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Far Enough From the Madding Crowd

Like eyes of a storm, there are places throughout L.A. where one can pause to take a long, exquisite breath.

January 22, 2006|Lynell George | Lynell George is a Times staff writer.

Many of us consider Greater Los Angeles so over-developed and so well traveled that the thrill of discovery seems long gone. The region, however, is long on charms and abundant with one-of-a-kind treasures that reward just a bit of effort. Here's a sampling of some of our favorite off-the-beaten-path places. And remember: They're secret, so keep it on the q.t.

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Echo Mountain/Mt. Lowe, Altadena

Because the notion of history is such an undervalued commodity in Los Angeles, making a connection with the past often feels more like seance than sightseeing. At the foot of Lake Avenue in Altadena, where it intersects with Loma Alta Drive, is a grand gateway to the past. The lower Sam Merrill Trail leads up to Echo Mountain and beyond to the old rail bed of the Mt. Lowe Railway--its path studded with evocative ruins of a long-vanished world difficult to even imagine.

Mt. Lowe was named for professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, a "retired" millionaire who in the late 1800s (with the help of civil engineer David Macpherson) built a mountain railway full of hairpin turns at vertigo-inducing heights. At the summit, he created an opulent resort known as the "White City," which included an observatory and zoo. The narrow-gauge railway operated from 1893 to 1936--and in its prime attracted millions. The centerpiece was a grand hotel offering everything from fine dining to a casino, until it fell to ruin after a string of mishaps--fire, windstorms, falling boulders.

It's a steady climb on a trail full of deeply fragrant chaparral, whimsical canopies of flora and a steady series of switchbacks that reveal unimaginable views of Greater Los Angeles (and on a winter day, Catalina). Once you've reached the old rail bed, the lower portion of the Sam Merrill Trail ends and the railroad bed continues a few more miles up to the top of Mt. Lowe. You're greatly rewarded for your efforts not just with the spectacular views, but in contemplating the fodder of one man's elaborate dream--rusted cable wheels, puzzle pieces of foundation, old railroad ties, staircases to nowhere. Plaques give you a sense of the history; your imagination will not only fill in the blanks but richly embroider them.

* Exit the 210 Freeway at Lake Avenue. Drive north (3.4 miles) to where it intersects with Loma Alta Drive. Hike begins to the left of the stone gateway.

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Catalina Verdugo Adobe and the Oak of Peace, Glendale

The best things are sometimes found sunk within the crevices--stashed between the folds of neighborhoods or along the periphery of our daily routes, a reward of serendipity. The Catalina Verdugo Adobe is set back on a sleepy residential block, within earshot of the busy slur of commuter traffic on Canada Boulevard. Behind an iron fence is a messy tangle of terraced gardens dotted with statues of saints, benches and wood steps rising to other hidden nooks beyond. Just off to the side you'll find a knot of trees and the remains of gnarled stump. Next to that, a wood marker tells the story of the Oak of Peace, the site where, in 1847, the United States and Mexico negotiated a peace treaty that surrendered California to the U.S. The tree died of "natural causes" in 1987 and now only remnants poke through the hard earth. The adobe, with its wraparound tile porch and low-slung roof, is one of the oldest buildings in Glendale. Its brick patio and picnic tables make it a natural for family picnics or an eerie exercise in early California time travel. Since the 1840s, lots of life has grown up around old dreams bulldozed to make room for new ones. This lush and richly historic patch of land offers a chance to not just put, but keep, it all in perspective.

* 2211 Bonita Drive, Glendale.

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Parking Structure at 4th and Broadway, Santa Monica

Even though our cars might not be the most restorative of private hideaways, sometimes there are secrets that only parking structures allow us. If you find yourself in Santa Monica running ahead of schedule, snake up to the roof of one of the many high-rise parking structures blocks from the water. One of the better ones, at 4th and Broadway, boasts an incredible rooftop view from the west-facing spaces. Most late afternoons, you'll have the entire show to yourself and your pick of best "seats" in the house. At sunset, the sky blushes from rose gold to pink to crimson until just a sliver of light remains, looking like an ember. The ocean spreads out beneath it, a highly buffed surface that resembles a stage. As the sun sinks into it, it too turns an array of colors. As dusk settles into twilight, the lights of the condos blink on--the flickering blue light of the TV, the yellow tungsten glow of living room lamps--there's the news to watch, dinner to get. The Promenade fills up; white Christmas lights blink year-round from the trees. When the Ferris wheel at the pier begins to light up, along with the other tilt-a-whirl amusements, it recalls Santa Monica's fantasy-by-the-sea past, not so much vanished, but different.

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