California: 10 Hidden travel gems

Reader's Digest Editors

For all its popularity as a travel destination, the Golden State of California still has plenty of wonderful out-of-the-way places to explore.

1. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

tree canopy of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Driving north on Route 101, travellers are almost certain to notice the sudden appearance of the majestic Roosevelt elk in Boyes Prairie near the park headquarters and visitors centre.

A display at the centre features a month-by-month account of the life cycle of the magnificent redwood tree—the largest in California. Another entire room is devoted to the ecology of the mighty redwoods, for instance.

The 14,000-acre park is a preserve for these trees (Sequoia sempervirens), the tall est species on Earth. Some specimens here soar 300 feet. They and their companion plants can be seen close up on more than 30 trails that range from easy to strenuous and from one-tenth of a mile to seven miles long.

elks in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Some trails lead down to Gold Bluffs Beach. The James Irvine Trail, for example, is a four-mile hike through redwoods and a lush undergrowth of hemlock, laurel, and alder. It connects with the Fern Canyon Trail, where eight species of ferns cling to the steplike ledges of the canyon wall.

A herd of elk roams the beach and should be given a wide berth. They are wild and unpredictable. You can camp at the beach or near park headquarters at Elk Prairie.

 

2. Lava Beds National Monument

lava beds national monument painted dunes

A vast, majestic stretch of high desert ringed with purple mountains, the monument preserves the special beauty and strangeness of land marked by volcanic activity.

From the northeast entrance, the park road winds through scrubby sagebrush and rolling hills dotted with juniper and, finally, stands of yellow pine. Jagged lava rocks, deep orange in colour, lie precariously amid the wispy sage.

At the visitors' centre near the southeast entrance, information is available on the area’s turbulent volcanic origins and its plant and animal life, and a rock display illustrates the variety of minerals found here.

Lava Beds National Monument

An interpretive trail in the adjacent, illuminated Mushpot Cave explains lava circles, spatter cones, balconies, and other formations found in the monument’s 811 lava-tube caves. More than 15 of these are accessible from Cave Loop Road, which begins at the visitors' centre. If you want to explore them, the centre will lend you portable lights.

The terrain once provided refuge for the Modoc people in the Modoc War of 1872–73, a Native American rebellion whose history is recounted at the visitors' centre. Petroglyphs 4,000 to 6,000 years old, found on cliffs, remind one that to the Modocs this area was the centre of the world.

While you are here, take the Wildlife Refuge Tour along the northeast edge of the monument: The route overlooks Tule Lake in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge, frequented by literally millions of waterfowl in autumn. Falcons and other predators congregate along the cliffs here, including the largest number of bald eagles south of Alaska.

 

3. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and Museum

San Francisco Maritime museum

For avid sailors and vicarious seafaring adventurers, the Hyde Street Pier (below) offers a fascinating sail back through time. On the Hyde Street Pier landlubbers can tour an impressive fleet of historic vessels, including the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha, the 1890 steam ferry Eureka, the 1907 steam tugboat Hercules, and the 1895 lumber schooner CA Thayer.

Visitors can also experience what life was like for submariners during World War II when they step aboard the USS Pampanito, a fully restored floating exhibit, now a national landmark, at Pier 45.

Continuing the journey, the park’s collection of small craft, both traditional and trailblazing, provide a lively introduction to boat building and the maritime trades. Built as a project of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, the Aquatic Park Bathhouse is a work of art in itself. The museum inside includes mast sections, jutting spars, and authentic ship figureheads are arranged among the colourful fish and gleaming tiles of renowned muralist Hilaire Hiler’s expressionist vision of Atlantis.

San Francisco Maritime museum bay

Also, Mermaid, the one-man sailboat that transported a daring solo adventurer across the Pacific Ocean from Japan in 94 days, is displayed on the balcony along with detailed ship models, intricate works of scrimshaw, and whaling guns, the museum features video presentations and interactive exhibits.

In addition, the park offers frequent historical re-creations, interpretive programs, and a visitors centre with exhibits, including a “First Order” fresnel lighthouse lens. Visitors might catch a demonstration of rigging, a class in navigation or woodworking, or a rousing concert of sea chanteys.

There are also activities designed especially for kids. The voyage culminates at the Maritime Store, managed by the non-profit San Francisco Maritime National Park Association, offering a range of maritime-related books, games, and videos, ship plans and models, and a selection of maritime folk music.

 

4. Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest trees at night

Suspended eerily on the rugged slopes of the White Mountains, at an altitude of 10,000 or more feet, is a stand of one of the planet’s oldest living trees: the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva).

The most ancient specimen is the 4,700-year-old Methuselah, which stands in a grove of pines that have been growing here for 4,000 years or more. The exact location of the tree is kept confidential in order to protect it.

Twelve miles farther along the road that crosses the forest is the world’s largest bristlecone pine. Here in the Patriarch Grove, at 11,000 feet, is the Old Patriarch itself, which measures more than 36 feet in circumference.

the view from Owens Valley

The bristlecones’ tortured shapes reflect the barren, windswept conditions amid which they persevere, jutting out from the mountainside like bleached bones or driftwood. Many branches appear dead, while others are thickly furred with green needles. Drippings of clear, bluish sap perfume the air.

For all the seeming aridity of the land, there are lovely stands of wildflowers in the Patriarch area in August. In most weather conditions the steep road to the forest provides breathtaking views across Owens Valley to the sheer white face of the Sierra Nevada. But after big snowfalls, cars must turn back at the Sierra Vista lookout, which is at an elevation of 10,000 feet.

In good weather take advantage of miles of trails and picnic grounds beautifully sited in and around this great forest.

 

5. Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach

The Monarch butterflies come from somewhere west of the Rockies (no one is sure just where), but every September they return to the same spot—a eucalyptus grove at the Natural Bridges State Beach, where milkweed, the only food the Monarch caterpillar eats, abounds.

When the magnificent Monarchs move on, usually in late December, plenty of marvels remain: shorebirds diving and soaring, whales plying migratory passages, and seals and sea otters amusing themselves just offshore.

Natural Bridges State Beach monarch butterfly

Visitors can view Monarch eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalides close up at a demonstration milkweed patch maintained at Natural Bridges. In the spring native wildflowers bloom in the coastal scrub meadows along Moore Creek as it winds its way toward the sea. Low tides reveal sea stars, crabs, and sea anemones.

The one thing nature lovers won’t find here, however, is a bridge. Over many years the hollowed-out sandstone cliffs that gave the park its name were turned into islands by the powerful waves of the Pacific, and today only one natural bridge survives.

 

6. Forestiere Underground Gardens

Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere made a big mistake in the early 1900s. Dreaming of growing fruit trees and vines in the San Joaquin Valley, he bought land that turned out to be hardpan rock, useless for agriculture. But Forestiere found a way to beat the barrenness of the property and the blistering heat: He began to dig.

Working only from a vision in his mind, Forestiere patterned his designs from what he remembered from seeing the catacombs of Rome. He laboured alone to build 10 acres of space for living and for crop cultivation on three levels: at 10 feet, 22 feet, and 25 feet underground.

Today visitors can tour the underground home Forestiere created for himself—a naturally air-conditioned refuge made airy and bright with the strategic placement of skylights.

They also marvel at Forestiere’s underground farm, complete with fruit trees and grapevines still thriving today, all in a subterranean labyrinth designed to let in just enough sunlight and rain and to keep out the heat and frost.

 

7. Mojave River Valley Museum

Mojave River Valley Museum

Situated at the heart of the Mojave region, the museum is packed with a miscellany of objects related to valley history and geology.

There’s a large section devoted to the Calico Early Man Archaeological Site discoveries, including 200,000-year-old chipped stone tools. Dr Louis Leakey, among others, believed that the Mojave may be one of the earliest sites of human habitation in the New World, and until his death in 1972, he supervised the Calico dig.

Material from other archaeological sites is on display, including the 15-million- year-old bones of a three-toed horse at the Barstowian fossil beds and the teeth of a 15-million-year-old camel. There are also objects from the Chemehuevi culture, as well as a gruesomely fascinating case containing the remains of a mysterious “headless horseman” and the rusting weapons that apparently belonged to him.

Collections of precious and semiprecious stones provide milder excitement for rock lovers (the mineralogy exhibits also include borax miners’ tools and artefacts). A block from the museum is the Barstow Way Station, an information centre where tours of the Calico Early Man Site can be arranged.

 

8. Avalon on Catalina Island

Avalon on Catalina Island

This island is a magical getaway that can be reached from Los Angeles in less than an hour by boat or 15 minutes by helicopter.

Your first stop should be Santa Catalina Island Interpretive Centre, an interactive museum nestled in a large canyon at an elevation of about 500 feet. Visitors can learn about the ocean, marine life, history of the island, and its flora and fauna while listening to recordings of whales and dolphins. Hiking trails begin next to the centre.

buffalo on catalina island

Remote, seldom-seen parts of the island's rugged interior can also be explored. An off-road guided tour in a large four-wheel-drive vehicle takes you along mountain ridges and through a canyon, with views of isolated coves, 2,000-foot peaks, and the Pacific Ocean. You can check out the American bald eagle habitat at Middle Ranch, where restoration projects and conservation efforts around the island are on display.

On the way, stop at the Catalina nature centre, with its native plant garden, and at the Airport-in-the-Sky, which sits on two levelled mountain peaks at an elevation of 1,600 feet. During the tour, passengers are likely to spot wild buffalo, introduced to the island by a film production company in 1924.

 

9. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Huntington Library botanical gardens

As they walk the paths and pavilions, visitors to the Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington might imagine that they are walking into a Chinese scroll painting of exquisitely arranged scenes. The scroll slowly unrolls to reveal one new vista after another.

On 31/2 acres of what’s to be a 12-acre site, the garden, opened in 2008, is said to be as large and authentic a private Chinese garden as any found outside China itself. More than a dozen gardens, each one a botanical wonder, can be toured on the 207-acre estate that railroad baron Henry E. Huntington bought in 1903 and filled with plants, books, and art.

Among the precious volumes in the library is a Gutenberg Bible on vellum and early editions of the works of William Shakespeare. Included in the sterling collection of 18th-century British art at the main gallery is Blue Boy by Thomas Goldsborough, which faces Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie.

 

10. Julian

Julian in California

Historians say Confederate veterans and former slaves alike converged on this mountaintop haven after the Civil War and that in 1869 ex-slave Frederick Coleman spied a piece of gold shimmering in the water as he bent down to take a drink from a creek. He panned and turned up more, setting off a gold rush that would last nearly a decade.

After the gold was gone, pioneers stayed on in the town of Julian, discovering rich land especially suited for growing apples. Visitors now stand in line at the bakeries along historic Main St. for a slice of the justly famous Julian apple pie.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in bloom

A short trip takes you from leafy Julian down into the desert. In just six miles you’ll travel from 4,235 feet above sea level to vast Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (above), with an elevation of 15 feet.

Another tip: Say hello to Julian’s North American grey wolf pups and adults at the California Wolf Center, a non-profit education, conservation, and science centre.

 

Read more: Is it better to live in the city or country?

Read more: The science of stars

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter