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Activities | ROAD TRIP / Deer Creek Road

Heads Up When Heading Up Deer Creek: It's Like Aerobic Workout With Scenery

October 29, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time: 45 minutes to two hours (or longer), depending on how many stops you make and side roads you take.

Distance: 10 to 40 miles.

Difficulty: Moderately high until Mulholland Highway, which is easy.

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If your idea of a great drive is a steady 65 on the Golden State Freeway, turn the page.

Deer Creek Road isn't for straight arrows.

If you're not at least slightly twisted before you start up the first steep incline, you will be by the end of the trip.

There are more hairpins on this stretch of road through the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area than you'll find in a beauty salon; more corkscrews than in a gourmet wine shop.

It's a great place to try out the cornering techniques you learned at the driving school you were treated to on your birthday, or perhaps to work the kinks out of the motorcycle that's languished in your garage since you got tired of eating gravel behind the big rigs that ply the freeways.

Put another way: It's one of the first roads that Southern California automotive journalists head to when they get their hands on an expensive, high-performance sports car to test.

Don't go there, though, with the aim of driving fast and furious.

Deer Creek and the roads that it leads to will test you just fine at speeds of 30 mph and less. You'll not only get a great behind-the-wheel workout, but the scenery will knock your socks off and you'll be in one piece and able to drive home afterward.

You can do this drive "backward," entering from one of the access roads off the Ventura Freeway (Westlake Boulevard, Kanan Road, Las Virgenes Road or Topanga Canyon Boulevard), but the best way is to arrive at the entrance to Deer Creek Road via Pacific Coast Highway.

It's a bonus, because any drive along PCH north from Santa Monica or south from Oxnard is a treat in itself. By the time you get to the little green metal sign that says "Deer Creek Road," you're calm, relaxed and ready to go.

The turnoff is in Ventura County about 2.5 miles from the Los Angeles County line; 3.5 miles north of Leo Carrillo State Beach.

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Deer Creek Road heads inland and sharply upward, the first hairpin turn occurring after just a few hundred yards. You twist up the hill with a breathtaking view of the Pacific on your left. And please let your passenger tell you all about it, or stop for a quick peek if there's no traffic around, but don't gaze oceanward when you should be plotting the next turn, unless you want to test all of the crumple zones on your vehicle.

Within a mile, the ocean drops out of sight and the scenery becomes typical Southern California coastal: steep hillsides with deeply carved arroyos, all covered in dry grasses and prickly chaparral and dotted with scrub oaks and junipers.

Scattered houses and ranchos begin appearing--even the occasional geodesic dome, left over from the '60s and early '70s. The longest straight piece of asphalt is shorter than most driveways. Then, just shy of three miles into the drive, the center line disappears and Deer Creek becomes a twisting one-lane road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass.

Off to the left, the scenery changes abruptly as the bare sandstone spine of Boney Mountain appears, its knobby spires looking like transplants from the Arizona desert.

Deer Creek Road ends abruptly after just 3.3 miles in a tight 90-degree turn that puts you onto Pacific View Road (don't worry, you can't get lost--there's no other way to go). Another abrupt name change occurs 1.6 miles later when Pacific View gives way to Cotharin Road.

It is still all twists and turns along this stretch, with date palms, towering stands of eucalyptus and the occasional horse ranch along the sides of the road and the creased and wrinkled coastal hillsides everywhere.

Suddenly, after you squirt out of a short tunnel formed by the overhanging branches of a stand of coastal live oaks, a stop sign appears and Cotharin Road ends at a T-intersection with Yerba Buena Road (they don't seem to like drives, avenues or even just plain streets here). Total distance covered since leaving the coast is 6.9 miles.

If anyone is carsick, or if time is tight, you can take a right and drop quickly back down to Pacific Coast Highway.

We went left, though, heading farther inland into National Park Service lands.

Yerba Buena is a bit more civilized piece of asphalt, two lanes again and less twisty, so you can get a good look at Boney Mountain and the rest of the scenery as you head toward Circle X Ranch, trail head for numerous hiking paths and site of a group campground, a rustic Park Service visitor center and the only public restroom in the region that's open 24 hours a day.

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The center is staffed year-round by volunteer hosts like Elliot and Ruth Oren, a gregarious retired couple who live in their RV and travel from state to state, park to park. The Orens will be the hosts at Circle X through Dec. 31 and said they welcome all visitors. They have a wealth of information about the area and the hiking trails.

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