California Fool’s Gold — A Santa Monica Mountains primer


Santa Monica Mountains

The Santa Monica Mountains are a traverse mountain range that stretches from the Pacific Ocean 64 kilometers east to the flood plain where the Los Angeles River is fed by the Verdugo Wash. The southern side of the eastern end of the range is almost always referred to as the Hollywood Hills. The central portion lies within Los Angeles’s westside and the foothills are home to some of LA’s most affluent neighborhoods (e.g. Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades). To the north, separated by the mountains, is the San Fernando Valley. Technically, the Channel Islands are also part of the range, although they’re separated from the mainland by water.

Santa Monica MountainsPendersleigh & Sons‘ Official Map of the Santa Monica Mountains

The western portion of the Santa Monica Mountains separates the Conejo Valley from Malibu and the neighboring communities that make up the Los Angeles district known as the Santa Monica Mountainsarea. The district borders Ventura County to the west and north, the San Fernando Valley to the northeast and the Westside to the east. 

View of downtown from the Santa Monica Mountains

The chaparral covering the region is home to mountain lions, steelheads, Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes, various kingsnakes, Gopher snakes, Garter snakes, Western fence lizards, bobcats, mule deer, golden eagles and other less glamorous creatures. The area around the shore is home to dolphins, octopi, sea gulls, crabs, anemones, mussels, sharks, cormorants, seals, pelicans, sea lions and whales. For thousands of years, the land was shared by the Tongva in the east and the Chumash. The Chumash called the area along the Pacific “Humaliwo,” meaning “the surf sounds loudly,” and Malibu derives its name from this. There is some evidence that the two sea-going peoples had contact with the Polynesians. The natives were later conquered and displaced by the Spanish. Later, the land became part of Mexico. After that, it was conquered by the US. Today it is home to six separate communities and a large, unincorporated region in the middle.

Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains

Such a beautiful setting was of course, extremely desirable for developers and homebuyers and it should come as no surprise that it’s one of the wealthiest regions of Los Angeles County. The population of the area is 85% white and just 6% Asian and 6% Latino. Thankfully, for the rag, tag and bobtail, the beach and unincorporated hills are not for sale and each year hundreds of thousands of visitors come to surf, swim, tan, shroom, hike, ride horses, camp and more.

Malibu Beach movie poster

The Santa Monica Mountains region has been celebrated in songs by the likes of 90s alt-rocker Poe (“Hey Pretty”) and 50 Cent, who in the 2003 song, “True Loyalty”, claimed that one could find him “in the Santa Monica Mountains, bundled up to ski.” Four years later, his optimism was rewarded with up to three inches of snow in a range that had not seen measurable snowfall since 1950. The dramatic scenery has of course also long proven to be a popular filming location.

And now for the individual communities:



Agoura Hills

With a $117,608 median household income, Agoura Hills is the “poorest” neighborhood in the region. The population, which manages to somehow scrape by, is 83% white (mostly German, English and Persian), 7% Latino (mostly Mexican) and 6% Asian. It’s located in the eastern Conejo Valley between the Simi Hillsand The Santa Monica Mountains and includes its own neighborhoods of Downtown, Hillrise, South End, Upper Downtown, Old Agoura, East Agoura, Malibu Junction, Historic Quarter, Forest Cove’, Morrison Ranch, Lake Lindero, Reyes Adobe, North Village, Morrison Estates and Fountainwood. Agoura Hills is known in the nü-metal of the 1990s for giving rise to such acts as Dead By Sunrise, Fort Minor, Hoobastank, Incubus and Linkin Park.



Calabasas is one of the oldest areas of European settlement in the county. The Leonis Adobe, in Old Town, was built in 1844 and still stands. During the Dot Com Bubble of the late 1990s, Calabasas’s reputation was rebooted. Due to the arrival of a number of tech companies, largely along Agoura Road, it became known as the “101 Technology Corridor.” The nouveau riche favored bland but big McMansions and the town has a very bourgeois vibe exemplified by famous reality show figures like Calabasas’s Kardashian family. Today the population is 83% white (mostly Russian, German, Persian and Canadian), 8% Asian and 5% Latino.


Cornell, California

Cornell is an unincorporated community situated along the Mulholland Corridor in the wine country area of the Santa Monica Mountains. The old Cornell post office, which operated from 1884 until 1904, is now home of the restaurant, Old Place. The town is also home of The Rock Store and Cornell Winery and Tasting Room.


Hidden Hills

Located in the Simi Hills, tiny Hidden Hills is a a gated development and  the wealthiest community in Santa Monica Mountains. It was developed in the 1950s, by AE Hanson, known for his previous posh developments including Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills and Beverly Hill’s Greenacres. The population is 89% white (mostly Russian, English and Canadian) and 6% Latino (mostly Mexican). To the north of the homes is the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, a park with miles of equestrian, hiking, and mountain biking trails. The city was the setting of a short-lived NBC sitcom called Hidden Hills, which aired in 2002-2003. The 1978 Wes Craven horror film Summer Of Fear aka Stranger In Our House was filmed in the community.


Malibu California

Malibu is a well-known beachfront city with some of the best beaches in the county, including Surfrider,Zuma, Malibu Lagoon, Topanga, Point Dume, Dan Blocker, El Pescador, La Piedra and my favorite, El Matador. Various Malibu beaches were featured in Gidget, Beach Blanket Bingo, Charlie’s Angels, Planet of the Apes (the buried Statue of Liberty scene), The Rockford Files, MTV Beach House, Malibu’s Most Wanted, Rich and Famous, Two and a Half Men, Malibu Shores and too many music videos to name here. On TV, Malibu is the home of vapid and unpleasant fictional characters like Hannah Montana and the Olsen Twins‘ Carlson Twins on So Little Time. In real life the population is 76% White (mostly English and German) and 17% Asian (mostly Taiwanese and Japanese).


Saratoga Hills is a small community located south of Agoura Hills in the unincorporated Santa Monica Mountains. It’s almost entirely residential, mostly comprised of gated subdivisions and gated homes.


Pt Mugu

The sparsely-inhabited and unincorporated part of the Santa Monica Mountains is home to the youngest population in the region. It includes some of the most attractive natural areas including Zuma/Tracas Canyon, Malibu Creek State Park, Cold Creek Canyon Preserve, Tuna Canyon Park, Pt. Mugu and Leo Carrillo State Park, the latter a beachside area named after the famous actor, vaudevillian and conservationist. The population of under 10,000 residents is 83% white (mostly German, English, Persian and Canadian), 6% Latino and 6% Asian. There are is at least one village within the area, tiny Cornell.


Topanga Village

The name Topanga was given to the area by the Tongva and means “a place above.” It was the western edge of their homeland. Topanga Creek, which runs through Topanga Canyon, is the third largest watershed entering the Santa Monica Bay. During the 1960s, Topanga Canyon became a destination for many hippies and musicians. The Topanga Corral featured Topanga then-local acts like Canned Heat, Spirit, Little Feat, Spanky and Our Gang, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, Windance, Neil Young, Geronimo Black and many others. The venue is rumored to be the inspiration of The Doors‘  “Roadhouse Blues.” It later burned down and was rebuilt, hosting many local punk bands. In 1986, it burned down again. In that show, Boy Meets World, there was a character named Topanga played by actress Danielle Fishel. Today Topanga’s population is 88% white (mostly English, German and Canadian), 5% Latino and 4% Asian.


Westlake Village

Westlake Village‘s population is 86% white (mostly English, German, Persian and Canadian), 6% Asian and 5% Latino. It’s also the oldest population in the area. The planned community actually straddles Los Angeles County and Ventura County along the Conejo Valley. The Ventura portion is technically part of Thousand Oaks, the eastern part is not.

Malibu sunset


And so dudes and dudettes, to vote for any towns in the Santa Monica Mountains region or any other Los Angeles County communities to be covered on the blog vote here. To vote for Los Angeles neighborhoods, click here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here. Shaka!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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