Next to Will Rogers State Historic Park is a shady canyon with a shady past. The ruins of Murphy Ranch, a compound built by Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s have been left behind to decay in Rustic Canyon. For adventuresome hikers, a trail enters Rustic Canyon from the east side of Will Rogers SHP. Beyond the end of the trail is a long unmaintained path up an overgrown canyon to the ruins. Murphy Ranch can be visited as a 4-mile out and back hike with 225 feet of elevation gain, or as a 5-mile loop with 950 feet of elevation gain that circles back to Will Rogers State Historic Park on the Backbone Trail. An alternate route, and the easiest way to the ruins, is to hike to Murphy Ranch from Sullivan Ridge Fire Road on the east side of Rustic Canyon.
The history of Murphy Ranch
Nazi sympathizers Herr Schmidt, Winona and Norman Stephens, and their followers built this self-contained stronghold in the Pacific Palisades in the 1930s. They planted gardens up the walls of the canyon and constructed several facilities like a power building with a massive diesel generator capable of providing all their electricity. Murphy Ranch was designed to serve as a holdout 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, before being abandoned after the Mandeville Canyon Fire in 1978. Today the grounds of Murphy Ranch are uninhabited, dilapidated, and covered in graffiti.
Before its demise, Murphy Ranch was said to attract dozens of local Nazi sympathizers who performed military drills during weekend gatherings. Winona and Norman Stephens invested $4 million in Murphy Ranch. They had become convinced 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, but many of the specifics of this blight on Los Angeles history have been lost to time.
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, and are open to the public to explore.
The hike to Murphy Ranch
According to rangers at Will Rogers State Historic Park, the trail through Rustic Canyon is unmaintained “because it’s unmaintainable.” Indeed this is not your usual canyon trail with muddy stretches, steep stretches, and hard to follow stretches. The path crisscrosses a creek up a canyon that is very narrow in places. The flow of the creek fluctuates and can deliver its fair share of wet feet. By starting at the bottom of the canyon and hiking up, you reduce the chance of becoming overwhelmed by the water level or getting lost in the canyon. Be prepared for a slow-going adventure and remember that your safety is your responsibility.
Find Rustic Canyon Trail entering Topanga State Park from the east side of the Will Rogers Polo Field. Hike a third of a mile down a maintained dirt single track dropping into the canyon. When you hit the creek turn left and head up the canyon. The nice trail disappears, leaving you to pick your way up the canyon. A footpath flip-flops across the creek up the narrow canyon through a jungle of vegetation. This is a wild canyon without much of a conduit for hikers. After half a mile you will reach a check dam built across the creek where an artificial waterfall flows. Take the steep track up the dirt slope to the right and continue upstream. It is another mile of bush washing and creek crossing to reach the ruins of Murphy Ranch. When you get close the main ruins, the trail crosses a wooden stable being overgrown by the forest. Stay on the right side of the creek and continue up a faint single track that breaks out of the trees onto a dirt road.
Eureka! Turn left and walk less than a quarter mile to the crumbling ruins of Murphy Ranch, cloaked by live oaks and sycamores. The first building you reach is covered in spray paint and once held the diesel generator and fuel tank that powered the ranch. Step inside the large concrete power building, which has been hollowed of its machinery for a haunting experience.
Around the power building are raised gardens and other foundations. The ruins include long cement staircases that climb all the way up the east side of the canyon to Sullivan Ridge Fire Road. These steps offer another way to visit the ruins, a 3.85-mile hike with 325 feet of elevation gain that does not require you to traipse through an arduous unmaintained canyon.
A few hundred feet north of the power building, the road passes a collapsed structure that served as the troop’s machine shed and garage. This is the last major building from the ranch, and the turnaround point for the out and back hike up Rustic Canyon.
To continue the loop, find a path heading farther up the canyon on the right side of the creek above the machine shed. The trail leads you past a large white spooky barn to a junction on the left, a third of a mile above the ruins. Straight ahead the trail continues toward Camp Josepho, a boy scout camp that is closed to hikers. Turn left, following the sign for the Backbone Trail.
Cross the creek and begin up an ivy-covered forest on the west side of the canyon. The trail climbs a slope of chaparral, tackling 625 feet of elevation in 3/4 of a mile. The trail is steep and rutted toward the top. If the path through the bottom of Rustic Canyon was not so difficult to follow heading downhill, it would be advisable to hike the loop in reverse in order to go down this steep section instead of up. Pause to admire the view over Rustic Canyon as you soldier to the top.
Turn left on the Backbone Trail and hike a short distance south to a panoramic summit to reap the rewards of your effort. The view looks southwest toward Santa Monica Bay and east across the city toward downtown Los Angeles. Continue down the Backbone Trail, crossing a white wooden bridge that straddles a saddle just below the summit. Hike another 0.9 miles down the Backbone Trail to reenter Will Rogers State Historic Park at a junction with Inspiration Point Loop Trail.
Continue straight (don’t turn left at the junction next to the large park map) to come to a split with the spur trail to Inspiration Point. If you haven’t been inspired yet, turn left and hike another tenth of a mile up to this easy overlook. A grand cityscape is to the southeast in front of downtown Los Angeles. To the southwest, the ocean curls around Santa Monica Bay, and to the north, the Santa Monica Mountains are capped by the 2,126-foot Temescal Peak.
Return to the junction and continue hiking southwest. After a third of a mile, you will come to a junction with a single track on the left. This shortcut heads south and reconnects with the trail below, trimming about 0.2 miles off the distance. Inspiration Point Loop Trail continues to the southwest for a bigger view of the Pacific. The trail bends left and descends east toward the polo fields and the ranch. Follow this trail all the way down to a large lawn east of Will Rogers House. Turn right down the grass to return to the parking area where you started. The lawn is an excellent place to have a picnic or play a game of catch if you still have energy.
Dogs and bikes are not permitted on this hike. The entrance fee for Will Rogers State Historic Park is $12 (as of 2017), but no permit is required to hike to Rustic Canyon, so get out and enjoy.
Update: LA’s Department of Recreation and Parks demolished some of the ruins of Murphy Ranch in the spring of 2016. To visit other area ruins around LA, check out Solstice Canyon, Old Zoo Picnic Area, and Echo Mountain.
To get to the trailhead: Take Sunset Boulevard to Will Rogers State Park Road, located 4.5 miles west of the 405 and three miles east of PCH. At the light, turn north on Will Rogers State Park Road. Drive 3/4 of a mile up the mountainside to the park entrance. Go through the gate and drive straight past the Will Rogers House to the end of the lot above the polo field. Park and walk to the east side of the field to find the trail.
Trailhead address: 1501 Will Rogers State Park Road, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
Trailhead coordinates: 34.0546, -118.5109 (34° 03′ 16.56″N 118° 30′ 39.24″W)
|Murphy Ranch from Sullivan Ridge
This 3.85-mile loop descending from Sullivan Ridge Fire Road into Rustic Canyon, east of Will Rogers State Park, where hikers can visit abandoned buildings once occupied by Nazi sympathizers.
A prominent lone-standing Live Oak along Sullivan Ridge makes a natural turnaround point and a 7.5 to 8.3 mile round trip hike.
This easy 2.25-mile loop in Will Rogers State Historic Park leads to an overlook with views from Santa Monica Bay to downtown LA.
This 2.1-mile (one way) trail crosses a lush secluded canyon connecting Temescal Gateway Park to Will Rogers State Park.
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