29 California experiences that cannot be missed, according to Californians

Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times

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Now that many of you have spoken, it seems clear that my recently published list of 101 best California experiences is unacceptably short of castles, train rides, ghost towns, underground gardens, pixie margaritas and grunion runs. Also, I could have paid more attention to orange bridges.

So say those who wrote in to offer additions and challenges in our call for the most un-missable experiences in the state. Your favorite destinations make an intriguing list of their own and I’ll be thinking of it as I explore for my next list. Here’s a sampling.

A woman adjusts a bandana around her face before going into the original Bob's Big Boy restaurant in Burbank in 2020.
The original Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Burbank.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)


  • John Hocking in Alta Loma wrote to say he was “surprised (annoyed?) that you included In-N-Out in your 101 Best CA Experiences but omitted Burbank’s Bob’s Big Boy, in my opinion a much more iconic destination.” He went on to mention the Big Boy statue, the carhop service on weekends, and classic car enthusiasts who show up on Fridays, the Beatles’ visit in 1965 and the restaurant showing up in the 1995 film “Heat.” Hocking didn’t even bother mentioning that the 1949 building is the oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy or that the director David Lynch was a daily visitor (and chocolate shake consumer) for seven years in the 1980s.

    “I used to love the Big Boy hamburgers and their diced ham and cheese salad and spent many a night there in my high school days,” said Hocking, who is 82. OK, so I probably shouldn’t have missed that one. Next year.

  • Bicycle tour guide Jennifer Nutting of downtown recommended that area’s Arts District for its “graffiti art, murals, under the radar cool culture.”
  • Frank Bigelow of Monrovia, who grew up by the beach in Santa Barbara, had the simplest suggestion of all: “watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.”
  • Luz Franco of Glendale recommended a trip to Ojai during pixie tangerine season, preferably with a stop at Agave Maria’s, which makes “the best pixie tangerine margaritas in town.” This assertion clearly demands follow-up research.
The Roman Pool at Hearst Castle. It is a tiled indoor pool decorated with eight statues of Roman gods, goddesses and heroes.
Roman Pool, Hearst Castle.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

  • Charles Brown of Roseville alleged that “your list shows a bias for the southern half of the state, Sacramento south,” and went on to list many spots (north and south) that I left out, including Hearst Castle (which got three reader votes), Bodie State Historic Park (which got two), Fort Ross State Historic Park (also two votes), Kings Canyon National Park, Mono Lake, Mt. Shasta, Alcatraz, Lava Beds National Monument and Fort Bragg’s Skunk Train.

    Some of those, I omitted because they’re so well known or I included them last year. But I’ve never seen Bodie or Lava Beds National Monument, so I’d better do that. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

  • Diane Poarch of Lake Arrowhead cast another vote for Bodie. “There is just something magical about stepping back in time and seeing how life once was,” she said. “Isolated and rugged, yet somehow beautiful, Bodie remains as it was left in the early 1900s. You can picnic, the children can run, and everyone learns about California history.”
  • Julie Kirby in Glendale, a longtime reader, said the list “made this CA native’s heart thump, and feet twitch just a bit.” Kirby also lavished praise on Francine Orr’s photo of Yosemite Falls and suggested that our photographers deserve credits in larger type. I’m sorry, Ms. Kirby. We need that space for writer credits.
  • Meanwhile, Laura Manning of Pismo Beach is raising her voice in favor of Fresno — more specifically, in favor of Fresno’s “fascinating and unique” Forestiere Underground Gardens, open March through November. “A Sicilian came to the U.S. to grow citrus. He landed on the east coast and helped dig the Boston subway,” Manning wrote. “When he saved enough he made his way to Orange County, but land was too expensive, so he bought land in Fresno, sight unseen.... It was a blazingly hot summer (even for Fresno), so he decided to dig into the hard rock and build himself an underground home. And then he just kept at it.”

    Forestiere’s home and gardens are remarkable. And while he was digging in Fresno, another Italian immigrant named Sabato Rodia was raising Watts Towers in Los Angeles. If there were a California DIY Hall of Fame, they’d deserve their own wing.

    Beachgoers witness a grunion run on Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.
    Beachgoers witness an unusual fish spawning ritual known as a grunion run on Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.
    (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
  • Flori Leon wrote from Ka’anapali, Maui, to lobby for the tidepools of the Palos Verdes peninsula and grunion-running on South Bay beaches. “ It made a lasting impression on me when my parents took us to the tide pools to see for the first [time] living creatures from the sea,” Leon wrote. “I remember going down to Redondo Beach and watching the grunion run by the light of the moon.”
  • David Busse of Diamond Bar cited Riding Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Oakland, especially the unspoiled coastal miles north of Santa Barbara. Marty Conoley of Santa Barbara cast the same vote, calling this “the most scenic public train ride in California... Between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, you look out the window and see launch pads (and sometimes SpaceX rockets) on Vandenberg Space Force Base, the private estates and beaches of Hollister Ranch, the Dangermond Preserve, the elbow of California at Point Conception, the site of an epic U.S. Navy seven-destroyer shipwreck at Honda Point, three of the Channel Islands, migrating California gray and humpback whales, local wildlife, and much more.”

    To be clear, you can’t see those underwater shipwrecks from the train. But that disaster (which I had never heard of) has its 100th anniversary this September.

  • Cameron Andrews of Long Beach endorsed the Pacific Wheel Ferris wheel at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, “the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel,” which takes riders 130 feet up, with views stretching from Palos Verdes to Malibu.
  • Karen Rogers of Cottonwood cited Hearst Castle, the La Brea Tar Pits (which I barely mentioned in my description of Wilshire Boulevard, an item on my list) and Pink’s Hot Dogs — “VERY California.”
  • Christopher Lucero of L.A. County cited a signature California experience with no fixed address — the sound of katydids chattering at dusk on a warm summer evening. That only happens for a few weeks of each years, Lucero said, which means “only native Californians and those who appreciate our summer evenings will ever experience it.”
L.A.'s extreme bacon-wrapped hot dog located in the left field plaza at Think Blue BBQ at Dodger Stadium.
L.A.’s extreme bacon-wrapped hot dog located in the left field plaza at Think Blue BBQ at Dodger Stadium.
(Hamlet Nalbandyan / Los Angeles Times)

  • Gerardo Sanchez of San Gabriel suggested the scent and taste of a bacon-wrapped hot dog, sometimes known as a danger dog. Like Lucero, he didn’t name a particular location, but when exiting clubs, bars and ballgames in Greater Los Angeles, Sanchez wrote, “you’re almost always greeted by a señora offering the intoxicating combination of sizzling bacon, grilled onions and jalapeños. In my experience, carnivores and vegetarians alike will have something to say about the sweet smell of onions grilling in the warm night air.” Please excuse me, Mr. Sanchez. I need to break for lunch now.
  • Sanchez also recommended the retail wonderland of Los Callejones (Santee Alley) in downtown between Santee Street and Maple Avenue from Olympic Boulevard to 12th Street. “Here one can find just about anything,” Sanchez wrote, including clothing, toys, accessories, pets, jewelry and surprises. “If the Caruso-built shopping complexes [like the Grove and Americana] harken back to midcentury small-town America, the callejones are Los Angeles’ homage to the mercados of Latin America and the stall-filled arcades of Asia.”
    A giraffe at the Living Desert in Palm Desert.
    The Living Desert in Palm Desert is a combination zoo and garden, full of plant and animal species found in the deserts of the world, including giraffes.
    (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
  • Craig Mackenhausen of Palm Desert wrote to laud the Living Desert, “an incredible zoo and garden experience in the heart of Palm Desert that we have watched grow in the 20 years we’ve lived here.... The giraffe savannah is like no other.”
  • Cynthia Orlando of Eugene, Ore., spoke for Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and the “breathtaking view near entrance.”
  • Phil Aro of San Francisco recommended Capay Valley in Yolo County, “a ridiculously beautiful slice of ‘Lost California,’ a long valley covered in farmland surrounded by low mountains on both sides.” There’s camping and river rafting on the valley’s Cache Creek; lodging, gambling and golf at the Cache Creek Casino Resort; and the hamlet of Guinda, Aro noted, has a store and barbecue restaurant.
    A hiker climbs into the slot canyon.
    A hiker climbs into the slot canyon near the Amargosa River Trail near Tecopa, Calif.
    (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
  • Bill Neill of North Hollywood recommended desert hiking in Amargosa Canyon near Tecopa, perhaps followed by a $7 date shake at China Ranch. (But wait until fall, when it’s not so hot.)
  • Hilary Steinman of Moraga nominated the area around North Shattuck and Vine streets in Berkeley, “a cultural epicenter of the modern farm-to-table food movement with notable institutions including Chez Panisse, Cheese Board Collective, and the very first Peet’s Coffee. It was here in the 1970s that Alice Waters [of Chez Panisse] pioneered locally-sourced seasonal cooking, and, alongside others, created what we now call California cuisine.” For decades the area was nicknamed the Gourmet Ghetto, but after a flurry of local controversy in 2019, the city’s tourism organization, Visit Berkeley, calls this the “North Shattuck Neighborhood” instead.
  • John Caragozian of Los Angeles urged me to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and savor “the views of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island, downtown San Francisco, and the ships passing under the Bridge going to and from world ports.” I did include the Golden Gate Bridge as part of my mention of San Francisco’s waterfront, but clearly I didn’t say enough. Terry Colvin of San Gabriel also wrote in about crossing the bridge, saying it “makes you realize this is a very special place on earth and why so many people leave their hearts in San Francisco.”
Mt. Whitney, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, is shown from Whitney Portal Road.
Mt. Whitney, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, is shown from Whitney Portal Road.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

  • Joseph Neeb of Sylmar recommended Whitney Portal, the Southern Sierra gathering point where hikers begin their Mt. Whitney climbs. But it’s also a destination in itself. Neeb calls the drive from Highway 395 in Lone Pine to Whitney Portal “one of the most thrilling drives in California. Driving past the Alabama Hills to reach the [seasonal] Portal Store and the waterfall at the top of the drive is sheer breathtaking. I believe like all great experiences, it should activate all five senses. The scent of pine and fire pits, the sights of the granite cathedral walls, the sound of the water, and to cap it all off, meeting sweet Earlene at the Portal Store for one of their legendary pancakes.”

    This just in: The store folks say Earlene won’t be working up there this summer, but the Portal Store opens for the season on Saturday. Let the pancakes begin!