Step by step: Learning to appreciate Southern California's wilderness


As a first year, I was part of the Nature Writing Cultural Studies Program (CSP) taught by professor Keith Naylor of the religious studies department. Our class went for a short hike at Eaton Canyon, near Pasadena, as an accompaniment to a lecture on arid landscapes. It was my first semester in Los Angeles and, after having the chance to explore its metropolitan splendor, I yearned to see what Southern California had to offer outdoors.

Brought up in the Hudson Valley of New York, which inspired its own school of landscape painting, I had developed an affinity for a certain type of wildlife by the time I arrived in LA. Forests, thick and green, fast-flowing rivers filled with trout, snow-capped evergreens in the winter and a kaleidoscope of warm color in autumn; these images had come to define my relationship with nature.

When our class stepped off the Bengal Bus at Eaton Canyon, I was especially underwhelmed by what I saw. Unaccustomed to my surroundings, I failed to appreciate the drier landscape at first glance.

The prickly shrubs and cacti were meek in comparison to the tall maples I’d grown up climbing. As I watched a barely trickling stream from my place on a dusty path surrounded by shades of brown, I pictured the fish that swam in the frigid waters of New York state.

After speaking with the hiking club’s executive board members Aggie Fitch (sophomore) and Rebecca Goodfriend (sophomore), I realized I was not alone in my initial misconceptions about LA and its surrounding wildlife.


“We’re both from Portland, and we’re used to being surrounded by greenery and water all the time,” Fitch said. “Out here it’s a more colorful beauty. It took me a while to appreciate the flowering cacti and everything else that comes with a dry landscape.”

The hike at Eaton Canyon is a great introduction to local hiking. It is especially worth the trip when the waterfall at the end of the three-and-a-half-mile trail flows strong after winter rain.

Fitch and Goodfriend recently visited Eaton Canyon with the hiking club and offered some advice about making the most of the hike.

“There’s this little pathway — it takes you behind the waterfall and it’s really beautiful,” Goodfriend said. “It’s definitely important that you find special things like that to do on some of these hikes. Since we’re in LA, some places, you go on a hike and there’s so many people even the hikes are kind of crowded, so if you find something cool to do off the beaten path, then it can become a bit more personal.”

Those beautiful moments in nature described by Goodfriend seem out of reach for some when boxed in by freeways and the sprawling metropolis of LA. Recently, Zach Heerwagen (senior) laughed at the prospect of getting stuck in a traffic jam while trying to go on a hike.

“LA is just not ideal for hiking,” Heerwagen (senior) said. “It’s such a process getting anywhere.”

On one hand, he is right. It takes a commitment of traveling about 30 minutes to more than an hour from Eagle Rock to enjoy many of the great hikes the area has to offer, and that’s with ideal traffic conditions. For a successful hike, leaving early in the day is likely the best strategy to avoid the traffic (and the heat).

I recently visited the Switzer Picnic Area and Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains with avid hiker and friend, Lizzie Meiselman (senior). We woke up at 8 a.m. on a Monday, hopped on the CA-2 North — which had minimal traffic — and were there in 30 minutes.

At this early hour, the trail was empty. All we could hear were chirping birds and the whisper of running water. The white stone walls of the valley cast shade on us as the sun crept into the sky. The trail started out wide, passing picnic tables and rest areas. As we descended into the valley, the trail became thin, revealing the landscape more and more.

The trail followed a crystal-clear stream, winding steadily. Walking in the moisture of the San Gabriel mountains is an experience unlike most mornings in Eagle Rock, where the dry heat tends to creep up early on.

The Switzer trail seemed to ascend in pace with the sun that morning. Cut out of jagged stone, the path rose over the valley, leaving the stream below and exposing us to the warm sun. The view from the first crest of Switzer trail is filled with a variety of color and wildlife in the valley below.

This hike is not the easiest, adding up to a little over five miles total, with significantly more elevation change than Eaton Canyon. The steep uphills provide a challenging workout, and good boots are helpful on the rocky path.

During our Switzer hike, Lizzie and I spoke about our love for hiking. I’d grown up walking the Appalachian Trail and the Catskills, but Lizzie’s experience had been entirely different.

“I wasn’t really into hiking until I came out here,” Meiselman said. “Back in Chicago, everything was so flat I never wanted to, but there’s so much to see in California.”

California as a whole offers hikers a variety of landscapes, but hikers needn’t travel all the way to Yosemite or Big Sur for a change of scenery. Hikes in the surrounding area, from the beach to the mountains, provide a respite from the vast expanse of urbanity that is LA.

“There’s a lot of places that you wouldn’t really think of,” Fitch said. “Like places that are closer than you might imagine, that let you be outdoorsy and give you a chance to relax.”

One particularly relaxing hike in Malibu offers hikers a chance to take a dip in the ocean: The trails at Leo Carrillo State Park begin near a campsite only a few hundred yards from the beach. The Willow Creek Trail is five miles, wrapping around a series of tall hill crests. The path is lined with golden, waving grasses and small lizards basking in the midday heat.

When hikers return to the beach, they should make sure not to jump right into the Pacific and miss one of the highlights of this Malibu hike. The tide pools at Leo Carrillo are famous for their wealth of life. Purple sea urchins, anemones with wriggling tentacles, crabby crustaceans and sea slugs as big as an adult hand scuttle around beneath the shallow waters.

A campground at Leo Carrillo costs $50 –– it is Malibu, after all –– but staying the night is certainly worth it.

Another casual hike, ideal for those looking to relax, is the swimming hole hike at Malibu Creek State Park, which the hiking club visited last semester.

The swimming hole hike follows a wide dusty trail, situated between the long faces of rolling hills, covered in chaparral and light greenery. The elevation of the hike is more or less consistent, never becoming too strenuous.

After walking a little over two miles, hikers will find the swimming hole, which is lined on all sides with pocked, gray walls of stone. There’s a huge boulder in the middle, easy enough to climb and safe to jump off of. The water gets as deep as 12 feet. There are more boulders and walls beyond the swimming hole, enabling bathers and hikers to explore or bask in the sun. Rock climbing enthusiasts have equipped some of the walls with climbing holds.

For those looking for a similar experience in a very different landscape, the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, 45 minutes north of campus, offers opportunities for hiking and rock hopping, minus the swimming. According to Goodfriend, the hikes in the park are flat and easy, but there are many opportunities to explore amongst the rocks.

Goodfriend gestured widely with her hands as she described the dramatic rock outcroppings at Vasquez.

“It’s super cool,” Goodfriend said. “There’s rocks coming out sideways and all different angles. It’s like an alien landscape or something. They actually filmed something for Star Trek there.”

As nice as a leisurely walk in the world of Kirk and Spock sounds, there are those who look for more of a challenge in their hiking endeavors. For instance, both the hiking club and Meiselman have taken on Mount Baldy on separate occasions. According to Goodfriend, Baldy presents the biggest challenge in the area.

North of Pomona, a little more than an hour away via the 210 Freeway, Mount Baldy stands at just over 10,000 feet in elevation. There are two ways up the mountain: the Baldy Bowl and the Baldy Notch. Both hikes begin in an area known as Manker Flats, and can be combined for a seriously challenging 11.3 mile hike with 3,900 feet of elevation gain.

The trek up the mountain is even more difficult during this time of year, when there is snow. Despite the precipitation, it gets warm enough during the day that shorts and a t-shirt are not out of the question.

Practicing safe climbing is integral on Mount Baldy. According to ABC7, three hikers have fallen from Mount Baldy to their deaths within the last month. Boots with good grip, a spare sweatshirt and a lot of drinking water are a must.

According to Meiselman, Baldy left her exhausted, and during her solo hike, she had to drum up motivation.

“When I hiked Baldy, there was one point when I wasn’t sure I could keep going,” Meiselman said. “But, I just said, ‘No, you can do this,” and kept walking. When I reached the summit, I was exhausted, but it felt so good. Like, ‘Yeah. I did that.”

Baldy is a challenging hike, but there are ways to make the journey a bit easier. A conveniently located ski lift can carry hikers from the parking area up to the Baldy Notch section of the hike, trimming 1,500 feet in elevation off of the journey.

From Baldy’s peak, the other prominent peaks of Mount San Jacinto, Mount San Gorgonio and Santiago Peak rise over an ocean of evergreen and white snow. Whether hikers take the summit alone, like Meiselman, or team up for the challenging trek, this view rewards them for their efforts. The large community of hiking enthusiasts on Occidental’s campus makes it easy to find people with whom to share these views.

According to Fitch, the hiking club’s mailing list includes around 800 students. They don’t all join in on every hike, but groups of eight to twelve get together several times per month.

The club’s members are consistently adding to their list of destinations, and are eager for recommendations. Students interested in getting access to the hiking club’s list can email