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.)
Unlike museums devoted to sports legends or war heroes, a museum that honors a man of arts and letters must reflect his quiet, solitary pursuit. Which is to say that such a repository may be unbearably dull. How delightful, then, is the National Steinbeck Center at the end of Salinas’ Main Street, a place whose undercurrents deliver shock after tiny shock--here an arc of unknown history, there a jolt of social commentary. The museum is just a couple of blocks from where townspeople burned Steinbeck’s books, enraged at his perceived betrayal of them and agriculture. The modern-looking center may seem incongruous with the unpretentious persona of the author, whose work won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. But like his books, it shines a light on the issues, using film clips and displays that are muted set pieces, occasionally somber but never dull. To see this place and the fields that surround Salinas is to understand that Steinbeck’s so-called Valley of the World is really the Heart of California.
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.
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.
No golf course in America can rival the history and nirvana of the Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Monterey Peninsula, but many golfers can’t afford the $495 greens fee. This is where Sandpiper Golf Club comes in. This par-72 seaside course, which charges less than a third of what Pebble Beach does, is flanked by mountains and rife with views of the Pacific. On several holes, retrieving wayward shots might require a snorkel and fins. But Sandpiper is no mere show pony. Beneath its beauty lies a challenging 7,000-yard tract that has played host to PGA and LPGA events. The high rollers may lean toward a post-round snifter of brandy at the Pebble Beach Lodge. But after playing Sandpiper, a visitor may find that a glass of Pinot and a good night’s sleep at the Days Inn Buellton, with its landmark windmill, might just hit the spot.
Info: Sandpiper Golf Club, 7925 Hollister Ave., Santa Barbara, CA 93117; (805) 968-1541, Greens fee: $139 weekdays, $159 weekends and holidays (cart not included.)
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
Ask folks whether they’ve been to the Sierra, and they’ll likely cite a well-tromped trail in Yosemite. But plunge deeper into California’s iconic backyard and you get to Thousand Island Lake, a spot around 10,000 feet above sea level where teensy granite islands glitter in the sun, where alpenglow bouncing off Banner Peak rivals the Northern Lights, where you could spend slack-jawed hours staring at the landscape. Ansel Adams snapped it; John Muir dubbed it “Islet Lake.” Do it as a day hike, or sleep over to catch the light show over the lake at dusk and dawn. Far from Mt. Whitney’s crowd, the lake showcases the Sierra stun factor. Quietly.
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
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.
For certain people, no fruit of the sea is better than a fresh oyster. And in California, there’s no better place to eat them than at Tomales Bay, about 40 miles northwest of San Francisco. The bay, an index finger of water that separates the Point Reyes Peninsula from mainland Marin County, is a protected ecosystem where oysters are farmed. In Marshall are two standouts for those who love to slurp the succulent mollusks: the Tomales Bay Oyster and the Hog Island Oyster companies. But you don’t have to drop a fortune to sample some. At their stores in Marshall, you’ll find bushels of small, medium and large oysters and other shellfish. Bring work gloves, because you’ll have to shuck the oysters yourself.
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.
No one knows for sure who decorated Little Petroglyph Canyon with images out of a dreamscape, some thought to be more than 10,000 years old. Or why the basalt walls of a narrow wash in the bone-dry Coso Mountains at the northern edge of the Mojave became a magic canvas for flocks of bighorn sheep, hunters with bows and arrows poised and more. But the area is probably the richest Amerindian rock-art site in the hemisphere. To see the canyon, you must contact the Navy base or join a tour offered by Maturango Museum. It’s a rough 40-mile drive to the trail head, followed by a hike and a scramble along the canyon. Visits only in spring and fall.
To fall for the baths at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, you don’t need to know that Joseph Campbell, Hunter S. Thompson, Linus Pauling, Timothy Leary, Joan Baez, Ansel Adams and Henry Miller all loved the place or that the institute offers workshops on a range of topics related to religion, philosophy, psychology, art, sex and healing. To want to get naked at the Esalen baths -- which are clothing optional, with men and women bathing together -- you just need to see the two-story, terraced bathhouse, designed by Big Sur architect Mickey Muennig. Built into the cliffs above a bay, it occupies what is arguably the finest piece of real estate on the Big Sur coast. People who join workshops or go on retreats at Esalen can visit the hot spring at will. Those who book massages ($125-$165 for 75 minutes) can use the bathhouse before and after the treatment; others are welcome by reservations between 1 and 3 a.m. (yes, we mean a.m.) for $20.
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.
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.
Info: The annual Trek to the Tree is the second Sunday in December. Drive to Grant Grove, or take a chartered bus from Sanger. For ticket information visit online or call (559)875-4575.
Call it the Hearst Castle alternative. Unlike the rich man’s digs at San Simeon, the late William Wrigley Jr’.s hilltop hideaway on Santa Catalina Island welcomes you to stay overnight, savoring the splendor enjoyed by the late chewing-gum magnate and Cubs team owner. Why is this 1921 house, now the Inn on Mt. Ada bed-and-breakfast, quintessentially Californian? Because it marries breathtaking beauty with private power and wealth. Surveying Avalon’s sapphire-hued harbor hundreds of feet below, you can pretend Catalina is your personal playground. OK, so the inn is about one-ninth the size of Hearst’s Casa Grande. It offers other perks. Each of its six guest rooms comes with a golf cart, breakfast and lunch, evening wine and appetizers. Rates start at $350 per night.
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.