The Big Sweep

Mountain Biking the Santa Monicas

Jun 11, 2001
Outside Magazine
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 in Butch 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.

To get to the heart of the 500-mile network of trails and fire roads—the vast majority of which are open to bikes—pedal 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 fun—for about an hour.