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California Secrets: Hiding in Plain Sight
Southern California may be one of the country's most populous regions, but don't let all those people block your view of the perfect landscapes: forgotten islands, untamed deserts, and striking slot canyons.   Text by Robert Earle Howells 

Santa Rosa Island Mount San Jacinto  |  Sespe Creek  
Jalama Beach  |  Carrizo Plain National Monument

Travel Back in Time
Santa Rosa Island

Set foot on any one of the Channel Islands and you're instantly transported to a long-since-vanished California. This eight-island archipelago, which snakes from 12 to 45 miles (19 to 72 kilometers) off the southern California coast, is spiced by the scent of sea spray and chaparral and remains much as the Chumash Indians knew it for more than 10,000 years.
As So Cal boomed through the 20th century and developers were busy jamming 20 million people into every nook of canyon and coast, these islands slumbered offshore in a state of suspended animation—the exclusive province of generational cattle ranchers and droves of seals and seabirds. Then, in 1980, Prince Charming, in the guise of the National Park Service, woke these sleeping beauties, consolidating government, conservancy, and private holdings on five of the eight islands and reviving them as Channel Islands National Park: an unpeopled microcosm of mainland California in its purest form.

Hiking and sea kayaking, wreck diving amid forests of kelp—there are ample reasons to visit, but the most compelling may be privacy. None of the islands 
is developed: no inns, eateries, or paved roads. In fact, when photographer Steve Casimiro and I landed on Santa Rosa, the second largest island, and settled in at its deserted 15-site campground, two park maintenance workers greeted us with startling enthusiasm. We were the first campers they'd seen in 30 days. Apart from some deer, elk, a few endangered island foxes (lately creeping back up in numbers), and a spotted skunk who policed our campsite for crumbs each night, we had 84 square miles (218 square kilometers) utterly to ourselves.

Solitude is a reliable amenity on all of the park's islands. Ironic, considering that two of them are visible to motorists on U.S. 101: Anacapa, a trio of islets, and 22-mile-long (35-kilometer-long) Santa Cruz, the biggest of the bunch. During 2005, when the park celebrated its 25th anniversary, it hosted 34,416 campers, but only 1,788 of those were on Santa Rosa.

I had day-tripped to Santa Cruz and paddled its immense sea caves before, but I'd never taken the ferry the extra two hours to Santa Rosa. Several beaches here are designated for kayak campers (permits are free), but the winds and swells demand solid paddling skills. This time, however, I was looking forward to a landlubber's tour.

As a So Cal native, I'm obsessed with finding vestigial pockets of peace and quiet in my overdeveloped homeland, spots where the original landscape and vegetation remain unsullied. Santa Rosa—38 miles (61 kilometers) and a world away from the mainland—is a paragon of that virtue. Our first taste of this was on Cherry Canyon Trail, which mounted a ridge above our Water Canyon campsite. (Nice place, by the way, with windbreaks, tables, and a solar-heated shower.) The first evening, when the wind abated, we hiked to the tune of crashing surf, the mountains of Santa Cruz Island, eight miles (13 kilometers) to the east, backlit by a full moon.

Traversing Santa Rosa can be humbling. There's nothing like walking in the shade of pre-Ice Age trees to remind you of your own brief life span. Our morning's goal was an ancient grove of Torrey pines, which to a botanist is akin to a herd of living dinosaurs. The world's only other stand is more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) away, in suburban La Jolla. Here they festoon the nose of a desolate, north-facing ridge about 500 feet (152 meters) above the sea. Ever the nativist, I noticed that the long-needled pines were surrounded by bunchgrass distinctly different from the European grasses that cover most of the island and virtually all of the mainland's pastures. Centuries ago, the cattle and feed imported by Spanish ranchers forever altered the California landscape. But on this ridge, you gaze back on a scene from long before that time: rare flora surrounded by silent seas and the faint profile of distant islands. Not a house or megastore in sight.

During our five-mile hike through this ecological anachronism, we were walking in the footsteps of some of the earliest people on the continent. In 1959 the oldest human remains found in North America—the approximately 13,000-year-old bones of the Arlington Springs Woman—were discovered on Santa Rosa.

The island's primordial north coast enhances the time-warp sensation: sandy beaches and swarthy cliffs fronting the Santa Barbara Channel, where gray whales breach and spout from December to April; harbor seals arf, elephant seals loll, and brown pelicans and black oystercatchers wing along on shore patrol. But the standout natural attraction is Lobo Canyon, a sandstone cleft cut by a perpetual stream and equally perpetual wind. It runs three miles (5 kilometers) from an old ranch road down to the ocean, with a side turn into a true slot canyon that we navigated as far as we could without rope. Lobo is a treasure trove of smooth, purple-and-yellow bathtub-ringed sandstone, brilliant red-berry toyon trees, giant clumps of yellow coreopsis flowers, banana slugs, tadpoles, and a family of mallards that paddle in a pond at the canyon mouth.

As we left the canyon and made our way along tide pools and bluffs, we came upon a surprising sight: another person. A man was standing alone in a meadow above some wave-bashed headlands, holding a watering can. He turned out to be a park biologist studying the effects of varying rainfall on native plants. His battered can provided the experiment's simulated rain.

Santa Rosa is a popular lab for such studies. "This is California's Galápagos," park superintendent Russ Galipeau told me the day I'd arrived. "We host their researchers every year, and they host ours. The two island groups are similar—so untouched, so full of endemic species."

Well, maybe. Even if Santa Rosa, with its foxes and skunks, strikes me as a tad less exotic than the Galápagos, with its turtles and boobies, I'll buy the analogy. Both are archipelagos frozen in time. But unlike the Galápagos, the Channel Islands are floating in your own backyard.

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Bag the Region's Steepest Peak
Mount San Jacinto

At 10,804 feet (3,293 meters), Mount San Jacinto is the masterful crown of a 14,000-acre wilderness realm of craggy peaks, lodgepole pine forests, and wildflowery meadows. The summit view is stunning, with mountains and desert stretching in all directions. The hike is moderate—a total of eight miles (13 kilometers) and 6,000 vertical feet (1,828 vertical meters) of work—but it's best done as a weekend backpack and can be tackled from the west or the east. From the west, start at Humber Park, one and a half miles (2 kilometers) from the pleasant mountain burg of Idyllwild, and proceed up Devil's Slide Trail to Saddle Junction (you'll glimpse 8,828-foot (2,691-meter) Lily Rock off to the east, a gleaming slab the color of a mild sunburn).

From there it's less than half a mile (almost a kilometer) to the summit of San Jacinto. You can pitch your tent anywhere within San Bernardino National Forest ($5 for parking, hiking permits are free;, but about two miles (3 kilometers) from the peak, where you cross into Mount San Jacinto State Park, camping is permitted only at designated sites (free; From the east, let the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ($22; do the grunt work for you. Alight at its 8,516-foot (2,609-meter) station and hike six miles (10 kilometers) and 2,600 feet (792 meters) of gain to the top. En route, set up camp at Round Valley, a mountain-meadow paradise.

Bonus: Big-Wall Gawking
From early summer through late fall, Lily Rock (known to locals as Tahquitz) is a multipitch paradise for rockhounds and a prime spot for earthbound spectators.

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Hike a Wild & Scenic River
Sespe Creek

Slicing through 220,000 wilderness acres (89,030 hectares) in the Topa Topa Mountains north of Ojai, this 31-mile (50-meter) dam-free waterway is laden with endangered southern steelhead and wild rainbow trout (fishing is catch-and-release only). Along the way are cool swimming holes and hot springs, but the crux is a dramatic slot-canyon gorge rimmed by smooth sandstone cliffs into which only technically adept canyoneers should venture. Get an adventure pass from Los Padres National Forest ($5 a day; and a free wilderness permit, and hit the trailhead in the Piedra Blanca parking area, just off State Route 33, 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of Ojai. Follow the river trail east and you'll find wilderness campsites along the way; but hump nine miles (14 kilometers) to the Willett Hot Springs backcountry camp to simmer in a pair of pools hidden among the trees. The entrance to the gorge comes six miles (10 kilometers) later, beyond Cottriel Flat. Proceed only with a partner and rappelling gear, and expect swims and squeezes for the next 13 miles (21 kilometers). Prime time for the Sespe is spring to early summer; after that the Topa Topas are a broiler.

Bonus: North America's Biggest Birds
Look! Up in the sky! Titans with ten-foot (3-meter) wingspans laze on thermals. The Sespe Wilderness is ground zero for California condor recovery efforts.

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Storm a Remote Shore
Jalama Beach

Choose your weapon (surfboard, Windsurfer, kiteboard, or wave kayak) and advance on this niche of coastline, site of the most consistent surf in southern California. Or, forgo the action altogether and just savor the rustic beachfront camping on four and a half miles (7 kilometers) of windswept strand tucked between impassable Point Conception and off-limits Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The 114-site county campground ($18; features fire rings, hot showers, and a daily waiting list. The drive in is a scenic treat: Roll north on Highway 1 and, five miles (8 kilometers) south of Lompoc, take winding Jalama Road 12 miles (19 kilometers) west through oak-studded ranchland. Arrive early for a camping spot. Surfers should head for a break called Tarantulas, a mile (1.6 kilometers) south of the campground. The biggest waves hit in November and December, which is when the "butt surfers" (wave kayakers) lay claim to the beach. Windsurfable breeze is a sure bet from late March through early June, and steady enough for kitesurfing year-round. None of the above? Surf-fishing is good; beach-strolling, awesome.

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Hike a High-Desert Paradise 
Mojave National Preserve

Mojave's 1.4-million-acre (566,560-hectare) preserve (free; embraces two mountain ranges of up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), a Joshua-tree forest, 600-foot (183-meter) sand dunes that would give Lawrence of Arabia pause, abandoned mining ruins, a legacy cattle ranch, some good dirt roads, and some rough tracks that call for 4x4s and off-road skills. The preserve is 62 miles (100 miles) east of Barstow via I-15 or I-40. Shoulder seasons are prime: fall, spring, or early summer. Establish a car-camping headquarters 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of I-40 at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground ($12), where water is reliable and the adjacent Rings Trail sends you hopscotching through a Swiss-cheese maze of red rhyolite rock.

An eight-mile hiking route leads to the higher, cooler Mid Hills Campground, where many sites remain charred from a fire last summer. A challenging 19-mile (31-kilometer) mountain biking loop along Wild Horse Canyon and Black Canyon Roads links the two campgrounds. Kelso Dunes, off Kelbaker Road, are best scrambled at dawn or dusk. Nearby, inside the old Kelso railroad depot, is the preserve's new visitors center, and a bit north is Cima Dome, site of the region's thickest stand of Joshua trees. Serious four-wheel-drivers can explore the rugged, old Mojave Road, which runs east-west through the preserve. City slickers in shiny SUVs need not apply.

Bonus: An Underground Excursion
Mitchell Caverns is the spectacular rococo centerpiece of Providence Mountains State Recreation Area ( Rangers run tours, but avid cavers can get permits to go deep. Hot Tip: The six-site campground ($12) has the
best views in the preserve.

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Prowl an American Savanna 
Carrizo Plain National Monument

What the Great Plains once were to the nation, Carrizo still is to California: uninhabited, unspoiled starry-night country. This little-known 250,000-acre (202,272-hectare) grassland about 160 miles (257 kilometers) north of Los Angeles became a national monument five years ago. Here, winter rains green the grasses, spring wildflowers bloom spectacularly, and earthquake geology is always on display. But Carrizo Plain's main attraction is solitude. Take State Route 58 from I-5 or U.S. Route 101, and head south past California Valley to the visitors center. Set up a car camp and explore on foot or mountain bike.

For a bird's-eye view hike eight-mile Caliente Ridge Trail, which ascends 5,106-foot (1,556-kilometer) Caliente Mountain. Soda Lake is Carrizo's highlight. The alkaline puddle and surrounding wetlands draw hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Take Elkhorn Road to the short Wallace Creek Trail to see how the San Andreas Fault has dramatically offset the creek channel by more than 400 feet (122 meter)—30 of them on a single day in 1857. Camping at Carrizo is free ( Just remember to bring water.

Bonus: An Ancient Art Gallery
Standing near the heart of the plain, Painted Rock was something of a hunting-and-trading crossroads for local tribes. The walls, caves, and alcoves of this sandstone monolith are adorned with their elaborate pictographs. FYI: Painted Rock is closed March 1 to June 15 for raptor nesting season. 

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Photograph courtesy of Steve Casimiro

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