A red tailed hawk circles lazily in the sky. There is a light breeze causing a gentle rustle in the trees on this beautiful December day just north of Los Angeles. The sun is shining through scattered clouds. The faint smell of smoke from a carefully tended fire greets me.

It’s the winter solstice at Satwiwa in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The Native American cultural center speaks to visitors about the heritage of this part of California. Other signs point toward the Big Sycamore Trail, which runs from here all the way to the Pacific. Booths featuring native crafts line a dirt field out front, placed in a circle around a mock-up of a native dwelling used for demonstrations throughout the year. I make my way to the fire and join the group of people sitting on tree stump stools around it.

Chumash elder Dennis Garcia welcomes us to his people’s sacred lands. He leads us in an opening prayer, sending white sage incense to the four points of the compass using an eagle wing (seriously, an actual eagle wing). As he sings the song of the eagle, I feel so far from Los Angeles, even though I am only ten minutes off of the 101 Freeway.

These mountains have been a part of the Chumash people for centuries. Today, they are run by the National Park Service, but the Chumash are still very involved. The partnership is a good one, Garcia tells me. The Park Service has the resources to make the Mountains and their secrets accessible and safe for everyone, and the Chumash are happy knowing their lands are in good hands.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is made up of more than 150,000 acres of protected land between the Conejo Valley and the Pacific Ocean along the border of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. Preserving one of the largest tracts of Mediterranean climate ecosystem land in the world, it is the perfect place for residents of Los Angeles to escape the bustle of the city, and yet it seems virtually nobody has heard of it.

“I think one reason [nobody has heard of the park] is that we’re not a contiguous, all-encompassing national park like Yosemite or Joshua Tree where all the land inside the park’s boundary is federal parkland,” ranger Scott Sharaga tells me. “We have many landowners within our boundary, public and private. I think people are aware of these places, like Solstice Canyon and Paramount Ranch, through social media and the Internet, but don’t always know that they’re connected through the all-encompassing Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service.”

It is truly a shame. Scott and I are walking through Paramount Ranch, a section of the Park used by filmmakers as a set for countless movies and television shows, including the popular Westworld on HBO. Western Town, as this area is known, is a fun place to explore, with many of the buildings being open to visitors, except on days there is filming going on, though then visitors can watch the crews at work as this is Federal accessible land. He takes me into the jail, complete with a skeleton in the cell, that was built for Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and through the saloon down the street. All that is missing is some tumbleweed and I am ready for a showdown at the OK Corral!

Scott and I speak at length about the Park and all it has to offer. I ask him about his favorite activities. “I personally enjoy hiking, photography, and scenic drives,” he says. “We have hundreds of miles of trails in the park that take you to mountaintops, waterfalls, and through oak woodlands. The mountains provide for many photography opportunities, especially when the warm-colored rock outcrops glow at sunrise and sunset. And of course, nearly every road through and across the Santa Monica Mountains is a scenic one. Among my favorite drives are Mulholland Highway, Topanga Canyon, Stunt Road, and Yerba Buena Road.”

There are more ways to see the Mountains than just by foot or car, though, and thanks to the incredible generosity of Visit Conejo Valley, I got to try one of them: a horseback ride through Western Town and the surrounding hills with Malibu Riders. I cannot recommend this enough! My first time ever on a horse, Malibu Riders made it so easy. The horses are trained to follow each other and the trail, so even if you are a bit nervous, you won’t get separated from your group while gazing off at the beautiful landscapes that unfold around every bend. I even got to cross a stream and work up to a trot on Gracie, my wonderful and well-mannered horse.

Once again, I was struck by just how peaceful it was being out in the mountains just minutes from Los Angeles. What an incredible world, free from crowds and worries! Gracie chewed on some straw as Scott’s horse did the same next to me. He is finishing his degree at California State University, Northridge, but plans to continue as a ranger after graduating. “I love meeting people from all over L.A., the U.S., and the world and listening to what brought them to the park,” he tells me. “And after the sun sets, I enjoy using one of our telescopes to share our excellent night sky with people. Often, they’re surprised at how much of the Galaxy you can see here, despite our proximity to Los Angeles. In the summer, the Milky Way is visible from places in the central and western Santa Monica Mountains. Sharing the sight of our galaxy with people is special.”

The Park offers night sky viewing activities with the rangers regularly. If that doesn’t interest you, try a hike or a nature walk, learn about the archaeological artifacts on display – the Mountains are home to a treasure trove of ancient crafts and fossils – or try to get a view of one of the many native fauna within the Park boundaries. The Santa Monica Mountains are home to deer, bobcats, and even mountain lions!

As our ride comes to an end, I think back to my conversation with Dennis Garcia of the Chumash. His words about his ancient tribal lands ring through my head. “Understand they [the Chumash] were the first here, and the land is sacred to them, but it is open to all to appreciate the beauty of the nature.”

I, for one, am so thankful it is. I am thankful to be able to explore this sacred land, and I know you will feel the same way.

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