Why: John Bidwell is a classic 19th century California success story, a pioneer, gold-miner, farmer and politician. He founded Chico and left behind the Bidwell Mansion, now a state park.
What: The mansion, a tall, Victorian-Italian wonder completed in 1868, opens for interior tours on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. Just across Big Chico Creek, you can take a spin around the Cal. St. Chico campus (founded in the 1880s) and its handsome brick buildings. (Yes, Playboy named this the nation's hardest-partying school in 1987. Now those 20-year-olds are 50.) Last year Money magazine ranked Chico State the 40th best bargain among the nation's public colleges.
The shops, restaurants and bars of Main Street, Broadway and City Plaza are within a few blocks of the campus, not to mention the National Yo-yo Museum and the artsy SoPo neighborhood (south of the Post Office). The sprawling Bidwell Park -- which follows Big Chico Creek for miles, begins four blocks from the mansion at Camellia Way and Orient Street.
Why: Shasta Lake has about 365 miles of shoreline. That's basically Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, combined and doubled. Since its creation in the 1940s (when Shasta Dam went up), the lake has become a summer haven for houseboats by the hundreds
What: The lake (really a reservoir) has four "arms" that include several marinas. The largest is Bridge Bay (where there's also a bar and restaurant). Another is Holiday Harbor, easily seen to the right as you drive north on Interstate 5. (I didn’t have time to rent a houseboat on my trip there in June, so I tooled around Holiday Harbor on a fishing boat, admiring the bigger boats.) The green water, the red earth along the shoreline, the forested slopes, the mountains that drop almost straightaway into the water -- it's a rare, becalming landscape. And usually quite warm in summer.
Even if you're not ready to rent a houseboat, you can take a dinner cruise, a tour of the Lake Shasta Caverns or a free hourlong tour of the Shasta Dam, the engineering marvel that makes all this possible. (There are six tours a day, seven days a week.) Not an aspiring engineer? No worries. Head over to the dam around sunset, and walk, run or ride a bike across the top. You'll see the vast lake above, a valley below, and a whole bunch of concrete and trickling water in between.
Why: Northern California has waterfalls the way Southern California has beaches. You appreciate different ones for different things. And in the case of McCloud, you get three falls along a trail that's 3.5 to 4 miles round trip, depending on who counts.
What: The Lower Fall and Upper Fall are smallish and calm enough that people often swim in their pools. The Middle Fall is a different animal -- about 50 feet tall and 80 feet across, with lots of water in motion. Still, there are plenty of rocks and fallen trees to scramble on (if you’re bold). Here, the trail steepens and carries up to a high bluff top, from which the Middle Fall looks tiny. But you know better. All three falls are part of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, with a campground and picnic areas nearby. In fact, you could dodge hiking altogether and visit each cascade via the network of roads that connect the river, campgrounds and main highway.
Anglers, take note: The fly-fishing in the nearby McCloud River Preserve is said to be some of the best in California.
Why: The last half-mile of this trail puts you in the sky, basically, with a passel of granite peaks. Or crags, to use the local word.
What: Castle Crags is a vertical place – a roughly 4,000-acre park with just 28 miles of trails, because everything is so rocky and steep. Even if you don’t finish the park’s marquee route, the Crags Trail, you’ll be grateful for coming close. It’s a 5.5-mile round-trip route, beginning with a mile of trudging through forest. Then the views begin and the rocks begin to take over the landscape. And Mt. Shasta pops up. It gets really steep toward the end (you'll gain 2,200 feet of elevation is that 2.75 miles). But the views are so breathtaking that it seems a fair trade.
After you've doubled back to the starting point, give yourself a few more minutes before leaving the park. Near the entrance is a suspension bridge over the Sacramento River. The trail there is flat and shady, and there are picnic tables handy.
Why: The Shasta Cascade region is full of volcanic mountains, green forests and trout-bearing rivers. But this is its defining landmark. Everywhere you turn, there's Mt. Shasta. And it never seems to get old.
What: Mt. Shasta stands 14,179 feet above sea level.Climb it? You could try. But that might take two or three days. There's no well-trod trail to the top, like the one on Mt. Whitney. And the most popular route is called Avalanche Gulch. (I'll pass.) But you can also pay tribute more discreetly.
You could gaze meaningfully in its direction while strolling to dinner in the adjacent and prosperous little city of Mt. Shasta. (try Lilys restaurant). Or you could hike in Castle Crags State Park, which is full of granite-strewn slopes offering northerly views toward Shasta, especially along the park's Crags Trail. There's also the Black Butte Trail, a 5.2-mile round-trip hike that takes you up, up, up a cinder cone just west of Shasta.
Why: This isn't the state's tallest or widest waterfall. But if you haven't confronted it yet, you need to. The way its waters thunder down, it looks like a Greco-Californian temple, with a pair of robust columns framing hundreds of busy rivulets. The flow is about 100 million gallons per day.
What: Burney Falls is about an hour outside Redding, and the approaching path makes the landmark even better. First you confront the falls from above, looking down slightly across a gorge. Then you descend by trail, facing the water as you go. Once you're halfway down, the water seems wider. When you reach the foot, the roar seems far more powerful -- and mist covers everything. You can scramble across rocks to reach the edge of the pool, if you dare. (The winter's storms did force temporary closure of one popular trail; check the park website for trail closure before arrival.)
By the way, you might spot an angler or two near the top of the falls. But be warned: State restrictions ban visitors from approaching within 20 yards above the top of the falls, with greater distances required at the bottom. If you stick to the trails, you'll be fine.
Why: It’s the biggest sundial in California, and you can sort of see through it.
What: Designed by Santiago Calatrava of Spain, this bridge has been a celebrity since the day in opened (July 4, 2004), surrounded by a 300-acre parking along the Sacramento River. The bridge's 217-foot-tall, slanted white pylon (the technical term, I just learned, is gnomon) draws you in, and the glass-and-steel deck makes it semi-translucent. On the morning I crossed the bridge, the place was busy with moms and strollers and dogs and kids and dads and anglers.
Don't count on the bridge as a timekeeping device, though. Local leaders say it doesn't work in winter; in other months, it's basically impossible to read except between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. But it's so attractive that people can't stay away, nor can swallows. (They may be scant in San Juan Capistrano, but they're nesting here.)
Why: Running a river is a signature thrill in California's Gold Country -- a splash of cold water in your face on a 90-degree day. And the South Fork of the American River is a classic place to board a raft for the first time, with evocative scenery and relatively mild Class I-III rapids.
What: River-rafting can be a risky sport, as the many fatalities in the high, fast waters of 2017 have shown. That's why wise newcomers and families sign on for trips with licensed, experienced companies and pull on life vests, helmets and sometimes wetsuits on this usually forgiving fork of the American River.
More skilled paddlers may prefer the riskier Middle and North forks of the American, or the Merced, Tuolumne, Kaweah, California Salmon, Stanislaus or Kern rivers. On the South Fork of the American, most trips are daylong adventures, and many rafting outfitters are clustered in Lotus, a tiny area next to Coloma along the river.
Why: The 15-foot bluffs of Dockweiler State Beach, in the shadow of LAX, are the launch point for beginner hang-gliding lessons, perhaps the coolest sport you've never tried. The lessons are quick, and the sport as intuitive as flying gets. Stepping off a bluff under a hang glider is almost pneumatic, as if compressors are involved.
What: All you really want to know is how difficult it is, and I'd compare hang-gliding to opening an umbrella or smearing a bagel with cream cheese. Essentially, anybody who is fairly active can hang-glide. You're harnessed into this 40-foot training glider, which wants to fly the way beer barrels want to float.
Once you get comfortable, hang-gliding is playful and exhilarating — a spirited and spiritual escape.
Beginner sessions are offered Wednesdays through Sundays, on bluffs 15 to 30 feet high. There is the training, then four to seven flights, of various lengths, and soft landings. It’s not exactly idiot-proof, but the risks are minimal, and the instructors patient and encouraging.
Why: Because you won’t find this in your local dinner theater. This series of comedy skits and wrestling bouts features slightly plump men in leotards and the saucy women who stalk them. The dancers, meanwhile, are like Venn diagrams of what saloon girls used to look like: lots of leg and eyelashes like a rake. No, wait, that girl's a dude.
What:Lucha VaVoom stages a half-dozen L.A. shows each year. Developed 15 years ago by Liz Fairbairn and Rita D'Albert, its hybrid of masked Mexican wrestling, burlesque and campy humor draws raucous twentysomethings as well as middle-aged couples tired of the usual multiplex dreck.
"I thought I'd be a millionaire by now," confesses D'Albert, given the way sold-out audiences respond to the shows in the old Mayan Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.