Overlooking the San Fernando Valley, Mulholland Drive snakes along the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains and separates “The Valley” from the part of Los Angeles that is broadly referred to as “The Westside.” Beginning at Hollywood’s Cahuenga Pass, site of the 1847 “Capitulation of Cahuenga” that ended the Mexican – American War for California, Mulholland Drive gains elevation and winds past the upper entrance to Runyon Canyon. From there it continues west looking down on, in turn, Universal City, Studio City and Sherman Oaks.
Motorists on Mulholland Drive will pass homes belonging to celebrities. They may also see deer and coyotes. Above all, whether day or night, they will enjoy an impressive, panoramic view of the 260 or so square miles (670 square kilometers) of the San Fernando Valley, a part of Los Angeles most guidebooks pay little heed.
Surrounded by the Santa Susana Mountains on the northwest, the Simi Hills to the west, the Verdugo Mountains to the east, the San Gabriel Mountains to the northeast and the Santa Monica Mountains to the south, there is no consensus as to the Valley’s exact boundaries. California State University at Northridge lists Glendale as part of the Valley. The Los Angeles Times’ feature “Mapping LA” excludes Glendale. Neither includes Bell Canyon, which Wikipedia’s authors do include. Other variations also exist.
As Mulholland Drive exits the Sherman Oaks area it crosses the 405 Freeway at Sepulveda Pass, about where in 1769 Spain’s Gaspar de Portolà and his expedition first saw “a pleasant and spacious valley.” In the Encino Hills, a few miles past Sepulveda Pass, Mulholland Drive becomes a dirt non motor vehicle road that meanders above Tarzana, home of Edgar Rice Burrows of Tarzan fame, to Woodland Hills. There it again becomes a paved motor road and morphs into Mulholland Highway. Exiting Calabasas and the Valley, Mulholland then continues to the ocean.
The Valley and its 1.8 million or so residents have a mixed reputation. Some regard “Valleyites” with an ambivalence that alternates between pity and disdain. They are looked on as uncultured suburbanites living in a series of insular bedroom communities where teenage girls hang out at shopping malls and communicate in hedonistic, self-centered “Valspeak.” To others, the Valley is the embodiment of the American Dream – home ownership, a plot of land, and a community in which to raise a family free of the temptations of urban life. Still others perceive that the Valley’s poor and minorities sometimes receive less attention than the poor and minorities in other areas of Los Angeles. Each viewpoint comes with its own special blinders.
Whatever its image, the Valley’s importance to Los Angeles is incalculable. More than a third of the water distributed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power comes through the Los Angeles Aqueduct, conveying water 338 miles from the Eastern Sierras and the Mono Basin across the Mojave Desert to the San Fernando Valley’s Granada Hills. When built this aqueduct unlocked Los Angeles’s ability to expand. It continues to hydrate L.A.’s parched soil.
The Valley contributes more than water to the Los Angeles milieu. A number of underappreciated Valley sites make trekking there worthwhile.
San Fernando Mission
15151 San Fernando Mission Boulevard
Mission Hills, CA 91345
Missions are an essential element of California’s history and culture. While the San Gabriel Mission is sometimes referred to as the “Godmother of the Pueblo Los Angeles” the San Fernando Mission, founded in 1797, is a close second in significance.
Because of its proximity to El Camino Real and to Los Angeles, the San Fernando Mission was a popular stopping place. In order to accommodate all the travelers the padres kept adding to the convento wing of the mission until their hospice became famous as the "long building" of El Camino Real.
While the missions in Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Gabriel and Capistrano are all within tolerable (in L.A. terms) driving distance, the San Fernando Mission is closest to Hancock Park, is better organized, has more historical exhibits and has fewer tourists. It is well worth visiting.
Valley Performing Arts Center
18111 Nordhoff Street
Northridge, CA 91330
The Valley is not bereft of cultural opportunities. A modern performing arts center is located on the campus of California State University at Northridge. Following a performance by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra world-renowned conductor Neeme Järvi declared the acoustics in the Great Hall to be “perfect.” The same acoustical engineers who worked on Disney Hall also worked this venue. While Northridge doesn’t garner the same number of world-class artists as Disney Hall, it does get its share.
NoHo Arts District
Bounded by Hatteras Street to the north,
Cahuenga Blvd to the east, Tujunga Ave to
the west and Camarillo Street to the south.
If you are interested in theater and popular arts North Hollywood’s NoHo Arts District is an area worth tracking. It is a regional cultural center that features more than twenty professional theaters, diverse art galleries, public art and professional dance studios all in a relatively compact area.
Sepulveda Flood Control Basin
Los Angeles River
Lake Balboa/Anthony C. Beilenson Park
6300 Balboa Boulevard
Van Nuys, CA 91316
The Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area is one of the places where the Los Angeles River looks, feels and acts like a river. Calabasas Creek and Bell Canyon Creek converge behind the Canoga Park High School football field to form the Los Angeles River. Discarding its concrete shell for its journey through the Sepulveda Basin the Los Angeles River offers a riverside pathway and traditional riverfront scenery and wildlife as well as fishing opportunities (for carp).
Lake Balboa, within the Basin, is a man-made lake where boating and fishing can be enjoyed. There is a little creek that runs out of the lake into the Los Angeles River.
23537 Calabasas Road
Calabasas, CA 91302
The Leonis Adobe is a ranch house and accouterments in the middle of the Calabasas business district. In 1880 Miguel Leonis, a Basque from the French Pyrenees and his wife, Espiritu Chijulla, the daughter of a Chumash chief, occupied this adobe house. They proceeded to expand the original structure, which had been built in 1844. A walk-through, with docents on hand, provides a picture of pre-Gold Rush California ranch life. Leonis owned a substantial portion of the San Fernando Valley. After he died his wife had to litigate her rights to the property, did so and won.
Also on the property is the Plummer House, built in the 1870s and moved here from West Hollywood’s Plummer Park. In addition, there is a farm petting zoo. Next-door is the Sagebrush Cantina, locally renowned for its Mexican food and its evening entertainment.
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.