Here's our growing guide to essential California adventures, easy to edgy. We'll be adding to it daily all year. And we won't suggest an adventure unless one of the Travel section's staffers and contributors have tried it.
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Why: Canter's Deli, long beloved and besieged by the nighthawks of Fairfax Avenue, is a singular place to eat and debrief after a long, lively Los Angeles night. (Or any time. It's open 24 hours, except for Jewish high holidays.)
What: As most customers here know, "kvetching" is a Yiddish word for complaining and knishes are filling-stuffed dollops of dough, a recipe that comes Eastern Europe.
You'll find the entrance under a cinema-style marquee. As you nosh, remind your fellow diners that Canter's first opened on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights in 1931 (an operation that closed after most of the Jewish families in Boyle Heights moved out and Latino families moved in).
The current location, emblazoned with neon signage and bedecked with murals, opened in 1953 and has expanded a few times since then, including the 1961 addition of the Kibitz Room Cocktail Lounge, which often has live acts. Kibitz customers through the decades have included Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell and members of the Doors, Byrds, Guns n' Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers. There are frequent open-mic nights for comedy and music.
Through the years, Canter's management estimates that it has served 24 million bowls of chicken soup.
Where: 419 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, eight miles west of downtown L.A.
How much: Hot Kasha Knish, $5.50. Lox and scrambled eggs, $10.95. Pastrami Reuben sandwich, $15.95.
Info: Canter's Deli
Why: You're hungry. And these people have been in the business of feeding lumberjacks for about 100 years.
What: The Samoa Cookhouse is a smorgasbord that dates back more than a century and still feeds off-duty timber industry workers now and then. Pancakes, sausages, eggs, biscuits, gravy -- it's all here.
Besides its family-style tables and checkered tablecloths, the dining room's walls are lined with vintage photos of brawny men and toppled trees. In one corner, a Historic Logging Museum waits, full of saws and boots and other artifacts.
Do not expect haute cuisine. Do expect volume. And history. The building (which stands on the Samoa Peninsula just north of Eureka) dates to the 1890s.
Where: 908 Vance Ave. off Cookhouse Road, Samoa, Humboldt County, 647 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Adult prices: $13.25 for breakfast, $14.25 lunch, $17.95 dinner. And yes, it's all you can eat.
Info: Samoa Cookhouse
Why: It's the state's foremost aquarium, in a neighborhood full of Steinbeckian marine biological history.
What : From its opening in 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium immediately became the state's go-to aquarium, with tanks that open on to Monterey Bay and all sorts of technical breakthroughs. (It turns out jellyfish enclosures are hard to design.)
Give your family several hours here among the sharks, otters, penguins, tuna and seabirds -- more than 40,000 plants and animals, many of which get extra frisky at feeding time . (When you get hungry, feel free to order fish for lunch at the aquarium's sit-down restaurant, Cindy's Waterfront . Or not. Weird, right?)
While gawking, recall that this now-ultra-touristy district was once a gritty neighborhood. It held the home and lab of Ed Ricketts , the celebrated marine biologist and friend of John Steinbeck who is featured in Steinbeck's nonfiction volume "The Log From the Sea of Cortez" and fictionalized in Steinbeck's novel "Cannery Row."
California has several rewarding aquariums -- especially Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific if you're in Southern California -- but none has Monterey's waterfront history.
Where : 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, 321 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much : Adult admission is $49.95. For kids 3-12, it's $29.95.
Info : Monterey Bay Aquarium
Why: The road is long. This grill is hot. These restrooms are clean.
What: The now-sprawling Harris Ranch operation dates to the 1930s, but it didn't become relevant to us travelers until the 1970s. That when the management hit on the idea of opening a burger stand to capitalize on all the drivers passing by on the just-completed Interstate 5.
Then the burger stand became a steakhouse. And store. And hotel.
Now the Harris people have a cattle-based citadel on the roadside. The dining operations -- three restaurants, basically -- together seat up to 455 people at a time. The hotel has more than 150 rooms and an Olympic-style pool. The AC works. And they've added Tesla battery-charging stations to the parking lot.
Even if you're a vegetarian climate-change warrior, it may be tempting to stop.
Where: 24505 W. Dorris Ave., Coalinga, 205 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Ranch hand breakfast, $14.50 (in the Ranch Kitchen); 30-ounce bone-in, oak-smoked prime rib, $40 (in the Steakhouse). Also, there's no hotel tax in Fresno County, so if you book a $169 room at Harris Ranch, it will actually cost $169.
Why: Because this building begs to be touched.
What: Gleaming, silvery, curvaceous Walt Disney Concert Hall stands along Grand Avenue, the cultural corridor at the edge of downtown L.A.'s government quarter. When Frank Gehry's hall was going up, some local highbrows scoffed that it would be a secondhand landmark; the architect had already unveiled a similarly sheathed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. But since the L.A. venue's 2003 opening, Southern California has embraced Disney Hall in a big way. Up close, you can see yourself in it.
If you can catch the L.A. Philharmonic or another performer from one of the 2,265 seats here, do it. (Be prepared for great sightlines but scant leg room.)
Or you could just do a free, self-guided hourlong audio tour of the building's exterior. Start in the lobby and don't expect to see the interior of the hall. (It stays busy with rehearsals). Most days, somebody hands out headsets between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Or you could just prowl around outside.
And remember, there's a lot more music next door in the Music Center (a.k.a. the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles), which is home to the Center Theater Group , L.A. Opera and many a dance and touring production.
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., in downtown Los Angeles.
How much : L.A. Philharmonic concert tickets cost $20 -$220.
Info : Walt Disney Concert Hall
Why : It has 109 rooms, no two alike; a preponderance of pink (because the owner loves the color); and a long history of satisfying newlyweds. If you spell kitsch with a capital K, this is your place. On Valentine's Day? Even better.
What: The Madonna Inn, a family operation since its opening in 1958, has always been an irresistible hot pink mess. Maybe you've heard of its splashes of pink paint high and low, or the waterfall in its men’s room, or the plastic flowers in the dining room, or its thematically customized guest rooms, which feature zebra-pattern carpets, poppy wallpaper, merry-go-round, etc.
Lately, the place has been getting horsier and the decor perhaps a tad more restrained. These are alarming signs.
But the overall effect is still unique. Roadside design expert John Margolies called the inn “the grandest motel of them all ... light-years removed from the almost scientific sameness of the larger franchised chains.”
Amen. In the last decade, the inn has added a pool, spa, daily horseback rides, pink tennis courts and a bike trail that connects to downtown.
As wacky as the place may seem, it's also eminently practical for long-distance drivers: It's almost precisely halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Where: 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, 208 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Rooms for two typically start at $209.
Info: Madonna Inn
Why : Because these critters, like creationism and evolution, demand closer inspection.
What: In Cabazon, on the road to Palm Springs, a pair of massive dinosaurs lurks by Interstate 10, eager to lure children. Rex and Dinny are their names.
If you're tight on money, just admire them from the parking lot. If the kids insist on a close encounter, pay the admission fee and they can clamber up inside a dinosaur's neck and look out at the world through his teeth (as Pee-wee Herman did in the 1985 film "Pee-wee's Big Adventure").
But that's not all. Management of this roadside attraction is eager to promote creationism (hence the slogan "By design, not chance") so in the gift shop you may find children's books written along those lines.
Now's the time to debate: Did these creatures evolve millions of years ago? Were they created thousands of years ago? Or did a restaurateur named Claude Bell put them together in the 1970s and '80s from leftover freeway materials?
Where: 50770 Seminole Drive, Cabazon, 91 miles east of downtown L.A.
How much : Adult admission, $10. Children, $9.
Info: Cabazon dinosaurs
Why: You'll sit down at a long, loud table with dozens of strangers, eat whatever the chef is cooking, drink from unlabeled wine bottles (and maybe pour a little red into your vanilla ice cream dessert, as is the house custom). By meal's end, you'll be surrounded by new friends. Your belly with be very, very full. And you might know a little more about Basques and the West.
What: There are several Basque restaurants along the train tracks in eastern Bakersfield, a legacy of the years when Basques owned and worked sheep ranches in California, Nevada and Idaho , clinging to their memories and native cuisine from the Pyrenees mountains along the border of France and Spain.
Noriega Hotel Restaurant — Noriega's, the locals say — goes back to 1893, and still has a boarding house next door. (On my last visit in January, there was a B from the Kern County Public Health Services displayed in a barred window.) The kitchen serves three meals a day, and dinner, at 7 p.m. sharp, is the big attraction. You take a seat at a long table, greet your new neighbors and prepare for an onslaught of plates.
On Thursdays, you get garlic fried chicken and spare ribs. On Fridays, an omelette or beef stew and leg of lamb. On Saturdays, oxtail stew and fried chicken. Every night but Monday (when they close), the side dishes include pickled tongue, cottage cheese, a little spaghetti and blue cheese. Good food. Great quantities. Reservations recommended.
Where: 525 Sumner St., Bakersfield, 114 miles north of downtown L.A.
How much: Adult dinner, $24. Lunch, $18.
Info: Noriega Hotel Restaurant
Why: Is it the onions? The beef? The thrill of waiting in line among the wayward beach people of Ocean Beach in San Diego? It's impossible to say. But Hodad's, born in 1969, has won a reputation as a classic burger joint, a block from the beach.
What: The walls are covered with license plates.The best table is a truncated surfer van. The people-watching on Newport Avenue will be a revelation to anybody who thinks San Diego, with all its military and Republican history, has no scruffy lefties.
To avoid waiting in line, get there a few minutes before the 11 a.m. opening time. Or go to one of the restaurant's newer locations: one downtown, and one in Petco Park, where the Padres play.
By the way, as the beach culture authorities at Merriam-Webster note, a hodad is "a non-surfer who frequents surfing beaches and pretends to be a surfer."
Where: 5100 Newport Ave., San Diego, 123 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
How much: Double cheeseburger with fries, $10.75.
Why: Because he changed the way California's farmers and farmworkers live.
What : In the busiest days of his battles to gain rights for farmworkers in California's Central Valley, United Farm Workers leader César E. Chávez used to strategize with trusted aides in the hamlet of Keene.
All these years later, Chávez (1927-1993) is buried at the site, which is part of the César E. Chávez National Monument . And if you're picturing a forlorn, dusty spot in the middle of a big, flat valley, think again.
To reach the compound (north of Tehachapi and south of Bakersfield), you twist and turn on a two-lane backroad (including Highway 58, then Woodford-Tehachapi Road) through Tehachapi foothills studded with oak and peppered with brush. It's about 11 miles northwest of the pleasant town of Tehachapi -- where it wouldn't hurt to stop for a stroll and a snack at Kohnen's Authentic German Bakery -- and 31 miles east of Bakersfield.
Besides the grave, the site includes a memorial rose garden, exhibition rooms (lots of black-and-white pictures of strikes, marches and demonstrations in the 1970s), a modest bookstore and Chávez's office, preserved largely as it was when he was crusading against often-brutal conditions in the fields. The work of Chávez and his allies led to passage of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first law in the U.S. that recognized farmworkers' collective bargaining rights.
Where: 29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road, Keene, 126 miles north of downtown L.A.
How much: Free.
Why: Who hasn't wondered how it feels to stand on the deck of an aircraft carrier?
What : The Midway, a retired aircraft carrier, now rests at the San Diego downtown waterfront, offering a close look at Navy history. This was the longest-serving U.S. aircraft carrier of the 20th century, with 47 years . Between September 1945 and 1992, the ship was home to more than 200,000 sailors. In 2004, it opened as a floating museum.
More than 20 aircraft are arrayed on the flight deck, many with accessible cockpits. See that big number 41 painted on the side of the ship? That's because this was the 41st aircraft carrier built in Navy history.
On lower decks, you'll find flight simulators, roving docents, historical exhibits and vintage hardware.
Ashore, a few steps from the ship, you'll find “Unconditional Surrender,” a 25-foot-tall sculpture by Seward Johnson inspired by the spontaneous embraces that accompanied the news of World War II's end in 1945.
Now, as you stand between the ship and the sculpture, consider this: In 1940, before World War II sparked growth of the Navy here and the Navy sparked growth of the city, San Diego's population was a little more than 200,000. Now the city's population is near 1.4 million, and economists estimate that the military amounts to a fifth of San Diego's economy.
Where: 910 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego, 121 miles south of downtown L.A.
How much: Adult admission, $20. Retired military (with ID), $10. Children (ages 6-12), $10.
Info: Midway Museum
Why: Because where else can you do water sports on a sunken sea in the middle of a desert?
What: It’s serene yet a bit surreal to paddle onto this huge, accidental lake in the desert south of Indio and drink in the vistas of choppy blue water, agricultural fields, dried-up earth and cloud-studded sky, all ringed by the Chocolate and Santa Rosa mountains. The lake, created in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed a canal and flooded into the Coachella Valley for 18 months, is more than 30 miles long with about 115 miles of shoreline, all more than 200 feet below sea level.
Although some dismiss the Salton Sea as a desolate, abandoned wasteland with too many environmental issues to count, as you kayak almost alone on this wide-open water -- staring at stately brown pelicans and scolded by the chattering gulls -- you’ll be reminded that this place is very much alive.
And yup, the water is really salty to the taste (much more saline than the ocean).
Rent a single or tandem kayak (excepting summer months) at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area’s (small) camp store near the lake's north end. Mornings are best. Or join in mid-February as a group of sea supporters, Seathletes.org , hosts North Shore Xtreme, a weekend of kayak, outrigger and paddleboard races and family events at the state park site. (The 2017 dates are Feb. 10-12.)
Meanwhile, near the lake's south end, you can see clouds of snow geese and Ross’ geese, strutting great blue heron, diving egrets and preening sandhill cranes on one morning at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The sea and marshlands host hundreds of migrating species. Bonus: friendly fellow bird-watchers, often Audubon Society members, were happy to help me with identification.
Where: You’ll find kayaks for rent at the Varner Harbor Camp Store at Salton Sea State Recreational Area near Mecca, 152 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
And there are bird blinds and self-guided paths for bird-watching at Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge near Calipatria, 195 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
How much: It's $10 an hour for a single kayak with a $7 day-use fee at the state recreation area. There's no charge at the wildlife refuge.
Why: The only time the Winter Olympics ever came to California, they came here.
What: More than a dozen ski resorts dot the mountains around the big, blue lake, including Squaw Valley (host of the 1960 Winter Games, now joined under common ownership with nearby Alpine Meadows , both at the north end of the lake); and Heavenly Mountain Resort (which straddles the Nevada border at the south end of the lake).
Other major players include Kirkwood (to the south; lots of expert runs), Northstar (to the north; has a Ritz-Carlton handy); and Sugar Bowl (to the north; gets more snow and Bay Area people because of its high, westerly location). ( Mt. Rose , on the Nevada side, is known for lots of snow, steep slopes and commanding lake views.)
And then there are the smaller, non-downhill resorts like Sorensen's , a cross-country favorite about 20 minutes south of the lake in Alpine County. Here's more info on resorts north and south of the lake.
Where: The south end of Lake Tahoe is 485 driving miles north of downtown L.A., 187 miles northwest of San Francisco. (Accordingly, Bay Area skiers and boarders often arrive by car, while visitors from Southern California and elsewhere often fly into Reno-Tahoe International Airport .)
How much: Lift ticket costs vary widely, depending on resort and day of the week. One-day adult lift tickets at Northstar (one of the priciest resorts) can reach $140.
Info: Ski Lake Tahoe .
Why: Because sonically, you may be unclean. And the acoustics of this place are amazing.
What: The Integratron , on the fringe of Landers about 20 miles north of Joshua Tree National Park , was supposed to be about time travel, geomagnetism and extraterrestrial life. Its creator, George Van Tassel (1910-1978), said he was influenced by Moses' Tabernacle, the work of Nikola Tesla and a visit from a being from Venus in 1953.
But times change. And ownership changed. And now the Integratron is about sound baths. That is, personal growth, internal harmony and the sort of calm and wonder that emerge when somebody coaxes strange vibrations from a series of tuned crystal bowls in a room full of uncanny resonance. In the middle of the desert.
The all-wood dome is 38 feet tall, 55 feet in diameter. The usual sound bath lasts 60 minutes under the building's distinctive domed roof. No water or disrobing is involved. The Integratron is open by appointment only (no tours) and closed on Tuesdays. (It was also closed for the month of January 2017.)
Scientists, meditators, musicians, corporate thinkers, Huell Howser and Anthony Bourdain have all found their way here. But don't worry. If this isn't your wavelength -- or if amazing acoustics make you thirsty -- Pappy and Harriet's is just down the road.
Where: 2477 Belfield Blvd., Landers, San Bernardino County, 136 miles east of downtown L.A.
How much: Group sound baths (by reservation) are priced at $25 per person on weekdays, $35 on weekends (age 12 and over). A private sound bath (one to four guests, Wednesdays-Fridays.) costs $250. Sorry, no overnights.
Info: The Integratron
Why : A Monarch butterfly is as brilliant and delicate as anything in biology. And at this place in winter, you can see 15,000 of them at a time.
What: The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, just a short stroll from the sandy shore, is an unprepossessing cluster of eucalyptus and cypress trees that may befuddle you at first, especially if it's a cloudy day. Where, you'll wonder, are the butterflies? But look a little more closely at those overhead clumps of dead and dying leaves. They're... not... leaves. They're wings. When the sun comes out, their orange hues blaze. And even if the sun doesn't come out, the docents usually have a telescope or two trained upon the biggest clumps of butterflies, and you'll see scattered monarchs fluttering down to lower branches and the forest floor now and again.
"It's a male," said nine-year docent Peggy Coon one chilly January day, inspecting a butterfly on the ground. "He has two little spots on his lower [hind] wings. Those are pheromone spots."
Where: 400 S. Dolliver St., Pismo Beach, 183 miles northwest of downtown L.A. (That's actually the address of Pismo State Beach's North Beach Campground next door; the monarch grove has no street address.)
How much: Free.
Why: San Francisco's best urban archaeology site also has ocean views and clifftop trails .
What: Lands End is several things at once. There are the ruins of Sutro Baths, which flourished, languished, closed, burned and crumbled, all between the 1890s and the 1990s. (Imagine a 3-acre bathhouse that could hold 10,000 bathers at a time.) Now, the National Park Service has set up a visitor center and Lookout Cafe.
From the baths, hike up the hill to check the view of Ocean Beach from the Cliff House. If the sun is bright, have a look through the Giant Camera . Then, if your wallet is fat or you're getting engaged, dine at the Cliff House . If not, grab chowder at Louis' , a neighborhood stalwart since 1937.
If you still have energy, hike northeast from Lands End on the Coastal Trail, which eventually will yield views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Oh, and see that hotel at Point Lobos and 48th avenues? That's the Seal Rock Inn . It's not fancy, but it's cheaper than the downtown tourist lodgings, and it's where Hunter S. Thompson finished his book "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail."
Where: Lands End Lookout Visitor Center, 680 Point Lobos Ave., San Francisco city and county, 387 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Free.
Info : Lands End
Why : Because this is California's foremost known repository of used gum.
What: Bubblegum Alley is found just off Higuera Street (the main commercial drag of San Luis Obispo) on the 700 block between Garden and Broad streets. It's the sort of unsanitary whimsy you might expect from a college town: a narrow alley whose tall brick walls are bedecked, festooned, clad and ennobled by the steady accumulation of gum that's already been chewed.
This has gone on for decades, evolving from a lingering prank into a full-fledged civic landmark and guidebook highlight despite the fact that it disgusts a substantial part of the population. There's a similar wall in Seattle's Pike Place Market -- where a recent clean-up immediately gave way to renewed gum accumulation -- but there are no known rivals in California.
Feel free to pitch in. Or browse thoughtfully as if assessing an early Picasso. Or just give the alley a dismissive glance look on your way into Higuera Street attraction like the Blast 825 Taproom or Mother's Tavern or the Frog & Peach Pub or SLO Brew ... you get the idea.
Where: Near 735 Higuera St., between Ambiance boutique and Blast 825 Taproom. San Luis Obispo city and county, 192 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Free. Unless you buy gum to contribute.
Why: You’ve seen it from the blimp. Now see it up close, with a three-mile stroll around this lovely landmark and the lush public golf course next door. In a rush? You can drive it as well.
What : Sports Illustrated once dubbed the Rose Bowl the No. 1 venue in college sports, and the 94-year-old stadium has hosted several Super Bowls as well. But whether you’re a sports fan or not, you’ll appreciate this setting.
Go in the late afternoon, when the setting sun gives the San Gabriels a rosy glow, then stop for dinner or a drink on the patio of Brookside Restaurant (park for free in the course lot, or in nearby stadium lot D). Locals use this route around the stadium as their free health club, for biking and hiking. Stadium tours take place the last Friday of the month.
Where: 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena, 12 miles east of downtown L.A.
How much: Walks are free; stadium tours cost $17.50.
Info : For tour reservations, contact the Rose Bowl .
Why: Because your mission is to boldly go where William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy have gone before.
What: The jagged and otherworldly forms of Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park , a 932-acre geological oddity in northeastern L.A. County, have been attracting film crews for nearly a century, including the markers of the vintage TV series "The Lone Ranger" (1949-1957). But no film or TV property can match the "Star Trek" franchise's faithfulness.
In a beloved episode called "Arena," Captain Kirk battled an overgrown lizard called a Gorn amid these red rocks. In the "Friday's Child" episode, these rocks represented the planet Capella IV. In the "Shore Leave" episode, the rocks stand in for planet Omicron Delta, where Kirk is again called upon to do battle. The list goes on.
In fact, the entertainment reference site IMDB lists more than 350 productions that have shot at the rocks, including the films "Austin Powers," "Blazing Saddles," "Frankenstein" (the 1931 Boris Karloff version) and "Dracula" (the 1931 Bela Lugosi version) and the TV shows "Maverick," "Kung Fu" and "The Big Bang Theory."
All this action follows an equally lively pre-Hollywood history: In the 1870s, a notorious bandit named Tiburcio Vásquez used to hide out here to avoid the law.
Where: 10700 W. Escondido Canyon Road, Agua Dulce, Los Angeles County, 43 miles north of downtown L.A.
How much: Free.
Why : Because this neighborhood's ups and downs since the 1960s have not only reshaped San Francisco but also American attitudes.
What: Catch the F Line & Wharves streetcar up Market Street to San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, a.k.a. LGBTQ HQ. Lively, irreverent and affluent, it's the most famous and historically important gay neighborhood in the West.
Take a few steps down Castro and you'll see the fancy facades of the Castro Theatre , a throwback movie palace that dates to 1922. It's still busy with shows and sing-along movies and such.
Learn about the rise and 1978 assassination of gay activist and county supervisor Harvey Milk; the toll of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and more at the GLBT History Museum , 4127 18th St.
Oh, and if you really are tallying rainbow flags , you'll have to decide whether to count those multicolored crosswalks or not.
Where: Castro and Market streets, San Francisco city and county, 384 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: One-way fare on a streetcar costs $2.50. GLBT History Museum adult admission is $5.
Info : GLBT History Museum