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California Monuments Road Trip

Ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich and photographer Meg Haywood Sullivan explore four of California's national monuments in 96 hours

“If we want people to care about conservation, they have to experience wild places,” says professional ski mountaineer, adventurer, and KEEN ambassador Caroline Gleich. That’s why she summoned her friend and fellow KEEN ambassador Meg Haywood Sullivan, a professional photographer, to take a four-day road trip to four national monuments they’d never seen—Carrizo Plain National Monument, Giant Sequoia National Monument, San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, and Sand to Snow National Monument—all of which lie within a day trip of Meg’s surf bungalow in Venice.

After hearing about Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s plan to shrink three monuments (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, plus Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou) and review 27 others totaling millions of acres, Caroline wanted to “feel these monuments.” She called Meg because, in addition to taking beautiful photos, she shares Caroline’s passion for conservation. Caroline’s a pop music fan; Meg favors alt/indie. But their preference in shoes is the same: Terradoras for hiking, Uneeks for kicking back. “Between the two shoes, you’re basically covered for everything,” says Caroline. “The Terradoras are cute enough to wear around town but rugged enough for desert hikes. And the Uneeks are super comfy—perfect for around camp at the end of the day or to slip on and off in the car.” Three hours after Caroline hit the tarmac, Meg steered her Subaru into the shimmering August sun and toward Carrizo.


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Day One: Carrizo Plain National Monument

Bisected by the San Andreas Fault, Carrizo Plain National Monument is 204,000 acres of grasslands, valleys, ridges, ravines, and one gigantic natural alkali wetland, all connected by two-track dirt roads and two primitive campgrounds that serve as launchpads for mellow, uncrowded hiking. Driving in, through rolling coastal hills, you immediately get the sense that you’re traveling back in time, says Caroline. President Clinton designated the 204,000-acre monument in January 2001, so it’s well signed and has some amenities. Their first stop was Soda Lake, where a spongy trail curves around the water. Come nightfall, the girls planned to do an open air bivy (no tent) at Selby Campground. “But pulling up, we saw a lump,” says Caroline. “It was a fresh kill, the bones strewn around. I also saw a tarantula. I didn't mind the spider, but the prairie grasses were dry and made a ton of noise with all the kangaroo rats scavenging about.” With so many critters around, they decided to pitch a tent.


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The next morning’s objective was Painted Rock, a collection of millennia-old Chumash Indian pictographs in a natural rock amphitheater, accessed by a mellow 30-minute hike on red-dirt doubletrack. “You could tell these people had a clear vision of what they were painting and an artistic interpretation of their daily lives,” says Meg. “They were trying to tell a story either for themselves or the future, and we got to witness it.” Now, they said, when they lobby for the monument’s protection in Washington, they can give firsthand accounts of what’s at stake.

Distance from LAX: 169 Miles.

Getting there: Check out Caroline and Meg's route here

If You Go: The city of Bakersfield, with plenty of lodging and dining options, is 70 miles to the east. Pitch a tent at Kern River Campground (661-868-7000) and load up on groceries at Vallarta Supermarket, a Latin chain selling meat, produce, regional specialty foods, and other staples. 


Day Two: Giant Sequoia National Monument

Driving out of Carrizo, Meg and Caroline passed a “huge oil pipeline with Exxon Mobil drilling sites all around it,” says Caroline. “You could see why all of the wildlife had retreated to Carrizo.” But soon they were heading east, toward Giant Sequoia National Monument. Designated in 2000, it’s sandwiched between Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park and, as the name implies, is home to the world’s largest tree species (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which grows naturally in just a narrow 60-mile band of mixed-conifer forest on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. People explore them via a self-guided loop trail, portions of which are fully accessible. “The monument was way more crowded than Carrizo,” says Caroline, “but in a good way, with people from all walks of life.”


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Meg steered them into a dispersed camping area near the southern entrance of the monument, where they set up tents beneath trees shooting 250 feet skyward. Later that afternoon, they hiked the 1.3-mile-long Trail of 100 Giants, which has interpretive signs explaining the trees’ life cycle. As cool as the science is, Caroline had a more visceral reaction: she wanted to hug ’em. “You wrap your arms around,” she says, “and they leave a bit of bark on you.” But they also hold evidence of California’s recent drought—monument personnel were preemptively clearing some because they’d become so dry and brittle (and in danger of toppling over). The trees in Meg and Caroline’s campsite were solid, though, and the two slept peacefully under the ancient boughs in their preferred styles—Caroline under the stars in her bag, and Meg snug in her tent.

Distance from LAX: 215 Miles.

Getting there: See Caroline and Meg's route here

If You Go: The sleepy towns of Lemon Cove and Three Rivers are south of the monument via Highway 198. In Lemon Cove, you can camp, SUP, and fish for rainbow trout and cutthroats on Lake Kaweah, and in Three Rivers you can kayak the Kaweah River, then sip whatever’s on tap at Three Rivers Brewing. 


Day Three: San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

From Giant Sequoia, it’s a 3.5-hour drive to the San Gabriel Mountains, which rise above the east side of Los Angeles. “When you think of L.A., you don’t normally think of mountains,” says Caroline, but the San Gabriels soar to 10,064 feet and are part of a watershed that provides some 30 percent of the water for the city.


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President Obama designated the 342,177-acre monument in 2014, in part to protect rock art that provides a glimpse into ancient civilizations. Its four million annual visitors also hike, Nordic ski, hunt, horsepack, fly-fish, and camp in four separate wilderness areas that are home to California condors, the mountain yellow-legged frog, the arroyo chub fish, and Nelson’s bighorn sheep. Although Meg had never hiked there before, she could see the snowcapped mountains from her Venice driveway. “Before coming, I had no idea you could access such high-quality trails so close to L.A.,” she says. Many visitors like to hike the 2.8-mile Allison Mine Trail from Coldwater Saddle or take an overnight trip on the 10.2-mile Bear Creek Trail, which climbs up from the Valley of the Moon Highway. But an August heat wave had sent temperatures soaring into the triple digits, so Meg and Caroline bailed to a hotel in Palm Springs. They lowered their core temps and then headed out in search of a pedicure. “We didn't even have to change our sandals,” says Meg. “The Uneeks are stylish enough for city wear, even glam Palm Springs.”

Distance from LAX: 66 Miles. 

Getting there: Caroline and Meg's route from Giant Sequoia National Monument to San Gabriel Mountains can be found here

If You Go: Visit the Mount Wilson Observatory and the San Dimas Experimental Forest, both inside the monument. Weekend guided tours admit visitors to the telescope floor, directly beneath the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson. 


Day Four: Sand to Snow National Monument

Sand to Snow is just 26 mostly uphill miles from Palm Springs—through foothills, suburbs, and cute little mountain towns. “When you get there, it’s like you enter a whole other world, in mountains reminiscent of the Rockies,” says Meg. Another Obama designee, Sand to Snow once housed the Serrano and Cahuilla peoples, who came to hunt and gather food, medicinal plants, and basket-making materials. Today, the San Gorgonio Wilderness connects important wildlife habitat in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains (think black bears, deer, and bighorn sheep). Meg and Caroline based their visit out of San Gorgonio Campground in nearby San  Bernardino National Forest, arriving at the perfect time to crash beneath the stars, which both did sans tent. “It sounds weird coming from someone who’s done so much camping, but bivying was liberating,” says Meg. “We laid out our tarps and sleeping bags and slept side by side, sleepover style.”


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Before dawn the next morning, they set off for San Gorgonio Mountain, the range’s tallest peak, at 11,500 feet. Not long after sunrise, they found themselves face to face with a wide-eyed deer. “We had a long exchange of female energy,” laughs Caroline, whose return flight time was the only thing that kept them from the summit. A few short hours later, Caroline was already on her way home. Meg promised she’d go back and finish the climb—and a few weeks later she tagged the summit.

Distance from LAX: 99 Miles.

Getting there: Check out Caroline and Meg's route to Sand to Snow here. 

If You Go: Post–camping trip, hit up Palm Springs for its famous hot springs, hotels, and spas. Two Bunch Palms spa is “Zen-like” and adults only, while Aqua Soleil Hotel and Mineral Water Spa is sleek, immaculate-looking, and super-affordable: a single queen runs just $65–$89 per night. And if you have kids, head to Sam’s Family Hot Water Spa and Resort—because neither kids nor soothing hot-water rewards should be absent from your national monument exploration. 


Driven by a passion for life outside, KEEN is a values-led, independently owned brand from Portland, Oregon, that’s on a mission to create original and versatile footwear, improve lives, and inspire outside adventure. By giving back, reducing impact, and activating communities and individuals to protect the places where we work and play, KEEN puts its values in motion and takes action to leave the world a better place. Learn more at www.keenfootwear.com.

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