Whether it was during Civil War or the Cold War, many of our Southern California landmarks became active military bases -- taken over by one of our armed forces when defending our coastline and homeland called for it.
Many of these places are now hidden in plain view -- you just have to know where to look (and what exactly to look for). Whether they've been converted into a museum, a public park, or even a nature preserve, you don't have to be a big history buff to appreciate these incredible landscapes, views, and relics of our wartime past.
Unfortunately, many of them have been obliterated, or are completely inaccessible to the public. There are too many accessible historic places to list here, but this is a good starter course for discovering the military sites around L.A.
As always, if you choose to visit any of these historic sites, leave no trace -- and take out only what you brought with you -- so that others may enjoy them.
Though technically just outside of Los Angeles County, near the southernmost border of Kern County, Fort Tejon is one of the oldest preserved remains and earliest examples of our local military forces. Troops were stationed there in 1854 to help control frontier life in the wild, wild west -- a time when it was literally cowboys versus Native Americans, and Native Americans versus Native Americans. Now, you can explore many historic sites along the interpretive trails, including original barracks, a jail, adobe brick ruins, and a cemetery. You can also visit the grave of Peter Lebec, a mysterious historical figure who was apparently killed by a bear. In addition to regular Civil War reenactments, you can also attend an annual memorial of his death at Fort Tejon, with candlelight ghost tours.
Fort MacArthur Museum
The U.S. Army guarded the L.A. harbor from Fort MacArthur for 60 years, until it was decommissioned in 1974, but this fort's beginnings stem as far back as 1888. That's when the former Spanish Rancho next to San Pedro Bay was taken over by the "U.S. War Department," in a time known as the "big gun era." Now, you can still visit one of its historic World War I batteries, the Battery Osgood-Farley, which has partially been converted into a museum and gallery space. Docents in period costumes will crank up the historic G-12 generator in the power room, or you can peruse a number of historic communications equipment in the radio room. The museum has on display antique military vehicles, historic photos and newspaper clippings, and various other equipment, weapons, and whatnot. There's even a dedicated cemetery for the fallen heroes of the K-9 contingent. A popular time to visit Fort MacArthur is during The Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942, an annual recreation of a controversial historical event in which the fort's anti-aircraft guns blasted at a "mystery invader." Expect a big band orchestra, swing dancing lessons, and noises loud enough to warrant a warning.
White Point Nature Education Center and Preserve
The White Point Nature Preserve exemplifies the genius in planning and building these coastal defense military bases. When you drive down Paseo Del Mar (right before it dead ends at the slide area) and pull into the dirt parking lot, there's not much indication that there's anything there to explore besides 102 acres of restored coastal sage scrub habitat. Maybe you'll spot some cool birds. On a clear day, maybe you'll be able to see Catalina. But what many of its visitors don't know is that this was a military site -- the Battery Paul D. Bunker -- originally part of the expansive Fort MacArthur.
The White Point Nature Center itself was formerly used for the assembly of Nike missiles during the Cold War, and behind it lies another original abandoned building, as yet to be re-purposed. Adjacent to it, the original Nike missile launch site -- part of the government's air defense system that was ready to launch anti-aircraft missiles in the 1950s through 1974 -- sits relatively untouched. What's more, as you traverse the preserve along the trails, you somewhat surprisingly stumble across a couple of gun emplacements, hidden in the bluffs that overlook the preserve. Although now owned by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, White Point is under the stewardship of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, which provides volunteers and naturalists to lead group interpretive walks both here and at White Point - Royal Palms Beach, on the other side of Paseo Del Mar.
Like White Point, Point Vicente in Rancho Palos Verdes was another parcel of nearby Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, located to the north and a major part of the Los Angeles Defense Area. This former Nike Missile Site LA-55 has been redeveloped into Point Vicente Park -- as well as a civic center for Rancho Palos Verdes, and home to its city hall. The city uses a lot of the site for storage and as a maintenance yard, but because it's a public park, you can wander around despite all the leftover "No Trespassing" signs.
Here, you can find the old Battery Barnes 240 (now used as a radio beacon by the U.S. Coast Guard), sidewalks to nowhere, and other concrete slabs typical of these sites. Down below the park is the Point Vicente Lighthouse, which, at 67-feet tall, still functions as a beacon to sea vessels, as it did when it was first built in 1926. The original light was 1000 watts, and could be seen for 20 miles (though it was dimmed during World War II for security purposes). The lighthouse was actually run by civilians until the Coast Guard took it over in 1939, and it's still an active residential facility for U.S. Coast Guard personnel. The lighthouse grounds are open for self-guided tours the first Saturday of every month.
LA-88 at Oat Mountain
I hesitate to include this one, because it's up for debate whether or not visiting it is considered trespassing. This former Nike missile site is within the bounds of a public park. What used to be a private road leading up to one of the 16 Nike missile sites during the Cold War -- known then as the "Ring of Steel" -- is now the only access road to the Michael D. Antonovich Regional Park at Joughin Ranch.
Once you pay the fee and park your car in the dirt turn-off -- making sure to not pass through any gates that could be locked behind you -- head up Browns Canyon Motorway on foot to an apocalyptic wonderland, which once provided 360-degree surveillance capacity, looking out over the entire San Fernando Valley. LA-88 was the first Nike missile site in the L.A. area for the "Hercules" atomic warhead, which fortunately they never had to deploy. The base was deactivated in 1974 (as all the Nikes were), but 40 years later, the launch site is still intact, with three underground storage magazines.
In both 1981 and 2008, wildfires ravaged the site and destroyed some of the above ground structures, but among the survivors is the heavily graffiti-ed assembly building. While you're there, you can also explore a stripped-down, burned-out bus that was used for years by the LAPD as a training ground for the bomb squad and SWAT team. Steer clear of the site if you see anything resembling police activity during your visit.
Battlefield L.A.: Where & Why War Came to Southern California
Commandos and Anti-Aircraft Guns: Catalina's Top-Secret WWII History
The Past is the Future at San Pedro's White Point Nature Preserve