Casey Schreiner.
A writer for TV and video games, Schreiner has built Modern Hiker into one of the most authoritative hiking sites on the internet. Day Hiking: Los Angeles builds upon Modern Hiker’s winning formula. The itineraries are tightly curated, offer options for all experience levels, and written in an engaging, witty voice. Schreiner also writes eloquently about conservation and how Angelenos can get involved in protecting the region.
In addition to the book, Modern Hiker just debuted a beautiful new website with a nifty hike-finding tool that makes it easy to find hikes in far-flung locations like Hawaii, Mexico, and Canada. But we’re here to talk about LA, and in particular how easy it is to access nature in the 503 square miles surrounding us. I asked Schreiner for a few tips on how to enjoy LA’s unique urban wilderness.
The thing I love best about your book is that I can pick it up without any planning first thing in the morning, head out, and be on a trail within the hour. What’s the best bang-for-your-buck hike: Something quick, accessible, yet very high-impact when it comes to views, beauty, or history?
You know, an area I cover in the book that really doesn’t get a fair shake from the LA hiking crowd is the Puente-Chino Hills. There is an impressive and sprawling trail network there that—during the clear sky days of winter and spring—has what I consider the best views in the entire LA region.
Last time I was hiking there I could see every major mountain range in Southern California—the San Gabriels, San Bernardinos, San Jacintos, Santa Anas, and even the Santa Monicas—as well as clear views of Downtown LA and the Pacific Coast. The trails are mostly well-traveled and of moderate difficulty, too, so if you can navigate Whittier’s unfortunately expanding resident-only parking zones, you can really treat yourself to some spectacular scenery. Just remember: The entire preserve is closed for 48 hours following any rain!
So steer clear today. I hate driving and parking. What’s the best transit-accessible hike in LA?
Well, until the San Gabriel Complex Fire, it was Fish Canyon just north of Azusa and Duarte. In the early spring of 2016, the city of Duarte used money raised from Measure R to fund a shuttle from the Gold Line to the trailhead on the weekends, and by all accounts the project was a big success. Unfortunately, the fire severely damaged Fish Canyon, and now the trail is off-limits.
There was a pilot program that ran a free shuttle from the Gold Line to Chantry Flat — one of the most beautiful places to hike in Southern California that also has the distinction of being one of the most frustrating places to find a parking spot. That program was also extremely popular, and when voters passed Measures A and M last year they freed up funding to make programs like that permanent. When that pilot program was running, I traveled from my front door in Hollywood to one of my favorite trailheads without ever setting foot in a private automobile, and that was an experience I was not ever expecting to have in Los Angeles.
Besides free shuttles, how could Metro make doing these types of hikes easier?
Not every trailhead needs a brand new shuttle program to become transit accessible. There are so many hikes in the city that are achingly close to existing rail and bus stops. If Metro extended line 180/181 just a mile further north, they could connect the popular Echo Mountain trailhead and Farnsworth Park to the Gold Line without any additional infrastructure.
The good news is that many cities and agencies are actively looking to make better transit connections to trailheads. The Transportation Plan for the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument actually lists reducing the number of automobiles on the roads as a goal, which is incredibly progressive both for the Forest Service and for the LA region.
What’s the most un-LA hike in your book? Somewhere you can post an Instagram from and people will never believe it's in LA?
To be honest, I think any trail where you can frame out signs of urban life (and that’s a whole lot of them) can shock people who think they know what LA is. In spring when the sage scrub and wild cucumber vines explode, even popular routes like the Los Liones Trail in Pacific Palisades look like they’re a world away—but I think generally once you head into the higher San Gabriels and you get into pine tree territory, it really doesn’t look like you’re in SoCal anymore. Icehouse Canyon near Mount Baldy can probably pass for the Rocky Mountains as long as you’re not showing off your Instagram to a botanist or geologist.
What about the best hike and overnight camping combo that’s within one hour of downtown?
Within an hour’s drive you really have a ton of options. There are coastal and hike-in campgrounds in the Santa Monica Mountains that are usually much easier to snag in the cooler winter months (which, coincidentally, is also a much better time to hike in that region). Several long distance trails offer backpacking and car camping choices depending on what kind of terrain you’re looking for—the Silver Moccasin, Gabrielino, High Desert National Recreation Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail all meander along different routes in the San Gabriels. And for budget-conscious travelers, a majority of the hike-in Forest Service campgrounds don’t even cost any money to sleep in!
The completion of the 67-mile Backbone Trail was one of the big highlights of last year. What should be the next priority for LA’s urban trail system?
The Backbone Trail is a tremendous accomplishment that was many, many years in the making. The next step there will be to establish some trail camps along the route to make it feasible for backpacking, but in my mind the most exciting potential project for LA’s urban trail system would be a way for all of our land management agencies to start working together more effectively to present a comprehensive and holistic experience for users.
The Rim of the Valley Project aims to extend the boundaries of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area along and around the San Fernando Valley, allowing dozens of agencies to more effectively collaborate on projects and connecting the outdoor realms of the Santa Monicas, Santa Susanas, and Verdugos with the San Gabriel Foothills, Hollywood Hills, Griffith and Elysian Parks, and even along the LA River into the Pueblo.
That would be amazing!
Back in 2015 I wrote an in-depth explanation of the proposed expansion and even hypothesized some potential benefits, like better signs, more trail connections, and even potentially a new interagency visitor center in the Pueblo that visitors could reach without a car. Now the Gateway to Nature Center is open in the Pueblo, and legislators are backing the expansion of the Rim of the Valley and more protection for the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers and Puente Hills.
It is not altogether unrealistic to envision a time when when someone in LA will be able to hike from the Pacific Coast across the Santa Monica Mountains through Griffith Park to downtown, then into the Verdugos or along the Arroyo Seco and into the San Gabriels, then along the San Gabriel River to the Puento-Chino Hills and down into Orange County.
Speaking of Griffith Park, we’ve written a lot about how to preserve public access to the Hollywood Sign in particular, but also keep cars out of the park and surrounding neighborhoods. There have been some ideas—the city recently revealed a plan to run DASH buses seven days a week from the Sunset/Vermont Red line station—but what do you want to see happen?
First off, I have to say that I live near Griffith Park and I hike there pretty regularly, and there are a lot of developments that show the park is moving in a good direction. It may have taken them 100 years to get signs up at trail junctions and wayfinding maps at popular trailheads, but better late than never!
Seriously! Amen to that.
That said, Griffith is most definitely on the front line of the conflicts between residents and visitors and between recreation and preservation. It also doesn’t help that a bonafide global landmark is smack-dab in the middle of it. It’s important to remember that although it is a developed public park, it is also home to some very sensitive landscapes and native species that are very adversely affected by crowds, noise, litter, and unnecessary trail erosion caused by cutting switchbacks.
I think the move to de-incentivize driving and parking inside Griffith and increasing the DASH shuttle frequency are both good ideas. The more we can encourage walking or taking transit into the park, the better—that stretch of Western Canyon Road to the Observatory has some of the most congested and angriest traffic in LA County right now. It’s a little disorienting, to say the least, to hike through a park for an hour then come upon a honking, blaring, cursing gridlocked line of exhaust-spewing cars in the middle of the city’s largest park.
It’s always struck me as odd that there wasn’t some kind of in-park shuttle to connect the park’s more popular areas. The DASH is great if you’re coming up from the Red line and want to see the Observatory or the Sign, but it still won’t take you to Fern Dell or Trails Cafe, nor does it help if you want to get to the Zoo or the Autry or Travel Town or the golf courses. A shuttle like that could also provide some good opportunities to lay out the rules of the park for a captive audience, so we can help cut down on instances of people making their own trails on fragile slopes, screaming at tarantulas during mating season, or treating Amir’s Garden as their personal pick-as-much-as-you-want wildflower patch.
OK, I didn’t know there were tarantulas in Griffith Park, so thanks for that bit of information. What’s the most incredible, weird, or surprising thing you uncovered about LA while researching or writing this book?
During the course of writing the book, I was still drawn to those human histories in the San Gabriels. For me, the story of Will Thrall really stood out; Will Thrall Peak is named after him. He was a fellow indoorsy New Englander who moved to Southern California in the late 1880s, just in time for the Great Hiking Era to kick off—a time when hiking, backpacking, and relaxing in remote wilderness resorts were the most popular pastimes in the region.
Like many people who move here, he reinvented himself and became one of the first modern historians of the San Gabriel Mountains. He became the editor of Trails Magazine during the Great Depression and wrote a hiking column for the Los Angeles Times, inspiring some of the region’s first preservation efforts.
Today, people are slowly starting to come around to the idea of LA as a great outdoor city, but it always surprising to be reminded of just how old that idea is.
If you want to meet Casey and ask him even more questions about LA hiking or make him sign your book, I’ll be interviewing him at 6 p.m. Sunday, January 29 at the Last Bookstore, 453 South Spring Street in Downtown LA. All details here.