Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
A bunch of locals writhing around in mud in the county's wilderness—how can you not love that? Plus, its organizers are moving on up in the world, putting on runs at the Santa Fe and Prado dams this fall. Have fun, and don't forget to cover up your orifices so you don't have to dig out any inconvenient pebbles.
Yes, we know it's not a traditional dog park. But it is the best place to take your dog. After all, it's named for a dog-lover, James Irvine Jr. Not far from the boathouse, on land that used to be his "picnic grounds," stands the iconic statue of the onetime landowner, whose name is on, well, an entire city, with his dogs. You and your pup can happily—and leashedly—roam trails along the back of the park, stroll by the lake, or climb hills. There will be the occasional peacock, maybe a trainload of kids bustling through, perhaps a family on bicycles. But otherwise, it's a serene, mostly shaded walk (or run, depending on your dog), unencumbered by dog owners who couldn't care less whether their Rottweiler is trying to mate with your schnauzer.
The cliff behind silences Coast Highway, so all you hear are waves, the wind flapping at your umbrella and an occasional gull outburst. If not for swimsuit styles, it could be 1918, when the first film was shot here, or 1970, when it was common for people to ride horses bareback by the surf. Time passes, 21st-century tensions vanish, and you stop grinding your teeth. Slowly it dawns that people are relishing what they are doing: floating beyond the breakers or peering into tidepools ("We saw opal eyes!"). Children are reading, and adults are getting buried to their chins. After watching a mom take a picture of her kid looming high above her on a rock, you find yourself actually volunteering to take a picture of the whole family as they stand close and grin ridiculously. Now you are grinning, too. You don't even wait to get back to your spot, but drop your hat and sunglasses and dive in at Muddy Creek because that's one of the best spots for bodysurfing at the park. Sandy bottom, not too shallow, no mud—the creek peters out up in backcountry. Back on your towel, the onshore breeze blows your body dry. Being at this beach is an actual vacation, completely worth the $15 entrance fee. Better yet, join the California State Parks Foundation (www.calparks.org) for $25, and get seven day-use passes to visit whenever you want during the year that follows. This beach is safe from wanton development forever. The only worry will come in some future form from the sea—tsunami, the Fukushima radiation leaks—all the more reason to enjoy the here and now. To get to Muddy Creek, park at Reef Point and take the steep, south ramp down, or park at El Moro and go through the tunnel where creek meets sea to the beach, walk north and pick a spot.
These trails overlap to provide a raucous mix of steep canyon plant life, gnarled geologic formations, an ancient beach, and helicopter-high views of the coastline and ocean. You get all that, plus an excellent—okay, 50/50—chance of seeing a roadrunner on an easy-to-moderate hike of less than 3 miles. Wild local kids of the '60s and '70s called the area Sands and would ditch school to hang out or camp overnight on the 10 million-year-old sandy beach. Sandstone cliffs line the ancient beach, which now looms 780 feet above sea level. Early OC builders pillaged the sand to make their cement, stripping away topsoil in the process, so the cliffs began to erode because of the rainwater rushing down from Laguna Ridge. If you have a thing for badlands and have seen the Arizona and South Dakota specimens, you'll enjoy this miniature version. Along the trail, a glance can become a mental snapshot of blooming anise in the foreground, the badlands below, and, way down and beyond, ocean and sky. On the next clear day, take this hike—you'll see from Palos Verdes to South Laguna. After exploring the Badlands, walk farther south on the trail to take mental or actual panoramas sweeping from Saddleback Mountain to San Clemente Island, from Salt Creek past the Harbor to San Clemente and on toward San Diego. While you're enjoying this mad beauty, get a perverse pleasure from how annoyed the mansion owners must be that we have access. Badlands Park was dedicated in 1990 and became a county park in 1992. In 1995, the battle to stop the housing development from destroying the Laguna Ridge was lost. But the county successfully sued the developers who had painted the curb red to prevent access. So park freely on their hoity-toity street. There is one handicapped parking space near the picnic tables, but several sets of stairs and sandy or gravelly inclines may thwart wheelchairs on the trail.
If it's a resort you want, spend the weekend at Harrah's Rincon, they have "adult swim" Saturdays and a long, lazy river, in addition to single-deck blackjack. But they don't have $5 blackjack tables—not even close. For that, it's Ocean's Eleven, baby. Close by in Oceanside, it has long been a favorite destination for poker players. You'll see a lot of congenial tables full of people hard at play at Hold 'em and Omaha. Jackpots start at $20,000. Ocean's blackjack rules give the player a bit of an edge over other casinos; you may double on any two cards, surrender and split any two cards of the same value up to three times. The casino offers a steady stream of promotions for Pai Gow, EZ Baccarat and Three-Card Poker, but none is more of a thrill than the No Bust 21st Century Blackjack. That's right, it's possible to not lose even if you go over 21. When the player busts with three cards totaling 23, 24 or 25, and the dealer busts with a higher count, it's a push. That's at no extra cost. You can also make bust bets in which you get paid a higher amount depending on how many cards it took to go over. But it just doesn't seem right to bet against yourself in this way. You are already shooting yourself in the foot by gambling in this economy. Since Ocean's Eleven is technically a "poker club" rather than an Indian casino, there are no slots, and a 50-cent ante on each hand goes to "The Corporation." "Please gamble responsibly." Hah!
On a narrow strip of land, above Corona Del Mar State Beach, sits a grassy knoll, upon which you can spread your picnic blanket and feel the majesty of Inspiration Point. Graze on your delicious feast as you survey the ever-changing landscape that are the million-dollar homes across the street. (When do they stop renovating? Ever?) Look down upon the beach-goers on the sand below; you could visit them if you brave the very steep, concrete ramp leading to the slightly rocky shore. Or you could stay dry and grit-free where you are, gazing at the sunset. This—THIS—is why you live in Southern California, where the sun sinks into the ocean, after its long day of blazing a trail across the contiguous United States. It rose to greet the Statue of Liberty, but it drifts off to slumber on the Best Coast, where life is just that much more fabulous. . . . Ahem. Perhaps we got too inspired.