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Happy Trails for Most Everyone

Age and ability don't matter with these hikes. Just stop and smell the wildflowers, rediscover the stars or camp on the beach.


JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK — Sunset casts a dusty rose hue across the giant rocks and sparse landscape. The cholla cactus is cloaked in a fiery aura as its dense spines reflect the sinking sun. Joshua trees, the park's namesake, turn from green to black and then vanish in the fading light.

Night brings Sirius, the Dog Star, flickering so brightly with tiny bursts of color that it looks, at first glance, like an airplane. That frothy, glowing band meandering across the sky is the Milky Way Galaxy. Constellations--invisible in the city--stand out so vividly it's easy to see how ancient astronomers sketched them in the night sky. There is actual starlight here.

In this light one thing is clear: We've been cooped up in the city way too long.

Now is the perfect time to escape. All over Southern California, waterfalls are fat with winter rain and snowmelt, while wildflowers are popping in the mountains and deserts. Best of all, spring break in schools gives families a jump on weekend crowds, promising more solitude on hiking trails and first pick of the choice campsites.

"It's the best time to get out. We're in the prime zone," said Philip Ferranti, author of "100 Great Hikes in and Near Palm Springs" (Westcliffe Publishing, $17). "It's not too hot and not too cold. Things are starting to pop and grow."

We tracked down some of the area's top outdoors experts and had them pinpoint the region's best family-friendly hiking and camping. The rules: All destinations should be easy to find and not a far drive away. Trails must be easy to follow (no lost hikers, please) and suitable for all ages and skill levels.

"I have a 4-year-old and a 9-year-old, and these are the places I take them," said John McKinney, a Los Angeles Times hiking writer and author of "Day Hiker's Guide to Southern California" (Olympus Press, $14.95). "They're trail-tested by my children who have no choice but to go with their dad."

Park fees at these places are minimal, less than the cost of a couple of movie tickets and far more entertaining. The only real investment is a good day pack (and a tent if camping), a decent set of hiking boots and a guidebook. A good guidebook can be a family's best friend, if only because clear directions cut "Are we there yet?" to a minimum. Here's a look covering six counties:

Civilized Camping at the Ocean's Edge

At El Capitan and Refugio state beaches in Ventura County, crashing surf lulls campers to sleep.

Snuggled between the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the parks boast spectacular views of the Channel Islands and the picturesque, rocky coastlines that launched a thousand car commercials.

As camping goes, it's pretty civilized. There are developed campsites, restrooms, showers (indoor and outdoor), picnic areas and established nature trails. Some have electricity, which is technically cheating on a camp-out.

The campsites at Refugio are closer to the beach, but those who like a little space should opt for the oak- and sycamore-shaded bluff at El Capitan. Choosing one doesn't exclude the other; the parks are connected by a 2.5-mile bike trail. There are intriguing tide pools and crannies to explore on both beaches. And Refugio's famous seaside palms make for great beach loafing.

The parks would be idyllic, except for a man-made flaw--trains. George and Rhonda Ostertag, authors of "California State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide" (Mountaineers Books, $17.95), a blunt, indispensable guidebook, said early-morning train whistles frequently shatter the parks' solitude. The Santa Ynez Mountains are a bit rough for rookie trekkers. Ann Marie Brown, author of "Easy Hiking in Southern California" (Foghorn Press, $12.95), suggests hikers drive a few miles up the coast to Gaviota State Park, where a short, but steep 1-mile hike leads to a warm soak in natural hot springs. The pools (2 feet deep, bathwater-warm and safe for supervised children) are least crowded early weekday mornings. Gaviota's campgrounds are currently closed.

Just up the road near the town of Gaviota, another easy half-mile hike ends at Nojoqui (pronounced no-HO-wee) Falls, an 80-foot tumble of water over fern-covered sandstone cliffs. The falls are at the end of an easy 20-minute walk through oak and laurel trees in Nojoqui Falls County Park. Signs point the way from U.S. 101.

Another easy waterfall trip is just off the Ventura Freeway in Thousand Oaks. Few people have discovered Wildwood Falls, tucked in the back of Wildwood Park on Avenida de los Arboles. The hike to the 70-foot waterfall is a 2-mile round trip. "It's got a ton of water in it so it looks good even in dry years," Brown said. "There are all kinds of neat rock outcroppings and a tremendous amount of wildlife for a city park."

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