What is the ONE thing you would recommend that a first time visitor to Los Angeles see/do? Last month I emailed this question to some friends who are familiar with Los Angeles. I also posted this question on my Facebook page and on Gogobot, a popular travel website.
The responses were many. So were the recommendations. Of sixty-one different recommendations, the most popular, but with only nine votes, was the Getty Center. Seven people suggested Venice. In third place, with five recommendations, was the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Gardens. Four people favored the Getty Villa. Tied for fifth place, each with three recommendations, were the Chinese Theater, Disneyland, Griffith Observatory and La Brea Tar Pits. Thirteen different places garnered two votes. Twenty places received one vote.
Even with the lack of consensus, twenty-five of the suggestions shared one commonality – a connection with Los Angeles’s oceanfront. Hence, my topic for this month – a consideration of Los Angeles’s beaches from the Ventura County line through Malibu. I will write about the beaches south of Malibu at a later time, perhaps in two parts.
One caveat. There is a lack of uniformity in identifying LA’s beaches. Occasionally the county (who administers most of the beaches) has one name and location, Google Maps display something different, Yahoo! Maps offer a third variation and locals have their own pet names. To the extent possible, I have gone with a further variation. I have tried to follow the signs posted on site.
County Line Beach
This beach is for surfers, not for swimming. Referred to by the Beach Boys in their classic 1963 hit Surfin’ USA, County Line Beach is located about a mile on the Ventura side of the county line. It is across from Pacific Coast Highway’s (PCH’s) weekend biker/surfer hangout, Neptune’s Net – a hamburger stand better known for its seafood.
Leo Carrillo State Beach
This one and a half mile of beach is named in honor of the actor, political cartoonist and conservationist Leo Carrillo (1881 – 1961). Carrillo’s great-great grandfather was a soldier with the Portolà expedition – the first recorded European exploration of California. Carrillo’s father was San Diego’s first mayor. Leo Carrillo’s autobiography, The California I Love, may be of interest to some of you.
Usually not nearly as crowded as the beaches south of Malibu, Leo Carrillo State Beach is located within a state park also named for Leo Carrillo. Excepting only the recreational vehicle park at Dockweiler Beach, directly under the LAX takeoff route, I believe this is the only Los Angeles beach that permits overnight camping. While the campsites are on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway rather than on the beach, there is a convenient underpass for easy beach access.
Leo Carrillo is divided into segments, parts reserved for surfers, other parts for swimmers. Dogs on leash are permitted in one area.
The Hidden Beaches
These “hidden” beaches are mostly not visible from Pacific Coast Highway. Parking areas are limited and located on bluffs above each beach. Entrances are easy to miss. These beaches are small, picturesque and usually not as crowded as their coastal sisters. On some weekdays they even offer solitude. They are among Malibu’s hidden gems.
By using matching federal funds Los Angeles County acquired this 22-acre beachfront for 3 million dollars and opened it to the public in 1973. It is now one of Malibu’s prime beaches offering scenic views and multiple uses that include swimming, surfing, windsurfing and diving.
Finding the stairs down to the beach from the parking lot requires a little exploration. And, once you find them, be careful. While the long, picturesque beach is in excellent condition, the stairs aren’t. Generally not very crowded, this beach is a favorite for surf fishing and bodyboarding. The outer kelp beds attract a variety of sea life and attendant divers.
Though relatively small, El Matador includes surf-splashed rock formations, stretches of smooth sand and at the southern end, the backyards of luxury, beachfront homes. It is, perhaps, the nicest of Malibu’s "hidden" beaches. However, more and more people seem to be discovering it. If the parking lot is full, the beach will be also. I would then go to Pescador instead.
One of California’s largest and most popular beaches, Zuma is known for its long, wide sands and excellent surf. Wild dolphins are often seen playing close to shore, sometimes hamming it up for admiring beach goers and eliciting their spontaneous applause.
As you drive south on PCH alongside Zuma Beach turn onto Westward Beach Road. This will, within a couple of minutes, take you to Zuma Lagoon. During dry seasons the lagoon is home to coastal fauna; during wet seasons it is filled with water and birds of all types. Admittedly, during our current drought there is more fauna than water and birds. A nature trail meanders through the lagoon. You can hear the surf 100 or so yards from the lagoon.
Los Angeles County refers to this area as Point Dume Beach. Google Maps identifies it as Westward Beach. Locals often refer to a large section of the beach as “Free Zuma” because of the free parking along Westward Beach Road.
But for the name change this area is a continuation of Zuma Beach. The beach ends at the northern base of Point Dume, the top of which can be reached via a trail at the end of the beach.
Point Dume Beach
Point Dume marks the northern end of Santa Monica Bay. It is incorporated into the Point Dume Natural Preserve. The preserve also contains a marvelous, uncrowded beach and small tide pools perfect for exploring.
You can reach the preserve by following the trail that starts at the end of Westward Beach. In the alternative, go to the Sunset Restaurant. That is where Birdview Avenue intersects with Westward Beach Road. Drive up Birdview. It will transition into Cliffside Drive. Shortly after reaching the top you will see a very small parking area, limited to about 10 cars with a two-hour time limit. There is no other parking in the area. Once parked, you will have to trek down from the bluff to the beach and tide pools.
Paradise Cove is a private beach. At least it is private starting from above a point marked by the mean high tide. Paradise Cove includes a trailer park where cheap trailers sell for a million dollars and the others for much more. It also has a mini pier and a restaurant that, on good days, serves mediocre food.
In December 2014, under pressure from the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission, the owners agreed to remove signs banning surfing, and to stop charging a $20 walk-in fee for beach access. They were allowed to continue charging a $40 parking fee, reduced to $7 if validated at the restaurant.
Paradise Cove became a tourist destination in the 70s when it was often used as a filming location. There were also reports that some big name stars lived in the trailer park. It continues to live on that reputation, helped by numerous tourist guidebooks that describe it in glowing terms – often, I suspect, without its authors ever having visited.
Dan Blocker Beach
Should snail-speed decision-making and inert bureaucracy ever frustrate you, consider the plight of Dan Blocker Beach.
In 1979 Michael Landon and Lorne Greene of the television series Bonanza donated beachfront property to the state of California. The donation was to honor their co-star, Dan Blocker, who had died in 1972. The state did nothing with the property. It was transferred to Los Angeles County in 1995.
Today, sparkling clean rest rooms stand next to a virgin parking lot. Still missing is beach access. The benefactors have long since died – Lorne Greene in 1987, Michael Landon in 1991. However, the deathless permitting process continues on and on and on.
Malibu Lagoon State Beach
This beach offers a cornucopia of choices and, along with Zuma, perhaps comes closest to embodying the popular image of California’s beaches.
The beach’s adjacent lagoon is where Malibu Creek flows. Nearly half is surrounded by the beach’s white, fine-grained sand. There is also a museum that offers occasional tours of the lagoon’s wetlands.
Close to the lagoon, on the former site of a Chumash Indian village sits the Adamson House, built in 1930 for Rhoda Rindge Adamson, the daughter of Malibu’s last owner. Docent led one hour tours are conducted Wednesday – Saturday.
Below the Adamson House the beach transitions into an area commonly known as Surfrider Beach. This has long been a premier surfing area where, I am told, because of the way the surf breaks surfers are sometimes able to get rides of 300 yards or more. Between Surfrider Beach and the Malibu Pier is an area reserved for swimmers.
Originally built in 1905, currently owned by the state of California, the Malibu Pier has been wrecked by storms and gone through multiple ownerships. But, the pier has managed to maintain its historic integrity. The Malibu Farm Café at the end of the pier serves fresh food and offers a stellar view.
The beach continues south of the Malibu Pier. Once past the Malibu Beach Inn and its restaurant, the Carbon Beach Club, it becomes the back yard for a long row of luxury residences. The restaurant offers good food and an even better view. After you have eaten, there are stairs from the restaurant that provide easy access to the beach below – a beach that some residents try to keep for themselves by posting bogus “no trespassing” and “keep out” signs. While you cannot trespass on their property, the beach below the high tide mark is for public enjoyment.
If you don’t eat at the Carbon Beach Club but want to stroll along the beach behind the luxury houses and can’t find the points of public access, download the application, “Our Malibu Beaches” and use that as a guide to the points of public access. This application, with its built in GPS widget, shows you where you can legally go.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.