Half Moon Bay
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Road trips from SoCal: California

Half Moon Bay

Distance: 389 miles one-way.

The lush Santa Cruz Mountains cradle Half Moon Bay against the sea. One way to get here is to take on the Devil’s Slide, a crumbling promontory that has been the bane of the state Department of Transportation. When the road is intact, Highway 1 from San Francisco snakes along steep cliffs, over boulder-strewn shores, dropping into Half Moon Bay from the north.

-- Hugo Martin

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Tomales Bay

Distance: 431 miles one-way.

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.

Info: Tomales Bay Oyster Co., 15479 Highway 1, Marshall, CA 94940; (415) 663-1242, www.tomalesbayoysters.com. Hog Island Oyster Co., 20215 Highway 1, Marshall, CA 94940; (415) 663-9218, www.hogislandoysters.com. Reservations are required for the picnic area.

-- Kathy M.Y. Pyon

 (Peter DaSilva / For The Times)
San Francisco Presidio
Distance: 388 miles one-way.

For any San Franciscan worth his salt, the 1,491-acre wooded site known as the Presidio -- and its fate -- has been part of their lives for decades. In 2001, when the park changed hands from the U.S. Army -- under whose care it had rested for 148 years -- to the national park system, speculation and rumors about its future swirled.

Would Lucasfilm transform a 23-acre part of the park into the Letterman Digital Arts Center? It did. Would high-end condos replace Army barracks? They didn’t. But during the last year, the Presidio has reinvented itself again. New museums, exhibits and outdoor venues are sprouting as quickly as the newly planted trees that are part of the Presidio’s reforestation project.

-- Karen Leland

 (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)
Stanford

Distance: 357 miles one-way.

Stanford, home to stately old buildings, was a farm before 1885, when Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, created Leland Stanford Junior University in honor of their recently deceased son. With ambitions to compete with the Ivy League, the Stanfords hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design the landscape. The first students, including Herbert Hoover, arrived in 1891.

 (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Marine Mammal Center

Distance: 393 miles one-way.

The mammal center, which has rescued and treated sea animals for more than 30 years, has unveiled a new medical facility, research lab and public-education area at a former Nike missile site -- and it’s open to visitors.

Outfitted with glass walls, educational displays and viewing platforms, and open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, the area gives visitors a peek into the workings of an animal rehabilitation program, including food preparation, pools for animals under treatment and the (optional) postmortem exam areas.

-- Christopher Reynolds

 (Michael Hanrahan / Associated Press)
Mt. Diablo

Distance: 371 miles one-way.

Mt. Diablo is a mountain riddled with myths. Which is to say that much of what has been said about this Northern California peak is false.

The biggest and most repeated falsehood is that from its 3,849-foot summit visitors can see more of the Earth’s surface than from any other high point except Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.

You don’t have to be a geography nut to know that Alaska‘s Mt. McKinley or any of Colorado‘s mighty peaks easily top that claim.

-- By Hugo Martín

 (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)
San Francisco Chinatown

Distance: 381 miles one-way.

It’s Chinatown. You’ve been there and done that, strolling vaguely under the dragon gate at Grant Avenue, dawdling past the kitschy gift shops, then strolling out again, maybe not much wiser, maybe not much merrier. Me too. But this, it turns out, was our own fault. Early this month, for reasons that will become clear and for the first time in 30 years of visits to San Francisco, I gave this Chinatown some serious time and attention. In 48 hours, I left only once, for a 10-minute cable-car ride. In return, Chinatown delivered joy, intrigue, retail temptation, good cheap food and a bracing glimpse into harsh history and contemporary poverty, all in the space of about 24 blocks.

-- Christopher Reynolds

 (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Musée Mécanique

Distance: 382 miles one-way.

An old-school San Francisco treat. This wonderfully campy nostalgia museum contains one of the world’s largest collections of antique arcade games, player pianos, funky mechanized figures and other coin-operated diversions. The museum, now off Fisherman’s Wharf, was located below the Cliff House until 2002. On Pier 45, Shed A, off Embarcardero at the end of Taylor Street. (415) 346-2000, www.museemechanique.org. Free.

-- Shermakaye Bass

 (Rosemary McClure / For The Times)
Berkeley
Distance: 375 miles one-way.

So what do we call this place? Cal? Berkeley? Cal Berkeley? UC Berkeley? This question hung above 10 of us -- nine visitors and one student tour guide, all gathered at a busy campus that simmered on an autumn weekday morning with undergraduate enthusiasm, intellectual fermentation and political skirmishing.

Way back in 1966, when he was running for governor and the university was awash in demonstrations, Ronald Reagan described this campus as “the mess at Berkeley.” After winning that election, Reagan engineered the firing of the university president, cut the budget, proposed selling rare books from the library and sent the National Guard in with bayonets and tear gas, dramatic gestures that helped give this territory its own chapter in the history of dissent in America.

-- By Christopher Reynolds

 (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Distance: 395 miles one-way.

About a mile north of Mavericks, one of the world’s most dangerous surf breaks, the scene is much more subdued and nurturing. James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a fog-shrouded strip of beach, about six miles north of Half Moon Bay, where you can explore one of the state’s best tide pools. Kids, especially, love visiting the reserve to see the purple coralline algae, rock crabs, sea stars, hermit crabs and anemones, all displayed in dazzling colors. During a visit about two years ago, I was so transfixed on the sea life at my feet that I nearly walked headfirst into a group of harbor seals sunning themselves on the reef. Check the newspaper tide tables to visit during low tide. Parking is free at a sandy lot in the shade of a cypress grove, behind a quiet beach neighborhood. Restrooms and picnic tables are near the parking lot. Take Highway 1 north from Half Moon Bay. Turn left on Cypress Avenue and continue until it becomes Ocean Avenue. The parking lot is at cean and Benal avenues.

Moss Beach; (605) 728-3584, www.fitzgeraldreserve.org.

--Hugo Martín

 (Elaine with Grey Cats via Flickr)
Red Rock Beach

Distance: 407 miles one-way.

Natural, soakable hot springs (unofficially, clothing optional) emerge during neap tides. Stay nearby, within walking distance, at the rustic Steep Ravine State Park cabins (a former haunt of photographers such as Dorothea Lange).

 (Google Maps)
Bolinas Lagoon

Distance: 414 miles one-way.

The lanky white egrets and the bluish-gray herons launch in unison from their twig nests, on the top branches of towering redwood trees overlooking Bolinas Lagoon, just north of San Francisco. The birds soar gracefully, their powerful wings pushing them slowly into the sky.

This is not the kind of thing volunteer Leslie Flint wants to see on opening day at Audubon Canyon Ranch, a nonprofit preserve that has become one of the West Coast’s largest nesting grounds for great blue herons and great egrets.

-- Hugo Martín

 (Peter DaSilva / For The Times)
Point Reyes National Seashore

Distance: 415 miles one-way.

Once upon a time, while wandering along the beach at this national seashore, I came across a herd of cattle strolling on the sand. Who can blame them? These 70,000 acres on a peninsula north of San Francisco, shrouded in cool fog and blanketed by green grass, resemble a postcard of the rocky shores of Ireland. But it’s the wildlife that sets Point Reyes apart: More than 1,000 species call the park home, including a menagerie of shorebirds and raptors. The park is about 30 miles from San Francisco along California 1. Info: (415) 464-5100, www.nps.gov/pore.

-- Hugo Martin

 (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Palomar Observatory

Distance: 132 miles one-way.

At any campground in the world, gazing up at the universe with the naked eye is a rush that eclipses the pleasures of cocoa and a roasted marshmallow. But on Palomar Mountain, peering at intensely magnified bits and pieces of the heavens through a 25-inch Newtonian telescope is something else entirely.

-- Jordan Rane

 (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Point Loma

Distance: 123 miles one-way.

A moment of reverence, please, for Juan Cabrillo, the European explorer who landed at Point Loma in September 1542 and claimed the coast for Spain. By many measures, he was a failure: He didn’t find gold, didn’t find an easy route to Asia, didn’t find a passage to the Atlantic and didn’t complete his mission. He died three months later.

But the six days he spent here made him California‘s first documented tourist, godfather to us all. Though nobody knows what he looked like, a sculptor’s imaginary Cabrillo stands atop the hill, gazing heroically out toward all the top-secret Navy submarine stuff at the foot of the point.

-- Christopher Reynolds

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
San Elijo State Beach

Distance: 98 miles one-way.

On a sun-splashed beach north of San Diego, California state park officials in 2005 launched the nation’s largest deployment of Wi-Fi access for park visitors, adding to the ever-growing outdoor trend known as “glamping” or “glamour camping.”

But wireless Internet service is not the only comfort from home offered to campers at San Elijo State Beach, about 40 miles north of San Diego. This 171-site park is one of the state’s most well-appointed camp sites, with real flush toilets, hot showers, pay telephones, laundry facilities and a camp store where visitors can buy groceries, firewood and ice.

-- Hugo Martín

 (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Legoland

Distance: 92 miles one-way.

Legoland, which covers 128 acres, opened in 1999. The Lego mother ship in Denmark sold the park in 2005 to Merlin Entertainments Group, which spent $20 million on upgrades here in 2008. Though its target audience is children 2 to 12, its gentle nature appeals most to younger kids, but not too young. Kids under 36 inches tall can’t go on some rides.

-- Chris Reynolds

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Black’s Beach

Distance: 110 miles one-way.

This is the great-granddaddy of California nudist beaches, reached from near the Torrey Pines Gliderport north of La Jolla. The beach is lined by a high cliff and the path down is treacherous, which help isolate Black’s from gawkers and other forms of nonmarine lowlife. Part of the beach is in a state park, and the other part is governed by the city of San Diego. Its naturist status is only semiofficial; there are no toilet or trash facilities and lifeguards make only occasional patrols.

Torrey Pines; www.blacksbeach.org.

--Susan Spano

 (Denis Poroy / Associated Press)
Coronado Beach, with grunion running

Distance: 127 miles one-way.

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.) 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.

Info: www.grunion.org --Christopher Reynolds

 (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Windansea Beach

Distance: 114 miles one-way.

Not a state beach, not a county park, Windansea has nevertheless been on the Big Map of California Beach Culture for years. It’s home to the Pump House, where Tom Wolfe‘s Pump House Gang used to hang out in the 1960s. And it has a wicked shore break that has slammed countless bodysurfers into involuntary headstands. It’s handy to a beloved pizza joint, Carino’s. No public restrooms, no picnic area, just 18 off-street parking spaces. The neighboring residential area is many blocks south of La Jolla’s trendy boutiques and pricey restaurants. In other words, there’s not much here for Mom, Dad and the little ones. But for those in their teens and 20s, this is where cool kids have been hanging out for about as long as there have been cool kids.

6800 Neptune Place, La Jolla;

--Christopher Reynolds

 (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Old Town San Diego

Distance: 119 miles one-way.

Junípero Serra founded Alta California‘s first mission here in 1769. You knew that.

But what happened after that? You may need a margarita to help digest this history properly. Try one from the Casa de Reyes in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park’s Plaza del Pasado, if you dare: 62 ounces for $18.95.

There. Now take a seat in the courtyard while the folkloric dancers get ready to spin and stomp.

Though Serra eventually moved his mission six miles up the valley, the Spanish soldiers stayed in the ocean-view presidio they’d built on the hilltop. And when Mexico gained its independence from Spain, a town began to grow at the foot of the presidio hill. By 1830, the U-shaped adobe Casa de Estudillo was one of several rough-hewn residences.

-- Christopher Reynolds

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )
Philo Apple Farm Cooking School
Distance: 498 miles one-way. It was on my weekly trip to the farmers market that I learned about the Philo Apple Farm Cooking School, 120 miles northwest of San Francisco in the bucolic Anderson Valley wine country. Karen Bates, whose parents founded the French Laundry in Napa Valley in the late 1970s, offers, on the family-run farm, weekend cooking classes that focus on organic, seasonal ingredients. It wasn’t going to be all hard work though. The weekend promised plenty of relaxing, eating and drinking. -- Phil Zimmerman (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Glen Ellen

Distance: 416 miles one-way.

Glen Ellen (once the home of writers Jack London and M.F.K. Fisher) is just north of the city of Sonoma. Take your eyes off the road long enough to read the vintner’s notes on a bottle of Viognier and you’ll miss it. More funky than fashionable, Glen Ellen’s main street (Arnold Drive) has wooden sidewalks, clapboard cottages and a saloon.

More important -- because when it’s not just about the wine, it becomes way more about the accommodations -- Glen Ellen is home to the Gaige House, a luxury hotel with a Victorian facade and a Zen attitude.

-- Janis Cooke Newman

 (Chris Hardy)
Wineries of Paso Robles

Distance: 217 miles one-way.

Gary Eberle is the Johnny Syrah-seed of Paso Robles. In the mid-1970s, he planted the first commercial Syrah in the state, and you can still find it at Eberle Winery Vineyards, along with a T-shirt that says, “Up Shiraz.” Time it right and Eberle will barbecue you duck sausage to go with one of his full-bodied reds. Both of which you can enjoy from the fabulous wrap-around deck above the vineyards.

Jeff Pipes of Pipestone Vineyards was the kind of kid who grew up watching the Farm Report. Now he plants his organic vineyard according to the principles of feng shui and cultivates it using a pair of draft horses. At Pipestone, you’re welcome to wander into the vineyard and check out the goats, or just settle in at a picnic table with some wine and soak up the chi.

-- Janis Cooke Newman

 (Irene Lechowitzky)
Sea Ranch

Distance: 483 miles one-way.

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: Rooms at the 20-unit Sea Ranch Lodge run $169 to $395 nightly ([800] 732-7262). 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; Sea Ranch Vacation Rentals, (800) 643-8899; and Beach Rentals, (707) 884-4235.

-- Christopher Reynolds

 (Chris Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Wineries of Healdsburg

Distance: 443 miles one-way.

Seghesio Family Vineyards is all about family (the Seghesios have been making Sonoma wine for four generations) and food. Especially food. The Family Table tasting pairs Seghesio wine with Seghesio family recipes. And during events, you can learn how to make pizza or stuff your own sausage. You can also take a bottle of wine out to the boccie courts.

Ridge Vineyards makes serious wine in an unserious atmosphere. Really serious wine. Its Monte Bello Cabernet blend earned 97 points from Wine Spectator. For an extra fee, you can include it in your tasting. Ridge also has one of the most spectacular picnic spots in all Sonoma, set at the edge of rolling hills crisscrossed with vineyards.

-- Janis Cooke Newman

 (Chris Hardy )
Napa Valley

Distance: 398 miles one-way.

In California, Napa Valley and “wineries” are synonymous. The area also offers a slew of restaurants, splendid rolling hills and Bay Area adjacency. What more is there to say?

Contact: Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau, (707) 226-7459, www.napavalley.org

 (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
Charles Schulz Museum

Distance: 430 miles one-way.

Maybe you came here, to the edge of wine country, for some grown-up fun amid the Cabernets and Chardonnays of Napa Valley. But for dessert, you get the house that Charlie Brown built.

Or rather, the museum Charles M. Schulz built. And the ice rink, the coffee shop, the gift shop, the gardens and the baseball field.

Schulz, the father of the “Peanuts” cartoon strip, lived in Sonoma County for more than 40 years, constructing an empire around the hapless Charlie Brown and the irrepressible Snoopy. Within two years of the artist’s death in 2000, the Schulz family had put up the Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center here, 56 miles northwest of San Francisco. It gets about 60,000 visitors a year.

-- Christopher Reynolds

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
East Beach
Distance: 93 miles one-way.

Creamy sand, a dozen courts for serious volleyball, arts and crafts shows on weekends, a perpetual parade of watchable people, the distant dreamy houses on the slopes above -- East Beach delivers all these things, along with a well-situated restaurant, the East Beach Grill (breakfast and lunch, starting at 7 a.m.), and adjacent sports facilities at the Cabrillo Pavilion Bathhouse (the handsome 1927 building at 1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd.). For the sporty and the slothful, this is atop the Santa Barbara list.

1400 E. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara; www.santabarbara.ca.gov/parks.

-- Chris Reynolds (Richard Derk / Los Angeles Times)
Sespe Hot Springs
Distance: 104 miles one-way.

From the rock layer beneath the Los Padres National Forest, several hot springs bubble to the surface. But the Sespe Hot Springs, in the heart of the Sespe Wilderness, have a reputation among hikers as the hottest in Southern California.

No one, it seems, keeps an official ranking of hot springs, but having soaked in a few natural hot springs over the years, I wanted to answer the question: Is Sespe Hot Springs tepid, like dishwater, or “Ay, caramba!” hot?

-- Hugo Martín

 (Hugo Martin / Los Angeles Times)
Cold Spring Tavern

Distance: 109 miles one-way.

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 $17.50 to $28.50); 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 ($7.95) from the oak pit rig around the side.

Info: Cold Spring Tavern, (805) 967-0066, www.coldspringtavern.com.

--Christopher Reynolds

 (Richard Derk / Los Angeles Times )
Jalama Beach
Distance: 158 miles one-way.

From a map, Jalama Beach County Park looks like one of the most isolated beach campgrounds in Southern California. The beach hugs a crescent-shaped coastline between Point Conception and Point Arguello, just south of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

No multimillion-dollar mansions or rickety piers mar the coastline for miles in either direction. Just the ocean lapping at the raw land, as it has for millions of years.

-- Hugo Martín

 (Willie Martinez / For The Times)
Carpinteria
Distance: 84 miles one-way.

The best place to start is a picnic table at the end of Linden Avenue, amid the dunes of Carpinteria State Beach. (Note: Tables under the two covered patios are often reserved for groups, so check with a ranger before you settle in.) Bring a picnic basket, fire up a grill or buy take-out cheeseburgers and shakes from the Spot, a longtime favorite.

Spend the day at the beach, where you can sunbathe, jog, build sand castles, gawk at sea lions (bring binoculars), collect shells, scan tide pools for sea anemones and starfish, boogie-board on gentle surf or just do nothing. You can also hike the bluffs.

Info: California State Parks, (805) 968-1033 (Channel Coast District), www.parks.ca.gov; City of Carpinteria, www.carpinteria.ca.us.

-- Jane Engle
 (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Ojai Avenue
Distance: 79 miles one-way.

It’s only 16 miles from the coast, but Ojai feels farther than that. Its main drag features Libbey Park on one side, high-toned shops along an arcade on the other. Before or after a hike in the surrounding Topa Topas or a 15-mile bike ride on the paved Ventura-Ojai path, come here for a bite or a retail stroll.  (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)
Tecopa
Distance: 235 miles one-way.

At 2 a.m. the coyotes began circling, yipping and howling in the darkness beyond our tepee. I gulped hard and stared at my friend Terry. Were these fearsome beasts poised to attack? Terry just laughed. “Think they’ll gnaw us to death?” he asked.

We had checked in about 1 a.m. after a five-hour, after-work drive from Los Angeles. Our domicile for two nights in mid-February was one of three tepees on the grounds of China Ranch, a date farm in the tiny town of Tecopa just outside Death Valley National Park. We had found the place through a random Internet search, after efforts to book a room in the park proved fruitless.

-- Jessica Gelt

 (Terry Case / For The Times )
Hurkey Creek Park
Distance: 113 miles one-way.

Hurkey Creek Park has more than 100 sites (plus five large group sites) with picnic tables, fire pits, restroom and shower facilities, and a two-vehicle/six-person limit per site. Large RVs and trailers are permitted, but there are no hook-ups. Sites cost $20 per night. Reserve with Riverside County Parks between April and October. The campground is also open for day use ($2 per adult, $1 per 12-and-under) from dawn to dusk.

Riverside County Parks, (800) 234-7275, www.riversidecountyparks.org

-- Jordan Rane

 (Jordan Rane )
San Gorgonio Wind Park
Maybe you’ve already seen the wind mills on the way to your favorite resort in La Quinta -- those rows of tri-blade ivory towers spinning away like alien corn in the blustery San Gorgonio Pass near the exit to Palm Springs. ( Sandy Huffaker / Associated Press)
Little Petroglyph Canyon
Distance: 177 miles one-way.

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.

Info: Maturango Museum, 100 E. Las Flores Ave., Ridgecrest, CA 93555; (760) 375-6900, www.maturango.org. Private tours through the Naval Air Weapons Station, (760) 939-1683.

-- Susan Spano (Manuel Nunez / Los Angeles Times)
Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree
Distance: 145 miles one-way.

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 45 spaces; nearby campgrounds include Ryan, with 31, and Jumbo Rocks, with 125. Info: (760) 367-5500, www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm.

-- Rosemary McClure (Chris Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Borrego Palm Canyon
Distance: 152 miles one-way. Borrego doesn’t get the attention that desert areas farther north do, but it’s the biggest state park in California. Borrego Palm Canyon (a three-mile hike, round-trip) is a testament to the violence of desert life -- it lost about 80% of its palms in a 2004 flood -- and it’s the park’s star hike. Also a good place for spotting bighorn sheep. (760) 767-5311, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638. (Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times)
Shields Date Garden
Distance: 128 miles one-way. This spot has delicious date shakes and free screenings of that California blockbuster “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” (760) 347-7768, www.shieldsdategarden.com..  (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angel / Los Angeles Times)
Idyllwild
Distance: 109 miles one-way.

What happens if, two-thirds of the way to a Palm Springs weekend, somebody grabs control of your family’s vehicle, veers hard to the right, follows the cliff-clinging goat path known as California 243, then roars into the pines looking for a soft meadow between granite peaks?

Idyllwild is what happens. Arriving from Los Angeles, you first climb to the largely residential community of Pine Cove, then descend to about 5,300 feet, where you see half a dozen blocks of shops, restaurants and art and craft galleries, all surrounded by trees, rocks, scattered vacation cabins, the odd A-frame and the odder geodesic dome. The year-round population is about 3,500.

-- Christopher Reynolds

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Distance: 105 miles one-way.

Since 1963, this 2 1/2-mile ride has connected the dry desert (altitude 2,643 feet) and frequently snowy upper slopes of Mt. San Jacinto (8,516 feet) in a journey of 10 minutes.

Contact: (888) 515-8726 (TRAM), www.pstramway.com (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times )
Deep Creek Hot Springs
Distance: 84 miles one-way.

“Do you have a problem with public nudity?”

That’s what a buddy asked before giving me directions to Deep Creek Hot Springs near Apple Valley, a clothing-optional oasis about a two-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles.

Nudity? I was raised Catholic, I said. What do you think?

Natural hot springs are rare in Southern California, mainly because of the lack of searing underground volcanic rock to heat subterranean water. So, I was willing to overcome my hang-ups and insecurities to soak in one of SoCal’s few natural hot tubs.

-- Hugo Martín

 (Hugo Martin / Los Angeles Times)
Badwater Basin
Distance: 283 miles one-way.

The lowest point in North America, 288 feet below sea level. When you are standing in the basin, you can look up and see this sign high above in the surrounding rocky cliffs.

Contact: (760) 786-3200, www.nps.gov/deva (Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times)
Skidoo
Distance: 270 miles one-way. This barren patch of desert on Death Valley that’s littered with broken bottles and abandoned mine shafts is the site of one of the most bizarre deaths in the old West. An angry lynch mob hanged and then buried a down-on-his-luck saloon keeper named Joe “Hooch” Simpson after he killed the town banker in 1908. But when a Los Angeles Times reporter showed up a few days later to snap a photo, locals unearthed Hooch and strung him up again for the snapshot. While he was above ground, a local doctor decided to lob off Hooch’s head to test it for syphilis. Now a headless Hooch reportedly haunts the site of Skidoo in the heart of Death Valley. -- Hugo Martin For more information, call the Death Valley National Park at (760) 786-3200 or go to www.nps.gov/deva/. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Guadalupe Dunes
Distance: 173 miles one-way.

Guadalupe Dunes of California’s Central Coast remains nearly as isolated and pristine as when legendary director Cecil B. DeMille scouted it in 1923. The dunes are a terrific place to enjoy both raw beauty and a slice of moviemaking history.

-- Jay Jones

 (Rosemary McClure / Los Angeles Times)
Shell Beach
Distance: 179 miles one-way.

Shell Beach is a bluff-top village tucked between the gritty ticky-tack of the Pismo Beach Pier scene to the south and the revitalized town of Avila Beach just up the coast.

My husband, two children and I checked into the Cliffs Resort, about 10 miles from downtown San Luis Obispo. It renovated all 160 guest rooms this year with modern, sand-colored furnishings and floor-to-ceiling plantation shutters. Many of the rooms are less than $200 a night.

-- Donna Wares

 (Donna Wares / For The Times)
Harris Ranch
Harris Ranch, Coalinga, Calif.
Central California

Distance: 201 miles one-way

About 100 miles north of the Grapevine, near the turnoff for Coalinga, straw-colored hills bubble up and Harris Ranch appears, an oasis at Exit 334, where the sprinklers always seem to be turned on, watering neatly trimmed lime trees and beds of flowers. Often, a man selling bonsai plants out of his truck is stationed across from the entrance.

Like most exits on Interstate 5, 334 has a handful of the kind of chain restaurants and motels that always remind me of a road trip I once took with a friend. When we stopped at a Denny’s, she called the restaurant the symbol of everything wrong with America. I like their tuna melts but must admit I know what she means, which is partly why I love the independently owned Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant. To me it’s the symbol of what’s right with America.

-- Susan Spano

Read more: Eat well, sleep deeply off I-5, at Harris Ranch

Pictured: Harris Ranch restaurant (Gary Kazanjian / For the Times)
Mercey Hot Springs
Distance: 257 miles one-way.

In the resort’s guest book, filled with many comments of the “relaxing” variety, one particular scribble caught my eye: “There are ghosts!”

The signatory gave no details, but I could easily imagine that old Mercey Hot Springs is steeped in stories of life and death.

The story goes that Native Americans journeyed to the springs with their sick to partake of the mineral-rich, supposedly medicinal waters. In 1912, a hotel here first hosted paying guests along what once was a stagecoach route but now is a hot, middle-of-nowhere dot off Interstate 5.

-- Susan Derby

 (Susan Derby / Los Angeles Times)
Julian
Flecks spotted in these hills above Julian in the winter of 1869, set off San Diego County‘s only gold rush -- and gave birth to the mining camp that is now this picturesque mountain town 145 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
 (Beverly Beyette / For The Times)
Old Edna
Distance: 180 miles one-way.

At age 101, it’s a wonder that Old Edna is still standing upright. But there she is, along California 227 south of San Luis Obispo, encouraging passing motorists to stop and say “hello.”

She had some hard years -- especially during World War II -- and they took their toll. Edna turned dull gray. Clearly weather-beaten, she developed rusty-brown splotches that, untreated, grew ever larger.

“I could not see my sweet girl mistreated,” says Pattea Torrence, an area resident who had been a frequent visitor for decades. "[She] deserved some attention -- a bit of cosmetic surgery, you might say -- a much-needed bit of lipstick in order for her to stand tall again and greet the passersby.”

-- Jay Jones

 (Joe Johnston / For The Times )
Lake Casitas
Distance: 81 miles one-way.

The lake is about a 70-minute drive from Los Angeles, a perfect distance for a quick weekend getaway. Drive along oak-shaded California 33 east of Ventura into the rolling hills near Ojai and then turn west onto California 150 and you’ll find the blue-green waters of Lake Casitas. When we pulled up to the entrance, we requested a campsite near the water park. (Camping permits start at $25 per night.) We got a spot in campground C, a short walk from the water park and within earshot of the cacophony on 150.

-- Hugo Martín

 (Hugo Martin / Los Angeles Times )
Ft. Ord Public Lands
Distance: 316 miles one-way.

Before it closed in 1994, Ft. Ord was one of the nation’s largest military training facilities, preparing soldiers for the two world wars, as well as Korea and Vietnam. The Bureau of Land Management took over more than 7,200 acres of the old military base in 1996 and threw open the gates to more than 80 miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails.

But there was one hitch: The Army had yet to find and remove every last ordnance from the scenic, oak-studded rolling hills. We are talking about rockets, mortars, mines, grenades and other weapons of demolition.

-- Hugo Martín

 (Hugo Martin / Los Angeles Times)
Vision Quest Ranch
Distance: 300 miles one-way.

The ranch, (800) 228-7382, www.visionquestranch.com, is just off California Highway 68 about 20 miles east of Monterey. Guided tours are offered at 1 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for children. For bed-and-breakfast, the winter rate (through March 31) is $195, double occupancy. Children 12 and older are welcome Sundays through Thursdays.

-- Jay Jones

 (Jay Jones)
Cachuma Lake
Lakefront yurts cost $60 to $70 a night and have a two-night minimum on weekends and three-night minimum on holiday weekends. Campsites and cabins are available too. The lake also is a good spot for day trips; day parking is $8. Activities include boating, trout fishing, hiking, nature cruises, nature center, naturalist-led hikes, fishing workshops for kids. Swimming is not permitted in the lake, but the swimming pool opened Memorial Day weekend for the summer season.
 (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Montaña de Oro State Park
Distance: 214 miles one-way.

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 (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Hearst Castle
Distance: 248 miles one-way.

Fifty-six bedrooms, 61 bathrooms and 41 fireplaces, two pools, 90,080 square feet. Owned by the state since William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst Corp. donated it in 1957, open for tours since 1958.

Contact: (800) 444-4445, www.hearstcastle.com (Dan Steinberg / Associated Press)
Ft. Hunter Liggett
Distance: 254 miles one-way.

At dusk, the Hacienda presents a bucolic image of Old California. Inspired by California Mission and Spanish colonial styles, the complex once served mainly as headquarters for William Randolph Hearst'’s Milpitas ranch staff. It’s now part of Ft. Hunter Liggett, an Army facility in the central part of the state. Visitors can stay the night there.

-- Jane Engle

 (Jane Engle / Los Angeles Times)
Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant
Distance: 201 miles one-way. About 100 miles north of the Grapevine, near the turnoff for Coalinga, straw-colored hills bubble up and Harris Ranch appears, an oasis at Exit 334, where the sprinklers always seem to be turned on, watering neatly trimmed lime trees and beds of flowers. Often, a man selling bonsai plants out of his truck is stationed across from the entrance. Like most exits on Interstate 5, 334 has a handful of the kind of chain restaurants and motels that always remind me of a road trip I once took with a friend. When we stopped at a Denny’s, she called the restaurant the symbol of everything wrong with America. I like their tuna melts but must admit I know what she means, which is partly why I love the independently owned Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant. To me it’s the symbol of what’s right with America. -- Susan Spano (Gary Kazanjian / For The Times)
Lopez Lake Recreation Area
Distance: 195 miles one-way.

Lopez Lake is a diamond in the rough where 345 campsites dot the grassy hillsides overlooking a 1,000-acre shimmering blue lake. Jet skis, motorboats and kayakers launch from a busy marina that is home to a convenience store, a tackle shop, a restaurant and a boat rental business.

That cacophony of screaming kids and water splashing comes from the water slide park on the eastern shore of the lake. And those soaring black wings overhead are turkey vultures, just part of a vibrant assortment of wildlife, including deer, wild turkeys, egrets and herons.

-- Hugo Martín
 (Lake Lopez Recreation Area )
Cayucos
Distance: 219 miles one-way.

Thanks to the path of the Coast Highway and the charms of Cambria (north) and Morro Bay (south), a lot of people leave Cayucos alone. But families, pay heed: Here’s one of the state’s last remaining old-fashioned middle-class beach towns. Homegrown motels, a public pier, a deep inventory of vacation rental houses, inviting bakery, raffish saloon and swing sets on the beach. Classic Independence Day parade too. www.cayucosbythesea.com. (Robert Eckel)
National Steinbeck Center
Distance: 303 miles one-way.

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.

Info: National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas, CA 93901; (831) 796-3833, www.steinbeck.org.

--Catharine Hamm (Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)
The Baths of Esalen
Distance: 292 miles one-way.

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 ($150 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.

Info:www.esalen.org

--Susan Spano (Esalen Institute)
Carmel-by-the-Sea
Distance: 325 miles one-way.

Visitors can’t resist the seaside setting. Other popular sights in Carmel-by-the-Sea are the rustic Anglophile architecture, the legion of art galleries and the mission (where Father Junípero Serra is buried).

Contact: Carmel Chamber of Commerce, (800) 550-4333, www.carmelcalifornia.com (Tony DiBona / Los Angeles Times)
Monterey
Distance: 321 miles one-way.

On the tip of a small peninsula that forms the southern enclosure of Monterey Bay is an irresistible seaside town surrounded by rugged coastline and white-sand beaches. Some 4 million annual visitors come to relish the region’s good weather (despite the occasional fog), the many attractions and the rich literary and artistic legacy. Monterey has historical relevance, too: Established in 1770 by Junípero Serra, it was California’s capital for more than 70 years while the state was under Spanish and Mexican rule.

 (Richard Sopinanukul / Los Angeles Times)
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Crystal Cove State Beach
Distance: 51 miles one-way.


I don’t know that I’ve ever been on a bad beach in California. But I’ve never been on one with as many appealing qualities as Crystal Cove: tide pools, scenic bluffs and a family-friendly vibe. It’s roomy too, though development on this stretch of land between Laguna Beach and Newport Beach has amped up the action in recent years. Still, on weekends, you’ll have plenty of space for a blanket or a pop-up awning. No snack shops or bike rentals here, just a great rustic and pristine beach. Note that the walk from the parking lot to the beach can be long and steep. Kids have no trouble with it, but unsteady grandparents might.

Between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar; (949) 494-3539, www.parks.ca.gov.

--Chris Erskine (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Abalone Cove Shoreline Park
Distance: 32 miles one-way.


At this tucked-away cove beneath the cliffs of Palos Verdes, you won’t find Zuma’s crowds, even on a hot summer day, and that’s probably because it takes a hike to get to it. It’s ideal for tide pooling or lounging on the beach watching the gulls wheel overhead. No barbecues, fires or dogs are allowed. (310) 377-1222, www.palosverdes.com/rpv/recreationparks/AbaloneCoveShoreline/index.cfm. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace
Distance: 38 miles one-way.
No matter your feelings about the 37th president, the displays on his life and times, including a Watergate Gallery with a recording of the infamous 1972 “Smoking Gun” conversation between President Nixon and John Dean, are fascinating. The president and his wife, Pat, are buried here. (714) 993-5075, www.nixonlibraryfoundation.org. (Handout)
Buckhorn Campground
Distance: 47 miles one-way.
It’s no mystery why several outdoor groups have ranked the Buckhorn campground in the Angeles National Forest as one of the top campsites in Southern California.

The campground is perched in the forest at 6,300 feet, where the temperatures are cooler and the sky is mostly free of that brown muck that floats over the San Gabriel Valley on hot summer days. The big, green pines and cedars that shade the campground make it easy to forget you are less than an hour’s drive from one of the biggest U.S. cities. And then there is the little, gurgling creek that cuts through the campgrounds in the spring, giving campers a lovely water-splashing serenade.

-- Hugo Martín

 (Brian Vander Brug / For The Times)
Aliso Beach
Distance: 56 miles one-way.
If you’ve moved many times, you develop touchstones; Aliso Beach is mine. Despite the Laguna Beach address, it’s hardly artsy, pretentious or self-absorbed. Instead, it’s the sort of place the Cleavers would have visited. Why? There’s parking. There are restrooms. It’s bordered by a wildlife refuge. You can have a bonfire. And best of all, it’s accessible. You don’t have to walk down 900 steps to get there. Lazy man’s beach? Perhaps. But isn’t being lazy what a day at the beach is all about?

31131 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; (949) 923-2280, www.ocparks.com.

--Catharine Hamm (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Distance: 578 miles one-way.

Lassen Peak, which last erupted in 1915, is the largest of more than 30 volcanic domes in the park, which is about 165 miles north of Sacramento. Hissing fumaroles (steam vents) and boiling mud pots from those volcanoes continue to shape the park’s landscape. Though the climate is unpredictable, summer, with its warm, dry weather, may be the best time for a visit.

-- Kelsey Ramos

 (Russell Virgillo / NPS)
Sequoia National Park
Distance: 199 miles one-way.

Established in 1890, Sequoia is the nation’s second-oldest national park after Yellowstone. The 406,425-acre park is home to some of the world’s largest trees, including the famous Gen. Sherman tree. Avoid the crowds by visiting in the spring and fall. Park traffic peaks in July and August.

-- Jason La

 (Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images)
Hetch Hetchy Valley
Distance: 346 miles one-way.

If Southern Californians know anything about Hetch Hetchy, it’s probably that the reservoir there provides drinking water to San Francisco and that the damming of the Tuolumne River stirred controversy that continues to this day. The O’Shaughnessy Dam took 20 years to build and was completed in 1934, creating a lake eight miles long and more than 300 feet deep. The dam and reservoir sit just inside the Yosemite National Park boundary. The rest of the Hetch Hetchy area is contained within the Stanislaus National Forest.

For would-be visitors, however, the most impressive statistic is the comparison between the number of people who visit Yosemite Valley and those who visit Hetch Hetchy. Yosemite: 3 million a year, most in the summer. Hetch Hetchy: 50,600 a year. Most come from the Bay Area. In fact, Hetch Hetchy may be San Francisco’s best-kept secret.

-- Dan Blackburn

 (Jae Feinberg )
John Muir Wilderness
Distance: 268 miles one-way.

California is home to 138 designated wilderness areas, protected by some of the nation’s strictest land protection laws. For hikers, the John Muir Wilderness, southwest of Mammoth Lakes, has few equals. With 590 miles of trails, dozens of pristine aquamarine lakes and the most spectacular peaks in the Sierra Nevada, this wilderness area exemplifies the beauty its namesake so prized. The office to obtain permits to enter the wilderness is at 351 Pacu Lane, Bishop. Info: (760) 873-2485, www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/wild/john-muir.shtml

--Hugo Martin (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
Mammoth Lakes
Distance: 311 miles one-way.

For skiing and snowboarding in winter, hiking and mountain-biking in summer.

Contact: Town of Mammoth Lakes Tourism and Recreation Department, (888) 466-2666 (GO-MAMMOTH), www.visitmammoth.com

 (Chad McDermott / Los Angeles Times)
Devil’s Postpile National Monument
Distance: 322 miles one-way.

The narrow rock columns at Devils Postpile National Monument make a bizarre sight. They were formed about 100,000 years ago from cooling lava, then eroded by glacial movement. (National Park Service)
Hunewill Guest Ranch
Distance: 365 miles one-way.

The heifers are acting surly, but my horse pushes forward. My young crew of 10 or so cowpunchers encircles about 30 head of cattle on a wide pasture in the shadow of a sawtooth mountain just west of Bridgeport. Our horses slowly lead the cattle toward a gate at the far end of the field.

“Move on,” I yell, as I nudge my mount with the heel of my boot. “Heeeaaah!”

For a moment, I think I’m a cow-herding, range-riding, genuine cowboy.

-- Hugo Martín
 (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
General Grant Tree
Distance: 247 miles one-way.

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 82nd Trek to the Tree is Dec. 9. Drive to Grant Grove, or take a chartered bus from Sanger for $23 to $42.50 (some rides include meals); (559) 875-4575, www.sanger.org.

--Mary E. Forgione (National Park Service)
Moaning Cavern
Distance: 378 miles one-way.

As I step off a 25-foot-tall wooden platform, a shrill scream nearly drowns out the high-pitched zipping sound of a metal trolley spinning along a half-inch metal cable just above me.

Legs flailing, hair blowing in the wind, a white-knuckle grasp on a harness, I fly at 40 mph toward a tiny tower, barely visible in the distance. A blur of trees, shrubs and hiking trails flies past my feet. It’s all happening so fast that it’s hard to take in. If only that annoying girlie scream would stop.

Wait a minute. That falsetto is mine.

Then it’s over. Somehow I miraculously slow down and swing to a stop, and I’m standing on the other tower, ready to do it again.

-- Hugo Martín
 (Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times)
Mono Lake
Distance: 333 miles one-way.

If you haven’t seen a tufa tower (or don’t know what one is), proceed immediately to Mono Lake, rent a kayak and paddle out to these bizarre turrets in this inland salt lake. Insiders know that this lake northeast of Yosemite is a perfect example of one of California‘s more extreme forces of nature. Forest Service Visitor Center, (760) 647-3044; the Mono Lake Committee, www.monolake.org. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Giant Sequoia National Monument
Distance: 234 miles one-way.

Some die-hard lovers of the great outdoors claim to appreciate the hardships of backpacking. But I felt plenty appreciative when I heard I could sleep on clean sheets and eat gourmet meals at a new luxury tent camp in Giant Sequoia National Monument.

Sequoia High Sierra Camp sits on 40 of the 49,000 acres of private land that was grandfathered into the monument.

-- Susan Spano
 (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Lake Tahoe
Distance: 488 miles one-way.

Positioned astride the California- Nevada border, the lake is neighbored by ski runs and casinos and boasts 72 miles of shoreline and beautiful deep-blue hues.

Contact: North Lake Tahoe Visitors & Convention Bureau, (800) 462-5196; Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, (800) 288-2463 (AT-TAHOE); www.visitinglaketahoe.com (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Donner Ski Ranch, Truckee
Distance: 488 miles one-way.

The sign on the shoulder of U.S. 40, west of Truckee, says it’s “Old School Thursday” at Donner Ski Ranch, lift tickets $10 a day. They must be pretty desperate to offer tickets that cheap, I think as I pull into the rutted parking lot that is only a quarter full. It’s late January, the mountains are covered with snow, and ski season is well underway.

Talk about old school. The main lift to the summit is manned by a middle-aged guy in a thick flannel jacket, jeans and hiking boots. His long gray hair sticks out from under a baseball cap. The lift is a renovated three-seat chair that moves as if it’s being pulled by a team of mules.

--Hugo Martin
 (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Yosemite National Park
Distance: 310 miles one-way.

Maybe it’s because I’m punchy. It’s been a trying day, 10 hours on the road. The babies got carsick in the mountains, and one threw up rather spectacularly. After arriving at Upper Pines campsite, I had to back the 26-foot Airstream trailer into a tight space between trees, in the dark, a nerve-racking man audition with a gathering audience of seasoned and skeptical RVers shouting advice: “Cut the wheels to the left. . . . The other other left!”

--Dan Neil
 (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Thousand Island Lake
Distance: 305 miles one-way. 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. Inyo National Forest, (760) 873-2400, www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/. -- Mary E. Forgione (Ken Hively / The Los Angeles Times)
Sierra Vista Scenic Byway
Distance: 263 miles one-way.

So where is this drive? The seasonal loop swings within 20 miles of the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park -- which, admittedly, has more spectacular natural formations -- but you feel eons away from the hordes at Half Dome.

--Mary Forgione
 (Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)
Mt. Whitney
Distance: 221 miles one-way.

It’s the highest point in the lower 48 — 14,497 feet above sea level — and just 76 miles west of Badwater as the crow flies, 135 miles as the ultra-marathoners jog, walk and crawl. Intimidated by the climb? Take a little hike from the Whitney Portal Store at the trailhead instead.

Contact: Inyo National Forest, (760) 873-2400, www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/ or www.whitneyportalstore.com (Jacquie Kaner / For The Times)
Lava Beds National Monument
Solitude may be the defining feature of Lava Beds National Monument. The monument drew fewer than 103,000 people in 2011. Bump that up against the 3.5 million who visited Yosemite National Park, and you get an idea of the seclusion.


 (Andrew Mariman / Los Angeles Times)
Elk Meadow
We headed to Elk Meadow, three miles north of Orick and 45 minutes from Eureka, to elk watch, admire pristine giant redwoods and seize the rutting season discount for a well-equipped cabin in Redwood Adventures Vacation Village.  (Rick E. Martin)
Crescent City
Distance: 729 miles one-way.

The Battery Point Lighthouse ought to be the end of California. It clings heroically to its own little island, a survivor of the great tsunami of 1964, a perfect sibling and bookend to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, all those miles to the south in San Diego. Both were built in the 1850s.

-- Christopher Reynolds
 (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Nice
Nice is about two hours northwest of Sacramento on Clear Lake. It is scenic and relaxing, and close enough for Southern Californians to enjoy without spending a fortune getting there.  (Lake County Marketing Department)
Sacramento
More than a dozen museums, historic parks and memorials dot the city, including Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, the California State Railroad Museum, the Crocker Art Museum, the old Governor’s Mansion, and the new California Hall of Fame. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Redwood National and State Parks
Get lost in the land of the giants, home to some of the largest trees in the world. At Redwood National and State Parks, you’ll feel you are a part of a bigger, more beautiful world inhabited by bear, elk, Steller’s Jays and banana slugs.  (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Trinidad State Beach
The Northern California coast, unlike its southern counterpart, is often less about sun and sand than fog and sea stacks. Yet Trinidad State Beach offers the best of both.  (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Stewart Mineral Springs
There is a method to enjoying the rich mineral waters at this bohemian resort near the base of Mt. Shasta.

 (Evan Halper / Los Angeles Times)
Sutter’s Mill, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Ask any fourth-grader: This is where James Marshall'’s discovery started the Gold Rush in 1848. Today’s sawmill is a replica of the original. And adventure seekers, take note: The highly raftable South Fork of the American River is handy.

 (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Bodie, Calif.
Inside the splintery churches, homes and businesses that comprise Bodie State Historic Park, chairs, tables, bottles and pool tables remain in the same spots where town folks left them more than a century ago. According to legend, bad luck latches on to anyone who steals from the town.  (Marc Martin / Los Angeles Times)
Glass Beach
It’s hard to believe, but for decades this city dumped trash on the beach at the end of Elm Street, including many, many bottles. Then in the 1960s, people wised up and cleaned up, allowing nature to transform that embarrassing history into a striking attribute.  (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Drakesbad Guest Ranch
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.  (Chris Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Downieville
Downieville is a true mountain biking town. All three hotels offer bike lockers, and the town’s economic plan includes a chapter on mountain biking. Each July, the Downieville Classic Mountain Bike Festival multiplies the town’s population of 300 to 3,000. (Nate Bressler / Los Angeles Times)
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