Curlicueing across the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga Canyon Boulevard and her older brother, Old Topanga Canyon Road, are popular shortcuts between the western San Fernando Valley’s portion of the Ventura Freeway (US 101) and Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica. During commute hours Topanga Canyon Boulevard is heavily traveled, sometimes with drivers familiar with her every curve, bored with her vistas, traveling at speeds newcomers find uncomfortable.
A portion of Topanga Canyon Boulevard follows alongside Topanga Creek, the third largest watershed entering Santa Monica Bay. About halfway through the canyon, at and around the intersection of the two shortcuts, is the hub of a census-designated area that is home to 8,000 or so people scattered along the creek bed and throughout the hillsides. This hub and its surrounding area are known as Topanga.
A 1920s weekend getaway for Hollywood stars and a center of 1960s hippie culture, Topanga has continued to draw people sympathetic to a Bohemian lifestyle. For an extensive list of Topanga’s “Whose Who” check out the Wikipedia section of “Notable People” for Topanga. Winner of the 1997 French Prix Médicis Étranger prize for best foreign novel, T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is set in Topanga.
Many of its few retail establishments reflect Topanga’s culture. There are no gas stations. Neither are there any chain stores or franchises. A sampling of some of Topanga’s retail establishments:
Step inside this small, local market and you will get a sense of the local culture:
If you ask for milk the clerk may well respond, “Do you prefer goat’s milk or sheep’s milk?”
If you have an urge for ice cream you may be asked, “Do you prefer Whiskey and Pecan, Birch and Marshmallow or Pink Grapefruit Buttermilk Yogurt?”
If you ask the clerk for something cold to drink she will direct you to a refrigerator that includes bottles of organic apple cider vinegar.
Should you be in need of a wedding cake the owner may well suggest, “How about a wheel of cheese instead?”
Nestled next to a small market, adding a touch of the Himalayas to Topanga’s cultural motif, Bhutan Shop sells handicrafts and clothes from Bhutan and Nepal. Among the many items of interest are various sizes of singing bowls that the proprietor is more than happy to demonstrate.
Downtown Los Angeles has its Arts District. However, to find an area where an appreciable number of artists actually live, work and relax one has to look elsewhere – to The Brewery, Boyle Heights, West Adams and Topanga.
Topanga Art Gallery is a cooperative venture among Topanga’s artists. The gallery is divided into two sections. The front section highlights works from one or two artists and rotates monthly. The rear portion of the gallery features works from other members of the cooperative. The gallery’s tour of local artists’ studios is a popular, annual highlight.
I have never developed a taste for coffee. I do have friends who speak of the number of grains of coffee in a cup and discuss, with seeming intelligence, coffee’s acidity, balance, body, color, sweetness and aftertaste. These friends insist that this little café has the best coffee in the area. In addition to their coffees there is a nice selection of sandwiches and salads.
A generally imaginative menu and good preparation are hallmarks of this bistro. Its rustic atmosphere contributes to a cozy feel, as do the jazz musicians that perform on some evenings. As with most Topanga restaurants, this is a local hangout.
While locals also eat here, Inn of the Seventh Ray has a justified reputation that transcends Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains. Located where evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson was rumored to have had her private mountain retreat, the Inn is a throwback to that aspect of ‘60s hippie culture that called for a return to nature.
Fresh food is prepared on the premises, often using nut and olive oils for cooking along with a judicious use of herbs. The outdoor dining area is next to a brook that, but for the drought, ripples past during fall and winter. The Inn of the Seventh Ray is one of my favorite restaurants. Their Sunday brunch is among the best in Los Angeles.
For those who grew up in the 1960s, Inn of the Seventh Ray may provide a bit of nostalgia. For those who didn’t, there may be a history lesson. For both, there is an excellent meal. The Spiral Staircase Book and Gift Store that adjoins the entrance could be described as “transcendental hippie.” It is worth a walk through even if its offerings don’t lighten your pocketbook.
An outdoor theater started by the actor Will Geer and his family, the stage contains a magnificent oak tree that is incorporated into the productions. During the annual summer season Shakespeare’s works are featured but not to the complete exclusion of other playwrights. The actors are professional and the surroundings are incomparable. I strongly recommend that you see at least one summer performance before your Los Angeles tour ends.
Theatricum Botanicum is a nonprofit organization that also offers year-round acting classes, live music concerts and school outreach programs.
Trekking through Topanga
The Topanga area contains a number of California State Parks. An official definition of “state parks” is “…relatively spacious areas of outstanding scenic or natural character, oftentimes also containing significant historical, archaeological, ecological, geological, or other similar values.”
For those who enjoy hiking or who at least enjoy the fruits of hiking if not the actual labor, Topanga offers delights not often associated with metropolitan areas. Do remember to bring some cash or a check for parking. Generally, the charge is $5.00, placed in an envelope that is placed in a receptacle with a stub left on your dashboard. Change is not available. Failure to leave the money results in a fine many multiples greater than $5.00.
Relatively easy hiking provides a reward of panoramic views of the Southern California coastline from Palos Verdes to Ventura County. Brilliant sunsets over Malibu can be viewed from the broad walking paths at the top of the Canyon.
To get to Tuna Canyon from Pacific Coast Highway, take Topanga Canyon Boulevard to Fernwood Pacific Drive. Fernwood Pacific is about 3.7 miles from the intersection of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway. Turn left on Fernwood, which becomes Tuna Canyon Road. About 2.6 miles from the Fernwood Turnoff there is a stop sign where Saddle Peak Road intersects with Tuna Canyon Road. Continue on Tuna Canyon Road. A short distance past 300 Tuna Canyon there is a dirt road on the right with a gate a short way up the road. The distance to this point from Fernwood and Topanga Canyon is about 3.7 miles. The gate is designed to prevent vehicular traffic. Walk around it and begin your stroll.
A short distance past the gate the trail intersects with another path. Turning left will take you uphill and ends with a magnificent view of Santa Monica Bay from Santa Monica to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. If you happen to be there when the distant San Gabriel Mountains are covered with snow, you will have a picture postcard opportunity. Turning right at the trail intersection will offer panoramic views of Malibu and its coastline.
The entrance is located off Old Topanga Road. When you turn on Red Rock Canyon Road from Old Topanga you will see a diverse range of dwellings, ranging from luxury to trailer. Once you reach the park’s gate, continue to the parking area by driving a short stretch of dirt road that was possibly adequate for vehicular traffic a few years ago. Today, it is prudent to travel much slower than the posted 10 miles per hour.
From the parking lot trailhead follow the trail up the canyon, past red sandstone pockmarked with small caves. The canyon trail ends at an overlook with a conveniently placed bench. From there, go right on the intersecting trail. I have never gone to the end of that trail. Instead, I follow the trail for a mile or two until it reaches the surrounding ridge. From there I enjoy a spectacular panorama of the Santa Monica Mountains and then return along the same path.
The park has a series of nice trails but they don’t rank as my favorite Topanga trails. The principal path passes through a valley and leads to a ridge that offers a nice panoramic view of the west San Fernando Valley. There is also an aerial view of the Top of Topanga Overlook. The best time for this hike is in the spring, assuming there has been sufficient rainfall during the winter to bring the valley’s grasses and flowers to life. The trailhead begins in a Topanga Canyon Boulevard curve, .6 miles south of Viewridge Road.
The park is located entirely inside the city of Los Angeles. I have read that it is considered “the world’s largest wildland within the boundaries of a major city.” Because of its popularity, parking can sometimes be a problem. If the parking area is full it is possible to park along the road leading to the park.
Topanga State Park has a large selection of wonderful trails. Perhaps the popular favorite is the hike to Eagle Rock, with its rewarding 360-degree view.
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 and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.