The Wisdom Tree Is Becoming an L.A. Landmark. But Will Fame Kill It?

A couple of Los Angeles residents check out the Wisdom Tree.EXPAND
A couple of Los Angeles residents check out the Wisdom Tree.
Hillel Aron

High up on Cahuenga Peak, about a 15-minute walk west of the Hollywood sign, stands a lone pine tree. The otherwise treeless hilltop offers a breathtaking view of L.A. — in fact, there's hardly a spot in the city where you can't look up and see the weather-beaten, solitary tree, though you may need binoculars. Under the tree sits a green ammo box filled with journals, where visitors write their thoughts, feelings and bad poetry.

The pine is known by many names, most of them obvious monikers such as the Wishing Tree (Google Maps), the Tree of Life (another part of Google Maps), the Magic Tree (Foursquare) and the Giving Tree (Yelp). But, at least according to Casey Schreiner at Modern Hiker, a soft consensus seems to be forming for the Wisdom Tree (Instagram tends to agree). 

Whatever you call it, the Wisdom Tree is becoming a popular hiking and selfie destination, leading some to worry that fame and popularity might be too much for the gnarled old pine.

The Wisdom Tree Is Becoming an L.A. Landmark. But Will Fame Kill It?EXPAND
Hillel Aron

The journal box was placed beneath the tree several years ago by Mark Rowlands, 58, a film electrician from South London.

"When I first went up there, there was a binder," Rowlands says. "Then at some point, I put the ammo box up there. I put in some journals and pencils. I would keep it sort of up-to-date. I would take pictures of the pages. So I would try to document some stuff. I would say 95.95 percent of it is really profound and meaningful. It’s certainly a special place for a lot of people."

Rowlands keeps photos of the Wisdom Tree notes on his modest website.

According to legend, the tree was purchased as a Christmas tree and planted on the mountaintop where, rather miraculously, it survived. One comment posted on Rowlands' site reads:

I know the person who planted that tree his name is John Smirch. He planted that tree 35 years ago, he got it from Macdonnals [sic] when they were giving little trees away. He and his friends planted quite a few but only that one survived.

Rowlands first noticed the Wisdom Tree while flying a helicopter nearby in 2007, shortly after a 160-acre fire charred the Hollywood Hills, including Cahuenga Peak, leaving only the sole surviving pine. 

"After that fire, it was devastation," Rowlands says. "It was charcoal as far as the eye can see. Except for the tree, which definitely got singed."

There weren't really any trails leading up to the tree, since the land was privately owned.

Aviator and film producer Howard Hughes had bought the mountaintop, according to the Los Angeles Times, "in the 1930s hoping to build a love nest for actress Ginger Rogers. (She wouldn't let him.)"

For decades, the 138-acre property stood empty in the shadow of the famous Hollywood Sign — until 2002, when Chicago investors bought it from the Hughes estate and announced plans to build five massive luxury homes. People were shocked that land an easy walk from L.A.'s sacred sign wasn't public parkland, and activists jumped into the debate. The nonprofit Trust for Public Land began raising money to buy the land from Chicago, and the trust even covered the Hollywood Sign, in April 2010, with its slogan, "Save the Peak." 

Eventually, the trust raised the $12.5 million to buy the land, with the last $900,000 coming from none other than Hugh Hefner, who told the Times:

It's like saying let's build a house in the middle of Yellowstone Park. There are some things that are more important. The Hollywood Sign represents the dreams of millions. It's a symbol. It is as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It represents the movies.

A plaque thanking Hefner was glued to a rock, but that plaque has been stolen. The land, meanwhile, was absorbed by the city-owned Griffith Park, which added some plaques and trails — and put the tree on its tourist maps. Soon, people started hiking along the ridgeline to the surviving pine. 

Actually, don't climb this tree — it can only take so much love from 4 million humans.EXPAND
Actually, don't climb this tree — it can only take so much love from 4 million humans.
Hillel Aron

"It was a real special place," Rowlands says. "No litter. If you saw four or five people in a day it would be a lot of people."

But winning new billing on a public map has not been kind to the tree or its immediate surroundings, according to Rowlands. "Now it’s just a destination and there’s litter," he says. Graffiti has appeared on nearby rocks. "People carved their names in the tree. It’s just awful. It tears my heart."

He adds: "My worst fear is that some asshole will take it upon themselves to chop it down and make a big bonfire. I wouldn’t put it past them."

Rowlands' fears notwithstanding, Cahuenga Peak offers one of the most unusual hikes in L.A., which includes not only one of the most breathtaking views of the city but also an up-close look at the back of the Hollywood Sign and an encounter with the lonely pine, the Wisdom Tree. Or whatever we're calling it. 

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