Here’s something to be thankful for: Southern California is filled with outdoor sanctuaries to discover, tucked away trails that range from easy strolls in urban parks hidden from busy streets to challenging hikes in the vast wilderness, all of which will help burn off some of the calories consumed during Thanksgiving dinner.
Already, there’s been a trend in seeking out the great outdoors rather than be a part of the Black Friday shopping rush, but even more so this year as nature remains one of the few places people can safely space out and find solace.
And this year, there’s not just a global pandemic, but widespread civil unrest and wildfires that have ravaged the state. Kids and adults are spending more time in front of screens.
Outdoor retailer REI led the way for the trend to get outdoors on Black Friday, six years ago shutting down all of its retail shops and business operations on the busiest shopping day of the year and paying its 13,000 employees – and encouraging customers – to instead go outside.
“People are on edge,” said Greg Mellinger, REI’s retail sales director for Southern California. “Time outside has become increasing more important to heal, to connect. There’s just a ton of research that when people get outdoors and connect with nature, it’s very healing.”
Cyclists might venture to the Los Angeles River, a 51-mile watershed that starts near mountains and ends at the sea in Long Beach, or join nonprofit Friends of the LA River for a self-guided clean-up of the watershed happening through the rest of the year, where volunteers photograph trash to be cataloged for a citizen-science project.
Or why not head out to one of Southern California’s greatest gems: the beach.
“Is there any better place than to take a stroll along the beaches of Southern California, whether it’s in the morning or when the sun is going down,” Mellinger asked. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Then, there’s countless inland trails to explore either in undeveloped Orange County or around Mount Baldy and throughout the San Bernardino Mountains and the Angeles National Forest.
Or maybe simply take a walk around the block, Mellinger said.
“I think it’s important people don’t think of opting outside as something extreme,” he said. “It’s good for your mind to get some exercise … what we’re encouraging people to do is just get outdoors.”
Mellinger said people should plan on having backup plans. Some areas may be too crowded or closed due to recent fires.
One last thing to remember: With a surge of people going outdoors this year with other gathering and entertainment options shut down, remember to be safe.
“We have to make sure we stress the importance of doing it responsibly and safely,” Mellinger said. “Social distance and wear a mask. We need to do it responsibly.”
Here’s some ideas if you want to get out and explore during the holiday weekend.
1. Upper Newport Bay Preserve:
There’s an estimated 1,000 acres of open space beckoning along the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Ecological Reserve, the largest estuary in Southern California and a unique place that connects freshwater with saltwater in a tucked-away setting in bustling Newport Beach.
The coastal wetland is one of the largest in Southern California and draws an estimated 35,000 birds that can be found here on any given winter day during their annual migration, including six known rare or endangered species such as the Brown Pelican, the Peregrine Falcon and California Least Tern.
It’s a popular place that draws not just bird-watchers, but joggers, cyclists, hikers, horseback riders and strollers who like to soak in the sights. For hikers, check out the bluff-top, pedestrian-only trails on the northwest side of the bay for vista views.
Cyclists can do a 10.5-mile bike loop around the bay or for a tougher trek, the 22-mile Mountains to Sea Trail runs from Weir Canyon north of Irvine Regional Park and meets the Back Bay Loop at Jamboree Road and continues through to Shellmaker Road.
What to know: Address is 2301 University Drive, Newport Beach. Parking and restrooms are open, but the park offices and nature center remain closed.
2. Palos Verdes Nature Preserve:
There’s no shortage of trails and open space to explore in the Palos Verdes Nature Preserve, about 1,400 acres with more than 30 miles of trails for beginners, experts and everyone between.
You’ll soak in a variety of scenes, from rolling, grassy hills to Catalina Island on the ocean’s horizon. Explore areas such as the Vicente Bluffs and Abalone Cove along the coastline, or reach up to 1,300 feet above sea level at Vista del Norte, according to the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy.
At all trails, make sure to maintain space from others and wear masks at trail heads and parking areas. Some trails may have designated directions to encourage physical distancing, so pay attention to signs and rules.
Interested in beach views? Check out the Ocean Trails Reserve. There’s nearly 120 acres of preserved land that lines the coast, where 250,000 local native plants grow as a habitat for the threatened California gnatcatcher. There’s about eight miles of trails, many that sweep through grassland or give views of the Pacific Ocean, with several areas offering beach access.
Explore tide pools at the Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve, where you’ll find two beaches: Abalone Cove and Sacred Cove.
Abalone Cove earned its name from the shellfish that were once abundant on the California coastline – now many of the abalone species are near extinction and hard to come across. The 64-acre reserve has sea caves, black sand and rare plants – just make sure to look, don’t take or disturb the wildlife.
What to know: Get to Ocean Trails Reserve by taking Palos Verdes Drive south, address is 1 Trump Drive, Rancho Palos Verdes. For Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve, address is 5970 Palos Verdes Drive South.
3. Bommer Canyon:
Get a glimpse of what Orange County’s ranching days were like at Bommer Canyon in Irvine, one of county’s oldest cattle ranches and former farmlands.
These days, it’s a popular destination for walkers, hikers and bikers, with native habitats such as mature coastal sage scrub and views overlooking the city of Irvine when hiking along the Bommer Meadow, Nature Loop, Bommer Pass and Quail Hill Loop trails.
Within Bommer Canyon, you may come across the old Irvine Ranch Cattle Camp, which is being renovated with plans to reopen next summer. Some trails, because of the coronavirus pandemic, have been temporarily converted to one-way use to allow for social distancing, so pay attention to signs and rules.
What to know: Address is 1 Bommer Canyon Road, Irvine. Many trails are self-guided and open from dawn to dusk, but others are accessible only through guided tours.
4. Lake Arrowhead:
The San Bernardino Mountain area has plenty of wilderness to explore, just make sure to use extreme caution with the winter season upon us.
Take an easy 2.5 mile stroll around the Nature Loop in Lake Gregory Regional Park, which starts at the back of the South Beach Parking area in Lake Gregory Regional Park. It’s also a great hike for dogs.
Get there by taking Highway 18, then Lake Gregory Drive to San Moritz Drive. Turn right on San Moritz and look for the parking area on your left.
For a more challenging hike, try the Exploration Trail in the National Children’s Forest, a 4.5-mile hike each way rated moderately difficult with a 12% grade.
It is a non-motorized, family friendly trail that crosses the 3,400-acre forest. The trail starts on Keller Peak Road in Running Springs on Highway 18. The trail head is on the right a little way inside the gate.
What to know: An Adventure Pass is required to park at most trail heads and are available in the Lake Arrowhead Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.
5. Peters Canyon Regional Park:
Peters Canyon Regional Park has about 340 acres of coastal sage scrub, riparian, freshwater marsh and grassland habitats as well as migrating waterfowl who stop in at the 55-acre Upper Peters Canyon Reservoir.
Take a stroll among the tall black willows, sycamores and cottonwoods that line the lake and Peters Canyon Creek, which runs through the canyon.
There are plenty of graded roads and trails for hikers, mountain bikers or equestrians looking to get away. Don’t miss the panoramic view of Peters Canyon from the East Ridge View Trail, or take in the sights of the Upper Peters Canyon reservoir while on the Lake View Trail.
If you’re lucky, you may see hawks soaring above in the sky looking for prey. You may also stumble upon local wildlife, such as deer, bobcats, coyotes, opossums, raccoons – and be warned, mountain lions are known to hang around here.
What to know: 8548 E. Canyon View Ave., Orange. The park is open from 7 a.m. to sunset. Parking fee is $3.
6. Crystal Cove State Park:
There are plenty of options to explore this State Park jewel.
Beach enthusiasts can take a leisurely stroll along the cliffs or even trek down to the sand to explore tidepool critters at low tide.
Head inland and you’ll find a whole other side to Crystal Cove, with about 18 miles of hiking trails through 2,400 acres of wilderness.
Some of the lower trails traverse through riparian woodlands with oak and sycamore trees along the seasonal Moro Creek.
“Whether you explore the high trails or the low trails or both, you will find ample evidence of native plants and animals, and a sense of escaping from civilization into the beautiful solitude of natural history,” the California State Parks website boasts.
An easy 3-mile trek on the trail from Moro Canyon takes about an hour or take the moderate loop trail. A more challenging route would be a 5-mile hike that takes you to the East Cut Across Trail, or go even harder with a 9-mile trail known as the “Perimeter of the Park” to see the whole back country. Make sure to pack water and snacks for this trek and rest at one of the three environmental campsites to soak in the view.
What to know: Address is 8471 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Hours are 6 a.m. to sunset and parking is $15 for day use.
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