370 posts
  • Family-friendly
  • High Sierra
Ranger wreath ceremony, 2014.
Ranger wreath ceremony, 2014. (Dick Sheppard/Sanger Herald)

Why: Any way you look at it, General Grant stands tall. First of all, it's a massive sequoia, one of the largest living things in California. Moreover, the White House has named this "the nation's Christmas tree."

What: General Grant is 268 feet high, the base of its trunk is 107 feet around. In 1925, Central Valley resident Charles E. Lee (an officer of the Sanger Chamber of Commerce) asked President Coolidge to have this giant sequoia in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon designated the national Christmas tree. In 1926 the president complied. Ever since, the Sanger Chamber has staged an annual Trek to the Tree, drawing hundreds of people each year for a winter program that typically includes songs and prayers. No tinsel, no lights. Just the tree as it has stood for about 2,000 years, and a wreath contributed by park rangers.

This year's event will be Sunday, Dec. 10, at the base of the tree. and it's a free admission day in the park. For reservations or information on shuttle buses to the site, contact the Sanger Chamber of Commerce by phone at (559) 875-4575 or by e-mail at

Snow Summit
Snow Summit (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Why: SoCal offers the chance to ski and surf on the same day. This would be the snowy part of such a mountains-to-the-beaches day.

What: Bear Mountain and Snow Summit are two slices of the same cake. Two miles apart, the sister resorts are the crown jewels of the town of Big Bear, a couple of hours from the bustle of the big city.  

Big Bear is three hours away from downtown Los Angeles, and a world apart from the strip malls and gas stations that muck up much of Southern California. Spring, summer or fall, this alpine lake resort town offers plenty of activities, including boating, hiking and zip-lining.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • North Coast
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Rugged coast. Big sand spit. Half-forgotten road. Blufftop perch. Despite all these assets, this dramatic corner of Northern California doesn't get that many visitors. So you'll probably have it to yourself.

What: Your gateway to the Klamath River Overlook is Requa, a hamlet -- the memory of a town, really -- along the Highway 101 south of Crescent City in Del Norte County. Its main landmark is the Historic Requa Inn, a rustic riverside lodging and restaurant that dates to 1914. If you can work out a way to eat dinner and spend a night there, do it. But don't stop there. Continue west 1.5 miles (no RVs!) on ramshackle Requa Road (which becomes Patrick J. Murphy Memorial Road on some maps) until there's no more road, and no more land. That will put you at the Klamath River Overlook. Drink it in. And if it's May or June, scan the ocean for gray whales. Rangers say they often linger to feed in the waters spilling from river to sea

This bluff is part of Redwood National and State Parks and it includes a modest picnic area. There's a steep Lower Overlook Trail that will take you about a quarter-mile down the slope, exposing further views. There's also a Coastal Trail to the north -- follow it for 2.7 miles and you'll reach Hidden Beach.

A drive-in theater in 2014
A drive-in theater in 2014 (Associated Press)
The entrance at the Van Buren Drive-In.
The entrance at the Van Buren Drive-In. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Why: What could be more of a California experience than a Hollywood double-feature viewed from the comfort of your car?

What: In the 1950s, drive-in movies were a staple of American pop culture. These days, they are a novelty. One of the last remaining hot spots lives on at the Van Buren Drive-In in Riverside.

Put the kids in their PJs and pack up the lawn chairs for a fine family getaway at the Van Buren. Opened in 1964 on the site of former orange groves, the three-screen drive-in remains a vibrant local hangout at half the price of your local multiplex. You can even bring your own food.

  • S.F. Bay Area
Chocolate tart, Ad Hoc, Yountville
Chocolate tart, Ad Hoc, Yountville (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Yountville is a sleepy, genteel little town in the heart of Napa Valley, population about 3,000. And Thomas Keller, one of this nation's most admired chefs, has three restaurants in Yountville, on the same street. Or four. Or five, depending on how you count.

What: Keller, raised and trained in Florida and New York and renowned for his high standards, has also cooked in acclaimed kitchens in France and Los Angeles, and he has operations in New York and Las Vegas as well. (His Bouchon in Beverly Hills is scheduled to close Dec. 31.) But since he opened the French Laundry in 1994, Yountville has been the seat of his California empire.  With three Michelin stars and a nine-course chef's menu, The French Laundry may be the most celebrated restaurant in the state, and it's surely one of the priciest.

Ad Hoc, Yountville
Ad Hoc, Yountville (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

But the chef has give us options. Bouchon opened in 1998, offering French bistro fare. The Bouchon Bakery followed in 2003. In 2006 came Ad Hoc, devoted to American comfort food in a casual setting. (Its humble-brag slogan: "for temporary relief from hunger.") Ad Hoc's menu changes daily to take advantage of fresh ingredients, but it's all built around the chef's choice for a four-course family-style meal, which includes favorites like pot roast and barbecue. I came before 6 p.m. on buttermilk fried chicken night (a Monday), and found myself in a happily clamorous dining room, surrounded by families, confronting more food than I could eat. (I enjoyed the casual feeling, and I liked the chicken well enough. But I actually enjoyed the salad and cheese courses more — livelier flavors.)

Bouchon Bakery, Yountville
Bouchon Bakery, Yountville (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: Napa Valley has close to 500 wineries. Castello di Amorosa is the only one housed in a 107-room castle that was built in accordance with 13th century Tuscan aspirations.

What: Owner/designer Dario Sattui completed this spectacle, a 15-year project, in 2007. Besides its five towers and the barrel-vaulted retail and tasting area (which never seems to end), it's got a great hall and chapel, each with evocative murals. There's said to be a torture chamber below. Depending on your mood, you might expect a "Da Vinci Code" villain to round a corner at any moment, or Orson Welles in mid-soliloquy. Or one of the Monty Python guys, clopping coconuts together.

Not surprisingly -- given the Tuscan blueprint of the place -- the Castello di Amorosa wines are made in the Italian style. The winery suffered no damage in the wine country fires of October.   

  • S.F. Bay Area
Fountain, Indian Springs, Calistoga
Fountain, Indian Springs, Calistoga (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Calistoga is the answer to the question of what to do in the Napa Valley when you've had enough wine. It's a little, old resort town full of hot springs, so between wine-tasting excursions (and maybe the occasional bike ride) you can float listlessly in a steaming pool, untroubled by the faint scent of sulfur because you can feel the stress evaporating from your body. 

What: Samuel Brannan, a brash, controversial figure who became one of California's first millionaires in the Gold Rush, founded Calistoga in the 1860s, counting on the area's springs to draw tourists from San Fancisco. (In fact, he built a rail route from Vallejo to Calistoga, and the current Napa Valley Wine Train rolls on the Napa-St. Helena portion of that old route.) It was a clever impulse. The town (population: about 5,300) lives on as a resort escape, with hideaways like Calistoga Ranch, Dr. Wilkinson's and Indian Springs (perhaps the oldest continuously operating pool and spa facility in the state) all relying heavily on their hot springs.

Though the Napa/Sonoma wildfires of October drew near, they never reached the town of Calistoga, and it remains handsome as ever. In early November, I spent a night and stepped from the chilly morning air into the Olympic-sized, 102-degree, steam-cloaked pool at  the 17-acre Indian Springs resort. It was pleasant. In 2015, the resort added a restaurant (Sam's Social Club, which has fascinating, colorful mural over the counter) and grew from about 40 rooms to 115. Many of the interiors still have that just-upgraded, ready-for-the-magazine-photographer look. 

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: If you're going to fully appreciate this valley and its globally admired vineyards, it's better that you're not driving. And on the Napa Valley Wine Train, you have the chance to dine in style while the miles and wineries roll past. 

What: The train covers about 18 miles, running north alongside Highway 29 from the city of Napa through Yountville and Oakville to St. Helena. Along the way, depending on what you sign up for, you may stop to taste at one to three wineries, eat a three-course meal on board, and be back where you started in three to six hours. It's expensive but so very comfortable.

And it's got complicated history. The rail route, first laid in the 1860s, had fallen idle by the 1980s. To get the new wine train rolling in 1989, its owners had to outmaneuver many Napa locals who feared a tourist invasion would ruin the affluent community's character. Skip forward now to 2015, when the train's management drew a storm of criticism for ejecting a group of guests, mostly African American, who were accused of being too loud.

The view from the train, near Yountville, in early November.
The view from the train, near Yountville, in early November. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
Dim sum counter, Market Restaurant, China Live.
Dim sum counter, Market Restaurant, China Live. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: Nobody likes to say so, but a lot of San Francisco's Chinatown looks tired these days. And many of the area's best Chinese restaurants are scattered among the outer suburbs where so many affluent Chinese American families live. So it's a happy surprise to see China Live bring new energy and higher style to the neighborhood with a combination of design-intensive eating and shopping options. Its mission: "to demystify Chinese ingredients and recipes while educating guests on the rich history and influence."

What: China Live opened in March 2017, near the frontier between Chinatown and North Beach. The main downstairs space, the Market Restaurant and Bar, is full of long wood tables under a semi-raw concrete ceiling. Picture an Apple Store with steaming, edible merchandise, neighbored by open cooking areas, beckoning counters, a bar and adjacent retail rooms stocked with artisan teas, kitchen tools, condiments, shapely candles, jewelry and such. The restaurant's menu is mostly based on sharing small dishes, so you might wind up with a medley dinner of  fire-roasted sweet white corn, Dungenes crab spring rolls and Sheng Jian Bao (SJB) pan-fried pork dumplings.

Market Restaurant, China Live.
Market Restaurant, China Live. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Near the entrance is the casual Oolong Cafe. Upstairs waits a more exclusive restaurant offering private, pricey dining in elegant rooms befitting a royal in hiding. It's called Eight Tables by George Chen (dinner only; tasting menu: $225). There are also a pair of bars upstairs, including the Gold Mountain Lounge and one called Cold Drinks -- one of those hip hideaways that seeks to be popular by maintaining quasi-secrecy.

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
A 1,033-pound pumpkin on display at Oxbow Public Market in Napa.
A 1,033-pound pumpkin on display at Oxbow Public Market in Napa. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This market and food hall, set above a fetching bend in the Napa River, is a short stroll from downtown Napa, a block from the headquarters of the popular Napa Valley Wine Train, a block from the COPIA center for wine and food education. Much smaller than San Francisco's food-centric Ferry Building but placed near the starting point of many popular Napa adventures, this foodie acre (about two-thirds the size of a football field) is a point of convergence for locals and tourists and a one-stop reminder that this wine country does more than make wine.

What: The Oxbow Public Market opened in 2007, just in time to suffer from a national recession, the closure of COPIA (since rethought and reopened by the Culinary Institute of America) and construction-related disruptions of local traffic. Now those troubles are in the rear-view mirror, and a stroll around the marketplace introduces you to plenty of wine products but also duck tacos (at C Casa); American comfort food (Gott's Roadside); local seafood (Hog Island Oyster Co.); and assorted local fruits and vegetables (Hudson Greens & Goods).  

On my early November visit, Hudson was showing off a 1,033-pound pumpkin. There were also plenty of signs thanking the first-responders for their work fighting that region's wildfires in October. (Though many homes and about two dozen wineries were lost or damaged in those fires, the vast majority of the area's 500 wineries had reopened by Nov. 8.)