Throughout the past century, Hollywood starlets and folk-rock legends alike found peace and inspiration in L.A.’s canyons, but there’s never been a better time to visit than right now.
Drive higher, think clearer, breathe deeper. It’s the way the light strikes one side of a mountain, how the oaks drape over the two-lane roads and the sound of the coyotes’ soft howl just after sundown. It’s the legacy of the U.S. folk-rock movement growing louder around the razor-sharp curves of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s the secluded calm, a haven carved out of the hills above L.A.’s chaos. The allure of the canyons is inescapable once your car climbs their well-worn roads.
The era of folk and free love trickled out of the mainstream but never left the canyons. Magic is still hidden around every bend in these mountains, and it’s yours to discover. So, fill up your gas tank and head for the hills—it may look like home to you, too.
Beachwood Canyon: The one with the Hollywood Sign
Easily the most sun-touched and energetic of L.A. canyons, Beachwood is a buzzing and casually glamorous scene situated just below the Hollywood Sign. Billed in the 1920s as the exclusive and star-studded neighborhood Hollywoodland, its main drag, Beachwood Drive, still acts as a winding red carpet to some of the city’s most stunning homes. Midcentury, Art Deco and Spanish-style pastel buildings line the wide palm-flanked street, framing the iconic sign. As the canyon gently twists north, the apartments give way to charming cottages and palatial homes dropped into culs-de-sac and side streets that climb the hillsides. Throughout the day, locals and tourists walk the peaceful roads and pop into the cheery Beachwood Cafe, where pastries baked daily line the counter. Around the corner, Beachwood Market stocks L.A.-made sweets, local poultry and imported specialties.
Casey Wojtalewicz, right, and Ally Walsh fell in love with coffee, Beachwood and each other almost simultaneously, eventually partnering to launch their bagged-bean company, Canyon Coffee. Here, Wojtalewicz talks about Beachwood’s allure and inspiration:
“One of the best parts about that canyon is, you’re in heavy traffic on Franklin [Avenue], then you turn onto Beachwood [Drive] and every quarter mile you go up, you just breathe easier. There’s this sense of being a little removed from the city and a little more in nature, and that sense of almost solitude made it even more special for us to be able to wake up together and have our own morning and not feel the hustle and bustle of the city. That ethos of what has become our company really got its roots in that environment; I was living in Beachwood when we met. It’s really a creative place, and all my friends who live there agree that it has this certain kind of energy that’s conducive to creativity and making things. That was really the foundation of our relationship: We just spent time up there. When we were developing what we wanted our brand to be, we thought of how canyons concentrate energy in the middle. We just thought that was a nice analogy for what we wanted our coffee to do: bring people together, concentrate energy in the middle.”
Here’s how to catch a glimpse of the famed Hollywood Sign (because no, you can’t drive straight to it).
If you just want to see it
Pull over anywhere on Beachwood Drive, where the parking is ample (but mostly restricted to permit-holders on weekends).
If you want a good view
Drive or bike to Lake Hollywood Park, a secluded green space just under the sign.
If you want a close encounter
Ride on horseback to get as near to the front of those famed nine letters as you legally can, thanks to tours from Sunset Ranch. Or simply hike through Beachwood’s residential hills. We recommend the Beachwood–Ledgewood–Mulholland Drives route. But beware of the lack of sidewalks, and, pretty please, be respectful of the locals.
Latigo Canyon: The perfect drive to L.A.’s wine mecca
On a clear day, few drives can compare to Latigo Canyon Road. With sweeping ocean and mountain views—and less traffic than you’ll find on Kanan Dume Road, the massive bypass built decades later—it’s one of Malibu’s twistiest, curviest country roads, and it leads right to dining, hikes and Malibu Wines (pictured), one of the city’s top vineyards, among other key spots to sip. Here’s how to maximize your wine time.
After pulling onto Latigo from the Pacific Coast Highway, kick-start your metabolism with a bit of hiking before you hit the region’s wine hubs. Try the Backbone Trailhead, which even sports free parking. Call ahead to book a tour of the nearby Colcanyon Estate Wines, whose sales of their award-winning bottles often benefit the California Wildlife Center.
Get back on the road and head north until you reach Kanan and Mulholland Highway, then make a beeline for vino with a side of memorable experiences at Saddlerock Ranch. This sprawling site is home to Malibu Wine Safaris, where wine tastings meet open-air tours that feature zebras, camels, alpacas, bison and Stanley the giraffe. Saddlerock also hosts alfresco, organic farm dinners by Saddlerock Gardens (above), and Malibu Wine Hikes loops you through the vineyards and animal stables, before the walk culminates in—what else?—a wine tasting. Bring some sunscreen and comfortable shoes, and say hi to Stanley for us.
Across Mulholland, make a stop at Malibu Wines for tastings, mimosa-filled yoga classes and movie screenings on its scenic patio. Cap off your trip down the road at Malibu Cafe at Calamigos Ranch, and don’t even think about leaving without pit-smoked BBQ from this country-themed outdoor bar and restaurant.
Topanga Canyon: The boho-chic Shangri-La
In L.A.’s most mercurial canyon, the shade of the hills gives way to golden sunlight. It streams through outstretched branches and dapples the handful of shops, hiking trails, restaurants and the length of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, which connects the Pacific Coast Highway to Woodland Hills. There’s an undeniable air of dark and light here, where hippie utopia and one of the country’s most artistic communities shared a mountain range with murder and overdose.
Topanga is famed for its tall oaks, bohemian sensibilities and secluded homes—and infamous for Sandstone Retreat, a groundbreaking (but now-shuttered) free-love nudist colony. In the late ’60s, Neil Young recorded After the Gold Rush in Topanga, while around the same time, his neighbor Charles Manson claimed a victim down the road. From the blacklisting of actor Will Geer, and the declining health of his friend Woody Guthrie, grew a theater company that became a pillar of the community.
Today, you’ll find more light than dark in this canyon. A burgeoning film festival, new cafés and an influx of artists have added more magic than mayhem to this region. Here’s how to experience Topanga, old and new.
As stunning as the drive through the canyon may be, some of Topanga’s most awe-inducing scenery is best enjoyed on foot. Topanga State Park is home to 36 miles of trails, with treks past forests and up mountain peaks featuring panoramic views of the Pacific. Trading four wheels for two? Outdoor-adventure store Topanga Creek Outpost offers bike rentals that include helmets and maps of nearby routes (we recommend Deerhill Trail). You can even rent GoPro cameras to document your ride.
Topanga’s hippie vibes are alive and well at Bouboulina. This roadside boho boutique of nearly 40 years peddles a rainbow of flowy clothing, such as floral wrap dresses, tie-dyed loungewear and floor-length skirts, not to mention an impressive collection of Native American jewelry. Minimalists should hit Dust and Fog, a chic vintage store focusing on neutral colors and timeless pieces. For global home goods, look next door at Luv and Sunshine, easily spotted by its colorful collection of hanging rugs. Just around the bend is the quirky, bric-a-brac–scattered Hidden Treasures, a vintage shop with an eclectic collection of clothing dating from the Victorian era to the 1980s.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, a Topanga fixture since 1973, brings classic and contemporary pieces to life on an open-air stage. This year’s season includes a Woody Guthrie retrospective (Oct 6), Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (June 16–Sept 30) and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (June 3–Sept 3). Elsewhere in Topanga this summer, look for screenings of locally made movies and familiar favorites, thanks to the return of the Topanga Film Festival.
The ridiculously romantic Inn of the Seventh Ray sits creekside and has a health-minded menu and rustic charm in spades. Farther north is The Topanga Table, a beguiling breakfast-and-brunch spot with treetop dining. Newer to the scene is Topanga Living Cafe, a brother-and-sister–owned restaurant and smoothie bar that sports a patio built right against a canyon wall. Looking for a piece of Topanga to take home? Topanga Canyon Farmers Market, held every Friday from 9am to 1pm, offers canyon-grown organic foods, knife sharpening, local art, live music and family story time. But you can always stop by Canyon Gourmet (pictured), a hidden gem of a modern food mart tucked into a strip mall and stocked with house-made pastas and locally sourced honey, chocolate, produce, baked goods, granola and more.
Laurel Canyon: The legendary folk-rock hideaway
Each and every morning when the sun is high,
I hunt around the canyon till I find a place to lie.
It’s so beautiful to be alone, got the sun and trees and silence.
I’m in my Laurel Canyon home.
—John Mayall, “Laurel Canyon Home”
Travel the world and you’ll find few neighborhoods with the mystique—and the music history—of Laurel Canyon. The Hollywood Hills and the slowly swaying eucalyptus trees seem to protect the peaceful neighborhood’s residents from the posh bedlam of West Hollywood below. In the 1960s and ’70s, this solitude and natural beauty drew the likes of Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, John Mayall, the Byrds, Neil Young, Carole King and other artists, transforming the area into a hub for the counterculture and folk-rock movements.
Traffic snakes slowly up the still-spirited Laurel Canyon Boulevard, past narrow, curving offshoots that dead-end in shaded enclaves for hilly homes, and past the nexus of the canyon, The Canyon Country Store. Arguably the most famous corner mart in music history, it’s “the store where the creatures meet” (the Doors’ “Love Street”), where Mama Cass Elliot allegedly crashed in the basement for a time, and where Father John Misty met his wife, Emma Elizabeth Tillman (“I Went to the Store One Day”). Behind it, Pace keeps pace with the locals, offering organic Italian fare in a rustic and red-hued low-lit setting that, while newer than the canyon’s folk-rock and Old Hollywood roots, still manages to capture their bygone glamour.
But please, be mindful: These are now other people’s private residences.
Jim Morrison’s digs (8021 Rothdell Trail) behind the Canyon Country Store, where he penned the lyrics to the breezy “Love Street”
Joni Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon residence (8217 Lookout Mountain), where Graham Nash composed “Our House” and Mitchell wrote much of her album Ladies of the Canyon
The allegedly haunted home and music studio (2451 Laurel Canyon Blvd), known simply as “The Mansion,” where Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and others visited and recorded throughout the years. Today, it’s owned by music producer Rick Rubin.
Photograph of Mitchell in her Laurel Canyon abode courtesy Henry Diltz and Morrison Hotel Gallery
Malibu Canyon: The dramatic ride with a rugged payoff
Malibu Canyon Road—called Las Virgenes in some stretches—climbs through the mountains and alongside Malibu Creek, past Mulholland Highway and down a steep, winding slope to the 101 freeway in Calabasas. This two-lane road offers glimpses of sun-streaked hills, cavernous ravines and towering peaks, but pull over to get up close and personal with the scenery and the wildlife, even if just for an outdoor movie.
It’s hard to miss the canyon’s breathtaking views, but take full advantage of them by turning onto Piuma Road for the Malibu Canyon Overlook—and get those cameras and selfie sticks ready. Malibu Creek State Park, an 8,200-acre preserve, boasts free guided hikes and 15 miles of creekside trails, plus a tranquil rock pool, volcanic fields, a lake, campgrounds and the iconic M*A*S*H signpost, still standing decades after the show filmed there.
Cinephiles can grab a blanket and enjoy one of Street Food Cinema’s outdoor screenings at King Gillette Ranch; on June 23, catch Back to the Future, while on September 29, see The Nightmare Before Christmas. Nearby, opt for wild game in a hunting-inspired setting at Saddle Peak Lodge, an Old Hollywood retreat turned rugged-elegant restaurant tucked into the hills.
Little Santa Anita Canyon: The woodsy mountain town for nature lovers
The cobblestone-lined brook and cabinlike houses make this leafy enclave feel like the sort of folksy mountain outpost you’d expect to find far from Los Angeles. But you’re still squarely within county limits in this Sierria Madre neighborhood—in fact, you’re barely 10 minutes north of Arcadia’s cluster of dumpling and dim-sum joints.
The community in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains serves as a launching point for the Mt. Wilson Trail, a grueling, seven-mile climb to the summit of one of the tallest peaks in the area. Look for the trailhead just past Lizzie’s Trail Inn, a charming 1890s pit stop turned museum.
Any visit to the area should include a trip to Mary’s Market. Easy-to-follow rules are clearly posted at this friendly café: “No whining, use your best manners and only one curmudgeon in the market at a time.” If you’re setting a course for a dead-end canyon road, the food better be worth it, and Mary’s all-day breakfast menu delivers (go for the Gio, which has eggs, cheese, turkey, tomato, spinach and avocado on an everything bagel).
Take a seat at the countertop or the tiny patio, or peruse the wall of jam, condiments and “old-n-new useful junk,” as a sign describes the wares. When you order, if you mention that it’s your first visit, you may even get a free cookie. Just up the road, the members-only Nature Friends leads hikes and picnics from its three-story cottage. —Michael Juliano