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A Guide to L.A. County's Coastal Nature Preserves

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Hanging out at Abalone Cove | Photo: Omar Bárcena/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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.

People who've gotten their impressions of Los Angeles County entirely from popular culture could be forgiven for thinking the county's coastline is all crowded public beaches and expensive homes. But there's more to the Los Angeles coast, and we're not just talking about the oil refineries of Long Beach and El Segundo.

Despite a couple centuries of seemingly rampant development, we still have a few pieces of the natural Los Angeles coast, some of it remaining because of fierce political battles to preserve it.

And a few of the most critical pieces of coastal habitat have been set aside for future generations to enjoy as nature preserves.

Palos Verdes Nature Preserve

This 1,400-acre constellation of 10 neighboring natural reserves offers glimpses of the range of coastal habitats that once characterized the entire Palos Verdes peninsula. Elevations range from sea level, at the Abalone Cove and Vicente Bluffs reserves right up against the surf, to the 14-acre Vista del Norte Reserve about 1,300 feet above sea level.

The Palos Verdes Nature Preserve is owned by the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, and managed in partnership with the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy. More than 40 miles of trails distributed among the different Reserves offer visitors a chance to see both rare wildlife such as the El Segundo Blue butterfly, and animals such as cactus wrens that are rare locally, though they may be common elsewhere.

The Conservancy's active restoration program oversees the planting of thousands of native plant seedlings in their holdings each year, and regular docent-led hikes help spread the word about the importance of these oases for wildlife.

Consult the Conservancy's website for details on each preserve, such as directions, trail hours and leashed dog rules.

Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve

Old pier at the Ballona Wetlands | Photo: alejandro/Flickr/Creative Commons License


If you were to rate American wetlands by the amount of controversy they've seen per acre, the Ballona Wetlands between Marina del Rey and Westchester might just rank at the top. The Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, about 600 acres of what was once the much larger Ballona Creek estuary, was bought by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2003, using bond money approved by voters, in order to prevent further development of the land.

For more than two decades the Ballona Wetlands have been a focal point for contention between developers, state agencies, and environmental activists... and often enough, between differing groups of environmental activists who disagree over the proper degree of cooperation with, or combativeness toward, developers such as the land's former owner Playa Capital.

The most recent bout of controversy involved a proposal by the Annenberg Foundation to build a $50 million visitor center and office complex on land that had been set aside as habitat. Annenberg dropped the proposal late in 2014 in the face of nearly unanimous opposition from the environmentalist side.

And that means that until the next controversial proposal comes along, you can still enjoy the last remaining bit of Los Angeles' last remaining significant coastal wetland in its contentious spot at the west end of Culver Boulevard by entering under the Friends of Ballona wildlife access permit. There is also a calendar of monthly events (PDF). The Ballona wetlands are habitat for El Segundo Blue butterflies and other sensitive wildlife, such as the endangered Belding's savannah sparrow, so take some binoculars and a field guide or two.

Point Dume Nature Preserve

View from Point Dume | Photo: rain095/Flickr/Creative Commons License


This 32-acre bit of preserved coastal Malibu blufftop at the very tip of Point Dume is hemmed in to the north by the ostentatious homes of the local elites, but that still leaves about 270 degrees of unimpeded view to the east, south, and west. On a clear day you may not be able to see forever, but you should be able to see at least as far as Catalina, with all of Santa Monica Bay laid out before you.

Part of Point Dume State Beach, though it's managed by Los Angeles County Beaches and Harbors, the Preserve also offers great views of the surrounding Santa Monica Mountains.

A handful of trails accessible from Westward Beach Road offer a close-up look at the coastal bluff habitat that was once far more common in the Southlands, and a staircase descends to a relatively quiet section of beach with tidepools for your examination.

Stay on the trails, here the soil is fragile, as the bluff is essentially an ancient sand dune and is thus vulnerable to tourist feet heading off in unauthorized directions.

And sorry, but you'll have to leave your dog at home when you visit this place. Or maybe one of the neighbors will dog-sit for you.

Nicholas Flat Natural Preserve

At Nicholas Pond | Photo: Kent Kanouse/Flickr/Creative Commons License


This one is a little bit off the beaten path, despite being part of the popular Leo Carrillo State Park west of Malibu. The Nicholas Flat Natural Preserve occupies 600 acres in the northeast corner of Leo Carrillo, roughly a mile from the coast, with elevations ranging from around 1,000 feet above sea level to just over 1,800 feet at the Preserve's high point.

Established within Leo Carrillo in 1996, Nicholas Flat holds a range of differing habitat types from live oak woodland to Venturan coastal sage scrub. It's home to sensitive species such as the San Diego Mountain Kingsnake, which has been observed near the Preserve's main attraction, the Nicholas Pond trail.

This is a hiker's preserve: access is available primarily by way of the twisty, barely two lane Decker School Road in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, though avid trekkers can also walk up from the beach along the Nicholas Flat Trail or make the 1,000-foot climb from the Mulholland Highhway trailhead on the Malibu Springs Trail.

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