Here are five favorite escapes and go-to spots for outdoor exploration close to L.A.
Los Angeles, California, is a metropolis of millions, but it’s also basecamp for multitudes of adventures. Just because you’re visiting the city doesn’t mean you have to stay locked in the urban jungle.
1. El Matador State Beach
Time from downtown Los Angeles: 1 hour
Adventures awaiting: surfing, beach lounging, cave exploration, photography
The entrance to El Matador is small and barely marked — you have to be on the lookout for this favorite of local photographers and students from nearby Pepperdine University. You’ll take a quick left turn about 10 kilometers past Malibu into a gravel lot with a couple portable toilets and a pay station. (Note: You can pay with a credit card.) The short path switches back, descending to the beach and the jagged coast, with its megalithic rock outcroppings and ruddy red sea cliffs.
Down on the beach, you’ll find little sea caves, empty coves, and a close-swirling surf washing against the sea cliffs. When the water is calm, you can actually walk through the sea caves and more stretches of beach open up. Don’t attempt this if the tide is high or the surf too violent.
Bring a good book, a picnic lunch and watch for passing dolphins and whales out in the water.
El Matador State Beach in Malibu
2. Topanga State Park
Time from downtown Los Angeles: 30 minutes
Adventures awaiting: hiking, biking, camping
Topanga State Park is an enormous green swath of peaks and valleys that extends into the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s the rippling, scrub brush expanse that separates the Pacific Palisades from Encino. Its network of trails and fire roads is an adventurer’s dream.
You can access the giant park through a network of trails at various entrances such as popular Trippet Ranch. Another good option is to park in or near the Temescal Gateway Park and walk the hillside trails to Skull Rock on the Temescal Ridge Trail and beyond. If you have a bike, park near Temescal or Will Rogers or in one of the neighborhoods surrounding the park and find the quickest route to a fire road.
Topanga is big. Use Google Maps to familiarize yourself with how the trails and rounds wind around the area. At one place you can actually camp in Topanga. Off the Highway 27/Topanga Canyon Road entrance, a primitive eight-person campsite can be accessed by hiking less than 2 kilometers. Camping 20 minutes from L.A. — amazing!
Eagle Rock in Topanga State Park
3. Joshua Tree National Park
Time from downtown Los Angeles: 2 hours
Adventures awaiting: hiking, camping, climbing, wildlife viewing, photography
Joshua Tree National Park is an otherworldly, dramatically beautiful confluence of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. As you drive toward Palm Springs, the Joshua trees begin to appear gradually, until they fill the hot, empty spaces between peaks and valleys and piles of boulders. The park's namesake plants look like alien creatures frozen in a strange ritual dance.
At more than 3,000 square kilometers, the park is a great expanse of dry beauty and desert wilderness famous among outdoor enthusiasts, but positively legendary among rock climbers. Thousands of routes ascend the dusty hills of 100-million-year-old magma that form the parks seemingly innumerable vistas. There are nine established campgrounds from which many of the park’s hiking trails start.
The sideways slide of the sun’s light shifts the color spectrum of the landscape from white to brown, then orange, then red, purple and finally black. Sunsets at Joshua Tree are best enjoyed surrounded by the strangely named, humanoid trees. The stars — oh you don’t get stars like this in Los Angeles…
Joshua trees at dusk
4. Channel Islands National Park
Time from downtown Los Angeles: 2 hours
Adventures awaiting: hiking, camping, kayaking, whale watching, photography
Leaving Los Angeles at 7 a.m., it’s a little over an hour drive to the Ventura Marina, from where you can catch the boat to Channel Islands National Park. Make sure to pack a picnic and plenty of water. If you hike the amazing trails on the islands, you’ll be exposed to the sun much of the time and will need snacks and drink.
Island Packers offers round-trip excursions, cruises, and whale watching tours to several of the Channel Islands. It’s an hour by boat to Santa Cruz Island, during which you’ll see sea lions and pods of cresting dolphins. Arriving at Santa Cruz, you’ll dock at Scorpion Anchorage, where several trails converge. Immediately to the left a little cove enjoys a steadily lapping turquoise surf. There are big views from the 5.6-kilometer trail to Smugglers Cove.
Willows Cave on Santa Cruz Island
5. Griffith Park
Time from downtown Los Angeles: 15 minutes
Adventures awaiting: hiking, biking, sightseeing, horseback riding, wildlife viewing
One of the biggest metropolitan parks in the USA, Griffith is the home to the famous Hollywood sign; many miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails; a gorgeous art deco observatory, several mountain peaks, at least one wild mountain lion and a zoo. It’s a public space par excellence, one of the best Los Angeles has to offer.
Griffith Park can be accessed through numerous parking areas and trails. It envelopes mountainous landscapes that separate Hollywood, Glendale and Burbank, so depending on where you’re coming from, Griffith offers different options for adventure. One favorite is to ride a mountain bike from the Western Avenue entrance up past the Observatory and up Mount Hollywood Road (closed to traffic) over the mountains down into the Glendale area. The main biking route is a restricted access fire road, meaning you’ll only occasionally see a maintenance vehicle. Offshoot trails range from wide, well-packed paths to hard-going coyote trails.
Speaking of coyotes, if you manage not to crash around too much, you’ll probably see a few of these tawny gray, sneaky citizens of the Santa Monica Mountains. At sunset, as the park descends into darkness, their yips and cries of the echo through the park. Beside coyotes, expect to see red-tail hawks, barn owls and shy deer.
Aside from the galvanizing effect of nature in such a densely populated urban area, and the abundance of empty trails and warm breezes, the view of Los Angeles from Griffith Park cannot be beat. At night the cityscape shifts in a mesmeric shimmer of electricity and glass. On the 4th of July, there’s no better place to view the fireworks show.
For the most expansive view, but not the least crowded, walk from the Observatory to the top of Mount Hollywood and take in the panorama that includes Angeles National Forest, the Pacific Ocean, and everything in between.
The famous Hollywood sign in Griffith Park