Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park, California
Golden Canyon Trail is possibly the most well-traveled of any in Death Valley National Park – and for good reason.
Take a trip down this trail as the sunlight hits the surrounding cliffs, including the amazing Red Cathedral formation, and it’s obvious how the canyon was named.
The trail itself is well-marked and easy to follow and the in-and-out trail to Red Cathedral is about 3 miles round-trip. Add 4 miles if you decide to take the Gower Gulch loop to the south.
The Golden Canyon Trail occasionally drops into a sandy wash or over boulders so good footwear is essential. And just in case you need to be reminded: Probably steer clear of any Death Valley hiking during the sweltering summer months.
Salt flats at Badwater Basin, lowest elevation in the U.S., in Death Valley National Park, California
You won’t get any lower than this. Not in North America, anyway.
Badwater Basin is an open expanse of sand and salt flats 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point on North America. And if you want to know exactly how low you are, scan the rock cliff to the east until you see the sign reading “Sea Level” bolted at the appropriate height.
It is desolate – but far from empty. Given its extreme status, this is one of the most visited spots in the vast Death Valley National Park, where temperatures can reach 130 degrees in the summer. Winter brings more tolerable temps, but the air chills dramatically once the sun goes down.
The salt flats stretch far into the basin, so visitors can walk around at their own pace and direction. And the basin is almost perfectly flat so there is no elevation gain from the bottom of this side of the Earth.
The Dogwood Trail, inside the campground of the same name, is just long enough and just steep enough to rate this a moderate (instead of easy) trail.
The trail itself is well maintained and winds through patches of pine and dogwood trees. It starts near campsite 69 and, depending on which route you take, ends up near the main highway (you can walk back to the campground on the road) or behind the restrooms near campsite 90 (this is the shorter route).
The campground is only open in the summer, and the November 1 date I was there was the last day of the season. The campground itself is perfect for a weekend getaway into the mountains. The restrooms are clean and functional, and the sites are spread out nicely with lots of trees providing privacy from the neighbors.
Children’s Forest Trail near Running Springs, California
The Children’s Forest Trail can be done as an easy one-mile loop of the interpretive nature trail after driving down Keller Peak Road to the parking lot. Or for those seeking a tougher challenge, start at the visitor’s center off Highway 18 and hike 4.5 miles to the same nature loop, with a return trip of another 4.5 miles.
The area contains a wide variety of trees (manzanita, chaparral and pines dominate) and animals, squirrels, deer, birds and bears (although you’re not likely to spot any of the latter). The nature trail gives a decent, although somewhat distant, view of a nearby reservoir, and it is a great place to take kids for a quick walk in nature.
San Antonio Creek Trail, located in Tucker’s Grove Park, and as the name suggests, follows the creek of the same name for about 1.75 miles until the route ends at the northern trailhead at Highway 154.
The creek is currently dry thanks to the extreme drought in pretty much all of California, but it’s still a worthwhile trek through an oak woodland. The notable highlight is the large dam about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, and this point offers a break in the trees and a great view of the surrounding area.
This a great hike for kids or beginners as the elevation gain is very gradual and you can turn back at any time. As always in the area, watch out for poison oak if you venture off the trail.
Parma Park sits in the hills above the famous American Riviera section of Santa Barbara but is easily accessible and provides great views, including a little slice of Pacific Ocean around Montecito.
Parma has about five miles of trail winding through 200 acres wedged between two creeks, both of which are probably dry until the state’s historic drought passes. The trail shown below passes through oak and chaparral forest and rises steadily about 400 feet after turning north to the highest point, where there is a picnic table, dedication marker, and equestrian hitch for horses. There are still charred trees and stumps from the Tea Fire in November 2008 that burned most of the park.
There is very little shade once you start to climb the hill at the eastern point of the trail, including at the picnic table at the top, but with sunblock, proper clothing and enough water, this should be a good hike for both kids and adults in reasonably good shape.
Before you even get to the meat of this hike, you walk about a mile following a concrete culvert. On the other side of this culvert, past the fences, is a little compound called Porcupine Creek. It is notable because Oracle CEO Larry Ellison bought the property for over $40 million in 2011 and has hosted some high-profile guests, including President Obama. So hiking tip: Probably don’t try to jump the fence to get a better look (you really can’t see much of Porcupine Creek from this trail).
With the real estate background out of the way, after walking your mile past Mr. Ellison’s vacation home, you’ll scoot down a concrete incline and soon into a small canyon. At the end of this canyon is the first of several (usually) dry waterfalls to scale. There are probably about 7 dry falls to climb, and the second one at about 30 feet is the toughest to get up and back down. If you’re in reasonably good shape, careful and not afraid of heights, even Fall #2 should be a fun challenge.
I turned back at an imposing rock face about 2.5 miles in, although I’ve seen others climb it. The trail is an out-and-back one, so you can turn around and go back the way you came at any time.
The area is technically only open to humans between October and December due to bighorn sheep territory.
Sweetwater Trail at Cachuma Lake
Cachuma Lake is a visible reminder of California’s severe drought with drastically lower levels than in previous years. But it’s still a wonderful place to hike, camp, fish, and boat (no swimming allowed though).
Sweetwater Trail is the main hiking trail at the lake, stretching from the southwest corner of the recreation area to the Bradbury Dam Vista Point, about 2.5 miles away.
The trail is well-marked, but thanks to the recent diminishing water levels, doesn’t get as close to the lake shore as it once did. There are little spur trails that take you down to the edge, but the lake patrol is very stringent on the no-swimming policy (the lake is the water supply for Santa Barbara, so no people or pets are allowed to enter it). The trail leads hikers up and down short hills, into wooded areas and through grassy meadows.
Dogs are allowed, and this is a good hike for kids, although some younger ones may not want to go the full five-mile round trip. There’s a general store in the park not far from the trailhead for a post-hike snack.
Coon Creek Trail in Montaña de Oro State Park
Coon Creek Trail in Montaña de Oro State Park is an in-and-out path that starts near the east of the Bluff Trail and follows a canyon with the namesake creek for about 2.5 miles before coming to an end in a grove of cypress trees. With only 250 feet of elevation gain, it’s not a steep trail, but on hot days, you can work up a sweat.
There are two trail junctions (Rattlesnake Flats is the first and Oats Peak Trail at the end point) that lead to even more challenging hikes in the park. Or you can simply hike in and out, as I did.
There are still burned trees and other traces from a fire that scorched the area in 2012. March was a good time to walk this one as thousands of butterflies darted around the trail. But hikers should be careful as there are dangerous critters throughout the area. I saw the back end of a rattlesnake stretched across part of the trail at about the halfway point, and I also had a dig a tick out of my leg after finishing. Good eyes and long pants and sleeves should take care of these problems.
View of the Pacific Ocean from More Mesa
Much like other Santa Barbara blufftop preserves (such as the Douglas Family Preserve and the Ellwood Butterfly Grove), hikers can chart their own path through the forests, wetlands and grasslands of More Mesa, making walks as easy or as challenging as they like.
The More Mesa Preservation Coalition’s website has a comprehensive list of the plants, animals, insects and habitats found along the trails. And of course, More Mesa has spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the outlying Channel Islands. Watch the waves closely and you might catch a glimpse of surfacing dolphins.
More Mesa’s trails are dog-friendly, and horseback riders are often seen as well.