This easy 3.1 mile lollipop loop hike in Rustic Canyon has the added bonus of a lesson from one of the more bizarre chapters in Los Angeles history. In the 1930’s, work began on an elaborate complex known as Murphy Ranch. Ostensibly, Ms. Murphy was wealthy heiress who wanted to build a mansion back in the secluded Rustic Canyon on land purchased from Will Rogers. Records suggest that there never was a “Ms. Murphy” (although the name stuck) and in fact, the Silver Shirts — a pro-Nazi organization — was building a self-sufficient compound where they could ride out World War II until Hitler finally won. Obviously, things didn’t turn out as they planned.
Getting to the Trailhead
There is no official trailhead parking, and the street parking nearest the trail is permit only. We found free street parking on Amalfi Drive near the intersection with Capri Drive in Pacific Palisades, but be sure to read the signs carefully. From there, we walked uphill on Capri to the end and turned left on Casale Road, following it into Rustic Canyon. At the last house, the trail begins and Casale Road becomes the Sullivan Fire Road. You’ll find the area here on Google Maps.
Hiking to Murphy Ranch
About 1/4 mile down the Sullivan Fire Road we reached a gate with a sign for Camp Josepho. This is a Boy Scout camp operated roughly in the area further up the canyon beyond Murphy Ranch.
At about one mile down the fire road, you’ll reach a break in a chain link fence on your left. This leads to a series of over 500 concrete steps down into Rustic Canyon, built as part of a network of paths and stairs that dot the compound.
We started down the stairs. Just below the road is a large storage tank, apparently for fuel (there’s another large tank for water you’ll pass later). Put in that context, you can understand that the people who built this compound were really planning to hunker down. They were striving to be completely self-sufficient.
The tank is covered in street art, both outside and inside. As you wander around the tank, take a moment to peer into the opening near the ground and you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the artwork inside the tank as well.
We headed down the steps. And down. And down.
It’s really remarkable how many steps there are. Fortunately, we’re not going to take the steps back out of the canyon.
Before you reach the bottom of Rustic Canyon, you’ll come to a paved road. Turn right, and keep your eyes open for (you guessed it) another set of stairs heading down to the bottom of the canyon on your left. As you come down these stairs, you’ll get a glimpse of the power house pictured at the top of this post.
To your left, you’ll see the remains of the greenhouse. Within these raised bed planters, the group planned to grow their own food.
We walked around and inside the power house, where two street artists were working on new pieces. The power house is in amazingly good condition given it’s age and the simple fact that no one is maintaining it. The street artists who paint it have adopted it as their own ever-evolving canvas — with layers upon layers of art covering every inch of wall and ceiling.
From the power house, we followed Rustic Canyon Trail (an old paved road at this point) up the canyon to explore the other ruins.
It’s surprising what you can see amid the rubble and rust. An old sink. A refrigerator. A stove. Signs that people lived here at one time, now long ago.
Taking in our fill of the compound, we turned and head back to the power house, then up the first stairs to the south. At the paved road, turn left this time, and follow it up into Rustic Canyon. You’ll pass a grove of eucalyptus trees planted in the early 20th century by Abbot Kinney — better known for starting the city of Venice, California. The road winds around and climbs higher and higher. You’ll reach a bend that wraps around a large water tank, and then see the main gate to the complex ahead.
This gate leads back to the Sullivan Fire Road. Follow the fire road south, about 1.25 miles back to your starting point. You’ll see some great views back down Rustic Canyon on your way back to the trailhead.
The Future of Murphy Ranch
Most of Rustic Canyon is part of the Topanga State Park, but Murphy Ranch is an “island” currently owned by the City of Los Angeles. The city would like to give the land to Topanga State Park, but they won’t accept it until the ruins are demolished — a costly proposition.
From time to time, there are reports and rumors that the buildings are scheduled for demolition. For now, Murphy Ranch survives as a canvas for local street artists and a reminder of a strange chapter in LA’s history.
Tom Explores Los Angeles has some great details on the history of Murphy Ranch.
Murphy Ranch Trail Map
Click on any photo to view a larger version. You can also leave comments on any photo.
Murphy Ranch Hiking Tips
- There’s plenty of sun exposure on the fire road. Bring sunscreen and a hat.
- The area is not maintained, and the buildings and structures are in various states of ruin. There are many hazards, and I probably wouldn’t bring children here.
- Dogs are allowed (unusual since the trail passes through Topanga State Park) but must be kept on leash.
More Murphy Ranch Resources
- Murphy’s Ranch: Abandoned Nazi Camp in Santa Monica – California Through My Lens
- Rustic Canyon’s Nazi Ruins “Murphy Ranch” in the Santa Monica Mountains – Hikespeak
- Rustic Canyon: Hiking from the Murphy Ranch Nazi Compound to Camp Josepho – Greene Adventures
- What Really Happened at Rustic Canyon’s Rumored Nazi Ranch? – Curbed LA
Great post Jeff. I love finding hidden gems like this.
Ranger James Valdez says
You are welcome to visit. Murphy’s Ranch is open from sunrise to sunset. It is not ok to spray paint anything there or on your way there. Please do not take the Rustic Canyon Trail there. We rescue a number of people off that trail every month.
HIKE WITH PRECAUTION!
We checked out the compound on Saturday, April 11th, 2015 and were followed. The man appeared naked and with a large knife. He was white (but very tan), late40s-50s, and mustache. His knife was long, serrated, and curved. He asked if we were interested in him. Soon after hiking back toward the staircase, a cop car showed up.
Jeff Hester says
@Hiker4 – Holy Cow! That sounds scary! When I’ve been there, there were always plenty of other hikers in the vicinity. Makes a good case for going in a group. Glad you survived, in any case!
@Hiker4 — we hiked there yesterday. On the way out (very close to the yellow gate) we detoured down some stairs that led to a wooden platform with a locked gate on the right, and another trail extending along the ridge back toward the ranch. I stayed on the platform while the three young men I was with explored further. They found a trail that led down into the valley, and decided to go check out what looked like a ruined camp at the base of the opposite side. They found what looked like a homeless person’s camp, with signs that said things about removing your clothing and being watched! I suspect that your naked knife-wielding man is still present and active in the area. Luckily my group didn’t see him, but the camp looked like it had been used very recently. Other than that it was a fantastic hike!
We covered the Murphy Ranch trail in one of our episodes and will be providing an update this week about the demolition. Thank you for providing such great information about this hike 🙂
Has there been an update on the demolition?
Carol Mathews says
I wish people would stop spreading unsupported rumors of Nazis in Rustic Canyon; there is no evidence of any Nazi activity in the canyon,; even the stories are contradictory. I care about this because these rumors attract people who tear down fences, damage property and spray graffiti everywhere–ruining the structures in the canyon. Graffiti now despoils the road and exposed rock faces along the road. The canyon’s proximity to a city as populous as Los Angeles means that in order to preserve these places we must not damage them. Spreading titillating rumors may seem fun, but the resultant attraction of vandals is destroying what could be a beautiful area.
What is the status of this? I believe I have read elsewhere that you may get arrested for trespassing.
Michael Anderson says
This is a warning to all who hike on or through my property. This is private land that is in a toss up between the state and the actual owners, most of whom are deceased. Several of our properties have been illegally stolen by the states they’re in. Our sugar cane property was literally stollen by the US Navy in Louisiana. This property has been left for my daughters who have not reached the age to be in possession. However I have quite enough time to finish the driveway. Simply have been repairing “the bad blood” between neighbors. Please understand that even though I love art I DO not want my property to be damaged even further, the fact that the damages to other properties shouldering us have kept it from being repaired. The dream gift to a litre girl of a beautiful doll house will come true just in due time. Sincerely Michael T. Anderson