In the 1930s Nazi sympathizers built a refuge in the Pacific Palisades. Herr Schmidt, Winona and Norman Stephens, and their followers occupied a self-contained stronghold in what is now Rustic Canyon between Sullivan Ridge and Will Rodgers State Park. Murphy Ranch was designed to serve as a hold out for fans of the Third Reich waiting for America to fall to the Nazis. Instead, the ranch was raided by U.S. authorities and closed in 1941. The abandoned buildings were transformed into an artists’ colony in the 60s and 70s, but were abandoned after the Mandeville Canyon Fire in 1978. Today the grounds of Murphy Ranch are uninhabited, dilapidated, and covered in graffiti. While much of the history is lost, several structures remain, along with long cement staircases that still link Murphy Ranch to Sullivan Ridge Fire Road, providing a 3.85-mile hike with 325 feet of elevation gain.
Update: LA’s Department of Recreation and Parks demolished the ruins of Murphy Ranch in the spring of 2016.
This hike begins at the residential end of Sullivan Ridge Fire Road, but the ruins may also be reached by hiking up Rustic Canyon from Will Rogers State Historic Park. From the street parking at the intersection of Capri Drive and Casale Road, begin walking up Sullivan Ridge Fire Road toward a gate 0.4 miles from the start at the entrance of Topanga State Park. To the west there is a partial ocean view over the Pacific palisades. The view to the north up Rustic Canyon continues to improve as you hike another 2/3 of a mile up the wide paved fire road.
A gap in the chain link fence on the left side of the road leads to the top of an endless-looking staircase heading down the steep wall of the canyon. Turn left here and begin the dizzying descent to Murphy Ranch. (If you miss this set of stairs, there will be another staircase 0.15 miles up the road alongside an abandoned water tower.)
The narrow concrete steps drop 200 feet over 0.1 miles down a lush slope that was once terraced and irrigated to harvest nut, fruit, and olive trees for the reclusive Nazis. When the string of 500+ steps finally comes to an end, turn left and follow the wide road down to the bottom of Rustic Canyon. The road turns up the canyon, passing through coast live oaks and sycamores that hide the crumbling ruins of Murphy Ranch.
A third of a mile from the bottom of the stairs, you will reach a large concrete building covered in spray paint. Step inside this haunting hollow structure that once housed a robust diesel generator and fuel tank.
Around the power building there are raised gardens, and more concrete steps, all remnants of the $4 million invested in Murphy Ranch by Winona and Norman Stephens. The owners were convinced by their Nazi pal Herr Schmidt that when Europe inevitably fell to Germany, America would be reduced to anarchy, and the National Socialist Party would need a self-sustaining stronghold in the mountains outside Los Angeles to survive the fall and plot the American takeover. History proved to be a bit different. Authorities monitoring the ranch raided the facility shortly after the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, arresting Schmidt and others for espionage. A radio capable of communicating with Germany may have been confiscated as well. Many of the specifics of this blight on Los Angeles history have been lost to time, but the ruins remain for hikers to explore.
Continue north up the road to a collapsed steel structure that served as a machine shed and garage. This is the last major building from the ranch. The Stephens had commissioned famed African-American architect Paul Williams (who designed the homestead now in ruins in Solstice Canyon) to build a four-story mansion within the canyon, but those plans were never executed. Elements of the bizarre retreat that were built have been left to decay by the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation.
Beyond the machine shed, a single track continues up the canyon toward Camp Josepho. A third of a mile up, there is a connection trail heading west for 3/4 of a mile up to the Backbone Trail in Will Rogers State Park. This trail is useful for those hiking into Rustic Canyon from Will Rogers State Park, and wanting to form a look through the canyon. Beyond this junction, there is a meeting with a paved road heading up to Sullivan Ridge Fire Road. This is an alternative return route to the one described below.
To leave Rustic Canyon, return to the power building and begin hiking up the steps to the right. After a short climb, the stairs reach the road coming down from Sullivan Ridge Fire Road. Turn left and ascend 180 feet over 0.4 miles. The road crosses a grove of sycamores and passes an immense water tank before reaching a stone gate that was once the grand entrance to Murphy Ranch. Step through the crumbling stone wall alongside the gate to return to Sullivan Ridge Fire Road.
Not far below the tank, there is a split in the road with another old paved track coming up from Rustic Canyon north of the ruins. To hike up this trail instead, continue up the canyon past the machine shed for 0.41 miles on Rustic Canyon Trail, a little-used single track that follows the creek past a few more old foundations through a dense woods. The trail passes a large white barn and a junction with a trail heading up to the Backbone Trail, before coming to the bottom of the old paved road. To the left, a single track continues up the canyon for 0.37 miles over a few creek crossings before coming to an end at Camp Josepho. The wide paved road turns to the right and climbs out of the canyon, meeting the other road coming up from Murphy Ranch before reaching Sullivan Ridge Fire Road.
Turn right on Sullivan Ridge Fire Road and hike 1.6 miles back down Sullivan Ridge Fire Road to return to the start for a 3.85-mile lollipop loop with 325 feet of elevation between the low and high points of the trek. Alternatively, you can stretch the hike to 4.25 by hiking north a bit farther up the fire road to a junction with a single-track that travels along the top of Sullivan Ridge. Turn right and take the ridge-top trail back to the start. Sullivan Ridge continues north for several miles, eventually connecting with Mulholland Drive to allow extended hikes in the Big Wild of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Before its demise, Murphy Ranch was said to attract dozens of local sympathizers who performed military drills during weekend gatherings. Today you can walk the grounds with less devious intentions, exploring this beautiful canyon with an ugly past. No fee or permit is required to visit Murphy Ranch from Sullivan Ridge Fire Road.
Update: After hikers discovered that fences were installed around the ruins, Los Angeles Magazine reports that LA’s Department of Recreation and Parks has temporarily closed the area to demolish the ruins of Murphy Ranch, which will be completed on February 23, 2016. It appears that for safety reasons, the Murphy Ranch ruins will be destroyed.
To get to the trailhead: From Sunset Boulevard, 3 miles west of the 405, turn north at the light onto Capri Drive. After 1/3 mile continue through the traffic circle, remaining on Capri Drive for another 1/3 mile until it comes to and end at Casale Road. Sullivan Ridge Fire road begins to the left. Find street parking to the right or on an adjacent road.
Trailhead address: Capri Drive & Casale Road, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
Trailhead coordinates: 34.061, -118.5037 (34° 03′ 39.59″N 118° 30′ 13.31″W)
|Rustic Canyon’s Murphy Ranch from Will Rogers State Historic Park|
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