Hiking Rustic Canyon: Exploring a trail with a curious past

Marlen Mertz takes a spin through lush Rustic Canyon, where a staircase leads to sweeping ridge-top views. Photographer Jamie Rector follows along on the trek.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2004.

Marlen Mertz
Every step through Rustic Canyon reveals a rich history, from the remnants of an artists’ colony to immense staircases that rise out of the canyon.

This hike has a little bit of everything: ridges with beautiful views, a lush canyon, a seasonal stream, a view of the ocean and stories from the past that peek out everywhere.

The hike starts in tree-lined Sullivan Canyon, but you spend only about 10 minutes there before making a steep ascent that’s a pretty good workout. You land on West Sullivan Ridge, which provides a view back down on the canyon.

You understand why it’s called Rustic Canyon after you take a trail that leads you down into it.

The canyon is particularly pretty with lots of foliage and a thin trail that winds in and out of a streambed.

You’re surrounded by big hills on both sides and a lot of history.

In the canyon behind you, there is a Boy Scout Camp on land donated by Anatol Josepho, the guy who invented the instant photo booth. As you walk through Rustic Canyon, there’s Murphy Ranch, which housed a strange enclave of Nazi sympathizers before World War II.

There’s also a horse stable, a steel garage, a concrete structure used as a generator building and foundations and retaining walls that look like they could have been built yesterday.

A hidden concrete staircase, one of three, brings you up out of the canyon.

The ranchers probably built them so they could cultivate the fruit, olive and nut trees that were planted on the hillsides. With its 513 steps, the staircase seems to go on forever.

Once you are up those stairs, a road takes you to another ridge, where you can pause to enjoy a view of the entire Los Angeles Basin.

You end up on Old Ranch Road, a paved residential street with rustic-looking homes and horses in the frontyards.

From there, you take a little trail, one the locals probably use for their horses, to return to where you started.

The particulars

Where: Hike through Sullivan and Rustic canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains begins at the end of Queensferry Road in Los Angeles.

What: It takes about 2 1/2 to 3 hours to walk the approximately 5.2-mile loop with an elevation gain of 900 feet. The moderate hike includes climbing staircases with hundreds of steps.

How: From the 405 Freeway, exit at Sunset Boulevard and head west. Turn right on Mandeville Canyon Road, then make a series of lefts on Westridge Road, Bayless Road and Queensferry Road. Parking is restricted, so read the signs carefully.

Back story: According to the out-of-print “Rustic Canyon and the History of the Uplifters” by Betty Lou Young, buildings from what was originally known as Murphy Ranch in the 1930s and ’40s remain.

A couple who lived on the ranch were intent on establishing a utopian community there. The enclave became an artists’ colony in the 1950s and ’60s.

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