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  • S.F. Bay Area
The Golden Spike, a.k.a. the Last Spike.
The Golden Spike, a.k.a. the Last Spike. (Cantor Arts Center / Stanford University)

Why: This is the spike that commemorates completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, insuring a prosperous future for California and knitting the U.S. together in a new way after the carnage of the Civil War.

What: Railroad magnate Leland Stanford is said to have driven this symbolic spike at Utah's Promontory Summit (not Promontory Point, the National Park Service insists) on May 10, 1869. That act connected the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad with those of the Union Pacific Railroad, easing westward migration and cross-country commerce.

Once the ceremony was done, somebody dug up the spike and rushed it back to California, where Stanford opened his university in 1891. (This spike is sometimes called the Last Spike. A second copy that's just as old, sometimes known as the Lost Spike, is on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.)

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  • L.A. County
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Why: The Magic Castle is the worst kept secret in Hollywood -- a private club in a tricked-out house that's devoted to magic. And if you really want to get in, it's not that hard.

What: The castle, clubhouse of the Academy of Magical Arts, was built as a private home in 1908. But by the time it opened as a magic haven in 1963, it had undergone a thorough transformation to make it fit for tricks and performances. Since then, it has survived waxing and waning popularity, not to mention a fire in 2011. (The flames flare on the night of Halloween.) Roam room to room and you encounter all manner of deceptions and marvels. Card tricks. Seances. Sleight of hand. Secret passages. And a fancy dinner.

In theory, to attend you must be invited or accompanied by a member of the Academy of Magical Arts. In practice, there are at least two pretty easy ways in. It's not so hard (though the admission charge and dinner and drinks usually add up to a pricey night). If you spend a night at the adjacent Magic Castle Hotel & Suites, you're entitled to go to the club. Or you can email one of the magicians soon to appear and ask for an invite. (More ideas here.) 

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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Where else are you going to see 200 wolf jaws, the long, curved teeth of a snarling saber-toothed cat and the skeleton of a mastodon — all on the property where they were found?

What: It was 1875 when the Hancock family presented an old cat's tooth, found on their property, to a visiting academic named William Denton. In the years since Denton realized he had something special on his hands, scientists have found that the tar pits hold animal remains dating back 11,000 years. 

More than 600 species of animals and plants — bison, camel, sloth and smilodon included — have been recovered and identified since excavations began in 1901.

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

Why: Smashing waves, hanging fog, beguiling rocks, sea creatures, birds, birders, hikers, painters, photographers and haunting trees -- all flourish here. And the Old Veteran might be the most haunting tree of all.

What: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, three miles south of Carmel, covers just under 400 acres. Within a few years of the Gold Rush of 1849, dozens of Chinese immigrant fishing families arrived to gather abalone, urchin and other species. Whalers made this a base camp. Japanese and Portuguese immigrants too. 

An abalone cannery operated until 1928. And believe it or not, there was also coal mining nearby. But since 1933, it's been a state-owned reserve. 

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because even if the trees are sort of homely, they are rare. And coastal views they frame are rugged and spectacular.

What: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve covers 2,000 raw acres just north of La Jolla. Unless you've been here or the adjacent Torrey Pines State Beach, you're probably never seen a Torrey pine.

It's the world's rarest pine tree. I'm not saying they look great. In fact, they look kind of bedraggled, but there's something special about these sandstone cliffs, the panorama of the Pacific, and the way a sunset turns the trees and hikers into clifftop silhouettes.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
Morro Rock in the early morning.
Morro Rock in the early morning. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Morro Rock looms lovably over Morro Bay. Usually it's a dark landmark in a sunny landscape. But not at sunrise.

What: More than 570 feet tall and 23 million years old, the rock is one of nine sisters -- nine volcanic peaks in San Luis Obispo County. Some can be climbed for nice views (including Black Hill and Cerro Cabrillo in Morro Bay State Park) -- but not this sister. You can't even walk all the way around her.  

Admire this great, rounded rock, preferably at dawn, from the nearby Morro Bay embarcadero. Or the beach. Or the dunes. Or a kayak. 

(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)
Upstairs, City Lights
Upstairs, City Lights (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles)

Why: This is the Beat haven that brought us Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1956) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island" (1958), both poetry classics.

Ferlinghetti — whose 99th birthday is March 24, 2018 — is the guy who co-founded the City Lights bookshop in 1953, later took it all over, built City Lights as a publisher and kept the whole enterprise stark-raving solvent through the decades.

What: Ferlinghetti has built a literary destination with as much soul as North Beach has pasta. Plenty of people love Ferlinghetti for that, but not that many have read him. Here's your chance. The poetry room is upstairs. (You can hear him here.)

  • Family-friendly
  • Gold Country
Fourth-graders at Sutter's Fort.
Fourth-graders at Sutter's Fort. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because we forget that California had multiple lives before statehood in 1850. And because we like covered wagons.

What: John Sutter's Fort, built by a Swiss immigrant in 1839 when Mexico still owned California, is now a state historic park, often enlivened by docents and reenactors, almost always occupied by visiting school groups.

The fort is a sort of 19th century island in Midtown Sacramento, with walls more than 15 feet tall and more than 2 feet thick. Its exhibits and docents aim to create the atmosphere of a frontier fort in 1846: a stagecoach, oven, blacksmith shop and so on.

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  • L.A. County
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

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.

Canter's Kibitz Room.
Canter's Kibitz Room. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

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). 

  • Family-friendly
  • North Coast
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

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.