A Diplomatic Guide

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Weekend Los Angeles Drives

Mulholland Scenic Parkway – Part 1

Jaak Treiman

            The automobile enabled a new leisure activity, the “Sunday drive.” It also sired the pejorative, “Sunday driver,” used during the workweek to describe a driver whose car limps languidly along the highway as compatriots rushing to work try to pass.

            The words “Sunday drive” evoke pastoral images of a solitary, slowly moving car traveling along back roads that pass bucolic farms. Such images may not seem a good fit for Los Angeles with its vast network of freeways filled with drivers, forever in a hurry. But perhaps counter-intuitively, Los Angeles has many roads that are well suited for relaxing, exploratory drives – drives that can also generate serendipitous discoveries.

            From time to time I will suggest routes that are conducive to “Sunday drives.” These will range from the urban setting of Central Avenue with its sweet to bittersweet history to Sunset Boulevard and its samples of luxury and poverty, decadence and accomplishment.

            However, this month and next I offer a few suggestions about a “Sunday drive” along the Mulholland Scenic Parkway – a setting for numerous films, detective novels and songs as well the home locale for a smattering of entertainment industry stars.

            In the 1920s developers, hoping to enhance the value of their Hollywood Hills investments, provided sustenance to William Mulholland’s vision of a scenic road that would take urbanites to the mountains and the beaches. City engineers made the vision an actuality, causing a massive reordering of the natural environment as they did so.

            The Parkway consists of two parts. The twenty-four miles long Mulholland Drive, which opened in 1924, begins at Hollywood’s Cahuenga Pass and winds its way to Calabasas. The other part is thirty miles long, is called a highway, begins in Calabasas and ends at the Pacific Ocean. Both Mulholland sections offer scenic views, history lessons and opportunities for serendipitous discovery.

            Exploring the Mulholland Parkway is enjoyable any time of the year but maximum pleasure comes during those winter days, often following a rain, when the sky is sparkling clear.

Mulholland Drive

            Mulholland Drive begins at Cahuenga Pass, next to the urban frenzy of the 101 Freeway. From there it winds its way to the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains which it then straddles until it reaches Woodland Hills. From there, Mulholland glides to lower elevations and once it reaches Calabasas, changes persona from “Drive” to “Highway.”  

            Along the way some of Mulholland Drive’s panoramic view sites may invite a pause to admire the breadth and geographic diversity of Los Angeles. The closest view site to Cahuenga Pass is the Hollywood Bowl Overlook. Often crowded with tourists, a stop is still worth making, not because of the overlook’s uninspiring view of the Hollywood Bowl’s seating area but because of the spectacular panoramic view that stretches from the Hollywood Sign to Santa Monica Bay. This is the first of numerous Mulholland overlooks – overlooks that offer bird’s-eye views of Universal Studios and vistas of the San Fernando Valley.

            Mulholland Drive reaches the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains at Runyon Canyon’s upper entrance. Stretching from Mulholland down to within a few blocks of the Chinese Theater on the Hollywood flatlands, Runyon Canyon is worth a visit by itself. Its different pathways offer memorable views of the Los Angeles Basin.

            A park at the intersection of Coldwater Canyon and Mulholland is home to the Tree People, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to help nature heal cities. Their offices are in yurts located within the park. The park is also the starting point for a number of hiking trails.

            The intersection of Mulholland Drive and Laurel Canyon Boulevard entices impulse exploration. Today’s drivers use Laurel Canyon as a convenient shortcut between the Valley and West Los Angeles. Most probably do not think of the Canyon’s place in musical history.

            From the mid 1960s through the early 1970s the Love Generation denizens of Laurel Canyon turned Los Angeles into the music capital of the world and forever changed the way popular music is recorded, marketed and consumed.

            During that period Laurel Canyon’s celebrities-to-be included Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Mayall, the Mamas and the Papas, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Frank Zappa.

             Turning south on Laurel Canyon Boulevard will take you to Lookout Mountain Avenue and its side streets – the area where most of the musicians lived or hung out.  Continuing south on Laurel Canyon, a short distance after the Lookout Mountain intersection but before Laurel Canyon intersects with Sunset Boulevard, is the Country Store. Its psychedelic colors are the only reminder that the concrete triangle that serves as the Country Store’s parking lot was the meeting place for the hippies of Laurel Canyon and their followers.

            For the full story about Laurel Canyon, its residents and the impact they had on popular music, read Michael Walker’s, Laurel Canyon. It is a lovingly detailed, well-written book.

            A few miles after crossing the 405 Freeway the automobile friendly portion of Mulholland Drive ends in the Encino hills. From here, you can only hike or bike eight miles of unpaved Mulholland Drive to Woodland Hills, where it picks up again as a paved road and continues to Calabasas. Mulholland Drive then morphs into Mulholland Highway with its nascent vineyards, old movie sets, celebrity hangout cafes, motorcycle “snake” curves and raw wilderness. That will be the subject of next month’s blog.

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Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at jaaktreiman@gmail.com.