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(Photos by Los Angeles Times staff: Brian van der Brug, Gina Ferazzi, Robert Gauthier, Dania Maxwell, Francine Orr, Christopher Reynolds, Raul Roa, Allen J. Schaben; Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images; lettering and animation by Jacky Sheridan/For The Times; video editing by Li Anne Liew/For The Times)

The 101 best West Coast experiences

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A brilliant, enduring moment can happen to anyone, any time, anywhere. But if you’re giving me a choice, I’d rather go looking for that moment at dawn on the salt flats of Death Valley.

Or at the base of the Yosemite waterfall.

Or on a busy night in Vancouver’s only Native restaurant.

Or on a southern Baja beach with sunset coming.

What secret thread runs through these places? Well, the same migrating gray whale might show up in Baja or British Columbia, depending on the season. Beyond that, these destinations are all on the West Coast, which we like to think of as our backyard, even though it rises, falls and sprawls for thousands of miles.

We’re spoiled for choice as travelers living in Southern California: The beaches, deserts, mountains, towns, cities and people — some familiar, some startling — all roar for our attention. This list aims to cover 101 West Coast experiences that roared loudest when we showed up, looked and listened.

Ahead you’ll find fresh information on plenty of destinations you’ve long meant to visit or revisit — the half-hidden glories of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, the stalls and buskers of Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the rugged slopes of Catalina Island’s back country. And because the West keeps changing, I’m hoping this list will alert you to many places and adventures you’ve never considered before. Maybe that means a weekend of eating your way through the restaurants along Bell Street in Los Alamos, a night of music on the waterfront in downtown San Diego or a steamy sauna on a reconditioned warship in the Inner Harbor of Victoria, British Columbia.

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How did we choose? By going everywhere. I have visited 87 of these places, from the southern tip of Baja (which you can reach in a see-through boat) to the forests of British Columbia (where you can tiptoe across a suspension bridge that’s 230 feet above the Capilano River). For the other 14, all in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve relied on contributor Elisa Parhad. We’ve left out a few of the usual L.A. suspects (Disneyland, Disney Hall, the Getty, Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Bowl and the Santa Monica Pier, for instance), because they’re so well known and close to home. This list starts in the Baja California peninsula and heads north, taking you through California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope,” wrote author Wallace Stegner.

Maybe hope is the thread connecting these places. They raise possibilities — even the scenes of wrongdoing and tragedy. If we meet these destinations with enough humility and curiosity, surely the sights and people will encourage us in ways we can’t imagine now. What’s more inspiring, more hopeful, than a West Coast road?

Now, let’s hit that road, along with the beaches, the rivers and the slopes. Keep an eye out for gray whales. And please, write to christopher.reynolds@latimes.com if you’ve got an idea for a place I should go next — or if you just want to tell me I forgot San Francisco’s cable cars.

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Mexican Hwy. 1 hugs the Baja peninsula.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Coast alongside the blue-green waters of Baja's Bahía Concepción

Beach
The remote waters and beaches of Bahía Concepción begin about 650 miles down the Baja California Peninsula, south of the town of Mulegé. From the desert, sea and sky reaching in every direction, you imagine it all might last forever.

No such luck. The bay ends 28 miles later, about 50 miles north of Loreto. Before you move on, your inner desert rat and beach bum need a pause by those cactus-covered slopes and turquoise waters.

As you head south on the Baja Highway (Mexico 1), the bay begins near Playa Naranjos. From there the highway runs past about a dozen named beaches, some of which have rustic inns, restaurants or hook-ups for RV camping. There are no towns and no four-star resorts, just miles of sea, sand and cactus.

Playa Buenaventura, about 25 miles south of Mulegé, includes the Buenaventura restaurant and Argghh bar (it’s about pirates). There you can get a hot shower for 50 pesos (about $3). Neighboring beaches with camping include Playa Santispac, El Burro and Coyote to the north and the highly scenic (and sometimes crowded) Playa El Requesón about a mile southeast. There’s a 0.8-mile hiking trail at Requesón.

Before travel to Mexico, check U.S. State Department travel guidance on safety.

Bonus tip: Punta Concepción is at the tip of the peninsula that shelters the bay. If your vehicle is ready for rugged roads and you get permission to camp from one of the ranchers on the point, you won’t find a more peaceful place to watch sunset and sunrise.
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Long tables inside Fauna restaurant.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Sample sophisticated dishes at Fauna in Baja's Guadalupe Valley

Restaurant and lounge
This hot spot in the Guadalupe Valley, about 70 miles south of the Mexican border, includes a stylish dining room and sprawling patio with long family-style tables and broad views. The buildings are minimalist, with artfully weathered wood. The Fauna kitchen is led by chef David Castro Hussong, a distant relative of the same Hussong who started the famously raucous cantina in Ensenada (which lives on).

Fauna makes a lot of best-of lists and is priced accordingly. The chef’s tasting menu is about $105. But a tremendous lunch can be had for about $50. I ordered a lettuce-with-mackerel starter, followed by broccoli with chiltepín peppers, then cabbage with chilhuacle peppers, then lamb — possibly the best meal I’ve ever had in Mexico, and one of the best I had anywhere last year.

The restaurant, opened in 2017, serves lunch and dinner, beginning at 1 p.m. daily.

Bonus tip: If you can, leave time to tour the rest of the 200-acre Bruma winery complex. And if you haven’t been near Ensenada in a few years, the proliferation of wineries, restaurants and upscale lodgings in Guadalupe Valley may amaze you. Bruma tastings come with a short tour (cost $30-$35 per person). The Bruma property also has rentable villas and a B&B, Casa 8.
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Tourists watch from a panga as a gray whale surfaces and spouts a misty jet of vapor
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Commune with whales in a Baja lagoon

Lagoon
Laguna Ojo de Liebre, a.k.a. Scammon’s Lagoon, has two distinguishing characteristics. It’s surrounded by one of the world’s largest saltworks and — more to the point for most travelers — it attracts hundreds of gray whales each winter, many of which birth calves.

In their wake come thousands of whale watchers. The lagoon, part of UNESCO’s El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, includes three primary areas for whale watching.

About 20 pangas (small boats) have permits to take people out. In late January and early February, there can be 100 people per day watching whales. A typical tour would include 10 people on a 23-foot boat for about two hours at $58 each. Tour operators include Malarrimo Eco-tours, Mario’s Tours and The Californias.

Though U.S. wildlife officials urge people to stay at least 100 yards away from the whales, Mexico takes a more relaxed approach. Sometimes whales approach boats and allow people to touch them. Sometimes the whales never get that close. Similar whale-watching tours are offered by many companies in San Ignacio Lagoon (about 100 miles south) and Magdalena Bay.

Bonus tip: These gray whales, often more than 40 feet long, typically spend summers in waters of the Pacific Northwest, swim 5,000 miles south for the winter, then swim back again. The newborn calves are usually about 15 feet long. The gray whale’s average lifespan is unknown.

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A boat is framed by the Arch of Cabo San Lucas as the sun sets.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Bob in a see-through boat at Land's End in southern Baja

Experience
The jagged rocks of Land’s End mark the end (or start) of the Baja Peninsula, and it’s handy that one of those rocks takes the shape of an arch.

All day every day (weather permitting), tour companies and panga captains take visitors out to the waters near the rocks. Depending on price, surf and time, some will drop you for a while on nearby Lover’s Beach. (Divorce Beach, where the water is more treacherous, is also close at hand.)

I used Enva Tours, which has an office in the marina at Cabo San Lucas and runs boats out just about every hour at $29 to $39 per person. The boats are made of translucent plexiglass, which gives better views of the fish below and rocks around. (The hostess and captain said they work for tips only.)

Don’t expect solitude, especially near sunset, when two dozen or more boats routinely jostle for position. Do expect a memorable, multisensory scene with laughter, chatter in various languages, sea spray and a setting sun.

Bonus tip: If you pay more, you can also do this by catamaran or yacht or glass-bottom kayak.
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Tourists pose for photos next to an olive tree.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Follow a mountain road to one of Baja's oldest, most atmospheric missions

Mission
The mission in Loreto, founded by Spanish Jesuits in 1697, was the first Catholic outpost in the Californias — the starting point for the colonization of California. This was 730 miles south of San Diego and 72 years before the Franciscans started on the Alta California missions. The building you see in Loreto these days was completed in 1744 with many updates. It stands on a tree-shaded pedestrian promenade that’s full of restaurants, shops and hotels. Loreto’s population is about 20,000 and it faces the sheltered waters of the Gulf of California.

Yet for many seasoned Baja explorers, the Loreto mission isn’t even the most intriguing church in the neighborhood.

Many Baja mission aficionados say their favorite site about 25 miles southeast of Loreto in the rural hamlet of San Javier (population: about 40 families).

To reach the San Javier mission (formally: Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó.), you drive a twisty mountain road that will remind you of the raw landscape the missionaries faced. It takes about an hour. The church (built 1744-58) is younger than Loreto’s, but more of its original architecture has survived, including many elegant details. Moreover, it’s surrounded by rugged hills and enduring farms.

Bonus tip: A short stroll for the mission you’ll find a 300-year-old olive tree and ancient irrigation system. (There’s an admission of a few dollars.) A couple of rustic restaurants operate across the street from the mission. A priest comes on Sundays to celebrate Mass. If you’d rather not brave the road from Loreto to San Javier, several tour companies in Loreto offer day trips.
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Looking out from a cave decorated with ancient art toward its opening and the blue sky beyond
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Creep into a Baja cave full of ancient art

Ancient Art
You’ll find these cave paintings, a.k.a. Pinturas Rupestres, in the long, dry stretch of Baja south of Ensenada. They come up about 3 kilometers north of Cataviña at Kilometer 176 on Highway 1. Just a 10-minute walk from the parking lot by the highway, the well-marked and signed trail to this cave includes a tall, strangely stunted cactus. Markings include red and black hashmarks and a sun with 13 radiating rays. A neighboring wash includes scenic boulders and may have water in cooler months.

Be sure to leave the site as you found it — and consider that cave paintings are scattered throughout the peninsula. The same harsh setting that discourages many visitors has acted to save these markings from long ago.

Bonus tip: The Baja rock art I’d love to see some day is the series of murals farther south, near the town of San Ignacio, in the Sierra de San Francisco. Those murals, which include human figures 8 feet tall, are said to be at least 7,000 years old (the oldest art known on the peninsula), attributed to the Cochimí people. To reach them, you need a permit — and the hardiness to hike several days with guides and pack animals.

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South Fork, American River, near Coloma. River guide Kyle Brazil.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Paddle rapids on the South Fork of the American River

River rafting
Thanks to the snowpack left behind by this winter’s storms, we’re looking at a second year in a row of great possibilities for river running in California.

The season typically runs April through September. Most guides agree that the American River’s South Fork, in the Sierra foothills’ Gold Country, is an ideal spot for rookie rafters and families, thanks to its evocative scenery and relatively mild Class II and III rapids. (I’ve done it at ages 11 and 57.) Unless you’re a seasoned river runner, sign on with a licensed, experienced company. More than a dozen operate on the river, many based in the Coloma-Lotus area.

Rafting trips on the American’s South Fork typically begin north of Placerville, below the Chili Bar Reservoir. One-day floats usually cover the 13 miles of the Lower Gorge area. Two-day trips often cover 20 miles. As you might expect, the rides typically get gentler as spring turns to summer and summer eases into fall. Half-day and all-day rafting trips typically cost $150 to $200 per person.

Less than 10 miles from the South Fork’s Chili Bar put-in, you’ll find Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where the Gold Rush began. Placerville, the nearest town to the rafting, has plenty of restaurants and shops, a few lodgings and an Old West feel along Main Street.

Bonus tip: Statewide, you’ll find plenty of river-rafting outfitters, including many along the Middle and North forks of the American (both more challenging than the South fork) and the Merced, Tuolumne, Stanislaus, Lower Klamath, Kern, Kaweah and Truckee rivers.
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A boat with the words Angel Island sits on the bay.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Step through greenery into history on Angel Island

Marin and San Francisco counties Historical Landmark
If you’re standing along Main Street in the tiny, affluent, bayfront Marin County town of Tiburon, Angel Island State Park presents itself as a rich, green possibility just off the coast. A quick ferry ride ($18) will take you there, and on weekends there are several departures daily. (Another company offers daily service from San Francisco’s Ferry Building.)

It’s the biggest natural island in San Francisco Bay, about 740 acres. But there’s far more to Angel Island than its marina at Ayala Cove, its bay views, campgrounds, visitor center, hiking paths and bike rentals. It’s a key landmark in Asian American history, often described as the Ellis Island of the west.

From 1910 to 1940, this was the U.S. entry point for almost 1 million immigrants, including 175,000 from China. Scorned by U.S. immigration laws of the time, those from China typically spent weeks or months locked in barracks before being allowed to enter. Some etched poetry on walls in the Immigration Station and barracks, a roughly 1.5-mile walk or bike ride from the Ayala Cove ferry landing. If you visit Wednesday through Sunday, you can see the Detention Barracks Museum and the Angel Island Immigration Museum (in the island’s former hospital).

Bonus tip: Downtown Tiburon has its own bit of history: Several buildings on Main Street were built from old boats and now are known as “ark row.” Among them you can browse boutiques, grab a taco or admire the vintage and new specimens for sale in Schoenberg Guitars.
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Visitors walk in Death Valley National Park.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Walk the vast salt flats of Badwater Basin in Death Valley

Inyo County Attraction
The lake may come and go, but the wonder remains.

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the continental U.S. It’s been a popular spot for years because the crusty old lake bed sprawls like a moonscape between forbidding mountains.

Then in 2023, the valley got 2 inches of rain in a single day and suddenly Badwater had a lake again. It was only a few inches deep in most spots, but it stretched for more than a mile, lasted months and yielded astonishing panoramas, from the water’s edge and from Dante’s View, on a mountaintop 5,500 feet above.

In February 2024 the lake remained. In fact, the valley got more rain that month, prompting rangers to declare Death Valley open for kayaking.

Alas, evaporation happens. Especially in Death Valley. Kayaking season lasted about three weeks and ended March 4. The lake remained in early May, but it was smaller and only inches deep.

Unless you arrive after another freak storm, chances are good that Badwater will be dry and crunchy when you get there. But you still need to get there, ideally for sunrise or sunset.

Bonus tip: Badwater, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View all deliver epic sunsets and sunrises, and all are within 25 miles of Furnace Creek, where most of the park’s hotel rooms are. Also, the gas station at Stovepipe Wells, next to Mesquite Flat, is usually much less expensive than the one at Furnace Creek.
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Leaves and flowers in front of the Balboa Park Botanical Building.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Soak up art, science, culture and greenery at Balboa Park in San Diego

San Diego County Park
This is San Diego’s backyard, a condensed, flatter version of Griffith Park, but with more historic buildings, more museums and a zoo with a global following. If you’re a Balboa Park rookie, start with the San Diego Zoo, which may take your entire day. (Admission: $68-$74 per adult, $58-$64 per child age 3-11). If you’ve already done that, well, it’s lucky for you that the zoo is less than 10% of Balboa Park’s 1,200 acres, and the park’s other institutions have been growing and changing.

The park’s emblematic 1914 Botanical Building is due to reopen this fall after major reconstruction. The Mingei International Museum, which focuses on global folk art, has been boosted by a $55-million renovation in 2021 and Michelin praise in 2023 for its eclectic restaurant, Artifact at Mingei (which serves lunch Tuesday through Sunday, dinner Thursday and Friday).

The park’s museums and other institutions cover art (fine, folk, contemporary and photographic), natural history, anthropology, flight and all the imagined worlds that come with Comic-Con (which opened its museum here in 2021). The Old Globe theater complex includes three stages. The big lily pond between the promenade and the Botanical Building may be the most wholesome over-the-counter tranquilizer in town.

Bonus tip: When you’re chasing butterflies in the park’s Zoro Garden (between the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the Museum of Photographic Arts), remember that civic boosters staged the “nudist colony” there in 1935 to lure more visitors into the park’s Pacific International Exposition that year.
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A person looks at books on shelves at Bart's Books.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Thumb through pages at Bart’s Books under an open sky in Ojai

Ojai Bookstore
Sure, Ojai could survive without Bart’s. And Texas could last without cowboy boots. But what would be the point?

Since the late Richard “Bart” Bartinsdale opened this place in 1964 (and left town soon thereafter), Bart’s Books has become a town emblem, catering to bookish locals and visitors with a disarming layout: Most of it is open-air, with bits of tin roof to shield books on those rare occasions when Ojai gets rain.

The indoor portion is a converted house, with cookbooks in the kitchen and art and design books in the former garage. There are some rare books too. (A recent find: “The Year of Magical Thinking” in hardback, signed by its late author, Joan Didion: $400.) The shop is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with occasional readings and community events. But you can browse any time among the hundreds of used books shelved along Bart’s exterior walls, facing the sidewalk. The shop’s inventory was once all used, but now there are many new titles as well. The grand total: about 130,000 volumes.

Bonus tip: Used-book prices are marked in pencil on the upper right corner of the first blank page. The average: about $8.
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A street with cars parked along the sidewalk.
(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Feel the Old West vibes on charming Bell Street in Los Alamos

Santa Barbara County Shopping
Los Alamos may not be all dressed up, but it has arrived. After dawdling along for a decade or more, this tiny, unincorporated, not-at-all-nuclear town in Santa Barbara wine country is fast approaching the popularity of two other affluent, stylish, food-and-wine-focused hamlets in the area, Los Olivos and Santa Ynez. Still, Los Alamos doesn’t feel quite as fancy as those places, and a stroll down Bell Street remains a mellow affair, even though just about everything that ever happens in town takes place on that street’s four commercial blocks. (BTW: Alamos in Spanish means cottonwood trees.)

So what does Bell Street have? A refined Old West vibe, several stylish restaurants, a handful of tasting rooms and a few antique shops. Bell’s Restaurant, whose bistro fare has a Michelin star, sometimes includes San Barbara sea urchins and is offered via a $110 prix fixe dinner menu Thursday through Monday. (Bell’s also does lunch on those days.)

Bob’s Well Bread Bakery (Thursday through Monday) and Plenty on Bell (Tuesday through Sunday) are popular for breakfast and lunch. Full of Life Flatbread does big dinner business with its gourmet pizzas (Thursday through Sunday). Pico (that’s the building with the “General Store” sign out front) is another popular dinner spot, with a creative cocktail menu.

Bear in mind: Much of the town is closed Tuesday and Wednesday

Bonus tip: You could stay at a trendy motel (Alamo Motel) or a bed-and-breakfast in an 1864 Victorian home with six elaborately themed, not-at-all-Victorian suites (Victorian Mansion). If you’re splurging, the hilltop Skyview Los Alamos may be the answer. Several shops and restaurants in town also rent cottages through Airbnb, including Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, Bodega Wine and Beer Garden and Pico.
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Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

See moving pictures at BAMPFA, Berkeley’s reimagined art center

Berkeley Museum
This buttoned-down museum lives across the street from the University of California’s flagship campus, serving as a bright, quiet haven in the shaggy tumult of downtown Berkeley.

The vibe outside is neo-Art Deco, because about half of the museum was adapted from the university’s 1939 printing plant and the rest followed in 2016. Inside, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive curators make magic with temporary exhibitions and a collection that’s all over the place, including Ming Dynasty paintings, American Abstract Expressionist works and Soviet propaganda films.

Through July 7, BAMPFA is showing “What Has Been and What Could Be,” a exhibition full of striking juxtapositions from the museum’s permanent collection. In the “Serenity Now!” room, Albert Bierstadt’s 1872 “Yosemite Winter Scene” hangs near “Ichiren-bozu,” a luminous blue wool sculpture made by Berkeley artist Masako Miki in 2018. In the “Rad Women” room, one of Sojourner Truth’s 19th-century calling cards neighbors a 17th-century Giuseppe Cesari painting of the biblical hero Judith showing off the severed head of Holofernes.

The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday and the film archive presents about 450 screenings a year.

Bonus tip: After BAMPFA, check out the Berkeley campus — or, as locals would say, the Cal campus — and the commercial chaos that is Telegraph Avenue. For $5 per adult you can ride an elevator to the top of the university’s 307-foot Campanile, a.k.a. Sather Tower. Or eat lunch on nearby North Shattuck Avenue, where Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board Collective have endured since 1971.
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The Bob's Big Boy on Riverside Drive in Burbank is a gathering place for vintage car lovers every Friday night. It's also the oldest surviving Bob's location.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Munch burgers alongside classic cars at the oldest Bob’s Big Boy

Burbank Restaurant
Is this an order of California burger culture with a side dish of cars? Or is it a heaping helping of car culture with a burger on the side?

The answer is both. Burbank’s Bob’s Big Boy, open since 1949, is the oldest surviving Bob’s and it draws legions with its free Classic Car Show every Friday night. The car people gather around the restaurant’s 70-foot neon sign — a landmark of midcentury design — with gleaming chrome, rumbling pipes and upholstery smooth as a baby’s bottom.

From 4 to 10 p.m. each Friday, the restaurant suspends its one-hour parking limit so that these gearheads can show off their rides and check out the competition. Inside, you can get the Original Big Boy combo ($14.99) or all sorts of merch, 7 a.m. to midnight daily. But if you show up on a Friday at 9 p.m., as I did recently, you may face an hourlong wait, despite seating for 166. Alas, Bob’s carhop service is no more.

But you might see a ’57 Chevy Bel Air. Or a Russian Volga. Or a DeLorean. Some owners like to leave their hoods up, including more than a few silver-haired car guys who were teenagers in the ’60s.

Bonus tip: Jay Leno has been a frequent visitor. Director David Lynch came here daily for years in the 1970s and always ordered a chocolate milkshake. And when the Beatles showed up one day in 1965, they sat in the last booth on the right.
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Serpent sculpture in Borrego Springs.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Confront a serpent under starry skies in Borrego Springs

San Diego County Attraction
Before you head into the dry nooks and crannies of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, make your way into the little town that’s surrounded by the park — Borrego Springs and prepare to encounter one of Ricardo Breceda‘s beasts.

Breceda, a Southern California sheet-metal sculptor commissioned by local philanthropist Dennis Avery, has since 2008 placed about 130 metal works around Borrego Springs, a desert getaway that’s as sleepy as Palm Springs and Joshua Tree are trendy. Breceda’s works include dinosaurs, a scorpion the size of a Subaru and the artist’s magnum opus, a fearsome, whiskered, half-submerged serpent of the sand.

That 350-foot-long serpent — actually a medley of five segments rising from the sand — lies along Borrego Springs Road, 2.3 miles north of Christmas Circle. The Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Assn. store near Christmas Circle sells sculpture maps.

Before or after beast-hunting, get a cool beverage at Carlee’s or see what’s on the walls at the Borrego Art Institute. Then take a hike.

Out in the surrounding state park land, most hikers head first for the Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail (3 miles round-trip) or the Slot (a 2.2-mile loop through a slot canyon). Photographers rise early and take their four-wheel-drive vehicles up a four-mile dirt road to capture the sunrise badlands panoramas from Font’s Point.

Bonus tip: Expect brilliant night skies. Borrego is one of about 17 areas in the American West to be designated an International Dark Sky Community, a prime place for stargazing and night-sky photography.
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A woman face-to-face with an alpaca
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Nuzzle an alpaca in Carpinteria, one of California's last great beach towns

Experience
If you know Carpinteria, it’s probably for the gentle waves that lap on the beach at the foot of Linden Avenue. “World’s safest beach,” boosters say.

But they’re overlooking the alpacas. In the small city’s rural foothills, the Canzelle Alpaca Farm offers hourlong tours. Sign up and you’ll find yourself on a 20-acre hillside property where furry creatures with tiny heads gather next to a tall, red barn.

These are the alpacas, cousins to the llama, friendly to most people. More than 40 live on the ranch, along with two llamas, one black sheep, one water buffalo and a peacock. The alpacas get fleeced every spring.

Alpacas are native to South America. The Lonson family, owners of the farm, acquired their first ones about 20 years ago. Since the animals have mellow dispositions and only bottom teeth, they’re not much of a bite threat. Under guide Karen Putnam’s direction, a dozen of us took turns petting and nuzzling the animals, then feeding them carrots — in some cases, mouth to mouth.

Tours are offered Friday through Sunday. To join a group tour, the price is $25 to $30 per person, advance reservations required; children are welcome, dogs banned.

Bonus tip: For $65 a head, you can take a 15-person sound bath in the pasture, surrounded by alpacas and resonating crystal bowls.
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A person walks on sand dunes, with many birds in the water nearby
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Comb the beach that separates the Carmel River from the sea

Monterey Beach
Every time I’m in Carmel, I make time for Carmel River State Beach. It’s where the river meets the sea, where songbirds and seabirds gather, where visitors can stroll along a mile-long, mostly empty crescent beach, where you can flop near the driftwood on the inland side. Thanks to the wetland scenery, you often hear hundreds more birds than you see. Maybe even thousands.

It’s mesmerizing. And it’s a bracing contrast to the storybook architecture and steep prices that dominate downtown Carmel. (Did I mention that it’s free?)

The beach has its own parking lot, and it’s on the loop route for people driving Scenic Road. It’s also popular with local dog-walkers. Yet somehow it never seems as crowded as Carmel Sunset Beach at the foot of busy Ocean Avenue.

Bonus tip: Be sure to drive — or, better yet, pedal or walk — all of Scenic Road. It’s a one-way, 3-mile loop that begins at the foot of Ocean Avenue, taking you past rocky ocean cliffs on the right, highly coveted residential real estate on the left. You can rent a bike from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen shop on Ocean Avenue.
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The tunnel cut through Chandelier Tree with a Volkswagen van about to nose through it.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Drive through the living redwood that is the Chandelier Tree

Mendocino County Attraction
I understand. You do not want to damage an ancient redwood. But if there’s one around with a navigable hole in its middle, well, yes, you want to drive through it.

Me too. In fact, I’ve driven through all three of the remaining drive-through redwoods in California. Leggett’s Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree is the tallest, straightest standout, the Clint Eastwood of redwoods.

Since it was carved in 1937, giddy visitors have been steering vehicles through it. (So you’re not damaging a tree as much as you are recycling a roadside attraction.) Truth be told, there’s not a lot else to do in sleepy little Leggett, which is right along U.S. 101. The tree is estimated at 315 feet tall. The price is $15 per car and it’s open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, weather permitting. There’s a big gift shop. It’s a family operation, now in its fourth generation.

Also: If somebody mentions the drive-through tree in Yosemite, gently inform them it that fell over in 1969. Also, before you drive through, tuck in your mirrors.

Bonus tip: About 30 miles farther north on U.S. 101, you’ll reach the 31-mile-long Avenue of the Giants, a corridor of natural wonder and roadside kitsch that includes Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Once there, be sure to inspect the magnificent 362-foot-long corpse of the Dyerville Giant, once thought to be the world’s tallest tree. It fell in 1991, causing an impact so violent that some neighbors feared a train crash.
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The Cheech Marin Arts Center.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

See bold and joyful art at the Cheech in Riverside

Art Museum
Officially, this lively museum is the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture, opened in 2022 through a collaboration among Marin, the Riverside Art Museum and the city of Riverside. But you can call it the Cheech.

Which fits. It’s a breath of fresh air, a spectrum of bold colors, a grito, celebration and lamentation of the Mexican American experience. The Cheech’s two-story building, once the city’s central library, makes a good home for art, especially the unnamed kaleidoscopic 26-foot-high installation by brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre and Frank Romero’s 8-by-12-foot canvas “The Arrest of the Paleteros” (which shows police shutting down vendors in L.A.’s Echo Park).

Most of the art here has been made since 1965. Many works address simmering social issues. And many, thanks to their saturated colors and thick brushstrokes, look like they’re still wet. Adult admission is $15.95, which also gets you into the neighboring Riverside Art Museum. Both venues are closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Bonus tip: Riverside has no mission, but across the street from the Cheech it has the Mission Inn, a gargantuan Mission Revival hotel that dates to the 1870s and fills a city block with 238 guest rooms, a spa, several restaurants, all manner of European architectural flourishes and an immensely popular winter Festival of Lights.
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Murals under the freeway in Chicano Park.
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Smile up at the colors and concrete of San Diego's Chicano Park

San Diego County Park
Some of the bright murals beneath the Coronado Bridge in San Diego’s Chicano Park are angry. Some are dreamy. Others are witty. But together, they deliver an umistakable message. They’re a Mexican American demand for respect and their location is no accident.

When state and local officials expanded Interstate 5 through San Diego and built the Coronado Bridge in the 1960s, they split the blue-collar neighborhood of Barrio Logan. Then in 1970, when the California Highway Patrol started building an office where a park was expected, the neighbors rose up, occupied the site for 12 days and at last got a 7-acre park set aside. Soon after came the murals, followed by restaurants, galleries and the barrio’s designation as a cultural district. Now there are more than 50 murals, some celebrating Mexican icons such as Pancho Villa and Frida Kahlo. In 2016, federal officials added the park to the National Register of Historic Places, crediting artists Salvador Torres, Mario Torero, Victor Ochoa and others. In late 2022, the Chicano Park Museum debuted next door.

Bonus tip: Within two blocks along Logan Avenue, you can get flautas at Las Cuatro Milpas, tacos at Salud! and beer at Border X Brewing.
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Two people pose for a photo outside Cold Spring Tavern.
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Grab grub at Cold Spring Tavern to the sound of acoustic blues

Santa Barbara County Attraction
Perched on the mountain pass between Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara’s wine country, the Cold Spring Tavern is a stagecoach stop that forgot to die. For several decades it has been uniting hungry and thirsty road-trippers, bikers and Santa Barbara gentry, often over red meat and beer.

Built in the 1880s and run by the same family since the 1940s, the tavern interior features four stone fireplaces. Lunch options include three kinds of chili. (Last time in, I had the sampler plate.)

But it’s weekend afternoons that make this place memorable. On Saturday and Sunday, the tavern’s Log Cabin Bar becomes a sprawling indoor-outdoor operation. Hundreds of diners tear into tri-tip sandwiches ($14 each) from an outdoor grill, starting around 11:30 a.m. Then comes the live music, about 1:30 p.m. Acoustic blues specialists Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, a duo for 44 years, have been playing Sundays at this venue for most of that time.

Bonus tip: The fanciest part of the property is its dim, rustic restaurant interior, where buffalo, venison, duck and boar often turn up on the menu for Friday and Saturday dinners (5-8 p.m., reservations required). The tavern is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.
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Dad's Luncheonette, painted on a train car
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Dig into a sandwich from the caboose-kitchen of Dad's Luncheonette in Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay Reimagined American roadside
Dad’s kitchen is a train caboose. And the food is tremendous. At least, my juicy, many-textured maitake mushroom sandwich was.

As the setting suggests, Dad’s is an eccentric operation, one that aims to deliver “satisfying comfort food to be enjoyed quickly, messily, on our patio, or on the hood of your car.” (There’s some outdoor space where you can eat, but no dining room.)

There’s often a line. Some weeks, without warning, pistachio orange cannoli materializes. Sometimes the kitchen runs out of ingredients and closes early. But the restaurant is usually open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

The backstory is that chef and co-owner Scott Clark used to work in Michelin-star-winning kitchens but chucked that after becoming, yes, a dad. He and his partner, Alexis Liu, opened Dad’s in 2017. The menu is short and affordable — nothing pricier than the $14.50 hamburger sandwich (or, if you prefer, mushroom sandwich). The soup of the week is $8, homemade potato chips $4.

We got our lunch there on a cold (but still busy) day and ate in our car. Still, the flavors and textures were so good that the interior went quiet for a good, long while.

Bonus tip: Sometimes, on Father’s Day, dads get free beer.
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Two travelers sit on a bench under trees in front of a rustic wooden inn.
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Sleep by the sea amid the Norwegian woodwork at Deetjen's Big Sur Inn

Monterey Hotel
Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn pops up along Highway 1 like a weathered redwood hallucination. This rustic 20-room lodging and restaurant in Big Sur is the work of Helmuth Deetjen, an immigrant from Norway, who used his native building methods to craft the compound, which began as a tent home in the early 1930s.

For a while in those years, the inn was where the pavement stopped in Big Sur — the end of civilization for southbound drivers. Now the highway goes through, except when it’s closed for mudslide damage and repairs, which we’ll get back to in a moment.

The old Deetjen’s barn is now the dining room, warmed by a cozy stone fireplace. Though Deetjen died in 1972, he set up a nonprofit entity to keep the inn and restaurant going with as little change as possible. That’s why the Norwegian vernacular architecture has never seen a design update, the five units in the Hayloft Hostel building share two bathrooms and there are no televisions, phones or Wi-Fi in guest rooms. Reservations are taken by phone only. Rates are $100 to $340 for the rooms sharing baths, $250 to $435 for the others.

Since January 2023, Highway 1 in Big Sur has been closed by mudslides and repairs in multiple places. Caltrans announced a partial reopening May 16. Before you head north, check Highway 1’s status on the Caltrans website.

Bonus tip: The restaurant serves breakfast daily, dinner Friday through Tuesday. If you have breakfast in the dining room, Mr. Deetjen’s favorite classical music will be playing, and the old man will be looking down at you from a portrait on the wall.
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Shoppers stroll the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market.
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Queue up with college kids and cowboys at the Downtown SLO Farmers Market

San Luis Obispo County Farmers' market
If it’s Thursday, we should be in San Luis Obispo. For 41 years (with a pandemic hiatus), that’s been the day for the city’s Downtown San Luis Obispo Farmers Market.

This is a market that comes close to being a full-blown street party. It takes over Higuera Street (SLO’s main drag) from 6 p.m. to 8:30 or 9, giving pedestrians free rein to nibble, sip, shop and hang out in the heart of downtown. From March through October, the market stays open until 9. If it rains, the market is usually canceled (check Instagram for updates).

The market fills five blocks with more than 100 vendors, including produce sellers, street-food makers, assorted artisans and live music. It’s all a little bit collegiate (because the Cal Poly campus is close by) and a little bit cowboy. You can get ribs here, and pulled pork, corn on the cob, kombucha, soap, tamales, honey, mushrooms and that particular secular sacrament (a crescent-shaped bit of beef, grilled over red oak) that SLO folk call tri-tip. Some vendors take cash only. Bring the family (but not the dog). And be reassured: The lines may be long for barbecue from F. McLintocks Saloon and cold-brew boba tea from Sequel Cold Brew Tea, but they move fast.

Cal Poly students make up an estimated 60% or more of the workers and a large chunk of the browsers. For further proof of collegiate influence, have a look at downtown’s Bubblegum Alley between Garden and Broad streets.

Bonus tip: If you’d rather dodge crowds, take a hike among the raw slopes and experimental architecture projects in Poly Canyon, just north of the Cal Poly campus.
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A window looking out at San Francisco Bay.
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Spend a night in a San Francisco Bay island lighthouse

Richmond Island lighthouse B&B
You might be reluctant to stay at an inn that warns of flashing lights and foghorns all night, or bans one-night guests from bathing, or requires that you be ready to climb a ladder above roiling seas.

But we’re talking about a lighthouse on an island.

The East Brother Light Station is three buildings on a ¾-acre island near the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. The main attraction is an 1873 Victorian home, topped by a beacon you can see for 13 miles. Its four bedrooms (plus one in a neighboring building) are rentable by the night, fancy dinner and breakfast included.

Rates are $475 to $525 per night — or $2,500 to rent the island for a one-night “house party.” It’s open four nights a week.

The lighthouse operated from 1873 until the 1960s. It reopened in 1980 as a B&B, run by a volunteer group dedicated to preserving the site. To get there, head to Point San Pablo Harbor in Richmond, where innkeepers Dre and Charity Elmore will pick you up by boat. It’s about 10 minutes to reach the island, with a 4- to 12-foot ladder climb likely on arrival.

Bonus tip: When you arrive at the harbor, you’ll be greeted by a 40-foot-long steel-and-ceramic crocodile, a hippo-sized cat statue and several other large, odd objects, neighbored by the Sailing Goat restaurant (open Friday through Sunday). The sculptures were made for Burning Man (many of the houseboat people are artists) and this is their retirement home.
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An island in the middle of a blue-green lake.
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Take in the postcard-worthy views at Emerald Bay State Park

El Dorado County Park
Because it’s a seven-hour drive from Los Angeles, the big blue lake at the California-Nevada border gets more visitors from up north than down south. But Lake Tahoe demands our attention — not only for the ample snow that fell this winter on its many ski and snowboarding mountains but for the sheer postcard perfection of Emerald Bay State Park.

In any season, you get drop-dead views from Emerald Bay Overlook, the rocks next to the park’s main parking lot and its Eagle Falls Vista Point — panoramas that include the lake’s southwestern corner, the beaches around it and the forested slopes above. To punctuate the whole scene, you have tiny Fannette Island, plopped into the middle of the bay and topped by a stone teahouse ruin.

Emerald Bay is one of my two favorite views on the lake (the other is the stony shallows of Sand Harbor Beach on the North Shore’s Nevada side). If you do the 72-mile drive around the lake — highly recommended — you can see both. In warmer months there’s camping. Close to the water’s edge (at the end of a fairly steep 1-mile trail) is Vikingsholm Castle, a Scandinavian-style mansion from the 1920s.

Bonus tip: Beginning in late May, Kayak Tahoe usually has kayaks for rent at Vikingsholm, but the operation is first come, first serve (no reservations) and the paddle to Fannette Island is considered a stiff challenge for beginners.
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Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, near Trinidad, Ca.
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Hike Fern Canyon, the lush trail with ‘Jurassic Park’ vibes

Coastal Trail
The walls weep. The fronds drip. Your feet will probably get soaked. And you won’t mind. That’s what awaits on the short, scenic hike through Fern Canyon in Humboldt County’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

The Fern Canyon Loop Trail, which neighbors Gold Bluffs Beach, measures barely a mile. But the path takes you up a narrow canyon into primordial greenery between walls that rise 50 to 80 feet on each side. Parts of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” were shot here 25 years ago, as were parts of the BBC’s “Walking With Dinosaurs.

Bring water shoes. And book it a week or two ahead (up to six months). Rangers have imposed a requirement from May 15 to Sept. 15 that hikers reserve permits for their canyon-adjacent parking in advance.

With a limit of about 250 reservations per day, rangers aim to ease backups and reduce damage to the narrow, muddy road to the trailhead. The day-use fee is $12 cash at the entrance. No dogs.

Bonus tip: The second half of the loop hike is a less interesting route through Sitka spruce forest. When done, you might want to reverse your route and do the wet bit again.
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The Ferry Building with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
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Walk, ride or glide from San Francisco's Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco Attraction
It’s less than six miles from San Francisco’s Ferry Building to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge — from the sublime to the ridiculously iconic. Why not make a day of it and cover the whole waterfront?

Start at the foot of Market Street in the 1898 Ferry Building, with its restaurants, food-focused retailers and farmers market (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday). Blue Bottle coffee! Far West Fungi! Hog Island oysters!

Now work your way north and west on the Embarcadero, by foot, bike or throwback streetcar. You’ll find hands-on science at the Exploratorium (Pier 15); an old-school lunch spot at Pier 23; a vast cruise terminal at Pier 27; a tourist-driven shopping scene (with sea lion soundtrack) at Pier 39; and a whole lot of T-shirt vendors, seafood restaurants and the Boudin Bakery at Fisherman’s Wharf.

You’ll know you’re nearly halfway to the bridge when you reach the Hyde Street cable car turnaround on your right, the Buena Vista cafe on your left. (Celebrate, if you like, with an Irish coffee. You wouldn’t be the first.)

A block after that, you leave Embarcadero and follow a much-trafficked route past Fort Mason, Marina Green, Crissy Field, the Warming Hut (a good snack stop) and Fort Point. All along the way, you’ll have epic views of the bridge above, the bay to your right and the green space and historic buildings of the Presidio to your left. (It’s a short detour to even more bridge views, along with some grass for picnicking, at Presidio Tunnel Tops, an addition to the park that opened in 2022.)



Bonus tip: Yes, you could ride a bike across the bridge to Sausalito (1.7 miles) and catch a ferry back, but on the route to Fort Point, you’ll have fewer cars roaring past, less wind and more pleasant places to stop.
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Forestiere Underground Gardens, Fresno.
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Enter a subterranean world at Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno

Fresno County Garden
When summer comes to Fresno, shade is precious. And the shade you’ll find in Forestiere Underground Gardens is like no other.

An immigrant from Sicily, Baldassare Forestiere reached the U.S. in 1901. After several years of digging subway lines on the East Coast, he bought land in Fresno, where he planned to start a citrus farm.

On arrival, he learned that his acreage was topped by three or more feet of hardpan — sedimentary rock that made farming impossible. So he took jobs selling fruit and digging canals for other farmers.

On his own land, he dug a downstairs kitchen to avoid the summer heat. Then, using pick, shovel, wheelbarrow and construction skills, he dug out another room. And another. For 40 years.

Forestiere died in 1946, but a warren of rooms, grottos, patios and courtyards remains, often shaded by citrus trees that Forestiere grew and grafted. Often their trunks begin below ground, branches reaching up through skylights.

Though Forestiere never married (or added plumbing), he hosted parties and imagined his project as a resort someday. That didn’t happen. But more than 10 acres of his compound remain, owned and managed by his great-nieces, protected as a historic monument.

The gardens close from early December through late March. Adult admission for a one-hour escorted tour is $23, reservations recommended. Children are welcome, pets are not.

Bonus tip: Novelist T.C. Boyle was so fascinated by Forestiere that he wrote a fictional story based on his life. It’s in a 2001 Boyle short-story collection called “After the Plague.”
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Long-exposure photo of people walking among food and fruit stalls at Grand Central Market
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Graze the world at DTLA's Grand Central Market

Los Angeles County Food Market
On the day you go to Grand Central Market for lunch, do not eat breakfast. This is L.A.’s original food hall, and it may give you a more vivid taste of L.A. diversity than any other address in town. Opened in 1917 and gentrified in recent years, the space offers quick food from around the world. Be ready to vie with downtown regulars for treasured table space. Need some Michoacán-style carnitas? Tacos Tumbras a Tomas is your place (and has more than 50 years’ tenure here). Hankering for a bento box lunch? Some vegan ramen? A pastrami sandwich? You’re covered. And you can cap off the meal with a $5 snap from the photo booth or a selfie in front of the neon display near Hill Street. In all, there are about 40 food stalls, plus several craft vendors in the less-trafficked weekend bazaar downstairs.

Bonus tip: Across Hill Street, you’ll find the Angels Flight Railway, a 298-foot-long funicular that dates to 1901. (Its two orange cars charge $1 each way for a short, steep ride up Bunker Hill to California Plaza.) Across Broadway you’ll find the Bradbury Building, whose skylighted 1893 atrium was a key setting for Ridley Scott’s film “Blade Runner” (1982).
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An elevated walkway in the Grove of Titans.
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Look up at 300-foot redwoods in the Grove of Titans

Del Norte County National Park
You are not shrinking. The trees are getting taller. That’s the wonder of the Grove of Titans, which includes redwoods more than 300 feet tall and 1,300 years old.

They’ve been part of Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park since 1929. (They’re part of Redwood National and State Parks too.) As you follow the 3-mile trail to the grove, remember that for years, rangers kept mum about this place because they were worried about damage from overzealous hikers. Fortunately, in 2022 a park construction crew completed the rerouting of Mill Creek Trail, adding a quarter-mile elevated metal walkway that protects the forest floor.

As you gape, remember the names that earlier Grove of Titans hikers have given to favorite trees: Screaming Titans. Lost Monarch. El Viejo del Norte. The trailhead is about seven miles east of Crescent City via the narrow, winding, rugged, 10-mile Howland Hill Road, once a stagecoach route.

Bonus tip: Save an hour or two in Crescent City for the 1856 Battery Point Lighthouse, which stands on a tidal island along a gorgeous stretch of coastline. At low tide, you can walk from the mainland to the lighthouse.
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The Roman Pool at Hearst Castle has blue mosaic tile walls and white statues
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Roam California's first mega-mansion (and spot the ketchup bottles)

San Luis Obispo County Attraction
In a state known for its outlandish mansions, this is the boondoggle that set the standard. Construction of Hearst Castle began in the 1920s and continued into the ’40s.

There are 165 rooms in the compound, designed by Julia Morgan for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (who died in 1951). Now run by the state park system and open after a closure from 2020 to 2022, the hilltop castle is surrounded by three guest houses, one elaborate tiled indoor pool and another pool outdoors, all on 127 acres of gardens and grounds. Keep an eye out for the occasional roaming zebra.

The rooms are festooned with art and furnishings Hearst collected abroad, sometimes arranged in mind-bending juxtaposition. In the Refectory room, the monastery vibe is complemented by silver candlesticks and bottles of Heinz ketchup. If this all seems vaguely familiar, it’s because writer-director-actor Orson Welles was thinking about Hearst when he made the 1941 movie “Citizen Kane.”

Several different public tours are offered (some wheelchair-accessible, some not), plus evening tours in spring and fall. Tickets start at $30 per adult, $15 for children ages 5-12.

Bonus tip: Seven miles north of the castle along the rugged San Luis Obispo County coast, you’ll reach the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, home to dozens or hundreds of whiskered beasts (depending on the season), basking, sparring, giving birth or mating. It’s free. There’s a parking lot, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk and usually a few volunteer docents. Stay at least 25 feet away from the seals. No dogs, no drones.
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Hikers on a trail.
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Hike beneath falls in Yosemite's half-forgotten valley

National Park
Hetch Hetchy sounds like some sort of backwoods secret password. And in a way, it is.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley is full of granite walls and tall falls, and it’s part of Yosemite National Park. Yet it remains half-forgotten — because this spot, about 40 miles’ drive south of Yosemite Valley, is where the Tuolumne River was dammed in 1923 to feed San Francisco’s thirst.

There’s just one road in — Hetch Hetchy Road, open sunrise to sunset, often closed in winter. There’s no campground, no swimming, no concessions. But you’ll find a handful of hiking trails, including the 5-mile round-trip to Wapama Falls.

That’s the one you want, especially in spring or summer. First you park by the 430-foot-high O’Shaughnessy Dam. Then you walk across the top and through a tunnel. If it’s sunny, look for a rainbow in the mist.

As you walk the trail along the reservoir’s edge, you’ll see gently curving Kolana Rock, the 1,900-foot-high Wapama Rock and 1,300-foot Wapama Falls. To the left of Wapama Falls, sometimes, is seasonal Tueeulala Falls.

Most of the trail is easy. Near the Wapama Falls turnaround point, you’ll find a series of footbridges across Falls Creek, which roars, rises and flings whitewater across your path if runoff is heavy. This can be risky. If in doubt, turn around. There’s no point finding secret treasure if you don’t return to tell the tale.

Bonus tip: Hetch Hetchy makes a great day trip if you’re already headed to Yosemite or Gold Country towns like Groveland, Jamestown, Sonora or Columbia, or if you’re staying at the park-adjacent Evergreen Lodge. In fact, that’s where the builders of O’Shaughnessy Dam stayed a century ago, before the lodge had aromatherapy.
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Ticker Burner poses for a portrait with his guitar at the Hidden Valley campground.
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Hug a boulder in Joshua Tree's Hidden Valley

Riverside Park
There are plenty of huggable boulders in Joshua Tree National Park. Hidden Valley is a nice place to start.

Unfortunately, it’s not so hidden these days. It’s right along the main road (Park Boulevard), with a 44-site, first-come, first-served campground sheltered by boulders bigger than your house (see the tiny dangling climbers up there?). Of the 3.3 million visitors who came to the park in 2023 — the most ever — legions paused here.

Fortunately, many keep going. Within about two miles of the valley, you can explore Barker Dam (sometimes there’s water) and Cap Rock, where road manager Phil Kaufman bid a fiery farewell to the late singer-songwriter Gram Parsons in 1973. About nine miles farther along Park Boulevard you’ll find Jumbo Rocks and Skull Rock Trail, prime spots for family hike and spooky selfies.

There are also Joshua trees in the park. To see what they look like, consult any book by Dr. Seuss.



Bonus tip: Here are a few. Admission is $30 per car. There’s no water, food, gas or lodging (except campsites) for sale inside the park. The vast majority of the park’s 515 park campsites are by reservation only at recreation.gov.
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A view of Indian Canyons through a window.
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Hike the Indian Canyons of Palm Springs

Riverside County Hike
Most of California’s palm trees are imported species. But when you hike into the Indian Canyons of Palm Springs — owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians — you see the real thing.

In Andreas Canyon, you follow a 1.2-mile round-trip path along the year-round Andreas Creek, which is lined with Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm. In Palm Canyon, a few miles away, the looping 2.7-mile Victor Trail drops into a shady fold in the desert hills where native palms congregate, then returns along a ridge.

Those canyons, along with Murray Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon (which has a seasonal waterfall and history that includes ancient myth and Jim Morrison), are all part of the Indian Canyons network owned and managed by Agua Caliente leaders.

Adult admission is $12; open daily Oct. 1 through July 4 and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in summer. No pets. Keep an eye out for desert bighorn sheep (on the slopes above) and rattlesnakes (underfoot).

Bonus tip: There is an easier way to see this desert, of course — the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which climbs 6,000 feet to a mountain station while you stand in the dangling gondola, oohing and ahhhing. Each gondola holds up to 80 people. You pay $30.95 per adult and slowly rotate as the gondola climbs 2.5 miles to Mountain Station (elevation 8,516 feet). It’s often 35 degrees cooler there, with snow in winter. The last tram leaves the top at 9:30 p.m. or 10:30 p.m., depending on the day, so there’s time to catch sunset and eat at one of the two restaurants at the top.
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Guides paddle tourists along the Klamath River in traditional redwood canoes
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Paddle a redwood canoe in Klamath's Yurok country

Del Norte County Activity
Redwood Yurok Canoe Tours, a venture by the Yurok tribe, offers summertime visitors a chance to spend two hours on the Klamath River in a dugout redwood canoe — the same sort of vessel that Yurok members have used for centuries. The tours (usually June through September, $157.50 per adult) begin and end in Klamath. They’re led by Yurok guides who tell how canoes are carved and how the tribe hopes for a river renaissance as upstream dams are removed over the next few years. There’s also a four-hour tour.

If you want to cover more territory at higher speed, the tribe also offers summer jet-boat tours lasting one or two hours. On the longer tour you cover 22 miles of the river. Adult prices: $45 to $59.

Bonus tip: Klamath River Overlook, at the end of Requa Road in Klamath, offers a spectacular view from on high of the river meeting the sea.
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People in kayaks floating near cliffs
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Tour the caves and coves of La Jolla

San Diego County Experience
The kayak journey from La Jolla Shores to La Jolla’s sandstone cliffs is ideal for a newbie: You launch at the shore, paddle a mile and find yourself at the foot of cliffs riddled with sea caves that belong on someone’s screensaver. Often seals and sea lions swim nearby.

When the water is calm enough, you can paddle into one of the caves. This is part of a typical La Jolla kayak tour, which takes 90 minutes to two hours. I did mine with La Jolla Kayak (adult rates: $44 for a single kayak, $69 for a double), but there are several rental shops within a few blocks on Avenida de la Playa. (In cooler months, you can rent a wet suit with the kayak.)

There’s also plenty to see on land around La Jolla Cove. At Boomer Beach, crashing waves throw spray above rocks. At Point La Jolla, sea lions have basically taken over. (Give them room.) The grassy expanses of Ellen Browning Scripps Park practically demand that you lay out a picnic. And then there’s the Cave Store, which looks like a basic souvenir shop. Inside, there’s a tunnel — 145 steps carved through sandstone in 1902-03 by Chinese immigrant laborers, whose names were not recorded, on the orders of entrepreneur Gustav Schultz. At its bottom, the tunnel connects with Sunny Jim Cave, which opens to the ocean. You might see sea lions there — or kayakers. Admission is $10 per adult.

Bonus tip: A few steps from the Cave Store, the Coast Walk Trail offers a 0.6-mile clifftop path past homes most of us can only dream about.
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A bed in the LaFayette Hotel.
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Go over the top at San Diego's LaFayette Hotel

San Diego Hotel
The LaFayette Hotel is old. And new. The lodging and its Neo-Colonial façade have stood since 1946 on San Diego’s El Cajon Boulevard, but the hotel’s latest incarnation looks like nothing this 2½-acre property has seen before — it’s a riotous mix of materials, styles and eras, from checkerboard marble floors to hand-painted toilets.

Besides its 139 guest rooms and pool, the five-building complex includes a lobby bar that may remind you of a grand hotel in London; a Oaxacan restaurant (Quixote) that’s as dim and mysterious as a church crypt; a faux-’40s diner (Beginner’s) that’s open all hours; a pool bar designed to evoke Italy’s Amalfi Coast; and a basement bar (called Gutter) with a two-lane bowling alley.

In January, the LaFayette added Lou Lou’s Jungle Room, a 580-seat supper club and live-music venue. (This is the space where Tom Cruise sang “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in “Top Gun.”) In April, Esquire magazine named the LaFayette its 2024 new hotel of the year. A fine-dining restaurant is expected later this year.

The San Diego company behind this venture, Consortium Holdings, runs several restaurants and bars in North Park, but this is Consortium’s first hotel. It’s Vegas without a casino, a cruise ship without an ocean, Hearst Castle with bartenders. Room rates begin at about $200.

On the eve of opening, I asked Consortium co-founder Arsalun Tafazoli about the hotel’s governing philosophy. “More is more,” he said.

Bonus tip: You can buy a day pass to use the pool for $46.
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Lifeguard tower, Main Beach, Laguna Beach.
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Tread the sand and probe the tidepools of Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach Beach
Laguna Beach‘s coastline leaves newcomers slack-jawed — clifftop views of crashing waves, sea-carved rock formations, lush landscaping. To get the best of that, and a sampling of local culture and commerce, you can start at the city’s Main Beach, head north to Picnic Beach, then loop back.

The last time I did this was January, late afternoon, the sun throwing golden light everywhere. Beginning near the beach’s iconic lifeguard tower, I tiptoed along the sand and stones at low tide past Bird Rock and Recreation Point, following the water’s edge past couples and families peeking at tidepools. At Picnic Beach, where a stairwell rises from the sand, I climbed up to the walkway that’s officially known as the California Coastal Trail. Then I headed south again, enjoying the same scenery from 100 feet higher up.

This route takes you through Heisler Park, which has grass, bathrooms, a dozen picnic tables and a gazebo with such a compelling view that it’s often crammed full of tourists at sunset.

The trail runs close to the Laguna Art Museum and Las Brisas restaurant (which goes back to the 1970s, has sea views from its patio and offers a $49 brunch on weekends). You’re also steps from the start of high-toned Forest Avenue, which has been a one-block pedestrian promenade since the first year of the pandemic.

Bonus tip: If you’re exploring with kids, forget Forest Avenue in favor of Main Beach Toys & Games, which has had its spot facing Main Beach for many decades.
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The Last Bookstore, DTLA.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Dig for rare books and vinyl in the Last Bookstore

Los Angeles County Bookstore
This is not the last bookstore downtown, but it might be the largest new-and-used bookstore in California. Bookseller Josh Spencer started with a dead bank building on an iffy downtown block and turned it into a reader’s refuge full of drama and hope.

The Last Bookstore opened in 2005 as booksellers were faltering across the land. Since then it has expanded twice and has been housed in this 22,000-square-foot space since 2011. The ground floor is filled with new and used books; used vinyl, CDs and DVDs; an annex for art and rare books; and a stage for readings and other performances. The tall, white columns, circa 1915, suggest you may be sifting through the ruins of a lost civilization. Dangling artworks hint at magic in progress, while the Last Wall offers books for $1 each.

But the flashiest bit is yet to come. On the upstairs mezzanine, you find the Horror Vault and the Labyrinth, where used books might be arranged by subject, color or shape. Don’t miss the tunnel. Around the periphery, studios harbor makers with work for sale. If literature is dead, or downtown is, don’t tell this place’s 150,000 Instagram followers. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. And the bookstore has a smaller sibling location (with books, plants and vinyl) in Montrose: Lost Books.

Bonus tip: There are at least two other cool bookshops downtown: Hennessey + Ingalls (art and architecture, Arts District) and Kinokuniya (lots of manga, Little Tokyo). And the Central Library (with its mural-filled upstairs rotunda) is four blocks away at 630 W. 5th St.
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Alabama Hills, just above Lone Pine in the eastern Sierra.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Prospect for treasures in Lone Pine's western movie museum

Inyo County Museum
Lone Pine is a tiny town in just the right place. It sits astride Highway 395, which makes it a handy stop on the way north from Los Angeles to Mammoth or Bishop, or on the way northeast to Death Valley. As you pass through, leave time to check out Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History, which has a fascinating array of posters and props and an 85-seat theater. The museum also can explain the Lone Ranger’s origin story. Adult admission is $5.

The museum offers maps of the filming locations in the neighboring Alabama Hills, which is part two of this excursion. These boulder-strewn hills may not be quite as red and stately as Arizona’s Monument Valley, but they’re just as essential to the history of the western genre.

This will become clear as you head up the gravel road into the Alabama Hills. Perhaps 500 movies — not to mention scores of TV shows and ads — have been filmed here, beginning in the 1920s. These hills feature in “Django Unchained” (2012), and in “Iron Man” (2008) they stood in for Afghanistan.

Bonus tip: The Museum of Western Film History mostly looks back to the past, but its parking lot includes eight Tesla charging stations.
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A portrait of Houdini above a table in a restaurant.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Get dressed up and deceived at the Magic Castle

Hollywood Hills Magic Club
The Magic Castle, a den of mystery and prestidigitation in a customized Hollywood hilltop mansion, has seen good times and bad. But the club keeps coming back, now with a set of new leaders who arrived in 2021 and ’22. Inside you’ll find a dash of Vegas, a dash of Hollywood history and a dash of deep magic geekdom — more Harry Houdini, less Harry Potter. With an invitation from a member (or a booking at the neighboring Magic Castle Hotel), you can make a reservation and turn up in formal attire, hand over $35 to $45 per person, then step through the secret door (pssst! bookcase!). You’ll find a series of rooms with oak paneling, eerie oil portraits and handy bartenders. You’re obliged to order in the snazzy dining room (entrees: $45 to $60). Proceed to a 45-minute magic show in the main theater, then meander through the mansion, dropping in on card tricksters, sleight-of-hand artists and other entertainers. The club is adults-only except for brunch performances on weekends, when children are welcome.

Bonus tip: The Magic Castle Hotel is a converted 1950s apartment building, not nearly as fancy as the castle. Room rates start about $225 (and most units have kitchens). The furniture and grounds are worn, but we had alert service. And that red phone by the pool? That’s the free popsicle hotline.
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A Jeep on a street near Coffee & Cafe.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Meander the supremely charming Main Street, Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay Experience