Best Hikes in L.A.: Santa Susana State Historic Park

This 670-acre park in the Santa Susana Mountains is a lesser-traveled, yet easily-reached hiking area full of historic, cultural and natural features. L.A.-area explorers looking for something a little different will enjoy a trip to Santa Susana State Historic Park; its fantastic rock formations, visible from miles away, are even more amazing up close.

One of the main attractions of the park is the Old Stagecoach Trail, a route carved in the mid-1800s to accommodate mud wagons and stagecoaches making their way down the pass. You can access it from the ridge above as well as from street level. This is a fairly challenging climb, and even in late spring the temperatures quickly soar to the roasting point, therefore packing plenty of water is a must. From the upper end it is very rocky and steep, so it’s slow going and not for the unfit. Most of the lower trails are easy to moderate in difficulty, and just as full of breathtaking vistas.

When we visited recently, it was to go up the Stagecoach Trail as long as it felt comfortable; due to 6′ to 7′-high brush (and not taking the brochure containing a map from the entrance gate) we got confused about halfway up. Fortuitously, a park volunteer showed up just then on the trail, and not only did she lead us out of the “wilderness” she pointed out which trail led where, and shared lots of historical details and anecdotes about park use (and mis-use) that would have taken hours of research to learn on our own. We hiked around the southerly area of the park, a beautiful oak- and olive tree-dotted high meadow encircled by the huge, grotesque sandstone outcroppings, which we would have missed if we had struggled down the road the way we came. I would recommend joining the flower and history hikes given by the Friends of the Santa Susana Mountains, who have a group on Facebook and will notify you in advance of their events. Later in the year the brush is drier and not as thick, so you can see the trails much more easily. The tradeoff is if you don’t go early, you will be incinerated by the heat.

Along the way we heard some intriguing tales of the Chumash Indians who lived here, along with some details on still-extant relics, grinding holes, petroglyphs and gravesites. Some of the locations are kept quiet to prevent looting and destruction. Rabbits, birds, ground squirrels, lizards and snakes were everywhere as well as a thick growth of wildflowers. The park contains both the scarlet and orange monkeyflower, and what appears to be a cross-pollinated red/orange version that looks like smoldering embers. Buckwheat, California sagebrush, black sage, penstemon, phacelia, wild sunflowers and mustard brighten the rugged hillsides during the spring months.

If you grew up on TV westerns, or have a passing affection for cowboys, many views might look familiar here, as several famous movie ranches were located nearby. At any moment you expect to see the Cisco Kid or the Lone Ranger galloping up the trail, spurs and holsters gleaming. We saw no horses, but suddenly the horn of an apporaching Amtrak train sounded and soon the train itself emerged from a tunnel built into the mountainside. We stopped to watch it glide through the curve and disappear behind the ridge, looking exactly like a toy train set.

There are several access points to the park, including 10200 Larwin Ave., 9860 Andora Ave. and from the top of the ridge at 7700 Lilac Lane. Additionally, if you park at the Rocky Peak trailhead on Santa Susana Road, you can take the fire road south and loop around the ridge. Your best bet is the Larwin entrance, because if you follow directions to the actual Devonshire address you will be met with a closed chain link fence and not know what to do next. The grass area and visitor center / museum (Chatsworth Park South) are currently closed due to the discovery of lead deposits – apparently from target-shooting parties held by visitors to Roy Rogers’ ranch nearby in the 1950s. You are still welcome to use the rest of the park by using the other gates. The visitor’s center may re-open by 2012 but it is also facing permanent closure due to California’s budget problems; also, the park is considered under-utilized statistically. This would be a sad turn of events, since aside from Vasquez Rocks you’d be hard-pressed to find another place nearby as visually and geologically interesting outside of Joshua Tree.

Be sure to visit this fascinating state park and take lots of pictures.