Why you're wrong about LA – and how to find its secret side

·7 min read
los angeles wild holidays underrated travel california beaches in los angeles hiking in los angeles city breaks - Getty
los angeles wild holidays underrated travel california beaches in los angeles hiking in los angeles city breaks - Getty

When I first moved to Los ­Angeles I was dreading a vast concrete metropolis with industrial-grade pollution and multi-lane traffic jams. I’m a big fan of nature, and LA has a reputation for being the walker’s enemy – one bolstered by the lack of public transport and, in some areas, pavements.

Certainly LA has all that, but I was surprised by how much open and wild space there was to discover, too – canyons, rattlesnakes and coyotes, tranquil canals and sleepy beaches, many of them within easy reach of the big city – and from then on made it a mission to seek out these places whenever I could.

A day spent hiking in a canyon or strolling along a windswept, empty beach makes a great contrast to the full-on hurly burly of the city. And visits to Universal Studios, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Downtown LA interspersed with trips to more natural surroundings creates great balance and variety. Here are the best spots to check out when you need a breath of fresh air.

Lower Canyonback Trail (aka the Whoops Trailhead)

Driving time from Hollywood: 45 minutes

Possibly the best walk in LA – starting from the end of North Kenter Avenue, just off Hanley Avenue in the Brentwood neighbourhood, then meandering through the Santa Monica mountains, to the Canyonback tree swing and back. It’s hilly in places and a good workout, but nothing too strenuous, and there are various trails snaking off from the main one, with options to take flatter, lower paths. I’ve seen coyotes and rattlesnakes here, but they tend to keep their distance. There are excellent ocean and mountain views. Though the trail is popular with mountain bikers and dog walkers, you often have much of this vast place to yourself.

Shambala Preserve

Driving time from Hollywood: 45 minutes

Founded by actress Tippi Hedren, this sanctuary is home to more than 30 big cats and open to the public one weekend a month (by advance reservation only, over-18s only; shambala.org). The $50 (£40) afternoon safari consists of a planned programme lasting around two hours, including a one-hour guided walk on unpaved paths. Bring a picnic lunch and settle down on the lakeside tables and chairs to bask in the calm once you’re done.

Runyon Canyon

Driving time from Hollywood: 3 minutes

Runyon Canyon Park extends over 160 acres, and is full of well-marked trails, the main three ranging from just under two miles to 3.3 miles, connecting and overlapping at times to give you plenty of choice. Depending on your route, you’ll be treated to views of the city as well as the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park, Franklin Canyon and Santa Monica Bay. Look out for cacti and wildflowers – and the odd celeb, especially around the northern entrance on Mulholland Drive, where a number of big names live.

Runyon Canyon Park los angeles - Getty
Runyon Canyon Park los angeles - Getty

Eaton Canyon

Driving time from Hollywood: 25 minutes

This 190-acre nature reserve sits at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and is criss-crossed with mile upon mile of trails, the most popular leading to Eaton Canyon Falls, a 3.5 mile round trip rewarded with a 40ft waterfall that flows into a beautiful wide pool. It can get busy, especially at weekends, but is still a darn sight quieter than 
the city.

Will Rogers State Beach

Driving time from Hollywood: 40 minutes

This huge, clean three-mile sandy beach in the Pacific Palisades district doesn’t draw the crowds of its neighbouring beaches in Malibu, Venice and Santa Monica, though it’s just as appealing. There’s usually plenty of parking available for a few dollars (on-street parking further away is free but less convenient) and there are showers, toilets, a cafe, lifeguards, sand volleyball courts and a bike/walking path. You might even see dolphins or orcas if you’re lucky.

Will Rogers Beach Los Angeles California USA - Getty
Will Rogers Beach Los Angeles California USA - Getty

Escondido Canyon

Driving time from Hollywood: 45 minutes

Accessed from the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in Malibu, Escondido Canyon Park offers a low-key beach and an easy, scenic walk ideal for balmy afternoons. The four-mile round trip leads through coastal scrub and woodland to the 150ft Escondido Falls, the highest in the Santa Monica Mountains. Park at Winding Way, where spaces cost $12.

Venice Canals

Driving time from Hollywood: 45 minutes

Not technically a wild place, but Venice’s canals are certainly a tranquil spot for a stroll. Just off the bustle and noise of the beach, you’ll find yourself within a picturesque series of calming walkways along strips of canal. It’s not a large area, but an ideal detour if you need a break from the tacky tourist souvenir shops, skaters and show-offs at Muscle Beach outdoor gym.

Venice Canal Historic District, Los Angeles. California - Getty
Venice Canal Historic District, Los Angeles. California - Getty

Zuma Beach

Driving time from Hollywood: 45 minutes

Also in Malibu, Zuma Beach is long, wide and popular with the surfing fraternity. It’s perfect if you want to combine an escape from the city with a swim (though be aware there can be strong rip currents) and some excellent people watching, plus there are lifeguards, toilets and showers, as well as picnic tables and a couple of good cafes.

Gentle Barn

Driving time from Hollywood:40 minutes

Home to more than 160 farm animals rescued from abuse or neglect, Gentle Barn in Santa Clarita is a particularly lovely way for children to spend a day holding, stroking and feeding animals in the great outdoors. Among the residents are pigs, cows, horses, sheep and turkeys, and the whole ethos is built around helping people get out of the concrete jungle and reconnect with nature (adults/children $22/12, under two years go free, open on Sundays only; gentlebarn.org).

Griffith Park

Driving time from Hollywood:15 minutes

There are trails to suit every kind of walker here, whether you want an easy-going family stroll or a more strenuous hike. Trails are laid out around the art deco Griffith Observatory, an LA attraction in its own right which often finds its way onto the big screen. If you’re after a show-stopping finale, opt for the three-mile Mount Hollywood Trail which leads to great views of the Hollywood sign.

Griffith Park Observatory Downtown buildings Los Angeles - Getty
Griffith Park Observatory Downtown buildings Los Angeles - Getty

Los Angeles safety tips 101

  • Bear in mind that LA is built on a desert, which means it can get surprisingly hot and surprisingly cold, so prepare accordingly.

  • Many rural areas of Los Angeles have a significant wildfire risk, and smoking and starting open fires may be subject to fines.

  • In hotter months ensure you’ll have enough water, sunblock and a sun hat. Dress in cool layers. In winter a coat may be necessary.

  • Take a fully charged mobile phone. In more rural areas you may lose reception.

  • Avoid being on trails at dusk or after dark.

  • On longer journeys pack some food.

  • Notify someone where and when you’re going, and when you plan to return. Don’t deviate from the trail.

  • Carrying a first aid kit is ideal. Also carry personal identification. If you use medication, take it with you and instructions for use.

  • Ascertain whether the terrain needs walking boots. Avoid wearing shorts in certain areas. This will protect you not only from the sun but also from low brush and shrubs.

  • Keep dogs on leash, especially around horses and children.

  • Threats from wildlife are rare, but look out for and keep away from rattlesnakes and black widow and recluse spiders. Very rarely mountain lions (pumas, cougars) and black bears are encountered.

  • Supervise children at all times and don’t let them get too far ahead or behind adults.

The essentials

How to get there

British Airways (ba.com) flies from London to Los Angeles from £598 return.

Where to stay

1 Hotel West Hollywood (00 1 310 424 1600; 1hotels.com) offers double rooms from £312 per night. Hollywood Roosevelt (00 1 323 856 1970; thehollywoodroosevelt.com) offers double rooms from £175 per night. For more amazing places to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in Los Angeles.

Covid rules

All travellers must show proof of full vaccination.

What aspect of visiting LA appeals to you most? Tell us in the comments section below