This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.
Orange County has plenty of the golden sand beaches it's famous for. But the county's coves, rocky headlands, and mountains comprise a different experience entirely. Both can be yours, for a night or more.
Like in San Diego County, the OC's beaches are among the busiest parks in California. Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance through ReserveAmerica.com. Book as soon as possible because many sites get snagged the day they become available. Cancellations can also free up previously booked sites, so watch for that. Thanks to CampsitePhotos.com, images of just about every individual site are available online, letting you choose a spot in the shade of a sycamore with just the right view. Unless otherwise stated, sites permit both tents and RVs or trailers. Some companies deliver RVs directly to campgrounds, making it possible to enjoy a road hotel without the need to pilot one on the highway; rental information can be found on most state park websites.
We've tried to feature only campgrounds with the best coastal sights, sounds, and smells. In this guide, those places are state-owned because the parks system boasts so much of California's best seaside real estate.
To experience fall-away space and wind-licked silence is a truly wondrous thing. The six of us sit and relish what wind, water, and geology have hewn. Vast buttes that were once strangers but are now our friends -- Newberry Butte, Krishna Shrine, Solomon Temple -- hunker before us at various distances, multi-layered pyramids of nearly incomprehensible age and scope. Here in the Grand Canyon the midday heat hums, a bird cries, and the runnings of the Colorado River 3,000 feet below us issue a whisper like the distant sound of breaking surf. Erosion, the ruling force of this grand place, has carved us a tidy little slash in this sheer cliff -- 4,000 feet below the Rim and worlds away from the shambling crowds and rumbling tour buses -- a lovely box seat, fat with shade and the cool press of sandstone.
Ken Walters, our Grand Canyon Field Institute guide, has spent most of his adult life exploring the Canyon. Over forty-some years he has poked over roughly 13,000 miles of Canyon backcountry for many reasons, not the least of which is the Canyon's lovely penchant for surprise. Until five minutes ago he never knew this overhang existed.
Walters watches two rafts negotiate the Colorado, tiny blue water bugs spinning lazy half circles on the current.
"We're probably the first Europeans to ever sit here," he says quietly.
It's possible that no one will take you deeper, literally and figuratively, into the Grand Canyon than the Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI). For those who require bureaucratic linkage, the Grand Canyon Field Institute is a program of Grand Canyon National Park's nonprofit park partner, the Grand Canyon Association. For those who simply love the hidden and the breathtaking, know that GCFI offers trips that will take you there. Added plus, you're often in the hands of wilderness experts with PhDs in biology and geology, not to mention finely honed map-reading skills and a deft touch in customer relations.
Moments earlier Walters had to come back and get me. I am uncomfortable with heights (okay, serious fear). To reach the small, shaded bunker-like shelf in which we all now finally sit, we had to walk along a narrow ledge with nothing between us and the river but 3,000 feet of sickening space. In an unfortunate cast of fate, none of my fellow hikers possess an iota of my fear. When Walters told them to hike along the ridge, they did so like happy Hobbits, taking their seats in the shade beneath the rock overhang to enjoy the view and garner respite from the baking sun.
Being a professional guide, after a time Walters noticed one of his ducklings was missing.
I watch him walk casually back along the ledge.
Stepping up to the plateau where I stand, he regards me pleasantly.
"Coming?" he asks.
I can't remember exactly what I said. My heart was racing like a jackrabbit, and my mind followed suit. It's possible I said something about fascinating rock formations right here on the plateau, made all the more fascinating by the illumination of the midday sun.
Walters has a master's degree in geology. I thought I might save myself by pandering to his interests.
God, it was hot.
"You can't stay here," Walters says.
I know this. It's why I fear I might weep.
Walters nods to me and turns back for the ledge.
"Come on," he says. "You can do this. And if you don't, we all have to leave."
GCFI fosters education. I learn that I can shuffle along a narrow ledge without breathing.
With education in mind, we spent our first day on the Canyon Rim in a GCFI classroom. Five of us signed on for the three-day backpacking trip to Horseshoe Mesa, a remote promontory in the heart of the canyon, accessed via the Grandview Trail, which begins finely at the Rim with a well-maintained series of switchbacks, then deteriorates from there. Janet, Ed, Chuck, Sean, and I range in experience (little to plenty) and age (33 to 67), but we share some common interests.
"I'm here for the adventure of backpacking the Grand Canyon," says Janet. "Ummm. People hardly ever fall, do they?"
In the classroom we review the importance of leave-no-trace backpacking. We discuss proper footwear and pass around one of Walters' socks, each student examining it as if it is a rune. We review compass and map-reading skills, as well as the contents of Walters' backpack. The man travels lighter than Peter Pan.
"Most people pack out of fear, not need," he tells us. "Ounces turn into pounds and pounds turn into pain."
Walters' discourse on water is equally long-winded.
"Hydrate or die," he says. "You need water. You need food. All the rest is extra."
In 1936, construction was completed on a bridge that spanned the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, deep in the wilderness of the San Gabriel Mountains. Once the bridge was finished, construction of the East Fork Road commenced, which was to connect Los Angeles to California State Route 2. But in 1938, a massive flood destroyed much of the road and plans shifted to build the connection in another area.
The bridge, however, remained, connecting nothing to nothing. And there it still stands today.
While you can't take a car over the bridge, the destination has become one of the most popular hikes in Los Angeles. The trail is not for the meek of heart. It's a 10-mile round trip, starting at Heaton Flats Trail Camp in Azusa. There are at least four river crossings, depending on the rainfall, and you may also have to wade through water that could reach waist-high. There's also no potable water on the trail, so make sure to pack plenty of it. The whole trip should take you about six hours, depending on how long you stay at the bridge. When you get to the end, enjoy a dip in the river under the shady overhang of the bridge. And don't be surprised if you see a handful of bungee-jumpers hoisting themselves over the bridge's side and letting gravity do its work.
A whole lot of elephant seals hang out on the San Mateo coast -- nearly 10,000 of them every year, in fact. The seals come ashore to Año Nuevo State Park in order to breed, give birth, and undergo the process of "molting," where they shed their outer layer of skin and fur.
Here's some more information about the process:
The process of catastrophic molting causes increased blood flow to the surface of the skin to help quickly supply nutrients to the new fur. During these 25-odd days ashore, the elephant seals seem to be somewhat vulnerable to warmer air temperatures and will often move down to the water's edge or even enter the water to cool off.
The elephant seals are present all year at Año Nuevo, but the molting season takes place between April and August. Adult males molt in July and August, while the female and juvenile seals -- yes, that means baby seals, people! -- molt between the months of May and June. If you're in the market for some baby seal viewing -- now's the time to plan a trip.
In order to see the seals, you will need to complete a three- to four-mile hike, some of which involves deep sand. (Driving to the seals is not an option at this beach.) So make sure to dress accordingly. Also, hikers will need to obtain a visitor's permit between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Pets, for somewhat obvious reasons, are not allowed.
For the past 25 years, Dr. Beach -- real name Dr. Stephen Leatherman -- has been traversing the country's best beaches. But rather than simply plopping down a towel and getting a tan, Dr. Beach puts each beach under the microscope. The categories he grades include the "beach material," the speed of the wind, the amount of rain, the water temperature, the number of pests, and quality of the vistas. (Check out the full list of Dr. Beach's criteria over here.)
When the investigation is over, he looks at his notes, crunches the numbers, and ranks the ten best beaches in the United States. And, ladies and gents, the just-released list of the Top Ten Best Beaches in America is as follows:
1. Waimanalo Bay Beach Park, Oahu, Hawaii
2. Barefoot Beach, Bonita Springs, Florida
3. St. George Island State Park, Florida panhandle
4. Hamoa Beach, Maui, Hawaii
5. Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks of North Carolina
6. Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne, Florida
7. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
8. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina
9. Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, Naples, Florida
10. East Beach, Santa Barbara, California
As you can see, California's offering snuck in at the bottom of the list, with Santa Barbara's East Beach claiming a spot. The beach is located on the eastern end of the stretch of beach parks on the Santa Barbara coast, and has volleyball courts, a playground, showers, and a restaurant. It also offers some of California's best coastal views.
So, if you're looking for a short day trip this summer, you can do a lot worse than one of the beach beaches in the country.
On May 22nd, 1915, at around 4:30 p.m. -- after years of worrying rumblings from beneath the surface -- Lassen Peak finally erupted. Fragments of rock, volcanic ash, and pumice shot high into the sky, peaking at more than 30,000 feet into the air. Lava flow rushed out at a rate of nearly 10 miles per hour, melting snow and depositing a layer of ash into the soil. To this day, large sections of forest are sparsely populated by trees because of it. The area would never be the same.
In fact, because of the eruption, the area was turned over to the National Parks Department for further environmental study. On August 9th, 1916, the area was officially opened as Lassen Volcanic National Park. And seeing as this weekend is basically the park's birthday, they have all sorts of wonderful events scheduled.
There are few more tranquil activities than taking a drive to a beach, pitching a tent, and letting the somniferous swell of the ocean surf lull you into peaceful sleep. But a lot of times, just because the campground site has "beach" in the title, doesn't mean you can actually set up nearby for the night. Here, then, are my favorite five camping sites on the California coast that actually offer close proximity to the beach.
San Clemente State Beach
About halfway between L.A. and San Diego is San Clemente State Beach, which includes 142 different beach-adjacent campsites. Just make sure to get a reservation in advance, as the campground gets super popular during the summer.
San Elijo State Beach
Down on the San Diego coast is San Eligo. Along with the standard natural beauty of the Pacific coast, there is also a reef that divers or snorkelers can explore.
Doheny State Beach
Located in Dana Point, the southern end of Doheny State Beach includes campgrounds with sites only a few steps removed from the beach proper. However, if you're going during peak season, expect a crowd. The beach attracts almost one million visitors a year.
Carpinteria State Beach
Twelve miles south of Santa Barbara, this state beach offers a full mile of sand for swimming, tide pool exploring, and camping. From December through May, it also offers occasional glimpses of gray whales as they make their migratory journey.
Leo Carrillo State Park
One of the favorites for L.A. weekend warriors, Leo Carrillo is just a short drive up Highway 1, and offers 1.5 gorgeous miles of beach for recreation, as well as a number of campsites to use. Again: A reservation is wise.
It is a place where day and night arrive in their own languid time. Where all is sky, rock, and river. Where sun and moon touch rocks 1.7 billion years old, where water moves with a force that can pretzel steel and the creak of oars is the loudest sound, where Bighorn Sheep follow your progress perched on ledges little wider than a pin, and within a mossy nook, if you turn your head just so, a waterfall creates a gauzy rainbow the size of a fingernail.
These are just words, and when it comes to rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon words fail miserably. Numbers do too. Between Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead, the Colorado River flows 255 miles. The river's average depth is 35 feet; its average speed is four miles an hour; its temperature, coming as it does from the depths of Glen Canyon Dam, ranges from 48 to 52 degrees. There are more than 160 rapids within the Canyon's confines; in some, the river's speed increases appreciably. The soul is not touched by statistics. Count to three. A complimentary fruitcake to anyone who can remember any but these three numbers.
"I was told rafting through the Grand Canyon would be the best experience of my life," a woman once told me. "And rafting the Grand Canyon would be the second best experience of my life, and the third..."
Such whispers had reached me for years. And so I decided to take the only possible course. I went to see for myself.
Here's the best thing about rafting down the Colorado. Unlike other grand adventures -- climbing Half Dome, meditating with puff adders -- pretty much anyone can do it. Sign on with a river outfitter, and most companies require only that you be at least 12 years old for an oar trip, and eight to ride in a motorized craft.
Other than that, you just have to adjust to a single pertinent reality.
"Some people really embrace the solitude, and some people don't expect it," smiled Christian Seamans, on the drizzly October morning of our own departure from Lees Ferry.
Christian dipped his oars into the cocoa-brown Colorado and smiled again.
"Welcome everyone," he said, as we moved out into the main current. "It's always nice to push away."
Enjoying nature is about pushing away, and all of us -- 19 paying customers who had signed on for a 13-day oar trip with Wilderness River Adventures -- had ensured ourselves additional solitude by coming to the river in October. Fall and spring are the river's unsung seasons; quieter, cooler, heavier with repose. They are also emptier. On the morning we left, putting on to the river at Lees Ferry 15 miles below Glen Canyon Dam, three other groups were starting off too. Over the next 13 days we saw them now and again, but mostly it was just us.
Our party numbered 26; seven guides, 19 clients, six 18-foot neoprene rubber boats, and enough food and drink to embarrass Club Med.
Our Wilderness guides proved supremely competent, but they didn't take their competency too seriously, preferring instead to dye their hair green, announce dinner with a Gregorian chant, and even, on the proper occasion, wear women's underwear (one night we had a costume party). There was Christian, Heather, Brett, Jeff, Nate, Nute, and our trip leader Okie. It quickly became obvious that they all loved the river and the canyon. They knew its history, its wildlife, and its geology. But mostly they knew how to rightly enjoy it.
Early in the trip Nute voiced the sentiment that would become our group mantra.
"Wadda-ya say we run some rapids and drink beer and dance."
My fellow adventurers had come to the river for different reasons, but each grasped the significance of what was transpiring.
"It has always been a dream of mine to raft the Grand Canyon," Reimund Wolf told me on our first night in camp.
Reimund had traveled from Germany. We stood beside the river. A half moon, poised above a dark shadow of butte, threw silver on the river.
"I knew I must come here," said Reimund. "I am 65. I can see the horizon."
Though it is casually labeled a river trip, rafting the Grand Canyon is far more. Traveling down the Colorado gives you access to remote places otherwise reached only with great difficulty or a very long fall. We saw hikers now and then, dirty, bedraggled figures who regarded us dully with the vacant eyes of a mongrel dog. We simply hopped ashore from our happy blue rubber boats, lunched on taco salad and fistfuls of Oreos and, duly fortified, strode into side canyons serene and glorious, hushed places pressed in by walls smooth and cool as satin sheets, where clear creek trickles ran, and here and there sat truck-size rocks deposited at times when the creek was nothing like a trickle.
Some side canyons were dry; tomb still and quiet. Others drummed; waterfalls cascading into pools with a sonorous boom, blowing sprays of rainbow mist. One canyon held turquoise pools so clear and still they appeared to be not pools at all, but vast emerald gems set in the earth. In some of these places we sat apart in contemplative silence. In others we did what was only right, plunging into the pools and hooting beneath waterfalls like ten-year-olds who had discovered their parents' hooch. These places had magical and apt names; Elves Chasm, Shinumo Creek, Matkatamiba and Blacktail Canyon. They sat stoic, and seemingly untouched. It felt was as if we were the first to set foot there.
We weren't, of course. On our sixth day, 68 miles downriver, we hiked up to a butte overlooking Tanner Rapid, and then followed a trail along the sloped hillside. Here and there were metate and mano -- stone trough and handstones used by the Anasazi Indians to mill corn. They were scattered about as if the Anasazi had just up and left, perhaps to take advantage of this lovely day and go for a hike.
Okie picked up a shard of pottery, turning it slowly in his fingers.
"How old is that?" I asked.
"Close to 1400 years old," said Okie.
It was as if past and present had collided as one.
Okie looked towards the Colorado, running brown beneath the sun.
"Yep," he said. "That's the same river they saw."
Nestled at the end of a long industrial park in Richmond, California -- just across the San Francisco Bay -- is the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Monument. The museum focuses on an under-appreciated aspect of World War II: the civilians at home, particularly women, who helped win the war overseas.
The museum's varied and interesting exhibits include war propaganda posters, videos devoted to the role women played in the factories, and details on life during the food rationing. There's a full schedule of lectures throughout the year.
The country's oldest National Park Ranger, 93-year-old Betty Soskin, also works at the monument. She has been at the park since its inception in 2000, and still leads a handful of weekly "Ranger Talks" about what life was like during the war.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the monument, however, is the "Rosie Meet and Greet" every Friday. Between 10 a.m. and noon, and 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., visitors can actually meet with a group of female civilian docents (the "Rosies") who freely and openly share stories about life back on the home front, along with photos from their private collections. There's truly no better way to learn history than asking those who lived it.
The monument is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., and closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
Last week, 10 acres of Pinnacles National Park, located east of Salinas and south of San Jose, burned in a raging wildfire. The fire -- which was contained on the park's east side, near the visitor's entrance -- was started by "a spark from machinery as Caltrans workers mowed brush." It was quickly contained and put out without any injuries or property damage.
This is the first big fire of the official California Wildfire Season, which often starts in May and continues through September.
However, that "seasonal" outlook is an outdated understanding of our state's wildfires. In fact, according to this report from late April, there have already been a whopping 943 wildfires burning a total of 4,078 acres. (As the piece puts it: "More acres have burned in California in the first four months of 2015 than in nine of the past 10 years.") And it doesn't look like it's going to get any better.
The state's ongoing drought has already killed over 12 million trees, essentially turning them into fuel. Vegetation is dryer than ever, allowing it to burn at an incredible rate and turn the slightest spark into the most extreme blaze. Seeing as snowpack and reservoirs are at record lows, it's even more difficult for firefighters to bring in water to put out the fires.
All of which is to say: This is going to be one fiery year, everyone. Make sure to watch those campfires go all the way out.