K.R.C. LogoThe Book of Kara

Park to Playa Trail

Published 28 August 2021

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I'm training for a half-marathon, and today is my longest training day before beginning to taper. It will also be the longest run I've ever done. In celebration, I'm to attempting LA's Park to Playa trail, an 11-mile trail that begins in View Park-Windsor Hills and winds its way through several city parks to the ocean.

Map of west Los Angeles showing a route beginning at View Park and ending in Playa del Rey.

The trail begins inauspiciously with a trailhead marker tucked behind an apartment building. Street parking was pretty easy around the corner on Presidio. At 9am the day is already hot. Admittedly, I'm intimidated. Not only is this going to be a long run, but I know there is a lot more elevation in my future.

Photo of yours truly smiling in front of the Park-to-Playa trailhead
The smile of the about-to-be-sunburned.

The Stocker Corridor is the newest section of the trail. It is unpaved but well groomed, and immediately ascends and follows Stocker with some nice views of trees blooming in pink flowers along the road. This area is lovely and seems like a great place to return for short trail runs.

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The first mile.

The corridor trail ends at a parking lot with water and benches. Crossing a multi-way intersection brings you into Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. The recreation is a sprawling maze of playgrounds and picnic areas interspersed with some hidden treasures. The trail varies between well-groomed gravel and pavement. There's a little grade here, but not as much as I expected.

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There's a long, hot road ahead.

Running through the park, my brain buzzes with anxiety over getting lost, climbing, and the task in front of me, but I'm distracted by these incredible finds, like a hummingbird garden abuzz with dozens of birds.

This hummingbird garden was adorable.

What is wild about the park is all the cool picnic and play areas. From normal swings and slides to huge play structures, with hardly any crowd — although it is just after nine, and maybe a bit early. I take mental notes about places to bring my kids in the future.

Photo of a sand-filled play area with a goofy purple sea monster statue.
Hello little guy.

Kenneth Hanh zig zags with various roads, trails and walkways, and this section is a bit hard to follow. I take a wrong turn and end up on a sidewalk that connects a parking lot to a restroom, and pause my run for a good five minutes to study the map and figure out where I am relative to where I'm going.

The trail is incredibly diverse. From the playgrounds and sun-baked running trails, I move on through large tag fields and picnic areas then into more rolling hills and side trails with tons of tree cover. A side path treks up to a man-made waterfall. I jog past the stone guardians of a red torii that leads to a pond filled with ducks, turtles and lilypads.

Photo of a pond with a small red bridge filled with lilypads.
Obligatory picture of the Japanese garden.

The park ends at a recently-completed bridge over La Cienega that connects to Stoneview Nature Center. The sun is beating down, but there is a ton to look at to keep my mind off of the heat.

Photo of the bridge connecting Kenneth Hahn to Stoneview Natue Center
Now entering the skyway.

While crossing the bridge I have a close encounter with a hummingbird visiting the flowers that line it, and I can't help but make a quick detour to say hello to the goldfish that mind the strawberry planter in the nature center's parking lot.

Photo of Stoneview Nature Center's combination strawberry planter and goldfish pond.
Hello strawberries. Hello fish.

Stoneman has a ton of informational programming for kids in the summer, and a ranger is setting up the day's program at their outdoor desk as I run past. This is another great place to bring kids.

Both Kenneth Hahn and the Stocker Corridor were pretty sparsely populated, but there are a lot more people around as I departed Stoneview for Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. The trail here is unpaved and winds steadily upward through desert scrub with houses, urban ruins and oil derricks in the distance.

Photo of a graffiti-covered concrete slab separating Baldwin Hills from a neighborhood.
Lovely graffiti along the Baldwin ascent.

The trail here goes up — seriously up — and the view of the switchbacks from below is intimidating. The grade gets pretty intense, and I slow a bit and walk here to bring my heart rate down toward the top.

Photo of a winding, steep and sun-bleached switchback trail.
Time to climb. The kid in me screams, “Seriously‽‽‽”

It took me almost an hour to go the five miles required to reach the overlook — halfway by time, if not by distance. I take the opportunity to have some nutrition and refill my water. It's also the last bathroom before the ocean. The view of the city from top of the overlook is breathtaking. On a clear day you can see from the ocean to Pasadena, and the scale of this city is mind-boggling.

Photo of West LA from atop Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.
It's all downhill from here.

Leaving Baldwin, the trail rapidly descends past hordes of folks walking up and down the twisting trails. The route avoids Baldwin's congested, knee-demolishing stairs, but there are plenty of walkers and strollers to dodge on the uneven path.

An innocuous path wraps around a construction area where workers in hardhats are having an early lunch, then through a decorative wrought iron gate that brings me to Culver City Park.

Photo of the gate that protects the entrance to Culver City Park from Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.
Now entering Culver City Park, City of Culver City.

The trail so far has been like an oasis of nature in the concrete desert, but Culver City Park is unabashedly suburban. I wind past baseball fields and corporate sculpture, a ropes course, dog park and playground.

Photo of a massive concrete sun dial sculpture, the shadow pointing between eleven and twelve.
Synchronizing my watch. Time looks about right.

The trail is descending now, and one of my favorite parts is the winding wooden walkway. The entire thing rattles and groans with every bouncing step, but there's a ton of foliage for shade and some landings that glimpse nice views of the city.

Photo of a wooden walkway winding down a hill.
My soul feels like this walkway sounds.

The trail unceremoniously ends at Duquesne Ave, which bisects the park, and following it north leads to the intersection at Jefferson. As I wait for the light to change, I am struck by the reminder that I am still in the city, despite having spent an hour running through dirt, hills and trees.

Past Jefferson, Duquesne crosses Ballona Creek, with a sloping entrance onto its bike path. The creek was paved by the Army Corps of Engineers a century ago to help control flooding, and today it's like a scene from a cyberpunk novel.

Photo of a section of Ballona Creek, completely paved and with a trick of water.
Ballona “Creek”

What little water there is flows heavy with trash and the rainbow glints of motor oil. The path is a pastiche of disagreeing construction projects: walkways built and then fenced off, access gates locked and sidewalk crossings blocked with chain link. Graffiti lines every overpass. Water, flowing from god-knows-where above, leaks yellow-green across the street. Mountains of collected dross mark an impromptu home.

Running here is fast and fairly flat, with ramps that descend under each road granting a few seconds of blessed shade before climbing back up. This area I've run for years, its every curve familiar, and the anxiety of finding my way through the first half of this trip melts away and my pace evens out.

Photo of a dark steel footbridge over a cement-lined waterway lined with light scrub and a trickle of water flowing underneath
My runs used to start here.

This place has a sort of decaying beauty, like the moody ruins of a romanticist oil painting. As the miles roll by nature slowly returns. Brush lines the creek, and I catch a pelican diving into the water mid-flight. A marine layer still hangs in the air from the morning fog, and the bleached-blue sky gives way to a moody gray.

Photo of a paved creek with water flowing through it and bushes lining the water.
The concrete slowly gives way to wetlands.

After long, desolate run past the Ballona Wetland Ecological Reserve, the Ballona Creek bike path connects with the Marvin Braude bike trail that runs from Pacific Palisades to Torrance, signaling the home stretch. This area is gorgeous, with the creek — now a full-fledged waterway — on one side and the Marina on the other. It's also choked with joggers, cyclists and walkers, as well as the occasional UCLA crew team gearing up for practice.

Photo of the marina from the bike trail.
Boats! We're in the home stretch.

Despite being ten miles in, I feel amazing. The air is cool and foggy. My pace is perfect: I'm going to hit 11 miles almost exactly at the two-hour mark. I pass the bridge, through a bike barricade and take a few strides onto the breakwater when my watch buzzes me: goal complete!

It's been an amazing journey, seeing so many different parts of my city. And now it's time to grab a right home, soak in some epsom salts and plan my next adventure!

Photo of yours truly smiling in front of the ocean.
Victory!
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