Take a Detour: Topanga Canyon

Escape the crowds and head for the hills to discover LA’s untouched hideaway. 

by Craig Tansley

It is only a 20-minute drive along the Pacific Coast Highway from the rich and famous in their $50-million mansions at Malibu: perhaps that’s why you would likely drive right on by the exit to Topanga Canyon. Should you miss the turn — and almost everyone does — in about 15 minutes you’ll end up in Santa Monica, where you’ll be swamped by tourists taking selfies in front of the town’s famous pier, the focal point of Santa Monica Beach. But turn inland at that ramshackle pet supply shop (the Malibu Feed Bin) and you will uncover Los Angeles’ best-kept secret: a hippie enclave that’s long been the hideout for the planet’s biggest celebrities. Topanga Canyon is the perfect antidote to an urban sprawl that starts just south of Santa Barbara and doesn’t stop until Mexico, at arguably the most infamous border on the planet. 


The drive that takes you into Topanga Canyon is a tourist attraction in itself, so hire that convertible, turn up the radio and go careering around hairpin corners, under the chaparral-covered ranges and towering oak trees within the Santa Monica Mountains, right into one of America’s largest urban parks. It’s rumoured that Jim Morrison was referencing these roads in The Doors’ 1970 song Roadhouse Blues: “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.” (Morrison lived in Topanga Canyon in the late 1960s.)

The only urban zone you’ll find here barely registers on the radar — blink as you drive through and you’ll miss town altogether. But it’s worth keeping your eyes wide open — it features an eclectic collection of stores possessing a distinct bohemian flavour. Update your tie-dye wardrobe at alternative boutiques such as Bouboulina, Hillbilly Hip and Pebbles; watch as candles are moulded in front of you at Topanga Candle Company; or try a meditation visualisation session at Pure Light Wellness. 

But Topanga Canyon is all about the outdoors — there’s even an outdoor theatre, Theatricum Botanicum, where some of Hollywood’s biggest stars have performed. There are also more than 70 kilometres of walking trails across 4500 hectares of state forest, where you can scale mountain ridges and gaze right down on the sprawling metropolis that is LA.  

Coyotes, and even the odd mountain lion, roam these parts, so the locals try to keep their free-range chickens safe and sound behind wire mesh in enormous backyards. Hiking trails take you up impossibly steep dirt roads where the houses seem cantilevered across jagged, dusty ridgelines. Cactus is the hero of this landscape, while red-tailed hawks and electric-blue-coloured scrub jays are constantly soaring overhead.

You can also take a horseriding trail through the wilderness with Los Angeles Horseback Riding — time your visit for full moon and take in the trails on a glorious moonlit ride. Or hire a high-performance mountain bike at Topanga Creek Outpost for some challenging climbs.


You’ll find one of LA’s most lauded eateries in Topanga Canyon hidden just off the main street. Inn of the Seventh Ray is a favourite spot for stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Channing Tatum to escape LA’s persistent paparazzi, and has barely changed since opening night in 1975 (the owner’s 80 now, and she’s not selling). Sit beneath the fairy lights in the dry heat of a summer evening and you’ll soon forget the hustle and bustle of LA is less than an hour away. For the best start to your day, stop by Froggy’s Coffee — it’s on the site where Neil Young enjoyed breakfast as he wrote his pivotal album After the Gold Rush. And for arguably the best gathering of local characters, try Cafe Mimosa. You’ll see septuagenarians in purple velvet discussing karma friendships while deciphering the full meaning of last night’s dreams over hot organic chai.


At the main accommodation option (there are no chain hotels in the Canyon), Topanga Canyon Inn Bed and Breakfast, parking can require a handbrake you’d bet your rental insurance excess on. 
But the views over the canyon at dusk and dawn from these two Mediterranean-style buildings high up in the valley make the journey there worth it. Group breakfasts are shared around a family dining table each morning at 9am.  

GETTING THERE: To book your flight to Los Angeles, visit https://flights.virginaustralia.com/en-au/flights-to-los-angeles. 

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