Murphy’s Ranch is a place that has the lure of mystery and intrigue, with its crazy history of being a Nazi compound right here in Los Angeles. It sounds ridiculous to think that there once possibly was a haven set up here for the Third Reich, but that is the way that the story has been told. It has a secluded location in the Pacific Palisades that requires a moderate hike to get to. A few things that you should know about the Murphy’s Ranch hike:
- It is a semi-challenging hike that requires physical stamina and good health, especially if you plan on taking the 500 stairs down.
- It is not child friendly. After saying this, our 3 year old was with us on the hike, however, she spent much of the time on her father’s shoulders. Be aware that your children may tire easily.
- The narrow stairway down to the site is approximately 500 steps, however another way is possible if you don’t wish to take the steps. I recommend coming back up at a more gentle rise, using the roads once inside. I will go more into detail about that in a bit.
- Allow enough time to explore in the daylight, at least 2 to 3 hours.
- If you go on the weekend, there will be lots of hikers around. Plan accordingly if you prefer a more secluded hike or one where you are in good company.
- There is a boy scout camp at the end of the road which requires special gate access to get to. Be aware that there may very light vehicle traffic on the weekends from scouts going back and forth on Sullivan Fire Road.
- There is no vehicle access for hikers, so it is best to park in the neighborhood below, and DO NOT follow Google maps instructions to go up Sullivan Fire Road.
How a Nazi Compound Came To Be In Los Angeles
It all starts in the 1930’s with a couple named Winona and Norman Stephens. Winona had a passion for all things supernatural, and came under the spell of a man named Herr Schmidt, who convinced her that Germany would win the war, and that the United States would fall apart and be in a state of chaos for awhile as the Nazis established their empire in America. They wanted to build a self sufficient hideaway that allowed them to escape the chaos and possibly be a headquarters for the Nazi takeover. The land they developed was purchased under the name Jessie Murphy, a name that is presumed to be a fabled name, yet the one giving the site its namesake. Approximately 4 million dollars went into developing this reclusive site to be self sustainable for a long period of time, including a powerhouse, gardens, water reservoirs, and a fuel oil tank. It was to be developed with National Socialist ideals, however, just how much the Nazis had involvement is still a mystery. The Stephens were wealthy in their own right, but to undertake a project like this it is uncertain whether or not it all was funded entirely from their own accounts. Also, the beautiful main gate was said to be designed by Paul Williams, a brilliant Los Angeles architect of the time who just so happened to be black. The Nazi ideal would never allow for such a thing, as they believed they were supposed to be the “master race”. So, could this have been the story of a couple who fell into the predictions of an apocalyptic America, that were just doing what they could to survive, or were they truly sympathizers of the Silver Legion of America, an underground group sympathetic to fascism and Nazi Germany? The story seems more intriguing to be as a Nazi hideaway rather than just a fearful pair, and most accounts by historians who have studied the matter seem to imply a strong link to the Third Reich. There were also plans of a mansion to be built on the property, but they never evolved, perhaps from money running dry, or not enough time. Everything was said to be shut down in 1941, when Germany officially lost the war, thus proving all their investments for a self sustaining Nazi utopia a complete waste of time and money. To see the best historical account I have found, including building plans, see this article by LACurbed.
The Remains of a Crumbled Utopia
Fast forward to our present time, we still have pretty intact remains that are about 80 years old. It is hard to believe that it is not too far from a century ago that site was developed. It is in obvious disarray, however it makes for an interesting visit. The powerhouse building is still standing strong, and is literally covered every square inch in graffiti. It is a graffiti artist’s paradise, seeming to be a free for all that nobody seems to be bothered by. In fact, all the graffiti makes the building in and of itself a gigantic work of art, the perfect reclamation of a place that was intended for something so terrible. It is colorful and fun to look at, and generally has an art feel rather than that of graffiti tagging. And the great thing is that it will be different all the time. You could smell the fresh paint just walking in, and the area is littered with empty spray paint cans. The funny thing is that there are signs posted saying No Graffiti, and No Trespassing, however it is obvious that nobody actually heeds those warnings. Even on a Sunday afternoon when I was there, hikers and photographers were everywhere. Technically, you can get a citation for trespassing, however, as this is such a popular destination with numerous hiking trails nearby, it seems unlikely that this would actually be monitored, however, be warned that you do proceed at your own risk.
The steel garage is a crumbled mess, but nevertheless, it is still interesting to look at. It was also living quarters, so there are some old appliances , along with a bathtub that makes for a great photo opportunity. Also on the property are 3 reservoirs, for water and fuel, as well as a barn. Each of the reservoirs are also painted with graffiti art.
Getting to Murphy’s Ranch
Murphy’s Ranch is a secluded destination, and is not approachable by car. If you type it into Google Maps, directions will try to take you all the way to the entry gate, however this is not possible. It sits off of Sullivan Fire Road, which is blocked off by a gate. There is a private boy scout camp at the end called Camp Josepho, so there may be some light vehicle traffic on the road. The gate code is given as needed to boy scout attendees only, however they are aware of the pedestrian and bicycle traffic on the road from hikers.
The best recommendation for getting to the ranch is to use Capri Rd., just off of Sunset Blvd. Depending what direction you are coming from, taking the 10 all the way out towards Santa Monica is the best route, unless you plan on taking a scenic drive down Sunset Blvd, which is best if coming from the 405. If you are heading south on the 405, take the Sunset Blvd exit, then head west. It will wind you through some beautiful areas of Brentwood.
From the 10 freeway west, the Cloverfield Blvd exit will put you closest to where you need to be. After exiting, you will turn right, then get onto 26th St., which turns into Allenford Ave as you approach Sunset Blvd. Turn left onto Sunset Blvd., then turn right onto Capri Dr., which will be the 2nd street to turn right onto. Take Capri Dr. up, continuing in through the traffic circle. Most people park in the vicinity of Amalfi Dr. and Capri Dr. It is a residential neighborhood, so please be aware of parking regulations in the area. Look for posted signs to ensure that your space is allowable. From there you will need to walk the rest of the way to the end of Capri Dr, then heading left. It will start to wind around at this point. Once you get around the bends, you will notice that the road is dirtlike, with many potholes. Depending on when you go, you may notice cars coming down the road. They are coming from the boy scout camp at the end, which has private access. You will walk all the way up this dirt road, and eventually you will see the yellow gate.
Proceed past the yellow gate and continue up the hill. From the gate, the road will be much paved much better. Continue up, enjoying the views along the way. At one point, to the left, you will see an old truck down the hill through a clearing in the bushes. It also is colorfully painted, just a sampling of what you are about to see. Keep going up, almost to the summit, and eventually you will see a chain link fence. There will be an opening in the fence where you can enter. It is at this first opening where the 500 steps stairway is at. This is not the only way down to the camp, however, this is probably one of the most noted parts of the hike. There is some sort of feeling of accomplishment if you tackle the giant stairway. It goes down into the canyon, and at times feeling like it is going to drop right off the edge. I am afraid of heights, however, I still had no problem with the stairway. I found it to be unique and interesting and very glad that I did it. Just a warning, unless you are used to climbing or descending large amounts of stairs, you will feel it in your legs…but totally worth it! Another way down is through the second hole in the fence, a little further up the road, by the large fuel tank, also beautifully decorated in graffiti, both inside and out. There is an opening to enter inside this tank and worth a look. A stairway down is also required for this. I recommend using the first stairway to begin your tour, and visiting that tank at the end of your tour. The last entry point is the main gate, also a must see, but again, I recommend saving this for the end, because it provides a more gentle ascent than the giant stairs when you leave. The third entry point is good for the person who doesn’t feel that they have the physical stamina for the large stairways.
Beginning the Tour
I recommend taking the first stairway down of 500 steps. Enjoy the views, and don’t forget to look back and admire how far you have come. Once you get to the bottom, it will have a small clearing before ending at another paved road. Turn left. The road will make a u turn curve to the right. Just after the curve, you will see a fork in the road. One road going up, and the other leading straight ahead. Go straight ahead at the fork, taking the road to the left. Shortly after the fork, you will see the powerhouse building, still intact and covered every square inch in graffiti. It is a sight to behold. It sits behind a fence that has signs posted saying no graffiti, and no trespassing, which I find quite funny since it is obvious that nobody pays attention to those signs. There is a hole in the fence to enter. You will see the area littered in empty spray paint cans, and even may smell the aroma of fresh paint. It is like a big ongoing art project, that seems to be painted over and over again, as graffiti artists have reclaimed this as a place for their art. Some people disagree with all the graffiti, however I find it the perfect place to reclaim for art what once was intended for purposes that were not so noble. It is a colorful sight, and a haven for photographers and videographers. When I was there on a Sunday afternoon, there were 3 fellas filming a music video inside. Hikers everywhere were around taking pictures. You can even go to the roof and take pictures up there. Behind the powerhouse is another tank brightly painted.
After you are done at the powerhouse, continue down the road and you will see the shed in a complete disarray. Appliances can be seen and even a bathtub great for photo ops. Careful in this area as there are a lot of sharp metal edges. If you proceed further down the road, you will see off to the left an overturned VW bus, and a small obelisk. Perhaps this was the lower entry point to the compound. If you continue down that road, you will eventually get to trailheads from other nearby parks, and an old abandoned barn. Whether or not this barn was built during the days of the Stephens’ enhancements, or later during the years of the art colony is unknown. The barn is fenced off, however there are openings in the fence. It is made of wood, so the decay is obvious in some parts that have crumbled, and also be aware of bees that have made this their home. Choose to enter at your own risk. Personally, I did not enter the barn, however other adventures have entered reporting old animal stalls. This would coincide with the plans for the property being self sufficient, because there were reports of animals being on the property.
Once you are done with this area, head back towards the powerhouse. To the right of the powerhouse, there will be a small stairway leading up to the garden beds, adjacent to the powerhouse. The concrete beds are still very much intact. From here you can see the roof of the powerhouse if you didn’t get a chance to see it before. From this clearing in the garden, there is another stairway heading up, this one is only about 130 steps. You will still feel tired at the end, and be thankful you don’t have to go back up that 500 step stairway! It leads to a road at the top, where you will proceed left. Go up the road for a little ways, winding around the hills, and eventually you will see a fork in the road. One road curves to the left, another curves off to the right. At the fork, go to the right, up the hill. Shortly after this fork, you will see a water shed on the left side of the road. Keep heading up on the road, around the bend, as you will find an easy way to view the water shed from the top. After rounding the bend, you will see the main gate. But before you go to the main gate, look to the left and you will see a clearing that allows you to look inside the water shed. The sheer size of this thing is amazing! And as expected, it has graffiti painted on the walls inside. Just a word of warning, it smells pretty bad once you peep over, but still well worth the see.
After the water shed, head back towards the main gate. It is a beautiful gate and is a great photo opportunity. This was the gate said to be designed by the famous Los Angeles architect Paul Williams. There is an opening in the wall just to the right of the gate to exit back onto Sullivan Fire Road. From there you can head back down the hill to your starting point. Pay attention to the tank on the right side. This tank is painted both inside and out. If you want to explore this tank, head down the stairs that are directly next to it. It is not that hard to get to off Sullivan Fire Road.
There are a lot of winding roads and stairways throughout the compound, so it can be easy to lose your way. Allow enough time to see everything, and if you go on the weekend, there will be lots of other hikers. Here is a quick recap of the tour:
- Head up to the ranch using Sullivan Fire Road
- At the chain link fence, use the opening on the left to head down the 500 step stairway
- Turn left at the end of the stairway
- At the fork, take the road on the left side
- Building on the right is the powerhouse, explore and don’t forget about the tank behind it.
- Continue on the road after the powerhouse to see the shed in disarray
- Past the shed will be an overturned VW bus and small obelisk
- If you want to see the barn, continue on road. If not, turn around and head back to powerhouse.
- Take small stairway to the right of the powerhouse.
- Explore the gardens, and rooftop views of powerhouse
- Continue up the stairs after gardens, approximately 130 steps
- At top of stairway, turn left
- Head up the road, and at the fork, go to the right, continuing up hill
- See the watershed on the left hand side of the road.
- Use the clearing at the top to see inside the watershed.
- The main gate is just past watershed
- Exit through hole in fence on right side of gate.
- Turn right to head back down Sullivan Fire Road
- See the large fuel tank on the right side
- If you wish to explore the tank, head down stairs adjacent to the tank, and then go back up to exit.
- Admire the views as you head back to your car
Just a couple notes:
Although I said in the beginning that the hike is pretty moderate, and that children aren’t suggested, I will have to say that we did bring our daughter with us on the hike. She is 3 years old, and her father carried her for a large portion of it. She sat on his shoulders all the way down the 500 steps and for part of the ascent. Be prepared to carry small children if you choose to bring them. Also, I have to laugh at myself, since I came dressed in a maxi dress and did not have my normal hiking apparel. We had just come from another destination where the dress was much nicer. It still was comfortable and it worked.
There have been talks about demolition for several years now, so there is a possibility that this place won’t be around for much longer.
Enjoy this destination that is no doubt unique in its fascinating back story, and may you always find adventure!
Below is a recap in photos: