story and photography by Steven W. Ross[This Favorite Ride: From Hollywood to Malibu Through a Star-Studded Landscape was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Rider magazine]
In 1980 British artist David Hockney produced the painting “Mulholland Drive—The Road to the Studio.” The painting is a colorful and whimsical view of the road and the star-rich landscape it traverses as it winds along the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles. As I look at a print of that painting above my desk, the idea comes to do the motorcycling equivalent of it: Mulholland Drive: The Ride.
Mulholland Drive opened the Santa Monica Mountains to traffic in 1924. It’s named after William Mulholland, the man behind the massive water system that made Los Angeles possible. The two-lane mountain road winds from Highway 101 in Hollywood to the Ventura County line.
The Cahuenga Boulevard exit from the Hollywood Freeway (U.S. 101) places me at the beginning, where Mulholland starts the long twisty climb to the top of the Hollywood Hills. The green-and-white road sign pointing the way is posted amidst a small grove of California pepper trees and a white rail fence that seem to suggest an earlier, more pastoral California, though today the freeway noise breaks the reverie. This will be a recurring theme. While many of the sights along the way are of skylines and the metropolis, they are seen from that most fleeting of landscapes, the urban wilderness.
Within a few minutes I reach the top of the ridgeline, but not before making a brief stop at one of many well-marked viewpoints to ogle the Hollywood Sign and the skyline of downtown Los Angeles. Toward the top of the climb, the great expanse of the San Fernando Valley, best known for sprawling ranch-style houses, citrus and dry heat, stretches off to the north. Turning east, views open toward Universal Studios, both the amusement park and the working studio. Motoring on, the sage, pines and eucalyptus provide a fresh fragrance and enjoyable contrast to the normal Los Angeles breathing experience.
Shortly, I come to Benedict Canyon, which holds a prominent place in Hollywood lore. It was here, just a few turns down Benedict Canyon on Cielo Drive, that the Manson Family murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others. Tate was married to director Roman Polanski, who was absent that night. Ironically, a few miles up Mulholland is Jack Nicholson’s home where six years later Polanski was arrested for having sex with an underaged girl, a story still in the headlines. From fame to infamy on Mulholland Drive.
At the first light west of Benedict Canyon I take a left on Beverly Glen Boulevard. The Glen Center is at the first light on the right. A few years ago a friend worked at a very swanky Italian café here. Great canoli but the best part was the people watching. Warren Beatty in his 500SL, Kenny G in a tricked out Porsche and the band Counting Crows are a few of my observations here over the years. Today the Italian joint is a Starbucks but the people watching is still top shelf. For the price of a latte, you have a seat at the show. A friendly suggestion—park on the street and walk in. The parking lot is steep.
Refreshed, I continue west on Mulholland. This segment gets a little curvier and a little tighter which feels all right in third gear. Many curves are blind enough that the driveways have mirrors to allow a view of the road. I slow down, loosen my grip and again take a breath. Sometimes it’s good to slow down. At this writing the pavement conditions can vary on this piece of road. To quote Jack Nicholson in The Departed, “Proceed accordingly.” Jack probably lives within earshot.
I follow the signs to Interstate 405 and head south for the next leg, Sunset Boulevard. Sunset is the first exit, so the 405 experience is, happily, of short duration. After a few blocks of perennial congestion, Sunset opens up to provide a four-lane serpentine masterpiece of a ride to the sea. I lean gently into turn after turn through the lush green hillsides so perfect they could have been created at Pixar.
I wind down the last stretch of Sunset through a couple of sweeping curves and there it is, the largest ocean on the planet. The descent from the hills of the Palisades to Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of those archetypal images that define California, and I’m the lucky guy who is motoring right through it. Woo-hoo!
At PCH, with the Pacific Ocean and Gladstones 4 Fish as landmarks, I take a right toward Malibu. Since this is one of the most memorable stretches of coastline in the world, I expect traffic, and I’m not disappointed. But being a motorcyclist, I am also an optimist. I go with the (jammed) flow and enjoy the view.
Paradise Cove is a picture-perfect stop on the Malibu beach, 14 miles north. I’m going to date myself here, but if you remember any of the Gidget or Beach Blanket Bingo movies, you would recognize this place. It’s a left turn on Paradise Cove Road to the beach, restaurant and pricey parking. On a warm, sunny day, it’s a two-hour wait for a table at the restaurant. I walk through the crowded waiting area and out onto the dazzling sand with its umbrellas like colorful confetti, manic children and beautiful people. There’s a snack shop on the beach behind the restaurant where a beverage or sandwich can be had with no wait at all.
Time has flown and I’m ready to return to town. I motor south to a classic view of the Santa Monica pier. PCH merges with the Santa Monica Freeway at the pier and reconnects me with the Los Angeles freeway matrix and the way home.