A Peak's-Eye View of L.A.

McKinney is an outdoors writer in Southern California

When I was 11, Sandstone Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains seemed the highest point in the world. Eagles soared, mountain lions lurked and Chumash Indian spirits dwelt there. The remote and regal peak often was enshrouded in fog that activated a tenderfoot Scout's imagination.

To the Boy Scouts of Troop 441, Sandstone Peak with its miles of chaparral, poison oak and boulders was an awesome ascent from Circle X Scout Ranch.

Most awesome of all was the view from the top. We thought we could see the whole world: Old Baldy and the L.A. Basin, the Channel Islands and San Fernando Valley, the Santa Monica Mountains from end to end.

As I grew older, my memory of the mysterious peak hidden in the fog and the long trail to the top faded. Only the view stayed with me--a 1960s view of a Southern California that appeared to have no limits. It was a land big enough and empty enough to accommodate every dream.

It was this youthful view from a quarter-century ago that I carried with me last week as once again I climbed to the top of Sandstone Peak. For Earth Day 1990, I wanted to compare my boyhood view with the view of today. More than that, I wanted to see if and how my part of our planet had changed.

Until 1988, Sandstone Peak was part of the Boy Scout's Circle X Ranch. The ranch and peak now belong to the Santa Monica National Recreation Area, patrolled by the National Park Service.

Aside from a parking lot the size of an aircraft carrier and a few signs, nothing much has changed on the path to Sandstone's summit. As I hiked up Mishe Mokwa Trail, the soft colors of high chaparral--black sage, golden yarrow, red shank, woolly blue curls--brought back memories as surely as faded Kodachrome slides.

The view from the top of Sandstone is still mighty impressive. To the east, snow-capped Mt. Baldy towers over Los Angeles. I can see the sandy sweep of Santa Monica Bay, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Catalina Island. I can see too the San Fernando Valley, Los Padres National Forest back of Ojai, the Channel Islands, and, of course, the Santa Monica Mountains.

The mountains had no governmental guardians when I first looked at them from Sandstone Peak. The view west of the rugged hills and grassy valleys was that of Broome Ranch and Danielson Ranch, not Point Mugu State Park. The view east was private property, not the Santa Monica National Recreation Area set aside by Congress in 1978.

A lot of people today have an interest in the Santa Monica Mountains, which stretch all the way from Griffith Park in the heart of Los Angeles to Point Mugu 50 miles away.

Many developers say the mountain slopes and canyons are ideal for subdivisions, which could be connected by a trans-mountain freeway. But a lot of government agencies--the Los Angeles County Parks Department, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy--say they are committed to protecting the mountains. The National Park Service says the mountains are ecologically important because they are an example of Mediterranean terrain, the only such terrain in the nation under its care.

From Sandstone's vantage, the bay view--from RAT (Right at Torrance) Beach to Malibu Beach--has changed little from my youth.

The pollution of the bay, the sewage discharges--both accidental and deliberate--are not visible from up here. I rejoice that I do not look down at Malibu Nuclear Power Plant, once proposed for landslide-prone and seismically active Corral Canyon. And I rejoice that I do not see State Highway 60, the Malibu Freeway. In the 1960s, a plan was hatched to build a causeway along Malibu Beach supported by pilings offshore. A breakwater would have converted the open shore into a bay shore, reducing the Pacific's pounding surf to that of a lake.

Below Sandstone Peak is County Line Beach. It hasn't changed a bit. The surfboards may be lots smaller and the radios lots bigger than their 196Os ancestors, but the vibes and the waves are the same.

From Sandstone Peak, I also can see the San Fernando Valley.

The Valley has changed a lot since 1769, when Father Juan Crespi of the Portola Expedition named it De Valle Santa Catalina de Bononia de los Encinos.

And it's changed even more since the 196Os, when every Sunday after church, my parents--and many other Southern Californians--packed up the station wagon and drove out beyond the last citrus groves to visit the new subdivisions.

I can still remember newly built model homes with their odd combination of smells: the real estate agent's after shave, sawdust and new shag carpet, fertilizer and freshly poured concrete and asphalted roads. We drove to the four corners of the Valley--Agoura Hills and Granada Hills, Sherman Oaks and Thousand Oaks, and saw dozens of new suburbs in between.

Twenty-five years ago when I looked down on the Valley--and neighboring Simi and Conejo valleys--the new suburban tracts were islands on the land. Today, the view of San Fernando Valley from Sandstone Peak is a 24-mile-long, 12-mile-wide rectangle that is completely urbanized and suburbanized: endless green lawns, glistening swimming pools, imported trees and shrubs, parking lots and shopping malls. It is a strange combination of tidiness and unseemliness.

The green spaces are a scattered archipelago fast disappearing beneath a tidal wave of development. One island visible from Sandstone is Cheeseboro Canyon, partly owned by the National Park Service, partly owned by entertainer Bob Hope, who has agreed to transfer his property to a state parks agency.

From Sandstone Peak, I also can see some of the West Coast's islands. The Channel Islands--Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel--are a series of blue-tinged mountains floating on the horizon in the Pacific. Way, way out to sea is Santa Barbara Island.

When islands can be seen offshore, particularly from a place like Los Angeles, they almost bring reproach: By always toiling in the din of the metropolis, we may miss the siren call of play and adventure on the near horizon. The dramatic mountains and jagged shorelines of the Channel Islands have beckoned to many, but until 1980 when Congress established Channel Islands National Park, the islands were privately owned.

Congress intended the park as a preserve for what some have called the "American Galapagos." The islands' sea-tempered climate has preserved plants that either have been altered through evolution on the mainland or perished altogether. What you see on the islands is Southern California of a millennium ago.

Unfortunately, there's pollution to see from Sandstone Peak.

I contemplate the gaseous burnt orange cloud that hangs over downtown Los Angeles; it's the worst air in the nation.

I look over the Basin and think how often we curse its bowl-shaped topography and hold it responsible for our stinging eyes and scratchy throats and hacking coughs. This, of course, is like holding the shape of the bottle responsible for the quality of the wine.

I look down on the Oxnard Plain and question the wisdom of converting some of Southern California's most fertile farmland into more suburban housing.

I also have a condor's-eye view of the Ojai backcountry, where the great birds once flew and could fly again if human efforts to preserve them and their natural habitat are successful.

I was born on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains, just outside Griffith Park, so the mountains are home for me, too.

A fella's home mountains are where he goes on his first overnight trip with the Scouts, where he learns to drive a car with a clutch, where he kisses his first girl at a popular make-out spot, and where he meditates on the troubling issues of his day.

The view from Sandstone Peak is mine, but if I lived in San Diego County, I might climb Middle Peak in the Cuyamaca Mountains to get a real view of the world around my home.

Or I'd climb Signal Hill near Long Beach for a look at the South Bay's world; Mt. Hollywood for a look at downtown; Mt. Lowe or Mt. Bliss to view the San Gabriel Valley; Old Saddleback or Robber's Roost to contemplate Orange County, and Mt. Rubidoux to see Riverside.

When I scrambled up the rocks to Sandstone Peak this time, I spotted something blue on the summit. There, floating in the Pacific Ocean breeze at the very top of the peak was an Earth Day flag--a portrait of our home as seen from outer space.

I stayed atop Sandstone a while, to reconcile the present with the past, and to predict a future for the human panorama at my feet.

When you're 11, you think you can see the whole world from a place like Sandstone Peak. Maybe, as an adult, you can.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°