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The Best Places to Enjoy Air Sports in Southern California

Some people like to have both feet firmly planted on solid ground at all times … and others of us like to take a flying leap whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Fortunately, when it comes to recreation in Southern California, the sky’s the limit (at least until that space elevator gets built).

In fact, there are plenty of ways to get a little height in SoCal — even if you don’t fancy the idea of free-falling out of a plane (after all, skydiving isn’t for everyone).

If watching birds just isn’t enough for you — and you’d rather join their ranks up there in the sky — here are five of the most exciting ways to get airborne and pretend for a while that you may actually have wings.

1. Windsports Hang Gliding (Sylmar & Dockweiler State Beach)

Believe it or not, Sylmar — that neighborhood in the North San Fernando Valley region of L.A. — is considered the hang gliding capital of the world. In fact, in 1973, Sylmar hosted the first-ever U.S. National Hang Gliding Championships. Who knew?! According to the non-profit Sylmar Hang Gliding Association, The Flight Park — where Windsports Hang Gliding is located — enjoys 300 days a year of flying, a pretty good record considering its launch point at Kagel Mountain and the way the wind can kick up, leaving both solo and tandem flights grounded. (Fortunately, it just takes a little patience to wait for the winds to be just right — rarely are conditions such that you would lose an entire day of flying.) This is an interesting sport to be a spectator at, so you can spend the afternoon at The Flight Park just watching and taking in the adventure without getting lifted off your feet yourself. Or, if you choose to go for a mountain lesson, bring some friends to watch — even if they’re not aspiring hang gliders themselves. For extreme novices, or if you just don’t want to devote that much time to your hang gliding experience, Windsports also offers two-hour mini lessons (as well as full ones that last up to four hours) at Dockweiler State Beach every Wednesday through Sunday. Although this seems like a far more touristy option — considering the signs advertising it that have been placed along the bike path — it’s actually the rare opportunity to occupy some air space directly adjacent to the commercial jets flying in and out of LAX.

Hang Gliding Dockweiler State Beach (2)
Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine, left, learns how to hang glide with the help of instructor Greg DeWolf at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo. | Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

2. Paragliding at Torrey Pines Gliderport (La Jolla)

Just south of the Torrey Pines Golf Course, you’ll find both hang gliders and paragliders — both subsets of the community of foot-launched flyers — hanging out at the gliderport, waiting for the wind to be just right before they take a flying leap off the cliff. If you’ve got your own glider, you’re free to launch here, but this is the largest tandem operation in the world — which means it’s a great place to learn. For the paragliding lessons in particular, you’re seated more or less in the lap of an expert instructor who, depending on your comfort level, will hand the controls over to you so you can get a feel for how to sail higher, dip down and turn with just a tug of the parachute. Just remember that when you’re up there, even if you’re not doing any of the steering, you’re not a rider — you’re a pilot. Spectators are welcome here as well, and there’s a food stand that sells some casual options that you can enjoy at the picnic tables right behind the launch. It’s a gorgeous part of the North San Diego County shoreline — and if you’ve got a long wait ahead of you until the wind picks up or dies down, take the trail to Black’s Beach below the cliffs, where clothing is reportedly optional.

Paragliding at Torrey Pines Glideport (1)
Sandi Hemmerlein
Paragliding at Torrey Pines Glideport (3)
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Scenic Plane Rides

To take a step up from a hang glider to a glider plane, visit Sky Sailing in the tiny town of Warner Springs, just east of Palomar Mountain and Cleveland National Forest. You may not have any intention of actually flying a plane yourself, but if your pilot offers — and he’ll probably offer and keep offering — don’t turn down the opportunity to grab the joystick and put the pedal to the medal. The sailplanes aren’t motorized and have to be towed up to a certain altitude (which is why they’re considered gliders), but if you want a more aerobatic experience, Sky Sailing has got that too. Of course, that’s not the only option for SoCal planespotters. We’ve got plenty of private operators at local airports (like Compton, Santa Paula, Camarillo and Fullerton) and touring collections of vintage craft that come into town (like those courtesy of the Collings Foundation or the Experimental Aircraft Association) that can take you sky-high in a biplane, vintage warbird or other antique aircraft. It’s a great way to experience the past and present colliding, and it’s a testament to the quality of the workhorse machinery that was clearly built to last and is still going strong despite the many air miles that may have been clocked up.

Scenic Plane Rides (1)
Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein
Scenic Plane Rides (4)
Sandi Hemmerlein

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4. Hot Air Ballooning

If you thought that piloting a hot air balloon was only a hobby of the wizard in the merry old Land of Oz, then it’s time to learn about the history of ballooning in Southern California. Thaddeus Lowe — the namesake of Mount Lowe in Altadena and creator of the long-lost Echo Mountain / White City resort at the top of the Mount Lowe Incline Railway — was a Chief Aeronaut in the Union Army Balloon Corps for two years during the Civil War; though, once he moved to the L.A. area, he traded his balloon fame for trains. These days, you’re most likely to find an untethered, recreational hot air balloon ride (since nobody uses them for transport anymore) in wine country — namely, Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley and the Temecula Valley. (Tethered rides, like the Great Park Balloon in Irvine, don’t really count.) Sure, you could book a romantic flight directly with one of the operators in Temecula like California Dreamin’ or A Grape Escape, but it’s a far better experience to overdose on balloons with the sunrise launch at the Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival, which happens every year in June at Lake Skinner. There’s just nothing like seeing the early morning sky full of multi-colored balloons, all lit up from the flames of their burning propane fuel. And when you land safely, your pilot will pop open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate with you.

Hot Air Ballooning (1)
Sandi Hemmerlein
Hot Air Ballooning (2)
Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Ziplining

The idea for an L.A. zipline just keeps coming up. A couple of years ago, a company had proposed to install one in Runyon Canyon. And most recently, the topic came up again as a solution to create “alternative” access to the Hollywood Sign, now that the Beachwood Canyon gate to the Hollyridge trailhead has been locked. Can you imagine zipping your way from Mt. Hollywood to Mt. Lee in Griffith Park? Sure, the idea may signal the Disneylandification of one of the largest urban parks in the nation … but if you love ziplining, it’s got to sound a little exciting! In the meantime, if you feel like dangling from a wire, the closest zipline courses to L.A. are Skull Canyon in Corona (60 miles southeast of downtown L.A.), Ziplines at Pacific Crest in Wrightwood (75 miles northeast of downtown L.A.), and Action ZipLine Tours in Big Bear (100 miles east of downtown L.A. — and GoPro’s are the only cameras allowed on the runs). Of course, the one at Sturtevant Camp in Big Santa Anita Canyon is the nearest at under 40 miles (including a hike to the cabins) — but that one is the most terrifying of all.

Ziplining (1)
Sandi Hemmerlein
Ziplining (2)
Sandi Hemmerlein

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