The Big Sweep

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside Magazine, August 1999

The Big Sweep
Beyond L.A.'s tangle of freeways, you can pedal, snorkel, and kayak your way to a truly great outdoors weekend. Honest.

By Mike Steere

Everybody's going surfing:
A trio of locals heads for the reef breaks at Lunada Bay in Palos Verdes

"You've been a wonderful audience. thank you and take special care."

Or so the Pacific gray whale seems to say by flourishing its tail flukes in the final moments of a whale-watching cruise. The cetacean has worked the crowd for almost two hours. Windbreaker-swaddled tourists are still hooting and clapping around their point-and-shoots as the boat turns toward shore.

The showbiz moment isn't so surprising, considering that we're only three miles off coastal Los Angeles, where entertainment is life and vice versa. We're motoring toward the dock in Redondo Beach, at the far southern end of the two-dozen-mile-plus crescent of sand where L.A. and its beach burbs meet Santa Monica Bay. Mere map names, however, cannot express this shoreline's near-Himalayan cultural profileùthis is America's Goddess Mother Beach. Even if you've never been west of Council Bluffs, you know this place from a jillion movies and TV shows, and the dulcet oo-wahs of the Beach Boys.

On the other hand, you probably don't know L.A.'s beach at all. The whale is but one multiton example of the bounty that can be found here. The city's biggest surpriseùconsidering its car-crazy, paved-over reputationùis that whatever else you're doing, you can actually plan a weekend where your car stays (mostly) parked while you get busy with a glut of bona fide outdoor activities. Indeed, you're much better off on a bike or skatesùespecially if you travel via the South Bay Bicycle Trail, a 22.8-mile concrete ribbon that mirrors the surf line.

What traffic? Sunset on
the South Bay Trail

From the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains and Will Rogers State Beachùa former Baywatch locationùthe trail runs south and east to Torrance County Beach, beyond which the coast leaps into the cliffs and headlands of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The trail offers end-to-end access to surfing and its lesser kin (bodyboarding, bodysurfing, skimboarding), sea kayaking, sailing, volleyball. There are peculiarly L.A. entertainments, such as open-air public weight lifting (at Venice's Muscle Beach) and, off Palos Verdes, surprisingly good shore diving among classic Pacific kelp forests. Your bike can serve as utilitarian transport or as serious recreational tool: Roadies head south, climbing steep suburban loops for 360-degree views over the Palos Verdes highlands, while mountain bikers gravitate toward the trail's northern end, with detours through the coyote-prowled woodlands of the Santa Monicas.

It's your eyeballs that get the workout as you pedal the pancake-flat beach trail itself. This is true even in its butt-ugliest middle few miles, where jets from Los Angeles International Airport shriek low overhead and the trail passes water treatment and power plants. Escaping these horrors is a matter of looking westward across a quarter-mile of open sand: The huge, palmy Pacific beach trumps all.

The weather, famously, is almost always perfect, but my favorite time here is late summer into autumn. (During the height of summer, the coast is crowded with all-American families and European tourists, who have a particular penchant for Santa Monica.) With the exception of a couple of weeks in September, when the Santa Anas blow sweltering inland air shoreward, you won't suffer either oppressive heat or smog.


About a million years ago, Palos Verdes was a near-shore channel island. A few earthquakes and tectonic plate shifts later, it's a canyon-riven peninsula with a sheer coastline of striated shale cliffs. Besides offering endless ocean views, this sagebrush-and-scrub outcropping has a dreamy 30-mile (give or take) loop for road bikers, which begins and ends at the South Bay Bicycle Trail. From wherever you're staying (see "The L.A. Stay, Beach-Bum Style," page 98), start pedaling south on the beach trail shortly after dawn to beat the trafficùa wise strategy for any go-fast biker or skater.

The trail ends a few miles beyond Redondo, just before the beach itself ends. Take a ramp up to Paseo de la Playa, make a right, and climb to the intersection with Palos Verdes Boulevard; from there it's about a half-mile to a three-way intersection where all options are named Palos Verdes. Go left on Palos Verdes Drive North into Rolling Hills Estates, a SoCal version of white-picket-fenced, horsey Connecticut. With the turn seaward, onto Palos Verdes Drive East, begin a serious few miles of climbing to the peninsula's crest, with staggering rearward views east across the L.A. Basin and south over the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Some thousand feet above the Pacific you can gaze out on Catalina Island and then whoop down hairpin turns to coastal Palos Verdes Drives South and West, which, in combination with shore-hugging Paseo del Mar, provide ten miles of socko seascapes.

Early-morning serenity at the Hermosa Beach lifeguard towers


If you're skeptical about discovering true off-road solitude in the midst of the great sprawlopolis, head directly north toward the Santa Monica Mountains, a patchwork of wild public lands that encompasses the 65,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. This unexpected chunk of backcountry, which made appearances inButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and M*A*S*H, is ecologically speaking a bit of Mediterranean on the Pacific: rolling hills and meadows, shady oak groves, stream-cut canyons, and steep cliffs.

Big-city country: off-roading through Rustic Canyon

To get to the heart of the 500-mile network of trails and fire roadsùthe vast majority of which are open to bikesùpedal to within a mile of the beach trail's northern terminus and head inland through a tunnel under the Pacific Coast Highway. Follow West Channel Road past the elementary school; then turn left and ride Amalfi Drive upward, both literally and socioeconomically, through Pacific Palisades to Capri Drive. A quick left takes you onto a fire road along aptly named Rustic Canyon. The road takes a swoopy northward path past a Boy Scout camp, after which it gets rougher, almost singletrack. Five miles in, there's a junction with a road that does a memorable dive southward into Sullivan Canyon. Or continue a half-mile north to "Dirt Mulholland," the unpaved extension of L.A.'s fabled and much-filmed Mulholland Drive.

When you've had enough, let gravity pull you down Amalfi and coast from Santa Monica to Venice (miles 1.5 through 7 from the beach trail's northern end). By far the most civilized stretch of trail, it's also the human zoo-iest, mingling movie-star glam with the shamelessly tacky, and, here and there, the scabrous. Santa Monica manages to be hyperaffluent without banishing its street people or altogether denying its pregentrified past. It's also the only beachfront community that's a noticeable base for tourists, particularly along Ocean Avenue.

Next-door neighbor Venice is more of a Wacko Serengeti. On nice days pilgrims pack Ocean Front Walk to partake of some of the world's worst open-air shopping, heavy on cheapie sunglasses, incense, and toe rings, and street entertainment such as the guitar-playing Sikh on in-line skates, who'll riff and wail in your face and whip out CDs and T-shirts bearing his likeness. It's great funùfor about an hour.

Surfer off Manhattan Beach

The Original Ride
Our guide to surfing's hallowed hot spots

In 1907, a young Irish-Hawaiian lifeguard named George Freeth paddled a plank into the ocean at Redondo Beach, caught a wave, and made headlines as "The Man Who Could Walk on Water!" "This is where the rock hits the pond," says five-time U.S. champ and former Miller beer pitchman Corky Carroll of Huntington Beach. "It's the cultural center of the surfing world." True enough. In the 50 miles between Malibu and Huntington Pier lie more historic surf spots than you can count on your toes. So what if the air occasionally burns your throat and local surfers sport enough tattoos to make a Papuan highlander pause? Surfing, despite its warts, is still the coolest thing you can do with your pants on. Here's a quick primer for planning your own surf-cradle pilgrimage.

HOW-TO: At Corky Carroll's Surf School (714-841-0253) group instruction runs about $250 per week. Or take a private lesson ($75 per hour) from the 52-year-old legend himself.

PROVING GROUNDS: Malibu, west of Santa Monica, has been a glamfest ever since Duke Kahanamoku demonstrated the sport here for his movie star pal Ronald Coleman in the 1920s. Today, board-straddling crowds have inspired the nickname Mali-Zoo, but the renowned point break still cranks on a summer swell. Farther south, the condo enclaves of Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach offer five miles of peaky sandbar breaks ending at the Redondo Beach breakwater, which kicks up a thumping left during big winter swells. Palos Verdes is loaded with nasty reef breaks and even nastier locals (read: for serious surfers or the suicidal only). Beginners are better off just north of Huntington at Bolsa Chica State Beach's novice-friendly beach breaks.

ARMCHAIR VERSION: Start with the grilled mahimahi at Captain Jack's in Sunset Beach (562-592-2514), a surf-star watering hole owned by Jack Haley, who was the first U.S. champ back in 1959. Then drop by the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach (admission, $2; 714-960-3483). And if you're timely enough to arrive before August 1, go directly to Huntington Pier. During two weeks of back-to-back competitionsùthe U.S. Open and the Ocean Pacific Proùmore than 100,000 scantily clad spectators converge on this beach to watch the finals. It's enough to make Al Gore hula. ùJOEL BOURNE


With all this Pacific, you've got to get on, in, or under the water. A recent half-day romp in a rented 22-foot sloop ($150 for four hours out of Marina del Rey) ranks among my lifetime best short sails. The stiff northwesterly breeze, a given on most afternoons, has the boat dipping its leeward rail in a six-foot swell from an offshore blow. Sea mist gives a mythic vagueness to the massive mountains to the north, where the boat wants to go on its most perfect northerly tack. But the slow processional of ocean swells, which loom and then lift the boat, is prettier than the mountains.

A few miles shoreward, surfers commune with the same swells. If you're feeling ambitious, take a shot at the iconic L.A. beach sport. (See "The Original Ride," this page.) But I've always preferred the easier, instant-gratification form of wave ridingùnamely, bodyboardingùwhich is particularly prime on the north side of Manhattan Pier (mile 17.5 on the bike trail). From rental outfits in Marina del Rey and Santa Monica, you can also set out in a plastic sit-upon sea kayakùprovided you hit the water early, since afternoon waves can top eight feet. Local diehards paddling sleeker craft make the 22-mile crossing to Catalina from Long Beach.

Snorkeling and shore diving, always cheaper thrills than boat dives, are also dead easy in these parts, particularly off Redondo. Late summer brings peak conditions: The Santa Ana winds push sediment-clouded surface waters out to sea.

Near Redondo Pier, at the steps below Veteran's Park, divers swim 75 yards to the edge of an underwater canyon with visibility up to 40 feet. The year-round populace of octopuses, halibut, and crustaceans (including some monster 12-pound lobsters) is healthy and abundant. If you visit during November, book a night dive to watch thousands of spawn-ready squid gather near the ocean floor, their finger-shaped egg sacs swaying like a field of pale, membranous flowers. Predators such as blue sharks, bonito, and seals always make a point to swing by, a tradition that seems less cruel once you know that both male and female squid die after their fertilization orgy.

Just south in Palos Verdes, steep approach paths make tank-hauling more onerous, but the shore diving and snorkeling are some of southern California's best. From Paseo del Mar, walk down to Malaga Cove, where the beach ends and the peninsula's rocky shallows, reefs, and 100-foot kelp forests begin. When the cove isn't murked up by runoff or onshore waves, you can meet bat rays, angel sharks buried in sand, surprisingly friendly fluorescent orange garibaldi, and rocks encrusted with bright sponges and sea squirts.

What's really startling, though, is finding this pulsing, polychrome fauna at the edge of Santa Monica Bay. The bay, in this sense, is coastal L.A. and the entire city in microcosm. It's closer to nature, more full of lifeùfrom anemones to one-man rock bands on skatesùand a much better place to hang out and play than its besmirched reputation suggests. If you can't get past the idea of L.A., just think of this experience as a multisport adventure in a world-class human wildlife park.

The L.A. Stay, Beach-Bum Style
Sand, salt water, and the coolest places to eat, sleep, and play

GETTING THERE: Jet connections to mighty LAX are a no-brainer for most of Planet Earth. The airport's runways end near the beach, so cab rides to Marina del Rey and Santa Monica run $10 and $25, respectively. Chances are, though, you'll join the prevailing car cult; Hertz (800-654-3131) rents midsize chariots for $62 per day.

LODGINGS: At Hermosa's new Beach House (doubles, $189; 888-895-4559), sleek suites boast minikitchens, balconies, and fireplaces. Free transfer between two same-owner B&Bs lets you split nights at Marina del Rey's Inn at Playa del Rey (doubles, $135; 310-574-1920) and the Channel Road Inn (doubles, $145; 310-459-1920), which overlooks Santa Monica's 350-acre Ballona Wetlands bird sanctuary. Deco freaks will go wild over Santa Monica's very Raymond Chandleresque Hotel Shangri-La (doubles, $130; 310-394-2791).

EATING OUT: For extreme breakfasting, head inland from Manhattan Pier to Uncle Bill's Pancake House (310-545-5177). This shrine to old-time gluttonyùwaffle, eggs, and bacon for $6.25ùchannels the neighborhood's simpler, homier past. Splurge on steamed local lobster for $15 a pound at Captain Kidd's (310-372-7703), old-line patriarch of the hokey "fish market" family restaurants that cluster on Redondo's pier and harbor front. A classy antidote to Venice's tourist/psycho scene lies a block off the bike trail at James' Beach (310-823-5396). After sand dabs in brown butter over spinach ($14), you'll be tempted to stroll west and thank the Pacific for providing those wonderful little fish. Santa Monica's Back on the Beach (310-393-8282) is as sandy as any snack stand, but offers table service and real food (grilled eggplant sandwich, $8).

OUTFITTERS: Head a block or two inland from the beach trail and you'll find that the quality of rental equipment and useful information soars. Wannabe surfers should head for ZJ Boarding House in Santa Monica (310-392-5646) or Redondo's venerable Dive N' Surf (310-372-8423). If you're qualified to skipper, $150 rents a sloop for a half-day at Marina Boat Rentals in Marina del Rey (310-574-2822); sea kayaks run $10 per hour. From December through April, whale-watching cruises ($12¡$15) depart from Redondo (310-372-2111) and Marina del Rey (310-822-3625); year-round, the same boats head out among plentiful dolphins and sea lions. ùM.S.

Frequent Outside contributor Mike Steere lives the life in Los Angeles.
Photos: Craig Cameron Olsen

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