I first learned of Camp Josepho and Murphy Ranch while reading my friend’s dystopian novel, The City Center, five years ago. Simone’s science fiction novel is set in Los Angeles, so I got a kick out of reading Simone’s dramatic descriptions of where Ava, the main character, was exploring, escaping, or headed to. Any Southern California local could decipher nuanced language describing obvious Los Angeles landmarks without using their actual formal names. I recognized most of the Los Angeles locations in Simone’s novel up until I reached its Third Act, when Simone began to describe the dusty sanctuary that was once believed to be an abandoned Nazi camp up in the Pacific Palisades. I figured that this must be where Simone exercised her right to demonstrate her ability to create a fantastical setting for her make believe story. By taking creative license in the writing process, Simone fearlessly penned a story of dystopian survival, ending it in a surreal setting inspired by actual trails that run abundant on Los Angeles’ Westside.
It was not until 2015 that I learn that this supposed sanctuary is an actual destination place for local hikers. A Canadian acquaintance, who has since become one of my closest friends, shared her Instagram photos of her weekend hike with her husband and child one morning over coffee and I immediately recognized the trail to be the exact one that my talented friend from long ago wrote about in her first published book. Pacific Palisades residents, history buffs, parents of small children and parents of dog owners, frequent this quiet trail hidden behind the residential homes north of Sunset Boulevard. I even noticed months later that my own sister posted photos of her weekend hiking excursions at Camp Josepho on Facebook.
While reading more about Camp Josepho and Murphy Ranch piqued my interest in visiting the venue (click here to read the LA Times article about the property’s history), it would take a holiday season of hibernation, followed by a family conversation about my New Year’s Resolutions for 2017, for me to finally see this place for myself.
My husband, children and I decided to pack a picnic lunch on New Year’s Day and drive 10 minutes north from our Santa Monica home to Camp Josepho so that we can make for a fantastic day of hiking adventure. We took my Canadian’s friend’s advice by typing the street intersection of Amalfi and Capri Drives onto our GPS and after driving through the residential streets, we promptly found our free street parking. A short observation of the direction of where other nearby pedestrians and cyclists were headed convinced us to proceed north on foot. We eventually found this elusive trail, but not before admiring the beautiful homes, private vineyards, lush green mountain ridges and the ample ocean views that surround the entrance to Camp Josepho.
We noticed a lot of color on this trail, both natural and man-made. Spray-painted graffiti art run rampant on the trail and on random rocks on the hillside. Spray painted on random places, the main messages gave new hikers directions on where to find the supposed abandoned Nazi camp, hideout and house/ranch.
A few locals were also hiking downhill with an abundant harvest of wild herbs collected from this lush trail.
Hmm, stairs. Could this lead somewhere? We descended a few dozen steps before we found this water container.
“Let’s go back to the trail and see what else we can find!” So we ascended the staircase to follow the trail and eventually happened upon another cryptic graffiti message:
We met a fork in the road and decided to veer left to what seemed like the road less traveled. After admiring the beautiful evergreens that we randomly happened upon, the kids noticed more interesting items not too far from us. Household ruins.
Wait, more cryptic messages for us!
But wait, these stairs lead to nowhere…
We walked another 100 years to find even more spray-painted arrows on the road. This time around, we decided to take a leap of faith and descend another set of otherwise creepy looking staircase.
Wait, what’s that?
Sometimes when you gamble, you hit the jackpot. In this case, we happened upon the former property Powerhouse and what seemed to be the former Garden area of some sort. Unfortunately, the Powerhouse is boarded up, so we were unable to explore the interior of the structure.
We decided to have our picnic lunch here to take in our discovery while other visitors pass us by to explore the building’s rear exterior.
There were obvious signs that the graffiti art are ever changing. Some of the messages spray-painted on the building were still wet. Another indicator was that very few of the discarded spray-paint cans showed signs of wear and tear; in other words… no rust bottoms!
We eventually explored the rear of the Powerhouse and marveled at the intricate artistry that local artists painted onto the walls of this venue. After having fun exploring the rear water tower and ample views of the surrounding Santa Monica Mountain wilderness, we decided to move forward with our day’s exploration.
Surprise! We bumped into family friends who also brought a picnic lunch! Oh well, time to commiserate with like-minded explorers over food.
Before we knew it, it was 4:30 and sundown was fast approaching. Time to cut our day’s excursion short and head back to the start of the trail. This time, we decided to go a different direction. Although we did not have a chance to explore the main ranch house (which we later learn only has the remains of the main gate entrance to the former ranch), we were able to see many interesting graffiti art adorning the walls and staircases of the property, all while climbing what seemed like the never-ending Jacob’s Ladder (in reality the flight of stairs was about 250 feet high). Along the way, we happened upon more tasteful collaborative art between nature and humans on rocks, tree branches, etc.
Exploring Camp Josepho really was an adventurous experience for me in that I did not know how I was going to personally react to seeing an actual former Nazi compound. During the hike, my husband informed me that he, too, did some research about the area and learned that the property was owned by Nazi sympathizers who had hoped that they would fall in favor to the proponents of the New Germany once World War II was over. However, as history tells it, the bad guys lost.
We both later learn that this area subsequently was used as a boy’s campground as well as an artist colony. Nestled in this affluent residential neighborhood, it was oddly comforting to me to see that urban graffiti art was abundant here.
Maybe it is a creative outlet for people nowadays to express their feelings that never again will this place be a haven of hate. Who knows, but one thing’s for sure…
Mother Nature willed me to take some of its abundant fennel home for the family to enjoy its fresh scent.
3000 Rustic Canyon Road
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
The Start of the Trail is on far west end of Casale Road. Free street parking can be found on the residential intersections of Capri and Amalfi Drives.
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