By John McKinney
Discount prices on The Trailmaster’s books including The Hiker's Way, the perfect gift for that hiker in your life. Check out the new Los Angeles County, A Day Hiker’s Guide
Get the most out of your time on the trail! Inspiration, information, practical tips & entertaining stories
Hike the World in Southern California
Thanks to Southern California's Richly Diverse Terrain, You Don't Have to Walk Far to Imagine Yourself in a Foreign Country.
Armed with a little imagination and a copy of "Day Hiker's Guide to Southern California," you can explore the world by exploring Southern California. Here's how to set your own international itinerary without leaving the Southland.
I have contemplated the Southland from a hundred peaks, meditated upon it along thousands of miles of trail, but it wasn't until I hiked across the island of Rhodes, 7,000 miles form home, that I began to understand Southern California's place in the world.
A few summer's back I was hiking through a Greek government nature preserve called Valley of the Pethoules (butterfly). A fairyland it was. Countless orange butterflies are attracted to the valley by the sweet resin of the storax tree, which is used to make frankincense.
As I hike along I clapped my hands, and the butterflies rose in clouds. How very much like the scene back home in Pt. Mugu State Park, I thought, where millions of orange monarch butterflies cluster every autumn.
Leaving the butterflies, my trail on Rhodes climbed out of the fairyland into a forest. Eventually the rocky path took me to the open gate of Kalopetra (Good Rock) Monastery. A young monk in the traditional black cassock and stovepipe hat was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. With traditional Greek hospitality, he shared what he had-the panoramic view from the monastery's lofty heights.
As we looked over valleys and villages, forest and sea, we talked a lot about the island-the late arrival of the wildflowers, how the rocky peaks "touch the sky." When the monk learned I was from Southern California, he wanted to know what my land looked like.
I thought for a moment. "It looks a lot like Rhodes."
"It must be very beautiful then," he said. "And do these people of Southern California love their land?"
A harder question, and one I've thought and written about many times. "I don't think they know very much about it," I hedged.
On several other occasions in Greece, since my accidental pilgrimage to Good Rock Monastery, I've hiked to a little bit of Southern California. And many more times I've discovered a little bit of Greece in Southern California.
Looking at the harbor scene while approaching Catalina Island, for example, always reminds me of a Greek island, one of the Cyclades perhaps. Catalina is sparse and Spartan, with a deep blue bay and even some wild goats.
Unquestionably the Southland shares a sea-tempered Mediterranean climate-the hot days, the cool nights, the long, hot summers, the short, rainy winters-with Spain, Greece, Italy, North Africa and the South of France.
Some parts of the Southern California coast seem bathed in that soft, magical Mediterranean light, in particular the south-facing Malibu and Santa Barbara beaches and the south slopes of the Santa Monica and Santa Ynez mountains.
I'm far from the first to make this comparison. A hundred years ago, travel writers and tourist brochures were beckoning Europeans and Americans from colder climes to visit "America's Italy."
Although the Mediterranean theme dominated, other scenic comparisons were made by early boosters. "Our Araby" and "Little Switzerland" were two of the more popular nicknames for Southern California. When they visit SoCal, Northern Europeans identify with the high country of the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains. Immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa have discovered many Southern California sandscapes that look like home.
One of the major reasons that the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was set aside in 1978 was to preserve an example of a Mediterranean ecosystem, the only such Mediterranean-like locale under National Park Service protection. The Santa Monica Mountains are the only range in America to bisect a metropolis, and they are easily accessible. The Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara, part of Los Padres National Forest, also projects a Mediterranean flavor. Rattlesnake, Cold Spring, San Ysidro and Jesusita are four of my favorite trails. These trails generally begin in lush canyon bottoms, zigzag up the canyon walls, and intersect El Camino Cielo (The Sky Road), which offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, Channel Islands and the coastal plain.
For a taste of the Alpine world, head for the top of the San Gabriel Mountains-Mt. Baldy, Mt. Islip, Mt. Baden-Powell. Or head for the San Gorgonio Wilderness in San Bernardino National Forest. This is the site of Southern California's highest peak-11,499-foot Mt. San Gorgonio-on the high spine of the San Bernardino Mountains.
The alpine meadows on the mountain shoulder are dotted with wild rose, lemon lily, mountain iris, Indian paintbrush and golden yarrow. Bighorn sheep roam the high slopes, and golden eagles soar over the summit.
At the top there's a 360-degree panoramic view-from the Pacific to the far reaches of the Mojave, from the Mexican border to another of the Southland's Switzerland-like ranges: the southern Sierra Nevadas.
The San Jacinto Mountains are probably the most Swiss-like terrain in Southern California. Even the gondolas of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway are Swiss-built, and they give hikers access in 18 minutes to country that once required a day's strenuous hike to reach. The tram takes you over one of the most abrupt mountain faces in the world-over cliffs that only a bighorn sheep can scale, and over several ecological zones from palms to pines. In few parts of the world do alpine and desert vegetation thrive in such close proximity.
In the heart of Mojave National Preserve is a stunningly beautiful slice of the Sahara-the Kelso Dunes, one of the tallest dune systems in America. One of my favorite trails leads to the top of the dunes, but its tough walking in soft sand to the top. Two steps forward, one step back.
Of course the classic North African desert scene includes not only mighty dunes but a palm-fringed oasis or two. We have plenty of palm oases in Southern California, where the native California fan palm thrives.
I like hiking to the oasis on the outskirts of Palm Springs, known as the Indian Canyns-Palm, Murray and Andreas. Palm Canyon, with 3,000 palms, is the uncrowned king of American desert oases. Surrounded by arid, rocky mountains, the canyon is strikingly similar to parts of Israel.
Nearly every time I hike along Leo Carrillo State Beach on the Los Angeles County/Ventura County line, I see a movie company in action. The propmaster rolls a few exotic palms onto the beach, and Leo Carrillo doubles for the South Seas.
If it's the rocky shores of England I'm after, I like to take a train to Del Mar Beach to Torrey Pines State Reserve. When a winter storm rages against the shingle beach, it's easy to recall the Devon and Dorset coasts of Britain. Nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea must have been named by some Anglophile who was inspired by its resemblance to the seaport town of Cardiff in southeast Wales.
One favorite coast walk that reminds me of a far-off locale is the hike up Morro Bay's sandspit for a close-up look at "the Gibraltar of the Pacific": Morro Rock. And then there are the nature preserves of the Channel Islands-Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa and San Miguel-that many scientists call "America's Galapagos."
So there you have it-the world at your feet. You can enjoy all the benefits of a vacation abroad, but with far less hassle. No funny currencies, no foreign languages to learn and, best of all, you won't get jet lag.
Three terrific Southern California hiking guides for one terrific price.
Orange County, A Day Hiker's Guide $16.95, Los Angeles County, A Day Hiker's Guide, $16.95; Southern California, A Day Hiker's Guide, $16.95. For a limited time only, order all three new guides for just $34.95 plus shipping.