As far, wide, and frequent as I’ve traveled, here’s something oddly ironic and just as comforting that I’ve learned when seeking great outdoor adventures near me. The ones closest to home can be every bit as transporting—if not more, in their own convenient way—than those that are much farther afield. In fact, many of my greatest adventures of all have been those entirely self-propelled journeys starting from my front (or back) door. No car commute required, let alone trans-continental flight.
I learned this rather dramatically during my most memorable lion encounter ever—which happened, not during any of my 16 trips to Africa, but within hiking distance of my house near Los Angeles.
While I’ve been lucky enough to glimpse large cats in faraway places where khaki-clad tourists toting ginormous lenses pay large sums to squeeze onto safari rigs, my wildest, most spontaneous brush with a lion happened during a “routine” solo trail run in the rugged coastal mountains of Santa Barbara, CA.
I’d recently returned from Namibia, and while getting back into the swing of things, I went for a run at dawn in Romero Canyon in light rain. Bolting downhill into a blind turn, I literally came nose to nose with a mountain lion loping uphill from the opposite direction. The wildly unlikely convergence at that bend in the chaparral instantly put me on my rump, sliding to a skidded stop in the loose scree. Equally surprised, the lion came to its own more graceful halt, its eyes instantly expanding into big, round saucers. There we were, lion and human, face to face, frozen together for what felt like several moments.
Two long upward leaps later, the magnificent animal vanished, bounding off through the hills and deep into my favorite memory bank. It was one of the greatest wildlife encounters I’ve ever experienced, among many. It was untamed, unplanned, and unconfined to a packed Land Rover in Southwest Africa. It happened so close to home, yet compellingly far as well.
Finding Your Next Near-but-Far Escape
Based just 70 miles west of the L.A. megalopolis—and fortunately just one block away from the beach where I still lifeguard—I can kayak 25 miles across the Santa Barbara Channel to California’s Channel Islands, or backpack in the other direction across vast Los Padres National Forest where I won’t see a soul for days. It’s a great feeling knowing I never have to start up my car, get on a plane, or jump on a boat for a truly far-flung adventure that begins and ends at my doorstep.
Granted, coastal SoCal has its share of nearby perks in virtually all directions for adventure seekers, but the same general rules likely apply wherever you live. Give or take a short car commute, journeys into wild, faraway-feeling areas are often deceivingly closer than you think.
A slew of resources and travel ideas for outdoor adventuring near home are waiting for your next close-but-far journey. It’s a big rabbit hole that can begin with searches under best urban parks and trails, local exploring, best microadventures, and more, while scouring the archives of alltrails, tripadvisor, and numerous nearby parks you never knew existed at recreation.gov.
Joining a local chapter of an outdoor club is another great way to learn about hiking trails and other wild finds within easy striking distance—while meeting likeminded souls. Finding your own epic, backyard adventure is likely quicker and easier than you might imagine.
Discover them firsthand, and they can transport you more than just mere miles away. Even before walking out the door, I thoroughly appreciate the journey of readying and gearing up for something so local that will soon feel far-flung. As each moment of prep melds into the next and unfolds into the actual journey, there’s an internal bliss that can carry you across a vast empty ocean or over a quiet mountain trail. There’s also the satisfaction you’ll be carrying along with you that this journey has far less impact on Mother Earth.
On one solo trip, after leading a kayak tour on a remote island in Southern California, I tied down my surfboard to my kayak and paddled four miles to surf alone until dark. Riding crowd-free six-footers with nothing more than a pair of bald eagles perched overhead and harbor seals playing around me was more than just pure pelagic euphoria. It was that distant escape I’ve always strived for—even if it’s not all that distant mileage-wise.
Wildlife Is Key
For me, that close-but-faraway feel is mute if wildlife isn’t present. For a wild place to be wild, unhindered animals are vital. They don’t need to be zebras, snow leopards, or any specific species, but their sign must be there—their scat or spoor, a scratch on a tree, the rubbing of their muzzle on a rock.
Birdsong is huge as well. The cacophony of multiple species of birds puts a huge aural stamp on a wild place. It signifies a vibrant wilderness biome. When I’m out on the Carrizo Plain National Monument in California’s central valley, it can be dead quiet. However, there’s one songbird that always comes through in a pinch—and that’s the melodious western meadowlark. The solitude at the last of California’s semi-arid grasslands wouldn’t be the same without that yellow-breasted silence breaker.
Wherever I find myself, it’s much about the sounds as it is the visuals. Listening to the surf crashing on the beach, the steady flow of water cascading through a boulder-strewn river, wind whistling over my tent, the swoosh of a California condor soaring overhead, a bull tule elk bugling on the grasslands, or a massive elephant seal sounding off to keep potential competition at bay. All of those transportive sounds signify instant escape.
For unbridled solitude, sheer volume, sights, sounds, smells and drama, my go-to spot is Point Bennett on San Miguel Island. The most westerly isle in the Channel Islands National Park is home to the largest congregation of seals and sea lions in the world. Observing from wind-groomed sand dunes, or by kayaking through the food chain, 50,000 pinnipeds lounging undisturbed in one location solidifies another magical escape within striking distance. The wind, grit, grind of sea salt, and unruly surf makes this entirely removed site otherworldly.
On a crowded beach day here, I can revel as the sole human guest among the flippered, sunbaking throng. They’re undisturbed, and so am I, as I drift off to a wildlife congregation that’s thrived for thousands of years, with that faraway feel swirling all around me—just 40 miles west of my front door.
Wherever you live, seeking your own version of that wild escape close to home is a worthy pursuit—and a vital reminder that bona fide adventures needn’t always be distant and exotic. Gateways to those experiences are everywhere, and some of the most memorable and satisfying ones of all may be hiding within surprisingly easy reach. Follow that instinct, and your wildest outdoor moment yet may be waiting just down the road.