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San Fernando Valley: 11 micro-itineraries

Yes, it's suburbia. Yes, it's inland from the beach. Still, the San Fernando Valley has attractions that date from the 18th century (Mission San Fernando) to the latest attraction at Universal Studios.

April 24, 2011|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The San Fernando Valley is 260 square miles of suburbia. Actually, make that suburbia on nutritional supplements. And antidepressants. With perhaps a little cosmetic surgery south of Ventura Boulevard, where the big money is. Or maybe — now that it's grown to more than 1.7 million people in nearly three dozen cities and neighborhoods rich and poor — the Valley isn't even a suburb anymore.

It begins just 10 miles northwest of Los Angeles City Hall, sprawling west to the Simi Hills, north to the Santa Susana Mountains, and east to the Verdugo and San Gabriel mountains. When you ask the natives what there is to do besides Universal Studios, you may hear a long pause.

Don't worry.

They just take it for granted, that's all, and they also know it will never replace the beaches on tourist itineraries. But once their lips are loosened, most locals can tell you far more local secrets than are disclosed in the 11 Valley micro-itineraries collected here. Think of this, the fifth installment of our Southern California Close-ups series, as just a start. (You can see others at

The Valley is the home of the oldest Bob's Big Boy diner and perhaps the only porn-star karaoke night in North America. (After all, the Valley is widely known as the nation's porn production capital.) This is where Bob Hope and Ritchie Valens rest in peace, where "Friends" was shot, where Disney makes movies (but doesn't give tours), where the ageless phrase "gag me with a spoon" was born, where the papa of Patagonia honed his climbing skills. And there's Universal Studios too.

1. Driving on the Edge and Hiking

The view from Mulholland Drive (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Mulholland Drive wriggles for about 20 miles along the ridgelines of the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains, marking the border between the basin and the Valley, its two lanes passing palatial homes and big views. In "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb," author Kevin Roderick writes that he likes to introduce visitors with a drive up here, preferably "on a sparkling winter morning, with a chilly north wind gusting down from the San Gabriels to keep the sky clean." Wind or no wind, you should start near dawn or dusk at the drive's east end at Cahuenga Boulevard (near the 101 Freeway). From here, you can almost (but not quite) see the fictional home of fictional detective Harry Bosch, which author Michael Connelly describes as a stilted refuge off Woodrow Wilson Drive. A few hairpin turns later, you reach the Hollywood Bowl overlook. Farther west, Mulholland crosses Coldwater Canyon Avenue, where the nonprofit group TreePeople has its headquarters. You could keep driving west for miles past the homes of the rich and famous, but why not do something healthier? Park by the TreePeople HQ and hike the Betty B. Dearing Trail. Dropping to the valley floor and then climbing again, the trail traces a three-mile loop through Coldwater Canyon and Wilacre parks. TreePeople park operations director Jim Hardie suggests you keep an eye out for poison oak and the occasional rattlesnake — but then again, you also might encounter Paul McCartney (a repeat hiker here) or actor-activist Ed Begley Jr. (a frequent biker).

2. Universal Studios

New York Street backlot (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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