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Taking Public Transit to the Beach in L.A. County and Beyond

This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.

This story, originally published in April 2014, has been updated.

Thanks to our Chaparral climate, Los Angeles has a very long beach season, perfect for taking trips to the ocean. Spike Jonze's film "Her," set in a Los Angeles of the future, depicted Angelenos taking luxurious class trains to to the beach, which prompted almost as much discussion and fantasizing as the creepy boy-meets-computer love story in its center.

Many of Los Angeles's collective hopes are pinned upon Metro's Purple Line -- nicknamed the "Subway to the Sea" -- even though it's only scheduled to reach the West Los Angeles VA Healthcare Center (still five miles short of "the sea") in 2035. The light rail Expo Line is scheduled to reach the beach in 2016. Luckily for Angelenos and tourists, however, we don't have to wait for either of those, as we already have an absolutely massive public transit network which has, for 139 years, provided access to the beach.

At present, most of the local public transit options to the beaches are buses. Despite most folks' understandable preference for trains, why anyone would dismiss outright traveling by bus is for the most part beyond me. Buses, after all, don't require the extreme geographic license employed in "Her" -- in which the protagonist takes a Shanghai train to Los Angeles' Thai Town, and then ascends to Dockweiler State Beach in Playa Del Rey -- which would mean holding one's breath for thirty years.

Here, then, are Los Angeles County's beaches and how to get to them via public transit.

Santa Monica Mountains

My favorite beaches in Los Angeles County are the rough, rustic, and relatively remote ones west of Malibu's Point Dume, in the Santa Monica Mountains region. El Pescador, El Matador, and La Piedra are some of Los Angeles' most stunning beaches but, unfortunately for transit users, a bit beyond the route of Metro's 534 bus, the westernmost stop of which is located at Trancas Canyon. The 534 does stop at Zuma Beach -- a pleasant enough beach with clean water and smooth sand, even if it can't compete with the scenery of the beaches to its west.

Still in Malibu, east of Zuma (along the so-called "Riviera of America"), there are more beaches including Broad Beach, Corral Canyon Beach, Escondido Beach, and Paradise Cove, to name a few, all of which are accessible (along with Malibu Pier) by the 534. East of Malibu is the unincorporated community of Topanga, home to Topanga State Beach, which is also accessed by the 534.

Metro bus at Zuma Beach

The Westside

My guess is that most locals who don't live in the Westside don't count that region's beaches among the county's most alluring, mainly because they tend to be quite popular with tourists and therefore rather crowded, if surprisingly clean overall.

The Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades is home to Will Rogers State Beach and is served by a couple of Metro lines.

Santa Monica's beaches are served by both Metro and that city's Big Blue Bus. Metro's light rail Expo Line will arrive in 2015, dropping off its riders half a mile from the beach. Considering their popularity, Santa Monica's beaches are among the region's cleanest, while boasting a pier, proximity to several pleasant pubs, and the nickname "Little Britain," for its population of expatriates from the British Isles.

Like Hollywood, Venice's popularity among tourists rests largely on an historically bohemian character that vanished decades ago. Also as with Hollywood, hordes of tourists still dutifully migrate to the area to gawk at the beach featured in countless forgettable television commercials, and are greeted there by panhandlers and chintz-peddlers. The neighborhood, its beaches, and its famous canals are served by Metro, Big Blue Bus, Culver CityBus, and LADOT's Commuter Express.

Last and (as far as beaches go) least is Marina del Rey, an unincorporated community separated from the ocean by Marina Peninsula -- a tiny neighborhood usually thought of as part of Venice. As the name implies, Marina del Rey is almost entirely dominated by its titular marina. There is, however, one rather small beach at the marina's edge, Mothers Beach, accessible by Culver CityBus and Metro both.

Big Blue Bus at Santa Monica Beach

Big Blue Bus near Venice Beach

On board the 115

South Bay

Why the beaches of Los Angeles County's South Bay aren't more popular than those of the Westside is to me one of life's minor mysteries, but one that most South Bay residents are likely perfectly happy to have remain unsolved. Due to the area's proximity to LAX, there's a near constant stream of jets flying overhead, which may have something to do with their being shunned by tourists. On the other hand, Dockweiler (the beach visited by the protanganits in "Her") is the only beach in Los Angeles County with fire pits.

Playa del Rey, the Beach Cities (Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach), El Segundo, and Torrance all boast lovely beaches, and all three of the Beach Cities all have their own piers. The southern part of Santa Monica Bay is served by Metro buses, the Metro Green line (if you're willing to walk two miles ore so), LADOT Commuter Express, Torrance Transit, and a local agency, Beach Cities Transit.

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There are beaches further south on the Palos Verdes Peninsula too, although they're more difficult to access by land or sea. The peninsula is served by Palos Verdes Peninsula Transit Authority, although that agency operates rather infrequently and only on weekdays. Luckily, Metro's 344 Line serves Rancho Palos Verdes, most of the coast of which is characterized by the promontories and bluff-top parks located above thin strands of rocky beach far below, rather than the sorts of beaches preferred by most surfers and sun worshippers. One stop of the 344 that does provide relatively easy access to the beach is located near Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve, home to Abalone Cove and Sacred Cove.

Beach Cities Transit bus at Redondo Beach Pier

LAX traffic over Playa del Rey

Torrance Transit Bus

The Harbor

Most of the Harbor Area's coastline is dominated by huge, industrial ports -- the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach -- rather than beaches. However, there are a few beaches in the Los Angeles neighborhood of San Pedro and the city of Long Beach.

San Pedro's Cabrillo Beach is small and secluded, practically hidden behind a park and a bathhouse built for the 1932 Olympic Games. Just a bit west of it are the Point Fermin tide pools, and beyond that, Sunken City, the ruins of a neighborhood that began slipping into the sea in 1929. The area is served by Metro's 246 Bus and, although its more of an attraction than practical transportation, the Port of L.A. Red Car Line.

On the other side of the Harbor, east of Shoreline Village, is Long Beach's eponymous expanse of sand. That beach is unique in Los Angeles County for having a vertically developed downtown situated right along the coast. Just as interesting visually, and even more unique, are the four artificial oil islands -- Islands Chaffee, Freeman, Grissom, and White -- located just off-shore. In order to hide their oil wells and pump jacks and reduce the noise of their operation, they're all decorated with fanciful, mid-1960s, facades. Long Beach and the beaches surrounding Naples Island are served by several bus lines of Long Beach Transit, as well as that agency's AquaBus water taxis. The closest stop of Metro's Blue Line to the Long Beach is about 1.5 miles.

Metro Bus near Cabrillo Beach

Long Beach Transit bus at Long Beach

Her poster at a bus stop

Channel Islands

Although sometimes neglected, Los Angeles County includes two large islands -- Santa Catalina Island and San Clemente Island -- both part of the eight island Channel Islands chain. While San Clemente Island no doubt possesses beaches that were historically enjoyed for at least 10,000 years, the island is currently under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy and therefore off-limits to civilians.

Santa Catalina Island, on the other hand, is the only one of the Channel Islands served by public transit (in the form of ferries) which serve its two main population centers, Two Harbors and Avalon. Both villages are accessible by Catalina Express out of San Pedro. with departures to Avalon available from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point. Avalon is also connected to Newport Beach in Orange County by Catalina Flyer. Sadly, although Avalon Beach might be scenic, it's worth noting that (in large part due to Avalon's antiquated sewer system), the beach is consistently ranked at or near the top of lists of California's dirtiest beaches.

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Catalina Express boat to Avalon

View of Avalon Beach from the hillside

Beyond Los Angeles County

Of course there are public transit options connecting Los Angeles to beaches that are a bit further off, too. Although rarely spoken of in the same breath as buses and trains, airlines are an integral part of the public transit network, and Los Angeles County is home to one international airport -- Los Angeles International Airport -- and two domestic airports -- Burbank Bob Hope Airport and Long Beach Airport. Beyond Los Angeles County the Southland is served by two more international airports -- John Wayne Airport in Orange County and L.A./Ontario International Airport in the Inland Empire.

Closer to home there are beaches in Los Angeles County's coastal neighbors -- Ventura County and Orange County. Several of Ventura County's beaches are accessed by Gold Coast Transit. Ventura's Emma Wood State Beach is located near the Ventura Amtrak Station.

Orange County's transit coverage is, thanks to Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA), far more extensive. From Seal Beach in the north to San Clemente in the south, Orange County's coast boasts some of Southern California's best beaches and the entire length of the county is served by OCTA's shore-hugging Line 1.

Laguna Beach and San Clemente have some of Orange County's most stunning beaches. Laguna Beach is additionally served by Laguna Beach Transit's small fleet of trolley buses. San Clemente is served by Metrolink's Orange County and Inland Empire/Orange County lines, as well as Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner -- which terminates in San Diego County.

Barring some sort of gentrification apocalypse or other calamity, it's doubtful that Los Angeles or its transit will ever resemble the dystopia of "Her." Although the city will undoubtedly grow increasingly dense, there's little reason to fear that it will ever resemble the film's creatine-bloated Century City painted in Jamba Juice colors and bathed in an Instagram glow -- a grim, monocultural, yuppie playground of quasi-public spaces. Although there's ample room for our public transit system to improve, there's no reason to wait for the future when it comes to hitting the waves.

On the other hand, the film's depiction of riding the rails into snow-capped mountains is a dream that I can get behind.

Metrolink in San Clemente

About the Author

Eric Brightwell is a writer, map maker, and an explorer of neighborhoods. He writes at Amoeblog, and his maps can be viewed at Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography.


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