Imagine gazing out at a sprawling blue vista of Pacific Ocean, your toes tucked into the soft sand of Carbon Beach. To your left, an interconnected chain of pristine beaches wind along the coast to the southern horizon. To your right — a quarter mile north of Malibu Beach Inn — the ‘Bu’s iconic pier peels out to greet the rolling tide. And just beyond, veiled by verdant green, lies the spectacular saltwater marsh known as Malibu Lagoon.
A casual observer may find it difficult to tell where ocean ends and lagoon begins, explains Betsy Handler, a docent of the property’s historical fixtures. But walk through the Malibu Lagoon State Beach entrance and down the main path, and a secluded ecosystem of natural splendor begins to unfold in a vibrant wetland that’s intricately woven with Malibu’s earliest stories.
It took all of 22 seconds for Handler, a retired attorney and Manhattan native, to fall in love with Southern California. That was 33 years ago, and she has remained in the area ever since.
“I love it,” she says. “It’s just an incomparably beautiful place.”
Photo: ellenm1 via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY
An avid history buff, Handler volunteered as a docent at the Getty Villa for about three years before she discovered Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Now a docent at the property — which includes the Malibu Lagoon Museum and the historic Adamson House — she leads tours of the site while purveying its rich background and natural beauty.
As with many great stories, Handler likes to tell the lagoon’s tale from the beginning. Originally home to a Chumash tribe that lived throughout the region in pre-colonial times, the site’s earliest legends are steeped in aboriginal lore. As Spanish explorers arrived on the California coast, bringing diseases of the Old World, the Chumash population eventually dwindled, leaving remnants of their former dynasty in the form of shell bead currencies and extraordinary accomplishments in rock art.
“We go through history up to 1892, when Frederick Rindge, the father of Mrs. Adamson, bought the 13,000-plus acres of what is now Malibu for $10 an acre,” says Handler, who adds that the purchase included 21 miles of coastline and stretched three miles inland to incorporate the lagoon.
Rindge, a successful Los Angeles businessman, turned his new Malibu estate into a tranquil seaside farm called Rancho Topanga, Malibu, et Sequit that was secluded to people outside his family. After he died in 1905, Rindge’s wife, May, continued to maintain the land while honoring her late husband’s wishes.
Photo: Keith Yahl via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY
May completed the neighboring Malibu Pier (one of her spouse’s unfinished projects), built the 15-mile “Railway to Nowhere” to offload goods for the ranch, and began to lease a segment of her property which became known as the Malibu Colony.
“She leased it for $1 per foot of ocean frontage, with the proviso that any structures had to be torn down after 10 years,” says Handler, who likes to show Malibu Lagoon Museum visitors photographs of famous tenants like Bing Crosby and Dolores del Río standing in front of modest and temporary homes.
Perhaps the most daunting task that May undertook was her effort to keep the Pacific Coast Highway from being built. After 18 years, tens of thousands of dollars spent, and an escalation to the Supreme Court, it was a fight against exponential growth into the LA area — and a battle she ended up losing.
When her daughter, Rhoda, married her ranch manager, Merritt Adamson Jr., May gave the newlyweds 15 acres of land near Surfrider Beach on which they built the Adamson House, a 5,000-square-foot Spanish revival home that took five years to plan and construct.
Photo: Los Angeles via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY
Today, the immaculately maintained house and surrounding Malibu Lagoon are owned by the State of California, which painstakingly maintains the property through volunteers, public funding, and proceeds from tour fees. While the only way to experience the inside of the historic home is through a docent like Handler, the adjoining Malibu Lagoon Museum is free for visitors to explore, as are the grounds surrounding it — which are speckled with century-old trees, flower gardens, and plaques to aid in self-guided tours.
Upon crossing the threshold of the state park, guests can explore a brackish wetland teeming with local flora and fauna. Because more than a third of all endangered species rely on wetlands either directly or indirectly, the lagoon has long been designated as a precious haven for a variety of pollinators, insects, fish, and birds.
Part of the Pacific Flyway, the protected estuary is an oasis for migratory birds, which can be seen in full force during their spring and fall transitions. Along with the seasonally transient Canadian Geese, Mallard Ducks, and Snowy Egret, more permanent residents can be seen in their natural habitat — like Brown Pelicans, American Coot, Endangered California Least Tern, and Great Blue Heron.
Photo: Betsy Handler
“It’s a wonderful walk for anyone who is interested in birds,” Handler notes. While the docent’s purview remains within the site’s historical structures, she adds that visitors can arrange in-depth wetland tours through other stewards of the site like the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) and its partners, the California Coastal Commission, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, and the State of California Coastal Conservancy.
Through these organizations, which focus on conservation through education, guided tours of the lagoon’s majestic backdrop cover more than sanctuary-seeking birds. Guests also have the opportunity to embark on seasonally scheduled explorations of unusual grunion mating rituals, gray whale and Monarch butterfly migrations, and a variety of sea life deposited by the surf in the area’s tidepools.
“The lagoon is just a calming, beautiful, natural scene,” Handler says. “It’s the perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon, taking a walk and snapping photographs.”
Featured Photo: Betsy Handler