Outside the City of Angels: blessed hills and desert

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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TOPANGA, Calif. — In Los Angeles, a day of hiking usually begins with a car ride into the Santa Monica Mountains. North of Santa Monica, the Pacific Coast Highway winds through Pacific Palisades on the way to Malibu and the central coast. I’m on my way to Topanga State Park, but first I’m sitting in traffic. At least it is interesting traffic, traffic with a view: The ocean is just to the west, and there is a big swell, and there are pods of dolphins, and water people are surfing and piloting their stand-up paddle boards.

In the lane next to me, in an Audi convertible, a starlet is texting. Next to her a runaway train of road bikers streaks by — shiny, shaven, bound for the hills.

A few days later I’m in the Coachella Valley, in the desert oasis of Palm Springs, standing by the pool at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. It’s Sunday afternoon and some kind of DJ and Tiki drink party is heating up. The LA rock and roller crowd is here, tattooed and bikinied. I’m covered in poison oak — the hills got the best of me. It was chilly and raining in Los Angeles, but Palm Springs is hot and dry, covered in Brady Bunch split levels and Tomorrowland gas stations. Just an hour drive away is Joshua Tree National Park, about 800,000 acres of surreal landscapes. No traffic there.

The city of Los Angeles may be a man-made sprawl, but step outside of it, even just a little bit, and there it is — the wild — the wild ocean, the wild hills, the wild desert. In California traveling is like changing channels. I spent most of the early spring wandering around LA, escaping as often as I could to explore the fairyland of coastal mountains to the north, and the campy desert towns and sunburned wilderness to the east.

Wandering in the hills

The salty fog rolls in off the Pacific Ocean and covers the coastal sage scrub and sycamore riparian woodlands of Tuna and Topanga canyons. The deep gullies and high ridges stand wild and silent, part of a 150,000-acre preserve of nearly unbroken and protected open space — all of it just north of Santa Monica and LA’s Westside.

From Santa Monica, it’s about 20 minutes north along the ocean to Topanga Canyon. I turn right onto South Topanga Canyon Boulevard, and then wind up and up, through the lower canyon, where in 2002 a colony of artists, surfers, and retirees was booted off its handmade heaven of dirt roads and tree houses to make room for more state park land. To many, this was the end of Topanga Canyon as a refuge from the real world. Still, compared with the rest of Los Angeles, Topanga may as well be an elf outpost from Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Halfway up the canyon I stop to grab a cup of coffee. Tacked and taped to the coffee shop bulletin board are notices for this place and that place for rent: tepees, A-frames, yurts, sheds, caravans. I’m probably not the first person to imagine a life in the hills here.

The steep highlands were a center for hippie and music culture in the 1960s. Dozens of artists lived in the rocky hills, everyone from Joni Mitchell to Marvin Gaye. Neil Young recorded much of his third album, “After the Gold Rush,’’ in his makeshift basement studio. The dreamland was already in decline when in summer 1969 Gary Hinman, a music teacher, was murdered by the Manson family in his house here. He was their first victim.

I wind higher into the hills and pull over by the trailhead for the Backbone Trail, a walking and riding path that stretches for 70 miles across the Santa Monica Mountains, from the dream house-studded cliffs of Pacific Palisades all the way to Point Mugu in the far reaches of Malibu. I cross the road and walk into the shade. Hummingbirds hover in the wild kumquats along the creek bed. I walk through the tall grasses and into the chaparral. Hairy piles of coyote and mountain lion scat dot the trail.

I sit, drinking water and listening to the birdsongs. For lunch I unwrap a leftover Kogi BBQ truck Korean-Mexican fusion short rib burrito.

Later, down on Topanga Beach, the sun is setting. A family from the desert in Barstow stands in the froth of the surf. This is their first time at the beach. They swim all afternoon, until the sun goes down, then share a towel and shiver.

Exploring the desert

With my ears still full of Tiki pool party island beats, I shower and head out to see what the rest of Palm Springs is made of.

I stroll up and down North Palm Canyon Drive looking at teak credenzas and bent plywood armchairs. I stop at Birba for pretty good pizza and Scandinavia meets the desert design. Afterward I head back to the Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel to drink a beer and wander around the pool area. The party is still going on but I’m ready for bed. The poison oak is a nag, and my room is calling. It is draped in canvas, and feels like a safari tent, and there are Cat Stevens albums to play on the shiny red record player.

In the morning I drive around looking at houses. The hotel handed me a couple of maps for self-guided tours. One for “dead celebrity’’ houses, the other for midcentury modern masterpieces. At 9 it is sunny and hot enough for air conditioning in the car. I drive past Marilyn Monroe’s bungalow, Liberace’s Spanish-Mexican-Colonial, and the George Jetson-style, stone and glass, “Googie’’ round pad, where Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon.

For lunch I wait in line, and then finally eat at Cheekys (same owners as Birba), a breakfast and lunch place where the food (buttermilk and fresh corn pancakes; kale Caesar salad with avocado, Manchego, and lime; poached wild salmon with local asparagus and yogurt-dill sauce) is worth the wait.

Full of breakfast burrito and minty iced tea, I rush off to Joshua Tree to see the boulders and golden light and rock-climbing neo Rastafarians. After dark, I bomb back to Palm Springs for a gin martini at the Coral Seas Lounge at the Tropicale, and fish tacos back in the Amigo Room.

In the morning I take a spin around the Palm Springs Art Museum. There’s a John Baldessari print retrospective and a big show of architect Donald Wexler’s postwar steel houses. For lunch I treat myself to a giant pile of chips and salsa and the best birria (goat stew) ever at Taqueria Tlaquepaque on the outskirts of town.

On the way back to LA, I make one last stop to buy a date shake, and sit through the 15-minute film “Romance and Sex Life of the Date’’ at Shields Date Garden in Indio. Shields has been there since 1924 when the Coachella Valley was still a wilderness outpost. The date shake is thick and cold, packed with sugary date crystals that can just barely squeeze through the straw. It keeps me busy and cool until I’m out of the desert and halfway back to the beach.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at

If You Go

Ace Hotel & Swim Club
710 East Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs
A room with a private garden patio, king bed, 42-inch TV, and vinyl record player is about $200 plus $25 resort fee.
622 North Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs
Pizzas $14.
622 North Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs
Most entrees are under $10.
Palm Springs Art Museum
101 Museum Drive
Palm Springs
Admission is $12.50 for adults, free to members and children ages 12 and under.
Shields Date Garden
8-225 US Highway 11
A date shake is $3.50.
Taqueria Tlaquepaque
650 East Sunny Dunes Road #5, Palm Springs
Most menu items under $10.
The Tropicale
330 East Amado Road
Palm Springs
Specialty cocktails $11-$15.