Urban hiking: the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Mansions of West Hills, Los Angeles, California, visible from the east portions of hiking trails in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve.

Early spring is a wonderful time to visit Los Angeles. I congratulated myself on my foresight as I began my hike in the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, a 3,000-acre open expanse of hills and views networked with trails — enough for even the most ardent hiker to roam for hours.

This trail was a new discovery for me. I was visiting family in Woodland Hills, and kept glancing up at the hilltops above their neighborhood. It looked like good hiking country, so I pulled up Google Maps, and lo and behold, there were several trails up there. I chose the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space because it looked like there were loads of trails up there — and there were.

The land in the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve has been owned by a few different families and entities, starting with a grant by the king of Spain in 1795 (!). Several recent owners wanted to turn it into a subdivision or mini-city with golf courses, but this beautiful land was saved from that fate 20 years ago when its last private owner, Washington Mutual Bank, agreed to sell it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, with the support of environmental activists, including movie director Rob Reiner. It was a great change of ownership: The Upper Las Virgenes Canyon is a real treasure, and I’m so grateful it’s available to hiked and enjoyed by the public.

Read more: Urban hiking: the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Normally I like to hike with my husband midweek, because the trails we like in Oregon are less crowded then (and parking is easier to come by). But I was on my own for this visit, so I chose a Saturday morning for my walk — it seemed prudent to hike on a day when someone would be pretty much guaranteed to arrive in the unlikely event I got hurt on the trail.

On this day, I was lucky enough to have my cake and eat it, too. Though there were plenty of hikers at the beginning, the trail split quickly into several different directions. I chose the path less taken, and within a short time, I had outpaced most other walkers, and ascended the hills to open skies and vistas.

The day was much warmer than I had expected. Pretty soon I felt comfortable shedding my sweater, and after a quick survey of the trail ahead, my shoes and socks, too.

Over the past year I’ve been hiking barefoot much more often than in the past. I’ve always loved the feeling of earth or sand beneath my feet, but the soles were always sensitive to small rocks — not to mention the obvious hazards of thorns, bee stings and whatever else you can think of.

I really wanted to desensitize my feet enough to enjoy barefoot hiking, so last summer I took every opportunity to hike without shoes or sandals. At first it was difficult, and I’d put my footwear back on after perhaps 30 minutes or so. By the end of summer, I was walking routinely for at least two hours without footwear.

I wasn’t sure if I could do that again so soon after winter. My first barefoot hike of 2023 proved I could, though — it was in March, at Catherine Creek on the Washington side of the Columbia River, on an unseasonably warm day. The dried mud of those trails offered a fairly easy surface for my winter feet, but the Upper Los Virgenes trails were even better. It had rained very recently, and the trails were a mix of mud and dry earth. The dry parts were covered in a soft, light-textured soil that was welcoming to the skin of my soles.

It’s hard to describe just how different it feels to go barefoot on natural surfaces. I was careful to avoid bees as I veered onto grass to avoid the mud, and careful to skirt any sharp-looking gravel. Yet even with this extra caution, I felt lighter, freer and much more connected to everything around me. Feet have a lot of nerve endings, and as they experience the varying temperatures and textures that greet them, the soles channel extra energy upward into the rest of me. My entire body feels more vibrant, my breathing deepens, and everything around me becomes clearer, more detailed, full of color and light and sound.

There was also a social benefit to going barefoot. Lots of people commented on my bare feet during the three hours I was on the trail. Some were almost shocked, others clearly approving. I welcomed these conversations; they let me ask the people about themselves. I got to talk with a lovely woman who moved to California from Iran a few decades ago; a father and daughter enjoying special hiking time together; a young father whose son and puppy both got excited at the sight of a rabbit hopping across the trail; and several runners who seemed happy to discuss the merits of barefoot exercise.

It felt a lot like being a tourist, and how wonderful to feel like that in part of Los Angeles, the city where I was raised. When my husband and I travel, we’re always so obviously foreigners, we get a lot of people wanting to talk with us. This is one of the nicest parts of traveling — it’s how you get to learn about a place, about how people live. I didn’t expect to get so much of that on a Saturdy morning hike, and it was a nice extra.

The beauties of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon unfolded themselves as I walked on. Rolling landscapes with a brilliant blue sky setting them off, delicate wildflowers, bird calls and insects were all there for the discovering. There’s a big loop trail that takes about two hours to walk, starting from the parking lot and ending there, and off that trail are many small side trails. I enjoyed taking some of these, just in and back to the trail. Some led me down steep hills into small clefts where I was surrounded by grasses, wind and bird calls — I couldn’t hear voices or anything mechanical at all.