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The Wander List

Edited by Ian A. Stewart | April 25, 2018 | Story News and Features Further Afield California Destinations Weekend Escapes Travel National

Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world that our sister magazine, San Francisco, is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2018 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Why are we
beckoned to climb to the tippy-top of the mountain? To stand as close to the edge of the bluff as we can? To squint our eyes and gaze out at the horizon stretching across the Pacific? It’s undeniable that nature has a power to move us. To restore in us some semblance of the cosmic order of things in which we—despite the cacophony of shrieking and bickering we’re often surrounded by—are in fact the small ones. To encounter a tree thousands of years old; to dip into a freshwater spring; to walk over the ancient remnants of a once-smoldering volcanic pyre is to be reminded that there’s a big, not-all-horrible world out there, away from the breaking news and clogged highways and Russian trolls. Here, 18 of our favorite places to find it.


It’s hard to get any farther away from it all than Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park—a 6,000-acre respite in the extreme northeast corner of the state, in the Fall River Valley in Shasta County. The park is accessible only by boat: It’s about a two-and-a-half-mile paddle from the nearest public boat launch. (Rentals and tours can be arranged through outfitters in McArthur and Redding.) The result is that it’s among the least tracked parks in the state. Ahjumawi sits at the convergence of the Tule and Fall Rivers, Big Lake, and Ja She and Lava Creeks, making it one of the largest freshwater springs in the world, with little creeks and brooks crisscrossing the park’s lands and islets. Much of the rugged ground here is covered in black basalt, evidence of lava flows dating from 5,000 years ago. The Spatter Cone Loop Trail takes you out to the offending volcanic vent, from which the peaks of nearby Shasta and Lassen are visible. The trout fishing is world-class—but more important, so is the quiet.

Distance: Five hours
Stay: A weekend trip
Price: Camping from $15 per night; two-day kayak rentals from $90 at Headwaters Adventure; guided full-day tours from $225 at Eagle Eye’s Kayak


If while visiting Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County you feel like you’ve walked onto the set of Jurassic Park, it’s because, well, you have: Much of the film was shot among the hanging fern gardens and ancient stands of coastal redwood here. Fern Canyon, the sunken hallway surrounded by 50-foot vertical walls of mesmerizing greenery, is particularly able to transport you into another realm—if perhaps not a Mesozoic one. Less than two miles from the Fern Canyon Loop Trail—but in every conceivable way a world apart—is the windswept 10-mile-long Gold Bluffs Beach. A range of day hikes are possible from there, including kid-friendly routes (the less-than-a-mile Revelation Trail) and more strenuous climbs (the 10-mile Lost Man Creek Trail).

Distance: Five and a half hours
Stay: A long weekend
Price: Camping at Gold Bluffs Beach Campground or Elk Prairie Campground from $35 per night (cabins from $100 per night)


Forty miles into the Pacific, Santa Rosa Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park system, is a two-hour boat ride away from Ventura. And from there, you’re on your own until the boat returns the following day. With no electricity or motorized vehicles on the island, the conditions are as spartan as they are stunning. Endure the howling winds and you’re rewarded with spring wildflowers, rolling grassy hills, and views of other Channel Islands from the top of 1,300-foot Black Mountain. The island also hosts one of only two naturally occuring groves of the rare Torrey pine (the other is, curiously, more than 175 miles away, near La Jolla). Tents can be pitched in Water Canyon Campground, with its white-sand beaches and network of hiking trails. Very experienced snorkelers and divers can do their thing here, too, but the persistent winds make it rough going. You’re very much facing off against nature on Santa Rosa, but the payoff is commensurate to the challenge.

Distance: About six hours to Ventura Harbor, plus a two-hour boat ride to Santa Rosa Island
Stay: An overnight trip
Price: Camping from $15 per night; boat transportation from $114 per person for an overnight trip via Island Packers


As the farthest north of the three state parks that jointly make up the Redwood National and State Parks system, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is one of the least visited and simultaneously most impressive places to ogle the giant redwood groves. What you lose in choice (the 5.6-mile Boy Scout Tree Trail is the only route into the interior of the park) you make up for in sheer awe. One of the best ways to see the titans is by driving the one-lane Howland Hill Road through stands of behemoths reaching 300 feet. The density of the forest means the canopy practically blocks out the sky, making things awfully damp and dark—the powerful Smith River cuts right through it, too, adding to the moisture. But with beautiful Crescent City and its SeaQuake Brewing just a 20-minute drive away, there’s ample opportunity to dry out and talk trees.

Distance: Six and a half hours
Stay: A long weekend
Price: Camping from $35 per night


An hour northwest of Truckee, there exists another high-mountain oasis: the so-called Lost Sierra, or the Sierra Buttes. Here you get almost everything you love about Lake Tahoe’s north shore, but with a fraction of the crowd. Some 20-odd glacial lakes dot the area flanked by the Gold Lake Highway, which runs from Graeagle to Bassetts, though perhaps the most scenic is the aquamarine Sardine Lake, which features one of the few drive-in campgrounds in the Lakes Basin. One of the best hikes around is the Sierra Buttes Trail, a five-mile round-trip—at an elevation of 7,000 feet, no easy task—that takes you up to the Sierra Buttes fi re lookout tower, at the top of a vertigo-inducing grated metal gangway with 178 stairs that, if you can get over the queasiness of looking down 5,000 feet, offers a 360-degree view of Lassen Peak and Sardine Lake way, way below.

Distance: Four and a half hours
Stay: A long weekend, at least
Price: Camping (several sites) from $24 per night


One of California’s newest national parks is a short drive from Silicon Valley, but thankfully it’s out of 4G range. The highlight of Pinnacles National Park is the bat-dwelling caves carved into its massive rock formations. Some of the best are along the Moses Spring Trail, which also takes hikers to the Monolith, one of the park’s most popular rock climbing faces. Extreme heat keeps most away during the summer—but in the spring and fall, the park is a stunning getaway to unplug in.

Distance: Two and a half hours
Stay: A day hike or overnight trip
Price: Camping from $23 per night


Everything we love about living in Northern California—the weather, the rugged coastline, the awesome power of nature—can be seen in about a 10-minute walk around the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Located at the northern end of Big Sur, Point Lobos is a study in what makes the Central Coast so magnificent. From the little museum at Whalers Cove, a number of short and easy hikes take you to bluffs overlooking Carmel Bay and its aqua waters, where you can spy sea lions, sea otters, and—farther out, during the summer months—blue whales. Patch together a longer jaunt by starting on the North Shore Trail and climbing up to the Cypress Grove Trail, where you’ll encounter old, gnarled Monterey cypress. From there, the South Shore Trail and the Bird Island Trail pass by the secluded, white-sand China Cove beach, especially popular with snorkelers and scuba divers. The Mound Meadow Trail takes you back to your car—and you’re all done in a couple of hours.

Distance: Two and a half hours
Stay: A day hike
Price: Parking $10; diving fees from $30; kayaking fees from $10; no camping


What’s better at the end of a long and demanding hike than a mirrorlike alpine lake? How about four? The Lakes Trail in Sequoia National Park, beginning about an hour northeast of Visalia, offers exactly that. The trail, a difficult 12 miles out and back, is best started at the Wolverton parking lot. It ascends to 9,500 feet along imposing granite escarpments to picturesque Heather Lake (4 miles in), Aster Lake and nearby Emerald Lake (5.5 miles in), and finally Pear Lake (6 miles from the trailhead). The first campground on the trail is at Emerald Lake. An even more demanding option is the Alta Peak Trail, which splits off the Lakes Trail after 1.7 miles and climbs another 5.2 miles to 11,204-foot Alta Peak, above Pear Lake, providing views of the Great Western Divide, the Kaweah Peaks, the Tablelands, and the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River.

Distance: Five hours
Stay: A long weekend, at least
Price: Parking $30; camping from $22 per night


It’s also possible to take in natural wonders without quite so much walking: Moaning Cavern is a system of caves, some of which have been in use since the 19th century, about 140 miles east of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevada foothills—the heart of picturesque former gold country. Moaning Cavern Adventure Park in Vallecito, just off Highway 4 between Angels Camp and Murphys in Cala veras County, is home to the state’s largest public cave. Visitors can take walking tours or—for the bravest—rent gloves and headlamps and get down on all fours to squeeze through passages called the Meat Grinder, Pancake Squeeze, and Birth Canal. Careful, though: Archaeologists have found human bones in the caves dating back thousands of years.

Distance: Three hours
Stay: A weekend trip
Price: Walking tours from $17.50 per adult; zip line from $45 per person; camping at Glory Hole Recreation Area (New Melones Lake) from $22 per night


The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, covering 330,780 acres, is vast, remote, biologically rich, and relatively unused. In reality, it’s an amalgam of disparate parks and preserves that in 2015 were jointly declared to be a single monument. That diversity is in evidence on the six-mile Summit Springs Trailhead near Stonyford in Colusa County, which starts at 5,200 feet and climbs to the top of 7,056-foot Snow Mountain. The trek passes through mixed forests and chaparral to reach a pair of exposed rocky summits that can be seen from Mount Diablo, more than 100 miles away; views from the top are clear to the Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Nevada, with Clear Lake to the southwest and endless mountainous timberlands to the north.
Distance: Four and a half hours
Stay: A weekend trip
Price: Camping at Gray Pine Group Campground from $75 per night


The cons first: The trail to Phantom Falls, a six-and-a-half-mile loop from the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve in Oroville, just outside Chico, isn’t marked, meaning that you may need to use a GPS device. During peak season, the parking can get crowded. It’s easy to stumble onto private property. And if it’s been dry, the falls aren’t much to look at. But during the spring months, and especially after a good rain, this beautiful and easy hike over rolling emerald hills pays off big-time in the form of a stunning 135-foot waterfall shooting over a sheer cliff face into an unseen grotto (and former gold mine shaft) below. Schedule this trip right, and the photo ops alone make it the best possible use of a weekend morning.

Distance: Three hours
Stay: A day hike
Price: Camping at Bidwell Canyon Campground from $45 per night


Rafting through the 250-foot-long tunnel that’s naturally bored through sheer rock at Natural Bridges in Calaveras County is not for the faint of heart (or the claustrophobic), but the karst here, cut through limestone along Coyote Creek and leading to New Melones Lake, is a locally famous attraction and beloved summer swimming hole. Inside the grotto are deep, dark pools along with shallower areas for crawdad fi shing. A roughly two-mile hike descends about 300 feet to the lower entrance to the cave—then another mile-plus hike takes you back up to the upper entrance, an enchanted-looking moss-covered opening from which you can launch your raft, have a picnic, or just dip your toes in the usually frigid waters.

Distance: Two and a half hours
Stay: A day hike
Price: Free


It’s a long, steep climb, four miles in and four miles back, with an elevation gain of 1,700 feet. But look, the ’grams are well worth it. About a quarter mile from the summit of Mount Woodson, near Lake Poway on the outskirts of San Diego County, is Potato Chip Rock, a thin crag jutting out in seeming defiance of gravity. Stand on it, sit on it, pogo stick, do wheel pose, set up a dinner party, hold up your dog like it’s baby Simba in The Lion King—there’s no bad way to take a picture there. #Instagood.
Distance: Eight hours
Stay: The day—then post to Insta ASAP
Price: Parking $8


The Trinity Alps Wilderness, west of Redding, boasts craggy mountain peaks, picturesque falls, and icy lakes to rival anything in Tahoe or Yosemite. And the best way to gorge on that scenery is on the approximately 15-mile-round-trip Canyon Creek Lakes Trail. The route passes open meadows, the bubbling creek that’s its namesake, and a series of spectacular waterfalls before eventually leading to Lower Canyon Creek Lake, seven and a half miles in. From there, Upper Canyon Creek Lake, at the base of 9,000-foot Thompson Peak (tallest in the region), is but a short climb up—well worth the effort, as crowds thin out and views of the Trinities are even more impressive. Easy side trips from there lead to higher lakes, including Boulder Creek Lakes and L Lake, which, like the others, are cradled in granite basins and reflect the towering summits above.

Distance: Five hours
Stay: A weekend trip
Price: Glamping sites at Mary Smith Campground, including tents with queen-size beds, log furniture, and private decks, from $85 per night


They aren’t as vast as Burney Falls, but what the three waterfalls along the McCloud River Trail lack in vertical drop they make up for in volume—as in a booming sound. That’s because they—and the middle falls in particular, with its 50-foot drop—tumble over a series of rocky outcroppings, creating a pounding, staircase-descending whitewater cascade that’s as impressive a sight as you’d ever hope to see. The trail, which connects the falls, is a four-mile trek with a mostly shaded canopy that opens up to views of the peaks of Castle Crags Wilderness. Fowlers Campground sits near the lower falls, a scenic base camp for a weekend of fishing, swimming, and hiking.

Distance: Five hours
Stay: A weekend trip
Price: Camping at Fowlers Campground from $15 per night


Lassen Peak, at 10,457 feet, gets the glory, but the best and most rewarding payoff in Lassen Volcanic National Park comes at the end of the 3.7-mile trek to the summit of 9,235-foot Brokeo Mountain, the second-highest peak in the park. The climb takes you up 2,600 feet through open meadows and forest before rising above the timberline and up to the top of what’s also known as Mount Tehama. The sweeping views from there are some of the best in Lassen, taking in the old volcanic caldera as well as Lassen Peak, Mount Conard, Chaos Crags, and even, on clear days, Mount Shasta, 150 miles away. Access is seasonally limited by snow, which is often thick until July. Not far from the trailhead is a tent-only campground accessible via a short, paved walkway next to a visitor center parking lot.

Distance: Four hours
Stay: A weekend
Price: Vehicle fee $25; camping at the Southwest Walk-In Campground from $10 per night


A vast expanse of 900 acres of ice-cold blue water reflects the peaks of the Sierra Nevada as boaters and water-skiers bob up and down with the swell. Anglers cast for the massive kokanee salmon and mackinaw, rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout. And yet the July 4 crowds of Lake Tahoe are miles away. That’s because you’re at the Boca Reservoir, a practically secret destination hiding in plain sight. A campground lined with Jeffrey pines and fir trees is open from the end of May through the beginning of October. If the peaceful isolation gets you stir-crazy, sample the big-city charms of downtown Truckee, just 15 minutes away.

Distance: Four and a half hours
Stay: A full week in summer
Price: Camping at Boca Rest Campground from $20 per night


The second-highest peak in Southern California is also one of the most impressive—and versatile, at least in terms of getting there. The San Jacinto Peak, rising 10,834 feet above sea level, looks out over the narrow expanse of the checkerboard Coachella Valley, the Inland Empire, and, farther out, the San Gabriel Mountains. Temperatures are up to 30 degrees lower than on the valley floor below, making the pine-scented San Jacintos tolerable even in the summer months. The most popular trek here is from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway in Long Valley to the peak, a moderately difficult 9.6-mile hike that climbs 2,562 feet. Shorter but far steeper and more difficult is the route to the summit from Marion Mountain, beginning just north of the town of Idyllwild, 5.7 miles each direction and climbing 4,600 feet, the last leg of it over granite boulders. Still, the reward is a vista unlike any other in the state, the coast visible to one side of you, and to the other, hardly a thing between you and Las Vegas.

Distance: Eight and a half hours
Stay: A long weekend, at least
Price: Camping at Idyllwild Campground from $25 per night; day-use hiking permit $5 per person; aerial tram tickets from $29.95 per adult

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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