elevation profile of Placerita Canyon firebreak trail

google earth profile of placerita canyon firebreak trail

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.

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.

PlaceritaCanyon_1

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 north – 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.

PlaceritaCanyon_50
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!

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Casey Schreiner

Founder and Editor at Modern Hiker
In addition to writing about the outdoors since 2006, Casey has also been producing and writing television since 2003.He was the Head Writer on G4's "Attack of the Show," co-writer and host of "The MMO Report," and the Series Producer / Head Writer of pivot's "TakePart Live."His work has received several honors, including Webby, Telly, and CableFAX awards.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on June 27, 2011

7 Comments

  • 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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