For most people, driving in LA conjures images of sitting in a huge traffic jam on a highway. And while that's the case a lot of the time, winding roads through untouched mountain beauty actually exist in the area, too. Starting at Mulholland Drive and taking it all the way west to Mulholland Highway, which puts you out at the coast, is a route that's legendary, and totally lives up to its reputation. You'll drive through Calabasas and the western portion of the rugged, lush Santa Monica Mountains on this route from the city to the beach.
Mulholland Drive starts at Cahuenga Boulevard near the Ventura Freeway (aka the 101), close to Universal Studios Hollywood. As you drive into the hills, stop at the Hollywood Bowl Overlook. You can see down into the famed venue, and glance out over the city of Los Angeles. You might even be able to catch glimpses of the Hollywood sign. There are several scenic overlooks, so pull off and take advantage.
Mulholland Drive intersects with Laurel Canyon Boulevard, which was the place for counterculture musicians and artists to live in the 1960s. Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, the Doors, Crosby Stills and Nash, Carole King, and more lived in this area... and a lot of them frequented the Canyon Country Store, a deli/market that still looks like it's stuck in the Summer of Love. Grab a sandwich, road trip supplies, or a quick espresso and soak up the retro vibes.
Mulholland Drive is pretty legendary. For starters, loads of rich and famous people live just off the road, on properties with long driveways and jaw-dropping views. Mulholland Drive is a winding, mostly two-lane route that cruises along for 21 miles. Unfortunately, the road ends just west of Encino Hills Drive and becomes an unpaved dirt road that isn't open to vehicles. It opens again east of Topanga Hills Boulevard, and splits into the drive (which ends shortly after) and then Mulholland Highway, which continues on and ends at the PCH. This guide follows Mulholland Drive to Mulholland Highway for maximum scenic awesomeness.
If Mulholland Drives immediately makes you think of David Lynch's neo-noir psychological thriller/mystery film, then this stop is for you. If you've seen Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks, you might find that the landscape looks familiar. That's because the where the entrance to the Black Lodge was filmed here. The location for the entrance to the Black Lodge in the show is described as being in Glastonberry Grove, within the Ghostwood National Forest, at a pool of some kind of substance that smells like scorched engine oil and which is surrounded by 12 young sycamore trees. Whew. Now, I personally wouldn't be too eager to visit the Black Lodge itself, as it's pretty nightmare-ish, but the filming location in the Santa Monica Mountains is pretty cool to stop by and see.
Another iconic filming location right near by is Franklin Canyon Park. It's been seen in countless movies and shows, ranging from The Silence of the Lambs and On Golden Pond to Big Momma's House and Rambo: First Blood Part II. The pond here is the one that appears in the intro to the Andy Griffith Show and the lake served as the lagoon for The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Even Star Trek and Salute Your Shorts shot here, and it's where the iconic hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night was filmed, among dozens of other productions. There are 5 miles of hiking trails to explore here, and it's a popular spot for birdwatchers to do their thing.
Just off Mulholland, you'll pass by the Skirball Cultural Center, a gorgeous institution dedicated to Jewish culture and heritage. Visit to explore their various rotating exhibits that cover topics on everything from "Visions and Values" to "Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg" (open October 2018). There's a Noah's Ark-themed children's museum, a great little museum shop, and a cafe where you can order everything from blintzes and borscht to pizza and sandwiches.
Part of the "dirt" Mulholland Drive, this site former NIKE missile control site is a pretty wild stop that shouldn't be missed. It's about a mile west of the locked gate on the road. Left standing is an abandoned integrated fire control facility radar tower. No missiles were ever kept here, and it was closed in 1968, but it's still a pretty wild sight. Once a spot where youths would go to party, the Cold War relic was fixed up and preserved by park rangers. Visitors are encouraged to press buttons and pull levers to find any still-active sirens that may need to be shut off, and you can climb to the top of the radar tower for incredible views.
Another great park for a quick hike is Summit Valley Edmund D. Edelman Park. Grassland, forests of oak, steep canyons, bubbling creeks, rolling hills and more show the diversity of the landscape in the Santa Monica Mountains, and you can experience all of it in its rugged glory. Trails, parking, public restrooms, and picnic tables make this quiet park a hidden gem.
Mulholland winds its way near the community of Calabasas. Not too far off your route is one of the town's most interesting icons. This gorgeous Hindu temple to the god Venkateswara is a popular spot for followers of Hinduism in Southern California. It's built in the South Indian style, and it offers various services and tours. It's free to enter and look around (although they do accept donations), and you can stop by their office for a brouchure of information. Just remember to follow their rules and dress code if you do drop by!
Another must-stop is Malibu Creek State Park. This lush landscape features miles and miles of hiking trails through sycamore woodlands on chaparral-covered slopes, along streams, and past volcanic rock gorges and scenic pools. Views of valleys and canyons and mountains make for some stunning scenery. There's even a campground if you're looking for an escape into nature that's still close to the city. You can also delve into the region's past here at the park's Sepulveda Adobe and Mott Adobe Ruins, both tributes to the Chumash tribe that occupied the land. And, bonus, the land has come from the estates of Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, and 20th Century Fox; Planet of the Apes and MAS*H number among the productions filmed here.
A huge portion of the drive is through the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which is an absolute gem of the LA area. The beaches and 500 miles of trails are just the beginning of what makes this place so special. Here, you can see the Milky Way as you camp out under the stars, learn about Native American history and culture, spot wildlife like bobcats and dolphins, soak in the rare Mediterranean climate, experience movie history, and tons more. The 67-mile Backbone Trail is a must for avid hikers (although even traversing a portion of the trail is still an awesome experience). The Anthony C. Beilenson Interagency Visitor Center at the King Gillette Ranch Unit is a great place to stop and learn more, and it's just off Mulholland Highway.
Not to keep harping on the filming locations thing, but this is LA, and you can't throw a rock without hitting movie history. The Paramount Movie Ranch unit of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is still an active film set, but it's open to visitors who want to stop by and see a movie being made. It's played host to famous figures from Bob Hope to Sandra Bullock. According to its website, "It offered filmmakers the freedom to create distant locales such as colonial Massachusetts in The Maid of Salem (1937), ancient China in The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), a South Seas island in Ebb Tide (1937) and numerous western locations including San Francisco in Wells Fargo (1937)."
Make a point to stop by the Western Town, which was built in the 1950s and has been used in countless Westerns... and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. There are plenty of hiking and biking trails to explore as well!
As the road nears Malibu, you start to enter wine country. If you go more for the funky, artsy scene, make a stop at the Cornell Winery & Tasting Room. The historic property has peacocks roaming it and lovely outdoor seating, and they're almost as much of an artsy little gift shop as they are a winery, which creates a totally unique atmosphere where you can enjoy some vino. And we can't talk about a winery without mentioning the wine, which is excellent. Light whites, luscious pinot noirs, and more are available to taste.
This tasting room is great if you're looking for an afternoon of relaxing and wine-tasting. They serve incredible wines from Semler and Saddlerock, allow you to pack a picnic of snacks, and always have fun events and guests-- yoga, karaoke, flower crown-making, and more. There's also, of course, a little shop with totally chic little bits and bobs. As a note, they reeeeally want you to reserve a table in advance-- it's not cheap, but the setting is totally Instagram-worthy. They even have a cute converted bus you can rent. You'll need to park at a lot at the Malibu Wine Safaris. There, you can pick up a free shuttle for the half-mile ride to the winery.
Mulholland Highway ends at Leo Carillo State Beach, where it intersects with Highway 1. The park boasts 1.5 miles of beach, prime for swimming, surfing, windsurfing, surf fishing and beachcombing. The beach itself has lots of rocky nooks, save caves, and tidepools, so it's pretty fun to explore, and you should be able to find a little cove where you can sit on the sand and enjoy some privacy. The park has a campground and some pretty stellar backcountry hiking as well. Pay to park, or park along the PCH, and end a long day of enjoying the ocean by heading up the highway to the famed Neptune's Net.
Just because Mulholland Drive/Highway ends at the Pacific Coast Highway doesn't mean your trip has to end... if you find yourself totally enchanted by the open road, keep heading up Highway 1 and keep the road trip vibes going!
These are the best scenic routes in America. From white-knuckle, cliff-hugging, hairpin roads to smooth, lazy coastal drives. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.