BEACHWOOD CANYON, HOLLYWOOD SIGN
Distance: 4 miles
Duration: 1.5 hours
Transportation: Beachwood Canyon DASH bus. Ample free street parking.
This is a brisk city walk with a country feeling, starting high in Hollywood's Beachwood Canyon and climbing almost to the base of the Hollywood sign. Along the way are fantastic views of the Hollywood Reservoir, some famous homes and a visit to some of the area's secret public staircases.
Begin your walk in Beachwood Canyon, a mile or so north of Franklin Avenue on North Beachwood Drive. Park in the vicinity of the Beachwood Market, at the corner of Belden Drive, perhaps after a hearty breakfast at the Village Coffee Shop (2695 N. Beachwood Drive). Then head west on Belden and begin the ascent.
Watch for oncoming traffic on this narrow, winding road. Follow it to the tight switchback left onto Flagmoor Place, then bear left as Flagmoor, continuing to rise, turns into Durand Drive. On your right you'll see, rising steeply, the stone walls of a Norman chateau. Turn right at the front gates of this structure and find the beginning of the fire road leading down toward the Hollywood Reservoir.
The chateau is an old Hollywood home once known as Wolf's Lair. It was built for L. Milton Wolf, one of the original Hollywoodland real estate team who developed the Beachwood area and placed the famous sign on the mountain above. (Other Hollywoodland investors included former Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler and Pacific Electric Railway director Gen. M.H. Sherman, after whom Sherman Oaks is named.) It was later home to Debbie Reynolds and more recently was bought and remodeled by music maker Moby.
Follow the fire road downhill as the Hollywood Reservoir spreads out before you. At the T-intersection, turn right onto a wide path that is actually a defunct section of the old Mulholland Highway. (It used to curve down the hill and cross the dam before continuing on across the Cahuenga Pass. You may tread upon sections of old asphalt as you walk here.) The trail will be decorated now by cactus, agave, yucca and Spanish broom, a beautiful and sweet-smelling invasive weed hated by native plant enthusiasts. Climb a little as the trail narrows and bends, bearing always right and staying close to the hillside.
In time, the Hollywood sign and an enormous Mediterranean villa will appear. The massive 1926 structure is known as Castillo del Lago and used to be the residence for another music maven, Madonna. Before that, it was home to gangster Bugsy Siegel, who is said to have run an illegal gambling operation here.
The trail will approach Castillo del Lago and hug its walls as it rises to become a paved section of Mulholland and to meet Canyon Lake Drive. Turn left, and head downhill.
High up to the right is the famed Hollywood sign. High up to the left is a hillside vineyard, where grapes are grown for Hollywood's only native winery, Hollywood Classic Wine, which cultivates grapes on six of its estimated 40 acres of property. (Bottles of its 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon cost $200, if you can get one. Only 100 cases were produced.)
Down and to the left is the Hollywood Reservoir, a man-made lake said to hold 2.5 billion gallons of water behind a dam dating from 1924. The dam and water storage scheme were designed by William Mulholland, whose visionary ideas formed the back story to the Roman Polanski movie classic "Chinatown."
Follow Canyon Lake Drive down to a stop sign, at Tahoe Drive. To visit the lake itself, turn left here and walk downhill a couple of blocks. Then turn left and enter the gated pedestrian walkway around the lake. It's just over 1.5 miles from this point to the dam.
Otherwise, walk straight on. Ignore the "No outlet" sign and climb Canyon Lake Drive until it terminates in a cul-de-sac backed by a white gate. Go around the gate and continue climbing on the wide path that hangs in the shadow of the Hollywood sign.
Now you will be closer to the abundant canyon wildlife. I've heard reports of deer and coyote along here, as well as varieties of lizards and snakes. Easier to spot are the cactus, yucca, sycamore and oak that grow on the lower slopes and the eucalyptus that tower high above.
The trail will eventually wind around and meet paved road — Mulholland Drive again. To get even closer to the Hollywood sign, or indeed to walk directly to it, turn left here and follow Mulholland. Stay to the left where Mulholland meets Ledgewood Drive and continue up and around. Mulholland will eventually run out of pavement and will meet Mt. Lee Drive. Staying always to the left, follow this trail until you find yourself above the famous lettered sign. You'll be treated to fine views of the city, facing south, and the San Fernando Valley, facing north — with an unexpected bird's eye view of the Mt. Sinai and Forest Lawn cemeteries.
If you're not in the mood for that, turn right on Mulholland. Walk to the first corner, then turn left onto Durand Drive. Follow this down and around — watch your step as the road terraces — and appreciate the many strange hillside-hanging homes as you pass them. Dig the tiki art at 3220, the totem pole at 3092 and the geodesic dome home at 3158, said to be an original Buckminster Fuller residence, but … maybe not.
Just after the house at 2960, look carefully on the left for a wrought-iron railing and a set of concrete steps. This is a public staircase. Take it, and descend between houses to emerge at a bend in Belden Drive. Turn left, follow Belden around a couple of corners and find another public staircase on the right.
This is a fine granite-and-concrete structure dating from 1928. It once had a stream of water running down the center of it, where flowers and succulents now grow. It also is popular with runners and climbers, some of whom you may see working their way up and down the risers.
At the bottom, walk straight ahead a few feet to hit North Beachwood Drive. Turn right and walk downhill. Shortly you will find yourself back at the corner of Beachwood and Belden, and your starting point.
Fleming is the author of "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles" and "Secret Stairs East Bay: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Berkeley and Oakland." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments and suggestions for future walks.