A Southern California road trip

Exploring the dreamy landscapes of SoCal through an ocean playground, national forest and desert paradise

  • May 10, 2024
  • 2,703 words
  • 11 minutes
The Mojave landscape from 28 Palms Ranch. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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The swells feel monumental in our two-person kayak. My husband and I each grab handfuls of rubbery kelp to anchor ourselves as the waves roll past and crash against the razor-sharp volcanic rock of Santa Cruz Island, or Limuw, one of five islands in California’s Channel Islands National Park. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I signed us up for a three-hour sea kayak tour with Santa Barbara Adventure Company, but sunset paddles on glassy Ontario lakes did not prepare me for this washing machine. I’m scared. Not our guide though — the exceptionally laidback and suntanned Jared, who moves through the chop with the ease of a porpoise. He shouts over the roar of the ocean for us to hang out, as he calmly floats by to retrieve a pair of beginner paddlers from North Hollywood who have just capsized onto by some jagged rocks.

Jared has them back in their tandem kayak in minutes. Next stop, our guide yells over the ocean’s roar, a sea cave. I tentatively release my iron grip on the kelp and muscle towards the cave’s entrance. Do. Not. Fall. Out. I repeat this mantra every stroke.

Scorpion Beach by the pier on Santa Cruz Islands, one five islands in Channel Islands National Park. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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Sea kayaking in Channel Islands National Park is our first adventure in a week-long Southern California road trip that will take us from this ocean playground across the channel to Ventura, CA, the park’s mainland jumping-off point, then high into the pine forests of Big Bear Valley in the San Bernardino National Forest, and southeast to Joshua Tree National Park, a desert paradise. It’s an illuminating journey across three vastly different landscapes — but first, I need to stay afloat.

When we reach the cave’s entrance, the water is churning. It’s loud, too; waves seem to echo from the very heart of the island’s Swiss cheese geology. Just five metres or so inside the mouth and the light is already very dim. A hazy glow diffuses from the entrance, casting a glimmering sheen across the black water. It’s fascinating in here; and deeply concerning. Jared is unbothered.

He tells us he’s going to go check the conditions deeper in the cave, and disappears into the darkness. Deeper?! I think to myself. We bob in silence, inching closer to the cave’s shallow perimeter. I search the water for the slippery comfort of the kelp, but it’s nowhere to be found — even the plants know to stay out of this cave. I hold my paddle out like a spear, ready to stab us away from the cave walls should the waves coax us any closer.

Minutes later, Jared returns from the depths. All is safe, he says, and invites us in. No thanks, my husband and I both agree with a glance. But the North Hollywood couple, probably still waterlogged from their Santa Barbara Channel beaching, excitedly follow him in.

Thwarting for a second time what I thought were their final credits, the couple returns in one piece. It’s time to make our way back to calmer waters near Santa Cruz’s main docks. When we get there, Jared, as if invigorated by the danger of it all, is bursting with information about this special place. 

One of the calmer, and brighter, sea caves in Santa Cruz Island. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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The kelp that so mercifully served as my anchor is part of a vast underwater forest that also helps to anchor the productive marine ecosystem surrounding the Channel Islands archipelago, nicknamed the Galapagos of the North. In between the waving fronds and buoy-like bulbs of golden towers of kelp — not quite a plant and not an animal — live tiny fish, invertebrates and other algae, comprising the bottom rungs of the food web here. Seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins and sharks then follow. Kelp is the architecture, along with deep coral gardens, eel grass beds, reefs and canyons, that makes the Channel Islands marine environment an ecological gold mine.

And it was likely this abundance that brought the first peoples to the island around 13,000 years ago. The Chumash people’s traditional territory extends from San Luis Obispo to Malibu, CA, including the northern Channel Islands. Aboard tomol, a traditional plank canoe, they travelled across the Santa Barbara Channel to hunt and trade. While colonization pushed the Chumash off the islands by the 1820s, they have, since 2001, made crossings to Limuw to reclaim their heritage.

As our guide searches the water for brightly-coloured nudibranchs, arguably the prettiest slugs on Earth, he tells us about the pygmy mammoths that once inhabited parts of the islands. These bison-sized cousins of Columbian mammoths likely evolved from animals that swam across the channel from the mainland 40,000 to 20,000 years ago. Archeologists have found no other evidence of them on Earth. And while the mammoths are long gone — though you may find a bone or two on Santa Rosa Island if you’re lucky — there are still a handful of endemic creatures on the islands, including the island scrub-jay, spotted skunk, deer mouse, Santa Cruz gopher snake and the tiny Island fox. After our kayak tour, we spot one of the grey, white and tawny foxes skulking around Santa Cruz’s Scorpion Canyon campground.

On the 5 p.m. ferry back to Ventura, a salty crunch to my hair and heat on my cheeks, I crack a beer and watch the surf. Humpback whales breach and dive, gulls hover in the boat’s slipstream. Indiscernible music plays over the ferry’s sound system. A couple sitting across from us cuddles into their sleepy child. The sun dips a little lower.

Coast live oaks at Harmon Canyon Preserve in Ventura, CA. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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The air smells incredible, like sunbaked soil and sage. It’s 10:30 a.m. when we set out on a hike at Harmon Canyon in Ventura, CA, making our way down a silty path lined with sagebrush and wormwood, some of the scrubby flora that characterizes the Southern Californian coast. Up ahead, a grove of coast live oaks huddles along a stream and spreads a wide shady canopy that whispers me closer. Every part of this place whispers me closer.

Harmon Canyon Preserve is a sanctuary cut into one of the quaint surf city’s suburban hillside neighbourhoods. It’s the kind of place locals come to walk their dogs and get some exercise, but it’s more than that. At 2,123 acres, Ventura’s largest permanently protected open area encompasses verdant canyons, ridgelines with views of the coastline and Channel Islands, bubbling streams, and — perhaps most importantly — a haven for endangered habitats, like the coastal sage scrub that once blanketed central and Southern California’s hilly coastline. Home to myriad species, including bobcats, lizards, rattlesnakes, ground squirrels and birds, coastal sage scrub is now one of the most endangered ecozones on the continent thanks to urbanization — as little as 10 to 15 per cent remains. And the preserve, which sees around 15,000 visitors per year, aims to strike the fine balance between conservation and human connection.

“As a conservation organization, we are really interested in protecting the land, restoring it and making sure that it provides habitat, biodiversity, wildlife corridors, etcetera. But we are also committed to public access. And that’s an interesting and tricky balance, because humans can over love the land,” says Melissa Baffa, executive director of Ventura Land Trust, the organization that purchased the land encompassing Harmon Canyon in 2020. For now, the trust is tackling the most pressing conservation work: eradicating invasive species, like pepper trees and wild mustard, some of which were planted by the original settlers of the land, and other problematic species, like feral pigs, which are currently expanding their range.

I spot a moonflower sprawling along the trailside. Its green leaves stand out against the parched October landscape. White trumpet-shaped flowers, still in bloom despite the sun’s heat, point towards the sky, beckoning hawkmoths — and plant nerds. Datura wrightii, or sacred moonflower, is native to this part of California, used for millennia as both a powerful hallucinogenic and as a medicinal plant (all parts of the plant can also be deadly poisonous). In California and the southwestern U.S., Datura wrightii is sacred to some Indigenous peoples; in medieval Europe, the species (Datura strontium) was said to be an ingredient in witches’ flying ointment. I snap a few photos as a keepsake.

Moonflowers, datura wrightii, sprawling along the trail in Harmon Canyon Preserve. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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A view from inside the Hidden Valley trail in Joshua Tree National Park, CA. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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Up on the ridge, the tentacled branches of a lone oak — some of these trees are hundreds of years old, says Baffa — are silhouetted by the sun. A trail winds up toward it. Let’s go there. We climb, following switchbacks through more shade-dappled oak groves. Snake holes and wildflowers line the trailside. Someone on a fat bike skids past, the wide, soft tires stick like Velcro to the sandy trail.

The trail gets more vertical near the top. I spot our oak off the trail in the yellow grass. I want to sit under her canopy for a while and rest, but the terrain is too steep. With screaming legs, we hoof it the last few minutes to the top. I’m bright red, and I can’t tell if it’s sunburn or exhaustion — probably a bit of both.

I forget all about that when I see the canyon spread before me. Bleached hills tufted with green. The sky is the sort of intense blue afforded by the ocean on a sunny day; eagles circle and swoop. I could stay here forever.

A panoramic view from the top of the ridge at the mouth of Harmon Canyon Preserve, CA. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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I can’t possibly grip the steering wheel of our tiny rental any harder as we snake our way up the hairpin turns of Highway 18 to Big Bear Lake. The flat roads from Ventura, lined with pupusa stands and open grills, hadn’t alluded to this. I turn off the music, as if that helps. The speed limit already feels gratuitous given there’s just a metre between the road and a cliffside, but the locals treat the posted limit as a mere suggestion.

Miraculously, we make it to Big Bear Lake with no major cardiac events. I start to get the lay of the land. At 2,058 metres elevation, the small city of Big Bear Lake is SoCal’s mountain getaway, nestled within the giant 3,333-square-kilometre San Bernardino National Forest. The air is cooler here, fresher, and carries the scent of pine. In October, the days average 18 C and the nights are a frosty 1 C. It almost feels like I’m back home, but this part of the San Bernardino National Forest is different.

The Pineknot Trailhead in Big Bear Lake, CA. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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Big Bear Valley is a 25-kilometre long diamond inside the San Bernardino National Forest. While the valley accounts for just one per cent of California’s landmass, it’s home to an incredible one third, or 1,600 species, of the state’s flora. Fuzzy rayless daisies push up through the small rocks in the valley’s pebble plains, a habitat found nowhere else on earth. Spires of delicate pink birdfoot checkerblooms, an endangered species, grow in the montane meadows. And tiny yellow blooms of the endemic San Bernardino Mountains bladderpod brighten the area’s rare carbonate landscape. Of course, all these plants attract a special mix of wildlife, including endangered species like bald eagles, flying squirrels, bighorn sheep, and the southern rubber boa, along with more common animals (to Canadian visitors) like black bears, cougars and deer.

The next morning, we fuel up before hitting the trails. On the menu are the legendary sandwiches at Amangela’s, a local coffee hangout in the otherwise touristy downtown village (think downtown Banff). A fresh-baked everything bagel is slathered with chive cream cheese and piled high with deli turkey, thick slices of creamy avocado and fresh veggies. Paired with a giant cup of organic coffee, this was a death row-worthy meal. And one worthy of the trails, too.

We drive a few minutes down a winding road carved through pine-needle dusted boulders to the Pine Knot trailhead and decide to tackle the route to Grand View Point, a 11-kilometre out-and-back through pine and oak forest to a postcard-perfect view of the lake. We navigate our way along the trail through shady canopy and sunny open lands, beneath towering pines, around and through lichen-speckled boulder formations. By mid-morning, we reach the precipice. The calm waters of Big Bear Lake are framed in pinecone-laden branches, the sappy smell of the trees fills the air. We reach the trailhead again and finish the route in about three hours.

Back at the Hotel Marina Riviera, across from the bustling village, it’s time to rest. The wood-plank, three-storey architecture of our accommodations feels like a classic ski lodge. Inside our room, earth tones mirror the forest we can see across the lake. I step into the giant walk-in shower and feel the steamy jests melting the knots in my muscles. Tomorrow we head to the desert.

A view of Big Bear Lake from a lookout point on the pineknot trail. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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Dreampop gliding out of our car stereo guides us into the Mojave Desert — and its ethereal sound feels appropriate. This place is otherworldly. Almost immediately out of Big Bear Lake, the pine forest disintegrates into limestone pyramids. Signs for bighorn sheep are frequent on the other side of Highway 18.

On State Route 247 through the Lucerne Valley to Joshua Tree National Park, flat expanses of cacti and creosote brush precede slate-coloured hills. Fluffy clouds scroll past, mottling the terrain. I see clumps of moonflower again, following me in roadside piles of green velvet. There are Joshua trees, too, those alien-like yucca plants that look as if, at any moment, they could get up and walk away.

The desert is a liminal space. You can feel it from the moment you enter. Living under the sun’s thumb, waiting for rain. A black-and-white on the verge of colour.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, the Pasadena socialite and mother of Joshua Tree National Park, described the feeling in 1931. “This desert with its elusive beauty . . . possessed me. And I constantly wished that I might find some way to preserve its natural beauty.” Hoyt’s Depression-era activism spurred a shift in public perspective on desert landscapes. Previously viewed as barren wastelands, they were recognized as unique habitats bursting with life like any other. It was a realization that would eventually lead to the establishment of Joshua Tree National Monument, the precursor to the park, in 1936.

A Joshua tree in its namesake park. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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But before desert possession, sleep. Zigzagging long and dusty desert roads, we finally reach our accommodations for the evening, the 28 Palms Ranch, a glamping yurt village in the foothills of Copper Mountain bordering the park. The portable, circular dwellings originating in Central Asia, particularly Mongolia, are stunning. As I duck my head to get through the small doorway, a princess-and-the-pea level bed greets my eyes in the middle of the room. Blue painted rafters reach to a skylight overhead. A tiny sink sits on the perimeter; the bathroom and shower are outside in the open-air. Before settling in for the night, we sit at our firepit and take in the Mojave expanse. The stars are so bright they feel hole-punched out of night sky. A tiny sliver of moon illuminates the sand. It’s eerie and exciting.

The next morning, we enter the park. The convergence of the Mojave and Colorado deserts and the San Bernadino Mountains, Joshua Tree’s sand dunes, dry lakes, oases, mountains, granite boulders and elevations ranging from 300 to over 1,500 metres have attracted flora and fauna, including people, since time immemorial.

We start with the Hidden Valley Trail in the north end of Joshua Tree National Park, a valley between granite monoliths that, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, cattle rustlers (thieves) used to stay hidden. Today’s trail is a short, 1.5-kilometre jaunt, popular with both families and rock climbers (actually, a family of climbers were working their way up a giant boulder while we visited). White-washed rock formations rise from the sand, sprays of agave peek through creosote. A small California side-blotched lizard skitters past the winding trail. Joshua trees keep watch from above as cactus wrens perch on their limbs.

Just another day on this stunning journey. I look over into a rocky alcove and see a little clump of green. Another moonflower, following me across from the coast to the desert.


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