Rustic Canyon, now almost fully reverted to wilderness condition after nature’s one-two punches of fire and flood, was quite lively in the past. Pop-philosopher Will Rogers and his associates used it as a retreat back in the 1930s, and it even held the makings of a hideout for Nazi sympathizers later in the 20th Century.
Your exploration by foot in Rustic Canyon begins and ends at Will Rogers State Historic Park, on Sunset Boulevard about three miles west of Interstate 405. After parking near the historic Rogers country home, take the eucalyptus-lined east branch of the Inspiration Point loop trail 0.8 mile to a signed junction with the Backbone Trail (a.k.a. Rogers Trail), just north of Inspiration Point.
As soon as you start climbing the well-defined ridge, you’ll realize how appropriate the name “Backbone” is. The trail skips up, over, or around cobbled sandstone “vertebrae” along a stretch known variously as Chicken Ridge and Gobbler’s Knob. It is also the easternmost small piece of the nearly completed Backbone Trail that will soon stretch the length of the Santa Monica Mountains.
At 1.5 miles you cross a bridge overlooking a knife-edge saddle between Rivas Canyon on the west and Rustic Canyon on the east. Just ahead at another saddle (1.8 miles) you turn right on a trail that wastes no time descending into Rustic Canyon.
On the descent, you make your way through a mini-forest of chaparral, including green-bark ceanothus, mountain mahogany, chamise, manzanita, toyon, sumac, and buckwheat. After another 0.7 mile you reach a secluded glade in the bottom of Rustic Canyon, where you might spook a deer if no one else is around to have done it already.
Upstream, to the left, lies the Boy Scouts’ Camp Josepho, named after Will Rogers’s friend Anatol Josepho, inventor of the pay telephone. Our route turns south (down-canyon) past the site of one of Rogers’s cabins and an assortment of other structures, burned or abandoned. Plenty of ornamental trees and shrubs mix with the native live oak and sycamores along the trickling stream.
On the left a way down stands the concrete shell of a power-generator building. This, along with a diesel-fuel bunker and sheet-metal buildings, was part of the pre–World War II “Murphy Ranch,” which was protected by a high fence and patrolled by armed guards. Short-wave broadcasts beamed to Germany from the site finally convinced authorities of its true nature and led to the arrest of a German spy. The spy, it seems, had duped a wealthy couple and convinced them to finance construction of this stronghold, which was to serve as a haven for true believers in the Third Reich. After the war, this section of the canyon became an artists’ colony until ravaged by fire and flood. Today it is owned by the City of Los Angeles.
Past an old flood-control dam (3.6 miles) the canyon narrows and the trail becomes merely a muddy track through a tight constriction in the canyon. Walls of conglomerate rock soar eerily on both sides. Watch out for poison oak and slippery rocks. At 4.1 miles, the canyon abruptly widens. On the right, a wide trail curves uphill toward the polo field across from the Will Rogers home, your starting point.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
West L.A.’s Rustic Canyon offers a bit of quirky history as well as physical exercise.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 138 miles
Hiking Length: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous