With COVID-19 cases dropping, national parks and state parks are starting to open up for camping. Unfortunately, most forms of entertainment are still closed, so we are left with the perfect window to venture into the great outdoors. Whether you are looking for a weekend camping trip or a Saturday morning hike, getting out and exploring the outdoors is a great way to retreat from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Hiking, camping and backpacking are some of my favorite activities because they allow me to venture out into unknown areas and provide a great workout.
Are hiking, backpacking and camping all the same? Although these three are very similar and tend to overlap, they have very distinct differences. Camping can be as basic as pitching a tent or even sleeping in your car. Yes, you can camp at your house, but there’s no fun in that. You have to get out. Hiking can be as simple as going down your local trail but can be as extravagant as a 20-30 mile trip. I would classify hiking as something you can do in a day. If the journey goes over a day, I would then call it backpacking. Backpacking is a mix of camping and hiking. When you backpack, you essentially carry everything you need to survive in the wilderness for a night or even months on your back. This includes water, food, clothes, a tent and much more. The difference between backpacking and camping is that certain campsites are only accessible by foot, so as a result you bring your gear in your pack and hike in. One of the most beautiful locations for backpacking is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), spanning 2,653-miles from Mexico to Canada. The PCT takes around 5 months to complete, so you have to carry all of your gear in your pack for five months.
I understand that no one has the time to hike the PCT on a weekend—nor is it possible —but here are several hikes, campsites, and backpacking within Southern California that are worth the venture.
After a 15 mile drive down a scenic coastal road off of Highway 101, you will find yourself at Jalama Beach. Jalama is a secluded gem located in Santa Barbara County that allows you to camp on the waterfront. Complete with bathrooms, showers, and the Jalama store, it is a nice weekend getaway for those who don’t know much about camping. Of course, you will have to pay for a campsite, but it is much cheaper than any hotel could ever offer. Did I mention to bring your board? Jalama is no Trestles, but it has some solid waves with no competition, and since you are staying right there, you can go in and out of the water whenever you want. The cherry on top is the Jalama Burger. The Jalama store cooks up a mean burger that will leave your mouth watering for more. Definitely worth the $10.
The next campsite I would recommend is the famous Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree is one of my go-to camping sites; there are multiple spots around the whole park camp. All designated spots have a restroom, but only some have a shower and drinking water, so make sure to plan ahead and prepare. Once you figure out precisely where you want to camp, Joshua Tree is full of rock climbing, bouldering and hiking. There are some old mine shafts that I have ventured down into, but I would advise to be extremely cautious if you decide to check them out. Joshua Tree is full of amazing bouldering for all skill levels. For those who don’t know, bouldering is essentially rock climbing, but without any harnesses or ropes—it’s much easier and not as steep. I think of bouldering as a hybrid of hiking and rock climbing. If you are passionate or curious about rock climbing but have no experience, don’t worry. There are many different companies such as the Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School that can guide you through some intense rock faces. Spring is the best time of year for this: the weather is not too cold, not too hot. Pack up your car and get going!
Not everyone has a whole weekend to take a trip to Joshua Tree or to Jalama Beach, but I have some phenomenal day hikes that will get you out and about.
The first is the Backbone Trail to Sandstone Peak and Mishe Mokwa Trail Loop. Located about 25 minutes into the hills from Point Dume, this is a moderate six-mile hike that boasts ocean views and a beautiful oak valley. The trail overall is pretty well maintained, but there are some loose spots. In addition, it can get crowded at times, so I would recommend starting earlier than later. The trail is a loop with Sandstone Peak towards the end. If you are looking for a shorter version, I would recommend going counterclockwise and heading straight up to Sandstone Peak. A late breakfast or lunch will always make a great addition to the completion of this hike.
Next up is the Echo Mountain hike. Starting at the top of Lake street, Echo Mountain is enriched with Pasadena history. Remains of the famous Mt. Lowe Railway still stand atop Echo Mountain. Echo Mountain is a suitable hike for just about anyone. If you want to take it a step further, you can take the Castle Canyon Trail, a steep and advanced hike, from the Echo Mountain summit, which will take you even higher into the San Gabriel Mountains. Castle Canyon round trip is 10 miles round trip versus Echo Mountain, which is five miles round trip. And don’t forget to stop at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles on your way home!
If you are new to backpacking and maybe have dusted off some of your dad’s old gear in the garage, I would advise you to do some research on backpacking and learn some basic outdoor skills. Backpacking is very exciting and rewarding, but generally you don’t have phone service, and, depending on how far you hike, you could be hours away from any hospital. When backpacking, you usually do not encounter any life-threatening situations, but you would rather be safe than sorry. Like I said earlier, backpacking is a hybrid of camping and hiking. If you are uneasy about backpacking, you can easily day hike some of the trails before you spend the night.
Barker Valley down in the Palomar Mountains of San Diego is the best trail and campsite for beginner backpackers. The 6.5-mile trail with 1,000 feet of elevation gain will put little stress on your body. The trail winds right along the San Luis Rey River, so water is never an issue (don’t forget your water filter). Once you get into the valley, you can camp wherever you wish. A permit is required for this hike. The next morning hike back out the way you came. Please advise the trailhead is a bit tough to get to and a car that has four-wheel drive is recommended. If not, it is an additional eight-mile hike up to the trailhead.
Next, the Santa Cruz trail is a strenuous 20 mile out and back trail (10 miles each way) in the Los Padres national forest that highlights every aspect of California’s natural beauty. The Santa Cruz Trail is said to mimic a day on the John Muir Trail but at a much lower altitude. This trail does have a 2,500-foot elevation gain and is recommended for those who are more experienced. If you decide to take the challenge, you will come across wildflowers, grassy knolls and hundred-year-old oak trees. About 9.5 miles in, you start to descend into a valley where the Santa Cruz station lies. Set up camp and enjoy the day. If you wish to have a campfire, you must get a free campfire permit before you hike.
Hiking, camping and backpacking are great ways to get outside and experience the world. I highly recommend checking out one of my suggestions, as you will not only get a great workout but also enjoy the beauty of our native state. We are currently in the perfect window to enjoy nature, and you don’t want to miss it. Also, don’t forget to bring a friend!