Coastal Redwoods standing nearly 400 feet tall. Giant Sequoias that grow 100 feet around. Bristlecone Pines that have weathered the landscape for over 5,000 years. Mount Whitney — the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states — only seventy miles separated from Death Valley, the lowest point in all of North America. Rainforests, deserts and nearly everything in between. This is California — and sometimes it feels like maybe God got drunk here or something, but it really, truly exists, and it has been my extraordinary privilege to spend the last three years exploring what treasures it has to offer. Now that I’m on my way out and am already mourning its loss, I decided to look back and write out what I feel are perhaps the most special places the state has to offer. Some of the choices might be surprising, or perhaps some of the omissions. Southern California is entirely absent, for example (as much as I love it there, and would whole-heartedly recommend Anza Borrego or Joshua Tree to anyone who’s interested). There are simply too many places to choose from in California, and any list is inherently subjective. So! Disclaimers aside, here is a list of some of my most beloved spots…
10. The Lake Tahoe Area & The Trinity Alps (tie)
I was torn about what to put at the lowest spot here. Lake Tahoe, for example, is an undeniably spectacular place — but it is completely overwhelmed with tourists, ski resorts and development in general. The Trinity Alps, on the other hand, are a pristine and wild paradise — but also so far removed from civilization that it is nearly inaccessible except to the most adventurous of backpackers, and even then is only really accessible during the brief summer season. So I decided to cop-out and put both here. Some people might actually be surprised to see Tahoe occupying the lowest spot, but that shouldn’t detract from how beautiful of a place it is. Very simply, there are just too many towns, roads and developed beaches here for someone like me, and people looking to truly “get away from it all” will inevitably feel disappointed. Those looking for a more wilderness feel need to head above Tahoe into Desolation Wilderness. The granite rock faces and alpine lakes are memorable — but if High Sierra wilderness is what you seek, head further south to Ansel Adams or John Muir Wilderness, both of which prove to be far superior (and less populated) choices. The Trinity Alps, on the other hand, nestled in the far northwest, are extraordinary — and utterly remote. Those looking for a sneak preview should try hiking up canyon creek, near Weaverville. It doesn’t get into the Yosemite-like heart of the place, but offers up some great scenery for those curious to see what the area is really all about.
9. Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes boasts over eighty miles of protected coastline, with mountains, forests, waterfalls and an endless diversity of beaches. And while the lighthouse, Alamere Falls and Ten Mile Beach are all worth seeing, the true gems reveal themselves at only particular times. Chimney Rock during the springtime is an unforgettable sight, with dramatic bluffs covered in a remarkable tapestry of wildflowers. Likewise, Tomales Point is a must-see in the Autumn. Populated with hundreds of Tule Elk, during the Autumn they will be in rutting, and the haunting call of the Elk across the coastline is a thing to be heard at least once in a lifetime. Those seeking a more intimate encounter with the landscape should consider a midnight swim in Tomales Bay, again in the Autumn, when on a few moonless nights of the year the waters glow with bioluminescent phytoplankton. Finally, the crown jewel of Point Reyes is the hike from Mount Wittenberg down to Sculptured Beach and Secret Beach. The hike winds down through the most lush scenery in the Bay Area, Sculptured Beach far surpasses anything to be found on the more popular trails, and Secret Beach (which is accessible from Sculptured Beach only during negative tide) is something that must be seen to be believed. Caves, tidal pools, tunnels and naturally carved amphitheaters await those who successfully time their hikes perfectly enough to find this place.
8. Gold Country (The Sierra Nevada Foothills)
The lower elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are where California really started — with the gold rush. Here like nowhere else you can get a taste of an historic California, with old-west mining towns set in picturesque hills among canyons, rivers, waterfalls and mountains. Nevada City is not only the most interesting town in the area, but easily ranks as perhaps my favorite town (or city) in the entire state. The outdoor opportunities in this region are nearly endless. One could sunbathe on the great granite blocks along the Yuba River at Hoyt’s Crossing, go whitewater rafting along the American River or go swimming in the limestone caves of Natural Bridges, near Murphys. If I had to pick one absolute must-see, however, it would be the almost completely unknown North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve. Nestled just above Oroville, this largely flat, mostly unwooded area has no marked trails; but it explodes in late March and early April with a wildflower display that is unparalleled anywhere else in the state. Enterprising hikers will be especially rewarded if they go after the rains and manage to find the elusive Phantom Falls.
7. Mount Tamalpais
Forget Muir Woods. Those looking for a nature getaway in the Bay Area need look no further than Mount Tamalpais. Looming above the landscape at nearly 2,500 feet, Mount Tamalpais has a little bit of almost everything that nature in the Bay Area has to offer: hundreds of miles of trails, pristine old growth Redwood forests, thundering waterfalls, breathtaking ocean views and nearly everything in between. The gold standard for hiking in the Bay Area is also here: a nine mile loop that starts at Stinson Beach, ascends through a Redwood canyon to the ridge top, winds along the rolling green hills of the coastal trail before finally plunging back down to the ocean along a remote fire road trail. Start the hike around four hours before sunset! This will time it just right so that you get to watch the sun go down over the Pacific while you descend to the beach. The hike will re-define the kind of nature experience you think is possible in a major metropolitan area.
6. Giant Forest
The giant sequoias are another in a long list of California superlatives. And although they are the most massive living things on the planet (larger even than their cousins, the redwoods), sequoia groves can also be mildly disappointing from a hiker’s perspective. Unlike the redwood forests (where one can walk for miles feeling as though one is treading through a sacred, tree-constructed cathedral) sequoias tend not to grow in heavy concentrations. Thus you end up with small groves that are overwhelmed with tourists in which there’s one giant tree here, another giant tree way the hell over there (Mariposa Grove in Yosemite especially comes to mind). This is NOT the case, however, in Giant Forest, situated in Sequoia National Park. Here the sequoias grow in concentrations unseen nearly anywhere else (the slightly less impressive Redwood Mountain Grove in Kings Canyon National Park is similar, if anyone’s curious), and one can easily lose themselves for many miles along remote, pristine trails, with endless giants rising from the mountainsides. Do yourself a favor and try to plan a journey away from the more heavily populated Sherman Tree area and Congress Trail. On one particularly memorable trip in late autumn, I was able to hike for ten miles through the freshly fallen snow and not come upon a single human being for the entirety of the hike.
5. Big Sur
Nowhere else in the continental US can you find “land-meets-sea” quite like Big Sur. With mountains over 5,000 feet tall that tower out of the ocean in a span of less than three miles, Big Sur feels less like a coastline and more like a 100 mile long ocean playground of the Gods. Redwood forests, whale watching, condor sighting, mountain ascents and hot spring bathing await anybody willing to spend even a couple of days here. Those who can afford it will not easily forget a stay at the Esalen Institute — sitting in the hot springs set into the cliff-sides a hundred feet above the ocean at night with the Milky Way overhead stands out as one of the more memorable experiences I’ve had in California. Those on a budget won’t be disappointed either, however. Camping at Plaskett Creek Campground will allow you easy access to the beach where you will bear witness to sunsets that will overwhelm your senses. Ironically, perhaps the best beaches can be found at the very northernmost extent of what might be considered Big Sur in Point Lobos (just south of Carmel). China Cove hosts some of the most emerald green waters you’re likely to see anywhere, and the rest of the park is home to thousand year old Monterey Cypress groves that are utterly unlike any other old growth forests in America.
4. The Lost Coast
The Lost Coast refers to the coastline in southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino counties, in far Northern California. As if California didn’t have enough beautiful coastline already. Getting there requires quite a bit of effort (this area is seriously about as remote as California gets), but the payoff is unforgettable. The Lost Coast is so rugged, so mountainous and so treacherous, that (unlike what happened in Big Sur) the highway commission decided not to continue highway 1 here. And so here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the lower 48 (yes, more than Oregon; yes, more than Washington), you can find true coastal wilderness. Trails that are impassable at high tide; untouched rainforests where the trail is very nearly overgrown; cliffs that descend straight into the ocean; campsites that are among the most beautiful I’ve seen in the whole world. While most hikers find their way to the northern stretch of the trail that follows along the Kings Range, I would especially recommend a trip to the southern half of the trail in Sinkyone Wilderness. Bear Harbor is perhaps the most beautiful beach I’ve seen anywhere in my life.
3. The High Sierra
The Sierra Nevada mountains line the eastern border of the state with Nevada as California’s backbone, and here I’m referring explicitly to the vast area of the Sierras that lie at 7000-8000 feet or higher (above Giant Forest forest for example, above Lake Tahoe and above Yosemite, all of which lie in this same mountain chain). And what a place it is. People tend to associate the American mountain landscape with the Rockies, but the Sierras are the tallest, longest mountain chain in the lower 48 states, with a mediterranean-influenced climate that is far more hospitable than anything to be found in Colorado or Montana. Although there is some settlement in the foothills, nearly this entire mountain chain is federally protected, with one national park or wilderness area after another. One could spend a lifetime exploring the treasures these mountains have to offer, and some of the greatest American naturalists (John Muir, Ansel Adams) did just that. Frankly, choosing one or two spots to highlight among others here is an exercise in futility. The John Muir Trail is considered the single greatest backpacking opportunity in America; Sequoia National Park has hundreds of square miles of high alpine scenery made easily accessible through its High Sierra Trail; the Minarets and the Ritter Range that tower over Mammoth Springs are only a shuttle bus and a seven-mile-hike away; the countless alpine lakes (Ediza Lake, Thousand Isle Lake, Cathedral Lakes, Hamilton Lake, Precipice Lake…) that sit at the base of the granite peaks are each in themselves some of the most wondrous sights you’re likely to ever behold. Want an easy place to start? Drive up Rock Creek Road from Toms Place, a little nowhere town on the eastern side of the Sierras. Drive all the way to the end of the road, get out of your car, and be prepared to be awe-struck by the majesty that is Little Lakes Valley. Hike a mile or two into the valley, which is surrounded on all sides by some of the tallest mountains in the country and filled at the base with lake after lake after lake. Hopefully this easy sojourn will give you just enough of a taste to try to see what else you’re willing to explore.
Yosemite is the stuff of legend, and your first sight of El Capitan will help you understand why. The massive granite formations here aren’t so much mountains as much as they are avatars of the great geologic processes of Mother Gaia Herself. For the love of God and everything that is holy, don’t stay down in the valley with the other ten million tourists and assume you’ve “seen” Yosemite. Go hiking. Get your ass kicked by this landscape, and then go out the next morning and humbly ask for more. Want an especially incredible tour of Yosemite? Skip the over-populated Half-Dome ascent and hike up the Four-Mile trail to Glacier Point and descend back down into the valley via the Panorama Trail. Your body will beg for mercy but your soul will be grateful for every step taken.
1. Redwood National and State Parks
I want to be crystal clear exactly what I mean here, because everyone in Northern California thinks they’ve seen Redwoods because of that one time they went to Muir Woods on Labor Day Weekend. I do not mean the puny, midget Redwoods you find in the Bay Area or in Big Sur. I don’t mean the remarkable pockets of old growth you find in Mendocino (Montgomery Woods is especially incredible). I don’t even mean the aptly named Avenue of the Giants or the dark, lush forests in Humboldt Redwoods State Park (although they would easily make the top ten if it weren’t for this number one entry). I mean specifically the state and federally co-managed area that lies north of Eureka and near the Oregon border: Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. These four parks, collectively, are very simply the greatest forests I’ve yet to encounter. There are so many things that make this area great. First of all, while most people know that over 95% of the Redwoods were cut down, few people understand that about HALF of all that are left of them are in this state and federally co-managed area. What that means is that–with a couple of exceptions–almost every Redwood “forest” you’ve seen isn’t so much a forest as much as it is a tiny island of Redwoods that somehow escaped devastation — roads and development are almost never that far away. Here, however, you can experience these forests as they were meant to be: as wilderness. Also, the trees are bigger here. A LOT bigger. As in twice as large as the absolute biggest trees in the entire Bay Area. And perhaps most extraordinary of all, this area, unlike all the other Redwood parks, is also in a temperate rainforest. Calling these parks a Redwood “forest” isn’t as accurate as calling them a Redwood jungle. Redwoods are only the beginning. Be prepared for primeval landscapes that are aggressively lush; for slot canyons that are taller than they are wide, cascading with thousands of ferns and dozens of unnamed waterfalls; for remote, wild beaches that are many miles away from the nearest towns; for mosses and epiphytes and firs and spruces that will challenge the Redwoods for dominance in the forests at every place they can; for massive herds of Roosevelt Elk (the largest in the world) grazing in pristine meadows surrounded by the tallest trees on Earth; for the unmatched majesty of these jungles as they loom in the omni-present summer fogs. Want to go on a hike that will change the way you look at the world forever? Drive to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and park at the Elk Meadow campground. Hike the 13 mile Miner’s Ridge-James Irvine loop. Don’t feel like challenging yourself that much? Head up to Jedediah Smith and do the 2.7 mile out-and-back Boy Scout Tree Trail. Either way, be prepared for inspiration. The Redwoods here stand out not only as the greatest place in the state, but one of the greatest places in the world.