Archive for the ‘Hiking with Kids’ Category

Music Box Steps: Best Urban Hike in L.A.

July 19, 2013


Everyone’s favorite gripe about L.A. is that no one walks here. It’s not without validation — I once walked from my office in mid-Wilshire to the Trader Joe’s on La Brea without passing a soul on the sidewalk. People driving by stared at me carrying my canvas bags as if I were a homeless tourist attraction.

But there are pockets of the city that are perfect for a hardy stroll, and Silverlake is one of them. I’m not sure why it took me 13 years of L.A. residency to do the Music Box Steps hike, but it should be on every Angeleno’s bucket list. I followed the Music Box loop from Charles Fleming’s excellent Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. It covers 2.5 miles and combines a good cardio workout with a self-guided film history and architecture tour. It made me never want to go to the gym again.


The Music Box steps got their name from the 1932 Laurel & Hardy short film. Stan and Oliver had to deliver a piano to the top of a flight of outdoor stairs; comic bumbling ensues. The barren hillside in the film is now surrounded buildings and, as Fleming rightly points out, disappointingly ill-maintained given its landmark status. But it still provides a rush for most film buffs, as does the shady triangular pocket park across the street, named for the duo. Besides this slice of movie history, the walk is also studded with views of downtown L.A., all kinds of flora and fauna, and a fascinating mix of homes featuring Moorish minarets, tiled fountains, and thoughtful displays of sun dials and garden gnomes.


This hike starts and ends at Café Tropical, a little neighborhood hub known for its café con leche and Cuban sandwiches. Parking is reasonably easy to find on surface streets around here. A couple of tips: strollers won’t work, period, and there is very little shade. Go early in the morning in summer, or wait for a cooler overcast day if you must go in the afternoon. It’s probably best to avoid nighttime altogether.


Turn this into a real L.A. outing and head over to Sqrl café on an edgy corner of Melrose, a 15-minute walk from Café Tropical via Marathon St. I had the burnt brioche with house ricotta and blueberry-rhubarb jam while jazz and an unfathomable number of trendsetting hipsters kept the place buzzing. The hike, combined with the exquisitely good breakfast, was one of those only-in-L.A. experiences that I won’t soon forget.

Searching for apples in Southern California

October 11, 2012

It’s the time of year to celebrate the apple, and the best way to do it in Los Angeles is to head east to Oak Glen. It’s the largest collection of apple trees in the region, and all kinds of apple-centric activities have cropped up around the orchards. My family and I usually head there in October, after most of the trees have been stripped by the pick-your-own crowds. There’s still plenty of apples to bring home, and it’s a little less chaotic.

Snow-Line Orchard is our first stop. Its apple cider donuts and cider press alone make it worth the trip, but it also gets points for its generous apple and cider samples, and wide selection (Pink Lady to Honeycrisp and McIntosh).

Riley’s at Los Rios Rancho is next. It’s touristy, with a petting zoo, wagon rides. outdoor barbecue, and gift shop, but the apple pies are the best I’ve ever had, and the grounds are kid-friendly. They also recently added the equivalent of apple sommeliers at their tasting table, experts ready to help you make sense of all the varieties available. There’s also solace to be had if you wander across the parking lot to the totem pole Trail sign and follow the path past the apple orchards. Keep going past the restrooms and picnic tables and soon you’ll be surrounded by an almost New England-like autumn. The leaves change to bright oranges and golds here and pile up enough to create some serious leaf shuffling, if not full-on leaf-pile jumping. There’s a pond, too, and some ducks, and a gorgeous backdrop of pine-studded mountains.

All in, it’s about an hour and a half’s drive from Los Angeles. It often gets super-crowded on weekends, even after picking season is over. We always try to get there well before noon. It’s awfully easy to get up early when you know those apple ciders donuts are waiting for you.

Tips for Leading a Peaceful Life in Los Angeles

September 24, 2012

A friend from the East Coast, who recently spent miserable stretches of time on the 101 freeway, asked ‘How can you live here?…With kids??’

My simple answer was ‘I never take the 101 Freeway.’ Here’s the longer answer…

1. Don’t try to go the beach at noon on a summer weekend. The 10 will be a parking lot, guaranteed. Go before 9:30 a.m. or take the day off and go during the week. Better yet, go in October when it’s still hot but everyone’s mind is on school and Halloween. Or go in January, when you’ll probably see more wild dolphins than you ever have in your life.

2. Avoid major freeways between 8 and 10 am or 4 and 7 pm weekdays. If you must go then, check Sigalert before leaving the house and plot your route based on that. I’ve planned spur-of-the-moment day trips to Laguna Beach and Malibu based on red-free traffic patterns.

3. Do a little research before you go…but not too much. Advance prep applies to everything from Disneyland to that mid-summer hike in Topanga Canyon. (It may look close to the ocean, but chances are it’s 15 degrees hotter.) Let yourself be surprised too, by the no-name tamale stand or the spinoff trail that leads to an even better view than the one mentioned on Yelp.

4. Never, ever take the 101 or the 405. Moorpark Street in the Valley parallels the 101 and Sepulveda runs along the 405. They’re usually fast and much more scenic and interesting.

5. Make at least one farmer’s market a part of your weekly routine. Year-round strawberries, live music, pupusas, spit-roasted chicken, croissants, sunflowers…You can pretty much find one somewhere in L.A. at any day or time of the week, and spending even an hour is guaranteed to lift any mood.

6. Open your mind. So many people who hate L.A. base it on their drives from LAX to a hotel in El Segundo or Hollywood. Let’s face it, Cienega and the 5 Freeway are not the city’s best assets. But that strip mall Peruvian restaurant just might have the best ceviche you’ve ever tasted. Get past the stucco and adjacent laundromat and go inside. And the chaparral-covered hillside you pass every day off Avenue 52 might end up being an Audubon Society-sanctioned nature preserve with one of the best outdoor children’s gardens in the city.

Bottom line: Plan a little, make time for detours, and avoid the 101 at all costs.

Madrona Marsh: a thousand shades of green

July 19, 2012

At first glance, Madrona Marsh in Torrance may seem a little pathetic as far as nature preserves go. The dry-as-dust path near the entrance gates leads you past views of sterile office buildings and sounds of cars motoring past, most of them on their way to Plaza del Amo mall across the street.

But give it a chance. Keep walking south toward the trees and in a few minutes you will find yourself surrounded by cottonwoods, wild grapevines, bramble bushes, and a thousand shades of green. This marsh is one of the last remaining wetlands in Southern California. In other words, this is what the South Bay used to look like before Macy’s and Chevron showed up. Despite development’s best efforts, it has somehow managed to thrive thanks to the efforts of some determined preservationists and the city of Torrance.

Madrona Marsh is home to some of the biggest ducks you will ever see, and your children will laugh their heads off when the ducks come charging through the soupy green muck hoping you’ve brought them some grub. Egrets and blue herons also stop by from time to time. Before entering the marsh, stop in the slick nature center for maps, updated wildlife sightings, and the chance to view some pretty cool reptiles. The center runs all kinds of nature hikes throughout the year; it’s almost worth a drive across town in rush hour to experience them. If you don’t want to do that, any weekend morning will suffice for a uniquely peaceful respite from routine.

Harbor seal haven in Carpinteria

April 29, 2012


It isn’t often that you hear about a great California coastal destination by word of mouth. Seems like it has all been written about, photographed, and visited before. But my neighbor recently told me about a little-known place her Santa Barbara-based daughter had shown her: the Carpinteria Seal Rookery. About 100 harbor seals make their home at the bottom of the Carpinteria cliffs south of town. In December, they give birth and from a viewpoint atop the cliff, anyone can watch the mamas and babies frolic, waddle, argue, dive for fish, and sleep. It’s a beautiful show and worth the half-mile walk from the parking lot. It’s also an ideal place to stretch your legs to or from a trip up the coast. Be sure to stop and say hello to the friendly hot dog vendor near the entrance.

More information:

A wilderness preserve in Glendale

March 16, 2012

Gas prices and apprehensive curiosity brought me to the trails of Deukmejian Wilderness Park last Saturday. I wanted to test out a new phone application (more on that to follow in a separate post), but didn’t want to drive across town to do it ($4.29 a gallon!?).

The Station Fire ripped through this park in 2009, turning it into an apocolyptic wasteland, and it was closed for more than a year. I had heard parts of it had reopened, but was reluctant to check it out and destroy my peaceful memories of the place.

News flash: it’s as beautiful as ever.

Tucked into the northernmost Glendale, the park is named after George Deukmejian, former governor of California. Some serious money went into spiffing it up before the economy tanked. There is a wide lawn with picnic tables overlooking the Verdugo Mountains for post-hike relaxing and a restored barn surrounded by robust rows of grapevines.

The main loop trail (LeMesnegar) is slightly shorter than I remember (about 1.8 miles), but it’s in good condition and has a couple of nice turnoffs that lead to viewpoints. Half the trail has distant views of the 210 Freeway and the other half views of chaparral-covered hillsides that make you forget civilization is just around the bend. Charred oaks dot the landscape, but in hopeful contrast, wildflowers and wild fennel also coat the hills and illustrate nature’s power to fight back and survive. Interestingly, while cars jammed the pullout next to the La Tuna Canyon trails just across the freeway, Deukmejian only had a handful of cars in its ample lot. The longer and more strenuous Rim of the Valley trail is closed for the time being, so that may be one of the reasons.

Upper Arroyo Seco is Back in Business

August 7, 2011


I walked the upper Arroyo Seco trail from JPL to Gould Mesa Campground for the first time in three years, and it’s just as peaceful and New Hampshire-like as I remember it. The sawhorses, trucks, and KEEP OUT signs are all gone. Heavy rains washed out parts of the trail in 2008, then the Station Fire came perilously close to the trailhead in summer 2009.

There are still signs of fire damage, but also plenty of signs of growth and the creek is still surprisingly robust for mid-summer. I made it as far as Gould Mesa campground (which can also be accessed from La Canada), though it looks like you can keep going farther into the forest. This trail is a local treasure that so many Altadenans and others seek out for exercise, shade, and quiet moments.

Hiking in Solace

November 4, 2010

I was looking for a little down time Sunday before the Halloween activities reached full tilt. So I snuck away for a walk through one of my favorite neighborhoods, Mount Washington. Its Jack Smith Trail isn’t really a trail so much as a very pleasant nature-meets-city walk, but I included it in my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Los Angeles. It’s a great workout if you start at the steps on Marmion Way. They used to follow a funicular railway that carried Mt. W residents to and from their hilltop homes.

It was as nice and tranquil as I remembered it, but what made the walk even better was a detour down Seaview Lane just past Mt. Washington Elementary School. Follow the road until it ends, then continue on the dirt path.

You won’t be disappointed; when I saw the bench, I really wished I had brought along coffee and the Sunday papers.

Keep following the dirt path around and you will see that it reconnects with San Rafael Ave. From here, you can follow Moon Avenue, then noodle your way downhill to the Southwest Museum and Marmion Way. Next time I’ll take the kids (and skip the steps)…but on this day, I had the clear views and incredibly clean post-rain air to myself.

Ducks return to the Upper Arroyo Seco

May 31, 2010

Good news for Altadena hikers: it looks like the trail that begins at Windsor and Ventura Sts. is open again. The upper Arroyo Seco had been closed since the Station Fire last summer. Then rain and mudslides caused more damage to the trails and canyons. It’s not quite as New Hampshire-like as it used to be, but it was thrilling to walk the trail last Friday. The barriers and Forest Closed sign that blocked entry about a mile in had been removed, and we walked about 2.5 miles before turning around. We also passed two Forest Service trucks on the way out, and the drivers gave us a friendly nod. So get out there and enjoy it before the the summer heat arrives and the stream turns into a trickle.

Pine cones and water pumps

February 24, 2010

An easy drive down the 110 takes you to the Audubon Center at Debs Park. As a hiker and a mom, I’m a huge fan of this park and its hiking trails and fabulous children’s garden. On a recent visit, the garden looked like it had been spiffed up and expanded. There’s a water pump, a lily pond, a cave and (marquee item) a playhouse with kid-size brooms and tables, plus a big box of plastic gardening tools. Both boys jumped right into playing and it was easy to keep an eye on both of them.

If you want to take a hike, you can borrow a jogging stroller or a back carrier at the nature center, or just do the easy Butterfly Loop off the kids’ garden. We made a morning of it by picking up seriously good pastries at Antigua Bread at 5703 N. Figueroa Ave. (a five minute drive), Highland Park, and eating at the picnic tables under the canopy.

I cannot say enough good things about this park. It is a needed and beautiful community hub.