Looking for a nice mellow hike to a remote locale with scenic views in every direction…from which one might blast off a nuclear missile at an incoming Soviet bomber if it was 1965? L.A.’s decommissioned Nike missile command and launch sites may be for you.
We discovered our first by accident, walking along the coast in San Pedro. Taking a turn inland on a trail through a desolate patch of dry grassland, we stumbled onto a monumental concrete bunker with strange low angles, looming out of the hillside like an alien mothership. Huge rusted steel doors closed off impenetrably dark interiors. This turned out to be the former LA-43 Nike Missile Site, now reclaimed as the White Point Nature Preserve, part of the Palos Verdes Land Conservancy (as the helpful signage would have told us if we had walked in from the other direction). During the Cold War, it was part of Los Angeles’ air defense against incoming enemy bombers, which never came. Now it faces silently out at Santa Catalina Island, peaceful in its massive solidity, the beige concrete merging into the coastal scrub. Air Force officers live in the houses on the nearby hillside.
The next one we found while poring over Google Maps for a hike in the San Gabriels. There it was at the end of a long fire road on a mountain peak above Newhall: the LA-94 Nike Missile Site. We trundled up through the foothills on Little Tujunga Canyon Road, dodging packs of sports motorcycles, past the Shoot SoCal Firing Range and the Pacoima Reservoir. At the windblown Bear Divide Vista picnic stop we turned onto a narrow old mountain road called 3N17, which took us to a small parking area at the edge of Los Angeles County Fire Camp No. 9. High on a misty outlook a short walk beyond rusted the remnants of the old Nike missile command and radar stations, now fenced off and interspersed with newer cell phone towers and satellite dishes. The missile launch site itself was on the next peak over, sharing the commanding view of Santa Clarita and the San Fernando Valley. Two hang gliders rose and dipped out on the updrafts. It was difficult to picture blasting aerial warfare with the winter sun peeking through the clouds on a serene California mountaintop.
During the 1950s, the potential for nuclear war with the USSR became a serious preoccupation. They had beat us in the satellite race, we knew they had developed their own nukes and strategic air force; we could no longer enjoy our isolation between two oceans. Los Angeles, with its major port, leading aerospace industry, and nearby military bases (not to mention our much-envied California Dream lifestyle), was now a prime target. Before there were intercontinental ballistic missiles, the nuclear threat was from enemy bomber planes, like the ones we had used to bomb Japan. So, in 1952, the 47th Brigade set up headquarters at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro and began developing air defense for the Los Angeles area. By 1958 there was a ring of 16 missile sites ready to detect and shoot down incoming bombers with Nike-Ajax missiles, nestled in inconspicuous placements from Malibu to El Monte, Chatsworth, Van Nuys, Long Beach, and Playa del Rey—right around the time Disneyland opened and the new space-age theme building began wowing new arrivals at LAX. The Nike program was named for the ancient Greek goddess of victory, and military buffs nicknamed the array of missile sites the Ring of Supersonic Steel. During the 1960s many were upgraded to the newer Nike-Hercules missile, which had a longer range and could be tipped with a nuclear warhead. The ring of 16 sites was reduced to 9.
As Tom Vanderbilt writes in Survival City, the Cold War was the most expensive war never fought; the nuclear weapons development program alone was estimated to have cost the United States some $5.5 trillion, making it the biggest-ticket military project ever. “It was a war of light and shadow, illusion and reality, truth and counter-truth. War was not declared, nor was peace assumed… Battlefields were everywhere and nowhere, an abstract space on wall-size screens in situation rooms, prophesied in emanating-ripple damage estimates on aerial photographs of cities, filtered down to backyards where homeowners studied government-supplied plans for bomb shelters…The country was on a war footing and simultaneously awash in peacetime prosperity. Both conditions were dependent on each other, a contradictory existence that played itself out in everyday life…At the same time, the Cold War landscape was defined by what could not be seen. The realms of public and private knowledge were bifurcated, and so too was space: a secret landscape was installed…”
By the late 1960s, intercontinental ballistic missiles had been developed, and the idea of the US or the USSR flying bomber planes to destroy each others’ cities became obsolete. Thousands of ICBM silos were installed across the midwest and Siberia and on roving deep-water submarines, assuring mutual destruction that made first-strike irrelevant. The Nike sites were rapidly decommissioned and fell into ruin or reuse. LA-94 became the Los Pinetos Fire Camp in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, you could scramble up San Vicente Peak off Mulholland Drive on a full moon night, and sit up on top of the old abandoned Nike radar tower.
You can still walk up to the former LA-96 Nike Missile Site off Mulholland, and nowadays it is much more welcoming. The rangers of the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area have cleaned things up and added bathrooms, trash cans, and a picnic table or two, along with a great many informational signs with military fonts describing the history and operation of the site. It is a popular destination on the weekends, and well worth the mile or so hike up from the dirt parking area where Mulholland Drive hits Encino Hills Drive. A cinderblock sentry box greets you as you ascend the road to the hexagonal steel radar tower, which graces visitors with a stunning 360-degree vista of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Encino Reservoir, and the San Fernando Valley, all the way to the downtown skyline 20 miles away. Perfect for sighting those incoming Tupolev Tu-95s! Once those were detected, the missiles would then launch from a site in the Sepulveda Basin, according to the handy signage. Day to day military staff were only briefed on limited aspects of the radar and launch systems, in order to thwart spying and other potential sabotage. Sit a spell on an old concrete cube and enjoy the scenery.
Many of those former launch sites are razed and invisible, now home to malls, industrial parks, and golf courses, capped and buried by schools and suburbs. Some like LA-43 have blended nicely back into the natural landscape. Only rusted steel and weathered concrete oddities remain, souvenirs of a time when nuclear missiles much more powerful than the bomb we used to destroy Hiroshima sat inconspicuously on high alert here in Los Angeles until superseded by heavier weapons elsewhere.