Another One of My Favorite Places in the World: Malibu Canyon

It was five years ago when I blogged nostalgic about my hiking memories in the Sycamore Canyon section of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. At the time of that post, the canyon was still smoldering as firefighters got the last sections of the Springs Fire under control.

Five years later and it has happened again.

As I write this, the Woolsey Fire, which began near the Santa Susana Field Lab nuclear research site, is blazing seemingly out of control in and around what I refer to as Greater Malibu Canyon – the Malibu Creek watershed in the area, the only north-south body of water to flow the entire breadth of the mountain range.

The blaze started north of Las Virgenes Road, spreading east towards Cheseboro Canyon and south, through Liberty Canyon and the NPS-managed sites at Peter Strauss Ranch and Paramount Ranch. Earlier tonight, I returned home work to learn that the fire jumped a planned firebreak and spread west towards Boney Mountain (its north-facing massif pictured below), becoming its own, smaller blaze, the Hill Fire.

The picture that precedes the opening paragraph is of Western Town, a façade of “Old West” buildings that was used in TV shows such as “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” (CBS, 1993-98) and in movies dating as far back to “Cimarron,” one of the first Best Picture Oscar winners (1931). Western Town, near Agoura Hills, was owned by Paramount Pictures, who later deeded the acreage to the National Park Service provided that they keep the name Paramount Ranch. A pleasant network of trails depart from Western Town, and comprised one of the best places for “novice” SoCal hikers to break in their boots. I sometimes took out-of-town visitors to Paramount Ranch for a picnic lunch.

Western Town is gone, obliterated by the Woolsey Fire. The picture below is of the ranch house at nearby Peter Strauss Ranch, a vast estate donated by the actor to the Park Service. Trails here wind up a forested hillside, and other points of interest include the largest swimming pool in Los Angeles County, and Buddy, the site’s resident peacock and subject of the photo below. I remember hiking the trails of Peter Strauss Ranch one spring afternoon near dusk while parrots – yes, parrots! – sang from the palm trees overhead. Peter Strauss Ranch is gone – Woolsey Fire once again.

Also gone: the cabin ruins at the bottom of lovely Solstice Canyon (its waterfall pictured below), and the grove of old growth coast live oaks along the nearby Sara Wan Trail, which backs up against the Pacific Coast Highway.

Also gone: the coastal homes of actors and celebs including Gerard Butler, Miley Cyrus, and Neil Young. Actor Liam Hemsworth posted a photo on social media of his home, burnt to the ground. Suffice to say, the photo went viral. Hemsworth and Co. join 20,000 other Malibu residents who were evacuated and escaped with their lives. Others were not so lucky. Two SoCal residents are confirmed to have been perished, and over 96,000 acres have burned. According to the Hollywood Reporter, firefighters (perhaps the most vital – and most thankless – job in California) have contained 35% of the fire, an increase from just one day prior. Still…they have their work cut out for them for the foreseeable future.

In Northern California, things are even worse.

At press time, 48 Butte County residents have perished and 130,000 acres have burned in the Camp Fire blazes, which began along rural Camp Creek Road and, courtesy of high winds and extreme drought conditions, is on track to become the most destructive wildfire in California history. I cannot imagine the horror as evacuees suffocated in their cars during traffic jams on packed routes leading to safety. Chico, the county seat and biggest California city north of Sacramento, is threatened, and the air is surely noxious.

Unlike the Santa Monica Mountains, which I know like the back of my hand (or at least did prior to the Springs and Woolsey Fires), I haven’t done any hiking in Butte County, and don’t have any personal connection. But these fires are damnable, and as destructive as the insensitive words tweeted by President Trump on the subject last week.

You can help.

Below are links to various sites dedicated at least in part to California wildfire relief. I won’t speculate on what percentage of each dollar donated goes directly to the firefighters on the front lines or to the families whose homes were destroyed. Fundraising is complicated. Do some research and help if you can.;jsessionid=00000000.app367a?df_id=4520&mfc_pref=T&4520.donation=form1&NONCE_TOKEN=BD586CAC59FBAE663577626DA737EA87

Finally, Airbnb allows homeowners to house wildfire evacuees. If you live in California and have a spare room – or have been displaced by the fires and are looking for a room – click the following link for more information:

Be safe out there, Californians. My heart goes out to you.

Photo Locale of the Month – September 2018

Do you ever feel like disappearing into the mountains for a few days as a way of leaving your troubles behind? Yeah, I do, too. A few days of breathing clean – but thin – mountain air and taking in sub-alpine vistas can really cleanse one’s soul, and even though the journey doesn’t truly offer a permanent escape from whatever ails you, the trip can at least help put life’s crises into manageable perspective.

I lived in California for 12 years, and “escaped” into the mountains whenever possible. The 65-mile Backbone Trail, which I have section-hiked countless times, was no more than an hour’s drive from my apartment. That being said, there isn’t a single hiking experience in California that is on par with hiking in the High Sierra. Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest, Sequoia/Kings Canyon…these are special places.

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Four Days in Kaintuck

Ever since I moved to East Tennessee four years ago, I had it on my radar to check out Mammoth Cave National Park, three hours to the west and just 30 miles north of the Tennessee-Kentucky state line. I had long known that the cave system includes the largest-mapped single cave in the world, famous not only for its size but also for such geological features as Frozen Niagara. What I didn’t know was that the national park that manages the cave also includes over 80 miles of hiking trails, dotted with sinkholes and natural springs and rich in native wildlife.

I discovered this first hand six weeks ago.

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Photo Locale of the Month – May 2018

A common theme of my monthly photo locale features is the concept of time. Namely, where has it gone? Of course, I haven’t traveled much these past few years, a reality that I hope to change as my salary grows.

With that in mind, it hardly seems possible that nine years have passed since my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, during which time I took a whirlwind “taster” trip to several countries in the region including Botswana, home of the unforgettable Okavango Delta, and South Africa, home of the granddaddy of game parks, Kruger National Park.

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Reaching for the Sky: Climbing Mount Whitney

Once upon a time, I lived in Southern California and took advantage of the state’s mild climate by vowing to hike as many miles as I could and summit as many non-technical peaks as possible. My ultimate goal: the 14,505-foot (4,421-meter) summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States.

Although there are several approaches to Whitney’s rocky summit, the most well-trod route is via the simply-named Mount Whitney Trail. Hundreds of hikers tackle the route each summer day, making the Whitney permit business a lucrative one.

It was more years ago this very month than I’d like to admit when I made the climb. How long ago? Put it this way: the pictures I took that accompany this article were on a non-digital camera! (This fact is no doubt reflected in their poor quality.)

But I did it! In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll share my story and give you the latest information on the permit process. If the hike itself interests you, think about some training hikes you’d like to pursue to get ready; it’s never too soon to start preparing for a Whitney hike or climb.

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Climbing Concepción Volcano

Some evenings, when sleep is slow to come, I watch the show “Naked and Afraid.” If you aren’t familiar with the show’s premise, it pairs up an adventurous man and woman who have never met before and drops them off into the hostile wilderness for 21 days. They are removed of clothes and personal belongings and left to fend for themselves. There is, of course, an element of phoniness to the whole thing, as medics and camera crewmen are never more than a few steps away. Still, the editing, which focuses largely on the snakes (vegetarians, avert your eyes) they often eat and on the ruggedness of the terrain, makes for a thrilling hour of reality television.

A recent episode found the protagonists in a rural swath of Nicaraguan jungle. Humidity was in the high double digits and there was an even larger presence of venomous snakes than normal, but of course our heroes survived their ordeal, dirtier and skinnier but otherwise little worse for wear. The episode reminded me of my recent trip to Nicaragua, a country about which I have not written nearly enough aside from a single photo gallery in late January. In particular, watching the participants navigate steep slopes and contend with ankle-twisting tree root “stairs” recalled the vigorous 12 hours during which time I successfully climbed Concepción, at 5,282 feet/1,610 meters the country’s second-highest volcano.

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Tennessee Hiking

Summer in Tennessee is normally too hot for hiking, but these past few weeks have seen temperatures perfect for enjoying the great outdoors. Additionally, rainfall for the year has been well above average, so that means that Tennessee’s lakes are full and its waterfalls are raging.

I have tried to take advantage of every free day to get out and about. Here are a few Tennessee hiking destinations from recent excursions worth mentioning:

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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I have mentioned more than once in this blog that September is one of the best months for hiking. My Mount Kilimanjaro hike, in 2010, is just one example of successful multi-day, late summer/early fall hiking. I can hardly fathom the thought that it has been exactly 11 years ago this month since I hiked the Inca Trail through the Peruvian Andes to the pre-Colombian citadel of Machu Picchu.


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Hiking the Grand Canyon – Part Two

As you recall from Part One, I hiked the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 2010 – the South Kaibab Trail down and the Bright Angel Trail up. Not easily sated, I returned two years later and tackled the much, much longer North Kaibab Trail.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a long way from anywhere. It is over 1,000 feet higher in elevation than the South Rim, and its northern exposure makes it a dumping ground for snow for seven months of the year (the North Rim is closed to visitors from mid-October to mid-April). The flora and fauna are different, too. The access road from the one-trick hamlet of Jacob Lake passes through terrain that looks like Yellowstone. “Beefalo” – cow and bison hybrids – graze peacefully along the roadside, and sub-alpine meadows are home to wildflowers during the warmer months. The scent of pine is all around.

Highway 67-10 - Beefalo

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Hiking the Grand Canyon – Part One

Earlier this summer, TripAdvisor ranked the Grand Canyon as the #1 National Park. I couldn’t agree more with their top pick. I have meaning to write about the Grand Canyon ever since I first saw TripAdvisor’s list (the complete ranking is here, BTW), but it has taken me until the hottest week of summer to get my thoughts on paper. It was similarly hot when I hiked from the rim (top) of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back…twice! No wonder my ex-girlfriend called me crazy! 😉


My first visit to the Grand Canyon was in October, 2000. It was little more than a two-hour stopover on my way from Chicago to Los Angeles, my first cross-country move. My friend Chuck came along for the ride. We took photos from various South Rim vantage points, hiked perhaps one-quarter mile down the Bright Angel Trail, ate at one of the Grand Canyon Village restaurants, and continued on our way. Still…the few pictures I took, including the photo above, taken from Hopi Point with my $60 manual camera, lent quite the inspiration, and I promised myself that I would one day return and hike all the way down to the canyon floor.

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