Palos Verdes, CA: Hiking through Pelican Cove Park

* New posts go up every Thursday, so come back next week for another day of exploration, or a roundup of my favorite spots and fashion trends!

“Down there?” I ask, peering over the cliffs to what’s below, like a pirate squinting at a treasure, wondering if it’s worth the plunder. To the surefooted, experienced hiker, hiking down the steep hill to the ocean wouldn’t be that big of a deal. For me, well, I knew it would be more of a challenge. So I pace myself, bend my knees and start shuffling like a humanoid robot learning how to walk. (Based on the little I know about hiking steep downward slopes, the lower your center of balance, the more stable you are.) When we finally get to the bottom, I’m a little out of breath — but not from the descent. 

What’s really breathtaking here is this view. We’re standing along the long crescent curve of the Pelican Cove Park, one of Palos Verdes’ best-kept secrets, in my opinion. Hemmed in by cliffs that crumble dramatically toward the ocean, this nook of the city is like a remote, unspoiled paradise. Although the beach was originally meant for fishing (it was dubbed the “Point Vicente Fishing Access,”) it became a conservation area in 2012. So, now, people come here mostly for tidepooling and scuba diving. Or, you know, just enjoying beauty for its own sake. 

The water stretches endlessly into the distance, its dark blue surface wrinkled by foaming whitecaps. In the horizon, there are primitive outlines of an oil barge and a ship, and closer to the shore, two jutting rocks are occupied by a tight-knit community of black oystercatcher residents. (If there’s an ornithologist reading this, you can correct me if I’m wrong about the species here). These birds are so still, it takes me a few minutes to even realize they’re there. 

But it’s not just the visuals that are absolutely stunning. There’s that weedy, briny ocean scent that could quite easily be called “the smell of summer.” (I’d argue that watermelon gives me the same feeling). And the sounds, too. The swell of the waves — a sound that’s also universally soothing. That’s not saying anything about the breeze, which is strong enough to ruffle my hair, but light enough not to cause any annoyance. 

The ground, however, isn’t quite as welcoming. It’s made up of strewn rocks, and as we navigate our way around the shoreline, walking proves to be sort of an inconvenience. The rocks are small and unstable. I stare intently at my shaky feet, preapproving every decision with several different parts of my brain before I make it. There are about a thousand ways to twist your ankle here, so I stick to being slow and careful. Sweat forms along my hairline and trickles down my temples. It’s hot. The sun is beating down on us, and even though it’s diluted by the wind, all this awkward, focused hiking is getting our heart rates up. 

Palos Verdes was always meant to be a sunny place. It was established as a meticulously planned, suburban paradise for the rich (and disgracefully, the white) — unfettered by what was then considered an eye sore, like billboards, tents and even hotels for tourists. (This is true even now. When Anton and I were prepping for a 10k in the area about a year ago, we looked for a decent, affordable hotel, but came up with nothing.) The Olmsted Brothers, a famous landscape architecture firm that designed Manhattan’s Central Park, laid out a plan for the city, making sure to up its bucolic appeal by building roads that skirt stunning coastal views, open park spaces and nooks like Pelican Cove that are completely untouched. 

In an old, 1920s brochure about Palos Verdes, as reported in a 2019 article by LA magazine, project organizers trying to raise money to build magnificent estates on the peninsula touted that “residents would find freedom from high winds, ocean fogs, frost and there was just one single, solitary day in the past year when the sun did not shine.” In other words, while other coastal towns suffered from thick, impenetrable marine layers, the folks at Palos Verdes would bask in the sunlight year-round. 

In a week, we drive back to Palos Verdes to see if that promise, made almost a hundred years ago, still holds true. We’re about 20-ish minutes away from the hill city, and we can even see the mountain range from a distance. It’s not looking good. The marine layer is gray and gloomy, sending dark, foreboding shadows across the streets. Everything looks grim and ghost-like, like the color palette of a heart-wrenching drama. Then, as we approach the mountains, something miraculous happens. The marine layer lifts, and buttery, golden sunlight slips through. It almost feels like driving through a tunnel and coming out into a much happier, brighter world at the other end.

“Wow,” I exclaim, looking around at the blue skies that promise a happy, whistling kind of day. But as we drive toward the ocean, we’re confronted by the marine layer again, which, at this point, is almost making a mockery of us. This time, it’s different. It spills over houses and storefronts like liquid nitrogen or some sort of a Hollywood movie effect. I’ve never really seen anything like it. 

When we park at the free* lot by Pelican Cove Park, it’s almost 65 degrees. The clouds are still a deep gray, as though there are several layers of them stacked on top of one another. As we attempt the steep descent to the rocky beach, I contemplate walking back to the car and driving right back home. I tell Anton as much. “You’ll warm up as we hike down,” he says, and we press on. 

It’s probably my fault. I should’ve brought a sweater — or a winter coat. The week before, my skin was hot and clammy to the touch. Now, it’s a faint shade of blue and covered in goosebumps. In reading more about the area, this isn’t surprising. Contrary to what the brochure said, the affluent community of Palos Verdes gets to experience a whole range of micro-climates, but the thing to know is — there’s a cold side and a hot side. Areas facing the ocean are cooled by the breeze; those to the north are much warmer. Around June, the non-ocean side can be as clear as a shot of vodka, and the ocean side as foggy as a drunk person’s memory. This all makes sense in writing, but to see it and to experience the change, almost as instantaneous as flipping a light switch, is jarring. 

But it’s not just the weather that’s different. The vibe is, too. Unsurprisingly, there’s no one here. (Last time we made the trip out there, there were four people total). There’s something somber and mysterious about standing here, just the two of us, visually isolated from the rest of the world. “Wait, look!” Anton exclaims. “Did you see that?” I stare far into the ocean, all the way to its edge. Up ahead in the distance, I see the curve of a dolphin cutting through the water for a split second. Then another. Then a few more, weaving in and out of the water like a needle running thread through fabric. Either way, it turns out; we aren’t really alone. 

I go from annoyed (from the cold) to happy, from miserable (again, from the cold) to being warmed up by this sweet moment. As I weigh two conflicting emotions against one another, I come to a conclusion: there’s something about Palos Verdes. Perhaps it’s a moodiness that I don’t quite understand yet, how it goes from soft and welcoming to freezing and outright hostile. It doesn’t try as hard as its more well-known sister beach towns, like Santa Monica and Malibu, to work in harmony with people — nor does it care to. Maybe it’s a quirk I’m only going to get to know fully when I visit again. Whatever it is, I intend on coming back to find out. 

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