The California Bucket List is your daily guide to essential California adventures, from easy to edgy. Check in every day for a new must-do adventure, each tried and tested by one of the Travel section's staffers and contributors.
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Why: Gently, this big balloon will take you 400 feet above Irvine, giving a 40-mile view on a clear day.
What: The balloon, which opened in 2007, is 118 feet, top to bottom. The gondola that hangs beneath it is perpetually tethered to the ground by a steel cable. It carries up to 30 passengers at a time.
The Great Park as a whole has gone through many delays and changes over the last decade, but its 76 publicly accessible acres are due to grow to 764 this year as sports facilities open. And the balloon is simple fun.
The attraction operates Thursday through Sunday, with no age, height or health restrictions. Rides are wheelchair-accessible. While you're aloft, check out the park's other features, including a carousel, sports facilities, an organic farm, a farmers market on Sundays and a historical timeline of how this open space (a big chunk of of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro) came to be what it is today.
Where: 6950 Marine Orange County Great Park, Irvine, 42 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
How much: Adults pay $10 each. Ages 18 and younger ride free with a paid adult. Ages 13-18 pay $5 each when unaccompanied.
Info: Great Park Balloon
Why: Country scenery and hippie echoes dominate Topanga Canyon, which feels far away from the city but really isn't.
What: Topanga is a haven of bucolic scenery and rustic, tucked-away homes near a handful of restaurants and attractions, all strung together along a single main road, Topanga Canyon Boulevard, which follows a winding creek. Neil Young lived here for a while, and Jim Morrison is said to have written "Roadhouse Blues" about the long-gone Topanga Corral. You can hike Topanga State Park (36 miles of trails and ocean views), take in the green panorama from the Top of Topanga Overlook (parking limited) or catch an open-air show at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, whose 2017 summer season includes "The Merchant of Venice," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and three more contemporary works. (This company has a long, strong track record, and the Geer family story is a piece of compelling, thorny Hollywood history.)
You could book a special-occasion meal at the Inn of the Seventh Ray (dinner main dishes $22-$44), which has been serving mostly organic meals since the 1970s. Also, bear in mind that the Pacific end of the canyon is within a mile of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.
Where: Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum is at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., midway between U.S. Route 101 and the Pacific, 28 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Hiking in the park is free. Most Theatricum Botanicum tickets are $25-$38.50.
Why: Raw coastline, juicy burgers.
What: To reach Jalama Beach County Park, you follow a twisting, two-lane highway from Lompoc to the edge of the continent and confront a horizon full of rough surf and raw, windy coastline. This campground (better for beachcombing than swimming) feels solitary, but there's a general store where they'll make you a Jalama Burger (carnivores, say yes) and sell you firewood or groceries or beer. There are 109 campsites, some cabins, hot showers, a playground and a set of railroad tracks.
Where: 9999 Jalama Road, Lompoc — which is actually 18 miles southwest of Lompoc, 170 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
Info: Jalama Beach County Park
Why: If celebrity had its own planet, it would look like the Beverly Hills Hotel. There is enough showbiz lore here – trysts, honeymoons and naked sunbathing – to be a movie in itself, a “Caddyshack” for the rich and resplendent. Still, the old hotel retains a dignity and opulence. For most of us, the best way to sample that is a leisurely lunch at the Polo Lounge.
What: Sure, it’s open almost all the time (7 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.) but the time to go is at lunch. Make your reservation for 1, on the patio (not inside) and draw the afternoon out on the sun-dappled brick, where bougainvillea petals will butterfly down into your salad or soup, as if a special effect. The Polo Lounge is not cheap, and it’s probably not the best meal in town, but it might be the grandest and most memorable. A grand piano plays at just the proper volume, and the service is attentive, not fussy.
Closer to the coast, you’d be cold; closer to downtown, a little too warm. Here, the air is so sublime it’s almost carbonated. There are Polo Lounge offshoots too: a Sunday jazz brunch and afternoon teas, from 3-5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. But before you try anything else here, go for lunch, which is casual and relaxed. A decent pair of jeans is fine.
Unless you’re famished, stick with the salads, which is what Beverly Hills does best anyway. You can always add tuna, shrimp or steak. A perennial favorite is the McCarthy – chicken, beets, eggs, bacon, avocado – a salad almost as famous as some of the patrons who order it. But you’re not there for the food, particularly Russian caviar that goes for $190 an ounce. You’re there for the special effects.
How much? Lunch entrees from $26 to about $50.
Where: The Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd, Beverly Hills, Calif., 13 miles west of downtown L.A.
Why: Its peak might be a mere 2,571 feet above sea level, but modern mountain biking wouldn't be what it is without Mt. Tamalpais.
What: Mt. Tamalpais State Park, cradle of mountain-biking innovation in the 1970s, is full of options, including fire roads and multi-use trails (and neighboring public lands have even more). Two favorite paths (open to bikers, hikers and horses alike) are the Coast View and Dias Ridge (sometimes spelled Diaz) trails. If you ride Dias Ridge, you'll end at Muir Beach by the Pelican Inn, a facsimile of a 17th century English pub that serves refreshments and hearty meals.
Non-cyclists, don't worry. The park has plenty of cyclist-free trails. At least one is wheelchair-accessible: the Verna Dunshee Trail (0.75 mile) at East Peak, known for big views. (Accessible tables, restrooms and drinking fountains are nearby.)
Where: Before starting, check for road closures, especially along Highway 1 between Muir Beach and Stinson Beach
How much: No entrance charge, but some trailheads have parking fees.
Why: In a world of conspicuous consumption, there is no place more conspicuous to do your consuming.
What: The Rodeo Drive shopping experience — which became a globally recognized thing around the time Judith Krantz's book "Scruples" came out in 1978 — boils down to about three blocks. Start at Beverly Gardens Park, at Rodeo and South Santa Monica Boulevard. Next make your way southeast on Rodeo (say Ro-Day-O, as locals do), past Brighton and Dayton ways, to Wilshire Boulevard. This gives you a good look at Cartier, Gucci, Prada, Harry Winston, Burberry and their well-heeled neighbors. Near Brighton Way, look for the late designer Bijan's yellow Rolls-Royce convertible, semi-perpetually parked near the House of Bijan at 420 N. Rodeo Dr.
Do this and you'll wind up facing the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Warren Beatty once lived and Esther Williams taught 14-year-old Elizabeth Taylor how to swim and Richard Gere brought Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman."
Where: Beverly Gardens Park, at Rodeo and South Santa Monica, is 12 miles west of downtown L.A.
Info: Rodeo Drive directory
Why: These two museums are on the front lines of contemporary art worldwide, focusing on works made since 1945. They stand within a stone's throw of each other on Grand Avenue.
What: The Broad Museum (opened in September 2015 and bankrolled by L.A. art maven Eli Broad) is free for general admission, but you have to reserve in advance or in the stand-by line, which can last more than an hour. The Museum of Contemporary Art (born in 1979) isn't free, and isn't getting so much buzz since the Broad opened. But both can startle, enlighten, disgust and amuse you.
Within the Broad, art stars like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Andy Warhol, Edward Ruscha and Andreas Gursky dominate the two levels of galleries, and visitors queue up to spend 45 seconds alone in Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrored Room" (which will remain through Sept. 30. Just outside the museum, there's a patch of grass under several gnarled old olive trees, and the restaurants Otium (seafood) and Vespaio (Italian).
MOCA's Grand Avenue space (the museum also has a second site downtown and a third in West Hollywood) includes many of the same names in its permanent and temporary exhibitions. Out front stands Nancy Rubin's sculpture "Airplane Parts" (which sometimes houses chirping sparrows).
Where: The Broad, 221 S. Grand Ave. MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.
How much: The Broad is free. MOCA is $15 per adult, but if you show a same-day ticket stub from the Broad, MOCA will give you 50% off.
Why: It's ancient and lunar. It impressed Mark Twain in the 19th century (he put it in his book "Roughing It") and Pink Floyd in the 20th (they put it on the sleeve of their album "Wish You Were Here").
What: Mono Lake goes back at least 760,000 years, covers about 70 square miles and feeds no rivers, which makes it salty and strange in many ways. The shoreline, more than 6,300 feet above sea level, is crawling with alkali flies, packed so densely that you may at first mistake them for a black-sand beach. In the water are legions of brine shrimp, fingernail-sized creatures that float at all depths. Protruding from the water are the tufa towers, which look like irradiated anthills but are really calcium-carbonate mounds formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water.
If there were a lake on the moon, I'm pretty sure it would look like this. (And if the lovers of the lake hadn't waged a sustained political fight to save it from the thirst of Los Angeles, it would probably be a smaller, sadder spectacle now.)
On summer weekends, you can explore it by guided canoe tour. If you're a birder, you already know it's rich in California gulls, snowy plovers, eared grebes and Wilson's phalaropes. The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center (closed Dec. 1-March 31) is open Thursday through Monday in spring and fall, daily in summer.
Where: Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, 1 Visitor Center Dr. (just off Highway 395), Lee Vining, CA., 333 miles north of downtown L.A.
How much: Guided canoe tours $25-$30 per person.
Why: From the observation deck atop the clock tower, you can scan a panorama of Santa Barbara's many red-tiled roofs. In the mural room below, you'll see enormous, evocative depictions of early California history.
What: In a city full of mansions, the Andalusian-style Santa Barbara County Courthouse is among the prettiest buildings of all. It was completed in 1929, four years after an earthquake damaged much of downtown and set off a boom in Spanish-style construction.
Beginning in the second-floor mural room, docents give free, hourlong tours on weekdays at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., weekend days at 2 p.m. But you can climb the clock tower stairs on your own, and nose around the mural room too — if there isn't a wedding happening.
Where: 1100 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, 98 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Free.
Why: You won't find another pier in California with cottages on it, and this pier stands along one of San Diego's most popular beaches.
What: The Crystal Pier Hotel & Cottages go back to the 1930s. Despite changes in owners (and many a dispute with city officials) in early decades, the operation has been run by the same family since 1961. The pier is wooden, with fishing at the end. The 31 units are painted white with blue trim and flower boxes. The beachfront promenade, Ocean Front Walk, is San Diego's answer to Venice -- a boisterous concentration of people, bikes and beach culture that runs three miles through the Pacific Beach and Mission Beach neighborhoods.
Where: 4500 Ocean Blvd., San Diego, 115 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
How much: Most rooms for two (with kitchenettes) run $265 to $415, depending on the season and day of the week. And take note: You can't make reservations online -- just by phone and in person. Also, minimum stay is two nights in winter, three nights in summer, four nights over major holidays.
Why: Walking is good. History is good. Free is (pardon the grammar) good. Taken together on the rising and falling streets of San Francisco, they're a tourism hat trick.
What: San Francisco City Guides is a nonprofit group whose volunteers lead walking tours all over town. The regularly scheduled tours are free (although donations are welcome), and there are several every day. On some Saturdays, there are as many as 20 different walking tours offered, covering tea gardens, epic stairways, murals, mansions and old military posts. In Union Square and the Financial District alone, the group offers 21 different itineraries.
I did a custom walk on Montgomery Street with volunteer Joyce Kurtz and came away with a whole new way of seeing the Financial District. Now I understand that Montgomery Street was the waterfront in the old days. And that Mark Twain once worked in the building that was razed before the Transamerica Pyramid went up. (That's why the alley next door is named for him.)
Where: Union Square and the Financial District, the S.F. neighborhoods where City Guides offer the largest number of tours, are 380 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Free.
Why: The Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa has the largest collection of "Peanuts" strips in the world. It explores the nuances and global reach of Schulz's work, and the impact of cartoonists generally.
What: Opened in 2002, the museum charts the career of Schulz, who drew "Peanuts" from 1950 to 2000 and died on the day before his last cartoon was published. (He lived in Santa Rosa.) Displays include a black-and-white tile mural with 3,588 "Peanuts" images, a re-creation of "Sparky's studio" (that was Schulz's nickname) and a doghouse wrapped in cloth by the artist Christo as an homage to Shulz.
The museum is neighbored by an ice rink, coffee shop ("the Warm Puppy Cafe"), gallery and gift shop, all built by Shulz, who lived in Sonoma County for more than 40 years.
Where: 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa, 431 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for children and students age 4-18.
Info: Charles M. Schulz Museum
Why: This is where Europe first glimpsed the California coast. Nowadays, it's where you can see Coronado and Tijuana from on high, and tidepools up close.
What: In 1542, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to sight California from the sea when he spotted the Point Loma peninsula, then came ashore. Perched high on the point, Cabrillo National Monument has a visitor center explaining what Cabrillo’s sighting meant for Spain and the world. (The mysterious explorer died later on the same expedition.)
A short walk away on the monument grounds is the first Point Loma lighthouse, built in the 19th century. And if the history and the wide views aren't enough, you'll find dramatic sandstone formations and tidepooling opportunities along the water's edge.
On the way to the monument, you'll pass through Ft. Rosecrans military cemetery, resting place of 100,000 military personnel and their family members. If you want to learn more about Cabrillo, head to the San Diego Maritime Museum and its reconstruction of his ship, the San Salvador.
Where: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, 124 miles south of downtown L.A.
How much: $10 per vehicle.
Why: The No. 19 at Langer’s Deli is the Marilyn Monroe of pastrami sandwiches, a smoky, bombastic, love-at-first-bite Los Angeles legend. I think it’s the lean, hand-cut pastrami. Or maybe it’s the slab of slaw atop it. Come to think of it, the rye bread is probably what makes this sandwich such a hit. Tender in the middle, crunchy on the edges, the double-baked bread is the stage of this luscious sandwich. Then again, it might be the meat. Epic poems have been written over far less.
What: Langer’s Delicatessen opened in 1947, with about a dozen seats. Still in a struggling, working-class neighborhood across from MacArthur Park, it now draws huge crowds for breakfast and lunch.
The menu is a ferocious mix of deli standards: egg salad, matzo ball soup, cheese blintzes. Carved from the navel of a steer, and cured as you would corn beef, pastrami is by far the most-popular meat. The flavor comes from a combo of smoking and steaming that preserves the moisture.
There are 20 ways to get it, but the best is the No. 19 combo, featuring hot pastrami, cole slaw, Russian dressing and a slice of Swiss on that amazing rye bread.
The secret? After the rye arrives from the bakery, the kitchen bakes it a second time, for 30 minutes, at 350 degrees. That’s what produces the marvelous crunch.
Where: 704 S. Alvarado St., just west of downtown Los Angeles. Free parking is at 7th Street and Westlake, one block east. Be sure to have your ticket stamped at the register on your way out. The closest Metro Red-Purple Line subway stops half a block away, at MacArthur/Westlake.
How much: Lunches are $20 to $25. Including tax, the No. 19 is $19.52.
Info: Langer’s Delicatessen
Why: Welcome to the Los Angeles River, America's least likely recreational area. That L.A. has a navigable river at all surprises many folks. All they see are the empty concrete culverts poured decades ago to prevent mass flooding. But honestly, if someone blindfolded you and plopped you down here, you might think you're in Idaho.
What: There are stretches — a mile here, seven miles there — where the bottom is soft and the deep earth tones are a cinematographer's smeary dream. A wall of trees to your left. A wall of trees to your right. Dozens of species of chattering birds. Minnows doing button-hooks beneath a ribbon of urban drool. This water isn’t as pristine as it might look. It is sourced from storm drains and a treatment plant. Yet the water sparkles over rocks. Herons and hawks work the shorelines
It's the surprise of this setting — a tunnel of trees in the parched valley — that makes the unmasking of the L.A. River so alluring. It is also one more reminder, in this land of freeways and mini-malls, that nature and wildlife still manage not just to survive, but to thrive.
The season runs from Memorial Day through early September. L.A. River Expeditions offers trips on both the Glendale Narrows and the Sepulveda Basin sections. L.A. River Kayak Safari specializes on the Glendale Narrows stretch near Dodger Stadium. A boat race celebrating the river and the kayaking season takes place Sept. 9.
Where: Two stretches, each of which takes a couple of hours: the Glendale Narrows, 3-10 miles north of downtown L.A. at the east edge of Griffith Park; and the Sepulveda Basin, about 19 miles northwest of downtown L.A. in the San Fernando Valley.
How much: Guided trips start at about $45.
Why: Because the city of Orange's Old Towne Historic District is a funky yet family-oriented spot for strolling, dining and people-watching. The heart of the matter is the pedestrian-friendly traffic circle where Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street meet. Some people call it the Orange Circle, some call it Plaza Square.
What: This neighborhood, which sits in the middle of Orange County, has sustained a vibrant conglomeration of quaint cafes and restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, and specialty and curio stores since the late 19th century. It doesn't hurt that within a few blocks, you'll find a working train station and the campus of Chapman University.
From the central fountain, you might head for breakfast at Blue Frog Bakery (136 S. Glassell St.), check out the vintage garden items at The Potting Shed by Carlisle (401 W. Chapman Ave.) or join up with an Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tour. Other temptations include Francoli Gourmet Italian restaurant and specialty store, Tiddlywink Toys and Haute Sweets Baking Co.
The streets are lively with students, and livelier still during the regular Saturday farmers market. When parking gets tight, look for the “marked-with-an-orange” signs indicating public parking lots. If you do have to park on a nearby residential street, take the opportunity to gaze at the eclectic collection of craftsman bungalows.
Where: Five miles southeast of Disneyland, about a mile east of the “Orange Crush” confluence of the 5, 22 and 57 freeways, 32 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
How much: Free. Many of the walking food tours are priced at $65.
Info: City of Orange
Why: If I told you there are about 17 hotels on one side of this single street 1.5 miles long, you might want to run the other way. But it works here, probably because the other side of the street is a low bluff over a charming central California coastline of cypress trees and rocky outcroppings. All these lodgings are smallish enough to call themselves inns (once upon a time, they were motels). And you can stroll to a few casual restaurants such as Sea Chest (no credit cards, no reservations) and Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill (no reservations) along the same stretch.
What: Moonstone Beach Drive runs along the ocean side of Highway 1, and a pleasant boardwalk runs along the ocean side of Moonstone Beach Drive. Now and then, deer show up in the meadows. One lodging that's seen a lot of upgrading in the last year: Oceanpoint Ranch (previously known as the San Simeon Pines), with 61 rooms on 9 acres. But whether you sleep in the neighborhood or not, this is a great place for a walk, especially on foggy early morning.
Where: Moonstone Beach Drive, 8 miles south of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, 238 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Free.
Why: Where else in the world can you experience shoals of flopping fish on the shores of a moonlit beach?
What: Every March through August, small silvery fish called grunions (Leuresthes tenuis) show up on the sandy shores of California’s southern beaches to spawn. These fascinating creatures have attracted and entranced Californians since long before Europeans reached these shores. For a two-hour period late on the nights after the highest tides, grunions ride in on waves and flop onto the sand en masse to deposit their eggs. If you're fishing or catching and releasing, that's your cue to reach in and grab the grunion with bare hands. But it may be thrill enough just to watch the tide of fish under the night sky.
The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro offers an introduction to the spectacle. The museum opens its door at 8 p.m. for two scheduled nights in June and two more in July to offer a “Meet the Grunion” program that includes guided observation of grunions on the beach.
Often, this adventure means waiting for a while on a beach at night. Bring warm clothes and a flashlight. Fishing for grunions is allowed, except in April and May. If you choose to fish, you may only use your bare hands, and a license is required if you are over 16 years of age. Catch and release is encouraged.
Where: The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, at 3720 Stephen M White Dr. in San Pedro, 26 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
How Much: The aquarium charges $5 for the grunion program, $1 for seniors, students and children. For fishing, licenses are available from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife ($15.12 for a one-day license).
Why: As a rule, there's not much on Hollywood Boulevard that I'd recommend for a kid in elementary school. But this rule has one gleaming exception: Disney's exuberantly restored El Capitan Theatre, which is a great place to see a family film.
What: This venue, built in 1926, premiered "Citizen Kane" in 1941 and kicked off Hollywood's revival (still ongoing) with its reopening 50 years later. The outside is Spanish Colonial. The inside: East Indian Theatrical (by way of a San Francisco architect). The Disney studio often premieres new films here. Whether the show is a premiere or not, pre-show entertainment often includes performances on the venue's Mighty Wurlitzer organ, which rises from beneath the stage.
Back in the '20s, this venue began its life as a stage for live theater. In fact, it was one in a trio of boldly themed venues on the boulevard: El Capitan, Chinese and Egyptian. In 1941, El Capitan switched from live theater to movies.
Where: 6838 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, across the street from the Hollywood & Highland mall, 8 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Prices vary. Besides movies, there are 30-minute tours of the building ($15 per adult), 15-minute "express" tours ($9 per adult) and a variety of birthday-party packages.
Info: El Capitan Theatre
Why: Los Angeles' downtown Biltmore, now known as the Millennium Biltmore, is a snazzy space on Pershing Square with a starry history and hints of noir.
What: The hotel, which dates to 1923, began life as the biggest American hotel west of Chicago and housed several Academy Awards ceremonies in the 1930s, 1940s and 1977. Nowadays it gets a lot of business travelers, who stride purposefully through rooms done up in a glitzy mix of Renaissance, baroque, neo-classical and Moorish styles.
The tale is told that this is where aspiring actress Elizabeth Short -- a.k.a. the Black Dahlia -- was last seen alive before her notorious unsolved murder in 1947. And the hotel's Gallery Bar serves a Black Dahlia in her memory -- citrus vodka, Chambord and Kahlua. Inconveniently, some who have studied the case closely say there's no solid connection between Short and the bar. But the hotel has seen plenty of shooting, including many movies ("Chinatown"), perhaps the longest talking-while-walking shot ever on TV's "The West Wing," and the semi-dirty dancing in singer Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" video.
Odds are you will find Greg Guzelian at the bar. He's been creating and pouring drinks at the Biltmore for more than 30 years, and he can spin a story or two.
Where: 515 S. Olive Ave., downtown Los Angeles.
How much: $13 for a Black Dahlia. The same for a French Kiss (another Guzelian creation).