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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A RECREATIONAL GUIDE | BY LAND

Paradise Preserved

Nature's Beauty Unspoiled in Protected Areas

June 06, 1997|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To loosely paraphrase Joni Mitchell, much of our Southern California paradise has been paved into one gigantic parking lot. Luckily, in the hills beyond our strip malls, drive-thrus and chop shops, much of beautiful California remains, protected by national parks, national forests and the state park system.

Here, in true Chris Berman fashion, are just a few of the highlights:

NATIONAL PARKS

* Yosemite National Park is the big kahuna. Smack in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite became the second national park in the United States in 1890 and the park is, arguably, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

The Yosemite Valley, often called the "incomparable valley," is the park's heart and soul. Carved by a glacier, the valley is surrounded by sheer granite walls, some of which are 3,000-plus feet tall--like the famous El Capitan and Glacier Point. Adding to the beauty are the waterfalls which cascade over the rock, including another famous pair: Yosemite Falls and Sentinel Falls.

Unfortunately, in the summer, the valley is overrun by plaid-covered rubes shooting enough videotape to bore the next 10 generations of the family tree. A piece of advise: Visit the park's higher elevations, which includes the Mariposa grove of giant sequoia trees, the drop-dead gorgeous Tuolumne Meadows and the small village of Wawona. Or, of course, you can get a permit and hoof it into the backcountry--if you are going on one backpacking trip in your lifetime, Yosemite is the place to do it.

Just south of Yosemite in the Sierra Nevadas is Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The obvious attractions are the hikes through the groves of giant sequoia trees. The best tree stat: some of these suckers weigh over 2.5 million pounds.

The backcountry of the two parks constitutes the second-largest road-less area in the U.S. Much of the area is above an elevation of 10,000 feet and includes some monster peaks, including Mt. Whitney (the nation's tallest at 14,495 feet). There's also the deepest gorge in North America, the Kings River Canyon, which is 8,000 feet deep at one point. There are also dozens of natural lakes, beautiful meadows and trails such as the Pacific Crest and High Sierra.

Unless you are curious to know exactly what the proverbial egg on the sidewalk feels like, summer is not the best time to visit either Death Valley National Park or Joshua Tree National Park. Go anytime after mid-October. The key to enjoying Death Valley is to get away from the car and go hiking in one of the park's canyons--Mosaic Canyon, near the village of Stovepipe Wells, is the easiest to reach. The upper elevations of Joshua Tree are a playground for adults, with its huge piles of boulders, including the Jumbo Rocks and the Hidden Valley areas. Some are suitable for experienced rock climbers, others are perfect for amateurs.

How many of your pals back east have even heard of Channel Islands National Park? Heck, many people in L.A. don't even know about these five isles off Ventura. Island Packers (805-642-1393), the park's designated concessionaire, runs charter boats to all the islands. Anacapa is the easiest to reach--it's only a 90-minute ride--with the main attraction being hiking and birdwatching. Another popular way of exploring the islands is by sea kayak--phone Island Packers for details.

NATIONAL FORESTS

Here's an interesting statistic: The U.S. Forest Service administers 191 million acres of land, more than twice the amount of land within our national parks. Our national forests are, of course, "the land of many uses," (meaning taxpayer subsidized logging, grazing and mining, as well as recreation) although recreation is the primary activity in the seven national forests of Southern California.

PARKS

Some highlights:

* In the Angeles, the four-mile hike to the top of 9,800-foot Mt. Badin Powell, where the views of the San Gabriels and the Mojave Desert are stunning.

* In the Los Padres, hikes into either the Sespe Wilderness, along rocky and remote Sespe Creek, or into the San Rafael Wilderness, along beautiful Manzana Creek. A beautiful view of the Santa Ynez Valley can also be seen from Figueroa Mountain in northern Santa Barbara County.

* In the Eastern Sierra, the Golden Trout Wilderness straddles the Inyo and Sequoia national forests and is one of the premiere backpacking destinations in the state. Jordan Hot Springs is a popular backcountry campground because the springs have been funneled into a tub where hikers can soak their weary bodies.

* In the San Bernardino National Forest, don't miss the Cougar Crest Trail, which climbs the hills on the northern side of Big Bear Lake. The hiking isn't very hard and the views are stunning.

STATE PARKS

Last, and certainly not least, are the California State Parks. Four very good ones are located in the Santa Monica Mountains between the Valley and Malibu: Will Rogers, Topanga, Malibu Creek and Point Mugu.

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