Laguna Beach and the Urban Wilderness

Laguna Beach is known internationally as a glamourous seaside resort, but what makes the city truly magical is its unique geography and artistic legacy. Leafy, uncut parks, public art, and urban wilderness are backbone components, along with the countless incredible houses and eclectic architecture that characterize Laguna's landscape and built environment. This week L.A. Letters spotlights Laguna Beach with a focus on the Laguna Greenbelt and the area's cultural history.

The seven miles of coastline that make up Laguna can easily be considered one of the nicest stretches of beach in California. Nestled between Dana Point and Newport Beach, Laguna's exceptional geographic placement owes much to the San Joaquin Hills. Extending from Newport to San Juan Capistrano for about 16 miles, the San Joaquin Hills are a small range of foothills with coastal sagebrush and chaparral grasslands, and known for many steep cliffs dropping into the ocean that make dramatic vistas and quaint seaside coves. Surrounding Laguna Beach on all sides, the highest point in city limits is just over 1000 feet. Skip Hellewell, author of the book "Loving Laguna" writes, "That coastal range forms our marine layer, the seasonal fog bank that's our natural air conditioner."

The hills make it so that there are only three ways to enter the city: from the north on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) coming from Newport, from the south on PCH coming from Dana Point, and from the east on the 133 through Laguna Canyon. This topography also makes for a bottleneck and outlandish traffic, but like everything else in these times, it did not begin that way.

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Initially the geographic isolation helped preserve the city and keep the development under control. During the Spanish era, Laguna was one of the only coastal areas that remained unclaimed; only a small portion was a part of any rancho holdings. Homesteaders of the 1870s and the boom of the 1880s began the gradual rise of what would become the place we know today. Some of the cottages in North Laguna remain from the Victorian era. An arts colony came to rise after the turn of the 20th century, with the breathtaking views and picturesque cliffs of Laguna making the area a mecca for California Impressionists painters. Hellewell writes, "These were the plein air painters, and in the work of these early California impressionists, one can see a deep reverence for Nature. The survival of the early colony was ensured when that town hall was converted into a gallery to sell their art."

The film industry also came to Laguna around this time. The iconic Hotel Laguna, built in 1930 in Mission Revival style, not only appeared in many films, but many of the stars that stayed there ended up buying homes in the area. As much as the city became a wealthy place on the coast it maintained an independent, bohemian, and counterculture spirit all the way into the 1980s.

Many writers have also called Laguna home over the years, including the new U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Wright, who lived in Laguna when he was a UC Irvine Professor in the 1970s. Another Laguna poet is John Gardiner, a current professor at Irvine. Over the years writers like Theodore Taylor and other noted scribes like Lawrence Clark Powell, Ward Ritchie and John Steinbeck passed through and wrote in Laguna. Laguna Beach during these years shared currents with Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Bolinas. Some traces of that remain today, but the high cost of real estate has definitely made Laguna in 2014 much different than the 1970s and when figures like Timothy Leary called the town home.

Laguna has also had a long association with surfing and surf culture. Hobie Surfboards began in the city during the 1950s, just before the surf craze went international courtesy of films like "Endless Summer" and musicians like Dick Dale and the Beach Boys. Hellewell calls Laguna Canyon, "the Silicon Valley of the surf industry."

Laguna Beach ca. 1956 | Postcard via Alden Jewell/Flickr/Creative Commons


Twenty-seven year old Heather Patton grew up in Laguna Beach, and graduated from the Laguna College of Art and Design. She told me what it was like growing up in Laguna: "All of my friends' houses, including mine, had some weird quirk -- like a secret door in the floor of the kitchen pantry with a tunnel to the backyard shed, a loft full of plants, or a 'swimming hole' (literally a hole in the ground with fresh water)." Patton recalled an idyllic childhood of wandering the canyons and running into unique installations and found art. "You could walk through the canyon, not too far in at all really, and look down the end of a steep hill to find a Volkswagen beetle in the middle of a bunch of overgrown plants." Patton credits her years of early adventures and exploring Laguna for her interest in art and design: "I'm more curious and creative because of my childhood there."

Skip Hellewell titled one of the chapters in his book, "How the artists saved Laguna." This statement is true on so many levels. The world famous The Laguna Art Museum traces its roots back to 1918. Over the years the museum evolved and become known as a museum exclusively for California art. Their websites states, "the museum enhances the public's knowledge and enjoyment of California art and encourages art-historical scholarship in this field. Unlike any other museum in the state, it collects California art and only California art, and ranges across all periods and styles, nineteenth-century to present-day." Over the years they have featured great California artists like Rick Griffin, known for his psychedelic posters and artwork for the Grateful Dead.

The annual Pageant of the Masters dates back to 1932, and is closely associated with the Laguna Festival of the Arts. The Laguna College of Art and Design, started in 1961, has recently emerged as an up and coming site for young artists and designers. In recent years the school has begun collaborating with both local and international design firms and creative companies. The school holds approximately 450 students and continues to raise its profile.

Over the years I have been to Laguna many times, but it was not until I visited the Laguna Beach Historical Society that I discovered that 22,000 acres of natural reserve surround the city. A newsletter pamphlet they gave me informed me of not only the extensive parklands around Laguna, but a number of sculptures and public art throughout the city. Before discussing Laguna's legacy of art, the story of Laguna's urban wilderness is important to tell.

Known as the Laguna Greenbelt, a vast network of linked trails connects hillside parks like Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Crystal Cove State Park. Mountain bikers, hikers, joggers, and horseback riders covet these trails, as do families looking for a day with nature. Skip Hellewell reports in his book that much of the credit for preserving these parks belongs to a longtime Laguna bookseller named James Dilley. Hellewell writes, "In the 60s when planned communities were sprouting like weeds in Orange County, a different vision grew in Jim Dilley's head."

Dilley's travels in Europe had exposed him to many cities with large adjoining natural parks in England and Scotland, and he realized that the idea would work perfectly in Laguna. Dilley started a nonprofit conservation organization called the Laguna Greenbelt, Inc. and began "convincing people, one-by-one, neighborhood by neighborhood to share his vision. As a result in 1978 the city bought Sycamore Hills, the parcel Jim called, 'the buckle of the greenbelt.'" This land is now called the James Dilley Greenbelt Reserve.

Though Dilley died in 1980, the movement he started carried on and won several key victories in the coming years. In 1990 the city purchased 2000 acres in Laguna and Laurel Canyon for open space that was in danger of becoming a 2500-home development. Around this time 7500 concerned citizens staged a massive public march up Laguna Canyon Road in favor of expanding the greenbelt. Hellewell writes, "Jim had been gone for nine years at the time of the march, but on that day his unlikely vision was very much alive. The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park officially opened in 1993." The Aliso & Woods Canyon Wilderness Park and City of Irvine Open Space Preserve are also large reserves that are included in the Laguna Greenbelt. I visited a number of the smaller parks in these preserves, like Alta Laguna Park and Moulton Meadows Park. The uncut trails and panoramic hillside views make these sites invaluable for local families and nature lovers.

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park | Photo: Franki T/Flickr/Creative Commons


Around the same time Dilley began his efforts, the city of Laguna purchased a few blocks near the center of the city in order to preserve the "window to the sea." By 1974, the city had removed several older buildings that blocked the coast near the city center, by Ocean and Forest Avenues. Following these changes, the main boardwalk area just north of the Hotel Laguna became the open window to the sea it is today. This emphasizes not only the ocean, but the iconic lifeguard tower and sidewalk promenade along the beach. The city has always had an eye on preserving the natural landscape and upholding the local quality of life. The spirit continues today, as witnessed by a sign in a local Laguna bar that read, "Be nice or go to Newport."

Perhaps the most compelling example of public art in the city was the massive, 636-foot long and 36-foot high, small-mountain of environmental/assemblage art. Created in 1989 by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield, "The Tell" was comprised of thousands of photographs, and was originally located in Laguna Wilderness Park. Though most of it was destroyed in a 1993 fire, there's an important story connected to the artwork.

From the Historical Society I learned that the name "The Tell" "comes from the archaeological term for a mound of artifacts from prior civilizations -- buried over by natural elements." Originally constructed during the time when more development was on the books, many credit this piece as a key element to raising local awareness about preserving Laguna Canyon. At the time the artists created the piece in 1989 Orange County was celebrating its 100th anniversary, and the year also happened to be the 150th anniversary of the discovery of photography. The artists assembled over 100,000 photographs that reflected the city's history and also looked towards the future. The uneven shape of the artwork was intended to resemble the sloping canyons. The pictures were glued onto a wooden framework and collaged together. The 25th anniversary of the piece's creation recently led to several articles and an event commemorating its construction. The Laguna Beach Independent in a recent article noted, "Though the photo mural included deep symbolism, 'The Tell' is primarily remembered for its catalytic power to incite protest and communal values."

Laguna Beach is a dynamic place with unique geographic features that make it one of the most exceptional landscapes in California. The large urban wilderness surrounding the city and its artistic legacy distinguish Laguna from other cities across Southern California and definitely the rest of Orange County. Laguna Beach is a mecca for both enjoying nature and celebrating the arts. Salute to Laguna Beach for being a quintessential landscape in the topography of California and L.A. Letters.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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