Beachy paradise or grueling adventure? Turns out this remote California island is both

Scenes from Lila Seidman and partner Emanuel's camping trip along Santa Rosa Island.
(Lila Seidman / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

By Rachel Schnalzer
Design and illustrations by Jade Cuevas

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Adventure and beauty are everywhere in California — from remote stretches of deserted beach to nearby corners of Los Angeles.

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll learn about one of the least-visited areas in our national park system, 26 miles off Santa Barbara. You’ll also discover where to find a mural steeped in L.A. history, a retro getaway in the redwoods and more.


Where have you encountered beauty in California this fall? Let me know, so I can include it in a future edition of Escapes.

🏝️ Visit this remote island off Santa Barbara

Weary of the crowds in Yosemite Valley and Zion National Park? If you’re looking for true isolation and immersion in nature, it’s hard to imagine a better place to visit than Santa Rosa Island, part of Channel Islands National Park.

“Santa Rosa is one of the less-visited islands that make up one of the U.S.’ least-visited national parks,” reports Times staff writer Lila Seidman, who recently spent five days backpacking at the remote destination.

Don’t let Santa Rosa’s island atmosphere fool you. “On a warm, sunny day Santa Rosa can pass for a postcard-perfect tropical getaway with sandy white beaches and glittering turquoise water,” Seidman writes. “But it can be harsher than online photos portray.”

On her backpacking adventure, Seidman encountered bone-chilling waters, thick fog — and a nighttime seal invasion. “There’s a 2,000-pound elephant seal outside our tent,” said her partner, Emanuel, after investigating a strange sound.

Luckily, Seidman and Emanuel avoided a closer encounter with the seal by relocating their tent, the experience underscoring the wild element of Santa Rosa. “We were visitors in their world, one where humans didn’t reign over the sand,” Seidman writes.

To learn more about Seidman’s trip — and how to plan your own visit to Santa Rosa — give her story a read.

In a split image, a man kneels among backpacking gear atop a hill, plus low vegetation and a view of the ocean.
Scenes from a camping trip on Santa Rosa Island.
(Lila Seidman / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

🦎 Spot Gila monsters, giraffes, tortoises and more in Palm Desert

Gila monsters, tortoises, bobcats and pythons are just a few of the fauna that call deserts around the world home. You can catch a glimpse of these creatures and many more at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert.

The zoo recently earned a spot on Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds’ list of 18 fun fall things to do in SoCal and San Francisco with kids. “There are more critters creeping (and flying and even swimming) in the world’s deserts than you realize,” Reynolds writes, “and this preserve proves the point.”


If you go, Reynolds recommends keeping your eyes on the mountainside around the Living Desert, where you may spy bighorn sheep. He also suggests stopping by the model railroad: “It’s not flora or fauna, but it’s epic, with more than 3,300 feet of track running through miniature historic scenes,” Reynolds writes.

Tickets at the door cost $29.95 for people older than 13, $19.95 for children 3 to 12, and $27.95 for seniors 62 and older. Reserve your tickets in advance for a discounted price.

Bobcats lying alongside rocks.
Bobcats look up from their nap together at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

🎨 The story behind the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus’ mural

Lots of L.A. travelers are familiar with the Watts Towers, but the mural adorning the side of the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus building also holds a rich history.

“Brightly colored abstract shapes and symbols include arrows, zigzags and blooms. A cheery rainbow is at the top, a patch of zebra stripes at the bottom,” writes Times arts and culture writer Deborah Vankin. But now, “the mural had fallen into disrepair, its imagery so faded from the sun that some shapes were barely recognizable.”

Alonzo Davis, a 79-year-old artist, painted the mural 40 years ago as a tribute to a friend, fellow artist and former Watts Towers Arts Center director John Outterbridge.

The mural’s disrepair bothered Davis, and after Outterbridge died last year, Davis decided to restore the art.

Although Davis said he was too old to restore the work himself, he asked Outterbridge mentee Michael Massenburg to lead the restoration with the help of younger artists.

“Through John and his mentorship, the torch was passed to me,” Massenburg said. “Now I’m passing the torch to these younger artists. Sharing this experience with them is how we keep the linkages going. This feels like John is still here.”

If you’d like to see the mural in person, you can find it on the southwest side of the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus building.

A person on a ladder and one kneeling work on a bright, bold wall mural.
Muralist, teacher and activist Michael Massenburg, left, and Allyson Dixon-Duarte, an instructor with the Community Arts Partnership, help restore the John Outterbridge mural at the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus in Los Angeles.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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🌼 A ’70s VW in the redwoods

Cruising up the coast this fall? Travelers looking for a retro twist on their road trip may enjoy a stay in this 1979 Volkswagen Westfalia Campmobile.

The daisy-covered Campmobile is nestled in the redwoods of Felton, near downtown Santa Cruz. It can accommodate two people in its bottom bunk, with room for another adult (or two kids) in the top bunk, making the stay comfortable for families.

Need to work remotely? No sweat. Unlike traditional campsites, the Campmobile comes complete with WiFi as well as outlets and a space heater.

The Campmobile can be booked for $175 per night on HipCamp.

Illustration of van with flower decals
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • Have you ever heard of the micronation of Westarctica? Katherine LaGrave profiles this “very big little country” — and writes about its goal of raising climate change awareness — in Afar.
  • Writer Arundhati Nath explains what she learned while traveling with a visual disability in Condé Nast Traveler.
  • In South Lake Tahoe, the water has receded far from the shore, revealing lots of slimy algae. Julie Brown reports on what happens when Lake Tahoe hits a critically low water threshold in SFGate.
  • “Llama therapy” in Yellowstone National Park? Mary Winston Nicklin describes an intriguing way to experience the park in the Washington Post.
  • Climate change is ravaging our national parks, writes Emily Pennington in Outside. “A warming planet, increased storms, and wildfires are creating a level of infrastructure collapse that’s expensive and devastating.”
A few people ride paddleboards on a mountain lake.
People enjoy the public beach on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in Tahoe Vista, Calif.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

📸 Photo of the week

Windsurfers are shown in the ocean with a background of dark cliffs.
A cool breeze propels windsurfers across the shimmering waters off Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

Song: “Astrovan” by Mt. Joy

Favorite lyric: “Life ain’t ever what it seems / These dreams are more than paper things”

Best place to listen: Rose Valley Campground near Ojai

Illustration of Polaroid photo of a campground and mountains with the word "Astrovan."
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)