L.A.'s Historic Hiking Destinations

I got into hiking because there were certain places I wanted to see that weren't accessible by car. Having a destination helped get me on the trail, and even now, I can keep going despite heat and exhaustion if the destination is more than just an overlook, peak, or end of a loop. Although I love the view from above, I usually want there to be something else to see when I get there (or at least along the way).

One of the easiest hikes for those that enjoy a bit of beautiful decay is in Malibu's Solstice Canyon, where the Paul R. Williams-designed "Tropical Terrace" burned down in the 1982 Corral Fire. Enough of the once-private estate remains to attract families, naturalists, and history hounds alike. You can see where the Roberts Ranch House kitchen and chimney once were, walk along the pathways, and gaze at the statues and fountains in a shady area cooled off by ocean breezes. On your way, you'll also pass a historic homestead, and past Tropical Terrace, you'll find a rare year-round waterfall. Time has not been kind to this property, and its heavy use has worn down the remains, so get to this one soon before it's too far-gone. Park in the lot or on a neighboring street, but read signs very carefully to avoid the wrath of Malibu Parking Enforcement.

Also designed by L.A.'s famous African-American architect Paul R. Williams is the grandiose gate to the notorious Murphy Ranch compound for Hitler supporters in Rustic Canyon, Pacific Palisades. This historic site has captured the imaginations of hikers and historians alike, because no one really knows what actually happened down there in the canyon. This parcel of Rustic Canyon is actually owned by the City of Los Angeles, though it's adjacent to Will Rogers State Park and Topanga State Park, which you can also venture into to make the hike more challenging. In addition to a cistern, machine shed, and graffiti-laden powerhouse, there are also some abandoned cars and an old, dilapidated farmhouse to explore. The Parks Department has fenced off a lot of the structures, and has been threatening to raze them over the last several years, so we may lose this history at some point. At least two epic staircases (one of about 500 steps) provide alternate entry to the mysterious ruins in this "upside down" hike, but climbing the stairs both down and up should be reserved for only the most ambitious hikers. Take the fire road through the gate at least in one direction.

One of the most historic sites in the Greater Los Angeles area is also one of the lesser known: the St. Francis Dam Disaster Site. A historic monument, and the site of California's second worst disaster (right behind the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires), the remains of William Mulholland's career-ending engineering failure are a short walk down the closed portion of San Francisquito Canyon Road, north of Santa Clarita in the Angeles National Forest. You can climb down to the pile of concrete rubble from when the last standing piece of the broken dam was dynamited, behind which a small creek has been taken over by frogs. Or climb up to the top of the western abutment and walk on top of the concrete wall built into the hillside. From above, you get a good view of where the dam once stood in 1928, and the scars left behind by the 250-foot wall of water that rushed down the canyon, taking everything with it. You can still find pieces of the broken dam that were deposited a couple of miles down by the flow of water. If you walk the entire length of the closed San Francisquito Canyon Road, you can visit LADWP's Power Plant #2 which was completely washed away by the flooding water, and then completely rebuilt. Beware of lots of rusty rebar sticking out in all directions. Keep your tetanus shot up to date.

Orange County's Best Coastal Campgrounds

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.

Backpacking to Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon

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."

Great Hikes: The Bridge to Nowhere

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.

Before you head out, make sure you get an Adventure Pass from the Forest Service, or you may end up paying a fine. For more information about the hike, check out this great write-up of the trail.

See Baby Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo

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.

Santa Barbara Beach Named A 'Top 10 Beach of 2015'

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.

Commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Lassen Peak Eruption

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.

Top 5 Beach Camping Sites in California

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.

Rafting the Colorado River Through the Grand Canyon

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."

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