Best Nature Spots in Southern California: National Forests, Deserts + More

by Global Viewpoint
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Looking to discover the best nature spots in Southern California? From beautiful nature preserves and endless beaches to arid deserts and unique rock formations, Southern California nature will amaze you!

SoCal is home to national parks, state parks, and beaches that are worthy of a spot on your bucket list. Add to that winding coastal roads etched into the cliffs and sun-kissed cities and towns, and you’ll see why you need to plan a SoCal getaway asap! Before jumping into the most beautiful places in Southern California to visit, let’s first learn a little bit more about the Golden State.

Best Southern California nature spots for all types of travelers
Best Southern California nature spots for all types of travelers

Guest Post by Tunco Maclovio

The Story of California: Southern California, Northern California, and the San Joaquin Valley

For those of you who are from, living in, or have visited California – you might know that Southern California, Northern California, and the San Joaquin Valley enjoy major geographical, demographical, and climactic differences. Perhaps several points that accentuate this difference are in order before we visit my favorite nature spots in Southern California.

The origin of the name says a lot about the state in general. When explorers under the Spanish flag, notably Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his crew (whether he was Spanish or Portuguese is still debated) explored California in 1542, (some 10,000 years after the Native Americans) they believed it was an island.

In hindsight, it would be easy to mistake Baja California for an island, not a peninsula. Since long months at sea require some sort of entertainment, lacking smartphones, the Spanish did what some people nowadays do when they don’t have theirs, they actually read books. Go figure!

Popular ones at the time were sagas recounting the days of old (even back then) and knights and legends. One saga, written by Garci de Montalvo was part of a series (no, not on TV.) named Las Sergas of Esplandián (The deeds of Esplandian). It told of an island populated only by dark-skinned, Amazonian warrior-women who wore only gold…as there was no other metal.

Their queen was named Calafia. The land she reigned over was California. Seeing the craggy coasts and thinking it was an island, some surmised it might be that Island. This is the main theory as to why explorers named this new land California. Anyone who has visited Venice Beach these days—and seen the muscular and well-tanned females working out in bikinis and gold chains—might call it the same name today. That is, if there was a TV series of the same genre!

California's coastal scenery is second to none
California’s coastal scenery is second to none

Southern California: The Ultimate Outdoor Lovers’ Paradise

Southern California resembles an island in that it is different from Northern California for geographical and climatic reasons. In fact, these differences were the inspiration for a book: “Southern California, an island on the land”. We Southern Californians born there like to call it ‘So Cal.’ as opposed to ‘No. Cal.’ (or Nor. Cal., if you are from ‘up north’.)

This portrays the image many have in their minds as California. Perpetually-sunny beaches, tanned surfer guys and gals chowing on Mexican-American food, while skateboarding and cycling between beach bonfire parties. Northern California has beaches and surf but cloudier weather and a cooler year-round climate. This engenders more cerebral indoor activities like more museums, art galleries, and trendier restaurants.

As such, there are many outdoor spots Southern Californians love to visit. Here are just a few.

Southern California has the best sunsets
Southern California has the best sunsets

Coolest Places to Visit in Nature in Southern California

The deserts of Southern California are out of this world

Now, you don’t have to go there in the summer, unless you don’t mind 120F+ heat for days on end. You have the High Desert, northeast of L.A. (Mojave) with places like Mitchell Caverns State Park, and remote small towns like Ludlow, Baker, Amboy, and Essex. Here is where you find Joshua Tree National Park, as pictured on the Irish rock band, U2’s album cover.

In the south, you have the Anza-Borrego Desert, the Salton Sea, and the cities of El Centro, Brawley, and Calexico, just across the border from Mexicali…for example. However, either desert is a mecca for those who want to escape the city and truly be ‘alone’. This is a general introduction to the locales; I will leave it up to you to check out the relevant websites to find one that suits you. Conditions and rules are constantly changing, so it’s best you find out any recent closures or rules that would affect your visit.

Unlike forests where you could be alone—but you can’t really be sure and you probably aren’t— in the desert, selecting properly, you can know you are alone. This is especially true when camping in places near Ocotillo Wells in the Imperial Valley. Here, you can park at the end of a dirt road and see anyone approaching for miles—it’s a unique experience. Just you, the wind and the eerie silence are all you sense. Save the earthy scent of ocotillo and cholla cacti blooming. Once you are settled in, off come the excess clothes and the music and the party can start.

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Joshua Tree is one of the coolest nature spots imaginable in So Cal!
Joshua Tree is one of the coolest nature spots imaginable in So Cal!

Camping in the desert is one of the top nature things to do in Southern California

Food, music, drinks, plenty of water, and dancing around the sand dunes are common pastimes as you await the setting of the sun and nightfall.

That is the time where you really note the difference from the city. Stars you have never seen before come into view and the Milky Way shines bright (on moonless nights). You can also see the bulge of the Galactic Center and imagine the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A*) that lurks, hidden in the dusty glow. If you look carefully, you can see satellites travel across the sky and the occasional shooting star.

Camping in the desert is a favorite pastime in the South. Just stick to areas where it’s permitted. Don’t litter, stay off private lands, and carry plenty of water/food in case of car problems. Make sure you have a charged phone in case of emergency, just remember: cell phone coverage may be sporadic. That said, it’s an experience everyone should try at least once in their life.

Read next: Coolest Treehouse Rentals in California

Add desert camping to your Southern California bucket list
Add desert camping to your Southern California bucket list

The Colorado River (a/k/a the ‘River’)

If you want water in the desert, why not camp (or even arrange a canoe trip) on or down the Colorado River, or the ‘River’ as we call it? This is the only perennial river in the deserts and defines the California – Arizona border. From Blythe to Yuma, it snakes its way into Mexico and the Baja.

While some enjoy boating and car-camping at Lake Havasu and Lake Mead, these are full of people. However, on the California side of the River near Yuma, AZ, Native American Nations own land that they allow paid camping right on the River. Here you have a ‘beach area’ all to yourself. Complete with a permitted campfire and a slowly flowing river at your feet, it’s like beach camping…but without the crowds. Also, the nearby Picacho State Recreation Area, with its jagged peaks is ideal.

If you camp near Yuma, you can drive there for a sumptuous breakfast. Since you bathed in the river (only biodegradable soap, please) you will feel fresh arriving in Arizona. Driving there from L.A. or San Diego you can’t miss the huge sand dunes near Heber, CA. This is called Heber Beach to the locals. Just don’t go off-road and get stuck!

If you’re looking to discover the best nature spots in So Cal, this is it!

The Colorado River flows between Arizona and Southern California
The Colorado River flows between Arizona and Southern California

Catalina Island – L.A.

“Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a waitin’ for me…Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance…”  Like the 60s song by the Four Preps goes, 26 miles from the coastline, Santa Catalina Island is the silhouette you see offshore at sunset from Los Angeles. While Avalon is the largest population center on the Island, most of it is sparsely-populated. This lends itself to exploration, hiking, and camping.

Hiking and camping are only permitted in certain areas, provided you are approved. Places like Ben Weston Beach, Camp Cherry Cove, the Isthmus and Mount Orizaba are spots where the views are incredible. From there, you can certainly feel the romantic charm of the Island. For many reasons, it’s hard to beat this nature spot in Southern California.

Just make sure you don’t harass the locals (both people and the ubiquitous bison that roam the Island freely) you will experience both island charm and rolling hills, ample chaparral and warm sea breezes at the right time of the year. Boats depart from San Pedro or Long Beach for the crossing. Plan ahead, get the right permits, and you are ready for exploration. Is this one of the most beautiful places in Southern California? You bet it is!

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Catalina Island is a must-see on a Southern California travel itinerary, especially for nature lovers.
Catalina Island is a must-see on a Southern California travel itinerary, especially for nature lovers.

Torrey Pines State National Reserve – San Diego

Located between La Jolla and Del Mar, Torrey Pines is unique in that the namesake pines that grow in the area can only be found here and on Santa Rosa Island off the coast. It’s situated on sandstone bluffs high above Black’s Beach (a nudist beach and surfing hot spot). Torrey Pines is much more than just a well-known golf course; you’ll be amazed by what you see.

Take an easy hike to lookout spots that boast panoramic views of La Jolla Cove. This includes the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s pier, the Coronado Islands, and North County San Diego’s coastline. Plentiful deer roam this area so be wary when driving the highway. Sunsets here are first rate and the sound of the wind through the pines can be musical, even to ‘city ears’ accustomed only to dubstep and heavy metal. It’s easy to see why this is one of the most unique nature spots in Southern California.

Read next: Coolest Things to Do in Southern California

Torrey Pines is one of the coolest nature spots in Southern California, hands down.
Torrey Pines is one of the coolest nature spots in Southern California, hands down.

Border Field Beach State Park – San Diego at Imperial Beach

This little known beach to those from outside of San Diego is unique in that—once you get out of the car and start walking south—the isolation of the sand dunes and the fowl-rich wetlands contrast to the looming presence of Mexico and Tijuana at the end of the strand.

Even after just a few yards walk, you’ll find solitude. Create a picnic with just you, the gulls, and the occasional passerby. As the day transforms into a glowing crepuscle, the lights of Tijuana and Playas de Tijuana shine bright and you can only imagine what’s going on, on the other side of the border.

The lights of Border Patrol helicopters dancing in the sky above the actual border several miles away are the only sign of life on this side of the frontier. Nowadays there is a fence preventing people from walking either way across the border…but it wasn’t always that way! Years ago, the fence went only to the high-tide line, and the only thing preventing people from just beach-walking it into the USA, was a Border Patrol truck constantly parked there.

If you’re looking to pair serenity with stunning views, this beautiful place in Southern California is for you!

This beach straddling the Mexico-Cali border will not disappoint.
This beach straddling the Mexico-California border will not disappoint.

The Angeles National Forest – One of the Coolest Nature Spots in Southern California

Located near LA, the Angeles National Forest is a great place to explore nature not far from the city. It’s only just recovering from the extensive fires that ravaged the area, but it’s still brimming with a vibrant energy that you won’t find anywhere else. Go for a hike or a drive through the mountains, you won’t regret it! Here, you can experience the flora and fauna that once covered the area before settlers, developers, and urban sprawl took over.

Hikes to peaks like West San Gabriel, Mount Disappointment, and Strawberry Peak are for more athletic explorers. Henniger and Chantry Flats above Pasadena are for the uninitiated. Each has varying scales of difficulty and degrees of secludedness. I recommend contacting the rangers, browsing the hiking trails and elevation changes, and finding one (or more) that suit your desires.

The views of L.A. from the mountains are paradisiacal and really make you feel you are back in nature. However, the easy accessibility to the millions who also ‘just want to get away’ will remind you that you probably aren’t that ‘alone.’

As such, following the true hiker’s mantra of “take only pictures and leave only footprints” is more pertinent now than ever. This helps to preserve these still-pristine natural habitats for current and future generations.

Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles in Southern California is a beautiful place to visit for nature lovers.
Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles in Southern California is a beautiful place to visit for nature lovers.

Know before you go to this beautiful nature spot in So Cal

Remember, fire is the forest’s worst enemy. Even one match, spark, or carelessly-tossed cigarette can explode into a lethal billion-dollar conflagration. So, be extremely careful and make sure you pick up anything you drop.

Here, millions of jackrabbits, cottontail, snakes, deer, coyotes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, and the occasional brown bear make their homes. You are visiting their “‘hood” so be respectful. Don’t feed the animals and you will ensure the beauty of Southern California’s natural wilderness remains for the future.

The Most Unique Places to Visit in Southern California

Whether you hit up a desert area, a retreat in the mountains, or just a quiet meditation and beach yoga-session at sunset, So Cal has something for everyone. As this is such a huge area with tens of millions of inhabitants, you need to do some research and determine which area, hike, or backpacking adventure is best for you.

Always stick to trails, overdress in case of inclement weather, and carry ample food and water. Also, be sure to let someone know when you will be back. In addition, don’t litter or take ‘souvenirs,’ carry a phone with coverage and respect others you will meet…and you will see the beauty of Califa’s ‘island on the land.’

These rules ensure that your great-grandchildren and theirs can tell stories about Califa around a candescent campfire—just like the Explorers did—and you will too.

¡Buen viaje!  Happy travels!

Coolest and most unique nature spots in Southern California for group getaways and other types of vacations
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