Publicized and idealized all over the world, California has a formidable reputation as a terrestrial paradise of sun, sand and surf, also boasting fast-paced, glitzy cities, primeval old-growth forests and vast stretches of deserts. While it’s been the source of some of the country’s most progressive movements, from the protests of the Sixties to modern environmentalist, civil rights and various reform activities, its economy has only just started to recover from the 2008–12 state budget crisis, bankruptcy narrowly avoided. Nonetheless, California’s GDP remains bigger than that of most European countries, and regardless of its economic ups and downs, the “Golden State” retains an unbreakable grip on the world’s imagination, thanks in large part to Hollywood.

California is far too large to be fully explored in a single trip – much will depend on what you’re looking for. Los Angeles is easily the biggest and most stimulating city: a maddening collection of diverse neighbourhoods, from the Mexican and Japanese enclaves downtown and family fun of Disneyland to the glitz of Beverly Hills and craziness of Venice Beach, knitted together by miles of traffic-clogged freeways. To the south, the more conservative metropolis of San Diego has broad, welcoming beaches, great food (featuring delicious tacos considering its proximity to Mexico) and a renowned zoo, while further inland, the deserts, most notably Death Valley, make up a barren and inhospitable landscape of volcanic craters and saltpans that in summer becomes the hottest place on earth. Heading north, the central coast is a gorgeous run that takes in lively small towns such as Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.

California’s second city, San Francisco, is a European-styled jewel whose wooden Victorian houses and steep hills make it one of the world’s most distinctive and appealing cities. To the east, mesmerizing national parks include Yosemite, where waterfalls cascade into a sheer glacial valley, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon with its gigantic trees, as well as the ghost towns of the Gold Country. North of San Francisco the countryside becomes wilder, wetter and greener, peppered with volcanic tablelands and verdant mountains.

As you might expect, a car is necessary for exploring much of California (see our feature on the best California road trip routes). A city such as Los Angeles couldn’t exist without the automobile, and in any case driving down the coastal freeways in a sleek convertible is too much fun to resist. And if you plan to do any long-distance cycling, travelling from north to south can make all the difference – the wind blows this way in the summer, and the ocean side of the road offers the best views.

Brief history

Spaniard Juan Cabrillo first sighted San Diego harbour in 1542, naming it California after an imaginary island from a Spanish novel, but in 1602 Sebastián Vizcáino bestowed most of the place names that still survive; his exaggerated description of Monterey as a perfect harbour led later Spanish colonizers to make it the region’s military and administrative centre. Father Junípero Serra first established a small Catholic mission and presidio (fort) at San Diego, and by 1804 a chain of 21 missions, each a long day’s walk from the next along the dirt path of El Camino Real (The Royal Road), ran from San Diego to San Francisco. Native Americans were either forcibly converted to Catholicism or executed, with disease killing off those who managed to survive the Spanish onslaught.

Mexico gained its independence in 1821, taking control of California, but Americans were already starting to arrive, despite the immense difficulty of getting to the Mexican state – three months by sea or four months by covered wagon. The growing belief that it was the Manifest Destiny of the United States to cover the continent from coast to coast, evident in the imperialist policies of President James K. Polk, soon led to the brief Mexican-American War. By January 1847 the Americans controlled the entire West Coast, and Spanish-speaking Californios were gradually marginalized. In 1850 California became the 31st state.

The Gold Rush of 1849 made not just California, but insured that the American West would be colonized in a matter of decades. A mere nine days before the signing of the treaty that ended the Mexican-American war, flakes of gold were discovered in the Sierra Nevada, leading to a rush of prospectors from all parts of the world. It took just fifteen years to pick the land clean of visible gold, and the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, linking the gold fields to the rest of the USA. Due to cut-rate rail prices and the lure of a dry, toasty climate and bountiful citrus groves, hordes of newcomers came from the Great Plains to Southern California and helped make Los Angeles the state’s biggest city. Thanks to this migration, along with periodic real-estate booms and the rise of the film industry, California became the nation’s fastest-growing state. Heavy industry followed during World War II, in the form of shipyards and aeroplane factories.

As home to the Beats in the 1950s and the hippies in the 1960s, California was at the leading edge of global cultural change. The economic counterpart of this shift also developed when Proposition 13, in 1978, augured a national trend to dramatically cut taxes at the cost of government solvency (not resolved until the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012 signalled a dramatic reversal). The 1980s saw further right-wing gains, with a string of laissez-faire Republican governors, and the 1990s crash-landed in economic scandal, a depressed housing market, rising unemployment, gang violence and race riots in LA – compounded by earthquakes, drought and flooding.

Some of the glow has further come off the golden state in the twenty-first century, but countless new migrants – many from Latin America – continue to arrive. One of these immigrants, Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, had the good fortune to become a well-paid action movie hero before taking his place as 38th California governor, and the misfortune to rule during the recent, severe economic recession, which helped weaken the state’s economy and pop the unemployment rate above twelve percent. By 2013 the Democrats had a majority in both houses of the state legislature, and Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor who replaced Schwarzenegger in 2011, signed a balanced budget for the state, its first in years, ushering in what Californians hope will be the beginning of a sustained recovery.

Bakersfield and the San Joaquin Valley

The vast interior of California is split down the middle by the Sierra Nevada (Spanish for “snowy range”), or High Sierra, a sawtooth range of snow-capped peaks that stands high above the semi-desert of the Owens Valley. The wide San Joaquin Valley in the west was made fertile by irrigation projects during the 1940s, and is now almost totally agricultural.

The flat, colourless oil town of BAKERSFIELD is the unlikely home of the country’s largest community of Basque descent, and one of the liveliest country music scenes in the nation. During the late 1950s and 1960s it become known for its distinctive “Bakersfield Sound”, a far less slick and commercial affair than its Nashville, Tennessee counterpart, epitomized by the gutsy honky-tonk of local artists such as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Even today the city serves as something of an alternative to the glossy country pop coming from Tennessee, and Bakersfield’s honky-tonks are jumping every weekend night, when Stetson hats and fringy shirts are the required apparel and audiences span generations.

The Bay Area

Of the nearly seven million people who live in the vicinity of San Francisco, only one in eight lives in the city itself. Everyone else is spread around the Bay Area, a sharply contrasting patchwork of mostly rich and some poor towns dotted down the peninsula or across one of the three impressive bridges that span the chilly waters of the exquisite natural harbour. In the East Bay are hard-working Oakland and intellectual Berkeley, while south of the city, the Peninsula holds the gloating wealth of Silicon Valley. To the north across the Golden Gate Bridge is the woody, leafy landscape and rugged coastline of Marin County, a combination of ostentatious luxury and copious natural beauty.

Berkeley

Berkley (named after the English philosopher-theologian George Berkeley) is dominated by the University of California, one of America’s most famous places of learning, especially known for progressive politics. The very name of Berkeley conjures up images of dissent and it remains a solidly left-wing oasis, although today the campus prides itself on its high academic rankings and Nobel-laureate-laden faculty. Sproul Plaza, in front of the school’s entranceway, Sather Gate, is where the Free Speech Movement began. Stroll the campus’s tree-shaded pathways or join the free student-led tours that leave from the elegant Campanile (Mon–Sat 10am, Sun 1pm).

The campus’s grand buildings and thirty thousand students give off an energy that spills south down raucous Telegraph Avenue, where dishevelled vendors peddle rainbow bracelets in front of vegetarian restaurants, pizza joints and book- and music stores. Just off it is the now-quiet People’s Park, a site of almost-daily pitched battles between protestors and police in the Sixties and early Seventies, part of the revolt against the Vietnam War.

Older academics congregate in Northside, popping down from their woodsy hillside homes to partake of goodies from Gourmet Ghetto – the restaurants, delis and bakeries on Shattuck Avenue, including the renowned Chez Panisse (see p.897). North of here, on the hills, Tilden Regional Park has good trails and a fine rose garden. Along the bay itself, at the Berkeley Marina, you can rent windsurfing boards and sailboats, or just watch the sun set behind the Golden Gate.

Marin County

Across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, Marin County is an unabashed introduction to Californian self-indulgence in wonderful natural surroundings: a pleasure zone of conspicuous luxury and abundant natural beauty, with sunshine or fog, sandy beaches, high mountains and thick redwood forests. Though in the past the region served as logging headquarters, the county is now one of the wealthiest in the USA, attracting young professionals to its swanky waterside towns.

San Jose

Burt Bacharach could easily find SAN JOSE today by heading south from San Francisco and following the heat and smog that collects below the Bay. Although one of the fastest-growing cities in California, it is not strong on identity – though in area and population it’s close to twice the size of San Francisco. Sitting at the southern end of the peninsula, San Jose has over the last three decades emerged as the civic heart of Silicon Valley. Ironically, it’s also acknowledged as the first city in California, though the only sign of this is the unremarkable eighteenth-century Mission Santa Clara de Asis, on the pleasant campus of the Jesuit-run Santa Clara University.

The area’s most famous landmark is the relentlessly hyped Winchester Mystery House, 525 S Winchester Blvd, just off I-280 near Hwy-17, a folly of a mansion built by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune following her husband’s death in 1884, to appease the spirits of those killed with the weapons. The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, 1660 Park Ave, houses a brilliant collection of Assyrian and Babylonian artefacts, while the revamped Tech Museum of Innovation, downtown at 201 S Market St, contains hands-on displays of high-tech engineering as well as an IMAX theatre.

Sports in the San Francisco Bay Area

Baseball

The Oakland Athletics play at the usually sunny Oakland Coliseum (T510 638 4900, W), which has its own BART station. The San Francisco Giants play at gleaming AT&T Park, where home runs sometimes land in the bay.

Football

By the time you read this, the resurgent San Francisco 49ers will have relocated to Santa Clara in the South Bay, where you may have to pay around $100 per seat. The struggling Oakland Raiders share the Oakland Coliseum (Wraiders.com) with the Athletics.

Basketball

The Golden State Warriors play at Oracle Arena in Oakland, next door to the Oakland Coliseum.

Ice hockey

The formidable San Jose Sharks play at the SAP Center in San Jose.

Soccer

The San Jose Earthquakes, draw respectable crowds at collegiate Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara.

California climates

The climate in southern California features seemingly endless days of sunshine and warm, dry nights, with occasional bouts of winter flooding. Coastal mornings can be hazy or overcast, especially in May and June. In San Francisco it can be chilly all year, and fog rolls in to spoil many a sunny day, though you can expect extreme variations in the Bay Area as a whole (you’ll soon see why the locals talk about “microclimates” around here). Much more so than in the south, winter in northern California can bring rain for weeks on end. Most hiking trails in the mountains are blocked between October and June by the snow that keeps California’s ski slopes among the busiest in the nation.

The Central Coast

Between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the four hundred or so miles of the Central Coast are home to a few modestly sized cities and lined by clean, sandy beaches and dramatic stretches of cliffs and capes. Of the various highlights, Big Sur is one of the most rugged and beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, Santa Barbara is a wealthy resort full of old and new money, and Santa Cruz is a coastal town with multiple identities. In between, languorous San Luis Obispo makes a good base for visiting Hearst Castle, the hilltop palace of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Almost all of the towns grew up around the original Spanish Catholic missions, many of which feature their original architecture – Monterey, 120 miles south of San Francisco, was California’s capital under Spain and Mexico, and briefly the state capital in 1850.

Big Sur

While not an official geographical designation, wild and craggy BIG SUR is the de facto regional name for the ninety miles of rocky cliffs and crashing seas along the California coast between Hearst Castle and the Monterey Peninsula; the breathtakingly unspoilt area extends inland for about twenty miles, well into the Santa Lucia Mountains. Running through this striking terrain is exhilarating Hwy-1, carved out of bedrock cliffs hundreds of feet above the frothing ocean and opened in 1937. Resist the temptation to bust through Big Sur in a single day, though; the best way to enjoy its perfect isolation and beauty is slowly. Leave the car behind as often as you can and wander through its numerous parks, where a mere ten-minute walk can completely remove you from any hint of the built environment.

Santa Barbara

Beautifully sited on gently sloping hills above the Pacific Ocean, SANTA BARBARA’s low-slung Spanish Revival buildings feature red-tiled roofs and white stucco walls, while its wide, golden beaches are lined by palm trees along a curving bay. State Street, the main drag, is home to an appealing assortment of diners, bookshops, coffeehouses and nightclubs.

Santa Cruz

The quintessential California beach town, SANTA CRUZ, 75 miles south of San Francisco, is sited at the foot of thickly wooded mountains beside clean, sandy beaches. Its strong hippie vibe and university-town status provides a sharp contrast to the upscale resort sophistication of Monterey Peninsula across the bay.

California's Deserts

The hot and forbidding landscape of California’s deserts exerts a powerful fascination for adventurous travellers. The two distinct regions are the Low Desert in the south, the most easily reached from LA, containing the opulent oasis of Palm Springs and the primeval expanse of Joshua Tree National Park; and the Mojave or High Desert, dominated by Death Valley and stretching along Hwy-395 to the sparsely populated Owens Valley, infamous as the place from which LA stole its water a hundred years ago.

It is impossible to do justice to this area without a car. Palm Springs can be reached on public transport from LA, but only the periphery of Joshua Tree is accessible and it’s a long hot walk to anywhere worth seeing. You can get as far as dreary Barstow on Greyhound and Amtrak, but no transport traverses Death Valley, understandably so in the summer.

Coachella

Since 1999 the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (commonly known simply as “Coachella”), has been held across several stages at the Empire Polo Club south of downtown Indio at 81-800 Ave 51 (25 miles southeast of Palm Springs). The massive three-day rock and alternative music festival is packed with big-name artists and is wildly popular, despite the high cost of attending. The Stagecoach Festival (stagecoachfestival.com) is the outdoor country music festival “cousin” of Coachella, typically taking place one week later at the same venue.

Death Valley National Park

DEATH VALLEY – famously known as the hottest place on earth – is a place where sculpted rock layers form deeply shadowed, eroded crevices at the foot of silhouetted hills, their exotic minerals turning ancient mud flats into rainbows of sunlit iridescence. Throughout the summer, the temperature averages 112°F and the hot ground can reach near boiling. Better to come in spring, when wild flowers are in bloom and it’s generally mild and dry. The central north–south valley contains two main outposts, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, site of the visitor centre.

Dante’s View, 21 miles south on CA-190 and ten miles along a very steep access road, offers a fine morning vista in which the pink-and-gold Panamint Mountains are highlighted by the rising sun. Near Stovepipe Wells, some thirty miles northwest of Furnace Creek, spread fifteen rippled and contoured square miles of ever-changing sand dunes. The most popular sight, though, is the surreal Scotty’s Castle, forty miles north of Stovepipe Wells, built in the 1920s as a luxury desert retreat; tours take in the decorative wooden ceilings, indoor waterfalls and a remote-controlled player piano.

When travelling through this shadeless, desiccated area, be careful about heading out in the middle of the day (when the danger of heatstroke is at its worst), and always carry plenty of water for both car and body.

Joshua Tree National Park

Covering a vast area where the high Mojave meets the lower Colorado Desert, JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK is one of the most magical and intriguing of California’s national parks. Almost 1250 square miles have been set aside for the park’s ragged and gnarled namesakes, which aren’t trees at all, but a type of yucca, similar to an agave. Named by Mormons in the 1850s, who saw in their craggy branches the arms of Joshua pointing to the promised land, Joshua trees can rise up to 40ft tall, and somehow manage to flourish despite the extreme aridity and rocky soil.

This unearthly landscape is ethereal at sunrise or sunset, when the desert floor is bathed in red light; at noon it can be a furnace, with temperatures topping 125°F in summer. Still, the park attracts campers, day-trippers and rock-climbers for its unspoiled beauty, gold-mine ruins, ancient petroglyphs and striking rock formations.

A visit to Keys Ranch (reservations recommended on 760 367 5555) provides a testament to the difficulty of making a life in such a difficult environment, but if you’d rather wander around the national park by yourself, there are many options: one of the easiest hikes (3 miles, foot-travel only) starts one and a half miles from Canyon Road, six miles from the Twentynine Palms visitor centre, at 49 Palms Oasis. West of the oasis, quartz boulders tower around the Indian Cove campground; a trail from the eastern branch of the campground road heads to Rattlesnake Canyon, where, after rainfall, the streams and waterfalls break an otherwise eerie silence among the monoliths.

Moving south into the main body of the park brings you to the Wonderland of Rocks, which features rounded granite boulders that draw rock-climbers from around the world. One fascinating trail climbs four miles past abandoned mines to the antiquated foundations and equipment of Lost Horse Mine, which produced around five million dollar’s worth of gold and silver between 1894 and 1931 (in today’s money). You can find a brilliant desert panorama of badlands and mountains at the 5185ft Keys View nearby, from where Geology Tour Road leads down to the east through the best of Joshua Tree’s rock formations and, further on, to the Cholla Cactus Garden, a quarter-mile loop through an astonishing concentration of the “jumping” cholla cactus.

Mono Lake

The vitreous blue expanse of Mono Lake sits in the midst of a volcanic desert tableland in the eastern shadow of Yosemite National Park. This science-fiction landscape holds two large islands – one light-coloured (Paoha), the other black (Negit) – surrounded by salty, alkaline water. Strange sandcastle-like formations of tufa – calcium deposited from springs – were exposed after Los Angeles extended an aqueduct carrying water diverted from the lake’s feeder streams into the Mono Basin through an eleven-mile tunnel. Mono Lake is the primary nesting ground for the state’s California gull population – twenty percent of the world’s total – and a prime stopover for hundreds of thousands of grebes and phalaropes.

The Gold Country

Around 150 years before techies from all over the world rushed to California in search of Silicon gold, rough-and-ready “forty-niners” invaded the GOLD COUNTRY of the Sierra Nevada, about 150 miles east of San Francisco, in search of the real thing. The area ranges from the foothills near Yosemite to the deep gorge of the Yuba River two hundred miles north, with Sacramento as its largest city. Many of the mining camps that sprang up around the Gold Country vanished as quickly as they appeared, but about half still survive. Some are bustling resorts, standing on the banks of whitewater rivers in the midst of thick pine forests; others are just eerie ghost towns, all but abandoned on the grassy rolling hills. Most of the mountainous forests along the Sierra crest are preserved as near-pristine wilderness, with excellent hiking and camping. There’s also great skiing in winter, around the mountainous rim of Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada.

Lake Tahoe

One of the highest, deepest, cleanest and coldest lakes in the world, Lake Tahoe is perched high above the Gold Country in an alpine bowl of forested granite peaks. Longer than the English Channel is wide, and more than 1000ft deep, it’s so cold that perfectly preserved cowboys who drowned more than a century ago have been recovered from its depths. The lake straddles the Nevada state line as well and lures weekenders with sunny beaches in the summer, snow-covered slopes in the winter and bustling casinos year-round.

Lake Tahoe skiing

Lake Tahoe rivals the Rocky Mountains in offering some of the best downhill skiing and snowboarding in North America. Although skiing is not cheap – lift passes can cost well over $60/day and ski/snowboard rental $30–35 – most resorts offer decent-value pass/rental/lesson packages or multiday discounts, especially if booked in advance online. Cross-country skiing is also popular, with rentals around $20 and trail passes in the region of $15–30.

Downhill skiing

Heavenly

Reachable by shuttle from Southshore, 2 miles from the casinos, or via the gondola on Hwy-50, next to the state line 775 586 7000, skiheavenly.com. Prime location and sheer scale (85 runs and 29 lifts) make this one of the lake’s most frequented resorts, and it also offers the highest vertical skiing served by a lift in the area.

Squaw Valley USA

Squaw Valley Rd, halfway between Truckee and Tahoe City 530 583 6955, squaw.com. Thirty-three lifts service more than 4000 acres of unbeatable terrain at the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Non-skiers can take the cable lift and use the ice-skating/swimming pool complex for the day.

Cross-country skiing

Royal Gorge

Soda Springs, 10 miles west of Truckee 530 426 3871, royalgorge.com. The largest and best of Tahoe’s cross-country resorts has 204 miles of groomed trails.

Spooner Lake

Nevada, at the intersection of Hwy-50 and Hwy-28 775 749 5349, spoonerlake.com. The closest cross-country resort to South Lake Tahoe has lake views and 63 miles of groomed trails.

Northern Coast California

The fog-bound towns and windswept, craggy beaches of the northern coast that stretches all the way to the Oregon border is better suited for hiking and camping than sunbathing, with cool temperatures year-round and a huge network of national, state and regional parks preserving magnificent redwoods, the tallest and among the oldest trees on earth.

Bigfoot Country

Willow Creek, forty miles east of Arcata, is the self-proclaimed gateway to “Bigfoot Country”. Reports of giant 350- to 800-pound humanoids wandering the forests of northwestern California have circulated since the late nineteenth century, fuelled by long-established Native American legends, but weren’t taken seriously until 1958, when a road maintenance crew found giant footprints. Thanks to their photos, the Bigfoot story went worldwide. However, in 2002, the bereaved family of Ray L. Wallace claimed he made the 1958 footprints, a hoax they had promised to keep secret until after his death. But the number and variety of prints (more than forty, since 1958) still points to a Bigfoot mystery, and the small Willow Creek-China Flat Museum (bigfootcountry.net) in Willow Creek has details of Bigfoot’s alleged activities, as well as local Native American artefacts.

California's Northern Interior

The remote northern interior of California, cut off from the coast by the Shasta Cascade range and dominated by forests, lakes and mountains, is largely uninhabited. I-5 leads through the heart of this near-wilderness, forging straight through the unspectacular farmland of Sacramento Valley to Redding – the region’s only buses follow this route. Redding makes a good base for the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity area and the more demanding Lassen Volcanic National Park. Mountaineers and the spiritually minded flock to Mount Shasta, which is close enough to the volcanic Lava Beds at the very northeastern tip of the state for them to be a long but feasible day’s car trip.

San Diego

Relatively free from smog and overbuilt freeways, SAN DIEGO is the second most populous city in California – affluent and libertarian, but also easy-going and friendly. In 1769 it was the site of the first Spanish mission in California, but the city only really took off with the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1880s. During World War II the US Navy made San Diego its Pacific Command Center, but since the end of the Cold War the military sector had reduced dramatically; San Diego has since become a biotech industry hub and is home to telecommunications giant Qualcomm, founded here in 1985. However, it is San Diego’s reputation as an ocean-oriented “resort city” that provides much of its current appeal, its long white beaches, sunny weather and bronzed bodies giving rise to the city’s well-deserved nickname, “Sandy Ego”.

Balboa Park

Less than two miles northeast of downtown, sumptuous Balboa Park is one of the largest museum enclaves in the USA, as well as a delight for its landscaping, traffic-free promenades, and stately Spanish Colonial-style buildings. Near the centre, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion (concerts Sun 2–3pm; free; Wsosorgan.com) is worth a look as the home of one of the world’s largest organs, with some 4500 pipes. Most of the major museums flank El Prado, the pedestrian-oriented road that bisects the park.

Automotive Museum

Classic motorcycles and cars, among them a 1948 Tucker Torpedo – one of only fifty left.

Museum of Man

Huge anthropological museum containing Maya and Native American artefacts and Egyptian relics.

Natural History Museum

1788 El Prado. Fabulous collection of fossils, hands-on displays of minerals and exhibits on dinosaurs and crocodiles.

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

1875 El Prado. Vast child-oriented museum of science-lite amusements with an IMAX theatre.

San Diego Museum of Art

Containing a solid stock of European paintings, from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century; highlights includeHals and Rembrandt.

Timkin Museum of Art

Gallery containing a stirring collection of Russian icons and paintings including Rembrandt’s Saint Bartholomew, Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Cooper Penrose and Cranberry Harvest, a masterpiece by Eastman Johnson.

Mission Beach and Pacific Beach

The biggest-name public beaches in San Diego are Mission Beach, the peninsula that separates Mission Bay from the ocean, and its northern extension, Pacific Beach – nightlife central for coastal San Diego. Enjoy nursing a beer at one of the many beachfront bars, or rollerblade or bike down Ocean Front Walk, the concrete boardwalk running the length of both beaches. A mile north of Pacific Beach’s Crystal Pier, Tourmaline Surfing Park, La Jolla Boulevard at Tourmaline Street, is reserved exclusively for the sport, as well as windsurfing – but no swimmers are allowed. If you don’t have a board, a good alternative is a few miles north at Windansea Beach, a favourite surfing hot spot that’s also fine for swimming and hiking alongside the oceanside rocks and reefs.

San Diego’s gourmet food trucks

Don’t leave San Diego without sampling the city’s dynamic food truck scene; these ain’t your average kebab vans. Always check Twitter feeds (listed on the websites) for the latest locations, times and menus (see also sdfoodtrucks.com).

Devilicious deviliciousfoodtruck.com. Already a San Diego institution, with its signature butter-poached lobster grilled cheese sandwich a real treat.

Miho Gastrotruck mihogastrotruck.com. Top-quality farm-to-table truck, with an ever-changing menu that might feature Californian salmon tacos and fried chicken with biscuits.

Super Q Food Truck superqfoodtruck.com. Hickory-smoked BBQ comes to San Diego; magnificent brisket, pulled pork and crispy sweet potato fries.

Tabe BBQ tabebbq.com. Some of the best Asian-fusion street food in the whole country: think char-grilled pork or beef marinated in a traditional, spicy Korean sauce.

San Diego Zoo

Easily one of the city’s biggest and best-known attractions, San Diego Zoo lies immediately north of the main museums in Balboa Park and is generally regarded as the country’s premier zoo. It’s an enormous place, and you can easily spend a full day or more here, checking out major sections devoted to the likes of chimps and gorillas, sun and polar bears, lizards and lions, and flamingos and pelicans. There’s also a children’s zoo, with walk-through birdcages and an animal nursery, and the Koalafornia Adventure, highlighting Australian animals, added in 2013. Take a guided bus tour early on to get an idea of the layout, or survey the scene on the vertiginous Skyfari, an overhead tramway. Bear in mind that the zoo’s beloved giant pandas Bai Yun, Gao Gao and their offspring spend a lot of time sleeping or being prodded by biologists in the park’s Giant Panda Research Station. If you have access to a car you might want to consider visiting the associated San Diego Safari Park at Escondido (35 miles north) – combo tickets are available.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks

The southernmost of the Sierra Nevada national parks are Sequoia and Kings Canyon. As you might expect, Sequoia National Park contains the thickest concentration – and the biggest specimens – of giant sequoia trees found anywhere, something that tends to overshadow its assortment of meadows, peaks, canyons and caves. Kings Canyon National Park has comparatively few big trees, but compensates with a gaping canyon gored out of the rock by the Kings River as it cascades down from the High Sierra.

Sierra National Forest

Sierra National Forest, sited between Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks, offers a chance to hike and camp in near-complete solitude. Planning is essential, though – public transport is nonexistent, and roads and trails can often close due to bad weather.

The popular Shaver Lake and Huntington Lake area, rich in campgrounds, soon give way to the isolated alpine landscapes beyond 9200ft Kaiser Pass. The sheer challenge posed by the rugged, unspoiled terrain of adjoining John Muir Wilderness can make the national parks look like holiday camps, though the area can get surprisingly busy (for a wilderness) in the summer. You can bathe outdoors at nearby Mono Hot Springs, or head for Mono Hot Springs Resort, near Edison Lake, which has indoor mineral baths along with primitive cabins.

The Wine Country

The warm and sunny hills of Napa and Sonoma valleys, which run almost parallel to each other an hour north of San Francisco, are by reputation at the centre of the American wine industry. In truth, less than five percent of California’s wine comes from the region, but what it does produce is America’s best. In summer, cars jam the main arteries as visitors embark on a day’s hectic tasting.

Napa Valley wineries

Almost all of Napa Valley’s wineries offer tastings, though not all have tours. There are more than three hundred wineries in all, producing wines of a very high standard, so your taste should ultimately determine the ones you visit.

Beringer Vineyards

Napa Valley’s most famous piece of architecture, the gothic “Rhine House”, modelled on the ancestral Rhine Valley home of Jacob Beringer, graces the cover of many a wine magazine. Expansive lawns and a grand tasting room, heavy on dark wood, make for a regal experience. Tasting $20, tour $30.

Chateau Montelena

Smaller but highly rated winery, nestled below Mount St Helena. The Cabernet Sauvignon in particular is acquiring a fine reputation. Tasting $20, tour $30.

Clos Pégase

A flamboyant upstart at the north end of the valley, this high-profile winery amalgamates fine wine and fine art, with a sculpture garden around buildings designed by postmodern architect Michael Graves. Tasting $15.

Goosecross Cellars

It’s well worth taking time to locate this friendly family-run winery, tucked away off Yountville Cross Rd. Crush-time is fun and its Chardonnay especially good. Tasting $20, tours by appointment ($30).

Sonoma Valley wineries

Nearly fifty wineries are scattered across the Sonoma Valley but there’s a good concentration in a well-signposted group a mile east of Sonoma Plaza, down East Napa Street. Some are within walking distance but often along quirky back roads, so take a winery map from the tourist office and follow the signs closely.

Bartholomew Park Winery

This lavish Spanish Colonial building is surrounded by some great topiary in the gardens and extensive vineyards. The wines are relatively inexpensive vintages that appeal to the pocket and palate alike. There’s a good little regional history museum, too, that also provides an introduction to local viticulture. Tasting $10.

Benziger Family Winery

Beautiful vineyard perched on the side of an extinct volcano next to Jack London State Park. There are five or six daily tram tours through the fields ($15) with

an emphasis on viticulture, or a self-guided tour introducing trellis techniques. Tasting $10–20; tour $40. Daily 10am–5pm. Tours 11.15am, 12.45pm & 2.15pm.

Buena Vista Carneros

Oldest and grandest of the wineries, founded in 1857, whose wine has re-established a good reputation after some slim years. The tasting room, a restored state historical landmark, features a small art gallery. Tasting $10 including glass, tours from $30.

Ravenswood

Noted for its “gutsy, unapologetic” Zinfandel and advertising a “no wimpy” approach to the wine business, this unpreten­tious winery is particularly friendly and easy-going. Well-known to locals for its summer BBQs. Tasting $15, tour $15.

Yosemite National Park

Put simply, Yosemite Valley, nestled in YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, and created by glaciers gouging through the canyon of the Merced River, is one of the world’s most dramatic geological spectacles. Just seven miles long and less than one mile across, it’s walled by 3000ft near-vertical cliffs, streaked by tumbling waterfalls and topped by domes and pinnacles that form a jagged silhouette against the sky. At ground level, grassy meadows are framed by oak, cedar and fir trees; deer, coyotes and black bears abound. You can visit any time of year – even in winter when the waterfalls ice over and most trails are blocked by snow.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the landmark Yosemite Grant, which set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove for public use and preservation. In 1890, Yosemite became the third national park in the USA, thanks in great part to the campaigning work of naturalist John Muir, a Scottish immigrant who spearheaded the conservation movement that led to the founding of the Sierra Club.

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Andy Turner
9/25/2020
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