Cesar E. Chavez National Monument

            On my recent trip to southern California, my travel buddy Andrew and I decided to go north of Los Angeles and into the western most edge of the Mojave Desert in search of one of the newest additions to the National Park Service.  Cesar E. Chavez National Monument was only just established in 2012 by then President Barack Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act.  The monument is located in Keene, California.  The area surrounding the park might be one of the few in the world that has more wind turbines then people.  The park site is only a few minutes away from the freeway, but the area still has the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

            As we exited the freeway we followed a tight and unkempt road until we hit the park entrance sign.  We then descended down a hill where we found the visitor center parking lot.  The visitor center is located in Cesar E. Chavez’s old office/home, and that unfortunately made the museum that it has been converted into presently a bit disjointed. While Chavez’s office exhibit is quite interesting, the rest of the museum is just a bunch of pictures with captions before it quickly leads you back to the small gift shop and the visitor center exit.  The story of Chavez and his workers rights movement struggles to find itself over the course of your walk through the museum.  Obviously, this is a park in its early stages so hopefully this museum becomes more interactive in the years to come.  

            The real highlight of the monument, though, is right outside the doors of the visitor center: the memorial garden.  The garden is clearly designed to look like a desert oasis, and it works quite well as you begin your journey past a beautiful water fountain.  As you walk into the center of the garden you are surrounded by interesting sights.  There are all types of flora, famous quotes fill up the walls, and there is a very interesting Saint-Gaudens-esque wall sculpture. Then there are the gravesites of Chavez and his wife, Helen, which subtly find their home in the middle of it all. 

            We continued on a bit further through a small Desert Garden sidewalk, which gave us some nice views of more desert flora as well as some of the surrounding hills.  We then came to an area that looked like a residential area so we decided to turn around. I later found out that a lot of the area we were looking at was still part of the monument and contained some trails as well as more sites important to Chavez and the Workers’ Rights Movement. Instead, I ended up enjoying a doughnut I got earlier at a nice picnic area near the visitor center parking lot. After about an hour at the monument, we called it a day and headed back towards Los Angeles.

            Cesar E. Chavez National Monument tries to preserve a moment in history that seemingly has just as much meaning now as it did back then.  However, what I found most interesting about this monument is the unique place it holds in the natural world.  The monument finds itself in the outskirts of the Mojave Desert but is also only an hour away from the mountains and forests of the Pacific Coast Trail.  It was fun to see the tiny hints of this throughout the monument.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

            If you ever happen to be in Los Angeles and head northward along the coast you will eventually come to what is somehow one of the most underrated gems in the National Park Service: the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.  A national park in one of the biggest cities in the world you say? Yes, stretching from the Hollywood Hills all the way to Oxnard in Ventura County is an area of gorgeous coastline, sun soaked peaks, and rugged canyons.  Just a few weeks ago I traveled to Los Angeles as a home base to check out some other national park sites, but I couldn’t help but check into the Santa Monica Mountains.  

            Other than a brief pit stop to In-N-Out (this east coast boy will concede the burgers there are better than Shake Shack’s but certainly not the fries or shakes), my travel buddy, Andrew, and I went straight onto the historic Mulholland Highway (which serves as just as good of a backbone for the park as the still in construction Backbone Trail) all the way to the Santa Monica Mountains Visitor Center.  The visitor center is located in an area of the park known as King Gillette Ranch, property that once belonged to the man behind the Gillette shaving company. As you walk toward the actual visitor center you can’t help but admire the southwestern style architecture. However, once you walk on in you are greeted by a pretty standard visitor center.  You got the main lobby with a topographical diagram of the park as well as numerous brochures about hiking trails, the park unigrid and other unigrids for nearby parks.  Beyond that there’s a small gift shop and to the side there’s a small museum that only elevates itself with a couple of fun photo opportunities if you are looking in the right area.  Outside though is an almost perfect spot for a nice picnic, but both last year, when I first visited the area, and this time around I had other places to go and see. Beyond the visitor center, the King Gillette area continues to offer itself as a nice introduction to the Santa Monica Mountains.  If you go to the opposite side of the parking lot from the visitor center you can find your way to the Inspiration Point Trail.  The hike is short and the views are easily overmatched in other parts of the park but it does a great job of capturing the chaparral-infested beauty of the many trails of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

            After spending the rest of that evening in Hollywood and making an excursion a few hours north to Cesar E. Chavez’s home the next day, we found ourselves with some spare time.  That meant one thing: another adventure into the Santa Monica Mountains.  This time it was for what is the one can’t miss thing in the entire park: the hike to Sandstone Peak.  Sandstone Peak rises 3111 feet above the Pacific Coast and gives glorious views of the area.  The trailhead to the peak sits at 2030 feet above sea level, but you will even have to earn your way to the trailhead parking lot.  As you ascend into the mountains you are greeted by a road that seems to get narrower as the turns get sharper.  That’s not to mention the mountainside that seems to be seconds from eroding away as it hangs over the road.  It’s a drive that borders the line between exhilaration and insanity. However, the drive and the hike up is just a small obstacle compared to the reward you get in the end.  The view is one of my favorites that I have experienced yet as the ocean, clear sky, shadowy mountains and Chaparral valleys fuse together into something magical.  Catch the summit view as the sun begins to go down and you are in for a real treat.

            While we turned back to Los Angeles and adventures elsewhere that night, it wasn’t long again until we returned to the mountains as it was just the next night when we camped at Point Mugu State Park’s Sycamore Canyon Campground.  Point Mugu is a state park that works in cooperation with the National Park Service at the northwestern most end of the Santa Monica Mountains.  While the campground itself is nothing special, at night you’re treated (or not depending on preference) to an odd cocktail of sounds as you are greeted by the rolling waves of the Pacific right across the street mixed with the traffic of the nearby Pacific Coast Highway.  You may like it, you may hate it, but it’s a mixture of sounds you will have trouble finding anywhere else in the world. Right across the street from the campground is Sycamore Cove Beach.  It’s a rather small beach, but if you are into waves, the rocky cliff sides enclosing the beach certainly give the area a nice view.

            Further adventures on our Southern California trip took us further from the Los Angeles area, but that would not be the last of our adventures in the Santa Monica Mountains.  Our final evening brought us back for one last adventure.  This time it was in the Solstice Canyon area of the park. Solstice Canyon was another area I explored last year, but a wrong turn and lack of time prevented me from hiking the area’s most popular trail: the eponymous Solstice Canyon trail.  We came at dry time of year so I’m hoping the waterfall at the end of the trail is a better sight at other times of the year. Otherwise, this is an unchallenging hike that passes by a couple of ruins from a few decades ago.  I honestly much preferred the off trail hiking I did in the area last year or even the short but sweet Dry Canyon trail.

            While this all seems like a lot, I have barely scratched the surface of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.  It’s an area of beautiful scenery, some interesting history, and great hiking.  Somehow all of it is just beyond the surface of one of the world’s greatest cities. With so much going for it and so many great memories created in such a short time within it, it’s hard not to see the site as one of my favorites in the entire National Park Service.

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