If you spend enough time on the trail, the practice of hiking will change you. Once upon a time, I was hellbent on the summit, pushing at maximum speed to rack up the miles and check the destinations off an ever-growing list of challenges.
I’ve come to call that sort of hiking “bucket-listing.” Bucket-listing stems from a philosophy that values high points, waterfalls, and other famous destinations, and it manifests in the myriad “Best Hikes in (INSERT PLACE HERE),” challenges like the Five Peaks Challenge, and the increasingly competitive scrambles to get permits for places like Mt. Whitney and Half Dome. It’s a very popular approach to hiking, not least because it lays out a clear-cut plan toward great hiking experiences.
I was every bit the same way about hiking for a few years, albeit with even grander designs at times. But during the fieldwork for Afoot and Afield, my preferences changed as I began stringing together adjacent routes as a means of saving time. For example, I’d combine pieces of three separate routes into one trek as a means of saving me the time and mileage from hiking each one separately. This approach often required that I’d walk several miles of “connective tissue” trail not included in the route I was scouting.
At the conclusion of several of these longer hikes, I began to realize that, more than destinations and more than famous locations, I was enjoying the sheer act of passing through an ever-changing landscape without necessarily having a set destination. Yes, there were highlights, but those highlights were scattered along a much bigger route, which took the emphasis off of “bagging Cuyamaca Peak” in favor of exploring a large swath of uninterrupted habitat.
Hence the evolution of my preference for the walkabout, by which I mean a long, rambling exploration where the destination is the larger place rather than one specific point. Whenever I have half a day, rather than bagging a specific peak or hiking to a waterfall, I’ll head to one of the more expansive local trail networks and cobble together a 10-15 mile loop on a variety of trail segments. Instead of an approach to a destination, these hikes become more about enjoying a passage through a kaleidoscope of landscapes. Sometimes there will be a pit stop at a peak, but more often than not I skip the peaks altogether in favor of a long, meandering journey with no specific destination in mind.
Rather than having tunnel vision on trying to get to a specific place, which I noticed turned the rest of the hike into work, I enjoy each section of a hike as a destination in itself. In this way, I get to know places more intimately and more fully than if I were only focused on one spot. I feel it fosters a deeper connection to various places than I would get otherwise, and I discover a lot of “hidden” secrets that most people miss. Moreover, eschewing destinations in favor of long walkabouts means that I also skip the sorts of crowds that tend to favor bucket-list hikes. I’d much rather spend 6 hours on an obscure trail network that allows me to see things I’ve never seen before than spend that time on a crowded trail.
So, how do you enjoy a walkabout? First, stop relying on GPS tracks. If you can read a map, you can create a thousand variations. If you’re following a track, you’re just hiking what the person before you hiked. There are topo maps available for all of the places I’m about to describe, and there are even some commercially produced maps by people like Tom Harrison that cover some of these areas. The second thing is that you’ll need to identify the places nearby where there is a large network of trails upon which you can create a longer route. Then finally, you need to set aside the notion that a hike has a focal point; in this case, the experience of the hike and the place you’re traveling through is the focal point.
Here are some of my favorite places for Walkabout hikes:
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Cuyamaca has a huge, varied trail network that offers a wide variety of habitats. Despite all the burn damage, there is really no better place to cobble together a long, meandering route. You can hike 20+ miles in a day and not even come close to seeing the whole place. Thanks to the park’s size, you can create multiple walkabouts focusing on distinct regions of the park, like the Cuyamaca Crest, the East Mesa/Oakzanita area, West Mesa/Arroyo Seco, Sweetwater River/Pine Ridge, and the Stonewall Peak/Lake Cuyamaca area.
Between the Noble Canyon Trail, the Big Laguna Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and dozens of off-shoot trails, you can rack up just as many miles as at Cuyamaca, while also enjoying a similar degree of variety. I don’t enjoy the Lagunas quite as much because of all the mountain bike traffic – they have every right to be there, but it gets tedious stepping aside all the time – but it’s still one of the most expansive trail networks in the county.
This is the ultimate, as far as walkabouts are concerned. To paraphrase Jerry Schad, if the sheep can go there, so can you. Pick a ridge and wander up it. Get semi-lost in a maze of canyons. Connect the dots with a bunch of scattered palm groves and native sites. If you know how to navigate, you can literally go anywhere throughout a desert region that, when combined with neighboring BLM land, is about the size of Rhode Island.
Palomar Mountain State Park
This smaller trail network doesn’t offer as many miles (the most I’ve gotten is about 11) in a day, but the connectivity within the network coupled with the beautiful habitats make it a fantastic place to wander around for half a day. Furthermore, there are more interesting spots per square inch here than anywhere else in the county, and you can see fall color, snow, conifers, jaw-dropping views, weird historic sites, rare plants, rare animals, meadows, creeks, and even an apple orchard during the span of a 5 hour hike.
If you don’t have time to head deep into the backcountry, Daley Ranch in Escondido is a great alternative. Like the rest of the destinations above, you can stitch together a long, rambling route that visits habitats ranging from riparian zones, vernal pools, ponds, woodlands, chaparral, and meadows. You can also pick up some great views from the Cougar Crest/Boulder Loop area, or you can bag Stanley Peak as you wander around the east side of the ranch.
While many people approach Mission Trails for the Five Peaks and Oak Canyon’s waterfalls, you can cobble a lot of the trail network together for much longer walkabouts that pair any number of destinations. I plotted one such walkabout in Afoot and Afield that stopped at all five peaks plus Oak Canyon. The connectivity is not quite as good thanks to Junipero Serra Road, but you can still easily pick up 15 miles in a day there.
If you’re not averse to a bit of road walking and an Uber trip back, you can actually couple together Crest Canyon, the Torrey Pines Extension, the main reserve, and Blacks Beach all the way down to La Jolla Shores in a long, full-day trip. You’ll need to time the tides right because of the rocks north of the pier, but if your timing is right, you can experience a huge swath of coastline that remains in a reasonably primitive state.
Out of San Diego County:
Santa Rosa Plateau
Crystal Cove/Laguna Hills
Caspers Wilderness Park
San Mateo Wilderness
San Jacinto Mountains
Malibu Canyon State Park
Santa Anita Canyon