Rode Trip: Dirt in the City – Mixed-Terrain Riding in Los Angeles’ Verdugo Mountains
Confession: when I was growing up as a kid in Los Angeles, I had no interest in bikes whatsoever. My interests were about par for my age (i.e. hanging out at the mall and killing quarters on Street Fighter II). So when my family moved out of the more urban part of the San Fernando Valley into what I considered “the sticks” (Sunland/Tujunga), I was filled with typical mall-deprived angst. Fast forward a few decades later, and I’ve come to appreciate where I grew up through the lens of bicycling… and it is awesome!
Yep. This is Los Angeles.
Sunland is not a town one would really consider a tourist destination. The main drag of Foothill Blvd has had a hard time attracting and keeping any businesses of note. There used to be a bike shop, but they have since moved down to the neighboring town. What it lacks in urbanity, though, it makes up in some pretty amazing (and completely hidden) bicycle rides.
When visiting my parents during our winter escapes, we can literally take a small neighborhood road and be in honest-to-goodness mountains in less than 20 minutes. It was a pretty mind-blowing moment when I first realized this. The brown hills and mountains that I looked upon with discontent as a teenager now call to me with any number of adventures as an adult. Amazing how perspective changes. There is quick access to Big Tujunga Road (“Big T”) that winds its way up into the mountains of Angeles Crest Forest. On that road, you can climb on pavement to your heart’s content or veer off on any number of dirt roads and trails along the way. There is also the gruelling off-road climb up to Mt. Lukens on a battlefield of babyheads.
One of our favorite areas to ride, which can be accessed from Sunland (and even Burbank), is in the Verdugo Mountains. The Verdugos are a small transverse mountain range that parallel the San Gabriels and divide the La Cresenta and San Fernando Valleys. It is literally a small island of wilderness in a sea of urban development. Growing up as a kid, I went to high school on one side of the mountains and lived on the other side. The Verdugos have an interesting history. Apparently, a tram was once proposed to go its top. It would have started in Burbank and ended at the summit, at a restaurant. For better or for worse (probably for better), it never materialized. Instead, it now exists as an outdoor escape right in the middle of the city.
There are several trailheads that access the Verdugos from both it’s Southern and Northern sides. We’ve only ever entered from the Northern side of the mountains, near where La Tuna Canyon and the 210 freeway intersect. There is an unimproved dirt parking lot, which to our surprise always seems half full. I never considered this part of Los Angeles as having much outdoor recreation, but every time we have gone to the Verdugos, we’ve seen loads of people walking, jogging, hiking, and biking.
From the trailhead, there is a short and wide paved section which feels like an abandoned freeway on-ramp, then the climbing begins in earnest. You make a right and you’re almost instantly into a short 14% climb. It doesn’t last for long, but it’s punchy enough to get the heart beating. From there, you end up on Hostetter Fire Road, which is unpaved and rocky in parts, but is pretty rideable. We would recommend at least 32mm tires (28 would be doable but not much fun). I have 40mm Clement MSOs and they were just about right. You are pretty much on Hostetter until you get to the ridgeline. Hostetter winds, twists, and turns, and gives you some amazing views along the way. You’ll absolutely forget that you’re in the city after a while.
When you get to the ridge, you’ll intersect Verdugo Motorway. I’ve tried to figure out why it is called Verdugo Motorway without much luck (if you know, email me!). Perhaps it was a through road for cars at one point, but now it is only open to hikers and bikers. Verdugo Motorway meanders along the ridge of the Verdugos and has great views of greater Los Angeles. On a clear day, you’ll see downtown Los Angeles, the piers of San Pedro, and the Channel Islands. It really is an amazing view to behold.
One of our favorite spots along the Verdugo Motorway is Warden’s Grove, which has a picturesque oak tree and bench, begging for you to have a picnic. It’s a good place to stop to take in the view and some snacks. Be sure to bring plenty of water with you, since there are no services up there. Usually, that is about where we turn around and head back, but there are miles and miles of riding to be explored. There is singletrack, as well as fireroads, that criss-cross the Verdugos.
If you live in Los Angeles or The Valley and are looking for some great mixed terrain riding (a la those epic Rapha videos), the Verdugos might literally be in your backyard! I never thought that I’d go back to where I grew up as a teenager and appreciate it like I do now, but that pocket of Los Angeles has some of best bicycling that no one has heard about. Go explore!
(Keep our adventures going and the site growing! If you’ve enjoyed our stories, videos and photos over the years, consider buying our ebook Panniers and Peanut Butter, or our new Brompton Touring Book, or some of the fun bike-themed t-shirts we’re designing, or buying your gear through our Amazon store.)