Hiking is one of Los Angeles’ best-known activities, up there with movie-going, surfing, clubbing and taco-tasting. Angelenos are voracious hikers, and they have a lot of ground to work with. At 4,000 square miles, LA County is larger than some US states, and much of that is canyons filled with a California outback landscape of tall pines, scrub brush, seasonal wildflowers and inspirational views across the city or to the next mountain range.
Some adventures are literally steps from places you'll be visiting anyway and access is generally free, with the only possible cost being parking (and you can usually find ways to avoid that too, with street parking nearby).
Here are 5 popular trails in and around LA, so grab your hiking shoes (even a good pair of sneakers will do on most trails), sunscreen and water bottle, and get going! A whole other side of LA can be yours. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, be sure to visit the park's website before you head out.
1. Griffith Park
Adjacent to some of LA's hippest neighborhoods – Silver Lake and Los Feliz to the south, and Atwater Village to the north – Griffith Park is one of America's largest urban green spaces, at nearly 7 square miles (Central Park in New York is one-fifth the size).
But more than the land mass, it's the height and breadth that set it apart: 53 miles of hiking trails leading to landmarks including the Hollywood Sign, Griffith Observatory, even the Batcave from the classic Batman TV series. Hikes range from simple half-hour, low difficulty affairs to the challenging 4-hour northern route with an elevation gain of nearly 2,500 feet.
First timers will definitely want to visit the Griffith Observatory (where there's a parking lot, though it's often easier to take a shuttle bus from below) to stargaze outside by night or inside the planetarium by day. The observatory's promontory offers bang-on views towards Downtown LA to the left, the Hollywood Sign behind you, the LA Basin spread out below you and, on clear days, all the way to the ocean, 14 miles away.
Pro tip: Go at sunset. You're welcome.
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2. Runyon Canyon
Runyon is probably every local's – and every visitor's – first LA hiking trail. This city-run park sits right above Hollywood, 130 acres crammed with all the eye candy that entails: shirtless bros and hardbody babes working it in the latest fitness gear, others working out with trainers, everyday folks working in a morning yoga lesson or walking highly pettable pooches. You may even spot a celebrity cleverly disguised behind a baseball hat and sunglasses – they don't call these the Hollywood Hills for nothing. But while ogling your fellow hikers, don't forget to drink in the views across the LA Basin.
Plus, you don't even need a car to get here. The trailhead is about 10 minutes on foot from the Hollywood & Highland stop on the Metro Red Line subway.
3. Temescal Gateway Park
This park in Pacific Palisades is a minor miracle, being just a short drive from Santa Monica or Venice yet part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. A loop trail takes you past a waterfall (more of a trickle during the dry season), through pine groves and canyons of oak and chaparal, and along ridges with views all along the coastline. It's a great short break. Fast hikers can complete it in about 90 minutes and get on with the rest of their day.
All in all, it's an easy escape, and you'll have plenty of company, though it never feels crowded. Parking costs $7 in the lot at Temescal Gateway Park, but you can usually find free parking along Sunset Boulevard and walk in the extra five minutes.
4. Topanga Canyon State Park
City? What city? 11,529-acre Topanga Canyon is America's largest state park located entirely within city limits, but after sashaying up Pacific Coast Highway and shimmying the twisty-turny route through the canyon, LA seems like a distant memory. Topanga's a well-loved refuge for hearty hikers, 36 miles of trails wind through grass savannah and chaparral, where you can duck beneath shady oaks and skirt cliffs with views over Malibu down below to the ocean (and, should you like, LA too).
Our favorite day hike is from park headquarters to the two-mile Eagle Rock Trail. The namesake rock on a promontory always makes us think of the Lion King. Most trails link with the Backbone Trail through the Santa Monica Mountains, leading to other canyons and parks.
Afterwards, take time out in the village of Topanga, where vintage shops like Hidden Treasures and Hillbilly Hip, and restaurants like the Inn of the Seventh Ray, have a 1970s throwback vibe.
5. Catalina Island
Catalina is a 26-mile ferry ride (hour to an hour-and-a-half) from the port of Long Beach in southern LA County but a world away in attitude. The main town, Avalon, is so small (population under 4,000) that people get around by golf cart, though you can also rent bicycles or walk, and activities include snorkeling, going to spas and zip-lining.
For hikers, though, the best part is the inland area. Catalina is 75 square miles, 88 percent of which is nature preserve. Get a hiking permit through the Catalina Island Conservancy (in Avalon or online), and get going. There are day hikes, overnight hikes and even the three-to-four-day, 37.2-mile Trans-Catalina Trail.
Bring plenty of water and sunscreen as there's almost no shade, and be on the lookout for a herd of about 150 bison (yes, bison), whose ancestors were brought here for a film shoot in the 1920s; leave them alone, and they'll return the favor. Non-hikers can enjoy nature tours by open-sided Humvee.
Bonus: Urban Gardens
If hiking isn't your thing but you still want time in nature, LA's got you covered too, with some of America's most renowned botanical gardens. One of the best is the Huntington Library in San Marino, adjacent to Pasadena, where a dozen themed gardens (Chinese, Japanese, desert, rose, etc.) cover 120-plus acres. In between gardens, browse the impressive pavilions of European and American art and historical artifacts including a Gutenberg Bible and Thomas Gainsborough's portrait the Blue Boy.
About a 10-mile drive northwest of Pasadena or north from Downtown LA, in La Cañada Flintridge, seasonal plantings at the 150-acre Descanso Gardens burst with color year-round along a gentle slope well worth a ramble.
And since (we hope) you'll be visiting the Getty Center anyway, make sure to take a gander at the ever-changing gardens and waterways designed by Robert Irwin, with a backdrop of Richard Meier's monumental travertine marble museum buildings and the city spread out before you like a magic carpet to the Pacific.
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This article was originally published in January 2018 and updated in June 2020.