Finding Peace Where Once Stood Missile DefenseA delightfully welcoming new role for Los Angeles' highest peak and best-kept outdoor secret.
Los Angeles has a long history of being destroyed in film, whether by space aliens ("Battle: Los Angeles"), cyborg assassins ("Terminator") or flesh-eating zombies ("Zombieland"). These apocalyptic scenarios make for spine-chilling thrills and sell loads of tickets at the box office. Yet there was a period during the Cold War with the USSR when the threat of the city's destruction was more than just a fictional device.
From 1956 to 1968, the U.S. Army had a missile defense system in place to guard against potential Soviet bombers. At the highest point in the city — San Vicente Mountain, a peak of the Santa Monica Mountains above Encino and Brentwood — a team of missile specialists kept a constant vigil. Should a hostile aircraft have been detected on their radar, their mission would have been to guide Nike Ajax supersonic missiles launched from the nearby Sepulveda Basin to their targets in order to avert a nuclear catastrophe.
To be sure, this was a tense period of history, but fast-forward five decades and you'll find a very different mood at the top of San Vicente Mountain: one of utter tranquility and peace. How can a former missile site possibly be relaxing? Well, when the missile program was dissolved, the base was designated as state parkland. Over the decades it became overgrown and neglected, until 1996, when it was restored and re-imagined as a recreation area for the public.
Today, San Vicente Mountain Park is a little-known gem of the city's park system. While visitors can explore its military history by glimpsing the original radar tower and following the self-guided interpretive displays, by and large the wartime facilities have been repurposed for peaceful ends. Concrete pads that once housed radar equipment are now observation decks with picnic tables. An old sentry station serves as an entrance.
But the unquestionable highlight is the 360-degree view of Los Angeles. On a clear day, you can see the full range of the Santa Monica Mountains, the San Fernando Valley, downtown L.A., the South Bay and, in the distance, Catalina Island. The panorama makes a spectacular backdrop for a ramble on one of the park's dog-friendly hiking or mountain biking trails.
This dose of nature is sure to leave you re-energized for a hit of culture, easily accessed from your mountain perch. Nearby, you'll find the Skirball Cultural Center, featuring exhibits about the Jewish experience and multiculturalism in America, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, a world-class art museum located at the Getty Center.
You can also pay a visit to the posh yet quaint Brentwood neighborhood just down the hill. Shop for distinctive fashions and housewares at the Brentwood Country Mart, a retail center, open since 1948, whose barn-inspired architecture lends a charming, rustic feel. Or, pick up a new pair of shoes for your outdoor adventures at specialty athletic shop FrontRunners.
Health-conscious hikers will delight in the organic salads and sandwiches at Coral Tree Cafe. But go ahead: Indulge in one of the lush cakes, too. After all, you never know when the aliens might land.