Zen of Ten

Discovering Ten Of Southern California's Best Eco-Touring Adventures
By Peter Jensen & Steve Orr
  |  Gorp.com

Eco-traveling means setting out to experience and study an area's unusual natural history attractions. At the same time, eco travelers go light, respecting the habitat, minimizing their impact on terrain and wildlife. Sometimes they participate in conservation efforts, research studies and other field activities that protect and further our understanding of certain irreplaceable natural features, habitats, and species around the world.

So it's off to Costa Rica to see orange frogs, or Belize for some reef diving, right? Fine, but what about exploring your own back yard? Nowhere on earth will you find a more diverse outdoor experience than in Southern California. These ten regional eco attractions will sweeten your outdoor life considerably.

Here you can walk up a knife-edge ridge, great undulating sheets of sand slipping from the steep dune face. As the flows creep downward like viscous warm honey, millions of crystalline grains emit an eerie rubbing noise in the still air. Here you plunge deep into the harsh rocky folds of the Laguna Mountains, far down the eastern side where water soon disappears into desert alluvium, a few dozen palms clattering their frond skirts as a Santa Ana builds intensity. What ancient climate stranded them here? What bird or mammal carried in the first seed?

Here you can crawl on all fours near a granite pool's slick edge, drawing closer to the waterfall's slender white veil. In a few months it may be dry, but now in spring it plunges like a wild thing?airborne?cut free of its rocky notch in the San Gabriels.

Here...where adventures can start in a still-wild Southern California back country that's larger and emptier than some states.

1. Singing Sand Dunes

Night falls on my first visit to the magical place called Kelso Dunes. An extensive dune field rambles across the Eastern Mojave desert like a giant sandbox. My friend Bret and I climb up a series of knife-back ridges to the summit of a single peak hundreds of feet above the desert floor. As if on cue, we watch the moon rise over the Providence Mountains to the east. Dunes turn to silver waves around us. After bathing in the eerie glow, we discover that what we thought was a rumor about the dunes is true?they"boom." Walking down the dunes causes billions of grains to flow across each other, a symphony of squeaks and rumbles. Our jumping makes the amazing noises even louder! Picture it: two hikers careening down the dunes in the middle of the night. Hey, adults need places to play, too.-S.Orr

Drive east 77.5 miles from Barstow on Interstate Highway 40, then go 15.3 miles north on Kelbaker Road (graded and passable to passenger cars except after extreme weather) to Kelso Dunes Road. Drive 3 miles west on this dirt road to the base of the dunes. Note: you cannot camp overnight at the dunes, but car camping is allowed at existing sites next to the road throughout the new Mojave National Preserve, and at developed campgrounds at Hole-in-the-Wall and Mid-Hills. For more information, contact Preserve headquarters in Barstow.

2. Gold in Malibu's Hills

Coastal live oaks are majestic things, and my favorite groves of these seemingly wise old trees frame the golden grassy hillsides of Malibu Creek State Park. Here oak limbs sprawl lazily down to the ground, while topmost branches command views up and down the length of a great coastal mountain range. I grew up in California, and nowhere in the state do I feel more comfortable than in these hills, especially when they're lit by the amber glow of afternoon sunlight. In that moment of quiet before the day's end, nothing evokes more of a feeling of safety and serenity, of belonging, of being home.-S.Orr

Malibu Creek State Park covers a mountainous area just south of Mulholland Highway on Las Virgenes Road, approximately 3 miles from State Highway 101.

3. Waterfalls in a Land of Little Rain

Prolific guidebook author Jerry Schad tells us how he finds waterfalls."I look at topos carefully," he says. "Where the contour lines bunch together in a watercourse, I know something exciting might be happening." Sure enough, Jerry has seen dozens of incredible waterfalls in our mountains from Los Angeles to San Diego, some of them glimpsed only by the most adventurous hikers.

Remember when approaching any waterfall to exercise extreme caution. Centuries of water wears rock to glass-like slickness. Even dry rock can send you sliding to a broken bone or worse. Never dive into pools; some are swimmable, however, in late spring or summer when the water warms. Many falls are dry except during spring.

Three especially spectacular falls:

L.A. County:
Fish Fork Falls
(USGS 7.5-min Glendora, Crystal Lake, Mount San Antonio) in the San Gabriels is a tough 17.5-mile day hike or a weekend backpack trip.

Orange County:
Tenaja Falls
(USGS 7.5-min Sitton Peak) drops 150 feet in the Santa Anas in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness.

San Diego County:
Cedar Creek Falls
(USGS 7.5-min Santa Ysabel, Tule Springs) were once a popular Sunday-drive destination at the turn of the century before the construction of El Capitan Dam. Now you hike 4.5 miles to spot its high torrent.-P. Jensen

4. Vulcan Lives!

Actually, he's still fast asleep this far south (up in Mammoth he's stirring for sure). When we want a taste of what a good ol' eruption might be like, we stop at Amboy Crater along the original Route 66 route about an hour east of Barstow. Amboy's cinder cone is a dark, pristine reminder of what happens when magma bursts through the desert crust. Because the cone has seen so little rain, it looks as if the eruption could have happened within the last ten years! Broad skirts of lava flow from the base, spreading across the desert sand. The best place to see all this is from the summit, of course. Allow about two hours for the hike from the road's edge, and carry plenty of water.-P. Jensen

Amboy Crater, National Trails Highway (Route 66) south of Interstate 40 at the town of Amboy. Exit at Ludlow, or go south on Kelbaker Road (before you go to Kelso Dunes, see item above). You can also reach Amboy via the Coachella Valley and Joshua Tree by taking Amboy Road north from Twentynine Palms at the north edge of the park.

5. La Jolla's "Other" Sea Caves

Have you ever been down the narrow, damp stairs to Sunny Jim Cave from the La Jolla Shell Shop above the Cove? Yes? Your explorations have only just begun! To see La Jolla's other sea caves, first pick a time of low tide (essential!). Then walk down-coast from the Marine Room Restaurant at La Jolla Shores beach. After crossing a field of slippery rocks and tide pools, you enter a series of caverns blasted out of the cliffs by eons of wave action. The caves were created as sandstone weakened from not only the sea's pounding but rainwater (and now yard water) running off Mt. Soledad. Two caves connect at their backs about a hundred feet in. A mysterious place that brings out Huck Finn dreams in everyone.-P. Jensen

6. Ramona's Golden Eagles

Two of the sky's premiere raptors?a nesting pair of Golden Eagles?call the open fields northwest of downtown Ramona (in San Diego County) home. Next time you're driving through on your way to Julian and the back country, take a half hour to see if you can spot these huge birds. We almost always do. Here's where: From State Highway 67 (just east of Mt. Woodson) take Highland Valley Road north to where it makes a hard left at Rangeland Road. Look in the fields here, especially to the north across open fields bordering the Santa Maria Creek drainage. We usually simply park near Archie Moore Road facing east. All the land is privately owned, so you can't hike. But soon the sky show will begin. Sometimes the eagles have landed on telephone poles above our heads, calmly ripping apart their rabbit dinners while we eye them through binoculars. Ramona is rapidly allowing developers to convert large tracts of ranch lands to housing developments and "ranchettes." Good-bye eagle habitat.-P. Jensen

7. The Improbable Palms

Amidst all of the desert's super-heated hostility, one thing is sure: palm trees indicate the presence of water. Like beacons of life, native Washingtonia filifera of the Salton Basin and neighboring mountain scarps from San Gorgonio all the way down the Baja line are alluring destinations. Pioneers called them "cabbage trees." Native Americans lived amidst the rustling shaded groves. Why are they here? The seeds may have been transported to the tenuous seeps by birds and animals (and man, perhaps?). Or the palms simply cling to their last post-Pleistocene strongholds centuries after Lake Cahuilla and other lakes throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts disappeared.

Of Southern California's several well-known palm canyon hikes, we prefer the classic Anza-Borrego Desert State Park experience because it still has a sense of remoteness, although hundreds of hikers may use the trail from the Visitors Center in Borrego Springs each day in March and April. By May the heat is up and crowds down. Once temperatures pass 100 degrees Farenheit, the crowds are gone. But the water still pulls through massive boulders high up the canyons. And the palms still shake, rattle and roll their clattering fronds in the hot desert breeze. This, to the weary traveler, is surely heaven.-P. Jensen

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Developed campground near the Visitors Center (fee), or camp anywhere in the remote areas of the park (free).

8. Bird Sanctuaries Take Wing

The Audubon Society owns or administers several magnificent chunks of land in Southern California (more than what we can list here). A visit to any one of these preserves assures even the most casual birder of interesting wildlife sightings, not to mention the sheer pleasure of walking in beautiful surroundings. In each case, the sanctuaries are definitely off the beaten path. One?a huge former ranch in Orange County?opens to the general public very, very rarely at best, but we know how you can take a peek in the next year. Another is a long day trip from L.A. or the San Fernando Valley to the Kern River?or plan a weekend. In each case, an essential preamble to a visit is a call to your local chapter of the Audubon Society to find out when they lead another birding walk in the sanctuary nearest you.

San Diego County:
Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary
, east side of Wildcat Canyon Road, mile 4.8, Lakeside, San Diego County; 619-483-7620 (San Diego Chapter, Audubon Society). Open Sundays only, 9 to 4 (closed August). A rugged, hilly area provides challenging, sometimes overgrown trails, but rewards with balancing boulders, springtime ceanothus blooming in blue-sky waves, and abundant wildlife.

Orange County:
Starr Ranch Sanctuary
, 100 Bell Canyon Road, Trabuco Canyon (northwest corner of Caspers Wilderness Park, but accessible from the west only through a gated community). A research area open ONLY by appointment (groups) and guided tours led by So. Cal. outdoor organizations such as the Audubon Society and Sierra Club. These happen fairly frequently, however, so be sure to call and hook up with one! This huge, pristine former ranch was donated to the Society in 1973.

Kern County (Southern Sierra):
Kern River Preserve,
18747 State Highway 178, Weldon (back end of Lake Isabella). Home to the endangered Least Bell's Vireo and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. If you've always been intriqued by those tiny black eyelashes floating high in the sky, don't miss the Turkey Vulture Festival. One suggestion: take part in one of the Preserve's cuckoo counts or other work projects so you can camp on the property.-P. Jensen

9. One Tough Tortoise

Thousands of them, spirited illegally from the desert habitat, still sleep under the beds of Southern Californians, hibernating in guest bedrooms or crawl spaces, or wandering backyards. Most"perished from neglect" noted experts like Edmund Jaeger as far back as 1933, when concern was already mounting that the tortoise might not survive as a species. Boxy, strangely noble Gopherus agassizi proved so irresistible to modern-day souvenir and pet-hunting desert visitors that they all but disappeared. Thousands of reptiles perished on the highways. Now most desert visitors know better (don't we?). The last time we took a springtime backpacking trip in Joshua Tree National Park we saw three desert tortoise?a thrilling sight, and a heartening reassurance that conservation efforts may be working. Of course spring is about the only time you'll see a tortoise?much of the year they stay tucked in burrows avoiding either extreme heat or extreme cold.-P. Jensen

10. Hitchcock's Inspiration?

Who can forget "The Birds," director Alfred Hitchcock's warped looked at our fine feathered friends? We have to believe he was inspired by a visit to Salton Sea, where millions of migratory wildfowl and seabirds fill the skies and shallows each winter and spring. Increased salinity threatens the lake's eco-system, so don't decide you can wait ten years to see this spectacle. It may soon be gone! Bird sanctuaries ring the lake's southern and eastern shore, and even the most casual observers will spot dozens of species they've never seen before. Our favorite place to start is the visitor's center at the lake's southern edge, where you can either stay on the "spotting deck" high above the smoke trees, or hike into the surrounding fields and along the shoreline. The annual Salton Sea International Bird Festival takes place in February.-P. Jensen

Camping: Salton Sea State Recreation Area, North Shore. You'll think you're in Baja when you awake facing the Santa Rosa Mountains rising above the lake. Bird watching: Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. North of Westmorland via Vendel Road.

Steve Orr is a wilderness outings instructor with Adventure 16 and works in the company's San Fernando Valley mountain shop. Peter Jensen is the editor of FOOTPRINTS, and also considers Kelso Dunes at moonrise his favorite place on earth.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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