In the first part of our two-part series on California, we started with the South, primarily because it is what people most often think of when they envision California. One trip up to the Northern part of the state however, just might change your mind entirely. With the beauty of the Marin headlands as the fog rolls in to the Coastal drive along the 1 Highway past cliffs and conifers, Northern California is arguably home to some of the most breathtakingly beautiful places in the world. If you are going to go, you will need a plan.
As one of the most famous cities in the world it is easy to think that you already know this place. Known as much for the hill-filled streets and cable cars as for the cold weather in the summer, the place evokes a mood like no other. It is basically New York City made smaller and nicer – but don’t tell people from either place that I said that. From the waterside walks through the Presidio to the legendary historical area around Haight and Ashbury, there is something here for everyone. With wonderful bookstores, great cafés, shopping, and enough high-caliber street food to keep you stuffed the whole time, you will never be bored. And all that is before you even get to see Alcatraz, the infamous – now closed – prison on an island that once housed some of the most notorious of American criminals. Additionally, Chinatown here is better than almost anywhere in the Western world due to the legacy of many who emigrated during the gold rush over 100 years ago. The Legion of Honor museum gets a special shout out for having some of the best views around. Oh, and did I mention the Earthquake Sundae at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Marketplace? Yum!
Though not a city as cosmopolitan as San Francisco, Sacramento has a lot to offer in its own right. As the state’s capital it is where their biggest government houses are, as well as evidence of a long and storied history with the state as a whole. In addition, places like Old Town Folsom, feel more authentically western than many places in Texas. If you want to feel like you walked back in time, Folsom’s Old Town section is the place for you. A little known attraction is the American River that runs through Sacramento offering many swimming areas and white water rafting. The California Delta, also nearby, offers over 1000 miles of waterways for you to navigate by boats of different sizes. You can rent a houseboat for a week or go out on a jet ski for the day, but beware, this place is huge and you can easily want to get lost here. One more option that is great in this part of the state is the Lake Tahoe area. While full of more water recreation options for the summer months, it is also a high enough elevation for skiing in the winter. A good stop all year round.
Heading directly East from San Francisco inland, almost to the border, you get to the famous Yosemite National Park, a place of amazing outdoor views and adventures. You can hike the legendary half dome if you are the adventurous type, or stay in Curry Village where you can sleep beneath the stars in tents. For those less inclined to rough it, there is also the famous Yosemite Falls Lodge. At the lodge, you see Yosemite Falls itself, which is the highest measured waterfall in North America. While you could try to do a drive-through in a day, if you are at all outdoorsy, you are going to want to stay for a lot longer. An average stay in this park alone can range from a few days to a week.
If you had one week left to live and could only do one more road trip, I would highly recommend Route 1 on the Northern California Coastline. From San Francisco north you have the land of the Redwoods, the biggest trees in the world. These coastal Redwoods, the highest of which measure in at 320 feet high and 24 feet wide at the base, have been around for 2000 years. To put this in perspective, that is taller than a 30 story skyscraper and nearly older than there are years on our calendar. There are even one or two of these Redwood trees in the park where you can drive your car through the tunnel that has been carved into them. Heading south from San Francisco any local will tell you that the coast is the long way around (as if you are just passing through you would take a different highway, as this way would take nearly three times as long), but for the leisurely traveler, the result is well worth it.
From Monterey Bay and its famed aquarium, to lesser-known towns of Big Sir and Cambria, each stop has its own unique charm. There is even a town called Pacific Grove that is along the route of the annual butterfly migration due to its unique microclimate. Thousands upon thousands of butterflies come through from mid-October to mid-February and make for an amazing site. Drive down Route 1, preferably in a convertible or on a motorcycle, with the wind blowing through your hair as you look out upon miles and miles of undulating coastline – it gets no better. If you feel like stopping and seeing beauty and wealth of the manmade sort – check out old newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s 165-room mansion in San Simeon. The 127 acres of gardens are nothing to scoff at either; nor are its private airport and zoo. Plan another day for this trip!
It would take several more pages to tell you about all the wonderful surprises that await you in a visit to California. No matter where you go, you are likely to have an amazing experience, but if you hit the stops mentioned in these two articles – you are guaranteed it!
This has been part two of two on California. Do yourself a favour and visit before there is an earthquake big enough to sink it into the ocean!