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368 posts
  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because California was selling fantasies long before Hollywood got started

What: Old Town San Diego, one of the busiest state parks in California, was the heart of the city when Mexico ruled California from the 1820s through the 1840s. Now the park and neighboring streets are home to folkloric dancers, costumed docents, rebuilt landmarks, stylish shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, a boutique hotel -- far more commercial vitality than is found in your typical state historic park. Drink it all in (including one of those enormous margaritas at the courtyard restaurant Casa de Reyes, if you dare).

And don't miss the Casa de Estudillo. This adobe built in 1827 has been restored as a landmark. But it' has a second story, too: For decades, beginning in the 1880s, local promoters billed the house as "Ramona's Marriage Place," capitalizing on the title character's epic wedding in Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel "Ramona."

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  • Deserts
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Why: It's a one-stop lesson in desert living, midcentury design and the rise and fall of TV Guide.

What: Sunnylands -- sleek, private and vast -- was the Rancho Mirage winter playground of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, whose wealth came from TV Guide, the Philadelphia Inquirer and many other publications. They were philanthropists and socialites on a global scale. Walter served as an ambassador for Richard Nixon, and Leonore oversaw protocol for Ronald Reagan. Hoping to create a Camp David West, they commissioned architect A. Quincy Jones and built the estate on 200 acres in the Coachella Valley in 1966.

In 2012, after their deaths, the Annenberg Foundation opened parts of Sunnylands to public visits.

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  • High Sierra
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Log lodge, lakeside locale, stone fireplace, long history. 

What: Tamarack Lodge was built in 1924 and feels that way. It's a lakefront log cabin with a 10-table gourmet restaurant (The Lakefront), 11 guest rooms and about three-dozen guest cabins scattered nearby.

One of the oldest continuously operated lodges in Mammoth Lakes, it serves as cross-country skiing headquarters for the area. And after a day of downhill skiing or snowboarding (Mammoth Mountain is a mile away), the restaurant makes a great change of pace from the louder nightlife in the village, 2 1/2  miles away. Big stone fireplace. Knotty pine paneling. In summer, there's fishing and kayaking on Twin Lakes.

  • Family-friendly
  • Deserts
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Where else are you going to travel from the baking desert floor to a snowy mountaintop in 10 minutes?

What: Plenty of crazy schemes have been hatched in the blast-furnace heat of the Coachella Valley, yet somehow this one came true. Back in 1935, a man named Francis Crocker proposed a tram ride to connect the Coachella Valley desert floor to the upper slopes of Mt. San Jacinto. Twenty-eight years later, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway opened.

You start at Valley Station, elevation 2,643 feet, having made sure that there's snow up high. You hop on a gondola (they rotate as they climb) and hop off at the Mountain Station (elevation 8,516 feet). There are a couple of restaurants at the top (Peaks is fancy, Pines is a cafeteria), but what you really want to do is romp in the snow.

  • L.A. County
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Pasadena's Gamble House, open for tours Thursdays-Sundays, might be the ultimate California Craftsman house.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

What: Check out the leaded glass of the front door (it forms an oak tree), the detailed woodwork at the interior stairs, the dim, becalming feel of its two-story layout.

The Gamble House, designed by brothers Charles and Henry Greene (whose story is also told at the Huntington museum in nearby San Marino),  was built in 1908 for members of one of the families behind Procter & Gamble. Nowadays the city of Pasadena owns it and USC manages it. In fact, USC uses architecture students as live-in caretakers.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Why: No man or woman has shaped California more profoundly than Junípero Serra, now St. Junípero.

What: The pioneering padre who founded the first nine of California's 21 missions in the 18th century and won sainthood in 2015 is buried at the Carmel Mission, which is officially known as San Carlos Borromeo de Carmel Mission.

Walk the basilica, museums and courtyard, still home to an active parish. Check out the reconstruction of the cell where Serra is said to have died in 1784. Pay respects at his cenotaph. Pay further respects in the mission's Indian Cemetery.  

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
"The Flower Vendor (Girl with Lilies)," 1941, by Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886-1957). © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
"The Flower Vendor (Girl with Lilies)," 1941, by Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886-1957). © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (Norton Simon Museum,)

Why: For a small museum, the Norton Simon packs in a lot of great art, including a bunch of Impressionists and the Mexican master Diego Rivera.

What: The Norton Simon Museum's European and Asian collections usually get most of the attention, especially the Impressionists. But don't overlook Rivera's "The Flower Vendor," an iconic 1941 oil painting of a girl with her arms around a big batch of lilies. (Actor Cary Grant gave it to the museum in 1980.)

Get a good look at the girl and her lilies, then head outside to the sculpture garden, where the lilies are real. In fact, the plantings and reflecting pool have been designed to echo France's Giverny gardens that inspired many of Claude Monet's works.

  • Deserts
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because outside of "Lawrence of Arabia," you don't see scenery like this too often.

What: The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the place to be for sunrise in Death Valley. If you camp or sleep at the hotel at Stovepipe Wells, you can get up just before dawn, rush out, scramble up a dune and watch the world come to life. 

Where: Off California Highway 190, 2 miles east of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, Inyo County, 250 miles northeast of downtown L.A.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because this is the damp, wooden heart of the California Riviera.

What: Stearns Wharf dates back to the 1870s and gives you a wide view of prosperous Santa Barbara. The palm-shaded homes of the rich and famous climb the hills. The college students scuffle among the bars on State Street. The gulls wheel overhead. And you stand over the ocean, choosing among various restaurants, shops and others.

The wharf includes Madame Rosinka (a palm reader whose business license is said to date to 1951) and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, which includes many hands-on exhibits, among them a "shark touch tank."

  • Orange County
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This is probably the best-known body-surfing beach in the U.S.

What: The Wedge awaits at the east end of Newport Beach's Balboa Peninsula. If you're bold, hop in. If you're prudent, sit back a while first and watch the carnage.

The Wedge's abrupt break produces powerful waves that close out quickly, sometimes enriching body surfers' lives, sometimes standing them on their heads. Also, the backwash between waves is unusually strong.