Not Just Trees & Degrees: Exploring the Suburban Beauty of Claremont, California
Nestled between the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the sprawling warehouses of the Inland Empire and the bustling surface streets of Pomona lies Claremont, a small city that seems peacefully at odds with most of its immediate surroundings. This fertile, quiet, prosperous neighborhood is home to some of the most prestigious universities in California, a serene downtown, and so much foliage that it gave itself the uninspiring moniker “City of Trees”.
Claremont’s association with its many colleges is integral to the formation and growth of the city (as we know it today, at least—the Tongva-Gabrielino tribes inhabited the region from as far back as 3,500 years ago). An anticipated real estate boom following the arrival of the railroad was quite the anticlimax, and—if it wasn’t for Pomona College deciding to locate its campus there in 1888, the town could have well become a ghost town.
“The Claremont Colleges” are made up of seven universities mostly sharing geographical boundaries to the north and east of downtown. As with many esteemed, open-campus universities, the grounds are kept prim, and there are several green spaces available which allow for marveling at the fancy architecture. Like the Bridges Auditorium (pictured below), which has hosted hundreds of luminaries—Muhammad Ali, Ella Fitzgerald and Willie Nelson to name a few—in the building’s 90-year history.
The Bridges Auditorium on the Pomona College campus
What’s odd about Claremont’s “College Town” status is that you barely notice the students outside of campus grounds. Sure, you often encounter waves of skinny, topless man-boys running towards you while trying to enjoy a walk around the neighborhood, but they seem to keep to themselves for the most part.
The second-most revered area of Claremont is easily its downtown, known as Claremont Village—a title that dangerously teeters on the boundaries of both cute and snooty. Which is actually not a bad way of describing the city itself.
Along the quaint streets of Claremont Village you’ll find boutique stores and eateries alongside local institutions like Rhino Records and the Folk Music Center. Even the pharmacy, dry cleaners and photo shops have that charming, independent small business feel. Honestly the whole thing is very much like a posh version of Stars Hollow.
Other notable mentions in The Village include the Depot—Claremont’s Metrolink station-cum-art museum which gets you into DTLA in 54 minutes, the indie cinema—with its cool retro sign splashing a neon glow on passers-by come darkness, and the Packing House.
The cinema and the surrounding businesses were part of a 2007 Village expansion
The Packing House holds various artisan shops, bars and restaurants in an impressive structure that was once owned by the College Heights Orange and Lemon Association. It operated as intended between 1922 and 1972. Like many of the cities in Southern California, Claremont has a citrussy history.
Many SoCal packing houses have been reimagined as multi-business dining spaces
I briefly mentioned “bars” so now it’s time to segue. Brace yourselves.
Actually, Claremont’s bar scene is a little disappointing. For one, there’s not a single dive bar inside the city limits. Claremont is too fancy for dive bars.
But it’s not all bad. The Back Abbey has a ridiculous beer menu and is sat on the edge of the picturesque Village Plaza. Claremont Craft Ales has nailed its warehouse chic and boozy offerings. Bardot has a great patio for supping on their classy cocktails, and apparently Piano Piano on Foothill is a hoot if you like the idea of raucous crowds and dueling piano battles.
I’m not necessarily saying I don’t like the idea of that combination; I just haven’t quite felt in the right mood for it yet.
Pink rust and blue skies at the Back Abbey
Claremont’s downtown district is tiny, and after just a few blocks north, south or west, you’ll start to find only homes.
Being a homeowner feels like an art in Claremont. Amongst the thousands of trees, the majority of the city’s residential streets are littered with well-manicured gardens, bright and quirky wall décor, and gleaming cars.
Trees with colossal trunks sit inside welcoming front lawns, towering over the houses, the road, and everything but other huge trees—and showering the roads with nuts, fruits, petals, branches and needles (pine) throughout the seasons.
From the outside, it looks like an idyllic middle-class suburban life. But on the inside… no I’m kidding, I have no intimate knowledge of any Claremont families. I’m sure they’re all very happy.
Further north, where once laid the citrus groves that ensured employment for the packing house workers, now resides more of Claremont’s residents. Throughout the 20th century, the city ebbed closer and closer to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains; in the 70s, when homes started to pop up on the hillsides themselves, the City of Claremont established the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park—as a way of saying “Look, this area we’ll definitely not develop…the rest is fair game,” I guess—which is now home to a variety of the area’s most popular trails.
Scaling the hills can reward you with some breathtaking vistas of the valley—huge disclaimer: when the air quality allows—and the trails themselves are well-marked, leading you through lush woodlands and alongside naturally running water. Which is rare in this part of the world.
The Padua Hills Theater sits at the foot of the Wilderness Park; now a wedding venue, the space held the title of “longest running theater featuring Mexican-theme musicals in the United States” when it operated between 1931 and 1974.
Moving back below the 210 freeway, I’ve sadly yet to make it to Claremont’s top-rated attraction on Trip Advisor—the California Botanical Garden. This 86-acre estate is home to over 70,000 California plants, and houses a research arm for studying the state’s flora and fauna.
For such a small city—around 37,000 residents—there’s a decent amount to do in Claremont. And despite the ever-so-slight air of superiority from the immaculate garden owners, it’s a pleasant, beautiful place to get to know. I’m glad I have it on my doorstep.