The Big Sweep

Beyond L.A.'s tangle of freeways, you can pedal, snorkel, and kayak your way to a truly great outdoor weekend.

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 profile—this 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 surprise—considering its car-crazy, paved-over reputation—is 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 skates—especially if you travel via the South Bay Bicycle Trail, a 22.8-mile concrete ribbon that mirrors the surf line.
From the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains and Will Rogers State Beach—a former Baywatch location—the 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, and 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.

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