Jesper Widén's Top Ten Hikes in Southern California

I consciously schedule hikes that are totally new to me: I figure if I stick to what I know, I’ll never learn anything new. But over the years, it has been impossible to NOT repeat some of our most magnificent and glorious trails. After much introspection, I composed my Top Ten Hikes in Southern California List. I am hoping this may be a good resource for you. You might want to use it if you have outdoorsy, out-of-town visitors who are just looking for something to do. Please read through it. The list might bring back some good memories. It definitely does for me.

Note: It was difficult to choose only 10, and I have yet to hike every SINGLE trail in Southern California, but as of today, these are my choices.

Another Note: The mere fact that I have done each of these hikes at least three times apiece validates my decision to place them on this list.

Okay, Last Note: They are in alphabetical order, and not in order of preference.

1) Bridge to Nowhere – East Fork of the San Gabriel River

On a hot, summer day, strap on your Tevas, place your camera high in your backpack, and commit yourself to getting soaking wet. This refreshing hike takes you through the historical past of our local mountains. Sometimes you may even see miners using cradles in the stream in search of the river’s precious minerals. The bridge, constructed in the 30s, was built in hopes of connecting the Mojave Desert with Azusa. Several floods and earthquakes humbled man’s progress, and the canyon to this day only shows reminders of those optimistic efforts. I once read a hiker thought the bridge looked like something straight out of a Tolkien novel. As long as there are no bungee jumpers jumping off the bridge, I completely agree.

Bungee Company and Pictures of the Bridge

2) Devil’s Chair – Devil’s Punchbowl – San Gabriel Mountains

This was my very first hike with the City. What a great way to get introduced! (I was such a novice, I didn’t even bring water that day.) On the northern side of the San Gabriels, there’s a cross-section of desert and alpine terrain. Amazing and perilous views embody this hike: You can see the geological effects of the San Andreas Fault. I particularly enjoyed the day I got to hike there through a thin layer of snow. Sitting in the Devil's Chair makes all the effort worthwhile.

Photo Tour of the Devil's Punchbowl Area

3) Ice House Canyon – Cucamonga Wilderness – San Gabriel Mountains

You know how Main Street U.S.A. is set up to funnel all Disney traffic towards the castle? Once there, visitors can branch off and explore different lands. Ice House Canyon, to me, is very similar to this effect. All hikers are funneled through a canyon filled with rustic cabins and tall cedar pines. A torrent, echoing stream provides the music along the way. Once you reach the Ice House Saddle, take your pick of which summit (or land, if you will) to choose from (Ontario Peak, Big Horn Peak, Cucamonga Peak, Timber Mountain, Telegraph Peak, and/or Thunder Mountain.) Any time of the year is a good time to trek there. It’s quite possibly the best alpine bang for your buck as the crow flies from Irvine.

4) Lunar Hike – Joshua Tree National Park

Any trip to our closest national park is worth it, but when you can time the earth’s rotation right, watching the submerging and surfacing celestial spheres can be another spectacle in itself. Key’s View is our auditorium for sundown. One year a fire was brewing in the distant San Jacinto Mountains. Surrealistic colors were surging in the sky. Mojave Magic, a picture on my web site, was shot this day. Groups in the past have been quite respectful of one another during our annual viewings of the sunset and the moonrise. Silence is imperative in any theatre, indoors or out.

Joshua Tree National Park

5) Mishe Mokwa Trail – Sandstone Peak – Santa Monica National Recreation Area

I recommend taking the beautiful drive along the coast (PCH) to reach the trailhead for this trip. (The drive: a treat in itself.) Some of the jagged peaks and random outcroppings of rock look similar to scenes of Sedona, Arizona. On a clean, crisp, spring day I have seen snow-capped peaks to the east and the isolated Channel Islands to the west. Both are affirmations as to why I choose to reside in Southern California.

Santa Monica National Recreation Area

6) Mount San Gorgonio (11,499’) – San Bernardino Mountains

The sheer physical challenge of this hike puts it into a class of its own. The alpine path along the way is “Sierraesque,” and once above the timberline, you get to see just how mountainous Southern California really is. On its summit, one can’t help but feel “On top of the world!” (Well, our world, at least!)

San Gorgonio Wilderness Association

7) Nightmare Gulch – Red Rock Canyon State Park

We stumbled into this canyon on our inaugural trip to the state park. What a find! Every year since, we have been exploring the nooks and crannies in this colorful and unique gulch. We now traditionally enter the mouth and then hike through till we reach its end. (Somehow, I don’t think I created the right image here.)

Red Rock Canyon State Park

8) Palm Springs Tram – Mount San Jacinto

Their slogan: “360 degrees of WOW!” Too true. The ride in the world’s largest rotating tramcar is an experience never to be forgotten (that is unless you do it a bunch of times – then the experiences become a blur). Just make sure you elbow your way to a window-front position. As long as no one obstructs your view, you’ll get the full effect of this acrophobic experience. In 15 minutes, you travel from palm trees to pines. (You travel from Mexico to Canada, “vegetationably” speaking, of course.) Then there’s the alpine trek to Mount San Jacinto. And what is it like up there? I’ll let my dear friend tell you what he thinks. (Or should I say thought?) “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” – John Muir

Palm Springs Tramway

9) Santa Rosa Plateau Reserve – Just outside of Murrieta

Intermittent rains during the Spring of ’94 saturated this wondrous and pastoral land. Fortunately, for us hikers, there was an arid break for our excursion. The sky was sporadically patched with pillowy white clouds that reached every horizon. The trails were dry, and the multiple springtime flowers were all trumpeting towards the sun. Poppy Hill was in her prime! I have never been able to repeat this special day, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying.

Santa Rosa Plateau Reserve

10) Stonewall Peak – Cuyamaca State Park – San Diego County

Whether you wish to see heavenly hues of green, or a patchwork of autumnal orange mixed in with this green will determine which equinox you should shoot for when timing this trip. If you can go on an off day, it's definitely for the better. Each time I have been to this summit, I have had to share it with many others, including screaming kids. The panoramic view is inspiring: when atop the summit, you wish you could grow wings and watch the world drop from beneath you. (Just be sure to fly down to Julian for some apple pie before you soar home.)

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Panoramic View from Stonewall Peak