Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in “La La Land.” James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” You horseback riding in Los Angeles.
As a Southern Californian, I’ve had the opportunity to ride various paths of the Santa Monica mountains in Griffith Park. Each outing has been spectacular and unique.
Hollywood Sign Ride
The first time I rode in Griffith Park, it was a quest to see the Hollywood sign. Sunset Ranch, an equestrian center with trail horse rentals that has been around since the 1920s when Charlie Chaplin was making movies, was the starting point. An old porcelain bathtub serves as a water trough, while cactus and scrub brush cling to the dry slopes nearby. Just blocks away from the authentically Old West location, tourists snap photos of the famous sidewalks on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Our guide was the real deal in a cowboy hat, snap shirt, and bandana; she grew up on a cattle ranch in Colorado. As our trail group walked along the mountain fire roads, occasionally glancing down at the steep slopes, I learned deer and coyotes make frequent appearances on the trail. There are occasional rattlesnakes, and sometimes movie stars. I was told a group once spotted Vince Vaughn hiking, and Jack Black used to take riding lessons at Sunset Ranch.
The pinnacle of the two-hour ride is the plateau where you and your horse can pose for a picture with the Hollywood sign in the background. Be sure to pack your sunscreen and sunglasses for this expedition!
Valley and Zoo Views
On the opposite side of the mountains around the corner from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center lies Circle K Riding Stables. My friend Raquel Lynn (who also writes for Horse Illustrated) lives in the adjacent Rancho equestrian neighborhood, and she’s played tour guide on her mare for several Griffith Park rides while I’ve rented well-mannered Circle K geldings.
The first part of the ride originating from Circle K requires crossing a narrow foot bridge spanning the Los Angeles River (it’s actually a concrete canal with only a trickle of water the times I’ve seen it). Whatever the river lacks in water depth, it makes up for with the impressive fact that at 50 miles, the Los Angeles River is the longest paved waterway in the world.
After crossing the bridge and walking through a long tunnel under the 134 Freeway, you’ll reach the base of the mountain trails. As the horses ascend the paths, the views grow in impressiveness. From above the city, depending on where you are, you can see the arenas at Los Angeles Equestrian Center, a view of downtown Glendale, or the blue and yellow of Burbank’s IKEA.
Once we rode Rattlesnake Trail, an intermediate hiking trail, perhaps named that because it coils around the side of the mountain in the shape of a snake. Another time our destination was Amir’s Garden, a 5-acre shaded oasis at the top of an incline, named after an Iranian immigrant and avid hiker, who after a fire in the 1970s petitioned the city to revegetate the area. The late Amir Dialameh was granted permission, but not the right to use heavy equipment. Over the span of 12 years, he removed charred stumps by hand and planted over 60 varieties of trees and shrubs. Watering troughs, hitching posts, picnic tables and shade welcome you at Amir’s Garden.
From the garden’s vantage point, you can gaze down onto the Los Angeles Zoo. Some days the elephants are visible if you squint. When riding these trails, if you have a fear of heights, stick close to the upside of the hill and don’t look down!
Lights, Camera, Action
One time as we neared the ending point of our ride, a woman sitting in a lawn chair under a shade tree gave us a heads up that cranes were being operated nearby. The television show “Black-ish” was filming at the L.A. Equestrian Center. I asked if that was her official duty: to warn riders of the heavy equipment? She said yes.
My guide steered us toward a different path through a wide-open space with fluffy, sandy footing just outside the distinctive shape of the Disney Animation building.
The funniest part of one of my rides occurred as we rode our horses parallel to the 134 Freeway at the end of a ride. The traffic was congested, and we commented on how lucky we were to be on horseback, walking our horses along at a faster pace than the commuters were able to move in their cars.
Horseback Riding in Los Angeles – Before You Go
Plan to ride in Griffith Park on a weekday, as the trails will be less congested. At the time of this writing, Circle K charges $40 an hour (have cash on hand as they do not accept credit cards).
Schedule your Sunset Ranch ride online at www.sunsetranchhollywood.com/reserve. Both operators are offering rides during the pandemic.