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Hollywood Sign: Hiking & History

Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood Sign from Mount Lee

The Hollywood Sign is such an iconic structure that it never needs an introduction or description to first-time visitors who are guests. They know it well, having seen it untold times in movies, TV shows and news pieces. They’ve almost certainly seen a picture of it many times too. Interestingly if you next ask them if they thought Los Angeles was hilly in places, they’ll almost certainly say no – they though it was flat. Which is funny because the sign is clearly on a hill and we have a very well-known neighborhood nearby called Beverly Hills, but it does show how the real Los Angeles is often mistaken for its glamorous alter-ego – El Eh.

The Hollywood Sign is of course real, but it’s central to the myth of Los Angeles and its local industry, mass entertainment. It’s a beacon to actors and entertainers, writers, directors and many others, all around the world. Signifying to them the dream of stardom and wealth, drawing them to LA to try their luck. This month (or last – no one knows for sure) is the 100th anniversary of the Sign’s unveiling, so it seems like a good point to look back on its central place in Los Angeles and film history.

In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of the Hollywood Sign, and then make some recommendations for how to (safely and legally) hike to it.

Early History of the Hollywood Sign

The sign was raised high in the Hollywood Hills in 1923. Like many ancient myths (which this clearly isn’t) its origins have become lost in the mists of time, but it must have been sometime in October or November of that year as there was a piece about it in the Los Angeles Times in December and the article referred to it as having stood already for several weeks.

Another irony is that It was nothing to do with Hollywood the industry, or even with Hollywood the area, but was actually designed to advertise a housing development underneath it called Hollywoodland. It was festooned with bulbs that were fixed to the letters and would light up at night: HOLLY – WOOD – LAND and finally HOLLYWOODLAND. It was just an advertising billboard to sell homes, basically.

Originally the sign was only meant to remain in place for a year or so, time enough for the investors to sell the houses and move on, but it very quickly became a much-loved local landmark and stayed.

The moving-picture business had only based itself in the Los Angeles area for just over a decade at that point and it wasn’t particularly associated with the Hollywood neighborhood. In fact, the sign’s construction at that time was instrumental in the naming of the movie industry as ‘Hollywood’.

What do I mean by that? Well, until then the movie-making industry wasn’t known as such and filmmaking was happening all over the LA area – Burbank, Culver City, Silver Lake, and many other neighborhoods had studios operating there. Any one of them could have had their name adopted as the catch-all term for the industry, and we could be saying ‘Silverlake’ or ‘Culver City’ instead of ‘Hollywood’.

Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood Sign today

Another key event to happen in 1923 that also solidified Hollywood as the name for the industry was the opening of a comedy movie called Hollywood in August. The film is lost, but the plot revolves around a young actress who moves to LA to become a star. She goes around town trying to get castings at all the major studios, but without any luck. In the meantime, other members of her family join her and each one becomes a successful actor. The grandfather becomes the old-timer in westerns, her younger sister becomes the ingenue – even her mother becomes famous. It’s one of the first films to be made about the entertainment industry in LA itself and it set the template for the many movies that would follow.

The other element to really mark the movie out as being unique for the time was the liberal use of cameos by the biggest stars of the day. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Fatty Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson and over fifty others appeared briefly in the film, and it was a massive success.

Ironically the career of the lead actress, the very appropriately named Hope Drown, mirrored that of her onscreen alter ego perfectly. The producers of the film had wanted an unknown actress for the role, mainly because there were so many appearances by famous actors and actresses, but although she lived until 1990 she never appeared in a single other movie.

Along with the creation of the Hollywood Sign a few months later it solidified in the public’s mind the idea of Hollywood as being the heart of the movie industry in the U.S. To capitalize on the public’s fascination the Los Angeles film studios began putting “made in Hollywood, California” in the end titles, even if the studio was actually in the San Fernando Valley or another part of the city.

Soon afterwards one sees the term Hollywood start to be used as a name for the industry, not just the neighborhood.

Of course, it’s still used as such – even though it’s basically meaningless nowadays. The industry is so big and so spread out (not just around LA, but the U.S.) that thinking of it as a single entity is really anachronistic, but people like the idea of Hollywood – so they still use the term. The industry is almost unrecognizable from its early days, when there were only 10-12 major studios, and now there are so many different platforms – TV, internet, gaming etc (we should call It ‘the content industry’).

In spite of what many people seem to think the industry does not have a hive mind and there are many different perspectives and viewpoints within it too. It’s as diverse as any other major industry.

Further Developments of the Sign

Since the original Hollywood Sign was only supposed to be there for a short time it was only constructed out of wood and sheet metal – and quite soon parts of it started collapsing. One day an ‘O’ was knocked down in a storm, and not long after that the top of one of the others was blown off by the wind, so it looked like a lower-case ‘U’.

Then one night the caretaker, who was living in a cabin on Mount Lee at the time, had a bit too much to drink. He was driving on a track at the top of Mount Lee when he lost control of the car and careened down the hill, taking out the “H” completely, meaning for a long time it read ‘OLLYW uDLAND’!

In 1949 the ‘LAND’ part was finally removed, as the city wanted it to name the district, not the development and that’s when it officially became the Hollywood Sign. It’s been renovated several times since then, but the most significant was in 1978, when the old letters were finally removed and the ones we see today, which are made out of steel and set in concrete, were erected. 

Historic preservation wasn’t the concern that it is today and – of all people – Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy Magazine, got involved in the fight to save the sign. He held a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills and some of his friends, including Alice Cooper and Gene Autry, contributed nearly $28,000 each to “buy” a letter (raising almost $250,000 in total).

Peg Entwhistle

Unfortunately, the sign is also famous for its connection to the darker side of Hollywood – as Hollywood Boulevard is often known as ‘the Boulevard of Broken Dreams’.

In 1932 an actress called Peg Entwhistle (who was originally from the U.K.) moved out here to make her mark in the movies. She was a Broadway star and, after being given a contract with a movie studio, arrived in the spring and stayed with her uncle on Beechwood Canyon, right underneath the Hollywood Sign itself. 

She had a small role as part of the female ensemble in the movie Thirteen Women (one of the first films about a serial killer), but most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. As the summer wore on the call from the studio, with an offer of a great role, didn’t come and one night in September she made her way up to the sign and jumped to her death from the ‘H’. She was just twenty-four years old. 

Peg Entwistle’s only scenes in Thirteen Women

According to Hollywood legend, the next day a letter from the Beverly Hills Playhouse arrived, offering her the lead in a theatrical production – playing the role of a suicidal young woman! Life imitating art perhaps? When you read her suicide note now it seems obvious she was suffering from depression, but of course at the time these issues were not so well-understood.

Since the 1980’s the sign has been fenced-off, so no one can get too close to it, partly because of Entwhistle’s tragic end.

And this is the reason the Hollywood Sign is, in many ways, the perfect metaphor for the entertainment industry in Los Angeles (which is perhaps why Entwhistle chose the landmark as the site for her suicide). The sign is real – it’s made up of fifty feet high steel letters and you can see it from almost anywhere on the Westside (depending on visibility) – but you can’t touch it. It’s protected on its hillside, high above Hollywood, by rough terrain, high fences, motion detectors, cameras and helicopters. It’s tantalizingly close, but always out of reach. Looking down on you, taunting you with your own failure.

It’s the story of Hollywood, the first movie about the film industry and – it sounds like – the best one for nailing its infuriating unfairness.

Hollywood Sign Reaches Its Centenary

Today the Hollywood Sign sits in pristine parkland.

Mack Sennett, a successful early film producer (most famous for making the Keystone Cops comedies and bringing Charlie Chaplin to Los Angeles), had purchased an eighteen acre lot at the top of Mount Lee, where the sign sits, in 1923. He planned a huge mansion, which would overlook the film-making community from the peak and, accordingly he levelled the top of the mountain (which is why it’s now a flat-top).

However, the 1929 stock-market crash put paid to those plans and he sold the land to a Television pioneer, Tommy Lee, who installed LA’s very first TV studio there, as well as naming the peak after his father, Don Lee.

As late as 2008 there were still plans in place to build luxury housing adjacent to the sign, but after a high-profile campaign (also assisted by Hefner) the land and sign were transferred to Griffith Park.

From time to time the sign has been altered, sometimes officially sanctioned, other times not. My personal favourite was when it was changed to read HOLLYWeeD in January 2017, by person or persons unknown, to celebrate the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in California.

In 2023 the Hollywood Sign reached the grand old age of 100 years old, but like the old LA cliche that it’s almost come to represent, with the aid of regular face-lifts, she’s as beautiful as ever. Along with the Golden Gate Bridge (a vastly superior engineering feat) the Sign is a global symbol of California too.

4 Hikes to the Hollywood Sign

The ONLY way to reach the Hollywood Sign is to hike up to it. There are NO tours, by any company, which go right up to the sign. As explained in this article, the Hollywood Sign itself is inaccessible to the public. The closest you can get to it is at the back of the Sign, on the top of Mount Lee. Don’t even think about climbing the fence – you will be arrested.

In its own way that may well seem quite bizarre. This is Los Angeles, famous for its commercialization of culture, yet we haven’t made an actual tourist attraction out of our most famous landmark? The French have done it with the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptians with the pyramids and the Brits with the Houses of Parliament for God’s sake! Nevertheless, there is something cool about the sign’s very inaccessibility and the fact that it is a decent hike to get up to it means that there is some kudos if you actually make it.

The summit of Mount Lee is at an elevation of just over 1,700 feet, so whichever way you go there is a significant climb to get up to it. As we often say in LA, getting to the Hollywood Sign can be almost as difficult as making it in Hollywood (the industry).

1. BURBANK PEAK TRAIL (FORMERLY THE WONDER VIEW TRAIL)

Although it’s only a three-mile round-trip, this one is the most challenging hike, but it offers the chance to visit the famous Wisdom Tree. It’s also the most fun if you fancy scrambling up the hillside and over the tops of the Hollywood Hills.

With this route you almost certainly want to take a taxi to the starting point, as it makes more sense to exit the park at a different spot.

2. BRUSH CANYON TRAIL 

At 6.5 miles round-trip this is the longest hike, but the trail passes very near Bronson Caves (the Bat Cave in the 1970’s Batman TV show), which is well worth the detour.

There is parking inside the park at this entrance, so it’s the easiest if you’re taking your own car.

3. MOUNT LEE DRIVE TRAIL 

This hike is about the same distance as the Burbank Peak Trail, but it’s significantly less challenging as the route is all on fire roads, and it has the best close-up views of the sign from below.

There is NO parking inside the park where the trail starts and the residential streets are for permit holders only. Please note that if you try to park here you will, almost certainly, have your car towed.

4. MOUNT HOLLYWOOD HIKE 

Every day at 3 pm in the winter, or 4 pm in the summer, we have an organized hike in Griffith Park. We start at the Greek Theatre and hike up through the Bird Sanctuary to to the peak of Mount Hollywood (at just over 1,600 feet elevation).

From there we take the fire roads down to the Griffith Observatory. It’s one of the easiest hikes in the park and offers some of the best views of the Hollywood Sign (although we don’t go to Mount Lee), as well as giving guests the opportunity to explore the Observatory, which is one of LA’s gems.

More information here.

One minute Mount Hollywood Hike video

You can easily hike to the sign from the Griffith Observatory, but it is about an eight mile return journey, so allow at least four hours if you’re doing that. It is a lovely way to hike to the Hollywood Sign, if you have the time.

There is plenty of free parking near the Greek Theatre, but if there’s an event happening there then there’s NO parking and it costs $10 PER HOUR to park near the Observatory (if you’re lucky enough to even find a space). So check the theater website first.

Public transport, believe it or not, is probably the best way to get to the Greek Theatre or Griffith Observatory. There’s a Dash bus from Sunset and Vermont Station in Hollywood that takes around 15 minutes to get there. Tickets are $0.50pp.

Of course, with all of these hikes, if you ride-share to the starting point you can exit at a different place, without needing to retrace your steps. Space for parking in the streets around Griffith Park are mostly permit holders only, and inside the park it can be extremely hard to find too.

Final Thoughts on Hiking to the Hollywood Sign

PLEASE bear in mind these important things when planning your hike:

  1. Bring a full water bottle. There are spots to refill your bottle, but if you don’t bring it you will suffer. It gets very hot here in the summer and you will sweat heavily while climbing the hills, even in winter. 
  2. Use plenty of sunscreen. There’s very little shade in the park and the sun here is strong.
  3. Wear appropriate, comfortable shoes. You don’t necessarily need to use proper hiking boots – good quality sports shoes will do – but don’t even think about rocking the flip-flops.
  4. Don’t leave the designated trails. Rattlesnakes abound in Griffith Park and visitors tramping across the parkland damage the environment for the animals and plants that live there.
  5. Take everything you brought back with you – in other words don’t litter!
  6. Please don’t start a fire!

Almost every time I go hiking in Griffith Park I come across dehydrated, lost and sunburnt tourists, who really aren’t having a great time anymore – please use this guide to ensure that doesn’t happen to you.

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

If you’re thinking of visiting Venice read our article which has suggestions for things to see and do there.

If you have any feedback on Hollywood Sign: Hiking & History please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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