WHAT IS IT? The most difficult National Park Site to define. The map shows it as a wide expanse of land just northwest of Los Angeles; everything west of L.A. until Point Mugu, south of the Ventura Freeway and north of the Pacific Ocean; the entire transverse mountain range named the Santa Monicas.
The National Park Service only owns a small portion of the land it has designated as the National Recreation Area. It shares the space with State Parks, State Beaches, Private Reserves and public beaches. A majority of the land, however, is privately owned. Understandably so, this is some of the most expensive real estate in the United States. Finding the NPS pockets can be difficult.
For sanityís sake, this review includes the Park Serviceís entire claim, including the State Parks and the private lands.
BEAUTY (8/10) You know those tall shrub-covered green hills the helicopter flies from in M*A*S*Hís opening credits? Thatís the Santa Monica Mountains. You know the grassy hill the girls run down in the Little House on the Prairie? Thatís here too. Or maybe you know the western town Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman presided over. Thatís here too AND is actually on Park Service land.
How about multi-million dollar celebrity homes? You know, the ones either nestled in green canyons or perched on top of hills overlooking the ocean. The ones constantly threatened by wildfires. Thatís here too. What about the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and Malibu, legions of surfers, roadside seafood shacks and convertible roadsters. Yeah, thatís here too.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10) The Santa Monica Mountains is a beautiful chameleon; L.A. without the traffic jams and freeways, Korea without the Kim chi, the Great Plains without the prairie. This area is the backdrop of American television and film life. It is the roads cars drive in commercials, it is the anonymous natural world we have come to accept as our America, our familiar, our back yard.
The easier task, cinematically, is to figure out which movies have not been filmed here or which stars do not live in these houses. On our short drive along the two-lane twisty Mulholland Highway, we passed at least three different films being shot. We were driving in a place we had known all our lives but never imagined to be real. Welcome to L.A.
CROWDS (7/10) Is there anything more fun than an afternoon watching people surf; seeing the intensity, the pure joy, the natural oneness, the excitement? Yes, surfing. One of these days we are going to surf, we promise ourselves.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The Site hugs the western edge of Los Angeles County, home to roughly 9,900,000 people. Throw in nearby Ventura and Orange Counties and youíre pushing 14 million. Somehow, the Santa Monica Mountains NRA still feels isolated. No freeways run through the Mountains; a few dedicated Malibu millionaires drained their bank accounts in their successful aim to stave off construction.
A number of narrow sinuous canyon roads travels north to south, climbing and descending the Mountains on their way. These roads are some of the most prohibitive paved roads we have traveled on in the United States. Do not expect to exceed 20 mph and be prepared for the tricky downshift from second to first.
Many other roads within the Park are private and lead to unthinkably large mansions. Since the National Park Land is so disjointed, finding the NPS pieces can be difficult. The Parkís only Visitor Center is poorly located to the northwest of the Park in Ventura County. If L.A. County residents want to go to the VC first, their entire trip will be one big backtrack.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) The dozens of flower books, California hiking guides and books about the local Chumash Indians are nice but we wanted to see more titles about the movies, their locations and the history of Los Angeles. This Site is one of the centers of the movie making industry, arguably our Nationís most important and wide reaching 20th-century export.
COSTS (4/5) The NPS Sites are free. There are parking fees for many of the State Parks and Beaches. Do what the rest of L.A. does: park on the PCH that borders the beach and walk in for free.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) The Headquarters and Visitor Center in Thousand Oaks is well staffed with helpful Rangers. A Ranger showed us where in the Park a number of celebrities lived: Barbra Streisand, Cher and Johnny Carson. He was a little bit older than us. A Ranger station on the Parkís eastern boundary would be nice for those coming from L.A.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) The VC has a nice new intro video produced and arranged by the Discovery Channel. But the young, strapping and eloquent Ranger begs the question: Was he a Ranger or an actor dressed as a Ranger?
The VC provides a plethora of pamphlets, one for each of the Parkís postage-stamped sized partitions, including the Paramount Ranch and the Peter Strauss Ranch. These well-done pamphlets are necessary if you want to see the available hikes.
All southern California residents should pick up the Parkís 40-page booklet entitled Outdoors. The quarterly calendar of events and programs details every Ranger activity for a three-month period within the Park. Yes, this includes the State Parks and Beaches.
FUN (8/10) What could be fun here? Letís see.
Surfing, watching surfers, looking at bikini-wearing girls watching surfers, windsurfing, swimming, hiking, eating cheap fried seafood and drinking a beer outside while watching the ocean, driving on the Pacific Coast Highway. Can we go on?
Looking at movie star homes in the Malibu hills, seeing a movie being filmed, seeing sets of classic television shows, hiking, camping on the beach, surf fishing, running your dogs on the beach. We could keep going.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) Currently, you can hike all but 5 miles of the 65-mile long Backbone Trail through the Park. Once the entire route is completed, the NPS plans to add scattered campsites that will allow multi-day through hiking. Once that happens, the Park Service will have a signature hiking trail to add to an already spectacular Park. If you travel to L.A., you should take in some portion of the Recreation Area land, whether it is a jaunt to Malibu up the Pacific Coast Highway, a walk down the Santa Monica Pier, a drive through the canyons on Mulholland Highway or just a day at the beach. The Santa Monica Mountains NRA is a break from the frantic pace, heavy traffic and dense smog so commonly associated with the City of Angels.
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