Why: As soon as you step down into Forestiere Underground Gardens, the temperature will drop about 20 degrees and the strange, wonderful story of Mr. Forestiere will begin to unfold. If you've heard the history of Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, this is largely the same thing, upside down.
What: Forestiere came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1901 as a young man and bought land to start a citrus farm in West Fresno. But nobody warned him how hot it would be, or how hard the soil would be. So he adapted. He dug himself a cellar, savored the coolness, devised a system for turning hard-pan dirt into bricks, then set about building a mostly underground home with citrus trees whose top branches poked up through the skylights. For 40 years he dug and built, as deep as 33 feet beneath the surface. To make ends meet, he sold fruit and dug canals for other farmers. He never married but had plenty of friends, whom he entertained in his growing network of rooms and shady courtyards. (Plumbing? No.) After his death at 67 in 1946, a brother preserved part of the property and opened it for tours.
About 60 years later, the gardens are owned by 89-year-old Rick Forestiere, a nephew of the old man, and the tours continue, from March through November. A guide shows you the ballroom, the kitchen, the bedrooms (one for summer, one for winter), the rooms Forestiere hoped to make into a resort, the glass-bottomed pond, the many surviving citrus trees he planted. (He loved grafting, and one used to yield seven different kinds of fruit. It still grows two different kinds of oranges.)
Why: Bolinas, a lagoon-adjacent haven of 1,600 bohemian souls in an oft-overlooked corner of Marin County, has been operating incognito for decades. Locals steal road signs so that outsiders can't find their way in. Now that attitude might be softening, and the town, surrounded by hiking, surfing and kayaking opportunities, is fascinating.
What: About 50 years ago, hard-core Bolinas locals started stealing the town's highway sign and they never stopped. The goal, conceived in back-to-the-land idealism, was to build a nature-friendly community without the distractions and economic distortions of tourism. But as properties turn over and GPS renders signage moot, Bolinas seems to be evolving. Whether you're on the water or Wharf Road, it's a great place to think about hippie legacies and the nature of community at a time when Bay Area real estate is very nearly a blood sport.
Don't expect a tourist welcome center, but if you show up mellow and humble there's no reason you shouldn't drop in for a bite at the Coast Cafe; browse the tiny but well-appointed Bolinas Museum (open Fridays through Sundays only), or drink at Smiley's Schooner Saloon and Hotel, which goes back to the 19th century. In fact, Smiley's (which got new owners in 2015) offers live music four nights a week and rents out six rooms in back. I slept comfortably in one. On the street and in Smiley's, I was an obvious outsider with a camera around my neck, but everyone I met treated me well and Enzo Resta told me how his uncle may have been the first to take the town sign back in the day.
Why: Good things do come in small packages — sometimes, very small packages with hoofs. Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch in Solvang will have you oohing and aahing over its mini-Flickas and, if you’re lucky, their babies too.
What: If Solvang’s Scandinavian flavor seems a little surreal for you, this horse farm just outside of town feels real and relaxed. It’s quiet. The tiny horses (about 35 of them) and their offspring are mesmerizing. How enchanting can a critter munching grass can be? You’ll be surprised.
And if you’re lucky there will be foals. There were three births this year, and half a dozen are expected in spring 2018. You will chuckle at their gangly attempts to act like the big kids. The cast of characters changes each year as some of the herd is sold and new ones are born, which means you can go back again and again and see new faces.
Why: Bristlecone pines are not only the oldest living things in the world, but the most tortured. They grow incredibly slowly, sipping at arid soil that barely fuels them. Their 5,000-year-old rings are textbooks on the history of the planet, with chapters dating to 3000 B.C.
What: You can browse the oldest groves in the world at Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, 50 minutes off the 395, just south of Bishop. The excellent visitor center provides a fine and comfortable launch point, for guided or self-guided hikes amid these ancient totems.
These are not the giant, majestic sequoias, but twisted and gnarled veterans. They are stunning. The trees look like living driftwood, and in some cases, as if they have been at war.
Why: A good soak in these natural hot springs might be the Sierra’s best free attraction. When to go? Late afternoon, when light falls just right on the stunning scenery, adding to the magic.
What: Travertine hot springs are located about a mile east of U.S. Route 395, just south of Bridgeport. For visitors to Mammoth or June Lake, they are an easy 45-minute drive. They also make a relaxing pit stop on the way to Lake Tahoe.
The pools attract families, couples, even rangers from the nearby station. The best pools take a little hunting, especially on light days. But stick with it — and don’t leave the car barefoot, because the pathways feature stones and sharp vegetation.
Why: Long before it became the tag for a trendy burger chain, the name Shake Shack conjured images of a winsome little shake joint, perched like a pelican on the edge of one of the greatest coastal vistas in California. And that joint endures.
What:Ruby’s Shake Shack has been a pit stop on the Coast Highway since 1945. Once called Sunshine Cove, the bright yellow wooden structure still looks like the cover art for a Beach Boys album.
In 2006, the Ruby’s diner chain took it over, and has maintained the same barefoot vibe. Some locals say the food improved, but longtime fans continue to lament the changes.
Why: Bodie is an eastern Sierra ghost town so well preserved that it looks as if it might’ve been operating last week. Notorious for putting the "wild" in Wild West, it was once described by a minister as a “sea of sin.” By all accounts, he was right. The sprawling old mining camp at one time featured more than 60 saloons and dance halls.
What: Bodie’s heyday began in the 1870s, making it a gold rush town of 8,500 residents by the end of the decade. Miners spent difficult days working the mines and nights working the bars, dance halls and gambling dens. Gunfights and stage holdups were common as the riches were transported across long, dusty trails.
But the riches did not last long. By the 1880s, the mines were depleted. The population plunged to 1,500 by 1886. Fires destroyed much of the town, and what was left was abandoned in the 1940s. In 1962, it was declared a state historic park and a national historic landmark.
Why: Colorado may have more peaks over 14,000 feet than California does, but it doesn’t have Mt. Whitney. The Sierra peak is the highest point in the contiguous U.S. at 14,505 feet (give or take). It’s a rocky stairway to high-altitude heaven that can only be conquered on foot.
What: There are many routes up Whitney, but the most popular starts from the Whitney Portal just above the town of Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierra. Hikers usually set off during summer or sometimes fall. It's either a 22-mile round-trip day hike or a two- or three-day backpack journey, staying overnight at camps along the way. Wilderness permits are required for all trips and are awarded lottery-style every year.
The well-trodden, 11-mile trail to the top entails about 6,000 feet of altitude gain. It’s an arduous slog with flowery and grassy meadows in the first few miles, mountain lakes and stream-side waterfalls as you climb higher and then 99 switchbacks, which bring you to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet.
Why: There are probably more critters creeping (and flying, and even swimming) in the world's deserts than you realize, and this preserve proves the point.
What: The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, opened in 1970, is a 1,200-acre zoo and botanical garden that's devoted to portraying life in the world's deserts. There's a reptile show; there are jaguar, leopard and cheetah chats; and the animals include a tortoise, a python, longhorn cattle, bobcats, foxes, Gila monsters and coyotes.
For $5, you can feed a giraffe (warning: long tongue). For $6, beginning in the fall, you can briefly ride a camel. You might spot an elusive bighorn sheep on the neighboring slopes. And you'll certainly see the model railroad. It's not flora or fauna, but it's surely an epic project, with more than 3,300 feet of track and miniature historic scenes including the south rim of the Grand Canyon, a California logging town and Mt. Rushmore.
Why: L.A.'s first food hall is a century-old and full of new vendors and new energy.
What: In the Grand Central Market, a fixture on Broadway since 1917, you shuffle along under vintage-looking neon signs, hearing multiple languages, sniffing street food and market ingredients from near and far. Nine kinds of mole sauce! A hipster butcher! It would be a shame to patronize just one of these joints. So order part of your lunch or dinner from a relative newcomer — like Wexler's Deli or the Golden Road beer-tasting bar — and another part from an old-timer, like China Cafe or Tacos Tumbras a Tomas.
If your last visit was a few years ago, you'll notice there's been big turnover and gentrification here, resulting in more ambitious food, bigger crowds, longer hours, higher prices and a younger clientele.