The Douglas Family Preserve pretty much has it all. Perched on a bluff above the Pacific, it’s a popular spot for bikers, walkers, dogs, hang-gliders and kids. It’s an easy walk with trails that criss-cross throughout the preserve and amazing views of the ocean and the Channel Islands in the distance. The various trails cut through coastal oaks, grasslands and pines before opening to the ocean views. It’s also a few miles west of Santa Barbara’s densely packed downtown, and most tourists never discover this spot, making it a favorite among locals.
The story of the preserve is a fascinating one. The area – originally known as the Wilcox property – was slated for development with an upscale neighborhood and luxury hotel planned. That is, until a group of locals raised over $2 million to buy up the land, with a contribution of about $600,000 from actor Michael Douglas, hence the name.
A large sequoia on the Trail of 100 Giants.
The area around Kernville, some 30 miles south, is billed as the gateway to the Trail of 100 Giants, and the beautiful drive north is worth it.
The trail is in the middle of the Sequoia National Forest and the 100 giants refer to the massive namesake trees that dominate. The Forest Service says there are about 125 sequoias (some as old as 1,500 years) with a base diameter of over 10 feet in Long Meadow Grove, and this easy 1.4-mile flat trail snakes within feet of many of them.
You can pick up a brochure to guide you through some of the sites in the parking lot across the road ($5 fee per car), and while the trail officially opens in May, it can be accessible a bit earlier. When I went in late April, the trail was open and we had a great time sloshing through melting snow, including dodging snowballs dropped from the branches of the trees.
Kern River on Whiskey Flat Trail
The great thing about the Whiskey Flat Trail, which begins just outside the wonderful little town of Kernville, is that is can be as hard or easy, as quick or lengthy, as leisurely or demanding as you want it to be.
The first portion leading away from the town skirts just out of sight of the Kern River, through scorched black trees that fell victim to the Bull Fire in 2010.
After picking over a partially downed bridge over Bull Run Creek, we cut through a field to get some river views and finally stumbled across the water at the confluence of some of the rapids the Kern is known for and the gentle entrance of a smaller fork of the river, which was a great place to sit and watch the river and a couple of fishermen trying their luck on the east bank.
That’s where we turned around to head back (the Trail of 100 Giants to the north was calling) – after relaxing by the river. While we only did about 1.2 miles in and back, the entire trail stretches for 15 miles and ups and downs, ending at a footbridge across the Kern at Fairview. This site has a great detailed write-up of the full 15 miles; it’s geared toward mountain bikers, but hikers can take the same route.
View of Zion Canyon from the Watchman Trail
Despite starting at the main visitors center at the entrance to Zion National Park, the Watchman Trail is a lot less crowded than some of the park’s other notable trails and gives off great views of the park’s features and nearby town of Springdale.
The trail begins by winding next to the picturesque Virgin River until crossing a service road and heading into an incline. The trail heads into the north side of a canyon and continues to the very back, where it turns around 180 degrees to take you along the south of the same canyon, with a moderate upgrade the entire way.
Once you get to the mouth of the canyon on the south side, the trail loops around to give you spectacular views of Zion Canyon to the north and Springdale to the south. After completing the loop, you’ll head back down the way you came, with the Virgin River waiting at the end for a cool dip.
Waterfall dropping to the Lower Emerald Pool
The Emerald Pools Trail – along with the adjacent Kayenta Trail – is one of the classic and most popular hikes in Zion National Park. At about 4 miles long with an elevation gain of around 400 feet at the uppermost pool, the route I took is moderate and also included the Grotto Trail connecting that picnic area with Zion Lodge.
After leaving the lodge parking area and crossing over the bridge over the Virgin River, the trail nudges upward, giving great views of the river, before turning west into the canyon. The trail continues to climb steadily about 150 feet until you reach the Lower Emerald Pool at the bottom of two waterfalls, which the trail skirts under, although the rails help you through the wet and slippery area.
After circling the lower pool, the trail turns into a quick climb to the source of those waterfalls – the Middle Emerald Pool. The final leg of the trail shoots up about 200 feet in half a mile and leads to the Upper Emerald Pool, with a majestic waterfall dropping hundreds of feet into the pool that is hemmed in on 3 sides by cliffs.
From the middle pool, you can return to the trailhead via the Middle Emerald Pool Trail. I chose to return via the approximately one-mile long Kayenta Trail, which crosses the Virgin River at the Grotto picnic area. The quick and easy Grotto Trail – just over half a mile with negligible elevation gain – connects that picnic area with Zion Lodge.
Waterfall on the Heart Rock Trail
The Heart Rock Trail is a great walk through the pine forests near Crestline. The trail itself can be a challenge to find, but once you’re on it, it’s well marked.
The spur that heads down a steep hill to the heart rock is about a half mile from the trailhead. It can be tough to spot, but if you listen for the voices of people who have flocked to it (it can be crowded on summer weekends), you’ll be able to find it. Use caution heading down and be prepared for a scramble on the way back up because that part of the trail is steep.
The namesake of the trail (don’t look at the photos if you want the view to be a surprise) is near a wonderful waterfall with a nearby rock jump for the adventurous types. The jump is only about 10-15 feet high, but make sure to aim carefully as the landing pool isn’t very big. I jumped twice, and little kids were having a great time doing it.
There are a lot of large rocks in and around the stream at the base of the waterfall that make for great picnic spots and photo opportunities.
View of Horseshoe Palms in the Coachella Valley Preserve.
The Coachella Valley Preserve has a wealth of trails to follow, and this one takes you through a barren and unforgiving landscape to two different palm oases, which around formed due to their proximity atop the infamous San Andreas Fault.
First note: Do NOT attempt this hike during the summer. People have died on the trails once the mercury soars above 100 degrees F. And take plenty of water regardless of the time of year.
After parking in the preserve’s lot, head southeast on the short section of trail that leads across the road (and past an alternate parking area) and keep following the signs to the palm areas until you reach a set of stairs built into the ridge. Head up them and you’ll see a sign at the top pointing you in the right way.
From this junction, you can head to three different oases – Pushawalla, Horseshoe and Hidden palms. Follow the well-posted signs through a rocky, moon-like landscape with sparse vegetation (just a few creosote and brittlebush survive here) to choose the one you want. Hidden Palms to the south is thicker and offers more shade than Horseshoe, although the route I took and posted below takes you by both.
There is a steep downgrade before reaching Horseshoe Palms, then you’ll walk down a jeep road that connects you to Hidden Palms. After heading north from Hidden Palms, you’ll climb back to the moon landscape, where you’ll double-back on the trail you started on.
Chuckwalla Trail, Rancho Mirage, California
The Chuckwalla Trail takes you past some high-priced real estate in the hills above Rancho Mirage.
The trail has about 400 feet of elevation gain, split into two separate climbs, so I’d classify this two-mile trail on the easy side of moderate.
After climbing quickly at the start, the trail flattens out after half a mile or so, giving you nice views of neighboring Cathedral City, especially the Cove area.
After another mile or so, the trail ducks under a condo complex before rounding a hill and giving you nice views of some mid-century modern houses to the south. The trail ends at the top of Frank Sinatra Drive, and you can walk past the swank Ritz Carlton hotel along the road back to your starting point.