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It was a photography class my freshman year of college that first led me to the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains. Rising up from the beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica, they beckon to adventuring tourists and Los Angeles residents alike, whispering of hidden waterfalls, grassy hills, and woodland forests.
And call to me they did.
I was after the perfect photography portfolio, and as a student in Southern California, I began weekly excursions into the mountains searching for that winning “National Geographic” shot.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area stretches from the Hollywood Sign in West Los Angeles all the way into Ventura County. I eventually learned after a brief stop at the visitor center that this national park is the largest urban recreation area in the country, and home to some pretty surprising wildlife considering its proximity to L.A. I haven't yet snagged a picture of a mountain lion, but I've seen bobcats, coyotes, and enough wildflowers in spring to fill a book.
And so, as fall settled in upon Southern California, my adventures began. As I fancy myself something of an explorer, one of my first stops was to the highest point in the mountain range. At 3,111 feet Sandstone Peak towers above nearly everything in sight. I will never forget that day in late autumn as I completed the short, yet strenuous climb to the windy top, stood tall upon the highest rock and gazed out across the great expanse below. Four of the islands that make up Channel Islands National Park stood out in the distance with the infinite sweeping view of the big blue Pacific Ocean.
During those still brilliant autumn days I spent lazy afternoons at the beaches along the park's southern shore, snapping pictures of surfers and waves and watching families delight in the California sun, picnicking and frolicking in the sand. I strolled through Western Town at Paramount Ranch, reveling in the old time western movie sets and a piece of little known Hollywood History. I even began to explore sections of the 65-mile Backbone Trail, amazed at the variety of hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians, and families out for excursions along the ridgeline of the mountain range.
As fall turned to winter, my camera lens turned inland. One chilly winter morning I found myself about 45 minutes from Los Angeles at Rancho Sierra Vista, taking a brisk walk on the easy two-mile Satwiwa Loop Trail. Amidst just a few other early morning walkers, I watched the late December mist slowly envelop majestic Mount Boney and then dramatically release its grip on the rocky ridges right before my eyes.
Of course, I'm not the only photographer in these mountains. I encounter many pros and amateurs alike on the trails, as well as the frequent camera phone-using visitor, capturing that perfect wildflower picture or waterfall in early summer. Every year the park hosts a photo contest called Spirit of the Mountains. You'll be amazed by the awe-inspiring images the contestants turn in.
Photography isn't the only thing to do here, but it led me to the work I truly love. Now I explore these mountains as a park ranger, leading groups of middle and high school students from Los Angeles in restoration and public service projects. As the kids and I witness the changing seasons, the creeks filling up in early spring, and the wildness that surrounds Los Angeles flourishing, I can't help but think that we are on to something really special, and that every day is another opportunity to discover the Santa Monica Mountains for the first time.
By Anthony Bevilacqua, Park Ranger, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area