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.