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Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

See L.A. County’s natural wild side at this vast, free-admission park

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Think there’s no wide-open countryside left in Los Angeles? Think again. The Santa Monica Mountains stretch for 50 miles across the northwestern boundary of the Los Angeles basin. Within the range lie more than 150,000 largely undeveloped acres of grassy swales, rock-studded hillsides, tree-shaded glens, and windswept beaches. A mosaic of state, local, and federal preserves protects this land, all managed under the umbrella of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the nation’s largest urban national park.

One of the few mountain ranges in the United States to run east to west rather than north to south, the Santa Monicas can claim big nature bragging rights. Considered to be a “botanical island” in L.A.’s urban corridor, the slopes that run straight down to the Pacific are covered in chaparral, coastal sage, springtime wildflowers, and oak and sycamore forests. More than 20 species of endangered plants and animals thrive here. This is a place where you might see a bobcat stalk its prey, a coyote lope across the grasslands, or a golden eagle fly overhead.

With dozens of possible access points to the area, the hardest part of visiting the Santa Monica Mountains is deciding where to go. The range is bisected by scenic roads, so you can witness some of its charms through your windshield: Cruise along Mulholland Drive and Mulholland Highway from Hollywood west to Malibu, or drive Kanan Dume Road north from Malibu to Agoura Hills.

To enjoy the beauty at a slower pace, get out and take a hike. More than 500 miles of trails lace these mountains, including the 67-mile Backbone Trail, an unbroken footpath that makes it possible to backpack for a week in L.A.’s wilderness. There are plenty of shorter treks, too: From the Circle X Ranch trailhead, climb 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the recreation area, where the vista from the summit takes in a wide expanse of island-dotted Pacific and a sweep of downtown’s jagged skyline. In Solstice Canyon, take an easy walk along an oak- and sycamore-shaded creek to a picturesque waterfall and the Roberts Ranch stone ruins. At Paramount Ranch, stroll through Western Town, a movie and television set where stars including Bob Hope and Gary Cooper acted out scenes for 1940s classics. At King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas, visit the national park visitor center for maps and information, then take a short, steep tromp to Inspiration Point for views of Malibu Creek State Park’s volcanic rock formations. 

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