That's just one of the pleasures of hiking in and around Los Angeles (yes, we said L.A.).Photographs by Jennifer Rocholl.
I LIKE TO blame my eldest brother for my early aversion to hiking. When I was just seven or eight, Mike, who was attending Dartmouth College at the time, invited our family to stay a few days at an isolated, rustic lodge at the base of Mount Moosilauke, one of New Hampshire's many 4,000-plus-foot peaks. The plan was for the entire brood to climb to the summit together, but I never even made it to the trail.
A favorite nighttime tradition at the lodge was to tell - complete with lights extinguished and well-timed screams - the story of a local doctor who, in the 1800s, kidnapped and killed a young girl on the mountain and was said to still haunt its slopes. Fooling nobody, the next morning I feigned the kind of doubled-over, gasping-for-breath stomachache so popular with kids trying to avoid something unpleasant. It worked, but it also ensured that my cowardice would become family lore. I can't say for sure, but I imagine that my conversion later in life into an enthusiastic mountaineer (I eventually conquered Mount Moosilauke, along with other summits) was simple overcompensation for years of feeling like such a wimp.
Regardless, hiking has become a vital part of my life for all the reasons that are so obvious to anyone who gets out on the trail even occasionally: It's great exercise, it's spiritually renewing, and it provides a connection to nature that's otherwise elusive in modern, urban America. It's also one of the main reasons I live in Los Angeles - yes, Los Angeles. Snicker if you like, but the fact is that L.A. has a remarkable selection of easily accessible trails that can transport you from the clutches of gridlocked traffic to a quiet meadow dotted with grazing deer in a matter of minutes.
Unbeknownst even to many locals, L.A. features an impressive amount of federal, state, and locally managed open space, including Topanga State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains, the largest chunk of wild land located entirely within the borders of a major city. Over the past decade, I've spent countless hours on narrow trails through thick forests filled with sycamore and live oak trees, as well as on wide, dusty fire roads along ridges overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean. Deer are an almost everyday sight in some places; toward dusk and at night, the sound of coyotes howling is common; a rarer treat is to see one of the few mountain lions or bobcats that live in the Santa Monica Mountains. A constant marvel is just how much trail time can be spent in solitude. On weekdays, in particular, it's possible to walk for hours without bumping into another person - this in a city with more than 3.8 million residents.
It would be impossible to detail all the worthwhile hikes within easy reach of metropolitan Los Angeles, let alone the many challenging climbs nearby in the San Gabriel Mountains, Angeles National Forest, and Joshua Tree National Park. Still, if you're looking to trade asphalt for a waterfall or a rearview mirror clogged with SUVs for a wide-open vista, here are a handful of our favorite treks.