The weather is nearly always pleasant in Southern California and so outdoor activities are an integral part of life there. Anything from hiking to golf can be found within a couple of miles of drive, from any corner of the Valley.
If you’re looking for a day of family fun and entertainment with a bent on spending some time outdoors, look no further than Castle Park in Sherman Oaks (http://www.laparks.org/shermanoaks_castlepk/index.htm). Part of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, Castle Park is located along Sepulveda Blvd in Sherman Oaks.
This multi-function entertainment zone has opportunities for hours of fun. Make your first stop at the miniature golf course. It’s $6.50 for adults and $5.50 for children 12 and under, and seniors. Tie game? A rematch will only set you back another $3.00 each. You can choose from the landscaped courses with 18 holes each and a number of exciting and challenging obstacles. If you’re an early bird and make it before 10:30 am, you can also get in a game for just $3.00.
After the mini golf, or instead, if you’re better with a bat, head to the batting cages and get in some swings. The cages offer both baseball and softball pitches and balls come at you at speeds up to 80 M.P.H. You can rent equipment or bring your own and play by the round (30 pitches) for $3.00 or by time, 30 minutes for $24.00 and 60 minutes for $42.00. If it gets a little warm outside, head into the arcade for a break from the sun and try your hand in the arcade. You can purchase tokens in a variety of amounts and if you win tickets, cash them in for goodies at the prize counter. The arcade features new state-of-the-art games and classic favorites from the past.
Castle Park is open from 10am-11pm Monday – Thursday, 10am – 12am Friday, 9am – 12am Saturday and 9am – 11pm on Sunday. Hours vary a bit during holidays, and school breaks so check the website for more information. And think about having your next party at Castle Park. They have special packages and party areas as well as attractive group rates.
Golf in the Valley
Anyone looking to hit the links for a day of sunshine and sport can find a host of choices throughout the San Fernando Valley. With the rolling hills and stretches of green, the Valley is a perfect location for golf courses and there are many quality courses throughout the local neighborhoods. While a number of courses are part of private country clubs, where you must be a member or a guest of a member to play, there are several public courses as well to choose from. On a weekend, reservations are usually recommended but during the week you can often drop in.
Griffith Park offers three options, two 18-hole courses and one 9-hole course (www.griffithparkgolfshop.com). All of the courses have been around since the 1920s or 1930s and offer you over 4,100 acres of natural terrain with holes interspersed among the California Oak Trees. There’s also a double-decker driving range if you want to just head out and practice your swing. These courses also offer private lessons and group golf schools.
If you’re looking for a course with more hills and views, head over to Burbank, and in the foothills, you’ll find the DeBell Golf Club (www.debellgolf.com). It’s an 18-hole public course that first opened in 1959 and offers up to over 5,500 yards of hillside playing terrain and a slope rating of 114. DeBell also offers lessons and a driving range if you want to work on improving your game. A little further north in the Valley, in the neighborhood of Pacoima, you’ll find the Hansen Dam Golf Course (www.laparks.org/golf/cdp_hansen.htm). It rests along the face of the Hansen Dam and offers up a variety of elevation changes and beautiful landscaping over its 6,700 yards of the green. It was ranked by Golf Digest as one of “The Best Places To Play.”
Griffith Park sits just at the edge of the San Fernando Valley, bumping up against Burbank and continuing over the hill into the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. It is around 4,200 acres in total and is one of the largest urban parks anywhere in the United States. The majority of the parkland was donated to the City of Los Angeles back in the late 1800s by a man named Griffith J. Griffith. Rumor has it that he was spooked by a ghost on the property and wanted to get rid of it. Griffith Park has a rugged and sprawling feel and offers numerous opportunities for outdoor activities from hiking to cycling to golf, and much more.
Due to the nature of the park, with its brush and greenery, parts of the park have been ravaged by wildfires throughout the years, most notably in 1933, when a blaze claimed 47 acres and the lives of 29 men. Fires also caused destruction in 1961 when 814 acres on the south side of the park went up in flames and in 2007 when another wildfire burned over 817 acres.
A visit to Griffith Park offers an almost limitless number of activities. If you want to listen to live music under the stars, you can head over to the Greek Theater for a concert. The Los Angeles Zoo will offer the entire family a chance to visit their favorite wild animals. Or you can head over to the Travel Town Museum and ride on a miniature railroad train. If you’re looking for something more active, play one of the three golf courses located in the park, and head over to the baseball field or the basketball and tennis courts. And there are numerous hiking, cycling, and equestrian trails, so you can pick your favorite mode of transportation and hit the path. Groups like the Sierra Club often lead-free hikes in Griffith Park. The park is open every day from 6am till 10pm and all trails and mountain roads are closed at sunset.
Santa Monica Beach
If you’re living in or visiting the San Fernando Valley during the late summer, nothing beats the heat like a trip down to the water. In good traffic, it’s only about 20-30 minutes from most San Fernando Valley neighborhoods out to the coast by car, and the beachside communities offer up a variety of ways to spend a day on the sand.
For good family fun and adventure, head down to the beach in Santa Monica. The Santa Monica Pier offers up a variety of fun activities from fishing, to old-fashioned rides and games, to great eating options from fast food to fabulous. Visit www.santamonicapier.org to find out about everything you can see and do on your visit. Just down the steps from the pier, you’ll find long stretches of white sand. Bring a blanket and a picnic and spend the day playing in the water. If you get tired of the coastline action, you can head up to the nearby Third Street Promenade, which is a pedestrian-only street, lined with great shops, restaurants, and movie theaters. If you’re craving a little physical fitness, bring your running shoes, rollerblades, or bike and head up and down the boardwalk, it stretches for miles in both directions so you’ll have plenty of pavement to work with.
For a more eclectic beachside adventure, head just a bit south of Santa Monica to Venice Beach, a well-known stretch, famous for its vendors, artists, and eclectic individuals who line the boardwalk. Besides the vendors who set up outside along the path, there are numerous permanent storefronts hawking everything from clothing and sunglasses to services like piercings and tattoos.
If it’s a quiet day near the water that you’re after, head up a little further north, to Malibu and its environs. Beaches like Point Dume, Zuma, and Leo Carillo offer a more scenic and less commercial beach experience. Pick a spot and your favorite book and chill out. And if you get hungry, head to either The Reel Inn (www.reelinnmalibu.com) or Neptune’s Net (www.neptunesnet.com). Both offer a casual beachfront dining experience and some of the best fresh fish around. Finish the day with a leisurely drive down the Pacific Coast Hwy to watch the sunset before you head back to the Valley.
The trails throughout and around Griffith Park, reachable through the Rancho Equestrian District in Burbank, offer a fun outdoor adventure that everyone from riding novices to equestrian enthusiasts can enjoy. There are a number of different stables that operate in the area and most of them offer horse rentals on an hourly basis as well as guided trail rides. The local trails will take you up and through the nearby hills of Griffith Park and offer you a scenic tour and an unexpected escape from the city that is right next door.
Companies such as Griffith Park Horse Rentals (www.griffithparkhorserental.com), and Circle K Riding Stables (910 S. Mariposa St. 818.843.9890) offer trail rides for every type of rider, charging around $25 per hour, per rider. Most places take cash only and are open from about 8am-6pm. You don’t need a reservation, just stop in and they’ll get you on a horse as soon as possible. Remember to wear long pants and close-toed shoes and you can opt for a riding helmet, though they are required if you are under 18.
For a special adventure, book a dinner ride on a Friday or Saturday night. You’ll need to call ahead and reserve a spot, but for $65 a person, which includes gratuity, a guide will take you on an hour-and-a-half ride featuring a panoramic view of the San Fernando Valley, ending at a local Mexican Restaurant. After dinner, the guide will lead you on a ride back to the stables. The cost does not include your dinner. Special guided after-hour rides can also be arranged by reservation for a date with a special someone or to celebrate a special occasion at a cost of $50 per rider.
If you are looking to hone your riding skills, you can also take lessons at places like Bennett Farms at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center (www.jbennett.com). They offer a variety of private horseback riding lessons for everyone from rank beginners to the advanced.
Near Lake Balboa, you’ll find a peaceful oasis of nature and tranquility, The Japanese Garden (www.thejapanesegarden.com). Open Monday-Thursday from 12-4 and on Sunday from 10-4, the garden offers both docent-led tours and self-guided tours and admission is $3 per person, $2 for seniors 62 and older and children under 10. The garden sits on the grounds that belong to the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, which also is the source of water for nearby Lake Balboa. It was created in the early 1980s and is ranked high among other Japanese Gardens across the United States. Designed by Dr. Koichi Kawana, it includes a dry Zen meditation garden, a lush waterfall garden, and a traditional tea house and tea garden.
Some of the notable areas in the garden include the ginkgo trees, which are one of the oldest species of trees still in existence. Ginkgo (derived from the nuts of the tree) is an important element in Japanese medicine and some claim that it reverses the aging process. Be sure to also pay a visit to the Heavenly Floating Bridge. It was built to represent a scenic spot in Japan where people overlook the Sea of Japan. The tea garden is a small and simple house of peace and is used for special occasions, including traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The waterfall is a traditional three-tiered style cascade of water and is the first and main point of entry of the water from the reclamation plant into the garden.
The garden hosts a number of special events including Japanese folklore readings, demonstrations of traditional Japanese Black Pine tree pruning, and an origami festival. There are often other special events and exhibitions and the website has the most up-to-date information on what’s happening. The Japanese Garden is also available to rent for weddings and other special events.
The park around Lake Balboa is formally known as Anthony C. Beilenson Park but is known to locals as just Balboa Park or Lake Balboa. It’s located in Van Nuys, just off Balboa Blvd. The area encompasses 80 acres with the 27-acre lake sitting at its center. It’s filled with water that has been reclaimed from the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. The lake and the park offer up a host of outdoor activities. For athletes, there is a 1.3-mile walking path around the lake and a five-mile cycling path around the perimeter of the park, as well as nearby cricket fields, an archery range, and an unlighted baseball diamond. Swimming is prohibited, but visitors to the lake can fish, as well as go boating on private, motor-free boats. A launching ramp is available for easy exit and entry into the water.
There are large children’s play areas for the little ones and barbeque pits, pavilions, and picnic tables for gatherings of families and friends. You can bring your pet to Balboa park, but you must keep it on a leash. There’s plenty of open space to roam and even attempt your hand at flying a kite on a windy day. And if you’ve got a game, head to the nearby Balboa Golf Course, Tennis Courts, or Sports Complex and get involved in a little friendly competition. Since you can’t go swimming in the lake, there’s also a public swimming pool if you really need to get wet.
In the Spring, the area is lush with the blooms of the Cherry Blossom trees around Lake Balboa. It is the perfect time to visit and stroll among the pink, bloom-laden branches. Parking can be challenging on the weekend and the picnic areas may be filled with parties and large gatherings, so keep that in mind when planning your day. Dusk is the most beautiful time of day at Lake Balboa, so plan to stay to watch the sun go down, and don’t forget to bring your camera!
Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve
Located near Lake Balboa off of Woodley Ave. in Van Nuys, The Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve (www.sepulvedabasinwildlife.org) is another extension of the natural land and wildlife that has been preserved despite a predominance of residential and commercial development in the San Fernando Valley. It’s surrounded by rivers, streams, and mountain ranges and serves as a refuge for both wildlife and Valley residents looking to escape the hustle and bustle for a bit and get back to nature. A visit to the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife reserve serves as a reminder of what the San Fernando Valley may have been like prior to the growth and development of modern civilization.
During a visit to the Basin, you’ll see willow trees, cottonwoods and sycamores as well as here the calls and watch the flights of the local waterfowl and birds like ducks, Canadian geese, herons, egrets, goldfinches, woodpeckers and orioles. The area was developed with the building of the Sepulveda Dam after major floods in 1938. It later became a dedicated wildlife reserve in the 1960s. As of today, the 225-acre reserve is one of the best natural wildlife preservation projects in an urban area in the country.
There are many ways to experience, enjoy and learn from the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve. There are organized walks led by the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society where you can learn about the birds in the area. The California Native Plant Society also sponsors group hikes and clean-ups if you want a chance to get a little exercise and give back to the community. Many local schools organize learning field trips to the reserve, or you can simply visit on your own time and wander at your leisure. Just remember to be respectful of the environment. No dogs are allowed, and you must stay on the walking paths and dispose of your trash properly. Feeding the local wildlife is also prohibited.