The first rule of Hollywood Sign Hike Club?
Don't talk about the Hollywood Sign Hike Club.
Or so it would seem for anyone who attempts to search online for the most direct hiking route up to the famed nine white mountaintop letters that spell H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D.
The official website for the sign, hollywoodsign.org, does not present the most direct, nor the shortest route to the sign. Instead, it suggests several longer hikes that begin far from the sign, including from Griffith Park Observatory.
There's a much quicker, more direct route launching from the neighborhood beneath the sign. And, of course, the folks who live near that hiking trail entrance don't want you driving up their street, N Beachwood Drive, or parking in front of their homes. It's a classic Los Angelenos vs. tourists battle.
Gizmondo.com reported in November 2014 that a Los Angeles city councilman even managed to get GPS company Garmin and Google on board with changing directions to the sign.
Go ahead, go to Google Maps and you'll see they steer you miles away from Beachwood, instead directing would-be hikers to Griffith Park Observatory, and then a gray dashed line stretches from there to the sign atop Mount Lee. (Note: To make matters more confusing, Mount Hollywood is a different hill altogether.)
But savvy hikers don't have to take the longer observatory route. They can enjoy the Hollywood sign up close and personal, embarking from the N Beachwood Drive trailhead, if they time it right. Two key variables to keep in mind:
• The park opens at 5 a.m.
• Parking on N Beachwood is prohibited between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on prime hiking days: Saturday, Sunday and holidays.
Armed with this information, I set out to make the hike late last summer on a Sunday between 6 a.m. and when parking restrictions kick in at 8 a.m.
35 minutes to the 'H'
Driving up N Beachwood Drive, framed by palm and eucalyptus trees on either side of the road, I spy the sign through morning haze, beckoning. I park close to the trailhead just before 6 a.m. The first thing I see: A coyote prancing down the sidewalk. Had the neighbors sent him? I keep my distance; he keeps his.
There's a metal gate where N Beachwood Drive dead-ends, and it's unlocked from 5 a.m. to sunset, according to the Los Angeles Times. I slip through it and follow the rutted dirt road that leads to Sunset Ranch Hollywood, which offers horseback rides (on one website a hiker suggests "follow the scent of horses" and you'll know you're on the right path). Soon enough I see the sign for Hollyridge Trail on the right, and I begin my ascent.
Hiking guides warn Hollyridge Trail can be congested on weekends, but at 6 a.m. it's empty and peaceful. Perhaps too peaceful when you come upon this warning sign:
Stepping gingerly to avoid potential rattlesnakes and horse manure, I venture on as the trail grows steeper and my huffing and puffing becomes more pronounced.
After making a hard left turn from Hollyridge Trail to westbound Mulholland Fire Road, and after rounding a few bends, I spot the sign. Once you reach Mount Lee Drive, the rest of the trip is on a paved road.
Switchback after switchback, higher and higher you climb until you're riding the ridge of Mount Lee, which offers views to the south of Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles and views northward toward Burbank, including the sight of the Walt Disney studios.
It takes only 35 minutes to make it to the "H" in Hollywood, but for people thinking they can stand in front of the letters for a selfie, be warned: The trail leads you to a spot above and behind the Hollywood sign; tall fencing prevents hikers from getting down underneath it.
The sign was erected in 1923 as a sales tool for a nearby housing development. At that point the sign was longer, spelling out the development's name, Hollywoodland. By 1949 the sign was in disrepair and faced a possible tear-down when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce paid to spruce it up and remove the letters spelling "land."
In the late 1970s, the original was torn down and replaced with the sign visitors see today.
'Get the blood flowing'
The view from the top of Mount Lee is smoggy early that morning, and surprisingly there are a few vehicles going up and down Mount Lee Drive, workers arriving for and leaving from work at a communications transmission tower located atop the peak above the sign.
I begin my descent at 6:50 a.m., and the view on the trip down proves almost as worthwhile as on the hike up because I notice landmarks I missed the first time, including a view of Griffith Park Observatory.
On my way up, I encountered just a few people: a gaggle of teens walking down, a few men and women jogging up. On the way back down, the trail is more active with a few families and more joggers and hikers heading for Mount Lee, including 27-year-old Mark Henson. He routinely begins his march to the top about 3 miles farther south of the trailhead.
"It's an easy hike if you start from here, but I start at Hollywood Boulevard and take it all the way up and carry a 35-pound pack," says the North Hollywood resident. "I love the workout. The first time I went to see the Hollywood sign up close. Now I just do it to get the blood flowing."
Henson says the smog often lifts later in the day, but depending on the time of year a visitor makes the trek, it can get hot, too.
"Bring some water," he advises, before adding, "if California has any left."
I make it back to my parking spot by 7:30 a.m. On the way out through the metal gate I see a security guard who hadn't been there when I began the hike. He's hired by the city of Los Angeles to shoo away any tourists trying to park during the no-parking hours.
I also have another encounter with the coyote; I'm now convinced he was hired by the neighbors to scare off tourists. I look at him, the coyote looks at me. He turns and trots up a hillside and disappears into the brush.