California

TRIP PLANNER

View in Death Valley National Park (Alamy)

View in Death Valley National Park (Alamy)

Plan your perfect escape around the Golden State’s cultured cities, celebrated winelands and wild fringes with our trip planner.

Northern California

Underrated winelands, gold-rush towns and hidden histories await in NorCal

Best for: Small towns, history, nature and exceptional food and wine
Why go? Experience the state’s great diversity, from the spectacular coast to the stunning landscapes of wine country, to the Sierra Nevada foothills and gold-rush towns
Route: Mendocino; Anderson Valley; Santa Rosa, Sonoma; Nevada City/Grass Valley; Mariposa

This route begins in Mendocino County, a magical region of waves, wines and redwoods, filled with historic villages and outback adventures. To reach it, you can fly into Charles M Schulz–Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, or any of the airports in San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento, and hire a car from there.

Start in the artsy town of Mendocino (about 250km north of San Francisco), a historic 1850s logging community that has become a popular escape. Amble around town to check out the Victorian-era buildings, galleries, cafés and restaurants, and overnight in one of its quaint inns.

From Mendocino, travel south along the scenic coast and its series of serene beaches to Highway 128, threading your way through the pastoral, uncrowded Anderson Valley. Be sure to check out the tiny towns of Philo and Boonville on your way to the region’s main thoroughfare, Highway 101. The area is known for its premium vineyards and wineries; organic and biodynamic farms; and parks with beautiful trails that wind through vast redwood forests.

Turn south on Highway 101 to reach peaceful Healdsburg, which is acclaimed for its wineries and restaurants and is a good option for an overnight stay. Further on, it’s worth making time to visit Santa Rosa and the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center. Then veer east on Highway 12, through vineyards and rural farmland, to the historic town of Sonoma. Explore the town square, which was the site of pivotal early events in California’s history and is home to the northernmost Franciscan mission in California, then continue east to Sacramento, the state capital.

You are about to enter California’s Gold Country, where in 1849, thousands of people (often called the ‘49ers) hoped to strike it rich in the foothills near Sacramento. Sadly, the Indigenous Americans who had lived in the region were almost wiped out by this influx; learn about their travails and perseverance at the State Indian Museum at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in downtown Sacramento.
Next, drive to the heart of Gold Country. Overnight in Nevada City, California’s best-preserved gold-rush town and an arts and music magnet for the region. Or head instead to Grass Valley (choose from various routes), where you can tour one of the area’s oldest, deepest and richest mines at the Empire Mine State Historic Park, before turning south to pan for gold at Columbia State Historic Park, the site of a well-preserved town just north of Sonora.

End your journey by heading along Highway 49 to Mariposa, a major gateway to Yosemite National Park. It has restaurants, hotels and historic inns, as well as several interesting museums, including the Mariposa Museum and History Center, Yosemite Climbing Museum and Gallery, and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum.

Hankering for more? Extend your trip to the Highway 49 terminus at Oakhurst, where you can base yourself for a day’s adventure at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (at Yosemite’s southern entrance). Alternatively, head to Lake Tahoe, one of California’s greatest outdoor playgrounds.

The circumference of the ‘Dead Giant’ tree tunnel in Yosemite NP’s Tuolumne Grove measures 36m – this huge sequoia once towered 60m until it was cut in 1878 (Shutterstock)

The circumference of the ‘Dead Giant’ tree tunnel in Yosemite NP’s Tuolumne Grove measures 36m – this huge sequoia once towered 60m until it was cut in 1878 (Shutterstock)

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(Alamy)

Discover Yosemite Climbing Museum and Gallery

If you’ve ever seen photos or videos of climbers clambering up iconic Yosemite rock faces, such as El Capitan, or dangling from hammocks on their journey skyward and wondered how in the world they accomplished these feats, this is the place for you. Visit this small museum in Mariposa, run by the non-profit Yosemite Climbing Association, to learn about the area’s many climbing accomplishments. Its fascinating exhibits chronicle the ascents of some of the planet’s most successful climbers in the early years of the sport in Yosemite, as well as the evolution of the gear that got them there. It’s amazing to compare their original equipment – pitons, bolts, ropes, cables, climbing boots – with today’s high-tech versions; they often crafted these tools themselves solely to fit the task. Highlights include a hand-forged iron spike from the first ascent of the park’s Half Dome in 1875. There’s also a chance to purchase photography, books and artwork by locals. yosemiteclimbing.org

(katalves)

(katalves)

Pretend you’re a Victorian traveller
at The National Exchange Hotel

Wonder what it would have been like to visit California during the gold-rush era? One of state’s oldest hotels was built in 1856 in Nevada City, the most important gold-rush mining town in the then new state of California. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Victorian-style hotel once housed Nevada City’s first telegraph office as well as a post office, while a major stagecoach line used to stop right outside. An extensive renovation, completed in 2021, has brought to life the elegance of the hotel’s heyday while incorporating modern-day amenities. Its 38 rooms combine modern and antique art and furnishings; and while you won’t find any TVs here – although there is wifi and an in-room tablet – you will discover plenty of tales from the hotel’s past. Other perks include a French-inspired fine-dining restaurant and a historic tavern that serves craft cocktails and local wines. thenationalexchangehotel.com

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

Explore the less-visited parts of
Yosemite National Park

Nearly 4 million visitors a year make the pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park, one of the oldest and most popular national parks in the USA. Most just explore Yosemite Valley for a few hours, but you could easily lose yourself for days here. This rocky land is cut through by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and it has become wildly popular with climbers, though its trails and groves of towering sequoias are just as enticing. Beat the crowds by avoiding weekends and the busiest season (May–October), arriving at entrances early in the morning and exploring less-visited areas such as Hetch Hetchy, near the northern entrance. Lodging is readily available at Evergreen (evergreenlodge.com) and Rush Creek (rushcreeklodge.com) lodges, near the Hetch Hetchy entrance, and in the town of Groveland. If the Tioga Road is open, venture up into the high country in and around Tuolumne Meadows, near the east entrance and close to Lee Vining. Services are available at Fish Camp and Oakhurst. nps.gov/yose

“I’ve lived in NorCal for nearly 40 years and love many things about the region: the weather, clean air, scenery and multicultural character. Mendocino County is my favourite getaway – for its ocean sunsets, fun shops and affordable restaurants. Anderson Valley wine tasting is also more affordable compared with places like Napa. The Gold Country has great wine and food too. I find the history of the Chinese immigrants who arrived here during the gold-rush era especially fascinating.”
William Wong, retired hospital administrator, UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco

Monterey Bay

Sun, surf and remarkable Spanish colonial relics scatter the shores of this historic bay

Best for: Marine life, colonial history, hiking, biking, kayaking and nature
Why do it? Pursue virtually unlimited outdoor activities in a magnificent natural setting. Wander redwood groves and long stretches of sandy beach, then spy marine life in a huge National Marine Sanctuary
Route: Monterey; Moss Landing; Aptos, Capitola and Soquel; Santa Cruz

Numerous Indigenous American groups lived around Monterey Bay before Spanish explorers arrived in the area in 1602 and displaced them. Other peoples settled here over the centuries, and Monterey served as the capital of Alta California under Spanish and then later Mexican rule, until 1846, when the US flag was first raised over its Custom House.

Some of this early era’s most prominent buildings and marked sites are now part of Monterey State Historic Park. Rangers guide regular tours here, but you can also download a free mobile phone app from the park website for a self-guided version. Sites include the landing spot of the Spanish explorers in 1602, one of few surviving whalebone sidewalks, historic homes and hidden gardens. You can also follow yellow tile markers and trek along a 3km Path of History tour in the downtown area.

There are plenty of wild encounters too. Avoid the crowds and get up close and personal with the region’s wildlife in Moss Landing, a fishing village and marine science research hub 30km north of Monterey. The Elkhorn Slough reserve borders Moss Landing Harbor and is an excellent place to kayak or sail an electric catamaran to get a better look at shore birds, playful otters and lounging seals and sea lions.

Continue curving northwards around the bay to discover the quaint enclaves of Soquel, Capitola and Aptos. These towns combine early California heritage and charm with eclectic modern-day boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, cafés and restaurants. In Aptos, take a break at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, where you can hike 48km of trails amid redwood groves and clamber up peaks topping 700m; some routes also allow biking. A long series of beaches border the villages, offering a place to relax.

Drive another 10km north to boho Santa Cruz, the birthplace of surfing on mainland USA. The sport arrived in the area in 1885 when three Hawaiian princes first rode the waves here on boards crafted from redwood trees. Late wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill called Santa Cruz home, and the site of his original surf shop is a local point of interest. Santa Cruz is one of the best places to learn to surf, so sign up for lessons; if you’re already an experienced surfer, try out the famous breaks at Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point.

Finally, leave Santa Cruz and head via Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Jose and the San Francisco Bay Area, or hug the coast and continue up Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay and San Francisco. Alternatively, swing over to Pinnacles National Park for its talus caves.

Pinnacles NP was only made a national park in 2013, and it still sees barely 350,000 visitors each year – less than a twelfth of the number that find their way to Yosemite NP (Alamy)

Pinnacles NP was only made a national park in 2013, and it still sees barely 350,000 visitors each year – less than a twelfth of the number that find their way to Yosemite NP (Alamy)

“I was drawn to Santa Cruz County for its redwood forests and sunny beaches, and then I fell in love with the community. A sense of passion and creativity fuels those who want to set down roots here. The natural beauty in our region serves as inspiration for start-ups, makers and creatives seeking that classic, laid-back West Coast vibe.”
Nikki Patterson, director of development, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

(Alamy)

(Alamy)

See swooping condors and ancient
caves at Pinnacles National Park

One of the USA’s youngest and least-crowded national parks, Pinnacles takes its name from its most noticeable geographical feature: the jagged rocky spires that jut along an ancient fault line. These are the result of volcanic activity that ripped across the land millions of years ago, creating a wild and rocky playground. Grand hikes and stellar stargazing abound in between clambering through talus caves. Its birdlife is just as impressive, with sightings of the rare California condor as well as falcons and eagles; you can also see 14 species of bat. The best seasons to visit are autumn and spring, as summer temperatures can rise to unbearable levels. Try to avoid weekends to save bumping into too many people on the trails. To get here, fly into Monterey or San Jose airports and hire a car; public transport is sparse in this region. Enter the park from the entrance on the east side, near Paicines, where most park services are located. nps.gov/pinn

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(Alamy)

Learn about the Spanish missionaries when they came to California

Santa Cruz Mission – the twelfth Californian mission (of 21) established by Spanish friars in the late 1700s – was built on the homelands of the Uypi people; now the site is part of Santa Cruz Mission State Park. Its modern ‘mission’ is to acknowledge the ‘great loss and trauma’ that happened here as a result of the missionary system, as well as honour the Indigenous peoples’ resilience and preservation of their cultures and traditions. The park includes the only surviving structure from the original mission, an adobe that once housed Indigenous families and is the only example of its kind in California today. The restored one-storey building incorporates an exhibit that tells the tales of the Ohlone and Yokuts people who lived at the mission, as told from their perspective. You can also join a guided tour or follow a self-guided route. The park sits on a blufftop just above downtown, so you can enjoy sweeping views as you contemplate its past. parks.ca.gov

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(Alamy)

Ride historic rail routes through the redwoods at Roaring Camp Railroads

All aboard! Chug through redwood forests on a train pulled by a well-preserved 1890s narrow-gauge steam locomotive. Conductors tell the history of the area’s former logging camp, railroad and forest as you meander your way up into the surrounding wilderness – the main trip up to the summit of Bear Mountain and back takes about 75 minutes. In summer, you can board the beach train instead, which travels through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and down a scenic river gorge, crossing a magnificent 1909 steel truss bridge and traversing a tunnel (built in 1875) to reach the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park (one hour each way; twice daily). The 1880s ‘town’ of Roaring Camp is itself a fun adventure; it includes a covered bridge, train depot, cook house, general store, blacksmith’s shop, barbecue chuckwagon and plenty of activities, including mountain biking and hiking. You can also bring a picnic or order to-go meals to take on the train. roaringcamp.com

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(Alamy)

Ride the surf-culture wave at Arrow Surf and Sport

With so many opportunities to hit the waves in this part of California, you would be amiss not to slip on a wetsuit and give it a go. But first, you might want to get your own board – or at the very least, discover a little local surf history. Former professional surfer Bob Pearson took up the sport in Santa Cruz in 1964, and soon started to shape boards for himself and his friends. He spent a few years living in Australia and Hawaii, but moved back to Santa Cruz in 1976 and opened Arrow Surf & Sport and Arrow Surf products (the factory) the same year, all while competing on the Pro Circuit where he achieved the rank of number-two pro surfer in the mainland United States. Since then, Bob has built boards for many of the world’s top-rated surfers and continues (with the help of skilled craftspeople in a 464 sqm factory and a computerised milling machine) to create boards of every shape and style for all abilities. Browse the Pearson Arrow shop to immerse yourself in the Santa Cruz surf-culture vibe. arrowsurfshop.com

Central Coast

Explore architecture, islands and beachfront rookeries in a region that is wilder than you think

Best for: Architecture, dining, Indigenous culture, hiking and nature
Why do it? To view some of California’s most spectacular natural settings and explore an array of small towns that hark back to earlier times
Route: Ventura; Santa Barbara; Pismo Beach; San Luis Obispo; Morro Bay/Cayucos; Cambria; San Simeon

Begin your journey 97km north of Los Angeles in Ventura, gateway to the magnificent Channel Islands National Park. Stop by the park visitor centre in Ventura Harbor to get oriented, then hop aboard an Island Packers boat (islandpackers.com) to cruise through the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, where pods of dolphins often swim alongside the hull and you might even spot blue whales spouting nearby. These boats let you hop islands and spend a day hiking (or camp for several days) on blissfully uncrowded trails in pristine landscapes.

Continue north along the coast to picture-perfect Santa Barbara, where downtown buildings sport a distinctive Spanish-Moorish look, thanks to visionary planners a century ago who established strict architectural guidelines that are still in place today. Pick up a Red Tile Walking Tour map at the visitor centre and stroll around town to check out historic adobes and other buildings, including the magnificent Courthouse and the newly expanded Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Cruise northward along scenic bluffs on the Gaviota Coast, then traverse the Santa Ynez Mountains to rural wine country, where you can explore a number of small towns and villages, such as Danish-inspired Solvang and Old West throwbacks Santa Ynez, Los Olivos and Los Alamos. From there, connect back with the coast and drive through Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve to the classic California seaside city of Pismo Beach. Take the scenic route from there and head through the rolling countryside of nearby Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley, filled with vineyards, farms and ranches, to your next destination: college-spirited San Luis Obispo, a supremely walkable city with plenty of lodgings and dining options.

From this city, head back to the coast again to Morro Bay and its national marine estuary, anchored by famed Morro Rock. Stretch your legs on the hiking and biking trails in and around Cayucos and pick up one of its famous brown-butter cookies in Downtown. Cambria lies just 20 minutes further up the highway, so take some time to stroll its historic East Village district or parade along the boardwalk at nearby Moonstone Beach, or even head out on the trails at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

The last stop on this route is San Simeon, home of Hearst Castle, a sprawling hilltop mansion built by William Randolph Hearst. Tour the castle but carve out time to experience a natural treasure just a few kilometres north of the building’s visitor centre: the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Viewing Area. You’ll also discover other delights – a schoolhouse and historic buildings – in Old San Simeon; look for the signpost as you head south from the rookery.

Your journey could end here, or you could also continue 110km north to Big Sur, one of the world’s most scenic drives. Alternatively, travel 46km east on Highway 46, where vineyards and grazing pastures blanket the hills to Paso Robles, known for its 250-plus wineries, numerous restaurants and British artist Bruce Munro’s largest work, Light at Sensorio. This immersive outdoor art exhibit is made up of solar-powered lights that burst into Technicolor splendour as you walk by, dazzling long into the night.

Santa Barbara’s courthouse is a fine example of the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that went on to define the city when it was rebuilt after the devastating 1925 earthquake (Alamy)

Santa Barbara’s courthouse is a fine example of the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that went on to define the city when it was rebuilt after the devastating 1925 earthquake (Alamy)

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(Alamy)

Kayak ancient sea caves at
Channel Islands National Park

Often dubbed North America’s Galápagos, the beautiful Channel Islands NP is one of the least visited national parks in the USA, so crowds aren’t an issue. It includes five pristine isles off the Pacific coast, each scattering the Santa Barbara Channel, while the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary adds further protection for the waters around their shores. The park is largely undeveloped, save for a few historic buildings leftover from the ranches that were set up years ago. Best of all, you may find species of endemic flora and fauna that are found nowhere else in the world. The park’s official transportation concessionaire, Island Packers, ferries visitors out to the islands year-round, although options are more limited in the winter. Channel Islands Adventure Company (islandkayaking.com) offers both public and private guided snorkelling and kayaking tours, and some of these include paddles through sea caves. nps.gov/chis

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(Alamy)

Gaze at thousands of raucous
elephant seals on a beach rookery

At Point Piedras Blancas, about 13km north of San Simeon, you can glimpse a colony of around 25,000 northern elephant seals swarming the beaches below. They return each year, hauling out along the coast in a cacophany of snorted challenges (particularly during mating season) and enthusiastic jostling. Pull over at the designated viewing areas, where docents explain what’s going on in the rookery depending on the time of year. In January, females arrive to give birth, while the babies stay on the beach until they are old enough to manage on their own later in spring. In May, juveniles and adult females come to moult, while hulking males, which weigh between 1,600kg and 2,300kg, arrive in late November to stake out claims for the annual mating season, which commences soon after females give birth. Visit the Friends of the Elephant Seal website for details on what’s happening during the time that you plan to visit. elephantseal.org

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

Admire art and architecture in Santa Barbara

By the early 1900s, Santa Barbara’s urban centre had become a mishmash of styles. Then, in 1925, an earthquake devastated much of downtown, and local residents seized the chance to establish a look for the city. The Spanish Colonial Revival style was all the rage in Montecito, where wealthy residents had built exclusive mansions, so that became the foundation for Santa Barbara’s architectural guidelines. One of the first public buildings to reopen was the County Courthouse, completed in 1929, which is still one of the best examples of a style that now defines the city’s downtown: red-tile roofs, arches, wrought-iron embellishments and earth-tone exteriors. Galleries and museums now cluster this area, where you’ll also find the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, a hidden gem on seven creek-side hectares behind Old Mission Santa Barbara. Added to this are more than 450 eateries, ranging from casual taquerias to places where seafood is hand-picked from boats in the harbour and fruit is often plucked from neighbouring orchards. santabarbaraca.com

“The sight of beautiful coastlines alongside majestic mountains makes the Central Coast a very special place. Choose from walking along the beach, paddle boarding, surfing, mountain biking, camping, hiking or tasting award-winning wines, all within a 30-minute drive. It’s also a culturally rich area, and we’re excited to share our culture and history with visitors to Santa Ynez Chumash Museum and Cultural Center, which will open in 2023.”
Kenneth Kahn, tribal chairman for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

Eastern Sierra

Discover filmic scenery, Indigenous culture and the forgotten history of Japanese Americans

Best for: Spectacular scenery, wildlife viewing, hiking and outdoors
Why do it: A journey here takes you through some of California’s most diverse and spectacular landscapes, edging the Sierra Nevada peaks as well as basins filled with hot springs, lakes and other geological wonders
Route: Lone Pine; Bishop; Mammoth Lakes; June Lake Loop; Mono Lake/Lee Vining

The Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway is one of the most majestic stretches of Highway 395, which traverses the USA from the Canadian border down to the Mojave Desert. This section runs between the long ridge of towering Sierra peaks in the west and the Great Basin of the east – a result of millions of years of geological upheaval and volcanic activity. There is just no better way to see the diversity of landscapes this area has in its pocket.

Begin your journey in Lone Pine, where Mount Whitney (4,421m), the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, holds court on the horizon. (Don’t climb it unless you are very fit and have a permit.) From there, drive up to Whitney Portal (2,530m) where you can pick up provisions, picnic by a pond and enjoy the mountain views. Next, stop at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center at the junction of Highway 395 and State Route 136 (a road into the heart of Death Valley NP) to pick up information, maps and check out its displays and native plant garden. Afterwards, pop into the Museum of Western Film History and then stroll several of Lone Pine’s historic blocks, which originally anchored a busy mining town.

Buzz 20km up to Manzanar National Historic Site, one of ten camps where the US government relocated and incarcerated Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Or simply meander around the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, whose unusual rock formations formed the backdrop for countless Western movies.

Later, continue north to Bishop, one of the region’s largest towns, and pull over to learn about Indigenous culture at Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center and Museum. It’s then a short hop to Mammoth Lakes, a lively resort town, and Mammoth Mountain, which delivers some of California’s best skiing and boarding slopes in the winter – plus some great biking trails in summer. A 30-minute drive north of Mammoth Lakes brings you to the 23km June Lake Loop, which circles four beautiful lakes and also serves as an excellent base for outdoor adventures.

Finally, head up to Lee Vining and Mono Lake, where eerie tufa (porous rock) towers poke out of a gigantic alkaline inland sea that attracts thousands of migratory birds. Finish your journey at Bridgeport, a small historic town with an 1880s courthouse and plenty of quaint shops.

If you’re not ready to end your trip there, continue up the 395 to Lake Tahoe or, if Tioga Road is open (usually Jun–Oct, depending on seasonal snowpack), cross the peaks and cruise down the curvy, scenic road to Yosemite Valley.

Taking in Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (86m below sea level), from Dante’s View in Death Valley NP – scenery that never fails to spark the imagination (Alamy)

Taking in Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (86m below sea level), from Dante’s View in Death Valley NP – scenery that never fails to spark the imagination (Alamy)

“I grew up on the California coast, but I’ve lived in Mammoth Lakes for two years now. I moved for the snow season, but I stayed because it was so beautiful and the summers are full of outdoor adventures. There are lakes everywhere here. I particularly recommend Convict Lake, Lakes Basin and driving the June Lakes Loop in the summer.”
Ella Roberts, bartender at Distant Brewing in Mammoth Lakes

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(Alamy)

Drop down to the lowest point in North America in Death Valley National Park

Death Valley NP teems with life, despite its moniker. To get here, fly into Las Vegas, Nevada, and then hire a car to drive up to 275km west, depending on your chosen route (see park website for driving suggestions); this will take you to the park headquarters and visitor centre in Furnace Creek, the main ‘town’ in the area. Alternatively, drive north from Los Angeles. Public transportation is very limited in this region, so you’ll have to do it under your own steam. Once there, travel along the main roads in the park, which include many scenic vista points (don’t miss Zabriskie Point, Artists Palette and Dante’s View), then dip down to Badwater Basin, a vast salt flat that sits 86m below sea level – it’s the lowest point in North America. If you have time, explore the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Harmony Borax Works too. You can find lodgings and restaurants in Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs. nps.gov/deva

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(Alamy)

Hear the wartime stories of Japanese Americans at Manzanar National Historic Site

In 1942, the US government rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese Americans and forced them into ten internment camps, with around 11,000 inmates ending up in what was then called Manzanar War Relocation Center, near Lone Pine. Today, the exhibits in its visitor centre depict these inmates’ lives, as well as detailing the story of the site from 1885 to the present. Stop to watch a 22-minute film documenting their experiences, then wander the site to discover a Children’s Village (orphanage), hospital remnants, Japanese gardens, orchards, a baseball field and other parts of the camp. You can also drive or bike along a 5km route to explore a block of restored buildings, which include barracks and a mess hall. The visitor centre is open daily and has free entrance; pick up a map there to use the outdoor audio tour. Together, the exhibit and sites tell a remarkable and shocking story. nps.gov/manz

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(Alamy)

Ride the range with famous Hollywood stars at the Museum of Western Film History

Since 1920, more than 400 movies (mostly Westerns) and 1,000 commercials have been filmed in the Lone Pine area, largely in the Alabama Hills. John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Clint Eastwood and myriad other legendary stars all worked on sets here. In more recent years, movies shot in the area include Gladiator, GI Jane, Maverick and The Shadow. You can find out all about Lone Pine’s film history and its impact on American culture at this fascinating museum, all while exploring its impressive collection of memorabilia: documents, costumes, cars, stagecoaches, posters, furniture and documentary films. Ask about the self-guided tour map of filming locations in the Alabama Hills, which you can access on Movie Road, off Whitney Portal Road in Lone Pine. The Lone Pine Film Festival also takes place in October; this shows plenty of films shot locally and includes guided tours and special events.
museumofwesternfilmhistory.org

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(Alamy)

Learn about the lives of the Indigenous peoples at the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center and Museum

In the town of Bishop, turn west on Line Street and cruise about 2km to the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center and Museum. Here you can learn about the history and culture of the Nuumu (Paiute) and Newe (Shoshone) people who have inhabited this region since before the Europeans arrived. It features cultural displays, artefacts, historical archives and a shop with arts and crafts made by local tribal members – both peoples are renowned for their exceptional basket-making skills. You can also walk through a native garden and on an interpretive trail. Similarly, the Eastern California Museum in the town of Independence (26km north of Lone Pine) has a diverse collection of about 400 finely woven baskets made by the Owens Valley Paiute and Panamint Shoshone, along with other displays related to the region’s Indigenous American culture. bishoppaiutetribe.com

Southern California

World-class museums, Old West film sets and lonely dark skies lie beyond the glitz of LA

Best for: Architecture, museums, Indigenous culture, desert landscapes and clear night skies
Why do it? Escape from the crowded coast and urban sprawl to California’s desert towns, then hike in fantastic nature parks
Route: Los Angeles; Yucca Valley; Twentynine Palms; Palm Springs; Borrego Springs; Julian; San Diego

Southern California stretches from the laid-back coast to the mountains and deserts in the east. The best way to explore its hidden nooks and crannies is to hire a car.

Start in Los Angeles and drive the Pacific Coast Highway up to the Getty Villa museum in Malibu, set in a Roman-style seaside home, or head east along Wilshire Boulevard and the famed Museum Row on the Miracle Mile, which is lined with museums including La Brea Tar Pits, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the LA County Museum of Art. Finish by driving or taking a tour bus to LA’s Griffith Park (pull up at the Observatory), where you can hike one of the park’s three trails to the iconic Hollywood sign, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in July.

Next, point the car east to Palm Springs, a desert oasis famed for its mid-century modern architecture. Modern, Architecture, Design, Experiences (MADE) offers tours (Oct–Jul; modtix.com) and produces event-packed Modernism Weeks in February and October. Soak in ancient healing waters at the new Spa at Séc-He, which was opened by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in April as part of a huge new plaza – one of the largest Indigenous American cultural centres in the USA. A cultural museum will also open there sometime in late 2023.

From Palm Springs, head for the high desert, where prickly Joshua trees and desert tortoises scatter the landscapes. Wind your way north-east on Highway 62 and amble Yucca Valley, a small but vibrant town at more than 1,000m above sea level, where you can browse plenty of antique shops and art galleries. If you’re up for a challenge, hike the nearby High View Nature Trail to be rewarded with sweeping views of the valley along the way.

Continue east to Twentynine Palms, a small town that’s a great base for desert exploration because it sits at the north entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, an official International Dark Sky Park, and is also a gateway to Mojave Trails National Monument and Mojave National Preserve. Check out all the sights along Joshua Tree’s Park Boulevard main loop and then head back to Palm Springs.

Next, wend your way south to Borrego Springs, a quirky village in the heart of Anza-Borrego Desert – California’s largest state park – which is great for hiking, biking and spring wildflower viewing. Pick up a map at the visitor centre to find the 130-plus Galleta Meadows Sky Art Metal Sculptures sprinkled around the community. Try to spend the night here in order to enjoy the excellent stargazing at this International Dark Sky Community.

Finally, grab some local apple pie and browse the art galleries in the historic alpine mining town of Julian en route to San Diego, where you can spend a day walking the sprawling Balboa Park to experience its magnificent architecture, botanical gardens and 18 world-class museums.

San Diego’s Balboa Park now contains 18 museums, but during the Second World War the park was converted into a military camp and hospital called Camp Kidd (Alamy)

San Diego’s Balboa Park now contains 18 museums, but during the Second World War the park was converted into a military camp and hospital called Camp Kidd (Alamy)

(Alamy)

(Alamy)

Trek nature trails in arid desertscapes at The Living Desert

The Living Desert works to conserve, protect and restore natural desert environments in California. The preserve cares for more than 600 animal and plant species representing the state deserts (Mojave, Colorado, Sonoran), and also features desert examples from Australia and Africa. A particular highlight here are the nature trails (open Oct–May), which also have opportunities for wildlife spotting and catching expansive Coachella Valley views. The trails enable visitors to experience the Colorado Desert in its natural state. Choose from three different routes that take you through various Sonoran Desert biological communities and habitats, including desert riparian woodland in a canyon and along a ridge, plus a small dune near an earthquake fault exhibit. Try to visit early in the day, and bring plenty of water because, after all, this is the desert and it can get pretty hot. livingdesert.org

(Alamy)

(Alamy)

Explore art and Indigenous culture
in sprawling Balboa Park

Often dubbed ‘The Cultural Heart of San Diego’, the first of Balboa Park’s gorgeous Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings and gardens were built to host the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. They still dazzle to this day. Set across 490 hectares on a hilltop mesa overlooking downtown, you can explore 18 museums as well as stroll pristine gardens and a botanical collection with more than 4,500 plant species. Highlights include the Centro Cultural de la Raza (a showcase for Chicano, Mexican, Indigenous and Latinx arts and culture), Museum of Us (human history and culture), Fleet Science Center, Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego Natural History Museum and WorldBeat Center, which promotes and preserves African, African-American and Indigenous cultures through their artistic expression. It would take well over a fortnight to properly explore them all. balboapark.org

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

See the Old West through the
lens of the silver screen

Tucked away in a bucolic mountain setting, and just 10km north of Yucca Valley, Pioneertown is an Old West film-set town that has been incredibly well preserved. At one point, it was an enduring icon of the big and small screen, with more than 50 movies and TV shows filmed here in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, the complex includes campsites, motels, ranch lodgings, art studios, a general store, a saloon and small shops. Visitors and locals alike gather at Pappy and Harriet’s (pappyandharriets.com), a rustic roadhouse stop that serves some of the region’s best barbecue and presents a busy schedule of world-class music. Over the years, a slew of big-name entertainers, ranging from Paul McCartney and Lizzo to the Arctic Monkeys, have rocked its storied stages. You’ll also find local art on display throughout the venue. Be prepared to wait for a table, though, as they don’t take reservations, so try to arrive before they open! visitpioneertown.com

“As a native San Diegan, I grew up in ‘Tunaville’, as Point Loma’s Portuguese community was known back when our immigrant dads fished for a living and made our city the tuna capital of the world. It’s San Diego’s diversity that I love best: sipping cappuccino with friends in Little Italy, pondering dim sum choices at Asian eateries along Convoy Street, celebrating our city’s Hispanic heritage in Barrio Logan and reconnecting with friends and family at Portuguese festas on the Point.”
Alison DaRosa, former travel editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune

Gazing out over the southern California coast and Santa Barbara’s Stearn’s Wharf, which became the longest deep-water pier in the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco when it was completed 1872 (Alamy)

Gazing out over the southern California coast and Santa Barbara’s Stearn’s Wharf, which became the longest deep-water pier in the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco when it was completed 1872 (Alamy)

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Gazing out over the southern California coast and Santa Barbara’s Stearn’s Wharf, which became the longest deep-water pier in the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco when it was completed 1872 (Alamy)

Gazing out over the southern California coast and Santa Barbara’s Stearn’s Wharf, which became the longest deep-water pier in the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco when it was completed 1872 (Alamy)