Top 15 best places to visit in California
There’s no place like home. So explore California like a native. Here’s our checklist of not-so-obvious but oh-so-essential sites. But tell us -- are we nuts? Today, with full expectation of howling dissent and snorts of derision, we present the Travel section’s first California Golden 15. We, your neighbors, do so as the holiday travel season approaches and as distant strangers peddle their compendiums of places you should visit before you die. These are 15 places we think you must visit to grasp the wonder of this state, including Joshua Tree National Park, shown here. This is not California for beginners -- not Disneyland, not Hearst Castle, not the San Diego Zoo, not even Sutter’s Mill. This is the California that speaks to the seasoned native and the thoughtful newcomer, the California that waits beyond the well-explored city limits of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. (Don’t get worked up about the numbers; the list of destinations is random, not by ranking.)
-- Christopher Reynolds(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
This is more than a tavern. Born as a stagecoach stop in the 1880s, the Cold Spring sits in the mountains 10 miles outside Santa Barbara on California 154. Owned by the Ovington family since 1941, the property includes an upscale restaurant (with buffalo, venison and rabbit and other dinner entrees at $21.50 to $31.00); and a rustic bar with a massive stone fireplace at one end. Most Sunday afternoons, the bar and patio fill with blues lovers and bikers (many of them Santa Barbara millionaires in disguise). They gather around the acoustic duo Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, who have played here for more than 15 years. Order a tri-tip sandwich ($9.95) from the oak pit rig around the side. Wash it down with a can of Coors ($3.75) or one of the four California brews on draft ($4.25-$8). Guard your seat. Some summer Sundays, 400 of those tri-tip sandwiches are sold.
Info: The Cold Spring Tavern, (805) 967-0066.
--Christopher Reynolds(Richard Derk / Los Angeles Times)
Grunion runs are a great tradition, made greater by the many nonnatives who suspect the whole thing is a con. To set them straight, head for Coronado Beach, which runs along the near-island’s Ocean Avenue, within 100 yards of the stately old Hotel del Coronado. This will be a moonlight adventure, because the grunion, a 5-inch-long, blue-green-silver fish found from Baja California north to Santa Barbara, run only at night, at high tide, two to six nights after new and full moons, between March and September. (The state Department of Fish and Game predicts run dates online.) Once ashore, these thousands of grunion lay and bury millions of eggs in the sand. (The eggs wash back out to sea and hatch a few weeks later.) The grunion are edible, but if you want to grab any, you’ll need a fishing license. It’s easier to check out the free show at Coronado Beach (or Silver Strand State Park, four miles south), then repair to the Hotel Del’s Babcock & Story Bar for a nightcap. It’s open until 1 a.m., full moon or no.
--Christopher Reynolds(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Spectacular granite formations, plus unique desert plants, make Joshua Tree National Park a rock star. Climbers from around the world scramble across its boulder fields and ascend its spires and pillars. They’re joined by hikers, campers, nature buffs and families -- about 1.2 million visitors annually. A favorite spot is Hidden Valley, a recreation area concealed by huge boulders. Its surreal landscape of jumbled rocks and pinyon pines is popular with climbers and families during the day and with stargazers at night. The evening sky astounds visitors with its brilliance. Where else can you see a zillion stars framed by the stark limbs of the Joshua tree?
Info: A seven-day vehicle permit costs $15. Hidden Valley Campground has 44 spaces; nearby campgrounds include Ryan, with 31, and Jumbo Rocks, with 124. Joshua Tree National Park (760) 367-5500
-- Rosemary McClure(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Ask folks whether they’ve been to the Sierra, and they’ll likely cite a well-tromped trail in
Info: Thousand Island Lake is seven miles from the Agnew Meadows Trailhead off California 203 near Mammoth Mountain. Camping permit required. Info: Inyo National Forest, (760) 873-2400
-- Mary E. Forgione(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
From birth in 1965, Sea Ranch, 110 miles north of San Francisco near Gualala, has been a utopian experiment: top-drawer architects building low-key homes -- and a 20-room lodge -- in harmony with a stretch of rugged Northern California coast. Fences, lawns and ostentation are basically banned (although the chapel, pictured, is pretty wild), allowing the landscape to prevail. Hike, bike, ride a horse, play the resort’s links-style golf course or kayak.
Info: Sea Ranch, Rooms at the 20-unit Sea Ranch Lodge run $169 to $395 nightly ( 732-7262, visit online. Six agencies handle rental houses, at rates of about $170 to $715 nightly (taxes and cleaning fees included, two-night minimum): Rams Head Realty & Rentals, (800) 785-3455; Coasting Home, (800) 773-8648; Ocean View Properties, (707) 884-3538; Sea Ranch Escape Vacation Home Rentals, (888) 732-7262.
-- Christopher Reynolds(Chris Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )
California’s craggy jawline is on full display in the cliffs, bays and dusty divots of Montaña de Oro State Park, six miles south of Morro Bay. The sea winds here hit you straight in the kisser. The entire effect -- land, water and shadows -- is painterly, the exact spot God placed his easel. At one of the 50 drive-in campsites, I once found a raccoon sitting in my car trunk, eating Pringles. Down by the water, the usual California menagerie -- sea otters, dolphins and families from Torrance -- roughhouses along a rocky surf line. North of the park, a long spit of sand draws hikers and fitness buffs. But it is the 1,000-foot cliffs that are the most mystic and stirring. In the evening, just after sunset, the sky and the water turn a deep plum. Waves crash; the wind purrs. A jazzy Brubeck waltz plays in your head. Forget the snowboarders and the starlets. Here, at this moment, California was never so cool.
Info: Montana De Oro State Park, (805) 528-0513; campground reservations, (800) 444-7275.
-- Chris Erskine(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Among such fabled roads as California 1 in Big Sur, U.S. 395 on the eastern flank of the High Sierra and California 29 through the Napa Valley, California 46 keeps a pretty low profile. But between the nascent wine town of Paso Robles and oceanfront Cambria, it’s about as fine a drive as can be, cutting for 40 miles across mounded Thomas Hart Benton hills. In spring there are wildflowers, and just about every turn leads to a pocket of wineries (including family-operated Fratelli Perata on Arbor Road), where you can sample the region’s highly prized Zinfandels, Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs. But be warned: Highway 46 turns eerie east of Paso Robles, winding through lonely, brooding country on its way to the Central Valley. Known in those parts as “Blood Alley,” it’s infamous for fatal accidents, including the head-on collision near the hamlet of Cholame that killed 24-year-old James Dean on Sept. 30, 1955.
-- Susan Spano(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
In a state that doesn’t hold with tradition, the General Grant Tree stands tall. In 1925, Charles E. Lee of the tiny town of Sanger successfully petitioned President Coolidge to have the giant sequoia in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon designated “the nation’s Christmas tree.” Ever since, Sanger residents have led hundreds of people each year on a winter trek to the tree. It has no tinsel or lights, just the tree as it has stood for 2,000 years. In 1956, the tree notched another distinction as the nation’s only living national shrine. Sanger passes down this California tradition to every third-grader in town who gets to “meet the great tree up close and personal” on their own special trek.
-- Mary E. Forgione(Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Drakesbad, a 19th century ranch in the shadow of Mt. Lassen, is a summer place -- and an adventure in time travel. The lodge was electrified only in the 1990s, and its six guest rooms still feature kerosene lamps. (Bungalows, cabins, an annex and a duplex add up to 19 total units.) After a day of hiking, fishing or horseback riding amid the park’s tall trees, hissing hydrothermal vents and scenic seasonal lakes, guests circle chairs around the outdoor fire ring under stars that hang low and bright. (Altitude: 6,200 feet.) No room keys. All meals family style. Soda and beer in buckets on the covered porch. Some nights, sitting in the spring-fed pool and peering through the steam across the meadow, you catch deer peering back. The 2007 rates were $140 to $209 per adult per day, meals included. Children are free with paying adult.
Info: (530) 529-1512, Ext. 120, www.drakesbad.com.
--Christopher Reynolds(Chris Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)