Explore Laguna: Why this beach town will surprise you

Hard to believe it now, but once upon a time the government had to basically bribe people to settle in Laguna Beach by giving them free land through the Homestead Act.

While those early settlers certainly wouldn't recognize the place today, they would no doubt appreciate the fact that it remains the same quaint, artistic village it was in the 1900s. But even though it has retained plenty of small-town charm, Laguna Beach has evolved into that rare breed of modern beach town that offers far more than just sea, sand and surf.

Sure, there are 20 beaches and coves to sample, many of them among the best strands in Southern California. The natural beauty of Crystal Cove State Park, the intense volleyball games that erupt at Main Beach, the intimacy of tiny pockets of sand like Cress Street Beach, and after-dark bonfires on the shore at Aliso Beach Park (don't forget the s'mores!).

But the thing that really makes Laguna Beach special is everything that's available away from the sand.

For one thing, it's a hiker’s paradise. The meandering cliff-top trail in Heisler Park is an easy hike that takes you past Las Brisas restaurant with its fabulous outdoor seating as well as public landmarks like the Gnarly Tree, the Tidepool Paddle Board bench and Semper Memento 9/11 memorial with two pieces from the fallen World Trade Center.

There's another great cliff-top trail in south Laguna that wraps around the back of Montage Laguna Beach, with benches offering sweeping views of the deep blue sea and stairs dropping down to the beach and myriad tidepools. You can often see Catalina Island offshore and maybe even San Clemente Island on an especially clear day.

Serious hikers and bikers head for the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park on the south side of town, 4,500 acres of coastal sagebrush, chaparral and riparian woodlands that protect the lower end of the Aliso Creek watershed just before it spills into the ocean. Larger still is the rugged Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Accessed via Laguna Canyon Road (Highway 133), the 20,000-acre reserve provides plenty of scope for mountain bike adventures and nature walk tours.

Near the upper end of Laguna Canyon, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned or injured sea lions and seals and their eventual release back into the wild. Visitors are welcome daily — even if you're drenched in sweat from your trek in the adjacent wilderness park.

Visitors can organize their own art gallery amble down Pacific Coast Highway. The heart of the Laguna Beach art colony is a six-block stretch of PCH between Myrtle Street in the north and Legion Street in the south. Along the way are local creative landmarks like the eclectic Quorum Gallery, the Navajo rugs and Pueblo pottery of Len Wood's Indian Territory, and the Laguna Art Museum. Combining the area’s unique art and surf cultures, RWorld Surf & Skate shop displays wildly creative artistic designs, handcrafted jewelry and a floor mural that’s an original work of art. On Fridays and weekends, the free Laguna Beach Trolley cruises this whole artistic strip.

Another way to explore the art scene is synching your visit with one of the special events that take place throughout the year. October is an especially creative month that includes the Artist Open Studios (Oct.17 and 18), First Thursdays Art Walk (continuing year-round on the first Thursday of every month) and the 17th Annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational (Oct. 17 to 25), a nine-day extravaganza dedicated to welcoming the nation’s top landscape painters.

Laguna Beach can also be explored on a weekly Coastal Highlights Tour on Friday mornings with local guide Bill "Hoffy" Hoffman, a veteran urban planner with a unique eye for coastal cities. The three-hour adventure includes Crystal Cove, Heisler Park and either the Nix Nature Center or Pacific Marine Mammal Center.The tour is a mix of walking and transportation to the sites via van or private car — a great way to save wear and tear on your feet while taking in so much of what Laguna Beach has to offer.

Snap photos of your Laguna Beach getaway and post them on Instagram with the hashtag #MyLagunaBeach for a chance to be featured on Visit Laguna Beach’s social channels. For more information on events and attractions, go to www.visitlagunabeach.com/events.

Joe Yogerst, Tribune Content Solutions

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