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.
Why: The Huntington is one of the Southern California's greatest cultural assets, with ever-evolving gardens; a library that includes everything from a Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare folio to the papers of Charles Bukowski and Octavia Butler; and an art collection that, unfortunately, is often overshadowed by a single famous painting of a rich kid in satin knee breeches. (That would be Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," an 18th century portrait bought by California railway pioneer Henry E. Huntington in the early 1920s.)
What: It began as a citrus ranch and later sprouted a mansion and other buildings. Huntington and his wife, Arabella, created the institution, officially known as the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, in 1919. Its 207 acres include 12 gardens (including one where kids can romp) and the galleries inside feature more than 1,000 artworks, including paintings by Americans Mary Cassatt, Frederic Edwin Church and Edward Hopper. Both the library and art collection offer rotating exhibitions.
"The Blue Boy" is gone from view through Oct. 31, being analyzed before thorough "conservation treatment" that will take it off display again beginning in fall 2018.
Why: Southern California is ground zero for the mid-century phenomenon that Tiki became, and the concept is experiencing a serious revival.
What: Hollywood’s Don the Beachcomber inaugurated the Tiki bar concept way back in 1934. The movement inspired generations to wear Hawaiian shirts, decorate in faux-tropical kitsch and order flaming cocktails. Though the original Don the Beachcomber went the way of the Tail O’ the Pup, the Tonga Hut and a few others held on through the dark time of Tiki’s decline in the 1970s. Until a few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a decent tropical rum drink from anywhere reputable.
But here we are, in a rebirth of Tiki, and if you want to experience a night of tiny umbrellas in a Polynesian paradise, look no further than the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood. Opened in 1958, the Tonga Hut offers an excellent Tiki-themed interior, a jaunty jukebox, devoted regulars, a wide-ranging list of classic tropical drinks and history — it’s Los Angeles’s oldest tiki bar still in operation. Look out for the Loyal Order of Drooling Bastards wall, which lists every person who has mastered the “Grog Log," a list of 78 classic exotic drinks, within a one-year time frame.
Why: On this barren, windblown patch of the Owens Valley, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans endured a painful home-front chapter of World War II -- a mass incarceration that U.S. leaders have conceded was wrong. The National Park Service has remade the site, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, as a place for contemplation of war, liberty, prejudice and endurance.
What: It was early 1942, about 10 weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 Japanese Americans be incarcerated in internment camps. Walk through the two reconstructed barracks and mess hall, which are full of displays and signage explaining daily life in the camp. Watch the 22-minute film in the visitor center, "Remembering Manzanar."
Browsing the displays, you'll learn the details of daily life, from mess hall menus to the fruit crates that families converted into furniture. You'll also read NPS researchers' conclusion that "no person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States was ever convicted of any serious act of espionage or sabotage during the war." The exhibits include a 1988 news clip of President Reagan declaring the camps "a mistake" and offering compensation for survivors of internment. (Park rangers opened Manzanar as a historic site in 1992.)
Why: Legions of film, television and commercial actors, directors and crew have spent quality time among the boulders outside Lone Pine, making this part of the Owens Valley the face of the American West in many ways. John Wayne made a dozen movies here. John Ford and William Wyler worked here. Parts of the first "Lone Ranger" film (1938) were shot here, as were parts of the the "Lone Ranger" television series (1949-1957).
What: This is actually a two-stop adventure. First, step into the Museum of Western Film History in the Owens Valley town of Lone Pine. There you'll learn the evolution of western stories on large and small screens and see Tom Mix's black hat, the dentist's wagon from "Django Unchained" (2012) and one of Roy Rogers' old guitars and too many cool old posters to count. You'll also learn how some 400 movies and countless TV episodes and commercials have been shot in the nearby hills. The first film shot here may have been "The Roundup" (1920).
Your second stop is the Alabama Hills, which begin about 2 miles west of the museum. Using a map from the museum, you can drive Movie Road and walk to Lone Ranger Canyon, scanning the strangely familiar landscape and reviewing the list of titles filmed here -- not only westerns, but also parts of the "Iron Man," "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" franchises. There's also a Lone Pine Film Festival every year around Columbus Day.
Why: This is as rugged and pristine as California gets, and you'll have a horse to do the hard work for you.
What: More than a dozen pack stations along the Eastern Sierra are still sending guests on horseback into the mountains, where they can camp, fish, hike, do John Muir impressions or just ride for the fun of it. While you saddle up, your guides (known as packers) will cinch your possessions onto the back of a mule. And cook. Your trip might last a few days or a few weeks.You'll probably set up camp near a lonely lake with a sky full of stars waiting once the sun is down.
Where: The pack stations are tucked away on the lower slopes from Lone Pine to Bridgeport along Highway 395, and also along Tioga Road, the seasonal route that connects the Owens Valley to Yosemite National Park.
Why: Watching a field of lavender waving in a summer breeze is hypnotic, second only to smelling lavender. You need not go to France to experience this; it’s as close as Clairmont Farms in Los Olivos, a pretty 30-mile drive from Santa Barbara.
What: Besides the olfactory aesthetic, the grounds of the nine-or-so-acre farm, seven in lavender, are peaceful, surrounded by towering oaks and framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. You can bring a picnic lunch and dine at the painted-purple tables and browse the gift shop for its made-here lavender products. Note that if you’re allergic to bees, this may be a no-fly zone for you.
Clairmont grows two types of lavender: Grosso, which goes into all of the farm's products (including many soaps and bath items); and Provence, which goes into culinary products such as pepper, salt, honey and tea. A little lavender tea, owner Meryl Tanz said, can enhance the flavor of beer, wine, martinis or margaritas.
Why: You'll find a feast for the eyes and a fascinating glimpse into the business of flowers at the largest wholesale floral district in the country.
What: Anchored by two large markets (the Original Los Angeles Flower Market and the Southern California Flower Market) and flanked by independent vendors, the historic Los Angeles Flower District is awash in beautiful blooms. More than 100 years ago, Japanese farmers began to offer their floral goods in this spot. Today, many offerings are still grown in Southern California—an area that reigns supreme in the national billion-dollar industry of flower farming. (Until the 1960s, Californians supplied the entire nation with all of its cut fresh flowers.) Plan for a morning visit—public hours start as early as 6 a.m., and many vendors are gone by noon.
Where: 766 Wall St. (between 7th and 8th streets), downtown Los Angeles.