HIDING within the concrete and stucco of our great megalopolis is a parallel universe -- a place where transit arteries are not clogged, passersby don't avert their eyes, billboards are ocean vistas and the hovering aircraft are hawks, not helicopters. You can find this refuge on the vast network of trails that crisscrosses the mountains and canyons of Southern California. Stride into the Santa Monica Mountains above Leo Carrillo State Park or high into the Santa Anas, and you're a thousand miles from the nearest SigAlert. Here life is in full flower, particularly after the deluges of winter. There's a trail for every taste and topographical interest, but some stand out. So lace up for a spin through 10 of the region's most essential trails.
1. Top Ocean Vista
Paseo Miramar, Pacific Palisades
Ridgelines along the Pacific give hikers some of the better payoffs on the trail circuit: a front-row seat to the world's largest swimming hole. Though there are more rugged trails with ocean overlooks, few can rival Paseo Miramar for instant wide-screen grandeur.
Step off a mansion-lined street to the trail head and you're in deep blue horizons within minutes.
The trail winds uphill most of the way to the viewing stand of Parker Mesa Overlook, a five-mile round trip with 1,200 feet of gain on the roomy Santa Ynez fire road, leaving plenty of space for sidekicks. Part of the 36-mile coastal trail system in Topanga State Park, Paseo Miramar is no secret. One muddy spot on the trail last month offered a snapshot of the passersby: a boot print, a mountain bike tire track and a cougar's paw print. Nearby were hoof marks wandering from mustard to lavender lupine. Everyone likes a view.
From Parker Mesa Overlook you can, depending on the particulate level, gaze from Palos Verdes to the Channel Islands. Mix it up by walking the fire road one way and ridgeline trails back.
Though bikers whiz by and meditators stake out their spots, the pain of sharing is far outweighed by ease of access and sudden spectacle.
-- Emmett Berg
How to get there: Take Pacific Coast Highway to Sunset Boulevard, turn left at Paseo Miramar and take it to the dead-end. Park on the street.
2. Top Waterfall
Rose Valley Falls Hike, Los Padres National Forest
The natural world comes alive with the free fall of water diving off precipices -- and this year more than most after the nonstop drenchings. Rose Valley Falls is one of Southern California's best waterfalls, yet few hikers take advantage of it. Not just another small SoCal cataract, Rose Valley rivals any waterfall south of Yosemite during rainy years.
A series of three drops totaling more than 300 feet of hurtling foam, Rose Valley Falls is the highest waterfall in the Los Padres National Forest. The first drop -- a mere 20-foot cascade -- is often overlooked. The second is an impressive 90-foot plunge as Rose Valley Creek spills over a near-vertical face. At almost 200 feet, the upper falls is a replica of Bridalveil Falls.
The hike is a treat, easy enough for children yet rewarding for experienced hikers. Begin the trek at Rose Valley Campground, where a wooden sign leads you to the path skirting Rose Valley Creek. It's a mere 10 minutes to the base of Lower Rose Valley Falls. For the upper falls, backtrack about 25 yards to a trail spur that heads up the hillside to a view of the falls you'll never forget.
-- Chris Shaffer
How to get there: Highway 33 is closed near Wheeler Springs; call (805) 646-4348 for updates. From the 101 Freeway, take Highway 33 north, turn left for Wheeler Springs and continue for 8 miles. From the Wheeler Gorge Campground, continue 6 1/2 miles to Rose Valley Road. Turn right to Rose Valley Campground.
3. Top City Lights
Mt. Hollywood Hike, Griffith Park
Is that a skunk? Oh , no, it's a rock with a white stripe. And there -- up in the tree -- is that a cat? But wait, cats don't hoot. That's an owl.
It's another night hike in Griffith Park, where I've been a regular on a 4 1/2 -mile round-trip route between Crystal Springs Drive and Mt. Hollywood for a little over 20 years. I don't use a flashlight. Full moons help, of course, but so do overcast nights when the city lights reflect off the cloud cover. Is it dangerous? For the most part, no, although I wound up breaking my ankle once when I slipped into a ditch while talking to a friend.
The route to Mt. Hollywood's panoramic nightscape starts just north of the Old Zoo Picnic Area. Follow the trail to the water tank at Vista Del Valle Drive, make a right and take a paved road about 200 yards, turn left onto a steep uphill section that most Griffith Park hikers refer to as Cardiac. Another left at the top of Cardiac, and it's three-quarters of a mile to Mt. Hollywood -- altogether a gain of about 1,100 feet.
I never tire of the view from the top. The glowing grid spills out in all directions, broken only by mountains and the ocean. From Mt. Hollywood, three runways of lights stretch out to the south -- Vermont, Normandie and Western avenues.