Why: These are the best Amtrak miles in California.
What: Yes, Amtrak can take you all the way from San Diego to Seattle on its Coast Starlight route. But it's between San Luis Obispo and San Diego that most of the coastline happens. The Pacific Surfliner route takes about nine hours if you stay aboard the whole way, but you might want to pick a shorter portion of the trip, focusing on, say, the rugged beaches of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, or the upscale shoreline in southern Orange and northern San Diego counties. (Near downtown L.A. you'll get a dose of heavy industry and a river encased in concrete.)
The stations are part of the thrill too. The mustard-hued Santa Barbara station along State Street is a handsome piece of Spanish Colonial architecture that was well-restored several years ago. L.A.'s Union Station is a marvelous collision of Spanish Colonial and Art Deco. Since 2014, Anaheim has sported a station that's all glinting metal and provocative curves. The San Juan Capistrano station is splendidly mission-adjacent. And one day, management of San Diego's Santa Fe station will realize it's time to spiff up the awkward, faded interior to match its grand old Mission Revival exterior.
Why: It was in the played-out boomtown of Angels Camp that a bartender told young Samuel Clemens the tale that became his first nationally acclaimed story -- "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," written under the pen name Mark Twain.
What: Twain retold his frog story -- which today might strike you as a juvenile account of cruelty to animals -- back in the 1860s, a decade after the peak of the Gold Rush. The town of Angels Camp, still sleepy and surrounded by hills that turn a gorgeous green in spring, stages a frog-jumping contest during the county fair every spring -- in 2018, May 17-20.
No matter when you turn up, you can catch up on past results by reading the sidewalk plaques of the Frog Hop of Fame along Main Street. You can also see the building site and mural at Main Street and Birds Way where Twain heard the story; and Jackass Hill outside town, where the author started writing it. (This year's Mark Twain Wild West Fest, a daylong community party, is set for Oct. 21.)
Why: This is the ultimate day hike — not just in Yosemite, but in all of California. The grueling trek to Half Dome is stunning from start to end: Along the way, you'll pass rushing waterfalls, towering granite cliff faces and quiet wooded dells, and possibly spot the occasional black bear. All of that culminates in a nail-biting final ascent up 400 feet of metal cables, a harrowing endeavor that will challenge your arm strength, endurance and nerves.
What: There are two main ways to summit Half Dome: the Mist Trail (14 miles round trip) or the John Muir Trail (16 miles round trip). When I did the hike last June, the plan was to go up the Mist Trail and down the JMT, but after hours of hiking, the thought of tacking on additional mileage — even if it was less steep — became less appealing.
Either way, you're looking at a gnarly 4,800 feet of elevation gain. For most hikers, the round trip takes 10 to 12 hours.
Why: Everyone needs a pit stop or two along Highway 395, the often-drab drive from L.A. to the Eastern Sierra. Could be a beef jerky joint or a tackle shop. My latest favorite is Frosty Chalet, a slice-of-life fast food stop in Lone Pine featuring some of the best milkshakes in the Owens Valley.
What: The charming, family-friendly Frosty Chalet has had a life. Born in the late '40s, with timber reportedly salvaged from a train depot, it was saved from ruin fairly recently after being dormant for eight years.
“It’s a nice old piece of Americana.”
Repurchased five years ago by Freddie Brown, who’d owned it previously with her late husband, it is now run by her son, Fred, and his wife, Jaynie. “It’s a nice old piece of Americana,” said Fred Brown.
Why: Admit it-- you're a little curious about Sir Paul McCartney's chimney, or Justin Timberlake's hilltop or just which L.A. houses Justin Bieber has been obliged to vacate. Since its founding by Sid Grauman's chauffeur in 1935, Starline Tours has traded on our curiosity about these places.
What: Bud Delp (Grauman's chauffeur) built the tour company, then sold it in the 1960s to protege Vahid Sapir, who had come to the U.S. as an exchange student from Iran. These days Sapir's Starline competes with many other tour companies (including Gray Line and TMZ) and covers many itineraries beyond stalking the stars' homes, but it was the first of its species.
Sign on to the two-hour celebrity home tour and before your minivan has finished climbing Outpost Drive into the Hollywood Hills, you'll have gawked at the front-gate gargoyles of the late Bela Lugosi, glimpsed properties attributed to Bob Barker; William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman; and heard all about the "Bling Ring" thieves who stole Orlando Bloom's Rolex collection in 2009.
Why: There must be thousands of California Mexican restaurants where mariachi musicians roam the tables. But only at La Fonda are they in charge.
What: From 1969 until 2007, La Fonda served as headquarters to Nati Cano and Los Camperos, an esteemed mariachi group that collaborated on Linda Ronstadt's 1987 album "Canciones de mi Padre." Then the restaurant closed. And Cano died.
But in 2016 the restaurant reopened in its original location -- a two-level Spanish Colonial space on Wilshire Boulevard near MacArthur Park -- offering dinner shows directed by longtime Campero Jesus "Chuy" Guzman. The musicians (who won a 2008 Grammy for Mexican regional music) do two hourlong shows nightly, Thursday through Sunday.
Why: It's the shortest, steepest train trip you'll ever take.
What: Angels Flight is a railroad in downtown Los Angeles with two orange cars and a 298-foot route. The cars climb at a 33% grade (steeper than Lombard Street in San Francisco) from the bottom of Bunker Hill to the top. And the railway dates to 1901, when Bunker Hill was a neighborhood of Victorian houses, not skyscrapers.
Over the last 116 years, the railway has failed at least twice, moved once, spent years out of commission, yet somehow always reopened -- most recently on Aug. 31, 2017, drawing healthy crowds despite beastly heat. Now it's well positioned to capitalize on the surging popularity of the Grand Central Market just across Hill Street, not to mention the urban views from the uphill end, next to the fountains of California Plaza.
Why: The palm-shaded, Paramount-adjacent Hollywood Forever Cemetery combines film screenings and other cagey programming with a long roster of show-business gravesites.
What: Cecil B. DeMille, Judy Garland, Jayne Mansfield, Johnny Ramone and Rudolph Valentino repose here and so can you, on a more temporary basis. On selected weekend nights every summer, Cinespia screens cult and classic movies on the Fairbanks Lawn, a grave-free corner of the 62-acre cemetery.
Audiences spread blankets, picnic, buy popcorn and candy and groove to a pre-movie DJ. (Before the Aug. 26 showing of "Ghost World" (2001), director Terry Zwigoff and actors Thora Birch and Illeana Douglas turned up to offer greetings.)
Why: One of the darkest eras in U.S. history stands as a potent reminder that daylight will come again.
What: A $15-million redesign in 2016 brought more than five dozen new exhibits to the 9-acre Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, presenting a fuller picture of the man who won election in 1968, negotiated U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, established the Environmental Protection Agency, opened China to the Western world, then became the only U.S. president to resign.
Visitors now can eavesdrop on White House recordings that round out the portrait of Richard Nixon (1913-1994) as a human being. In a 1973 phone call, daughter Julie asks her father whether they can dine at Trader Vic’s and he says yes but that she should also check with Mommy and sister Tricia. Julie Nixon Eisenhower would have been 24 at the time.