I first became aware of the legends surrounding Turnbull Canyon in the months after my graduation from high school. It was probably happenstance, since those days are usually the most exciting, carefree and anxious for most young adults experiencing their first, true taste of freedom. My friends and I finally had the ability to explore what our neighborhoods had to offer away from the confines of our suburban city. We could go anywhere we wanted, at any time, provided that we had our own transportation and the money to go with it.
There lay the problem. We were broke, bored and with too much energy. All we could rely on were infrequent bonfires at the beach, checking out shady, dingy arcades or prolonged Nintendo sessions at our houses. Not very exciting, but when you have little else to go on, it hits the spot like a glass of water to a thirsty person. It wouldn’t be until the summer of 2008 that the mystery in our own backyard would captivate us.
The day was a perfect kind of hot, a sort of day which called for relaxing on a towel at the beach with a refreshing ice cream cone. Above was a perfect blue sky which sported a rare cumulus cloud and the occasional airplane as I lived right off an air traffic lane back in those days. I was invited over to my friend J’s house to spend some time being bored together. There, our friends E and B were there with him, hanging out without a care in the world, trying to find space to sit down in the chaos of dirty clothes, band equipment and crumpled fast food wrappers that was J’s room.
“Hey, have you heard of Turnbull Canyon?” E asked me. J and B looked at me with almost deranged, feral looks on their faces. Nervously, I answered that I didn’t.
“It’s this place where they have ghosts, KKK and other spooky shit,” he said to me “We have to be careful, though. They have Satanists up there and if they see us, they’re gonna sacrifice us. Isn’t that awesome?”
Immediately, I was hooked, despite the danger of having my organs cut out. My interest in the paranormal goes back as far as I could possibly remember, where watching episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, Encounters with the Unexplained and Sightings was appointment viewing. Ask my old librarian about how many times I've rented out the UFO book from the library at my elementary school. She’ll tell you it was in the double digits.
My friends directed me to their computer. I was a little scared they might be sending me to a screamer website. It wouldn’t have been the first time they’ve done that to me. I still don’t know to this day how they got the story of Turnbull Canyon in their heads. It seems even stranger that we live only a few miles from there and the story had only hit us until after we graduated from high school.
My eyes fell on the fingerprint-smudged screen and there I first saw the post about the canyon on the Drifting forum thread. There, a user by the name of Coiloverkid lays out the whole sordid history of the canyon, starting early with the natives that used to live on the land and ending with the user’s own dealings of strangeness deep inside the canyon walls and hills. It had everything I could ever want in a story. There were UFO sightings, devil worship and unidentified cryptids stalking the dark canyon walls. A wholesome place of interest and adventure.
To say it was the most captivating thing I’ve ever read would be an understatement. It was a mystery here in our own neighborhood; one we could possibly see, feel and experience. We don’t get much in the way of strangeness here in our little corner of Southern California. Most of the more famous paranormal hotspots lay far away hidden deep in the desert, on some lonely mountain top or locked away behind closed doors surrounded by fencing or security guards.
Turnbull Canyon, on the other hand, was nestled between Whittier and Hacienda Heights, only about a twenty minute jaunt from our little block. Our afternoon was set and so we piled like sardines into J’s car and took off on what could’ve been a potentially exciting meeting with the supernatural.
I knew nothing about those hills back in the day. The one thing we realized that it was a popular hiking destination with plenty of people striding its trails on a daily basis. We watched these people walk towards the trail head as we entered Turnbull Canyon Rd. from Beverly Blvd. The other thing we realized was the extreme heat that we honestly should’ve expected in the dog days of summer.
Lastly, the complete lack of parking made for a difficult time. Unknowingly, we parked near the crest of the hill near Skyline Drive where it intersected Turnbull, along the small asphalt roads which serviced the massive houses that dotted the canyon. It was a miracle that we never got a ticket that first time up there. Police were known to be vigilant for infractions such as that, possibly from the curious who venture forth into the hills in search of the mysterious and otherworldly.
The afternoon sun stung my face as we huffed and puffed up one of the dusty fire roads. The posting on the Drifting forum spoke of a place called “360” located on the tallest hill inside the canyon; a place easily identifiable since it holds up a massive electrical tower like a demon holding up a pitchfork, stabbing the blue sky.
It took us ten minutes to make it up and instead of being scared, we were awed at the view on top of the hill. To the south lay our community and the surrounding cities with the ocean a slim blue line marking the horizon. The north lay more suburban sprawl laying against the background of the mighty San Gabriel Mountains. Looking westward gave you a view of Orange County and its many freeways. To the east, the barely visible Los Angeles skyline lay in view, covered that day as most days by heavy smog.
I already knew we weren’t going to find anything that day. The scenery was too beautiful, too majestic and just way too busy in the mid afternoon, but we couldn’t shake the feeling of complete isolation and eeriness. The rudimentary research that I had done before we left for the canyon always stated the same thing: that there was the feeling that something was...off. The canyon didn’t disappoint as we headed for home. There was a lingering feeling of dread, isolation and an eerie sense of otherness that stayed with us after we had gone home. Whatever force that draws people to the canyon left its mark on my mind and my soul.
Weeks later, I returned to Turnbull with my friends E, J and our other friend V. This time, we came late at night, hoping to find something worthwhile to talk about. We crawled our way up Turnbull Canyon Rd as the digital clock on J’s car ticked towards midnight. The road itself was winding and dangerous to navigate even in the bright of day, but at night, it exuded a feeling of dread, trepidation and fear.
Eventually, we made it up the canyon and parked a few minutes away from the crest of the hill, careful to be in a place away from prying sheriff patrols. This time, we brought flashlights and recording devices, in a hope to capture some ghostly voice on tape. Like before, we hiked our way up to 360 and once again was greeted with the incredible and breathtaking view of Southern California. The haze from last time’s view was replaced by a sea of lights and serene calm. It would’ve been so relaxing if I wasn’t so hopped on on adrenaline.
J began his recording sessions, asking whatever spirits may be lingering a variety of standard ghost questions, such as “Who are you?” and “What are you doing here?” In no way were we ghost hunters or even remotely qualified to be up there to make contact. All we got on the recording device was static and wind.
We spent about half an hour on top of that hill, surrounded by the unnerving stillness of the hill and dark patches of undergrowth in which anything could be living. Eventually, we gave up and started down the hill, ready to grab some pizza and play some games back at J’s pad. Halfway down, we heard a strange rustling in the weathered oak trees to our left. We froze, overtaken by fear and wondering what could be big enough to be shaking thick trees in the middle of the night. I lifted my flashlight and shined it on the vegetation. There was nothing to be seen other than brown and green leaves and peeling bark. We continued down the fire road. The rustling in the trees followed us, growing in intensity the closer we got to the main road. E screamed out loud and bolted. My friends and I, sufficiently freaked, scrambled after him.
I’ve never ran faster in my life then that night, nearly cracking my head open on an old rusted gate that marked the entrance to 360. We flew into that car and sped our way down the barely illuminated winding road, trying to figure out what the hell had been following us. Couldn’t have been anything human crawling through those thick bushes. Was it spirits trying to make contact? I shook my head. It was probably just some wind or even some sort of unknown creature.
My own background is that of a historian. I’ve spent many a day in the library, learning about where to find primary and secondary sources of just about any event you can think of. I dove deep into the lore surrounding Turnbull Canyon and its many stories. In the 1950s, a plane flying in thick fog clipped one of the steep hills and crashed inside the canyon, taking the lives of over 25 people and now some say the ghosts of those passengers now roam, trying to find their way out of the canyon. There is also the story of William Workman, one of the former owners of the canyon, who has been said to contact unsuspecting people and luring them to the canyon with promises of work or money, never to be seen again.
Then there’s the tale of an insane asylum that used to linger on the grounds of the Rose Hills, adjacent to the canyon. The story goes that the asylum didn’t last much longer than ten years, burning to the ground in a massive fire several decades ago. Apparently, the concrete foundations of the asylum are hidden deep down within the canyon, the location of which depends on the local resident you talk to. One story even says one of the former patients still resides on the grounds of the asylum, capturing unsuspecting hikers and killing them for food or even for fun.
It’s all pretty standard stuff of mysterious places on the map. Every city in the world has their own story of unsettled spirits, tragic events and legendary insane asylums from which at least one patient has escaped from. It was personally more exciting to see our own version of these stories. It makes your community a little bit closer knit and adds more to the flavor of the people who live there.
Then we learned about the Gates of Hell. How we ever went so long into Turnbull before finding out about them is beyond me. What little information I could find never seemed to pinpoint an exact location, only that it was near 360 hidden among the narrow and winding roads of the hills.
I’ve heard stories about what they might be exactly. Some think that it might be the remains of the insane asylum that we’ve heard so much about, others say that it's the remains of an old house where those involved in devil worship would gather and engage in evil rituals. In any case, we decided to initiate a search for the gates, wherever they may be.
The air was cool that September night we went. It was a Friday and with my homework completed and turned in, we had nothing stopping us from spending all night wandering the fire roads in search of the supernatural. We packed into J’s car, along with V, E, and B and took off into the dark, foreboding canyon. By then, having spent a good amount of time in the canyon, I was more excited than scared to be there. It was a rite of passage and, furthermore, I considered it my duty to try and find out the mysteries that lurked within.
The car crested the hill and we turned onto Skyline Drive, going past the multi-million dollar houses that sat isolated among the walls and hills of Turnbull. Quickly, I realized that we had underestimated the enormity of the neighborhood. Streets turned into driveways and driveways into sidewalks as we became lost inside the maze of asphalt, concrete and foliage. It was the time before GPS signals on your phone, dark times I don't wish to go back to.
The numbers on the clock pushed towards 1 a.m. as we drove down Descending Drive, only a sharp left turn off of Skyline. Ahead, a bright flood light shined brightly, nestled right at the U-bend of the street. The light illuminated a thick steel fence lined with razor wire and signs warning to keep up. Gingerly, we drove up and peered through our windows. The night was calm, silent save for the soft humming of the floodlight, which only added to the creepy atmosphere of the gates.
We drove down the quiet street, turned around and went back up to get a better look. Behind the fence, the crumbling remains of a brick and stone gate stood silent in the darkness, covered in dirt, dusty and spider webs. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the newer security measures weren’t to keep curious investigators, such as ourselves, out but rather to keep something evil from getting out. I shined a flashlight past the gates to see whatever might be hidden from view, finding only the sound of crickets and dry brush. The hill rose ominously from behind the fences, shrouded in a deep, black darkness which made it impossible to perceive. If there was a way to get to Hell, it was probably somewhere hidden among the darkness behind the gates.
“Oh my God! Book it!” I suddenly heard E yell. My heart jumped as I gripped onto V while B screamed out. J stepped on the gas and in only a few minutes, we were back on Turnbull Canyon Rd. heading back down towards the neighborhoods of Whittier. E was in hysterics, breathing hard and gripping the dashboard ahead of him. We asked him what happened.
“I saw, like, two red eyes when I was staring into the gates. They were staring right back at us. It was the scariest shit I’ve ever seen.” he said, passing the Circle K as Turnbull turned back into Beverly. After hearing that, I was glad to be out of there. The entire way home, I was looking outside my window checking to see if anything was following us home.
The last significant event in that shadowy canyon occurred in bright daylight as my friends J, E, and V and I wandered 360 and its many electrical towers. Even to this day, I find it strange that one of the most compelling incidents that we’ve ever experienced would come under the midday sun, rather than the night time that most of these types of events would happen. Good thing for us that we decided to go armed with a video camera.
By then, we were used to the strange sensations of the place offset with its sheer beauty of brown and green vegetation and the panoramic views that we were able to see. It was a sticky hot this time around and we were covered in our own sweat, but with a cool breeze that made for nice hiking weather, even if I decided to bring along the wrong type of shoes.
I wandered the fire trails with my friend J, holding the camcorder and taping our entire journey. We had both talked about how amazing it would be to capture a spirit on camera, or even some sort of unknown cryptid haunting the eldritch hills of Whittier. He laughed it off, saying it would be such a long shot. As we walked underneath one of the electrical towers, J wandered into frame in front of me and spoke about how mysterious the canyon was and its sordid history. Like my on screen ghost hunter idols, I kept him in frame and pondered more about what could be the source of all the legends.
We left disappointed, finding nothing of note during our time there. It wasn’t until a few days later that my friend J called me over to his house. I got there and he immediately shoved the camcorder into my face, telling me to listen to the footage that we had shot there. The look on his face, a combination of trepidation and anxiety, caused me pause. I figured that I was far too into the lore of the canyon to ignore whatever was heard on the screen.
The footage featured him walking along the dusty fire roads on that day, looking out among the vistas and short hills. The wind, usually high around the tops of the canyon, cuts out just as the audio garbled into an unintelligible jumble of sounds.
I look at J in amazement. “What was that?” I ask him.
“Listen closely.” he says to me.
I listen and that's when I hear the unmistakable word “Guilty” spoken in a highly distorted, evil voice. J smiles at me. We’re both excited and scared. It was a rush of feelings that is very difficult to beat. When you get what we considered at the time proof positive evidence of the paranormal, your heart beats in anticipation and accomplishment. All your hiking, your late nights, your head-first dive into potential danger is validated with what is currently saved on the LCD screen no bigger than three inches across.
Of course, we needed to inform the other members of our legend hunting party and each of them share the feeling of amazement that we first had. Even other people not involved in our adventures can hear the otherworldly voice; each of them wondering what the hell it was that they had heard. It only served our desire to continue investigating the canyon and finally get to the bottom of whatever is going on in there.
We returned a few more times, but never got anything as significant as the voice on tape. After awhile, the thrill of the hunt started to peter out and school began to dominate my interactions. My friends fell by the wayside, one by one as their lives veered off into different directions. It’s been years since I had seen any of them, save for an occasional interaction with J. Turnbull turned into just another curiosity, surrounded by more prominent locations steeped into ever more concrete lore.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned of the real life tragedies that occured in the canyon. Several years ago, a teenage girl from the surrounding community was murdered and her body dragged along the asphalt streets for miles before being discovered by local residents. A year later, another girl was attacked, slashed and stabbed before being left to die. Miraculously, she was able to pull herself out of the canyon and seek help from one of the local homes. Possibly most heinous, the body of another girl was found among the deep ravines of the canyon. Her body was horribly decomposed and suggests she had been there for a long time. To this day, nobody has identified her and whomever had committed the murder is possibly still at large.
As I got older, it were these stories and not those of the paranormal type that chilled me to the bone. What sort of sickness drives people to commit such heinous acts? It’s a feeling that’s haunted me more than the canyon itself. It’s also a testament to the power that the hills and ravines of Turnbull have over people. The canyon is a place of darkness, to hide one’s own cruelty, a place to forget and let events turn into legends and legends into myths.
A few months ago, I convinced my newlywed wife to take a drive into Turnbull in the dead of evening. She had heard the stories of my adventures into the canyon and our searches for the Gate of Hell and our ghost hunting sessions on top of 360. It would be short selling to say that she was not excited at all to go in, but my reassurance eventually won over.
We drove up in my used Nissan Sentra, winding up Turnbull Canyon Rd. It was then I realized that I had never actually driven a car myself up that area, always content on letting my friends do the work. It was scary, especially in the dark illuminated only by my car headlights and faint glow of the surrounding cities. I started to tell her of the many legends of Turnbull but I realized that they turned into stories of hanging out with my friends on a warm evening, trying to get a thrill out of life.
I drove us down to the Gates of Hell, still illuminated by that lone floodlight and still got that ominous feeling of being watched. We went past the fire road up to 360, imaging my friends and I walking up, out of shape, to the top of the hill. She smiled at me. She recognized the complete joy that I got out of the experience.
Eventually, we decided to check out the road down to Hacienda Heights and drove down Hacienda Blvd. where we entered another dark patch of desolate wilderness. It was here she related her own stories of driving down shadowy, nighttime roads, either to go to a party or hang out with close friends. I realized that, as we told these stories, we made our own lore, our own experiences driving aimlessly among the Southland. They were moments that we would reminisce about ten years from now, with our own little flourishes added.
Turnbull Canyon is a place of mystery, a place of legend, a place of evil but also a place of memory and a place full of echoes. It was a rite of passage for my friends and I, trying to find something beyond ourselves in order to prepare us for whatever the world was going to throw at us. As I write this, the canyon is still there, offering tidbits to unsuspecting teens and young adults trying to uncover the truth behind the legends.
One day, I’ll go back to see if I can find anything. Most likely I won’t. Its spirits will remain hidden and if there’s any evil worshipping going on, I won't find it. What I will find, however, is my own youth, my own sense of adventure. Somewhere, among the dark shadows of the trees, brush and canyon walls, lies my own drive to live.
J.R. Rustrian is a Latino writer living and working in Southern California. When he is not writing, you can find him hiking, cooking, watching movies and playing video games. You can find him published in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Collective Realms Magazine and Brave New Girls anthology.