It’s the mother of all Los Angeles stairs, a whopping 1,117 steps – mostly half up and half down – into what is reportedly Nazi survival camp — complete with orchards, a water tower, and a power center from 1933 until Dec. 8, 1941, when the Los Angeles police raided the compound and arrested the residents the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The site has been owned by the city of Los Angeles since 1973, but many of the old buildings on the canyon floor are crumbling ruins, overgrown with brush and so much graffiti that they look more like archaeological art than vandalism.
Even the main path to the stairs is mostly asphalt Sullivan Fire Road above Rustic Canyon Topanga State Parkthere is covered with graffiti, mostly more whimsical and clever than vulgar or obscene.
Along the way, you’ll see lots of native plants, including large patches of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), camomile-like stems of California lychee (Rafinesquia californica) and red stems and cream flowers on laurel sumac (Malosma laurin) bushes. It also offers spectacular views of Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean, as well as some pretty amazing mansions towering over the trailhead.
Important tip here:
- Be careful going down this very steep, narrow staircase.
- Breathe outside more than you breathe Art when you climb back up. This last bit of advice from a frequent hiker confused me as I made my way to the top panting, but it helped put me out of my misery so I could finish my ascent.
Another helpful thing: we were lucky to go with mild temperatures in the 70s and a light ocean breeze. There is little shade along the fire road, so it can get very hot if the temperature is much higher; don’t forget to use sunscreen and bring a hat. As I walked, I noticed pieces of trash that looked like discarded cups and cans. I briefly regretted not bringing a garbage bag with me until I realized I was going to have to drag it all out. If you decide to take it, think carefully because all those good karma points will disappear if you leave the trash bag behind.
One last note about safety: I walked this trail with another woman at noon and felt pretty safe, but I felt less confident walking alone. Once you descend into the ruins of the old Murphy Ranch, where the graffiti is at its thickest, the walk begins to feel eerie, especially where the stairs are overgrown and difficult to stand upright. I never experienced any serious danger, but I was glad to be with a friend, if only to regret the seemingly endless climb of more than 500 steps.
1. Park as close as possible Umeå Road and Capri Drive in Brentwood, and as always in Los Angeles, read all street signs carefully to make sure you’re not breaking the parking rules, which will cost you serious money if you get a ticket. We parked further away Umeo, at a short distance from capri, and then our walk began going up Capri to Casale Roadwhere we turned left and started to descend a bit The goat arched up and around some spectacular views and a house high above us seemingly carved into the hill.
2. Goosebumps ends at the beginning Sullivan Fire Road, a narrow primitive road that bends to the right past a wide yellow fire gate with a sign telling you that you are entering Tapanga State Park through the Rustic Canyon entrance. There are also mountain lion warnings, another good reason to travel with a companion.
3. Follow the fire road as it curves around through buckwheat, sumac and other native plants that are home to bees, at least when I was there on a mid-summer afternoon. You can see some old wooden railroad stairs going down into the canyon on the left, but they look dangerous. Save your strength (and ankles) for the big stairs ahead.
4. The graffiti along this road is colorful, often artistic, and sometimes poignant or funny (“I didn’t want you to be here” and “I hope you make it!” written in big, cheerful colors). On the way out, we passed three men pulling what looked like heavy sacks. When one of them tripped and dropped the bag, a couple of spray cans flew out, so at least some of this graffiti is very fresh indeed.
5. After about 20-25 minutes walk a little downhill, you will come to a chain link fence on the left. Follow the fence past the first opening (coming back will bring you back to the stairs) and turn left to the next opening in the fence, about 100 feet further on. This is your first staircase, about 40 steps down to an old abandoned water tower decorated with layers of graffiti.
6. Walk behind the container with water to the right, over fallen branches and other debris, and find the next staircase, 321 steps so steep that sometimes it feels like you’re walking backwards up the stairs. The steps are covered in leaves which can be slippery and there are only individual handrails so take care as the stairs twist and bend down down down under overgrown brush and trees.
7. At the bottom you will see a short dirt path which opens onto a wider dirt road, one of the driveways leading to the ranch. Turn right, going gently uphill for about 300 feet until the road starts to turn right. Look for a narrow dirt path to the left where a thin, half-buried pipe has been painted mint green (the paint is starting to fade and peel, but is still visible). Follow this path to the left to an even narrower staircase, 130 curving steps so worn and weak that they seem to melt into the ground. As you approach the bottom of the canyon, you begin to see glimpses of the graffiti covered everything along the stairs and through the trees, including some of the trees themselves.
8. At a small landing, you descend another 37 steps into the shadowy canyon and what remains of the complex. On the left are the ruins of the old greenhouse, according to Fleming, and on the right are the remains of the old power station, “now a tagger’s paradise.” Inside the building is littered with empty paint cans, every square centimeter, including the roof, has been covered.
9. Search around the complex if you want, but when you’re done, head back to the power plant start going south, a little uphill, on a broken paved road at the bottom of the canyon, with Rustic Creek is somewhere to your right. It’s a lovely shady walk with sprawling sycamores and lush pines, but I can’t really call it a nature walk; constant flashes of graffiti are a loud reminder of the city’s humanity.
10. A short distance from the power station you will come to a graffiti wall that curves gracefully to the left. Keep going past this wall because it only leads you to the greenhouse and the stairs you came down.
11. Further on, the road turns sharply to the left, where four tall pine trees rise above a short graffiti wall. Follow the road to another section of wall behind which two tall pine trees rise. About 20 feet from the end of this wall, look for a dirt path leading uphill to the right. This will lead you to the biggest staircase of all, which Fleming calls “a monster – the largest known staircase in Los Angeles,” which climbs 512 steps, past low branches and invasive bushes back to Sullivan Fire Road.
12. These concrete stairs are narrow, with no handrails or overhead lighting. Do them slowly if you don’t feel like running up steep stairs. For those who think it’s possible, Fleming tells the following story he heard from an unnamed man he met on the stairs: “In the mid-1990s, he and three friends pooled $5,000 of their own money and set up a contest to be the first to successfully run up all 512 steps, two at a time, without slowing down or stopping, even for a second, would win the prize. Each of the four fitness enthusiasts attempted the task several times. No one could do it. The money remained unclaimed, and in the end the competition was canceled.”
13. I can just hear the gears grinding in your competitive little brains – “I can do it!” – just as briefly, deceptively, in mine. Well, good luck to you fitness enthusiasts willing to give it a try. To the mere mortals among us I shout, “Soldier! You it is possible do it even if you have to crawl.’ I know because that’s pretty much how I made it to the top after a few raucous rest stops and a brief argument with my legs that wanted to sit down.
14. Rejoice when you reach the top and look back at the stunning view of the mountains and the sea as you try to calm your pounding heart and resume normal breathing.
15. Turn right and follow the fire road back the way you came. The walk back is sweeter, not only because of what you’ve achieved, but also because the views extend all the way to the sea. Be sure to look up as the road curves right up against the hillside and see the huge houses above with fancy pools and patios clinging to the side of the cliff. Back to Casale Road and wherever you parked your car.