This 7 mile loop in Placerita Canyon Natural Area has a little something for everyone. This route starts out at one of the best Nature Centers at any local or state park, then makes a grueling ascent up a series of shadeless firebreaks that would make any hiker break a sweat. The second half of the trail is shaded in a surprisingly verdant canyon before meandering along the babbling Placerita Creek, with an optional side-trip to a waterfall. A really great loop – highly recommended. You can also make a side trip to visit the Oak of the Golden Dream — the site of the first gold rush in California.

The Placerita Canyon Nature Center really is one of the most well-maintained and comprehensive visitors’ centers in any Southern California park. Stocked with great exhibits and knowledgable staff, the center also has several animals on display and leads a variety of hikes and family-friendly programs. So on our recent hike in the area, we started off just wandering around checking out the live and stuffed animals in the center first.


But we didn’t come here to get scared by the captive rattlesnakes – we came to hike – and there are plenty of excellent trails in the park.

Right across the parking area from the nature center (and a short hop across Placerita Creek), you’ll get to the Main Trailhead – a junction of several trails that cross the canyon in various directions.

In fact, there are so many trails and arrows on that first sign that it might be a bit confusing. So just keep straight and look for the Karen M. Pearson Hillside Trail. Take the short but steep incline and you’re on your way.

In about 0.1 mile, you’ll ascend 100 feet to a water tank with some benches nearby. At this point, you can either scramble up another short but steep use-trail on the incline behind the tank to get to the Manzanita Mountain Trail, or just stay on the Hillside Trail as it heads east for a dozen yards or so to the actual junction. We chose the scramble for fun, but it doesn’t really save you that much distance.

From here, the Manzanita Mountain Trail heads south, winding its way through some excellent rolling chaparral-covered terrain. It’s shadeless, but the inclines aren’t too bad. The trail is in good condition and easy to follow here, and on a clear day you’ll get some nice views of the canyons below.

At 0.5 miles, you’ll note a small use-trail heading straight up a hill. This is the (very short) route to Manzanita Mountain, which is really just a bump on the topo map. Scramble up the trail if you’re so inclined, or continue hiking south on the Manzanita Mountain Trail.

At 0.7 miles, the Manzanita Mountain Trail ends as you reach the firebreak that you’ll now be spending a lot of time on. You can scramble up the small bump to your north if you feel like stretching out those legs, or ignore the view and turn south – and get ready for a roller coaster ride.

The next 1.8 miles of trail are a series of straight ups-and-downs on this shadeless firebreak. Every time you crest the next hill and think you can’t possibly have another one to climb up, you see two more – but it’s a great workout and if it’s not hot outside, it’s pretty fun. As long as you’re mentally prepared (and have some good footing on the declines), you’ll be in good shape!

The seemingly never-ending firebreak.  Photo by Shawnte Salabert

The good thing about doing this loop in this direction is that you get rid of all the incline in this first section. While you may not think that’s necessarily a selling point when you’re cursing each climb up, some of these sections are fairly steep – and it’s much easier to climb up them than it is to try to come down them without sliding or falling.

Soon, you’ll be able to see the radio towers to your south – which is a visual sign that you’re almost done with these firebreak inclines. A few more bumps, and the trail narrows to a picturesque single track which … well, also goes over a few more bumps on its way up to Whitney Canyon Road.

At the 2.5 mile mark you’ll hit the junction with Whitney Canyon Road. So give yourself a pat on the back and veer to the left, hiking southeast on the fire road. Keep on the fire road, ignoring the two spur trails on your right hand side, and in a little under a tenth of a mile, you’ll reach the highest point on the loop at about 3150 feet, which isn’t marked in any way. At about 2.9 miles, you’ll reach Wilson Saddle.

Wilson Saddle has a small picnic area, an equestrian corral, and a well-maintained outhouse. Take a break here if you’d like, and when you’re ready look for the sign for the Los Pinetos Trail on the north side of the road. And get ready for a drastic change in trail conditions.

The Los Pinetos Trail drops off the side of the fire road and makes an immediate descent into a shaded canopy.

When I went, all three hikers commented at how unbelievably different this section of the trail was from the previous firebreak. Not only is it single track, but it’s well graded, cooler, and surrounded by green on all sides. In many ways, it really does feel like you’ve been plucked off the fire road and dropped off on another trail miles away.

At about the 3.2 mile mark, you’ll pass a spring with a small water tank on the side of the trail. It looks like there’s an old road grade that continues east, but ignore it and stay on the smaller, more well-traveled trail winding north. In another 0.2 miles, you’ll note what may be the same old road grade now heading off to the west. Once again, ignore and continue north.

The trail gradually descends through some easy switchbacks and well-graded declines through gorgeous stretches of native oak and chaparral. Every once in a while, the canopy breaks, giving you a great view of the surrounding areas.

At 5.2 miles, the Los Pinetos Trail meanders through a bit of open grassland before meeting back up with the Canyon Trail just south of Walker Ranch. Here, there are few equestrian hitches and some group campsites. If you want to extend your trip (and if we’ve had a good wet season or it’s early enough in the spring) take a right at the junction to hop on the Waterfall Trail – a 1.5 mile roundtrip addition that will climb back up toward the mountains for a view of a small but picturesque waterfall. Otherwise, stay left at the junction and head west on the Canyon Trail.

For the next 1.7 miles, the trail makes a very gradual descent through Placerita Canyon on a wide trail shared with bikers and equestrians. This is the easiest and therefore most heavily traveled section of trail on the loop, and it’s likely this will be the first time you’ve seen crowds since you left the visitor center a while back – but the trail itself is lovely, often traveling right alongside babbling Placerita Creek.

This section of trail is partly shaded, but incredibly easy to hike – especially given the firebreaks you started out on. Enjoy the scenery and the occasional creek-hops, particularly when the canyon walls start to close in on you, which really makes you feel like you’re out in the wilderness.

The trail ends up right back at the visitor center – so you can explore indoors or just head to your car and call it a day. Either way, a great experience outside!

If you have time, consider exploring the short nature and interpretive trails near the Visitor Center before you head out. The historic Walker Cabin remains from the region’s former ranch days, and just to its west lies a large and historically important oak tree.

It was here that Mexican mineralogist Francisco Lopez napped and dreamt of floating on a pool of gold in 1842 on his 40th birthday. When he awoke, he pulled some wild onions from the ground, noticed gold flakes in the roots, and launched the first gold rush in California history — six years before that better-known one at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada.

Unlike the ’49 strike, news of the strike in Placerita Canyon was kept mostly within the borders of Mexico — probably because no loudmouthed newspapermen were screaming “Gold! Gold! Gold from Placerita Canyon!” on the streets of the largest city like they did in San Francisco.

Thousands of Mexican settlers moved to the area to work the mines, but during the Mexican-American War the rancho’s owners dismantled the operation to prevent the Americans from cashing in. The oak tree still stands, though – and is now known as the Oak of the Golden Dream – California Historic Landmark number 168.

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Casey Schreiner

Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Modern Hiker
Since founding Modern Hiker in 2006, Casey's work on the site has appeared in regional and national publications, including the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, the Associated Press, CNN, New York Magazine, High Country News, and others. He has broken several national news stories about outdoor vandalism and policies and his first book "Day Hiking Los Angeles" is available for pre-order.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on June 27, 2011


  • Mr. Mudd says:

    My wife and I did this hike last week. After the (what we considered) incredibly tough ascent, the Los Pinetos Trail felt like it was our reward for a job well done. The hiking guide/map provided by the people working there seemed to run the opposite, so I am glad we went with your version. I would not have enjoyed the false sense of security of beginning the hike in such beautiful conditions only to complete the last half in the blazing sun on steep inclines/declines. All in all, this was a great one, but we found it quite a bit more strenuous (for the first half, anyway) than many of the others we have done.

    This is a very beautiful area, but be sure to watch out for snakes. On our way up the firebreak, I was staring off into La La Land and stepped on a fairly large and well camouflaged gopher snake (I did not injure him and he did not bite me, luckily for both of us). While the adrenaline rush gave me a great boost of energy to finish our ascent, it could have turned out very different in many ways.

    I would like to take a quick moment here to send my thanks to the creators/contributors to this site. My wife and I have recently taken up frequent hiking to supplement our fitness and enjoy wandering around in the outdoors. We have referred to this site more than any other source due to how incredibly helpful the write-ups are. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks for the kind words (and the confirmation of our improved counter-clockwise route!) – I kind of like to get the tough stuff out of the way in the beginning and enjoy a bit of shade as my reward :)

  • Great article Casey. It kept me captivated as I imagined myself hiking it. I am a fairly new hiker, and I started getting serious just over a month ago. I go to the Placerita Canyon area about 3 to 4 times a week and walk the canyon/Walker Ranch Trail. Yesterday, for the first time, I parked off of Placerita Canyon at the Walker Ranch Head, and hiked the Los Pinetos Trail up to the picnic table area on Wilson Saddle. Needless to say, it kicked my butt. Furthermore, I have heard of the 7 mile loop, but the people in the Nature Center are a little snooty, and not much help. Now when I am ready to do the loop, I know what to do thanks to you. Blessed!

  • Thomas LC says:

    I found this to be a great little moderate hike fairly close to the city. The total elevation isn’t that much, but the fact that it goes from flat to steep back to flat/downhill again keeps it interesting. Also the 2nd half of the loop being so different keeps the return trip engaging as well. (However, you do get kid of a “false finish” fake-out feeling when you get to the bottom and realize you still have a mile and a half left to get back to your car.) The nature center also makes for a good selling point.

    Overall, one of my favorite medium-length hikes so far. If you’re a seasoned hiker I don’t think you’ll find it quite as grueling as some have warned, but still a good climb. :)

  • cmego5150 says:

    Us locals refer to this hike as “The Viper” (aptly named, I think). We have discovered a variation that helps with those steep parts a little by offering a bit of a warm up. Two miles past the Nature Center on Placerita, you will see a turnout and trail head for Walker Ranch. If you start here heading west, you get two miles of nice warm up hiking along the Placerita Creek (currently dry) before you have to head up the difficult climb of the firebreaks. Follow the same path, but once you come down the Los Pinetos trail, you continue straight out to the road where you parked and you’re finished. A really great workout.

  • Mark says:

    Just did the hike last weekend. You couldnt have described it better. Everytime I reached the top of a hill, I could see 2 or 3 more! The f word came out a few times. :)

    The most challenging hike I’ve ever done. Add to that when I started out, it was sunny and relatively clear, by the time I was half way up it was grey, very windy and a lot of moisture in the air. Plus, whenever I looked forward or looked back, I didnt see any other people out there.

    Pretty scary. And easily the most rewarding hike I’ve done so far. Reaching the top was truly an accomplishment, and the hike back through the canyon was absolutely beautiful.

    Thanks for such a great website.

    Next! :)

  • David R says:

    No question, that trip up is a beast. Nearly 2 miles of vertical consisting of shortish very steep pitches and then some relatively flat areas where panting is recommended. The second half is easy and the oak forest is wonderful to meander through. But watch for the poison variety! Don’t think I’ve ever seen so much of it as on this down slope, and it keeps going nearly all the way back to the Nature Center. Everything very dry now of course so no water in the creek. Take plenty with you. But there’s a wonderful cold water fountain at the Walker Ranch campground, which is about a mile and a half from the Nature Center.

    • David R says:

      Might I add, O mighty Casey, that in your absence scaling the Precarious Peaks of the Punjab, your blogeurs en place are acquitting themselves admirably. I draw special attention to Mr. Turner’s epic excursion to the Grand Canyon, which I might even classify as a kind of “Et tu, Katmandu….!”

  • Justin B says:

    Those hills are mean but what a great hike. Even passing “bubbling white oil” on the way back!

  • Aidan says:

    Did the trail today, Nov 22, 2014 and it was a fantastic day. Wind was chilly which was great for hiking. Casey’s description of the trail is accurate. The hike to the top was tough but really rewarding. Took a slight detour at the top and could even see downtown LA over the top of Mt. Lee all the way over and could make it Catalina. Awesome! On the list to do again.

  • dosia says:

    Are pets allowed?

    • I believe dogs are allowed in the park on a leash, but you should call the Nature Center just to make sure they’re allowed on the trails you’re planning on hiking just in case – nothing’s worse than driving all the way to a trailhead with your puppy just to be turned away! Their number is (661) 259-7721.

  • cody says:

    I just moved to northridge for school and stumbled across this website. So informative and detailed. Thanks im looking forward to hiking LA!

  • Mojo says:

    I hiked this trail on Friday, May 10th, 2013 – nice workout on the first half, and a very mellow second half. Pretty empty trail, only saw a couple bikers up on Whitney Canyon Road, preparing to blast down the trail I’d just hiked up; they called it “The Viper.”

    Spotted a young bobcat being chased/scared by a bunch of ravens at the trailhead. Other than that, wildlife consisted of lots of lizards, hummingbirds and butterflies at the Wilson Saddle lunch area, and tons of mosquitos on the second half of the hike, so pack your insect repellant.

    Placerita Creek was totally dry this time of year. Overall, a solid hike; took about four hours including a couple water breaks and a half hour for lunch and yoga. Thank you Casey for all the work you put into this site!

  • Samuel Raskin says:

    Did this hike today with a couple friends. We were very thankful that we managed to get started early to beat the heat. The walk up the firebreaks was definitely a workout, but I didn’t find the hike as interesting as others in the area, eg; Towsley Canyon. The views were mostly suburban and the hike was pretty much straight up, then straight down.

  • Ribes says:

    Awesome write-up; did this hike last weekend and it was just as described. Very windy the day I went, had to stay low to the ground on one ridge. Good to bring an extra layer – gets chilly in the canyon. Firebreaks give good feeling of accomplishment

  • Skyhiker says:

    Hmm. I must have messed up my second hyperlink. Let’s try that again:

    Wilson Canyon trail

  • Skyhiker says:

    For those on the LA side of the mountain that might be willing to do more walking with less driving, the Los Pinetos Trail continues over into Sylmar, via Wilson Canyon, ending at several possible trailheads near the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.

    Here’s a write-up of my first trip over the hump, including a trip to the waterfall:
    Los Pinetos Trail

    And here’s a write-up of my second trip up the crest, when I was too lazy to actually head down into Placerita Canyon.

    Because of the southern exposure, it’s probably more of a spring or fall trip than a summer trip.

  • GeekHiker says:

    I just posted my (not as cool as yours) write-up of this trail last week. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, because I’ll never, ever, ever hike that firebreak again! :)

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