California is one of the largest of the United States and has a wealth of travel attractions, from incredibly beautiful national parks, to glorious beaches, mountains, and exciting cities. It is also one of the most populous states, probably because of its great climate. Enjoy my descriptions of the best that California has to offer, then check out the photo album which will be posted tomorrow.
1. San Francisco
San Francisco and its bay comprise one of the most famous cityscapes in the world. The romance and excitement elicited by its name has been earned over many years. San Francisco, like New York City, is a melting pot of numerous cultures which have established and maintained enclaves within the boundaries of the city. These areas add to the charm and interest of the city for visitors. There are enough attractions to justify three or more days for the average sightseer, and there are also numerous day trips available to fascinating locations nearby.
The Golden Gate Bridge, one of world’s most famous landmarks, is known and admired because of its setting as the gateway into San Francisco Bay and to the world class city itself. The bridge is distinctive for its color (a reddish orange) and impressive because of its size. It connects the San Francisco peninsula with Marin County and coastal points North. The bridge connects elements of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which encompasses a huge and varied region in and around San Francisco, and which contains several notable tourist sights, including Alcatraz Island, accessible via ferry from the Pier area. National Park Rangers conduct tours of what used to be a maximum security prison in the middle of the bay. Other attractions within the recreation area include Muir Woods, and Cliff House with its nearby islands, especially Seal Rocks. Many other different types of activities are available in the Recreation Area, because of the variety of habitats which compose the region.
Muir Woods, named for noted conservationist, John Muir, allows access to a beautiful grove of Redwoods, the world’s tallest trees, just north of San Francisco. The National Monument has numerous trails which can be explored. Despite being crowded during certain times of the year, the area is famous for its solitude and feeling of peace and tranquility, a truly reverent tribute to a great man.
Chinatown, the largest concentration of Chinese people outside of China, has numerous shops and restaurants and is an extremely vibrant area any time of the day or night. The outdoor food market is especially interesting.
Another uniquely San Franciscan treat is to ride a Cable Car. The one most popular with tourists leaves from near Ghirardelli Square.
Climb the Coit Memorial Tower on Telegraph Hill for glorious views of the bay, the skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge. The views of San Francisco Bay from Sausalito and from Vista Point, at the northern end of the bridge are spectacular.
Take a drive down Lombard Street, known as the “crookedest” street in the world.
Cliff House, south of the Golden Gate Bridge, offers views of the coast, especially Seal Rocks, and is a great place to observe sunset.
One of the most popular excursions from the city is to the Napa Valley Wine Country, located just northeast of San Francisco, which has become popular as a destination due to the increasing popularity of American wines from the area. Many of the vineyards offer tasting and tours of their facilities. The neighboring Sonoma Valley offers similar activities, and is also easily accessible from the city as either a day trip or an overnight excursion.
2. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is another park whose images are extremely familiar to everyone. From the writings of John Muir to the photographs of Ansel Adams, the park’s vistas are legendary. Yosemite represents glacial landscape at its best. From El Capitan’s monolithic face to Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America, to an alpine meadow called Tuolumne, to Glacier Point, a breath-taking overlook, Yosemite’s beauty is stunning. The price paid for all this, however, is slow-moving traffic and hordes of visitors which severely diminish the average person’s enjoyment. But, if the traveler can put up with some of the inconvenience, Yosemite is a true treasure. Incidentally, there are shuttles available in the valley floor area in the summertime, which is a good way to avoid the aggravation of the traffic, and also to reduce the pollution caused by so many cars. There are even stands of Redwoods, two of which date back to a time when tunnels were dug through the trunks so that cars could pass through, although one of these trees is now dead.
Another way to minimize the congestion and crowding is to walk several of the numerous trails within the park.
The view of Yosemite Valley from the Valley View overlook is particularly beautiful because it encompasses many of the “famous” landmarks of the park, including El Capitan, Half-dome, and Bridal Veil Falls.
Other exquisite viewing areas include Glacier Point and Washburn Point, which are both high above the valley floor and look down at Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, truly showcasing the glacial nature of the landscape.
An interesting excursion from Yosemite is to travel east to Mono Lake, an unusual lake with high mineral and salt concentrations which allow the formation of strange and beautiful calcium carbonate structures, such as, tufa, spires and knobs. The entire area is volcanic in origin and fairly recent geologically.
3. San Diego
San Diego, California, is reputed to have the best year-round climate in the continental United States. It is also a major tourist destination because of its many attractions. As a result of its location in Southern California, it was part of Mexico for many years of its history, and some of that period has been carefully preserved. From Mission San Diego, the oldest mission in California, to the Old Town, one finds remnants of this Spanish influence.
The San Diego Zoo is one of the largest and most respected zoos in the world. Thousands of animals, many of them rare or endangered, are displayed in habitats which have been constructed to resemble their natural environments.
In the Zoo, check out Ituri Forest, an African rain forest environment, Polar Bear Plunge, a simulated arctic tundra, and the Panda Research Station, with pandas on loan from China. The Koala Bears are also extremely popular, because they are rarely seen outside of their native Australia. The zoo is huge but very pleasant to walk because of the many trees and flowers which line the walkways. If the hills are a concern there are trams available and even a sky ride from the entrance to the farthest corner of the property.
Balboa Park, which houses the zoo and many museums, as well as offering a peaceful respite from the bustling downtown nearby, is a gem of a city park. The architecture of its buildings is positively stunning and it is a major gathering place for locals and tourists alike. Note especially the California Tower and the Museum of Man with their striking Spanish architecture, as well as the Botanical Gardens, which are superb.
Being a coastal city, San Diego also offers beaches and other water sports. Drive over to Coronado Island (really a peninsula) and check out Coronado Beach, a perennial member of the “best beaches of the world” list and the famous Hotel del Coronado, a grand, old edifice, and a symbol of the city.
About an hour north of the city, along Interstate 5, is a worthwhile excursion to San Juan Capistrano, site of the famous mission to which the swallows return each March 19th. The mission is now in ruins (the result of an earthquake in 1812), but the ruins are extremely attractive and recall a simpler time in the history of California. The grounds are pleasant to stroll and explore. The nearby village of Laguna Beach is also attractive with its steep cliffs tumbling down to the Pacific Ocean below.
Just north of San Diego is the lovely community of La Jolla, which is very picturesque and home to several excellent restaurants.
For a great view of the city skyline framed by mountains, drive out to the Cabrillo National Monument, at Point Loma. This spot commemorates the discovery of San Diego by the Spanish explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.
4. Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway via Route 101 or Route 1 stretches from below Los Angeles, California to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Probably the most famous part of the route is the section from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It is, without question, one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the US and certainly ranks high on a worldwide list as well. It is noted for its dramatic overlooks of the rugged west coast and access to spectacular areas such as, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, and Redwood National Park in California to name a few.
The Monterey Peninsula, in western California, south of San Francisco, is an extremely scenic area of the state. Take 17-mile drive, a loop which connects the city of Monterey with Carmel, to admire the rocky coast as well as the beautiful homes and golf courses (try to have lunch at Pebble Beach for a special treat) and do stop for a photo opportunity at the Lone Cypress, a tree (supported now by guy wires because of its significance) which stands alone on a promontory of rock that juts out into the Pacific, making it one of the most westerly points in the contiguous United States. While in the area, be sure to spend some time in Monterey whose sardine industry was made famous in John Steinbeck’s novel “Cannery Row”. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is definitely worth a visit.
Santa Barbara, California, lies along the coast, north of Los Angeles, and can be easily accessed via the Pacific Coast Highway. The city was originally a Spanish town, dating back to 1782, and still retains many reminders of its past, for example, its white-washed, tiled-roof buildings as well as its mission, Mission Santa Barbara, which is one of California’s best-preserved. It has also gained a reputation as an Art Center, and, in that connection, offers numerous galleries, and several museums.
Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, California, is the mansion of newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst. The estate is located at the top of a mountain, known as La Cuesta Incantada (The Enchanted Hill) and overlooks San Simeon and the Pacific coast. Visitors must park near Route 1 and take a shuttle to the castle. There are a variety of tours available, but Tour 1 is recommended for the first time visitor. This tour includes visits to the pools, the gardens and the ground floor of the mansion. Note that there is considerable walking and stair-climbing on all the tours.
The castle itself, Casa Grande, has over 100 rooms and is furnished with many of Hearst’s art and antiques. Construction on the house began in 1919 but took many years to complete because Hearst imported materials from all parts of the world.
Redwood National Park, along the coast of Northern California, offers the visitor access to stands of California Redwoods, the world’s tallest trees, as well as rugged coastline and beaches. Numerous trails allow the visitor to experience pristine groves of these magnificent specimens. Scenic drives within the park include the Coastal Drive and Howland Hill Road.
Another area along the Pacific Coast Highway which attracts visitors, especially on weekends, is Point Reyes National Seashore. The area is pristine and wild, with numerous places to hike as well as beautiful beaches to relax on.
6. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is an eerily beautiful area with considerable contrast in its geology. The park is huge (the largest in the contiguous United States) and the sights are many miles apart so one visit may not be enough to see the entire park. Summertime is not the time to go since it is easily the hottest spot in North America. The many stops along the highways offer interesting insights into the formation and evolution of the area.
Particular sights which should not be missed include Badwater, the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere (282 feet/93 meters below sea level), the Devil’s Golf Course, an unusual landscape of rock salt spires, Dante’s View for a panoramic view of the Valley, and Scotty’s Castle, an interesting ranch house in the middle of nowhere.
Be sure to take a side trip along Artist’s Drive to admire the strikingly beautiful colored rocks.
7. Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are adjoining parks which feature the world’s largest tree, the giant Sequoia. Sequoias in the park reach to over 300 meters (200 feet) tall, with trunk diameters over 10 m (30 feet). The “Giant Forest” is the largest grove of sequoias in the parks and houses the General Sherman Tree, the largest known sequoia, over 2,000 years old, which is almost 100 meters (275 feet) tall, with a circumference of 35 m (103 feet). Stop first at the Visitor Center for a map and information. There are numerous hiking trails and scenic roads throughout the parks.
The most popular drive in the area is the General’s Highway, a scenic route which winds through the parks and provides access to the major attractions.
8. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border between California and Nevada, is a year-round vacationland which combines magnificent scenery with winter (skiing) and summer (boating and swimming) sports activities as well as gambling casinos. There are numerous resorts around the large, deep lake with its crystal blue waters. Scenic drives are available on all sides of the lakeshore.
9. Los Angeles & Vicinity
Los Angeles, California, is California’s and one of the USA’s largest cities. Weather is typically sunny and mild or hot year round. However, traffic is a perpetual problem — the freeways are a challenge to negotiate, and the main city thoroughfares are often in gridlock.
In the city, there are numerous museums for those so inclined, but the major attractions are just outside the city center.
One of the most popular gathering places in the city is Farmer’s Market, located at the corner of Fairfax and Third St. Here visitors will find every conceivable type of food, both prepared and fresh. The narrow, crowded, alleys are full of numerous aromas and shops which will entice all who venture here.
Hollywood, California, is the legendary home of famous film stars. Even though many of them have residences elsewhere now, there are still many who might be glimpsed either in town or on their estates, so that people still flock here on the possibility. The Hollywood Sign (reduced from its original hollywoodland) is now a famous icon, recognizable throughout the world. One of the better viewpoints is located in Griffith Park, northeast of the city. Follow signs for the Observatory and either take the photo from the parking area or climb higher via the trail which begins here.
Grauman’s Chinese Theater has immortalized Hollywood celebrities in concrete since 1927. Most have just left hand prints or footprints, but some have left other reminders of their fame.
Universal Studios is a theme park which attracts millions of visitors each year. There are two different venues: Hollywood and Orlando, Florida, in the United States. Parks also exist in Japan and Spain. The theme of all these parks is the movies, and adventure rides as well as other activities are focused on this theme.
Also nearby, in the suburb of Anaheim, is Disneyland, the “original” theme park, which, while certainly a scaled down version of its counterpart in Orlando, Florida, is nevertheless extremely popular and perhaps more charming because of its more manageable size.
Santa Catalina Island, located off the coast of Southern California, near Los Angeles, has become a major recreational resort and Mecca for saltwater fishermen. Access to the island is by air or sea, and numerous private companies are available for hire. Activities available on the island include golf, tennis, swimming, horse-back riding, hiking, and all the various types of fishing. The major community on the island is the town of Avalon.
Another possible excursion from Los Angeles is to the remote but interesting Channel Islands National Park, located off the coast of California, in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, which preserves island habitat and breeding grounds for a variety of species. Access is only by plane, private boat, or public concessionaire, and arrangements should be made in advance. Park rangers, and a few other authorized individuals conduct walks on all the islands. There are few facilities on the islands, so visitors are encouraged to provide their own food and water.
A possible inland excursion from the city involves travel eastward to Joshua Tree National Park, in south central California, which preserves an area of desert and mountain habitat of the Joshua Tree. The park is noted for its scenery, which is accessible via several park roads. There are hiking opportunities, as well as rock-climbing. Park Rangers conduct tours of Desert Queen Ranch which is located within the park. There are several Visitor Centers which can be accessed from various directions.
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, travel to LA around New Year’s Day and obtain a ticket for the Tournament of Roses Parade, which is held in the suburb of Pasadena on January 1st each year and begins at 8:00 AM. This is a parade that people around the world have watched on television for many years, but nothing compares to seeing it first-hand. Visitors can actually walk by the floats early in the morning while they are lined up on Orange Grove Blvd and practically touch them. What is truly remarkable is that they are made entirely of organic materials. The creativity involved in their construction is truly amazing.
9. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park, in northeastern California, preserves a number of dormant volcanoes, including Lassen Peak, as well as thermal features such as mudpots and fumaroles, and several lakes and waterfalls. Major vehicle traffic is along Lassen Park Road, a 30-mile drive which accesses most of the most important sights within the park. There are numerous trails which allow visitors to sample a variety of features.