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  • Writer's pictureScott Carnahan

Islands, Deserts, and Mountains - 5 of the Best Hikes in California

The crystal blue waters of Velma Lake surrounded by evergreen trees and grey rocky mountains

Velma Lake, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


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There is no better way to immerse oneself in nature quite like backpacking. It is the ultimate way to hike and camp - teaching you the power of minimalism, self reliance, and solitude. Whether you’re alone or with a group, packing all your gear on your back and stepping into nature is truly a powerful experience. Backpacking is one of the closest experiences to being ‘off the grid’ that is achievable today. Every time I have stepped on a trail and surrendered to nature, I have found some new personal evolution. Here’s a list of the five most influential backpacking adventures I’ve encountered throughout my time in California.


Kern River Trail - Sequoia National Forest

The Kern River flows through a canyon, brown rocks and red vegetation pop up by the banks of the river, as evergreen trees cover the hillsides of the canyon under clear blue skies with few clouds

Kern River Canyon: Kernville, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Where Mountain Highway 99 meets Forest Route 22S05; South Creek falls into the Kern River as it flows south - bound for Lake Isabella and eventually to the aqueducts of the San Joaquin Valley. The river starts high up in the snow as runoff from the mighty Mt. Whitney, growing as the runoff from other Sierra Nevada peaks merge with it - creating the eastern border of Sequoia National Park and rolling through the Sequoia National Forest. The Seven Teacups Trailhead was my entry point for this dazzling river. The trail is named after a geologic feature in which Dry Meadow Creek has created seven pools on its way to the Kern River.

All along this trail - through beaches and forest groves there are well-established sites for setting up camp. Large granite boulders line the river, creating swimming holes and providing excellent opportunities for sunbathing. The first potential campsite is only a half mile from the trailhead, and the trail extends seven more miles along the river before cutting east into the mountains. For anyone in Los Angeles this is an ideal spot for a quick backpacking trip - less than 4 hours from city limits! Don’t forget to listen to Merle Haggard’s heartbreak ballad while floating in the Kern.


Boy Scout Trail - Joshua Tree National Park

A single spiny Joshua Tree stands above the brown sands of the desert and green shrubbery, under cloud-streaked blue skies

Joshua Tree National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Deep in the mighty Mojave Desert is the Boy Scout Trail - one of Joshua Tree’s most famous routes. The trail starts high in the boulder mountains of the northern portion of the park, and winds through Joshua Tree’s rich washes and rock gardens. The trail runs eight miles along the edge of the famous Wonderland of Rocks - a vast area packed with awe-inspiring outcroppings of rock and groves of cottonwood trees by desert springs. The Wonderland is governed by coyotes, with their communal howls heard late at night.

Joshua Tree is well known for its stargazing, and doing so away from campgrounds and park roads only makes the beauty greater. Setting out from the Boy Scout Trailhead, bound north for Indian Cove Campground - starting in a forest of large Joshua Trees and marching toward the Wonderland of Rocks; the trail is an exceptional way to see the park’s natural beauty. With a network of small trails it is possible to explore the entirety of the Wonderland, though the area is closed at night out of caution for hikers - and to protect the Bighorn Sheep from being disturbed. This hike is strenuous but you don’t have to do the whole thing, camping is allowed a mile away from the trail head. Just be sure to listen to Iris DeMent and remember to be safe in the heat of the Mojave.


Matilija Creek Trail - Matilija Canyon Wildlife Refuge

A breathtaking view of the Matilija Canyon. Many different types of trees cover the hillsides of each side of the canyon, as purple clouds loom overhead

Matilija Canyon: Ojai, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

A rocky canyon full of the sweet smell of Chaparral mixed with Canyon Live Oak, a unique scent created by a very unique landscape; where the mountains, desert, and ocean meet. Fog dances between the ocean and the hills - creating cool humid mornings and hot arid afternoons. The canyon is created by Matilija Creek, winding down from its headwaters high up in the Los Padres National Forest. The Matilija Poppy is native to this canyon, and is the largest of all California’s native wildflowers. Black bear, cougar, bobcats, deer, coyotes, foxes, rabbits, and squirrels all can be found in the area; but most famously the California Condor is known to rest in the area, and was the main reason behind establishing the Matilija Wilderness.

I embarked on this hike in early May - the creek was still running strong, and much of the flower life was still bright and beautiful. Depending on rain and temperature this area tends to become extremely dry early in the year, leaving it at risk for wildfire. The trail is primitive and it is easy to get turned around - keep an eye out for cairns to guide your way. Any bushwhacking you might have to do is worth it, and along the creek there are many nice places to set up camp, allowing ample water for filtration - just watch out for poison oak; ivy; and Poodle-Dog Bush. Simon and Garfunkel gave me a great vibe whilst sitting beside the campfire.


Desolation Wilderness - Lake Tahoe

The view from Phipps Pass in the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe, California. Evergreen trees dot the hillsides, a dark blue lake sits in the middle. Blue skies are clear over grey mountainous terrain

Phipps Pass: Desolation Wilderness, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

To the southwest of Lake Tahoe is an absolute Eden of rocky alpine lakes and glacial-carved granite. Pine forests populated by black bears, bobcats, chipmunks, squirrels, blue jays, and bald eagles - to name a few. The main route through the wilderness is a merger of two legendary trails: The Pacific Crest Trail and the Tahoe Rim Trail. This is a backpacking mecca, and permits can become scarce quickly - once on the trail you will understand! August is the hallmark month for this trip, as bugs are less common and temperatures are ideal. The amount of lakes in the wilderness is jaw dropping, and creates an excellent world for backpacking - consistently passing lakes eliminates the need to carry much water, and provides ample swimming opportunities as well.

Entering the wilderness at Meeks Bay and exiting 30 miles later at Echo Lake was a perfect stretch to explore Desolation - camping at Rubicon Lake; Middle Velma Lake; Gilmore Lake, and Lake Aloha. Each lake provides bathing, swimming, and drinking opportunities after long hot days on the trail. Lake Aloha is often referred to as the ‘heart of the Desolation Wilderness’ and one look at it supports that claim. It is the largest lake in the wilderness and houses an archipelago of granite islands. An amazing place for rock diving and swimming, I recommend spending more than one day at Lake Aloha...but be sure to Listen to John Prine’s ballad ‘Lake Marie’ while you're there.


Santa Cruz Island - Channel Islands National Park

A brilliant sunset over Santa Cruz Island, part of Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. The setting sun glows orange as the island and ocean are shrouded in darkness.

Santa Cruz Island: Channel Islands, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Just off the coast of Ventura, California are the remarkable Channel Islands - home to a diverse array of rare flora and fauna. Scientists believe the islands were never connected to the mainland, creating an isolated ecosystem with a wealth of unique resources that are found nowhere else on Earth. This park is a taste of what the coast of Southern California once was. The National Park includes five islands and a surrounding mile of ocean. This beautiful oceanside utopia is full of adventure on land or sea - scuba diving and ocean kayaking, or backpacking and camping - there are many ways to explore these majestic islands. The most common way to get to the islands is via boat, but for those airborne adventurous souls you can catch a plane.

I took a boat that left from Ventura Harbor. The boat transit, which lasted more than an hour, doubles as a whale watching tour, and is a great way to be introduced to the park. Sailing up to the island invokes a fresh sense of adventure, and nothing is quite like stepping off onto the rocky beach with your bag on your back. Landing at Scorpion Cove and hiking thirteen miles to the Del Norte backcountry campground was a strenuous (though rewarding) trek. Hiking the island’s ridge was an exhilarating experience, looking out on the Pacific on either side. But nothing that beats seeing the rare Island Fox in its natural habitat. The fox is native only to six of Southern California’s islands (three of which are in the park) - they are smaller than your average fox and their curiosity was obvious as they danced and played alongside my tired legs.

Santa Cruz Island is a marvelous locale for exploration, and the experience was absolutely unforgettable. Enjoying a post-hike beer on the boat back to the mainland, watching blue whales flap their tails, I sailed back with appreciation in my heart for the unique adventure that is found on the Channel Islands. If you are going to hike anything before you die, Santa Cruz Island is a worthy place to go - just ask Weezer...

An absolutely adorable Island Fox grins for the camera. The shot is a close-up, with the red, brown, and white fur of the fox clearly visible as he hides in the underbrush

An adorable Island Fox: Santa Cruz Island CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


Check back in every Monday for more by Scott Carnahan on the Pathloom blog!


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