From the North Coast’s redwood forests to the palm oases of Southern California, some of the state’s most spectacular natural areas are on lands that belong to California’s indigenous peoples. While the dispossession from traditional lands remains a contentious issue that has yet to be fully addressed (one recent state proposal would provide $100 million to buy and preserve ancestral areas), some tribes have held onto ancient places with deep cultural or environmental significance.
A few of these locations on tribal lands are open to the general public and offer discoveries that that many experienced California travelers might not know about. Listed from north to south, here are some ways you can enjoy outdoor adventures on the state’s tribal lands.
Klamath River Boat Tours, Yurok Tribe
Crafted from giant redwood logs, canoes have long played a major cultural role for the Yurok people. In fact there’s no better way to appreciate traditional Yurok culture in Del Norte County than to head out on the Klamath River, located about 60 miles north of Eureka, on one of the tribe’s guided Redwood Yurok Canoe Tours.
Billed as the world’s only redwood canoe tours, these two- or four-hour journeys take you up the Klamath and into the world of the Yurok, while experienced guides describe aspects of tribal culture and the fragile river and forest ecosystem. Only about 10 of these beautiful and stable watercraft, which are made by hollowing out and shaping logs to create canoes up to 20 feet long, currently exist. They are a source of great pride for the Yurok—even the paddles are handcrafted.
For a very different (and much faster) experience, 45-mile round-trip Klamath River Jet Boat Tours power their way upstream, with stops along the way to photograph the scenery and, with a little luck, such wildlife as bears, bald eagles, and ospreys. The trips take two hours, or you can opt for hour-long outings that explore the Klamath River estuary.
Bishop Paiute Reservation Conservation Open Space Area, Bishop Paiute Tribe
The original inhabitants of the Owens Valley called their world Payahuunadü, which translates as “the land of flowing water.” Because of water diversions to Southern California, the Owens Valley environment has been much altered, but the Bishop Paiute Reservation Conservation Open Space Area preserves a small area of restored natural habitat just outside Bishop.
Adjacent to the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center, the nearly 25-acre property lets you explore along a 1.2-mile trail with a self-guided tour of native plant species (a digital tour is available). The paths lead past ponds for indigenous Owens Valley fish species and through stands of cottonwoods, and Eastern Sierra Audubon also conducts monthly birdwatching tours of this open space area.
Legendary Skies Enterprises, Paiute-Shoshone
Although not formally affiliated with any of the Owens Valley tribes, Legendary Skies Enterprises brings a unique Native American perspective to its tours of destinations in and around the valley. Because of a personal connection to their homeland, the Bishop-based company’s native guides can convey a deeper understanding of the cultural and spiritual significance of the destinations you’ll visit. Many of the spots are off the usual tourist track, and, in addition to sunset tours and full- and half-day outings, the company also can craft custom itineraries focused on such activities as fishing, hiking, and bouldering. Camping options are also available.
Tahquitz Canyon, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
Just a few minutes from the heart of Palm Springs, Tahquitz Canyon lets you escape into a place of great natural beauty with an ancient cultural history that remains significant for modern-day Cahuilla Indians. A 1.8-mile loop trail that includes a 350-foot elevation gain begins from a strikingly contemporary visitor center and explores the canyon. For many visitors, the canyon’s highlight is its 60-foot waterfall (best in winter and spring), which played a cameo role in film history as the location of a key scene in 1937’s Lost Horizon, winner of two Academy Awards.
But while Tahquitz Canyon is beautiful enough to have doubled for a cinematic Shangri-La, it’s also a true desert paradise in many spots, with tangles of wild grapevines, 200 species of native plants the Cahuilla depended on, and, in some years, spectacular spring wildflowers.
You can hike Tahquitz Canyon on your own but to best appreciate its environment and traditional significance, join a guided outing. Guides will tell the Cahuilla legend of Tahquitz, the shaman, who was exiled here, and you’ll also learn additional details about the canyon’s rock art, ancient sites, and historic water system.
Indian Canyons, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
It’s no mirage: Filled with stands of towering native California fan palms, the three oasis-like Indian Canyons outside of Palm Springs are as close as you’ll ever find to real-world Edens. Take a seat on a stream-side boulder in the shade of the palms; once settled in, listen to the fronds rustling in the desert wind and the gentle sounds of the creek’s cascades. It’s hard to imagine a more serene and soulful place to spend the day. The canyons—Andreas, Murray, and Palm—are prime destinations for spotting wildlife such as coyote, foxes, and chuckwalla lizards, and you might even see mule deer or desert bighorn sheep wander in for a drink from these life-sustaining waters.
Fifteen-mile-long Palm Canyon is the world’s largest California fan palm oasis and is open for hiking and horseback riding for its full length. But there are also shorter hiking options along the 60-mile trail network, including an easy 1.2-mile loop through Andreas Canyon. Rangers lead interpretive hikes on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from October through June, and you’ll find information and refreshments at the trading post.
La Jolla Indian Campground, La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians
The 10,000-acre La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians reservation stretches along the base of Palomar Mountain in San Diego’s North County, and the tribe’s La Jolla Indian Campground provides a nice base camp to experience some of this area’s best outdoor adventures.
The big attraction here is the chance to go tubing along the cascades of the San Luis Rey River, which runs through the campground. In fact, the tribe bills the campground as the only one in San Diego County with tubing and direct river access. Be sure to call ahead to check on water levels because stream flows are variable, depending on recent rains and water releases from Lake Henshaw. The oak-shaded campground is just off Highway 76 about 45 minutes northeast of Escondido in the Pauma Valley; both tube and bicycle rentals are available at the campground.
Hot Springs Mountain, Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians
Climb to the very top of San Diego County along the Hot Springs Mountain Trail near Warner Springs. The 10-mile round-trip trek begins from the Los Coyotes Campground and leads to the summit of this 6,533-foot peak in the Peninsular Ranges, where the spectacular views extend from Mount Baldy to the desert and all the way to the Pacific Ocean. You’ll definitely earn the panorama: The hike gains about 2,500 feet in elevation, with the steepest stretch in the first (mostly unshaded) two miles of trail. After that tough start, a mixed conifer forest provides some blessed shade for much of the rest of the hike.
Near the summit, you’ll see the remnants of dilapidated wooden fire lookout built in 1942. The lookout is unsafe to enter but some hikers believe the promontory on which the structure stands actually has better views than the summit itself. From either spot, you’ll get incomparable views of the Los Coyotes band’s ancestral lands and the 25,000 acres that comprise today’s reservation.
You can also skip the climb to Hot Springs Mountain and opt for the two shorter and easier trails that also explore the area. If you want to camp, a rustic tent campground has bathrooms but you’ll have to bring in your own water. Hiking and day-use permits are required for each hiker and can be purchased online or at the ranger station.