Friday, October 3, 2014

Hike to the Hollywood Sign

Perhaps the Hollywood Sign that sits atop Mount Lee has been glamorized by the big screen.  Until living here, I didn't realize how many different places it is visible from (which is funny because my dad had visited L.A. three times without seeing it until we made a point to... now I can't even count how many times I have looked up and caught a glimpse of it).

A curiosity that has always crossed my mind is how big those letters must be to be visible from below.  I wanted to see for myself...

Hollywood Sign

The sign was erected in 1923 and originally read "HOLLYWOODLAND".  It was commissioned by Los Angeles Times publisher, Harry Chandler, as a temporary billboard for his upscale real estate development.  The $21,000 billboard was originally planned to stand for only a year and a half.  The sign became property of the city in 1944.  In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce removing the letters that spelled "LAND" and rescuing the fallen "H" (for a brief period, the sign read "Ollywoodland").


In 1973, the sign officially became a landmark, but that did nothing to preserve it.  Parts of letters started to fall, and someone set fire to the bottom of the second "L".  Pranksters altered the signs letters to read "Hollyweed" (advocating looser marijuana laws) and later "Holywood" (when Pope John Paul II visited in 1987).

Who saved the Hollywood Sign?  A celebrity face you might think to be an unlikely hero - Hugh Hefner!  He hosted a gala at the Playboy Mansion where sign letters were adopted at $27,700 per letter.  The sign was removed in August 1978 and reborn three months later (this time constructed of material intended to last longer than a year and a half).

I encourage you to read more about the fascinating history of the Hollywood Sign from the official website, HollywoodSign.org. It's a great resource that I wish I had found much sooner!

Finding Point A

Hiking to the Hollywood Sign had never crossed my mind as a possibility until I read an article about it on We Like LA.  So after I purchased my first hiking shoes from REI on Sunday (getting serious about California outdoors!), I decided that the next day, I would make my first adventure a hike to the Hollywood Sign.

I did my research.  I took notes on how to get there.  Read a few photo reviews to familiarize myself.  And found an address to program into my GPS.  Woke up bright and early Monday morning so that I could start the hike before the afternoon heat.  Traffic wasn't even that bad on the way over there....

Then I saw the signs.  "No access to Hollywood Sign."  That's a little strange.  I kept driving anyway (mostly because there was no place to turn around).  More signs... "No Access to Hollywood Sign."  "Sunset Ranch Only."  "Go to Griffith Observatory for Hollywood Sign."  I was too busy reading all of these signs that I drove right past a security guard!

But I played it cool.  "Can I just turn around here?"  "Yes, go ahead."  I probably should have asked her where to go to hike to the Hollywood Sign, but I was too thrown-off to think straight.  And I was a little worried she was going to tell me it wasn't possible.  So instead, I got lost and spent at least ten minutes on a tight and winding residential street.

All of the sites that I had read about hiking to the Hollywood Sign had told me to go to Beachwood Drive to park and access the HollyRidge Trail used by Sunset Ranch.  This is no longer correct information.  Do not go to Beachwood Drive (unless you're going horseback riding at Sunset Ranch)!  I'm not sure exactly when they instated security (though I think it was recent considering a group from We Like LA hiked there a few months ago), but my guess is that Sunset Ranch got really sick of hikers using their parking area.... or maybe the residents of Beachwood Drive got sick of hikers driving through their neighborhood.

After I finally found my way out of the neighborhood, I headed to Griffith Observatory which I had visited several days prior.  Still, I wasn't sure how to hike to the Hollywood Sign from there.  I drove around looking for signage and got a little lost, again.  So I stopped and searched on my phone (what would we do without smart phones these days?) for hiking to the Hollywood Sign and found a trail from Bronson Canyon-Griffith Park.  I'll take it!

Canyon Boulevard Trail

The trail wasn't too welcoming.  I stood back and observed other hikers go around the gate before I decided to make my move.  My new shoes were a huge motivating factor... I had to test them out!

Canyon Boulevard Trail

And I soon ran into another gate to walk around...

Canyon Boulevard Trail

Canyon Boulevard Trail is a dirt path that is shared with Sunset Ranch (and therefore has a fair amount of horse poop). So the terrain is pretty even throughout. Closer to the Hollywood Sign, the road is paved. So hiking shoes definitely aren't a necessity, but I'd recommend footwear with a bit of traction that you don't mind getting dirty. The entire trail is 6.5 miles roundtrip, and the entire journey took me around three hours, stopping several places for photos.

Canyon Boulevard Trail

I was really glad that I had brought a full water bottle. It was scorching hot, and the sun was brutal. I was also very glad that I had decided to wear a fast-drying workout tank, rather than a t-shirt which surely would have been uncomfortably drenched by the end of the hike.

Canyon Boulevard Trail

Canyon Boulevard Trail

Signage on the trail is poor. In fact, the only signs I recall reading are those reminding people to stay on the trails (well how do I know it's a trail if you don't mark it?) and not do anything illegal.

Canyon Boulevard Trail

With no signs, I was forced to go with my intuition.... and common sense. I had noticed some horses coming from below, and it didn't look like that lead to the Hollywood Sign, so I chose to go up (right).

Canyon Boulevard Trail

Canyon Boulevard Trail

Another unmarked fork in the road. There is a sign, though. But rather than providing navigational guidelines, it's reminding you to use a trash can and dispose of dog poo (horse poo, on the other hand, is acceptable to leave on the ground). I stood there for a while and decided to go up, again (right, again).

Canyon Boulevard Trail

The higher you go, the better the view. Even if it is a smoggy day outside...

Canyon Boulevard Trail

To the Hollywood Sign

As I ascended, I could see Griffith Observatory.

Griffith Observatory and L.A. Skyline

The entire way up, I would catch glimpses of the sign. It felt like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow... could I ever catch up?

TV Tower

To the Hollywood Sign

To the Hollywood Sign

The path goes around the back side of the mountain before curving around to the Hollywood Sign. Whenever I felt lost, I looked for the TV tower.

To the Hollywood Sign

The back side provides great views of the valley.

The Valley

Behind the Hollywood Sign

Finally, I was rewarded!

Hollywood Sign

The entire Hollywood Sign is protected by a chain link fence and multiple security cameras.

Hollywood Sign

You might wonder why, and my thoughts are that the sign is secured for several reasons...

1) It's a safety issue. The mountain is very steep, and people could fall and get hurt, especially the inexperienced hikers (myself included) who have come for the attraction of the sign. Also, it's a high-risk fire zone.

2) It seems that visiting the sign is generally discouraged. While three different hikes to the sign are published on the official HollywoodSign.org site, the signs in the surrounding area warning visitors that the sign cannot be accessed, as well as the overall lack of signage on the trail, leads me to believe that they want to keep the hike to the Hollywood Sign on the down-low.

3) Per usual, the people before us have ruined it for the rest of us. Vandalism to the sign by hoodlems in the past has surely contributed to the restricted access today.

Restricted Entry

For a view of the rear of the sign without the chain-link fence completely obstructing it, you can climb a little bit higher, which of course gets you farther behind the sign, but allows you to see more of it.

Hollywood Sign

I had hiked all the way to the top with my Tokina f/2.8 11-16mm lens just for this shot (an ultra wide-angle lens is necessary to capture the entirety of the sign)...

Hollywood Sign

I'll have to come back on a clearer day.

Hollywood Sign


The road to the top of Mount Lee actually received a fair amount of vehicular traffic. What originally functioned as Don Lee (for whom the mountain is named)'s television transmitter, the tower is now owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles, and the site is used by the federal government.  Several cars came and went from the area as I hiked up and down the trail.

Hollywood Sign

Finding the Front of the Sign

After hiking to the top, I decided to take the paved road all the way down, which I suspected would lead the the parking lot that I had originally thought I would use (it did) that had a great view of the Hollywood Sign. Wanting to test out my new shoes, I broke the rules and went off the trail, taking a path some other hikers had made which took me to a large, empty parking lot with an excellent view.

Hollywood Sign

So I took my time taking photos. What I didn't know at the time (because I had come to this lot by an unofficial trail... though no trails are actually marked, so my argument is that none of them are truly official) was that I was trespassing. When I left a different way... out the actual vehicle entry to the lot which was gated closed, I passed a sign that read "Absolutely No Trespassing. Violators will be Prosecuted." I suppose I'm sneaky enough that I slipped away without being prosecuted, but my advice to all of you is to follow what I say, not what I do, and stay on the obvious trails.

The photos were worth the risk, though...

Hollywood Sign

Hollywood Sign

Back Down the Mountain

I was surprised at how long it took to get back.  As I followed the trail, I was surprised that I had hiked all that way!

Canyon Boulevard Trail

Canyon Boulevard Trail

Looking down on Sunset Ranch (don't try to park there)...

Sunset Ranch

But it was a fun hike, and I'm glad I broke in my new shoes!

Canyon Boulevard Trail

Do it Yourself

A hike to the Hollywood Sign is fun and offers great views of Los Angeles, Burbank, and the Hollywood Sign.  It's also really near the city, so it's the perfect way to squeeze in a little outdoor adventure into a weekend in Los Angeles.  You could easily do the hike in the morning and still have time for an evening out and about in the city.

Do your research.  I mentioned above that I wish I had found the HollywoodSign.org site sooner.  That is because they actually list the three current trails you can take to get to the Hollywood Sign (verify with the HollywoodSign.org site that these trails are still accessible at the time of your hike) - the Mount Hollywood trail (from Griffith Observatory), the Cahuenga Peak hike (for more experienced hikers), and the Canyon Boulevard Trail (which is the route I took).

Dress for the weather.  It obviously will vary depending on the time of year, but the Los Angeles sun is brutal, and there is little shade on the trail.  I'm really glad that I wore lightweight, fast-dry clothing.  As for shoes, the Canyon Boulevard Trail has relatively even terrain, and the road leading to the Hollywood Sign is paved.  Hiking shoes aren't a necessity, but I would recommend footwear that you don't mind getting dirty, as the trail is very dusty.  Personally, I prefer a closed shoes, but I think this trail would be fine for an all-weather sandal if you don't mind getting your feet becoming caked in dirt.

Bring lots of water!  I wish I had brought two water bottles, actually.  I should have frozen a second water bottle so that it would have melted as I hiked... would have been cold and refreshing after my first!

Pack a snack.  I threw some berries in my bag because I hadn't thought to purchase a granola bar or anything of the like.  Still, I was really glad to have something to give me energy on my way back to the car.

Don't ruin it for the rest of us.  Follow the rules and be respectful.  And don't hop the fence!  Hiking to the Hollywood Sign is a unique privilege that could be taken away from all of us if someone does something stupid.  Don't be that person.

Take your time and have fun!  Since I was alone, I didn't have to worry about keeping pace with anyone which was nice.  I could stop for a photo whenever I wanted!  But if you're traveling with a buddy or a group, let them know if you need to pull over, and be respectful of a friend who needs to take a break.  The small amount of time that you lose by stopping is well worth preventing injury!

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