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Hollywood: Horse riding in the hills

It was more Texas than Tinseltown. Our short procession of horses followed the dusty, cacti-dotted trail, with guide Lila up front, leading the way and looking every inch the cowgirl in a Stetson hat and matching boots.

Hollywood: Horse riding in the hills
Image: By Scott Catron (Sunset on Hollywood. Uploaded by zaui, CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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But we weren’t in the Wild West, or anywhere near it. There was no disputing our true location upon reaching the crest of the approaching hill. There, looming large against a deep green mountainside, were nine letters known the world over. The Hollywood sign — big, bold and white — shimmered in the hazy Californian sunshine.

“Horse riding is a very unique way to experience Hollywood but not many people even know it’s possible,” says Lila, from Alabama, who, like countless others, came here in search of fame and fortune. For the moment, though, she leads riders through Griffith Park — one of the largest urban parks in the US; a wilderness of forests and canyons sandwiched between the Santa Monica Mountains and Los Angeles River.

Locals retreat to this rugged slice of LA, seeking solace along the 56-miles of quiet trails. Travellers, meanwhile, are lured by the citywide panoramas and up-close views of the world’s most iconic sign, which sits on the southern slopes of Mount Lee.

Now out of bounds and heavily patrolled, the Hollywood sign is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Erected in 1923 to advertise a new housing development, the sign originally read: ‘Hollywoodland’ and was only ever intended to stand for 18 months, but it remained in place as the US movie industry started to flourish.

In the decades that followed, the 45ft-tall sign has hit the headlines on a number of occasions, most notably in 1976 when a prankster reworded it ‘Hollyweed’ using ropes, stones and fabric on the day that strict new anti-marijuana laws came into force.

The park’s history dates back even further. Once home to the native Tongva tribe, the land fell into the hands of Colonel Griffith J Griffith in the 1880s. He later donated more than 3,000 acres to the city, thereby creating a lasting legacy that’s almost eclipsed the fact he was also an alcoholic who tried to murder his wife.

Our horses trot along slowly, passing the occasional jogger and dog walker. Lila scans the skies for hawks and some of the other 200 bird species that reside in Griffith Park, as my steed Marilyn — named after Ms Monroe, naturally — chews on clumps of shrubbery that cloak the steep embankments.

Dense forests consume the surrounding foothills: an impenetrable refuge for coyotes and rarely-seen mountain lions. Lila points towards a cluster of dark caves in the distance. “That’s the original Batcave,” she says. “The old series of Batman was filmed there.”

The pace is slow and we soon came to a stop at a viewpoint, from which Los Angeles spreads out like a toy town of long boulevards and lofty skyscrapers. Helicopters hover over Downtown and the Pacific Ocean sparkles all the way to the horizon, lapping against the mountainous silhouette of Catalina Island. The Hollywood Sign looms over my shoulder and, slightly to the east, stands the art deco domes of the Griffith Observatory — a place that plays host to a form of stargazing not normally associated with the extraordinary City of Angels.

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