Created by uplift of the sea floor roughly two million years ago, the Palos Verdes peninsula lay surrounded by the ocean for hundreds of thousands of years. Today a vast sheet of alluvium fills the Los Angeles Basin and connects Palos Verdes to the "mainland" -- yet in a figurative sense Palos Verdes has never really lost its identity as an island.
Rimmed by an ocean of oil refineries, gritty industrial neighborhoods, and wall-to-wall people, the peninsula itself is dominated almost exclusively by opulent ranch-style homes and sprawling, lavishly landscaped estates. When the lowland cities of Torrance and Long Beach are cloaked by fog or brown haze, Palos Verdes often stands head and shoulders above the murk; ocean watchers might spot Santa Catalina Island from there but fail to make out L.A. Harbor only a few miles away. Right now, however, the characteristically clear air of winter prevails, and good views extend in every direction, near and far.
At Del Cerro Park, on top of the Palos Verdes peninsula, you need only climb a small, grassy hill to take in a simply stunning ocean vista. With a bit more ambition, though, you can hoof it less than a mile to an even more panoramic view spot.
Del Cerro Park is easy to find -- very near the southern terminus (dead end) of Crenshaw Boulevard, one of L.A.'s most prominent thoroughfares. Park next to the grassy hill or find a spot elsewhere on nearby residential streets. At Crenshaw's dead end, step around the steel gate and follow the dirt fire road beyond. This road traces Crenshaw's proposed extension down to Palos Verdes Drive South at Portuguese Bend, a project that will likely never be realized.
Soon you're in a rare patch of open space surrounded by, but largely removed from, the curving avenues and palatial estates of Rancho Palos Verdes. Since the mid-1950s, when more than 100 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged by landslides in the Portuguese Bend area, most of the steep area above the bend has remained off limits to development.
At 0.5 mile, stay right as roads branch left. Continue a curving descent until you reach a flat area about a quarter mile farther. Leave the road there and make a beeline for the top of a 950-foot knoll, dotted with planted pines, on the left. Atop this serene little overlook you'll enjoy a 150-degree view of the ocean, with Santa Catalina Island sprawling at center stage in the south. If the marine air is very clear, try to spot San Nicolas Island, some 70 miles away to the southwest.
The knoll you're standing on is a remnant of one of the 13 marine terraces that have made the Palos Verdes hills a textbook example familiar to geology students. The 13 terraces, rising like rounded and broken stairs from sea level to 1300 feet, are the result of wave erosion modified by uplift and fluctuating sea levels during the past 2 million years.