Gear Trails, Vol IV.: Desert Hiking Edition
The guy behind Coldsmoke on his favorite backcountry adventure
The biggest problem with getting outside in the City of Angels? Being spoiled for choice. We’re distilling that process by getting the goods straight from the experts with a recurring series called Gear Trails.
This time around, we’re tapping creative director Liam McAuliffe of Coldsmoke — makers of super stylish technical jackets — for his favorite winter activity near Los Angeles.
In brief: you’re going desert hiking and then skinny-dipping at a hidden waterfall.
And we’ve got all the gear to warm you up afterward.
InsideHook: What is your favorite winter outdoor activity in CA?
Liam McAuliffe: My favorite winter outdoor activity in California, especially down here in SoCal, is getting out and exploring the desert wilderness areas that are too hot to fully enjoy during the rest of the year.
IH: Why do you like the desert?
LM: The desert is vast, desolate, quiet and hostile to most forms of life for much of the year. But during the winter, especially after the rains, the desert comes alive for a precious few weeks. Delicate wildflowers pushing up between the Joshua Trees and cacti paint the sandy basins with psychedelic, vibrant colors. A creek that’s usually dry but for a few stagnant rock pools, transforms into a rushing stream cascading into a double-tier waterfall feeding crystal clear swimming holes. Giant, otherworldly rock piles rising hundreds of feet from the desert floor provide endless climbing and scrambling routes. And winter is the time of year when a soak in a desert hot spring beneath a star-littered sky is most rewarding.
IH: Got a favorite desert?
LM: Joshua Tree is the most accessible and dramatically beautiful destination to escape to. However, with the spread of Instagram-fueled outdoor culture, it’s become increasingly difficult to find a campsite, let alone a bit of the solitude the desert is famous for. That said, for someone new to the desert, I’d recommend getting your feet (very metaphorically) wet at J-Tree before pushing deeper into the 50,000 square miles that comprise the Mojave. I just got back from my first trip to the Kelso Dunes. It felt like a sci-fi planet, with dunes hundreds of feet high surrounded by dark granite mountains. You can hike to the top of the dunes and sand-board down. We encountered some kids with homemade, Mad Max-style sand sleds pulling 45 MPH runs. My favorite desert hike is in the Sespe Wilderness up around Ojai. There’s a challenging hike up to Matilija Falls that requires multiple river crossings and scrambling up a slot canyon to that double-tier waterfall. Well worth it, but not for the faint of heart.
IH: What do you say to folks who think it seems like a lot of sand?
LM: All of these locations have their own unique features and character, which is what I appreciate most about the desert. For the casual observer, these places can feel harsh, uninviting and monotonous. But the more time you spend exploring the desert, the more sensitive you become to subtle phenomena like the changing light, rock patterns and the movement of a coyote on a distant rise.
coldsmoke store (3 images)
IH: What Coldsmoke items do carry with you?
LM: The desert is extreme even in winter. In the high desert (up above 2,000 feet), pleasant 70 degree days drop below freezing at night. These temperature swings make it the perfect environment to develop and test for versatility, a key feature in all of our gear. During this recent trip to Kelso I hiked in my Alpha-lite bomber, then threw on the Winbloc joggers and my Wool Moto jacket at night when the temps plummeted.
We actually developed the Fidlock shorts on a hike up Sespe. We wanted shorts built of material burly enough to withstand rock abrasions, branches and prickly desert plants while scrambling, but that we could still wear swimming.
I never go into the desert without a hat. In the winter I wear our waxed Japanese Military cloth hat — it’s a bit warmer than your average hat and super durable. The desert beats everything up. I also just climbed the dunes in our new, as yet to be released, 3xdry pants that wick moisture so sweat never gets a chance to get cold — definitely a staple from here on out.
IH: What sort of tips do you have for going there?
LM: Bring WAY more water than you think you’ll need. When it’s cold, it’s still extremely dry and you will get dehydrated. Sunblock and chapstick are also key. The desert looks tough, but the life there is doing everything it can to survive and is surprisingly fragile, so stay on trails, and pack out your trash. I sound like a park ranger, but when the features are so minimal, one shiny candy wrapper really stands out.
IH: Are there hole-in-the-wall bars or restaurants nearby that you always hit?
LM: If I’m in J-Tree, a trip over to Pappy and Harriet’s is a must. It’s always good to check their calendar for a chance to catch a world-class artist playing out under the stars. The ribs are pretty good too. Up in Ojai, nothing beats a buffalo burger and Moscow Mule at the Deer Lodge. Great log cabin ambience. And out by the Kelso Dunes we hit Peggy Sue’s, an iconic ’50s highway pie and burger joint with a turtle pond and metal King Kong and dinosaur statues. The biscuits and gravy are a good bet.
See the world from your inbox.
Sign up for The Journey, our Travel newsletter.