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The Wilder Side of Urban California

With beaches, forests, and hikes into the hills, California cities offer endless—and easy—outdoor escapes

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Posted 19 days agoby Matt Jaffe

While California’s gateway cities are rightly celebrated for their cosmopolitan sophistication, these urban areas are also perfectly situated for visitors who want to get out and experience the Golden State’s natural beauty. Only minutes from world-class museums and celebrated restaurants, you can follow trails into canyons and forests that feel a million miles from the city in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Or go kayaking, and maybe even try surfing some of the most famous waves on the planet in San Diego and Orange County.

On the latest episode of the California Now Podcast, host Soterios Johnson gets the inside scoop on the state’s top urban outdoor destinations from locals in four key urban centers.

La Jolla: The Jewel of San Diego

There’s nothing like the passion of a convert: Ohio native Kenneth Lippman discovered La Jolla during college spring break and says, “I was in San Diego for honestly mere moments and I knew this was the place I wanted to be.” He eventually left a bank loan officer job to start Another Side of San Diego Tours, which leads hiking, Segway, and bicycling outings.

Not surprisingly, La Jolla is a top destination. “It’s really the most beautiful part of the city,” says Lippman, and tours begin with the sweeping coastline view from 823-foot Mount Soledad, which is topped by the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial. With its art galleries and destination restaurants like George’s at the Cove, La Jolla is pretty darn civilized. But Lippman says it has a wilder side too, from the harbor seals hauled out at the Children’s Pool to the sea caves at La Jolla Cove, a protected ocean sanctuary.

For a unique perspective, try a La Jolla kayak tour. “Once you’re in a kayak looking up at La Jolla, it gives you an amazing perspective, where you can see the houses that are on the hillsides and even the ones that are closer down to the coast,” says Lippman. “The caves were actually formed by millions and millions of years of the tide coming in and out and crashing against the sandstone.”

On the Beach in Orange County

Orange County writer Gregory Nagel specializes in food and beverages, but living in “The OC” means that he also spends time along its gorgeous beaches. So in addition to offering the inside scoop on the latest offerings at the Anaheim Packing District and in such neighborhoods as Little Saigon, Nagel has his favorite coastal destinations.

Beyond such classic experiences as renting an electric Duffy Boat and cruising the calm waters in the harbor at Newport Beach, Nagel recommends Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach. “There are these gorgeous views on stunning hikes that go all the way down to the beach and overlook the Pacific Ocean,” he says.

Orange County is also an iconic surfing destination, especially at Huntington Beach, which certainly lives up to its Surf City USA nickname. With 10 uninterrupted miles of beaches and outstanding waves right at Huntington Beach Pier, Nagel describes the town as “the surfer’s paradise.” Even if you don’t catch a wave yourself, just watching the dudes with the skills has its own rewards. “You can walk out on the pier and get a bird's eye view of what's happening with all the surfing there,” says Nagel. “It's fascinating to watch from the top.”

Griffith Park: L.A.’s Natural Escape

Casey Schreiner literally wrote the book on Griffith Park—his Discovering Griffith Park: A Local’s Guide, is the definitive look at the biggest city park in Los Angeles. Schreiner considers the vast outdoor space “an undiscovered gem of Southern California,” despite such famous attractions as the Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles Zoo, and the Griffith Observatory, where scenes in movie classics from Rebel Without a Cause to La La Land were filmed.

For many Angelenos, the 4,300-acre park, with its more than 50 miles of hiking trails that explore the diverse landscapes of the eastern flank of the Santa Monica Mountains, is their closest connection to the natural world. The park is still wild enough that reclusive P-22, one of Santa Monica’s celebrated mountain lions, has taken up residence.

Hikes in the park range from somewhat more challenging routes, like the trail up to commanding views from Mount Hollywood (a Schreiner favorite), to the short and easy path into verdant Ferndale. “It's a beautiful location,” says Schreiner. “You're next to this seasonal, spring-fed creek that has koi in it and turtles in a section of the park that is shaded and [has] a lot more trees. It's generally a cooler part of the park.” And Ferndale has an added bonus: The path ends at the Trails Café, where you can grab coffee, scones, or a Snakedog—a hot dog wrapped in puff pastry.

The Presidio: San Francisco’s Wonderland

Until she opened her restaurants in the historic buildings at The Presidio, culinary rock star Traci Des Jardins hadn’t spent much time in this 1,500-acre San Francisco park on a former U.S. Army installation. But she quickly fell for the open space preserve, with its beaches and forested trails right by the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It just has been this incredible period of discovery,” she says. “There are so many nooks and crannies and places to see and be in, in the Presidio. And I'm a country girl, so I sort of just like to walk around and discover on my own rather than reading guides and following maps.”

Des Jardins considers The Presidio “a wonderland” and loves to take in the vistas of the city, San Francisco Bay, and surrounding eucalyptus forests from Inspiration Point. Home to the Walt Disney Family Museum, The Presidio has its cultural side too, and Des Jardins is especially fond of the four installations by acclaimed site-specific artist Andy Goldsworthy. “He loves the natural forms that are found there,” and she believes that Goldsworthy’s works “are a real treasure, and certainly a worldwide destination and something to visit when in The Presidio.”

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