Volcanic outcrops. Wind-carved sandstone caves. Colorful marine sediment. Fossils. Whether you have a passing interest in geology or are a hard-core geek, there are plenty of great opportunities to see varieties of rock formations throughout the Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego areas. Here are ten hiking trips that explore the diverse geological landscape of Southern California. The non-geological scenery on these trails isn’t half bad either.
Arch Rock (Joshua Tree National Park)
Joshua Tree National Park is known almost as well for its rock formations as its trees. One of the most famous is Arch Rock, which can be reached via a short, easy hike. While the arch might not measure up to those in the Utah desert, it’s still a unique and fascinating sight, sure to be a hit with the whole family.
This long, steep fire road descends from the top of the Castro Crest in the Santa Monica Mountains to the M*A*S*H site at Malibu Creek State Park. While the ascent back to the crest may be trying at times, it also showcases some great examples of the sandstone geology typical of the Santa Monica Mountains.
This is one of northeast San Diego County’s most popular hiking destinations, and it’s no wonder. Eagle Rock, a giant granite outcrop in the middle of a field that bears a striking resemblance to the bird, can be reached with a moderate 6+ mile round trip hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, sampling some of the area’s best scenery: wooded canyons, open meadows, towering mountains and more.
Just over a mile from the bustle of the Santa Clarita Valley, a small seasonal waterfall can be found in the back of Elsmere Canyon. Even if the waterfall is not flowing, the pleasant walk along the Creek Trail, which is shaded by oaks and provides up-close views of some of the area’s volcanic geology, is a worthwhile trip year round.
This short but steep trail on the outskirts of Simi Valley provides a glimpse of California’s wild past, a stone’s throw from the 118 Freeway. In addition to providing a good workout with panoramic views, this trail treats hikers to sandstone boulders of all shapes and sizes.
If the Santa Clarita Valley seems like an unlikely spot for a waterfall, the Anza-Borrego Desert must seem an equally surprising place, yet that’s exactly where adventurous hikers can find Maidenhair Falls. Fed by a spring in the hills above, the small seasonal waterfall is found in Lower Hellhole Canyon, whose steep walls, sycamores and wild palm trees provide a pleasant contrast from the heat of the desert. L.A. and Orange County hikers can make a fun day trip of combining this one with Eagle Rock.
South Fork Trail
The 5-mile South Fork Trail climbs over 2,000 feet and links two seemingly disparate eco-zones: the high desert and the Angeles National Forest. Along the way, hikers are treated to dramatic views of the gorge cut by the south fork of Big Rock Creek as well as the changes of the vegetation from sycamores and cottonwoods to pines.
Towering above the flat expanse of the Antelope Valley, Saddleback Butte provides unobstructed views in all directions. Saddleback Butte State Park might be considered a miniature Joshua Tree National Park, closer to most of the L.A. area and less crowded.
Named for the birds that used to roost here, Vulture Crags is a visually striking outcrop in the Santa Ana foothills. The 3.5-mile hike to reach it takes in some outstanding views of the Santa Ana Mountains and the coastal plains of Orange County.
Wind Wolves Preserve
Known best for its long, wide canyons, seasonal waterfall and panoramic mountain views, Wind Wolves Preserve, south of Bakersfield, also features some excellent geology. The wind-swept area by the seasonal reflecting pond has created some interesting formations.
If you’ve already visited these hikes and want more ideas, additional trip ideas are listed below.