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Outdoor Los Angeles

Whenever I entertain out-of-state visitors to Los Angeles, I’m surprised by how little they know about Southern California.  Sure, we all have certain images of Hollywood burned into our brains, courtesy of TV and film:  towering palm trees, shady back-alleys, the row houses of South Central, and, of course, skyscrapers.  What most of us don’t realize until we become adopted residents is that Los Angeles is an extraordinary jumping-off point for the outdoors enthusiast, and that includes beginners.  The best part – thanks to the weather, most of these activities can be enjoyed year-round.  Here’s my Top 10 List of outdoor experiences for the intrepid (but not necessarily hardcore) vacationer.  Everything listed here is within 60 miles of Los Angeles and can be done in a half or full-day excursion.

1) The Strand.   This is the bike and roller-blading path that follows the curve of the shore from Malibu in the north to Redondo Beach in the south.   It’s alternately peaceful and crowded, good for both people-watching and getting a sense of California’s largesse.  Though you can hop on anywhere, the entire ride is about 18.5 miles long.  The best place to rent a beachcomber bike or roller blades is at the famously eccentric Venice Beach.  Park on the street or in a lot near Windward Avenue, then walk toward the ocean.  There are several places right on The Strand where you can rent for the day or by the hour.

2) Route 2 through the San Gabriel Mountains.  Love hills but not necessarily in the mood to climb any?  This range northeast of Pasadena is gorgeous and impressive, and sometimes still snowy up through the spring. 

The San Gabriel Mountains

There are plenty of trailheads and vista points on both sides of this curvy scenic road, and if you time your exit correctly, you can get a gorgeous view of sunset over the city.  For those who wish to park the car and take a hike, I recommend the Mt. Lowe Trail just below the top of Mt. Wilson.  The terrain is challenging but not strenuous, and there are enough Rangers and fellow hikers that you can walk alone and still feel safe.  Be sure to stop by the Ranger Station at the top of nearby Mt. Wilson first – a $5 Adventure Pass from the Forest Service will prevent you from getting an unwanted ticket.

3) The Pacific Coast Highway.  Otherwise known as Route 1, this ocean-side highway makes for the perfect road trip on a sunny day.  Rent a Jeep or convertible at Los Angeles International Airport and follow the signs for Route 1 North.  Barring traffic, you’ll be in Malibu in under an hour.  Make sure you pack your favorite driving CD, or tune in to 89.9 – L.A.’s NPR affiliate.  Every Saturday they have a great, energizing music program called Weekend Becomes Eclectic.

4) Topanga Canyon.  Rustic Topanga Canyon Boulevard, which connects Malibu and the San Fernando Valley, is filled to the brim with off the beaten path activities.  There’s the fun, popular and scenic Eagle Rock hike in the Santa Monica Mountains; the funky Hidden Treasures vintage clothing shop; and the impressive Theatricum Botanica, an outdoor theater built into a hillside.   An entire day’s worth of activity within 5 square miles!

5) Runyon Canyon dog park.  This hike above Hollywood is the perhaps the most efficient way to work out, gain a view and soak up the local culture.  On your way to the top you’ll pass dozens of sexy hikers displaying their equally stunning accessories (I mean, pets).  From the entrance at Fuller Street and Franklin it takes 20 minutes to hike to the first viewpoint.  After that it’s another 15 to reach the top at Mulholland Drive.  Dogs are allowed off-leash for much of the trail.  The park is open until dusk, but you can still get past the gate if you stay just after dark. 

Venice Beach’s Strand cycleway

6) Surf School in Santa Monica.  It’s fun to gaze at the ocean, but why not go a step further and become part of a real California tradition?  Surf Academy in Manhattan Beach teaches women how to surf every Saturday and Sunday for just $35 a class.  Check them out at

7) Kayaking in Malibu. Even inexperienced paddlers can sea kayak in the Pacific.  It’s great exercise and it grants you a gull’s eye view of all the stunning bodies on the beach.  If you’re lucky, you may even rub fins with a dolphin.  Call Malibu Kayaks at (310) 456-6302.

8) Horseback riding in Griffith Park.  What better way to experience L.A.’s Western heritage?  The most magical is Griffith Park Horse Rental’s 1 1/2 hour guided sunset ride, offered every second Friday between April and October for a mere $40.  Call (818) 840-8401 for more information.

9) Yoga at the Beach.  Start your day the right way with some energizing yoga by the shore.  For $15 you can enjoy a session run by the experts at Optimum Fitness in Venice Beach.  To reserve a spot on the sand, call (800) 493-6987.

10) Bonfires at Dockweiler.  Looking for something to do at night?  Gather your friends and drive to the only public beach with fire rings.   There’s free street parking until 10 p.m. along Vista del Mar. The beach closes at 10 p.m, so get there early and bring a guitar, a warm jacket and a taste for s’mores!

Are you an environmentally-conscious traveler?  If so, consider taking part in a beach or river cleanup.  Los Angeles is rugged and pretty, but it’s still a city, and it suffers from pollution as much as any other metropolitan area.  Volunteering to keep its waterways and shoreline clean is a creative and socially conscious way to meet new people and get some fresh air.  Who knows – maybe you’ll make friends who will let you stay with them for free on your next visit.  Here are some links to get you started:

Long Beach 30-Minute Cleanup, the 3rd Saturday of each month (

Heal the Bay:  Periodic cleanups in and around Santa Monica (

Ballona Creek Renaissance:  Help Culver City protect, promote and beautify a local treasure.  (

Facts About Los Angeles

The Hollywood Bowl is the world’s largest outdoor amphitheater.

Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu

Griffith Park, home of the observatory seen in “Rebel Without a Cause,” is the largest municipal park and urban wilderness area in the United States.

A real estate developer modeled Venice, California after Venice, Italy, building it around a series of canals instead of streets.  Many of these canals remain accessible to today’s public in the form of walking paths.

The famous, notoriously hilly Mulholland Drive is named after William Mulholland, the engineer responsible for building the Los Angeles Aqueduct and bringing drinking water into the growing city.

Though surrounded by Los Angeles, the gorgeously green Beverly Hills is its own city, with a separate government, tax base and school system.

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