Arecent New York Times travel section article about finding quiet spaces of refuge in Los Angeles, away from the “gridlock and glamour,” drew a lot of scorn from Angelenos, and rightly so. In addition to sounding like an eighth-grader wrote it, full of clichés and generalizations, the story showed zero understanding of the area. When it appeared online early in the week, there was a flood of complaints. But the article was published in the paper the following Sunday anyway, only slightly edited. I was shocked that, after all the hubbub, it still found its way onto my driveway. The following week the paper printed an apology, but it was halfhearted, and less than sincere. In essence, their excuse was, “writing is hard guys, so give us a break.”
The problem with articles about L.A. written by outsiders is that they know not of which they speak. The rest of the world might think Los Angeles is miserable and phony, but we know better. (Just let them think that, and maybe they’ll keep their distance.) It may come as a shock to you, but Los Angeles is not beloved by the rest of the country. I know, because I was raised in the Bay Area, where we are taught to loathe L.A. at a very early age. (Angelenos have no idea this is happening.) When I moved here, I got condolence letters, and I still have friends who refuse to visit on principle. It took me a while to shed that brainwashing. Years. But now I love and appreciate this part of California. I love the history, the region and the tolerance. Given the state of our nation, I’m feeling fairly smug that I live here, in what is a relative bubble of tolerance.
The author of the L.A. piece, a well-regarded novelist and frequent contributor to The New York Times travel section, writes in a distinctive, flowery style. It’s not my cup of tea, but it is obviously someone’s because he is, as mentioned, a well-regarded novelist. Much has already been written about this piece (most humorously by LAist) — its generalizations, its disregard of culture and its lack of understanding of our diverse city. So I won’t pile on. Instead, I want to offer up a list of actual places offering refuge in the Pasadena area.
The NYT article featured the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, which I’m sure you are already familiar with. But not everyone has 25 bucks to shell out for entry (or don’t not know about the free day on the first Thursday of the month). For a similar excursion, you could spend only $9 to visit the Los Angeles County Arboretum or Descanso Gardens (free days are on the third Thursday and third Tuesday, respectively). These are fine places and make great outings when you have out-of-town guests. But when it’s just me, I prefer the free options. Luckily, in our vicinity there are tons of public parks and open spaces to enjoy. Pack a picnic and head out to one of these spots for a respite from outsiders:
THE ARROYO SECO
Because you are reading Arroyo Monthly, I will start with our namesake river. It flows from the San Gabriels to the Los Angeles River (the confluence is under the junction of the 110 and 5 Freeways), and you can walk almost the entire way. There is a network of paths with many spots to stop and picnic along the way. Sections in South Pasadena, Pasadena and Altadena are tended, but there are many wild, secluded spots to stop at and enjoy. (And they are not all adjacent to freeways!)
The River Garden Park (formerly Lawry’s California Center — 570 West Ave. 26, between Figueroa Street and San Fernando Road) has plenty of picnic spots and an exhibition hall celebrating the river’s history.
The Arroyo Woodland and Wildlife Nature Park in South Pasadena (Pasadena Avenue, north of the York Boulevard Bridge) is a relatively new addition to the riverfront. It has winding paths, with interpretive signs indicating native flora and fauna. From here you can take an easy trail along the golf course and soccer fields to the popular Upper Arroyo Park.
Extending from just south of the San Pascual Stables in South Pasadena to the Colorado Street Bridge, the Upper Arroyo Park has several well-loved trails with rich vegetation, thanks to a low-flow stream experiment from the 1990s. The park has a picnic area, casting pool, archery targets and the occasional art installation.
Follow the trail under the Colorado Street Bridge, past the Rose Bowl, and over the Devil’s Gate Dam to access the Hahamonga Watershed Park. (Or you can drive and park at North Windsor Avenue and Mountain View Street — exit 22B off the 210 Freeway). This large nature preserve is a favorite of foragers and Frisbee golfers. Here, in the shadow of JPL at the base of the foothills, are several picnic areas and many trails, including a three-mile loop.
The San Gabriels
Most of our region’s history began in these mountains. They were first occupied by the native Tongva (dubbed Gabrieleños by the Spanish). When Europeans arrived, the mountains provided lumber for the early valley settlements, which quickly evolved into a hotbed of prospecting and home to world-renowned resorts. There are dozens of places to escape civilization, and a drive up California State Route 2 will reveal many pullouts with trailheads and picnic spots. If you are a hiker, you can start in Pasadena and wind your way across the range, past the ruins of the Echo Mountain House, up the Mt. Lowe Railway track to the remains of the defunct Ye Alpine Tavern and Inspiration Point. Trails head out from here to Chantry Flat and the Mt. Wilson Observatory, both of which can also be accessed by car and have great picnic areas.
Millard Falls, at the base of the foothills, is an easy hike to a great waterfall (when it rains). The trailhead has a picnic area and campground. Take Chaney Trail off Loma Alta Drive 1.5 miles to the parking lot.
The Cobb Estate, at the top of Lake Avenue, is the trailhead for the Echo Mountain hike, but it is also the remains of what must have been a splendid mansion built with Charles Cobb’s lumber fortune. After Cobb’s death the property was deeded to the Freemasons, who sold it to a religious order; the Marx Brothers bought it in 1956. The surrounding land is rumored to be haunted, and there have been Bigfoot sightings. What more persuasion do you need?! There is no formal picnic area, but there are plenty of places to pull up a log.
Eaton Canyon has long been a favorite family hiking spot — partly because the trails are fairly flat, and there is a waterfall at the end of it (sometimes). Best of all, there is a super nature center, with stuffed raccoons and the like. It’s a lovely spot, and there is a huge picnic area at the trailhead. The nature center also offers night hikes from time to time.
Within the City of Pasadena there are parks galore. One of my favorite spots is Arlington Garden (275 Arlington Dr.), a beautiful three acres of water-wise serenity. There is plenty of seating hidden throughout, making it a perfect spot for a quick dose of peace and quiet.
All across the region you can find open spaces with trails, tended and not. In my neighborhood there’s a huge undeveloped spot called Elephant Hill, with spectacular views for the price of a trudge up a fire road. And just as close is Debs Park, with more great views, a lake, a picnic area, an Audubon center and plenty of trails.
In short, there are ample ways for residents to get away from the city’s hustle and commune with nature. So pack a lunch (or buy one — there is no shortage of places to pick up a lunch-to-go, if that’s how you roll), get out of your car and see this town from a new, natural perspective.
CHICKEN HAND PIES
I love a great picnic. I love cooking it, packing it and watching the look on my companion’s face as the unknown meal is slowly revealed al fresco. Although my search for the perfect picnic food is ongoing, I tend to fall back on those that are tried and true. This recipe is based on one my mom made when I was growing up. I think it originally came from the Pillsbury Bake-Off. These pies were my absolute favorite. When I discovered them in the picnic basket or, on the most wondrous days, my lunchbox, all was right with the world.
3 ounces ricotta cheese
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded or chopped
1 small roasted red pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon minced sun-dried tomato
2 scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence or dried
Sea salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces of puff pastry, pie dough or
crescent-roll dough, rolled out into eight
rectangles, about 4-by-5-by-¼ inch
1 tablespoon melted butter
½ cup seasoned breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat oven to 350°, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl mix together the cheese and chicken until well combined. Add the pepper, tomato, scallions, parsley, herbs, salt and pepper, and combine thoroughly.
2. Spoon a half-cup of chicken salad onto the center of each dough rectangle, fold pastry over and seal. Brush the tops with melted butter, then sprinkle each with breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Place 2 inches apart on baking sheet, and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until dough is golden brown. Eat right away, or cool and refrigerate until your picnic.
Leslie Bilderback is a chef and cookbook author, a certified master baker and an art history instructor. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.