Los Angeles is a metropolis of millions, but it’s also basecamp for multitudes of rad adventures. Here are my five favorite, go-to spots for outdoor exploration close to LA.
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1. El Matador State Beach
The entrance to El Matador is small and barely marked — you gotta be on the lookout for this fav of locals, photographers, and the young beer-swilling contingency that probably hails from the nearby Pepperdine University. It’s a quick lefthand turn about six miles past Malibu into a gravel lot with a couple portable toilets and a pay station. They take debit cards, score. The short path switches back, descending to the beach and to the jagged coast and megalithic rock outcroppings and ruddy red sea cliffs. Seagull and cormorant shit has stained white the giant salt encrusted rock tower that sits just off the sheer seafront cliffs.
Down on the beach the wandering soul will find little sea caves, empty coves, and a close-swirling surf washing against the sea cliffs that bar escape. The surf can be calm and the sea caves can be scurried through and miles of beach open up. Or the surf can be high and rough and the entrances to the sea caves fill with foaming, crashing Pacific. If the weather is calm and the tide is low you may venture with caution further North through the sea cave at the end of the park.
Bring a good book and a scooby snack and look for passing dolphins and whales.
Hours from LA: 1
Adventures awaiting: surf, beach lounging, cove exploration, photography
2. Topanga State Park
Topanga State Park is an enormous reptile-green swath of peaks and valleys that extends for miles into the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s the rippling, scrub brush expanse that separates the Pacific Palisades and Ensino. Its network of trails and fire roads is the adventurous Los Angelino’s wet dream. You can access the giant park through a network of trails at various park entrances such as popular Trippet Ranch. If I’m on foot I like to park in or near the Temescal Gateway Park and walk the hillside trails to Skull Rock on the Temescal Ridge Trail and beyond.
If I’m on my bike I like to park near Temescal or Will Rogers or in one of the neighborhoods surrounding the park and find the quickest route to a fire road.
Topanga is big. I would advise you to do some scrolling over the trails on Google maps and see how they wind and fork and enter and exit the park. At one place you can actually camp in Topanga, off the highway 27 / Topanga Canyon Road entrance a primitive eight-person campsite can be accessed by hiking in a mile. Camping 20 minutes from LA — amazing!
When I can’t venture too far from LA but crave miles of empty park and gravel fire roads crunching under my mountain bike tires, Topanga State Park is my destination.
Topanga Park info: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=629
Hours from LA: 30 min
Adventures awaiting: hiking, biking, camping, exploring
3. Joshua Tree
Everything worth saying about Joshua Tree has already been said. It is an otherworldly, dramatically beautiful — and in the summer — punishingly hot confluence of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Driving toward Palm Springs the Joshua trees begin to appear in the Southern California desert until they fill the hot, empty spaces between peaks and valleys and piles of boulders. The namesake flora look like alien creatures frozen in a strange ritual dance. JTree is an easy two (or so) hour drive from LA — if you time it right to escape the crush of traffic before or after the morning commute.
Joshua Tree National Park is 1,234 sq. miles of dry beauty and desert wilderness famous among outdoor enthusiasts, but positively legendary among climbers. Thousands of routes ascend the dusty inselbergs of 100-million-year-old magma that forms the parks seemingly innumerable vistas. There are nine established campgrounds from which many of the park’s trails start.
The sideways slide of the sun’s light shifts the color spectrum of the landscape from white to brown then orange then red then purple then black. Sunsets at JTree are best taken surrounded by the strangely named, humanoid trees. Their spiky bundles of leaves fall into deep shadow and slice the horizon with their jagged silhouettes. The stars, oh jesus christ you don’t get stars like this in Los Angeles…
Visit the Nat Park website for all the details on driving,hiking, camping, and seasonal warnings: http://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm
Hours from LA: approx. 2
Adventures awaiting: hiking, camping, climbing, wildlife viewing, photography
4. Channel Islands
Leaving Los Angeles at 7am, it is a little over an drive hour to the Ventura Marina. Park the rig outside of Island Packers, the cruise operation that ferries folks out to the islands and back, and head down to the Harbor Cove Cafe at the end of the drive for breakfast, a coffee or a cup of clam chowder. There are ZERO food options and only a few spots with water from a spigot on the island of my visit so I don’t want to get on the boat hungry. The breakfast burrito delivers the goods — but expect to wait 10 minutes for your food.
When adventuring to the Channel Islands bring a picnic and plenty of water. If you meander the amazing trails, which that is pretty much all there is to do, you will be exposed to the sun much of the time and will need snacks and drink. There is also camping on all five islands on Channel Islands National Park.
Island Packers offers roundtrip excursions, cruises, and whale watching tours to several islands of the Channel Islands. It’s an hour by boat to Santa Cruz Island. Leaving the Ventura Marina, me and my 99 fellow day trippers motor past sea lounging lions on a bobbing red buoy and pods of cresting dolphins and out into the Pacific — to the seemingly remote but extremely accessible islands 20 miles distant.
Arriving at Santa Cruz, we dock at Scorpion Anchorage where several trails converge. Immediately to the left a little cove enjoys a steadily lapping turquoise surf. The rhythmic million-voiced chuckle of pebbles being turned over is irresistible. A squadron of kids belonging to lounging kayakers and spent hikers rollick and splash in the chilly water.
Santa Cruz is barren on the knolls and folds of the hills and shaded and bird-cluttered in the valleys. The big views from the 3.5-mile trail to Smugglers Cove commanded the 96sq miles of the island and the surrounding ocean and the surrounding islands. Far below the last red and yellow oblong slivers of a group of kayakers slips behind a rock outcropping and disappears from view.
Hours from LA: approx. 2
Adventures awaiting: hiking, camping, kayaking, whale watching, photography
5. Griffith Park
One of the biggest metropolitan parks in America, Griffith is the home to the famous HOLLYWOOD sign, many miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails, a gorgeous art deco observatory, several mountain peaks, at least one wild mountain lion, and a zoo. It is a public space par excellence; in my opinion, the best Los Angeles has to offer.
Griffith can be accessed through numerous parking areas and trails and envelopes mountainous landscapes that separate Hollywood, Glendale and Burbank so depending on where you are coming from Griffith offers different options for adventure. I approach the park from the Hollywood side, the southern side, from the beneath the gleaming edifice of Griffith Observatory that overlooks the city.
My favorite Griffith adventure is an epic mountain bike ride from the Western Ave entrance up past the Observatory and up Mount Hollywood Rd (closed to traffic) over the mountains down into the Glendale area. The main biking route is a restricted access fire road, meaning you will only occasionally see the random maintenance vehicle. Offshoot trails range from wide, well-packed paths to hard-going coyote trails.
Speaking of coyotes, if you manage not to crash around like a baboon in heat you will probably see a few of these tawny grey, sneaky citizens of the Santa Monica mountains. At sunset as the park descends into darkness, the yips and cries of the too-near coyotes echo through the park and tickle the tender wee hairs on the back of hiker’s necks. Beside coyotes, I routinely see by the dozens pinwheeling in the thermals and red tail hawks soaring higher still. Barn owls do their best to seldom be seen as do the shy deer that pick their way cautiously on the scrubby slopes.
Aside from the galvanizing effect of nature in such a densely populated urban area and the abundance of empty trails and warm breezes, the view of Los Angeles cannot be beat. At night the cityscape shifts in a mesmeric shimmer of electricity and glass. On the 4th of July there is no better place to view the light show.
For the most expansive view, but not the least crowded, walk from the Observatory to the top of Mount Hollywood and take in the panorama that includes the Angeles National Forest, the Pacific Ocean and everything.
Hours from LA: n/a
Adventures awaiting: hiking, biking, Griffith Observatory, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, Hollywood sign