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Rancho Palos Verdes is the newest of the four cities on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, southwest of Los Angeles. Its residents voted to incorporate the city in 1973, to assert control over land development and gain representative government.
Before 1973, the area was an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County, governed by the County Board of Supervisors 56 kilometers away in Downtown Los Angeles. The organizers of the lengthy incorporation effort were frustrated with the Board of Supervisors, which seemed to consistently favor the interests (and perhaps the campaign donations?) of real estate developers over those of other constituents. The supervisors routinely approved developers’ zoning change requests to allow high-density construction, but refused to even hear residents’ concerns and protests.
The city’s name recalls Rancho de los Palos Verdes, the 19th century Mexican rancho (land grant) that included the entire peninsula. Palos Verdes means “green trees,” suggesting that the peninsula was heavily forested before 20th century housing tracts displaced the trees.
Captain George Vancouver discovered and named Point Vicente in 1793, during his expedition to map the west coast of North America. The name acknowledged the help he had earlier received from Father Vicente de Santa Maria of Mission San Buenaventura. Vancouver— or possibly whoever edited his journals for publication— spelled it Point Vincente, so you’ll sometimes see it written that way.
The 20-meter-high white concrete lighthouse at Point Vicente has operated continuously since 1926, except during World War II when the military imposed a blackout throughout the West Coast to hinder possible Japanese attacks. A lighthouse keeper lived on the grounds until 1971, when the Coast Guard replaced him with full automation. From 1934 until 1980, the lighthouse site also included a radio station with a navigation beacon and a distress monitoring station.
The section of the lighthouse’s lamp window facing inland is covered with opaque white paint to prevent the 1.1 million candlepower beam from blinding drivers on nearby roads and annoying adjacent residents. But opaque paint can’t cover up the blaring foghorn, which sounds off whenever the “late night and early morning fog” (which can happen at any time of year) blankets the coast.
As an official Coast Guard station, the lighthouse grounds are surrounded by fences and a locked gate to secure the federal property from unauthorized entry. But the station is open to visitors on the second Saturday of each month.
Visitors are always welcome at Point Vicente Park, next to the lighthouse. The site was an Army gunnery range from the 1950s through the 1970s. When the Army no longer needed it, the City built a very nice park and interpretive center that opened in 1984. It was a great place to walk along the cliffs, enjoy sunsets and picnics, and learn about natural history from friendly docents.
That all ended in 1999, when construction began on an expanded interpretive center. After the contractor discovered that the soil contained lead, City officials immediately closed the park and put up a menacing assemblage of barbed wire and ominous “Toxic Hazard” signs. For seven years, the park was a monument to bureaucratic ineptitude.
Given that the site was an Army gunnery range for over two decades, nobody should have been surprised that the soil contained significant quantities of lead bullets and other ordnance residue. But apparently none of the City’s planners or other officials had considered the possibility of lead contamination before building the park. After years of haggling over remediation costs estimated at $3.2 million, City officials prevailed on the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the lead.
A small section of the park reopened in March 2003, with a trailer serving as a temporary interpretive center. After many delays, the rest of the park and the expanded interpretive center finally opened in July 2006.
The interpretive center is one of the most popular places in the Los Angeles area for whale watching. Between November and April, Pacific gray whales make their way through the channel between Palos Verdes and Catalina Island on the last leg of their migration from feeding in Alaska to breeding in Baja California. The city sponsors “A Whale of a Day” at the park annually on the first Saturday in March, with family-oriented activities that entertain and inform.
Visit Point Vicente Park in the afternoon to get a nice view of the cliffs, the ocean, the lighthouse, and— on a clear day— Catalina and Santa Barbara Islands. You might even see a sunset that rivals those in Hawaii.
After you’ve visited the park, you can take a very nice walk along the cliffs to the north. A road off Palos Verdes Drive West (see Palos Verdes Travel Notes) leads to a new development of astronomically-priced homes right on the cliffs. The City has lined the cliff edge with a walkway that continues into the park, generously complying with the state law requiring free public access to the coast.
Past Point Vicente, Palos Verdes Drive West turns south and, not surprisingly, becomes Palos Verdes Drive South. About 100 meters beyond Point Vicente is the parking area for Pelican Cove, a 4-hectare park on land the City acquired from Los Angeles County in 2004.
From the parking area, you can briefly backtrack along Palos Verdes Drive South to the head of Toveemor Trail, which leads down the cliff to the park’s rocky beach. If you’ve already parked at Point Vicente, it’s probably easiest just to walk the short distance along a pedestrian trail that parallels the road past the lighthouse to the trail head.
Toveemor Trail is a steep dirt trail, but with a bit of caution even young children can safely negotiate it. It’s named for Tovemur, the prominent rock just off the promontory that forms the other side of the cove. (Yes, the name is spelled two different ways.) The rock is sacred to the Tongva people, whose territory included all of what is now Los Angeles County and parts of Orange, Ventura, and Riverside Counties before the Spanish arrived.
The Spanish colonial army forcibly relocated the Tongva population to Mission San Gabriel as “neophyte” slave laborers in the 18th century. The Franciscans at the mission converted them to Catholicism, renamed them Gabrieleño, and zealously implemented the Spanish royal edict to eradicate indigenous cultures in the American territories. The descendants of the Gabrieleños are now working to revive the Tongva language using the available fragmentary records of it.
The Tongva believed that Tovemur, which means either “little rabbit” or “dolphin,” was their “first singer and dancer turned to stone.” If you look through binoculars at Tovemur or the other offshore rocks— or overhead— you might see some of the pelicans that give the cove and park its name.
From the south end of the Pelican Cove parking area, the Terranea dirt trail leads to Long Point. From 1954 until 1987, this promontory was the site of Marineland of the Pacific, an aquatic theme park that was a major Southern California tourist attraction. Long Point is now a 41-hectare luxury resort complex called Terranea, that opened in 2009.
You might think the operators of a luxury resort that includes a hotel, condominiums, a golf course, and enough venues for five simultaneous weddings would put up whatever gates, walls, fences, and security guards are necessary to keep uninvited intruders far away from guests and event organizers who paid a lot of money to be there. But the California Coastal Commission prevents them from doing that.
The Coastal Commission vigilantly enforces the state law requiring public access to the coast, and approves all construction along the state’s shoreline. They take their mission very seriously, even limiting the owners of Terranea’s 50 condominiums to occupying them for no more than 60 days per year, and for no more than 29 consecutive days. The rest of the time the condos are available for rental to anyone who can afford them. Also, as a condition for the permits to build the resort, the City of Rancho Palos Verdes insisted on well-maintained trails to facilitate public access.
The Terranea Trail offers beautiful coastal views, free to anyone. The Beach Trail branches from it at “Cielo Point,” the site of a small fenced-in swimming pool and snack bar (accessible only to paying Terranea guests). The Beach Trail ends at Terranea Beach Cove, a private sandy “pocket beach” just behind the rocky shore. These dirt trails, which include wooden stairways in some places, are easily negotiated by the numerous families with kids and dogs who visit on weekends.
At Cielo Point, the Terranea Trail continues parallel to and above the Beach Trail, with views overlooking Terranea Beach Cove. Past the beach it veers south to the foot of the small promontory at the east end of the cove. It then continues along the edge of the cliffs as Vanderlip Park Trail. The name refers to the narrow green trapezoid of Frank A. Vanderlip, Sr. Park, a Rancho Palos Verdes city park roughly at the midpoint of the trail. The trail ends at a private parking lot for a condominium complex.
(Frank A. Vanderlip, Sr., president of City Bank of New York, bought the entire Palos Verdes Peninsula sight unseen in 1913. When he finally visited his purchase in 1916, it reminded him of the Italian coast. He thus envisioned Palos Verdes as dotted with scenic Mediterranean-inspired villages. Palos Verdes Estates, the oldest city on the Peninsula, retains elements of Vanderlip’s vision.)
Continuing east on Palos Verdes Drive South, the next stop is the Wayfarers Chapel, the famous “glass church.”
The Wayfarers Chapel and its 1.4 hectares of grounds overlook Abalone Cove. The cove is a protected reserve for marine life— including abalone— which makes it attractive for scuba diving. It’s also a good place to view sunsets.
Continuing past Abalone Cove takes you through the Portuguese Bend Landslide Area. Originally named for the 19th century Portuguese whalers who processed their catch in the cove, this unstable area has been sliding into the ocean since 1956. For a 1.5 kilometer stretch, the speed limit slows to 15 mph (24 km/h) to accommodate the bumps, roller-coaster dips, and constant road construction work. As you slowly make your way, you might notice pipes along the road. Because the constant land movement makes normal underground sewer pipes impractical, that’s the only place to put them.
Beyond the landslide area, Palos Verdes Drive South soon changes to 25th Street as you enter San Pedro, part of the City of Los Angeles. Although San Pedro is geographically part of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, culturally it’s a different world. It’s home to the Port of Los Angeles, the largest commercial harbor in the country.