A Quiet Detour on the Jack Smith Trail

June 3, 2013

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I head to Mount Washington whenever I crave a good outdoor workout. The area’s hills and steps are a great natural substitute for a treadmill, and the cool architecture and city views keep things interesting. The Jack Smith urban trail (named after the beloved L.A. Times columnist who lived and strolled here) starts at the flight of stairs just above Marmion Way at Avenue 43. I thought I knew everything about this trail (it’s featured in my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Los Angeles), but a recent visit added a new layer of magic to it.

The Self-Realization Fellowship, a worldwide spiritual organization with temples throughout Los Angeles, opens the lush grounds of its headquarters to the public most days. The gates are about mid-way through the hike at the corner of San Rafael Avenue and Elyria Drive. Walk through them and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by lotus pools, meandering paths, and about a thousand shades of green. There’s a big stone table near the rose garden that most writers will find hard to resist and benches placed discreetly throughout, making it easy to cocoon in your own space.

“Where ARE we?” my companion wondered as we wandered through gardens that gave way to more gardens along with stunning views of the city. L.A., of course, minus everything that’s stressful about it.

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Sunday in Santa Monica: Crepes, Spices, and a Giant Whale

May 27, 2013

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I have always been a little intimidated by Santa Monica. Getting there from just about anywhere in the city can shave years off one’s life — and finding a reasonable parking space within a mile of the ocean is often impossible. But on a recent Sunday, the kids and I were up early with a completely unscheduled day ahead of us, so I faced my fears and headed west with a few vague destinations in mind. The 10 freeway was nearly deserted before 10 AM, and we had our pick of parking places (street parking is free on Sunday). The next thing we knew, we were riding the sleek escalators of Santa Monica Place up to the food court and standing in front of a play area dominated by a 46-foot-tall humpback whale. This being Santa Monica, it was a whale made out of sustainably harvested deck wood perched over an “ocean floor” made of recycled rubber, and the kids couldn’t have been more enchanted. They played for an hour, then when it started getting too crowded for comfort, we picked up some crepes and smoothies and headed out to the food court deck and its impossibly scenic setting.

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Our next stop was the tiny Santa Monica Pier aquarium, which was also packed (Sunday afternoon at the beach was now in full swing). But Theo got to see some nurse sharks in an open tank and make a shark puppet out of a paper bag, so he was happy. We spent our last hour shopping at Penzeys Spices, where the clerk hung Jack’s I LOVE Santa Monica drawing in the window, and eating ice cream in the courtyard of the Santa Monica Library, which is also impossibly scenic and surprisingly quiet despite the presence of children.

I don’t know if we’ll go back again soon (too many other destinations on the bucket list), but the kids still talk about our spontaneous trip to Santa Monica and playing in the belly of the giant whale.

Pasadena’s Secret Garden

December 26, 2012

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I think I drove by Arlington Garden about ten thousand times before stopping to explore it. From busy Pasadena Avenue, it doesn’t appear as big as it actually is — I just assumed it was someone’s private garden, or a community garden that required a share purchase. But enter from Arlington Ave. between Pasadena and Orange Grove, and you immediately realize what a special place it is. Scents of lavender, eucalyptus and herbal fragrances are everywhere, and Adirondack chairs are scattered around with whimsical care. Its diverse pockets include a butterfly garden, succulent area, citrus grove, wildflower meadow, and lots and lots of drought-tolerant and endangered California plants. Once designated a construction staging area for the 710 freeway (which never made it this far), the CalTrans land was turned into a garden in 2005 with help from the city of Pasadena, Pasadena Water and Power, and a local couple who saw potential in the dirt and weeds.

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I am always too busy marveling at all the beauty to try out their special phone app, which lets you scan sign codes to identify plants and other garden features. Maybe next time. As much as I love the Huntington and Descanso Gardens, this is a homegrown place that makes you want to kick off your shoes and revel as if it were your own backyard. Sometimes I bring the kids, who love the labryinth created by Mayfield students, and sometimes I drop them at school and take a walk that always ends with a little R&R on one of those Adirondack chairs.

It’s Autumn in Ojai

November 25, 2012

The stress starts to disappear somewhere between the turnoff for the Fillmore Fish Hatchery and the third produce stand selling grapefruits the size of softballs. By the time the car has passed the oak-lined path that leads to the former home of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, it is a distant memory that won’t return until long after the sun fades to pink over the Topa Topa Mountains.

Ojai really is the anti-L.A. – a Shangri-La on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest with orange groves, horse ranches and a main street full of small businesses. We usually head up there in late winter or spring, when orange season is at its peak. This year, we veered from tradition and drove up the day after Thanksgiving. With all the golden orange and red foliage, it felt like we had driven into L.A.’s version of Vermont.

From Apollo to Endeavor: L.A.’s Rich Space History

November 18, 2012

There was no better time to be an Angeleno than the day the space shuttle Endeavour flew over the city. Whatever our neighborhood, job or family ties, we all shared equally in the thrill of watching Endeavour’s final flight over our homes, schools, offices and favorite landmarks. I think it’s impossible to truly recapture the joy of that day, but you can come pretty close by stopping by the California Science Center to see the 85-ton orbiter up close and horizontal. We went on a whim after school one day. It was more crowded than expected, but manageable and so cool to walk under Endeavour’s belly and see every ding and scratch it picked up in its amazing travels.

Here’s how a visit works: Timed tickets are required (free, but there’s a $2 per-ticket processing fee whether you get them online or on site). We sailed right in, but soon found ourselves surrounded by several after-school groups. You enter from the 2nd floor of the Science Center, walk through a brief but thorough exhibit on California’s space industry that includes a film about Endeavour’s history and a simulated shuttle ride ($5 a person), then you are given a purple chip and told to walk down a separate flight of stairs to enter the actual pavilion. For now, the shuttle is horizontal and housed in a temporary hangar, but the plan is to someday move it into a ready-for-takeoff position.

P.S. While you are in a cosmic frame of mind, consider visiting the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. Built on the former NASA site that developed Apollo spacecraft, it is one of the last remaining vistages of a round-the-clock space hub that also oversaw assembly of the entire shuttle fleet after the Cold War. The complex closed in 1999, and it’s now a film studio (“Christmas with the Kranks”), medical center, and soon-to-be mall. The Columbia space center does make for a fine afternoon with the kids — interactive exhibits include a paper airplane-making station, rocket launcher, and design-your-own solar system. There is also some information on Downey’s role in space exploration; that may expand as preservationists and former employees voice their concerns that it is all disappearing with the demolition of so many buildings.

Mexican hot chocolate, purple walls, and thou

November 4, 2012

At first glance, Zona Rosa Caffe looks like just another storefront to grab a cup of joe before a show at the Pasadena Playhouse. But follow the narrow staircase up to the sun-dappled living room and you’ll find all the fixings for a leisurely couple of hours curled up with a good novel (there is no WiFi here, so quiet conversations tend to overrule laptops). Day of the Dead banners hover like laundered handkerchiefs above sofas and chairs draped with serapes. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls, and a community chessboard and other board games hint that lingering is encouraged. The coffee is good and strong, but those in the know opt for the out-of-this-world Mexican hot chocolate.

I love Zona Rosa for a quiet escape, but I’ve always wanted to check it out on Thursday nights, when food trucks line El Molino Ave. and there’s live music in the alley next door. (Through November…6 to 11 p.m.)

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.

Take a Hike through Old Hollywood on King Gillette’s Ranch

September 23, 2012

Looking for a new moderate hike? The LA Times has an article about a good one in Calabasas, calling the property, once owned by razor-blade mogul King Gillette, “a step back in time to the Southland’s golden age.”

Another New Yorker falls for Los Angeles

September 17, 2012

Writer Emma Straub tells the L.A. Times about her new-found admiration for the city:

“As a New York City native, I was raised to look down on Los Angeles. You know, Biggie vs Tupac, etc. I think the biggest surprise for me, over the course of the last few years, is how much I really love it. My older brother is smart and has lived in L.A. since he was 18. If my husband had his druthers, we would be living somewhere near the Arclight. Or maybe living at the Arclight.”

(There’s more):

“I didn’t get to as many of the old-school L.A. restaurants as I wanted to, but blame that on Gjelina and all the different kinds of avocados at the farmers’ markets.”