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Add the Interstate 5 drive known as the Grapevine" to your California bucket list.
Add the Interstate 5 drive known as the Grapevine" to your California bucket list. (Christopher Reynolds)

Why: Sometimes it's beautiful, especially when it's spring and the Tehachapi mountain slopes are green and the wildflowers are going off. But even when it's boiling hot and the grass is brown, this portion of Interstate 5 is vital. It holds the state together, joining star-crazy, left-leaning Southern California and the farm-rich, right-leaning San Joaquin Valley.

What: Without Interstate 5 to bind them, SoCal (especially Los Angeles County) and the Central Valley (especially Kern County) might not even be speaking to each other. But this mountain passage is a necessary part of just about any north-south road trip in which speed is crucial. (If you can afford to dawdle, you're probably over on U.S. Route  101, if not the Pacific Coast Highway.)

It tops out at Tejon Pass, about 4,100 feet above sea level. When it snows up there, Caltrans sometimes shuts down the freeway. But even without snow, the driving is demanding. Of an estimated 70,000 vehicles roaring through daily, Caltrans says about 1 in 4 is a commercial truck. The mountain passage followed other routes before Caltrans built this alignment (and widened the route to as many as eight lanes) in 1970.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Valley
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

Why: California condors could be the poster vultures for how to turn around an endangered species. And the most reliable place to get a close-up view is by standing beneath Y-89 at the Guy L. Goodwin Education Center at Carrizo Plain National Monument. Where's that? In the outback grasslands and dried-out lake bed of eastern San Luis Obispo County.

What: The largest birds in North America, with wingspans up to 10 feet, these condors nearly slipped into oblivion around 1983, when just 22 birds were left in the wild. Scientists took a gamble by taking them into captivity and embarking on an ambitious breeding program. It paid off. Now more than 230 fly free in California, Arizona and Utah, and others remain in captivity. 

Y-89 was born at the Los Angeles Zoo, released into the wild in 1993 and died less than a year later when he collided with a power line. You can imagine how this behemoth must have dominated the skies when you walk beneath the outstretched wings and massively long feathers. 

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  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Everybody loves a county fair. And lately, this one is the best-attended fair in California, surpassing even the state fair in Sacramento. The nearby beach might be a factor.

What: The 2017 San Diego County Fair runs June 2  to July 4 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It's closed on Mondays, except for July 3; and closed on Tuesdays, except for June 27 and July 4.

In 2016, the fair drew 1.6 million visitors with its performers, competitions, exhibits, midway attractions, fried food, salted food, sugary food and other time-honored fair fare. (But don't expect a beauty contest. The fair abandoned that in 2004, 46 years after its 1958 "Fairest of the Fair" award went to high school senior Raquel Tejada, later known as Raquel Welch.)

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: From the foggy bridge near the entrance to the weird mirrors inside, the Exploratorium combines essentials of science with the thrills of a carnival midway.

What: Many cities have museums aimed at kids, or museums aimed at science. But the Exploratorium, born in 1969 and moved to the Embarcadero in 2013, is in its own category. (As it should be, given the prices.) It's got more than 600 hands-on exhibits, along with artworks like Fujiko Nakaya's 150-foot-long Fog Bridge, which was de-activiated during the worst of the drought but is misting again now.  Beyond the wonders within, its Pier 15 location makes it a natural stop if you're strolling between Fisherman's Wharf and the Ferry Building, or if you've just stepped off a cruise ship at Pier 27.

Fun fact: The Exploratorium's founder, physicist, professor and cattle-rancher Frank Oppenheimer (who died in 1985), is the brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. 

  • Family-friendly
  • High Sierra
A long-exposure view of Half Dome from Glacier Point as stars appear.
A long-exposure view of Half Dome from Glacier Point as stars appear. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: From Glacier Point, you have unparalleled views of Half Dome (about 1,600 feet above) and Yosemite Valley (3,200 feet below).

What: Glacier Point, 7,214 feet above sea level and only accessible in warmer months, feels like the roof of the Earth. It's just under a mile from the parking lot to the cliff's edge.

(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Though there's often a crowd jostling for position when the light is right at the prime spots, there's plenty of room for picnics. If you bring dinner (and a few layers of clothes) you can watch the stars come out. If you want to dodge crowds and enjoy a less familiar view, head a mile south (on Glacier Point Road) to Washburn Point.

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  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)


Why: Unplugged music has a happy history here. 

What: Founded in 1968 when psychedelic rock seemed to be taking over the world, "the Freight" has long stood for quality traditional music. Acts come from all corners of the world (Iraqi oud music, anyone?), but American folk (David Grisman on mandolin, Mark O'Connor on fiddle, Greg Brown on guitar and vocals, Tony Trischka on banjo, et al.) is the most common sound. The coffee house, relocated and greatly expanded from its original digs, stands three blocks west of the Berkeley campus. It operates as a nonprofit, offering blues and bluegrass jam sessions, workshops and one of the oldest open-mic nights in the Bay Area.

Where: 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, 375 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
The 308 steps.
The 308 steps. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Why: It's not just the view (although if you get a blue-sky day, you'll never forget that long northerly march of breakers and rugged coast into near-infinity). It's also the sense of isolation and the challenge of hiking down 308 steps, and then up again, while a fierce wind tugs at your arms and legs.  

What: The Point Reyes Lighthouse, which is often foggy when it's not windy, has stood since 1870 at the end of Point Reyes Headlands. It feels like the end of North America. 

These days it's busiest in whale-watching season, from late December through mid-April. Sometimes, park rangers restrict car traffic, so you may need to board a shuttle. Before you reach the visitor center, the observation deck and steps, it's a hike of about half a mile from the small parking lot. Wear layers. (When the wind hits 40 mph, rangers close the steps and lighthouse.)

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
The view from Battery Spencer, Conzelman Road.
The view from Battery Spencer, Conzelman Road. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This road, accessible from Highway 101 just after you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, is only about 5 miles long. But it delivers to you a perspective you can't get anywhere else.

What: Conzelman Road, beloved equally by road cyclists and photographers, climbs into the Marin Headlands. It can take you to at least three great places. One is Battery Spencer, an old military gun placement built in the 19th century to protect the entry to San Francisco Bay. From there you get unparalleled views of the bridge with the city behind it —  especially at dusk.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Another highlight, farther up the road, is Hawk Hill, a viewpoint near the top of the headlands that's a favorite with bird-watchers and whale-watchers. And then near the road's end is the Point Bonita Lighthouse (built in 1855, open Saturday, Sunday and Mondays afternoons), clinging to a wave-lashed seacliff. All three spots require some walking, but all the paths are less than a mile.

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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
The SkySlide.
The SkySlide. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Its nearly 1,000-foot-high observation deck gives you one of the most jaw-dropping views in Los Angeles.

What: In June 2016, OUE Skyspace LA opened its doors to the public, offering California’s tallest open-air observation deck. It sits atop US Bank Tower, now the second tallest building in Los Angeles. Besides the views outdoors (especially after dark), the attraction offers several striking visual effects, including wide-screen, time-lapse videos of the city and a floor monitor that seems to show a kaleidoscopic view down a virtual elevator shaft. 

Thrill-seekers will also be eager to try SkySlide, a glass slide that offers a one-of-a-kind, 45-foot-long ride from the 70th floor down to the 69th. It takes less than 10 seconds.

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Green expanses, games, Golden Gate views, revived historic buildings, all sorts of food trucks.

What: The Presidio covers about 1,500 grassy and woodsy acres near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. On Sundays from mid-March through October, a group called Off the Grid stages a family-friendly Presidio Picnic on the old parade grounds, drawing hundreds or thousands of people with dozens of food trucks, games, arts and crafts from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Thursday nights (roughly April through October), Twilight at the Presidio offers a similar set-up with a pop-up bar, cabanas, temporary fire pits and live music.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Since the Army handed over the property to the National Park Service, the Presidio Trust and the Golden Gate National Parks conservancy in 1994, recreation options have been multiplying. While you're in the Presidio, you could check out the visitor center (opened in early 2017) or the old Officers' Club, now filled with exhibits on the site's history since Spanish soldiers set up shop here in the late 18th century.