A few weeks ago, I decided to CONQUER the Hollywood Sign on Mount Lee. I’ve been eyeing that mountain ever since I first set foot in Los Angeles, and it seemed like as good of a time as any to show that mountain who’s boss.
The normal approach
Getting to the Hollywood sign isn’t too tough if you want to take the touristy approach. It’s a cinch to drive up to within a half mile of it, take some snapshots, and be on your way. I’ve done it a few times before. (If you’re wondering how, just head north on Beachwood Drive from Hollywood, through some windy neighborhood streets, and keep heading up. I believe you have to take a left at some point, but basically head toward the sign and don’t go downhill.)
Here’s a picture I took this past summer from one of the roads near the sign itself:
There are also several well-worn hiking trails that head up the East side of the mountain from Griffith Park. (This Etreking.com page will tell you all about it.)
Technically, you’re not allowed to actually go up to the sign itself. It’s illegal trespassing, and the top of the mountain has a complex (including that famous radio tower) that is protected with tall barbed-wire fences, security guards, and hidden cameras. We’re talking a state-of-the-art security system:
“Panasonic Systems designed, engineered, fabricated and installed a cutting-edge security network comprised of a ten-camera closed circuit television surveillance system (CCTV), external alarms, microwave-triggered motion detectors and a bilingual audio warning system… Full-streaming color video images are now fed by all 10 remote cameras through fiber optic lines to the City of Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Security Headquarters, where rangers can monitor all of the cameras simultaneously.”
(Not to mention the pack of vicious bloodhounds, and the cybernetic security guards with rayguns and jetpacks they’ve got up there as well.)
So suffice to say, it’s a bit be a challenge to get up to the sign without getting caught.
Hiking up the back side
But I like challenges! I wasn’t going to heed all those “No Trespassing under penalty of law” signs — I was going to go right up and touch those giant corrugated steel letters, and smile for the cameras.
And I also wasn’t going to pussy out and take the streets or the marked trails to the top of the mountain either. To make things interesting (and perpetually more difficult), I decided to blaze my own trail up the untamed West side of the mountain, to the top of Cahuenga Peak, and then follow the ridge over to the top of Mount Lee. It’s only about three miles total, but considering the steepness, the crumbly rocks and dirt, and the sheer amount of prickly brush in the way, it is no easy hike. It’s one of those ones where you take five steps forward and slide back down four in a little rockslide, meanwhile getting cut to shreds by all the bushes and trees.
I started at the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank, where I lived for a semester when I was in the Ithaca College Los Angeles program. The Oakwoods are home to many things — child actors, porn stars, unheard of levels of infidelity, and the lost soul of “Super Freak” singer Rick James. (In fact, ICLA legend has it that he died in my very apartment at the Oakwoods.)
The Oakwood complex also, conveniently, is right on the back side of Cahuenga Peak. You can literally walk up the back parking lot and just keep going up until you reach the top. Which is exactly what I did.
The first section is really steep, but because of some forest fires two years ago, most of the brush and bushes were burned away. There’s also an access road to reach a bunch of powerlines part way up the hill that I took for a while. You can see it pretty well on the Google satellite image.
Once you get to the other side of the access road, it starts to get tough — it’s a whole lot steeper, and full of brush and rocks like I mentioned before. I can’t give you any advice on how to get up to the top, other than make sure you don’t have anyone beneath you, because they will most certainly get hit by a falling rock… or maybe even you yourself when you fall to your death. I would recommend wearing long pants and sleeves, because you will get cut to pieces. (My legs are still in shreds from that hike, two weeks later.)
From this side of the hill, you get a really nice view of the Hollywood Reservoir, a giant artificial lake that you would not expect to find nestled among the urban sprawl in Hollywood. Unfortunately, it’s tough (and illegal) to get right up to the water, due to some tall fences and security cameras, but at some point, I hope to pay the reservoir a visit as well.
After the grueling, hands-and-knees climb to the top of the ridge, it really levels out, and it’s a relatively flat and easy walk along the ridge over to Mt. Lee. Along the way, you reach the summit of Cahuenga Peak, which is the highest point in the area. I snapped a picture of the Geographical Survey Marker at the top, but I couldn’t make out the elevation because it was too faded.
At the top, I saw a lot of really awesome hawks / condors / eagles. (I’m no good at identifying birds, but they were brown and beige, and had a big wingspan.) I also saw some deer from a distance, further down the hill. And after a little while, I started to get a really good view of the Mt. Lee radio tower and the complex at the top.
When I was within a few hundred yards of the radio tower, I crested a rock and there it was — the back of the Hollywood Sign! It’s a really great view of all of Los Angeles, and you can see everything from Downtown to the ocean.
I also saw the paved access road that leads up the complex at the top and the barbed wire fence. There was a pick-up truck with a worker going up, so I knew to avoid the road. I started cutting down the steep front side of the mountain to the slope in front of the sign itself, so that I could avoid the fenced-in area. The Hollywood sign itself is NOT fenced in, because the fence extends around the back side of the mountain where all of the roads and foot trails lead, but the steep and nearly inaccessible front side of the mountain is open.
I scrambled through the brush and loose dirt on the slope in front of the sign, keeping low to make sure that I wasn’t too conspicuous. There are several very visible security cameras on the letters of the sign themselves, and I did my best to stay low. After a few minutes, though, I figured I would just go for it. I went right up to the letters themselves, waved to one of the cameras, and touched the corrugated steel. There are ladders that go up the scaffolding structure that holds them in place, and I was tempted to climb up, but decided not to press my luck. The letters are huge to be sure — probably around 50 feet tall — though they were actually a bit smaller than I expected.
I had been told that there was an encampment of bums and hippies that lived right under the sign, but I saw no evidence of that. However, there were several beer cans and bottles, and off to the side, the remnants of a campfire, so people had definitely been up there before.
I am absolutely sure that I got filmed by multiple security cameras, but no guards or workers approached me. There was also a helicopter that flew out from the complex on the top of the mountain — right over me — but if they saw me, they didn’t do anything about it. I’ve heard that the police get called when someone is spotted, and then they usually intercept trespassers when they walk down the access road after leaving the sign. I snapped a few more pictures, spent a few more minutes walking the entire length of the sign, and then decided to head on my way.
To avoid getting caught on the access road and trails that loop around the back of the mountain, I opted to go down one of the steep and precarious gulleys down the front side of the peak. The front of the mountain is inaccessible to vehicles, and I figured it was pretty unlikely that a cop or guard was going to chase me down on foot.
This was by far the hardest part of the hike, because the brush was incredibly thick and overgrown here, having not been burned in the fires two years earlier. It was so steep that there were times when I would lose my footing and tumble down quite a ways before I could come to a stop. On several occasions, I would get to a point where I couldn’t make it through a section of brush, and would have to turn back to find another route. Frustrating, to say the least, and my legs and arms got extremely cut up.
Eventually, I came out in some millionaire’s back yard, who had the highest-up house on the front side of the hill. From here, I was able to take the roads and streets back down the hill, toward Burbank. It was more than an hour of walking from that point, but it was along paved roads and very easy. Along the way, I passed by a really cool overflow dam on the edge of the Hollywood Reservoir, that I climbed up. Here’s a picture I took of myself as I climbed up one of the drainage ditches:
All in all, it was a fun hike. I’m glad I finally got around to doing it, two years after I originally came up with the idea. (The Facebook picture alone was worth the hike.)
My Next Adventure
What adventures are in store next in Los Angeles? I’m going to raft down the entire length of the polluted concrete gulch that is the Los Angeles River, of course!
That puppy runs right by my window in Sherman Oaks, and winds 22 miles through LA down to Long Beach, where it empties into the Pacific. Normally it’s only got a trickle of a few inches of water, with the occasional styrofoam cup or Taco Bell wrapper to break the monotony; but when it rains, HOO BOY, does it flow! The normally tame LA River becomes a raging torrent, and the styrofam cups and taco wrappers are instantly replaced with shopping carts, small children and mobile homes. And it is that raging torrent that I’d like to conquer next.
You can view the rest of the photos from my hike in this Flickr photo album.