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Driving Through Los Angeles’s Canyons

The park.

Photo: Katie Shapiro

Day 3

The next morning I resumed my drive on Mulholland, that serpentine byway flanked by hide-and-seek views of the spreading valley to the north and tucked-away city to the south. I headed west to Franklin Canyon, one of the most unusual secret parks in a major city: 605 acres of bucolic National Park Service land whose centerpiece is two bodies of water that ducks, turtles, and bullfrogs now call home. I parked here and, for several dreamlike hours, utterly unaware of my urban surroundings, hiked along trails lined with California oaks, sticky monkey flowers, poppies, and sage.

After heading south into Beverly Hills, I found my way to the Virginia Robinson Gardens, the six-acre former estate of the heirs to the J. W. Robinson department-store empire that has been open to the public (by appointment) since 1982. If, after somehow falling into a California version of a Rip Van Winkle sleep, I had awakened in this splendor and been challenged to locate it, I would have answered Tuscany. The 1911 Mediterranean-style house, the blooming terraced gardens, the palm grove, the bubbling fountains, the terra-cotta statues—Gilded Age glory intact and immaculately tended at the edge of Beverly Hills.

Lunch was a tasty grilled artichoke and pizza at Fabrocini’s, in nearby Beverly Glen Canyon, which at one time was home to a Native American village and, later, part of Francisco Sepulveda’s ranch; yes, where mountain lions once patrolled the hills, today there is a shopping center. After I ate, I had a somewhat disjointed window-shopping experience: leather-bound sets of Dickens on offer two doors down from D&G dresses for children, each of which commanded more than my daughter’s entire annual wardrobe.

My final stop was at St. Pierre Road (No. 414), where I pulled over to peer through the fence at the empty swimming pool and abandoned home that Johnny Weissmuller built out of his Tarzan fortune. More moat, really, than pool, the 300-foot-long snake of scabbing blue plaster and broken tile seemed like a perfect commentary on the fragility of fame. A B-minus movie star with an A-plus pool, a decaying mansion in a leaf-darkened canyon, a lone driver swinging by to think a few thoughts on the power of time: it felt like the subject of an unwritten pop song, an ode to the mysteries of the canyons.

Guitar, anyone?

View dozens of driving getaways, including wine country weekends, New England foliage tours, and scenic European routes.

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