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Hike the World, Stay at Home : Thanks to Southern California’s Richly Diverse Terrain, You Don’t Have to Walk Far to Imagine Yourself in a Foreign Country

Starting next Sunday, John McKinney’s popular Day Hike column, which has appeared in the Saturday View S ection for 3 1/2 years, will move to the Travel Section. Under a new title, Hiking, McKinney will continue to cover local walks, but will also take readers on hikes throughout the West and even to foreign destinations. McKinney is author of the two-volume “Day Hiker’s Guide to Southern California” (Olympus Press).

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 from home, that I began to understand Southern California’s place in the world.

A few summers 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 hiked 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.

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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. The 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?”

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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 by boat, 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 plenty of 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.

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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 us, 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.

The extent to which our outdoor environment can look like (or be made to look like) somewhere else became clear to me during one college summer break when I worked as a movie location scout.

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I saw parts of Southern California--the Santa Monica Mountains in particular--that doubled for the antebellum South and the Old West, South Carolina and South Vietnam, plus Greece, Italy and the South of France. Arid dry grass slopes became the steppes of Asia, red-rock canyons the planet Mars.

So, armed with a little imagination, a good map, sturdy shoes and a day pack, you can explore the world by exploring Southern California.

Examples are everywhere. The Siberia Creek Trail in the San Bernardino Mountains leads to the world’s tallest lodgepole pine. Another short path leads to the world-champion Joshua tree.

Yet another path crosses San Miguel Island, part of the Channel Islands and home of the largest elephant seal population on earth. You can visit the lowest place in North America and one of the lowest elevations in the world, in Death Valley.

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If you are really motivated to see all that Southern California’s backcountry has to offer, you could follow the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexico border through the desert, across the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, and over to the High Sierra. In all, the trail extends more than 2,000 miles to Canada.

But in addition to diverse topography, hikers also can discover the fascinating human history of the region. Orange County, often mistakenly stereotyped as all-Anglo, reveals a Spanish, Indian, German, Polish and Japanese heritage to the backcountry traveler. The names in the county parks and Cleveland National Forest--from Flores to Anaheim to Modjeska--speak of this rich diversity.

There are many ways to explore this land. Sometimes I love to hike, other times to climb, trek, stride, jog, bushwhack and boulder-hop to a goal: a majestic viewpoint, a waterfall, a hidden beach.

But often the less goal-oriented side of me prefers a more relaxed approach, best expressed by the Spanish word paseo . A paseo can be loosely translated as a leisurely walk, an unbusinesslike excursion, a pleasurable picnic.

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In the weeks to come, I’ll be detailing some of my favorite hikes--from treks to paseos in Southern California, the West, even foreign countries. But for now, here’s how to set your own international itinerary without leaving home:

The Mediterranean

In Southern California, it doesn’t take much to imagine that you’re hiking through countries bordering the Mediterranean. Besides the similar climate and terrain (even the drought-fed threat of brush fires is common to both regions), Latin place names abound.

The early Catholic padres named peaks, valleys, rivers and canyons after their favorite saints, and Spanish words make up much of our geographical vocabulary: canon , rio , arroyo , punta , mar . 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.

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Some of my favorite places are the mountain summits. I particularly like to ascend Mishe Mokwa Trail, through Circle X Ranch, to 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak above Malibu, the highest point of the Santa Monica Mountains.

I also like to look down on the Mediterranean world from Overlook Trail and Mugu Peak in Pt. Mugu State Park. The nearly completed 65-mile Backbone Trail, which travels the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains, from Will Rogers State Historic Park to Pt. Mugu, also offers grand views of brushy hills, the Channel Islands and blue sea to the horizon.

The Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara, part of Los Padres National Forest, also project a Mediterranean flavor. Rattlesnake, Cold Spring, San Ysidro and Jesusita are four of my favorite trails. They generally follow streams to the top of the range. The trails begin in lush canyon bottoms, zigzag up the hot dry canyon walls, and intersect El Camino Cielo (the sky road), which offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, Channel Islands and coastal plain.

My favorite taste of Italy isn’t far from downtown Los Angeles. Sunrise and sunset are two times I like to hike in Griffith Park, to a special viewpoint garden on the shoulder of Mt. Hollywood.

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Called Dante’s View, it isn’t named for the 14th-Century Florentine, but for 20th-Century artist Dante Orgolini, an Italian immigrant. Orgolini was a Depression-era muralist who, in his later years, put his artistic energies into this lovely garden shaded with palms, pines and pepper trees.

Just about everywhere at lower elevations is the Mediterranean flora we call chaparral. One chaparral plant, chamise, an Americanized version of a Spanish word meaning “brush” or “firewood,” is the most ubiquitous plant in Southern California. Some hikers say another chaparral plant, ceanothus--with its clouds of soft blue, white or lavender flowers--is the prettiest.

To Spanish settlers, scrub oak looked like a plant from back home that they called chaparro. The territory where chaparro grows we now call chaparral, and that’s why cowboys wear “chaps.” The nature trails of Eaton Canyon Park above Pasadena is one of the best places to learn about the chaparral environment.

Little Switzerland

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For a taste of the Alpine world, I head for the top of the San Gabriel Mountains--Mt. Baldy, Mt. Islip, Mt. Baden-Powell.

Most prominent, however, is 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.

Mt. San Gorgonio stands shoulder to shoulder with four other two-mile-high peaks: Dobbs, Jepson, Charlton and San Bernardino. The mountain is most striking in winter when its snow-covered peak can be seen reaching far above the metropolis.

The alpine meadows on the mountain shoulder are dotted with wild rose, lemon lily, mountain iris, Indian paintbrush and golden yarrows. Bighorn sheep roam the high slopes, and golden eagles soar over the summit.

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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 strenous hike to reach.

The tram carries 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.

Upon disembarking from the tram, I like to hike through lush meadows, white fir and lodgepole pine, and rest at Round Valley, colored in the spring with lupine, monkey flower and scarlet bugler.

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If I’m feeling energetic, I stay on the trail to the top of Mt. San Jacinto. Naturalist John Muir found the view from the summit “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!”

The San Jacinto Mountains offer four-season hiking. Since it’s generally about 30 or 40 degrees cooler than Palm Springs, which is visible below, this is a great place to beat the heat. In winter, don’t forget to bring your cross-country skis for the ultimate Switzerland experience.

Arabian Days

Southern Californians who like the desert are fortunate in having not one, but two vast deserts in close proximity: the Mojave and the Colorado.

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In the heart of the East Mojave National Scenic Area, about 35 miles as the crow flies from the town of Baker, 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 it’s tough walking in soft sand to the top. One step forward, two steps back. Any time but summer is a good time to explore this area.

When sand slides down a steep dune slope, it makes an unusual low rumbling sound that reminds some people of a Tibetan gong.

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.

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I like hiking to the oasis on the outskirts of Palm Springs, known collectively as the Indian Canyons--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.

I’m a genuine admirer of the California fan palm, and like to trek to the oases where they gather. Two delightful trails in Joshua Tree National Monument lead to Forty-Nine Palms Oasis and Lost Palms Oasis. Another good hike for palm fans is Borrego Palm Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Notable Coasts

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 on the beach, and Leo Carrillo doubles for the South Seas.

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If it’s the rocky shores of England I’m after, I like to take the train to Del Mar and hike 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. Another notable coast walk is over the Hollywood Beach dunes in Oxnard.

That silent movie classic “The Sheik” was filmed in the Arabian-like dunes there, and I always imagine Rudolph Valentino popping out of a tent with one of his smitten women.

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 the “American Galapagos.”

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The isolation of the islands helped preserve plants that either were altered through evolution on the mainland or perished altogether at the hands of man. In early spring, I like to head for Anacapa Island, where the giant coreopsis, or tree sunflower, is something to behold.

When the coreopsis blooms, it looks like someone threw a giant yellow blanket over the island.

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.


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