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Drivers Get an Attitude Adjustment on L.A. Spine

With stunning views of city and countryside Mulholland offers a getaway from the grind.

June 03, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Mulholland Drive is the spine of Los Angeles, a winding backbone of noir-ish urban lookouts and poppy-painted hillside hikes that starts just a heartbeat off the 101 Freeway and unwinds gloriously down to the sea, 26 miles up the coast from Santa Monica.

This is where the Los Angeles of imagination meets the real thing, where cars on the freeway below look black and white in the smog, yet wildflowers by the road pop out brightly in yellow, orange and purple dots, and sudden stands of palm trees poke their tops into an otherwise wild scene.

It is a reminder that Southern California's link to motor vehicles goes beyond commuting and moving freight to the forgotten pleasures of the road, and to the city's history.

The route was named for William Mulholland, the early 20th century head of the Department of Water and Power who connived to create the California Aqueduct and brought river water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Aqueduct -- The "Behind the Wheel" feature in Tuesday's California section incorrectly referred to the aqueduct that William Mulholland built as the California Aqueduct. It was the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The street starts in the L.A. of his day, just above Hollywood off Cahuenga Boulevard. From the Hollywood Freeway northbound, take the Barham Boulevard exit, turn left at Barham -- crossing the freeway -- and left again on Cahuenga. At the Mulholland stoplight, turn right, then immediately veer left.

On a check of the route's city portion in the morning, noon and evening last week, there was little traffic, except for a stretch near Sepulveda Boulevard during commuting times. The drive out to the ocean took about three hours, including stops at scenic lookouts, a short hike, a restroom break and a seven-mile detour down the freeway where a chunk of the road was closed to motorized vehicles.

Driving Mulholland used to be a favorite teenage got-my-license activity, but it is also a grand way for a grown-up to play hooky during the week, perhaps starting in the morning and ending up at the beach in time for a late lunch. (Bring a picnic.)

At its start, Mulholland leaves the freeway so quickly it's almost jarring: A driver is immersed in smog on the way to work one minute, then suddenly hugging a bend in the hillside where the foliage is bright green, the earth red and dry and the freeway missing.

Just around that first bend is a scenic lookout with a small parking lot and a display map of the Mulholland scenic corridor. These maps are posted at several sites along the way, each with bits of L.A. lore. Below this lookout lie the Hollywood Bowl and a view of eastern Hollywood. A set of paved stairs leads up to another lookout, with several coin-operated telescopes.

Two or three cars sat in the lot. A man with an I {heart} NY T-shirt got out of one; teenagers shared a slushy drink in another.

The next stop is at Runyon Canyon, site of a well-used park where dogs can run off the leash and a carved wooden box offers free plastic bags for their droppings. (Not everyone takes advantage of this service.)

One trail leads down the hill and another goes up, offering a wide view of the canyon.

Mulholland winds west, its perch atop the Santa Monica Mountains the physical and psychological boundary between the unfolding San Fernando Valley to the north, and Hollywood and the Westside to the south.

More lookouts dot the way: Above Universal City, the view is of the Valley and the map lore recounts the story of Carl Laemmle, who in 1912 bought a 230-acre chicken ranch in the farmland below and started a movie studio there. The exhibit says Laemmle kept the chickens, just in case the movie business didn't work out.

Farther on, above Studio City, is Fryman Canyon, where a hiking trail leads down the hill on the Valley side. There is a weird intersection at Coldwater Canyon -- drivers who aren't alert may wind up at a supermarket instead of on the way to the next potential hiking spot, historic Franklin Canyon, a famed film location from Hollywood's early days and a popular local haunt.

The road continues to wind west, shifting from urban park to suburban street and back again, offering flashes of a Modernist house here, a deep-blue canyon lake there. At Encino Hills Drive, however, the whole thing abruptly ends; Mulholland becomes a walking and bicycling trail all the way to Canoga Avenue in Woodland Hills.

Encino Hills winds down toward the Valley, ending at Hayvenhurst Avenue. A left turn takes you to Ventura Boulevard. There is no northbound freeway entrance from Hayvenhurst, so drivers who wish to pick up Mulholland again must go west to Balboa Boulevard to get on the 101. A good stop along the way is Tapia Bros. Produce, on Hayvenhurst just north of the freeway, an urban truck farm that grows and sells fresh produce.

Truthfully, this could be the end of a fine morning of history, views and hikes. But for the intrepid, or those who long for an open road that long ago disappeared from the eastern portion of the route, the rest of Mulholland is worth the extra time.

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