California Off the Beaten Path

Tomales Bay State Park, Inverness, CA. Photo by Flickr user kid cowboy California off the beaten path.
Tomales Bay State Park, Inverness, CA. Photo by Flickr user kid cowboy

A Guide to More Than 1,000 Scenic and Interesting Places in California

By the Editors of Reader’s Digest

For all its popularity as a travel destination, the Golden State still has plenty of wonderful out-of-the-way places to explore. You can still go off the beaten path, even in Southern California!

Below is an excerpt from the book Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to More Than 1,000 Scenic & Interesting Places Still Uncrowded and Inviting 

San Francisco Maritime park
San Francisco Maritime Park

By the editors of Reader’s Digest. If you’re planning a California trip to Northern California or the South, this book will give you a lot of inspiration for your vacation. Below are some of the places you might not think of but are excellent examples of going off the beaten track in the Golden State.

California off the Beaten Path

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
127011 Newton B. Drury Pkwy., Orick. California

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

A display at the center features a month-by-month account of the life cycle of this magnificent 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 tallest 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.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Photo Flickr user Pablo Marx.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Photo Flickr user Pablo Marx.

Some 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 step-like 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.

Open year-round. Admission charged.
(707) 465-7347

Lava Beds National Park, Tulelake, CA. Photo by Flickr user renedrivers
Lava Beds National Park, Tulelake, CA. Photo by Flickr user renedrivers

Lava Beds National Monument
1 Indian Well Headquarters (off Rtes. 139 and 161), Tulelake, California

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 color, lie precariously amid the wispy sage.

At the visitors center 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.

An interpretive trail in the adjacent, illuminated Mushpot Cave explains lavacicles, 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 Rd., which begins at the visitors center. If you want to explore them, the center will lend you portable lights.

The Modoc War

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 center. Petroglyphs 4,000 to 6,000 years old, found on cliffs, remind one that to the Modocs this area was the center 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.

Lava Beds National Monument. Steps take visitors into one of the monument’s many lava-tube caves. Crystal Ice Cave (right) is the cave with the most spectacular ice formations.

Open year-round except Christmas. Admission charged.
(530) 667-8100

Modoc National Wildlife Refuge

Alturas, California

An expanse of golden desert with a managed system of marshes, lakes, and ponds, this 7,000-acre refuge on the Pacific Flyway is specifically designed for migratory birds, and it’s a bird-watcher’s delight.

While geese, hawks, ducks, egrets, and a variety of shorebirds and warblers are most frequently seen here, some 220 species have been recorded. A drive around Teal Pond is a good way to see them at close range. Grassy, tufted islets dot the pond, and herons and egrets often stand motionless along their shores. Great numbers of tundra swans may also be seen gliding on the placid blue waters.

The refuge is the summer home for the largest population of sandhill cranes in California. This wading bird with blue-gray body and bright red patch on the head grows to about four feet tall and is easy to spot. If birding is your special interest, April and September are the best times to see the greatest number of species.

Among the mammals seen here year-round are rabbits, muskrats, minks, raccoons, coyotes, and mule deer. Fishing is allowed in Dorris Reservoir, and part of the refuge is set aside for seasonal hunting.

Open daily year-round.
(530) 233-3572

William B. Ide Adobe State Historic Park

21659 Adobe Rd., Red Bluff.California

This 1850s home is a focus for year-round programs aimed at giving visitors a firsthand feel for pioneer life. William Brown Ide, fresh from Illinois, served as the leader of the short-lived Republic of California from June 14, 1846, when a small band of American settlers revolted against Mexican rule. His term ended abruptly on July 10, when the republic was declared a U.S. protectorate.

The state acquired the compound in 1951, embarking on extensive restoration of the low-roofed main house, carriage house, well, and smokehouse.

Throughout the summer months, visitors can view various craft demonstrations, such as brick-making, candle-making, blacksmithing, quilting, and wood-working.

Open year-round. Parking fee.
(530) 529-8599

Feather Falls Scenic Area. Photo by Flickr user sjungling

Feather Falls Scenic Area

Feather Falls Trailhead Rd., Oroville, California

Gleaming like a glass skyscraper, the three tiers of Feather Falls plunge 640 feet into a valley cut into the Sierra foothills.

Hikers can take a moderate-level well-marked trail leading through sparse manzanita and pine chaparral to an observation deck with a spectacular top-to-bottom view of the falls.

Hikers should plan on an afternoon to make the seven-mile round-trip and be sure to carry plenty of water. The best seasons to visit are in the spring, when wildflowers provide a painter’s palette of colors, and in autumn when the trees are adorned with reds and golds.

The scenic area, which encompasses 15,000 acres in the Plumas National Forest, includes a number of other hiking trails, scenic spots, and campgrounds. The three branches of the Feather River (whose middle fork is fed by the falls) afford some of the most challenging whitewater rafting in the state. Downstream are calmer stretches of water for canoeing or kayaking.

Open year-round.
(530) 534-6500

Montgomery Woods State Reserve

Orr Springs Rd., Ukiah. California

Montgomery Woods is a fine place to see giant redwoods in their primeval state. A clearing ringed with the largest trees — 10 to 15 feet in diameter — opens about four-fifths of a mile along the steep loop of Memorial Grove Trail, which begins at the reserve pullout.

From a carpet of their red-brown needles, redwoods rise like temple columns, and any stage designer would envy the hazy amber light and vivid green of the ferns in this setting. Silence is deep, civilization distant. Camping is prohibited in the 2,743- acre reserve, but there are picnic tables near the creek that borders the trail.

An added aspect of the woods’ appeal is the pleasure of getting there. Orr Springs Rd. winds 40 through barren, rocky areas with views of rolling hills and pasturelands and glimpses of the Napa and Mendocino valleys. Narrow, steep, and full of hairpin turns, the road is an exciting experience, but one should not attempt it with a trailer or mobile home in tow.

Open year-round.
(707) 937-5804

Tomales Bay State Park, Inverness, CA. Photo by Flickr user kid cowboy
Tomales Bay State Park, Inverness, CA. Photo by Flickr user kid cowboy

Tomales Bay State Park

1208 Pierce Pt. Rd., Inverness. California

From clearings in the dense, aromatic undergrowth above the sandy crescent of Heart’s Desire Beach, there are endless views beyond the circling gulls and hawks to the golden hills across the bay.

If you don’t mind chilly water, you can swim here at the surf-free beaches, then warm up with a hike along the Johnstone Trail at the south end of the beach: a corridor lined with huckleberry, oak, giant fern, and braids of green lichen.

Or take the Indian Nature Trail at the north end to Indian Beach, where with a California fishing license you can dig for littleneck clams and the occasional giant four-pound horseneck.

Off Rte. 1 on the way into the park, stop at the Bear Valley Visitors Center for a wealth of information on the history, plants, and wildlife of Tomales Bay. A word about the weather: Vital for sustaining the park’s abundant vegetation through the Mar.- Sept. dry season are the picturesque but chilly fogs that roll in the rest of the year.

Open year-round. Admission charged.
(415) 669-1140

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and Museum

Hyde St. Pier, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf

For avid sailors and vicarious seafaring adventurers,  the Hyde Street Pier 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 colorful fish and gleaming tiles of renowned muralist Hilaire Hiler’s expressionist vision of Atlantis. 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 recreations, interpretive programs, and a visitors center 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.

Open year-round. Entrance fee for historic vessels.
(415) 447-5000

Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, Vining, CA. Photo by Flickr user Albert de Bruijn
Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, Vining, CA. Photo by Flickr user Albert de Bruijn

Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

Hwy. 395, Lee Vining, California

Author Mark Twain called the fantasy landscape of Mono Lake a “sullen, silent, sail-less sea,” and indeed the 1,000,000-year-old lake is three times saltier than the ocean and has a forbidding mien.

It is fed by melting snow and underwater springs and is dotted with dramatic and intricately filigreed white limestone towers, knobs, and spires, produced when calcium-laden fresh water wells up through alkaline lake water, precipitating calcium carbonate, or tufa.

As the lake level drops (through natural evaporation) and as freshwater sources are diverted to provide drinking water for the city of Los Angeles, the lake bed’s tufa formations are exposed.

No fish can live in the concentrated minerals and salts of Mono Lake, but brine shrimp and alkali flies thrive in the trillions. They provide food for the thousands of gulls and other migratory birds that flock here in spring and summer.

The lake’s South Tufa area features a one-mile nature trail that clearly explains the lake and its peculiarities. Other attractions in this immense reserve (17,000 acres) include exceptionally buoyant swimming at nearby Navy Beach, boating, and if you arrive at the right time — dusk, say — a glimpse of the awesome alpen glow, the strange phenomenon of reflected light that bathes the High Sierra with rose and gold.

Open year-round.
(760) 647-6331

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Big Pine, CA. Photo by Flickr user pablo_marx
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Big Pine, CA. Photo by Flickr user pablo_marx

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

White Mountain Rd., Big Pine, California

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 has 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 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.

Open daily mid-May–Oct.
(760) 873-2500

Copyright © 2009 Editors of Reader’s Digest, author of Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to More Than 1,000 Scenic & Interesting Places Still Uncrowded and Inviting

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