Fringed by palm trees, with the Santa Monica Mountains as dramatic backdrop, the wide sandy beaches along Santa Monica Bay draw visitors from around the world.
Locals tend to get a bit blase about this beauty in their back yard, and often fail to take advantage of what is, in my opinion, one of the world's great beach walks.
Favorite bay walks enjoyed by tourists include Venice Beach and the Venice Boardwalk, the Santa Monica Pier and Palisades Park in Santa Monica. These are pleasant enough excursions, but I would suggest something more ambitious: a walk around the whole bay.
Such a bay walk will surely be a very long day--or a weekend--to remember. You'll get a real feel for the bay, not only as a collection of beaches and seashore sights, but as a living, dynamic ecosystem whose health and well-being depends heavily on government and citizen action.
Geographically, Santa Monica Bay is a mellow intrusion by the Pacific Ocean into the western edge of the Los Angeles lowlands. The bay's magnificent curving beaches are cooled by a prevailing ocean breeze, which protects the coast from the temperature extremes--and smog--that are characteristic of the interior.
Alas, all is not postcard views along Santa Monica Bay; huge smokestacks from the Department of Water and Power and Southern California Edison power plants tower over some South Bay beaches, while jets taking off from LAX fly over others.
And the bay has its share of well-documented environmental problems, too. Sewers and storm drains empty into the bay. Organizations such as Heal the Bay have undertaken the Herculean task of educating the public and public officials that the bay is not merely a series of sand strands, but a complex ecosystem. Other environmental groups are working hard to restore the Ballona Wetlands, one of the last remaining wetlands in Los Angeles County, and to rehabilitate the El Segundo Dunes.
Pick a brisk fall or winter weekend to walk the bay and you'll be surprised at how much shoreline solitude you'll enjoy. It's possible to walk the bay from Torrance to the Santa Monica Pier in a very long day, but the 20-mile beach hike is more comfortably completed in two days.
If bay walking agrees with you, consider walking the rest of the bay--another 20 miles--from the Santa Monica Pier to Pt. Dume.
You can arrange a car shuttle or use the bus system to return to your day's start point. Better yet, leave a bicycle at the end of your walk and cycle back to the trail head along the South Bay Bicycle Path.
Super-jocks will relish the challenge of what I call the Triathlon Trail: Run/walk the 20 miles from Torrance County Beach to the Santa Monica Pier, cycle the South Bay Bicycle Path, then take a long refreshing swim.
Walkers will find plenty of parking and coastal access ways around the bay. Use the walk description below to fashion an exploration of the bay.
Pacific Coast Highway and various beach-feeder roads provide great access to Santa Monica Bay. Street parking is often restricted in beach areas, so watch the signs carefully. Except for the warmest weekends and holidays, you can usually find space in the county's huge beach-front parking lots.
One of many ways to reach the trail head at Torrance County Beach is by exiting the San Diego Freeway in Carson, on Torrance Boulevard, and traveling six miles west to Catalina Avenue. Turn left, then almost immediately veer coastward on Esplanade, which takes you 1 1/2 miles to Miramar Park, where there's bluff-top parking ($4 per day) and stairs leading down to the beach.
Your beach hike begins by crossing RAT (Right At Torrance) Beach, then marching over white sands to wide Redondo State Beach.
Ahead, toward the north end of the state beach, is King Harbor. In the 1890s, it appeared that this harbor might become the great port of Los Angeles. In the end, San Pedro Harbor got the nod. King Harbor today bears little resemblance to Redondo's busy 19th-Century port. The harbor area is dominated by piers, full of restaurants and shops.
Walkers improvise a route through King Harbor, dawdle along the walkways around the boat basins, or follow the South Bay Bicycle Path around the harbor.
Next is the Hermosa Beach Municipal Pier, a 1,320-foot fishing pier at the south end of Hermosa City Beach. Hermosa is Spanish for beautiful; the name was supplied by a real estate developer. Hermosa's two-mile-long, wide sandy beach is paralleled by a scenic walkway established in 1908 known as The Strand.
Next is Manhattan State Beach, yet another wide sandy beach, which also features The Strand. Manhattan Pier, a fishing pier, is at the south end of the beach. In the early 1900s, a wave-powered generator produced electricity to light The Strand.
A mile past the pier, you'll pass low dunes that once served as a "desert" location for many silent movies. Inland squats a massive power plant and "the plumber's nightmare"--the Hyperion Waste Treatment Plant, now undergoing considerable modernization.
You'll walk along Dockweiler State Beach, which is wide, clean, sandy and mostly pleasant--considering that it's backed by LAX. Dockweiler, usually referred to as Playa del Rey, extends to the Marina del Rey harbor.
When you reach the Ballona Creek Channel, cross the Balboa Creek Bridge to the harbor jetty and follow the bikeway atop the jetty inland. On your left, sailboats tack in and out of the harbor entrance. Occasionally, a skipper goofs and sails his craft into the Ballona Creek Channel, inevitably getting marooned on the rocks.
On your right is a remnant of Ballona Wetland, a marshy area that once extended from the Playa del Rey bluffs to Venice. Housing developments, flood-control projects administered by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the community of Marina del Rey all but obliterated the marsh. Still, some pickleweed wetlands and mud flats remain, providing an important rest stop along the Pacific Flyway for many species of ducks, grebes and loons.
The bikeway you've been following comes to a fork. You continue left, following a bike route and walkway past Fisherman's Village and various boat basins, and crossing Admiralty Way. Here you follow the landscaped bikeway along a bird refuge to Washington Street, then head west on Washington three-fourths of a mile to the long-closed-for-repairs Venice Fishing Pier.
Marina Peninsula (Venice Beach) extends down-coast one mile to the Marina del Rey Channel entrance. Head up-coast along wide and sandy Venice City Beach. Venice is one of the county's oldest beaches; lifeguard service has been provided since the 1920s. The quiet of this beach is a marked contrast to the hubbub of Ocean Front Walk paralleling the length of it. Almost every facet of zany California beach culture can be found on the boardwalk--jugglers, mimes, skaters and more sidewalk cafes, junk- and health-food eateries than one could sample in a year of Sundays.
Next, cross Santa Monica Beach, an extremely wide beach, bisected by the Santa Monica Pier. The southern section has more tanners per square yard than does the north. This beach is perhaps no longer the glamour spot it once was, but 5,000 parking spaces attest to the fact that a lot of people still find it quite attractive.
Rising 40 to 60 feet above Santa Monica Beach are the Palisades cliffs. Palisades Park, atop the cliffs at the north end of Santa Monica Beach, is popular with joggers, tourists and promenaders at sunset.
Santa Monica Municipal Pier features the Playland Amusement Arcade, a relic from days past, and a wonderful carousel with elaborately carved prancing horses. Walk out on the pier, look down-coast, and congratulate yourself for walking so far. Look up-coast to Malibu Beach and beyond, and consider how fun it would be to walk the rest of Santa Monica Bay.
Santa Monica Bay Trail
WHERE: Santa Monica Bay
DISTANCE: 20 miles one way, Torrance County Beach to the Santa Monica Pier; about 40 miles to Pt. Dume.
TERRAIN: Beaches, low dunes, wetlands.
HIGHLIGHTS: Wide, sandy beaches; beach culture "to the max."
PRECAUTIONS: Sun protection; it's easier walking at low tide.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact individual city recreation departments; for information on environmental issues, call Heal the Bay at (310) 394-4552.