The Big Sweep
Beyond L.A.'s tangle of freeways, you can pedal, snorkel, and kayak your way to a truly great outdoor weekend.
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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.
Cruising Palos Verdes
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, start pedaling south on the beach trail shortly after dawn to beat the traffic—a 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.
Mountain Biking the Santa Monicas
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.
Motion of the Ocean
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 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. But I’ve always preferred the easier, instant-gratification form of wave riding—namely, bodyboarding—which 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 kayak—provided 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 life—from anemones to one-man rock bands on skates—and 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.