Rustic Canyon: Murphy Ranch - Camp Josepho Loop
Date Hiked: March 24, 2012
Best Season: Autumn Spring Summer Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Rustic Canyon Park (310) 454-5734
- Distance: 6.15 miles round-trip
- Elevation Gain: 453 feet
- Route Type: Loop
- Trail Type: Fire road, stairs, single track
- Difficulty: Moderate
We first heard about this hike in January 2011, from Hikespeak.com, while looking for dog-friendly hikes up in the Santa Monica area. Jeff and I were immediately intrigued by the reputed association between Murphy Ranch and a group of pre/WWII American Nazi sympathizers. We kept this hike on our radar for the next year, never quite making time to drive all the way up to Santa Monica for a hike of less than 4 miles — particularly since we knew that we couldn’t extend our mileage into either of the neighboring state parks (Will Rogers and Topanga) if hiking with a dog.
But, when Jeff read on Hidden LA earlier this year that the building ruins were being targeted for demolition, we figured that we better get our butts out there soon. Apparently, pretty much everyone in Southern California seemed to have the same idea because the street parking, trails, and ruins were CROWDED. Jeff and I grabbed our beagle, invited our friend Joel (who had his 1-1/2 year old son for the day, while his wife had a girls’ day), and headed up to Rustic Canyon last month.
About Rustic Canyon
Rustic Canyon is a Los Angeles residential neighborhood, and neighboring open space, situated in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. It is located next to Brentwood, Santa Monica, and Pacific Palisades. The neighborhood consists of multi-million dollar homes nestled among beautiful hills with ocean views, and the immediate adjacent open space — Rustic Canyon Park — is part of LA City Parks.
Aside from its natural beauty, part of the lure of Rustic Canyon is its colorful “history” — whether that history is factual, watered down, or just urban legend. Some folks even allege that Charles Manson and his gang hid out in Rustic Canyon in the late 1960s.
About Murphy Ranch
Murphy Ranch is reputed to be the former site of a 55-acre American Nazi compound, acquired in 1933 by an American couple who started building a secluded self-sustaining safe base of operations in anticipation of the U.S. losing the Second World War. Most of the news articles I find all seem to cite the publications of local historian Betty Lou Young, who died in 2010. Some blog posts claim that the compound was raided in 1941.
The ranch was sold in 1948 and later converted into an artist colony in the 1960s and 1970s, but was closed after an October 1978 fire raged through Rustic Canyon, destroying buildings here and on the ranch of Anatol Josepho (see About Camp Josepho).
If you’re interested in learning more about the reputed history of Murphy Ranch, check out:
This history nerd intends to track down copies of Young’s works to read up more on the area, and to see if she cited any primary sources in her research. But, in the meantime, check out these Travel Channel videos about Murphy’s Ranch.
About Camp Josepho
Camp Josepho is a 110 acre Boy Scouts of America camp located in Rustic Canyon. It was gifted to the Boy Scouts in 1941 by Anatol Josepho, a wealthy businessman who invented and patented the self-service photo booth. Josepho was born in Siberia, but fled the Russian Revolution, immigrating to China and then to the United States.
Our write-up adds a 1/2 mile (round-trip) on to the actual trail, due to having to park 1/4 mile from the “trailhead”. If you arrive early enough to actually grab a spot near the trailhead, factor in a 1/2 mile less.
Getting to the Trailhead
We have to give credit to Seth from Hikespeak.com for his excellent directions!
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 to Murphy Ranch Ruins
The trailhead for this hike is the beginning of the Sullivan Ridge Fire Road, which provides foot, bike, and restricted vehicle access down to Camp Josepho. There is a great ocean view spot from the trailhead. The fire road proceeds past a lone abandoned home, then starts its exposed route down into the canyon.
About 1/4 mile from the trailhead, you’ll hit the first set of stairs down into the canyon — a wooden set, partially hidden from this direction. Those stairs don’t reach the Murphy Ranch ruins, but they do get you down into the canyon. Immediately after, you will encounter a yellow gate that remains closed most of the time. The gate provides access to parks and emergency vehicles, as well as Scout camp visitors and employees.
The Murphy Ranch ruins are most directly reached via one of two concrete staircases. At 3/4 of a mile from the wooden steps and the gate, we came upon a chain link fence on our left, and a big break in the fence that opens up at the top of the first set of concrete steps (the second set of steps, if you miss these, is by the water tank a little further up the road). This first set of stairs plunges 500+ steps down into the canyon. Although the descent is 2/10ths of a mile, those 500+ steps calculate out to just under a 300 foot elevation drop…2/3 of your entire elevation change.
Once you hit the bottom of the stairs, you should see a dirt footpath off to your left, running between a clump of trees. This dumps you on to what must have been the main road running through Murphy Ranch. Turn left, and follow the dirt and old concrete-ridden road for 1/10th of a mile until you hit a fork. The right (high) road from the fork is a ramp that takes you to the first set of ruins. The stretch of old road from the stairs to the ruins is quite pretty — very green, with groves of trees on either side of the road.
Murphy Ranch to Camp Josepho
The first set of ruins you encounter is a raised garden. Although the garden has grown wild, you can still see the concrete planters. Walking through the garden brings you to the base of that second set of concrete steps from the fire road. You’ll also see another short set of concrete stairs that take you down to the old abandoned power building, with just about every inch covered in graffiti. You can walk all through the old building — even climbing the rickety stairs up to the catwalks and roof, or scampering through the crawlspaces under the original floor, if you so choose. We passed — we’re too old for that (and we had a baby).
A short walk back on the road next brings you up to the old machine shed and garage — again covered in graffiti. There is a short worn trail on the far side of this structure that allows you to climb up above the ruins and take in a better view of the area. When back down on the road/trail, you’ll see another short worn path dropping 15-20 feet to a graffiti-covered abandoned VW bus laying on its side and sporting a 1969 UCLA parking permit.
After you climb back up from the bus, continue following the road for another 4/10 of a mile to get to a really cool graffitied abandoned barn. A word of warning — there was a huge bee hive on the front face of the barn.
From the barn, it’s a 1/2 mile hike to the official terminus of this trail, and the permiter of Camp Josephus (about 2.2 miles total from the trailhead).
This stretch of trail is beautiful. Very woodsy, with the option to hike along the creek (which we did) or follow the trail up on a slight ridge. You’ll see some additional ruins scattered throughout here as well.
On this leg of trail, you will hit the junction with the 65-mile long Backbone Trail system that heads into Will Rogers State park and traverses the Santa Monica Mountains, if you want to up your mileage.
Although the official trail terminus is a popular turn-around for hikers who do an out-and-back route through the canyon, continuing on provides you with a glimpse at Camp Josepho and the chance to enjoy some higher views down into the canyon via the return loop.
I have never seen a Boy Scout camp before, but my Scouting friends assure me that Camp Josepho is one of the biggest. The short walk from the Rustic Canyon trail terminus back to Sullivan Ridge Fire Road takes you through the campground, past the stables, past the old historic lodge and cozy little cabins, by the archery field, and into the parking lot, where you catch the fire road again.
Camp Josepho to Trailhead
From the Camp Josepho parking lot, proceed up the paved fire road and follow it all the way back to the trailhead. Expect a good climb, made easier via the hairpin turns in the road. After the first hairpin turn, you’ll come across a big octagonal railed concrete platform — and get a chance to take in some great views of the camp down below. The next stretch of road takes you through the big arch welcoming visitors to Camp Josepho. At this point, you start gettng good views of adjacent Sullivan Canyon.
After 1.5 miles you come upon the ornate Murphy Ranch gate, flanked by a stone wall. Although it’s locked, a section of the wall has been knocked down on the far side of the gate, providing hikers with unofficial access to the road that heads down into Murphy’s Ranch.
In another 1/4 mile, you’ll encounter that gap in the chain link fence that priovides access to the concrete stairs we used to climb down into the canyon. From this point on, you retrace your steps to the trailhead. Your total mileage from the Murphy Ranch gate to the trailhead should be about 1.1 miles.
View Rustic Canyon: Murphy’s Ranch to Camp Josepho in a larger map