Why: If somebody asked you to compress the best of California into 72 acres, make it abundantly kid-friendly and persuade thousands of people to spend long hours and big money there, you might crack under the pressure. (Admit it, you’re already uncomfortable.)
That was Disney’s mission with this park. And Disney failed … at first. But since that awkward debut in 2001, when attendance fell far short of expectations, the park people have been steadily changing and fixing this place. Even if you’re skeptical about all things Disney (as some people are), you’ll probably get a kick out of this cartoon version of our state.
What: Most of the park’s rides, restaurants and photo ops are all about idealizing California, including Hollywood Land (who’s ever seen such clean streets and tidy storefronts in the real Hollywood?); Pacific Wharf (a mix of Cannery Row in Monterey and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco); and Grizzly Peak (a nod to Yosemite and the tall trees of Northern California). But other features these days reach far beyond state lines.
Why: It’ll quicken your pulse, drop your jaw and demand your full attention. There’s no more dramatic passage from Central California’s blond hills to the Big Sur coast than this 24-mile route.
What: Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a winding, two-lane highway, begins in the Salinas Valley countryside north of Paso Robles, next to the often-overlooked Mission San Antonio de Padua and the Army’s Ft. Hunter-Liggett. From there it creeps through forest and chaparral to the crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains, about 2,800 feet above sea level. Then for 7 miles, via dozens of switchback turns, it wends its way down the western slopes to Big Sur.
It meets Highway 1 at Kirk Creek, about 4 miles south of Lucia.
Why: Every real downtown has a park to serve as urban backyard, and Grand Park is more proof that L.A.'s downtown is getting realer by the day.
What: The 12-acre park connects the Music Center at the top of Bunker Hill with City Hall at the bottom. (Yes, you can go to City Hall's 27th floor observation deck and it's free). The park isn't really new -- there's been open space for decades on these blocks between government buildings. But a dramatic redesign in 2012 put a far better spin on the area, and it doesn't hurt that neighboring Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels arrived in 2002, Disney Hall in 2003 and the Broad Museum in 2015.
Besides its welcome green expanses and flanking playground and dog-run areas, Grand Park includes a fountain (with splash pad for kids), an adjacent Starbucks, plenty of places to sit and a busy schedule of holiday events and live shows. Picnicking is encouraged. Protesting is permitted. Food trucks come for lunch most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. There's midday yoga on many Wednesdays and Fridays. In October and November, the park hosts Día de los Muertos altars and art; in November and December, holiday lights.
Why: McWay Falls, the splashiest attraction in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, roars down 80 feet from granite and redwoods to a creamy Big Sur beach and implausibly turquoise cove. It’s the cascade that other waterfalls want to be. It’s also a perfectly impossible California destination, because you can’t stand under these falls. There’s no safe way to the beach.
What: The hike is more of a stroll, really. It’s about half a mile, mostly flat. (And the rest of the park remains mostly closed because of mudslides and other damage done by the Soberanes Fire of 2016.) Once you’ve passed through a short tunnel under Highway 1 and made a right turn, you’ll soon be standing on a rocky perch where a house once stood, looking south to the beach and falls.
This is an invitation to chill. For one thing, the trail has ended. Also, like Yosemite Falls — which led off our California Bucket List project on Jan. 1 — McWay Falls is a sort of perpetuity made plain. The water keeps coming, even if it’s in short supply elsewhere. And the cell reception is so rotten that you’ll probably never get an Instagram photo posted from here.
Why: Simplicity and complexity meet in the Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco, and the marriage is a harmonious celebration of architecture and intellect.
What: The 1895 Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco, a national historic landmark in Pacific Heights, is an Arts and Crafts building designed by several architects, including Bernard Maybeck, who created the Palace of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 in San Francisco.
Inside the walls are rustic redwood, found often in Arts and Crafts buildings and consistent with the Swedenborgian appreciation of natural objects, according to the 1969 book “Here Today: San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage.” The chairs are maple, “made by hand, without the use of nails, and their seats were woven of tule rushes from the Sacramento River Delta,” the book says.
Why: If you’re intimidated by the word “spa,” Glen Ivy is the place for you. It feels accessible, not exclusive, meaning you can sit back and relax.
What: Which is what you want to do. There are 19 pools to try, including the mineral pools, the star attraction in the early days of the late 1800s when you could soak in them for 25 cents.
Today, you start by getting a locker for your street clothes and putting on your swim suit in a well-appointed area that includes changing rooms, showers and big, lighted mirrors where you’ll find hairdryers you’ll want later in the day.
Why: The Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad is novel and quirky – and proof that good things come in small packages.
What: The collection includes painstakingly crafted, remarkable miniatures, many with moving parts. There are cars, planes, engines of all sorts, ships, thumb-sized guns and knives, and much more. These are not the plastic model car kits from your childhood; for example, there's an eye-popping version of a 1932 Duesenberg SJ that has more than 6,000 custom-made parts and is said to have taken more than 10 years to finish. The folks who built these tiny wonders spent decades perfecting their craft.
There are hundreds of works from around the world on display, and docents to describe the intricacies and makers of each. Try to time your visit to coincide with a tour of the machine shop/engine room for a little extra oomph.
Why: Like the Grand Canyon or the northern lights, the majestic Rose Parade needs to be seen in person to be really appreciated. On a bright SoCal morning, the colors, detail and craftsmanship come alive. And throughout December, there are some intriguing pre-parade opportunities for volunteers.
What: One of L.A.’s finest freebies, the Rose Parade steps off at 8 a.m. every New Year’s morning (unless the holiday falls on a Sunday, in which case it is bumped to Monday). We won’t even bother describing it, since like the “Wizard of Oz” or a Super Bowl, everyone has probably seen it on TV.
In person, though, the parade’s splendor, precision and pageantry make an early wake-up call worth it. It’s almost a rite of passage for Southern Californians, some of whom spend the night along the parade route.
Why: The Mission Inn, which dates to the 1870s, stands in the middle of Riverside the way Bruce Springsteen stands in the middle of the E Street band. It fills a city block. And since the early 1990s, the hotel has been putting together an ever-more-lavish Festival of Lights. At last count, about 5 million lights.
What: For six weeks at Christmastime, the landmark hotel switches on all those lights and invites visitors to stroll through the property, including a tunnel where faux snow falls. (This year’s festival runs Nov. 24 through Jan. 6.)
The line to walk the property can get very long — and the traffic and parking situation in the blocks around the hotel can seem downright devilish. But most folks are in a good mood, and the festival includes live music, horse-drawn carriages, funnel cakes, Santa Claus photo ops and more. To see more lights and skip the line, book a dinner reservation at the Mission Inn Restaurant (one of several on the property) and you may land at a courtyard table, surrounded by Spanish Revival architecture that’s more ornate (and with more Tuscan influence) than you’ll see at any of California’s 21 actual missions.
Why: John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, Calif., a farming community that lacks the cachet of neighboring Carmel and Monterey. But, then, neither of those towns produced a man who went on to win a Pulitzer, a Nobel and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To be in in Steinbeck’s hometown is to be reminded that, as fellow author F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind.”
What: Steinbeck’s birthplace home and the National Steinbeck Center tell the tale of the man whose “Grapes of Wrath” is often thought to be the Great American Novel. The community of his youth — he was born here in 1902 — was this rich, rural farming area in the Salinas Valley, and his labors alongside migrant workers in the sugar beet fields of nearby Spreckels informed many of his works, including “Of Mice and Men.”
He attended Stanford but never graduated, and he struggled to establish himself, but in 1935, his book “Tortilla Flat” finally put him in the public eye. His subsequent books included “Cannery Row,” “Sea of Cortez” and “East of Eden” and, of course, “Grapes of Wrath,” about which he wrote, “It isn’t the great book I hoped it would be.” The story of the Joads, fleeing the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and arriving in not-quite-as-billed California, won the Pulitzer in 1940.