When you’re in Los Angeles, it can be hard to imagine a world beyond its traffic-choked highways and swarming high streets. But within a few hours drive of this populous metropolis are several great wildernesses that will make the city seem a flimsy and fleeting thing, soon to be swallowed back into the surrounding desert. So grab your hiking boots and shake up your perspective on undeveloped Pacific islands, among the outstretched limbs of desert-hugging Joshua trees, beneath a vast redwood canopy, or in the drought-ridden depths of Death Valley.
Situated an hour’s boat journey from the Californian coast, the Channel Islands are an oasis of tranquility just across the Pacific from the second biggest city in the United States. Their isolation over thousands of years has, like the Galapagos further south, created an ecosystem with a unique assemblage of flora and fauna. The largest island, Santa Cruz, is the only place in the world you can find the diminutive island fox, about the size of a house cat, which shares its habitat with the spotted skunk, mice, lizards and snakes. Circling in the air above are bald eagles, hawks and kites, while cutting through the surrounding ocean visitors can see dolphins, sea lions and, if you’re lucky, the largest creature in the world, the blue whale. Ringed by blue-streaked volcanic sand, and visited by only 30,000 people a year, the Channel Islands offer a glorious escape into a peaceful, self-contained natural world.
Two deserts compose Joshua Tree National Park, a sun-baked, windswept landscape of jutting bare rock, whistling sand and, of course, the eponymous trees. These trees dot the the sand of the higher of the two deserts, Mojave, and were given their unusual name by Mormon pioneers, who believed they symbolized the upraised arms of Joshua guiding them to the Holy Land. The craggy rocks and bare hills that break out of Mojave’s flat terrain are popular with rock climbers and scramblers. The lower Colorado Desert is even more arid, speckled with tough, low-standing shrubs such as the creosote bush and cholla cactus. Occasionally, the desiccated landscape is broken by verdant oases, ringed by palms and home to abundant wildlife. Despite the park’s harsh character, it is fairly accessible, with a visitor’s center, wayside exhibits, various walking routes, nine campsites, and ranger-guided walks during spring and fall.
Eighty miles north of Joshua Tree, the Mojave National Preserve spreads over 1.6 million dramatic desert acres between LA and Las Vegas. At its heart, the wave-like Kelso Dunes rise up to 200 meters from the desert floor, behind which the bare, rocky Marl Mountains form a jagged horizon. In between, sparse forests of Joshua trees climb over mesas and canyons, while in spring carpets of wildflowers bring a brief flourish of vibrant colour to the barren desert floor. A historic wagon road passes through the preserve, the Mojave Road, knotting together a series a waterholes including the fabled Marl Spring. 4WDs can still traverse this route today, following in the footsteps of the native Chemehuevi people, missionaries, pioneers, gold seekers and myriad other wanderers into the Old West.
With over 1,000 species of plants and a diversity of terrain that encompasses snow-cloaked mountains, lush oases, spurting springs, annual wildflower floods, and green woodlands of juniper, pine and mahogany, you could be forgiven for thinking that Death Valley has been unfairly named. Then again, delve down into the lower elevations that compose the majority of the park and the desert’s black, remorseless heart will reveal itself. Here, you’ll find the hottest and driest points in North America, mired in relentless drought and burnt back to bare rock by the fierce summer heat. In these parts of the park, the elements seem to be at war, the heat and wind lashing the earth and rock into a series of strange and fantastic shapes. This is where you’ll find the blanched skeletons of dead creatures, and the ghost towns left empty after the gold rush came to an end. So come to Death Valley, around 250 miles north of LA, prepared to find a place of unexpected variety and contrast – but also come prepared for a place that lives up to its name.
This park centers around the greatest concentration of giant sequoia groves in the world, a forest of towering redwoods including the biggest tree on the planet by volume, nicknamed General Sherman. Ferns and flowers robe the forest floor, while an acute listener can discern the bustle and birdsong of an entire wild world unfolding in the canopy far above their heads. Many of the trees develop small slits at their base as they grow, which are large enough for humans to slip through and stand inside the immense trunk. One fallen redwood, known as Tunnel Log, even has space for cars to pass through it. This land of coniferous giants is backdropped by the Sierra Nevadas, and hiking trails run in and out of the redwood groves, through canyons and meadows, and up the slopes of the surrounding mountains.