08/16/2012 11:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Natural LA? I'll show you!

By Sandi Moynihan

I'm convinced people who claim the greater Los Angeles area is just a smog-filled metropolis haven't done their homework. It's true, Los Angeles is a large, busy city, but it is also one of the few cities in the United States with so many biodiverse, natural places to see within 100 miles of the downtown area -- that is, if you're willing to brave the traffic.

This summer was my first time in Southern California and I set out on a mission to experience and see as many of the local natural wonders as possible. I even made a videodocumenting what I saw, and just how easy it is to explore the mountains, beaches and amazing nature in the surrounding areas.

So where did I go? Watch the video and read below for my tips on exploring four unique and beautiful places right outside your doorstep.

Aliso Summit Hiking Trail, Laguna Niguel, Orange County:

This is a great hiking trail perfect for beginners. The trailhead is in a neighborhood and the entire path runs for roughly three miles. There are no difficult parts of the trail and nearly every spot along the way has expansive canyon views of the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. I would recommend bringing plenty of water, sunglasses and a hat, as there is absolutely no shade anywhere on the trail. It's a perfect way to spend a bright sunny day! More on the Aliso Summit Hiking Trail.

Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles County:

I was fortunate to have an awesome pair of roommates this summer who loved to go to the beach almost every weekend, and Hermosa Beach quickly became one of our favorites. The trip from downtown Los Angeles to Hermosa Beach is only 30 minutes and the beach itself is wonderful. There are volleyball nets, great boogey boarding waves and a restaurant scene near the pier. Plus, it's never as packed as Santa Monica or some of the other, more popular beaches near the city.

Santa Cruz Island, Ventura County:

Santa Cruz Island is one of the most biodiverse places in California and the world, so it was a special treat to be invited out to the island for a day to take pictures for The Nature Conservancy. From downtown Los Angeles, the trip to Santa Cruz Island's Prisoner's Harbor (without L.A. traffic!) is about a 45-minute drive and a two-hour boat ride. Even though I was only on the island for a few hours, I snapped shots from the grass-covered peaks, hiked to a waterfall and even caught a glimpse of the famous Santa Cruz Island Fox! I would love to go back and spend a day kayaking and exploring some of Santa Cruz Island's many sea caves. TIP: Make sure to plan your trip ahead of time.

Escondido Falls Hiking Trail, Malibu, Los Angeles County:

This was probably my favorite hike I did in Southern California this summer. The Escondido Falls Trails is one of the more popular hiking spots in the Malibu area, and there is always a fair amount of people on the trail, especially on summer weekends. From the trailhead to the bottom of the first waterfall is about a 30-minute hike. For more adventurous hikers, I highly recommend braving another 20 minutes of rock-climbing and rope-holding to trek up to the second, moss-covered waterfall. There is a fantastic cave behind this second waterfall that people can climb up into and sit behind the falls.

Even though I was able to see a lot of California's natural biodiversity during my time in Los Angeles, I didn't make it to Joshua Tree National Park or Sequoia National Forest. Every time I stumble across a friend's Facebook photo of the unique looking Joshua trees or their camping trip to the giant sequoia trees, I can't help but wish I had just a little bit more time in California to experience all the golden state has to offer!

As I pack my bags for the East Coast to finish my last semester, I have one thought for you Angelenos: What's your next adventure in nature? With so many options, it must be hard to choose! I'll take any recommendations you have, since I know I'll be back. Oh and I still need to learn how to surf!

The Nature Conservancy is working in California to protect nearly 1.5 million acres of spectacular California landscape, as well as 3.8 million acres of sea floor. See where we work and plan your next trip.

Sandi Moynihan is the social media intern for The Nature Conservancy in California and is interested in a career in digital communications. She's a graduating senior at The George Washington University majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication.