Hike on the Dark Side!
Los Angeles and Southern California are home to some spooky hikes.
This isn’t your typical haunted house experience. No ‘dead bodies’ will jump out at you from the bushes as you pass. We hope. But there are some isolated spots, some abandoned homesteads, and a unique eerieness… not far from town.
Just don’t sneer at the warnings about the Poison Oak!
L.A. may be about fun in the sun during the summer, but the City of Angels has its dark side too. Wander up into the canyons and mountains just past the city limits and you’ll find abandoned mines, dense oak forests, bizarre geology, cabin ruins and more eeriness.
Forged by rivaling earthquake faults and snow melt from high in the San Gabriel Mountains, the Punchbowl is as unique a site as can be found anywhere in the L.A. area. Though only a mile long, the loop trail through the heart of the Punchbowl has a phenomenal variety of scenery through the 300-feet deep canyon of gnarled sandstone. The Devil’s Punchbowl is about an hour and half from downtown L.A. and can be reached via Highways 14 and 138.
At first it might look like a set from a military film or perhaps a spy thriller, but the imposing barricade blocking the upper reaches of Castro Peak, the highest point in the eastern half of the Santa Monica Mountains, is real. The gates to the private property are adorned with barbed wire, security cameras and many strongly worded signs. The message is the same as the most time-honored warning the entire horror literature: “Do NOT open that door!” Fortunately, hikers can still enjoy this 2.5-mile stretch of the Backbone Trail, located four miles north of Pacific Coast Highway at the end of Corral Canyon Road, which features panoramic ocean views, interesting geology and dark, shaded canyons.
Merely having the word “Ghost” in its name might not qualify a hike for this list, but the story and setting of Ghost Mountain make it a truly unique spot. One of the odder chapters of SoCal history belongs to Marshal South, a survivalist who built a cabin on top of this mountain in the San Diego desert. His family lived there for a while before the members left one by one, leaving South to make his stand against the harsh terrain. Remnants of his cabin still stand on top of the mountain which can be reached by a short but steep hike through exposed desert terrain. For lovers of the bizarre, it’s a must-see.
Hemet Maze Stone
Bizarreness also abounds at the Hemet Maze Stone, a boulder containing a prehistoric petroglyph of unknown origin and purpose. Theories range from Mayan precursors to proof that the Chinese made it to America before Christopher Columbus. Either way, it is an easily accessible piece of ancient archaeology. The stone lies in the desert northwest of Hemet, a few miles from Highway 74, and can be reached via a short hike on an abandoned paved road.
Using a little-known entrance to Point Mugu State Park this 4-mile round-trip hike has the feel of a covert operation. In the wake of the devastating Malibu Springs Fire of 2013, much of the Serrano Valley area of the park now looks like something from a Mad Max movie. Abandoned farm equipment and appliances at the former homestead site add to the dystopian feel of the hike.
Tin Mine Canyon
Starting out on the fringes of the Corona suburbs, this hike might seem indistinguishable from a trick-or-treat walk through the neighborhood for the first mile—but when it leaves the fire road and heads into claustrophobic Tin Mine Canyon, all bets are off. Gnarled oaks, outcrops of sandstone, caves and yes, an abandoned tin mine, add to the intrigue. If nature is your thing be on the lookout for newts in Tin Mine Creek. The trail officially ends after about a mile in the canyon, but brave souls have been known to venture farther at their own risk. Beware of the poison oak.
Thunder Spring and Chimney Flats
Continuing the theme of abandoned cabins near San Diego, we head now to the north section of the county, high in Palomar Mountain State Park. While undeniably attractive and scenic, this 4-mile hike also features elements of the macabre—the ruins of Scott’s Cabin, the grave of “Big Willy” Pearson, who was killed when a tree fell on him in 1898, and tons of poison oak. While definitely worth the vistas, this hike is challenging, with steep portions and plenty of fallen trees that make avoiding the poison oak a real challenge.
Towsley Canyon Loop
This challenging loop hike in the Santa Clarita Valley, conveniently located on the Old Road near the 5 Freeway, will force you to face both your claustrophobia and acrophobia. Starting in the tight confines of the canyon, the hike climbs a narrow ridge, providing excellent—and somewhat scary—nearly aerial views of the surrounding area, with panoramas that bring together the urban and natural landscape of the region. A ridge near the apex of the trail provides great views of Oat Mountain. At a closer level, the Narrows near the end of the trail (or beginning, depending on which direction you want to hike) is filled with fascinating geology for some good photo ops.
With a history as both a filming mecca and a hideout for outlaws, Vasquez Rocks is a real-life untamed frontier less than an hour’s drive from L.A. The location was a well known spot for bandido Tiburcio Vásquez to lay low, giving the spot its name. Like the Devil’s Punchbowl, the park features gigantic slabs of rock—recognizable from being used in Star Trek, The Flintstones and many more films and TV shows—pushed up as 150 feet from the earth by tectonic activity. The remote and rugged back country quickly starts feeling very isolated—up to and including the eerie tunnel that routes the Pacific Crest Trail beneath the 14 Freeway.
Thick oak woodlands and bizarrely shaped sandstone caves and outcrops have made this small park near the 118 Freeway on the outskirts of Simi Valley a perennial favorite filming location. Look for it in classic Western films and TV shows such as For Apache (starring John Wayne) and The Lone Ranger. Remains of its Hollywood past remains, as hikers can see the remnants of “Silvertown,” one of the old filming sets, along the path. Corriganville is a perfect destination for families whose ideal level of fright is closer to Ghostbusters than The Exorcist.
Image of Devil’s Punchbowl from geekhiker.com, that of Castro Crest from cb1ryder via Flickr.
All other images from David Lockeretz / LAist.com