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Top California Attractions
When I set out to create a list of top California attractions, I didn't know it would be so hard. First, I had to define an attraction - which for my purpose is a single place and not a city, town or national park. I decided to limit these top California attractions to the short list of things that everyone should think about doing.
Wine Tasting: A Napa Valley Winery
Other parts of California might make wine that's just as good, but none have the cachet of Napa Valley. In 1976, the wine-tasting event commonly called the Judgment of Paris (depicted in the film Bottle Shock) thrust California wines onto the world wine stage. But wine-making in Napa started long before that. Napa winemakers have been perfecting their vintages for a century and a half, starting in the mid-1800s when early settlers planted grapevines and dug wine caves into the valley's hillsides.
The "valley" in Napa Valley is narrow and pretty, barely 5 miles wide and running for about 30 miles between... the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains, its two main thoroughfares lined with vineyards and winery tasting rooms.
Napa wineries offer lots of ways to taste wine, but you deserve better than a disinterested pourer sloshing a splash of red into your glass, mutter an of-repeated phrase or two and moving on to the next customers. I won't be so bold as to declare that any single winery the absolute best experience for you, but choose any of the ones featured in the Guide to the best Napa Valley wineries and you won't be able to stop talking about it when you go home.
More About Napa Valley Wineries
If you need more information, check the Guide to the best Napa Valley wineries. It will tell you about hours, how to get there and the best time to go.
Take a photo tour of Napa Valley to see what the area is like.Continue to 2 of 12 below.
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You can see the Yosemite Valley an infinite number of photographs and films, but none of them can capture its stillness on a foggy morning, the thunderous roar of spring waterfalls, the resounding crack! of frozen-solid Yosemite Falls thawing on a winter morning - or the feeling of being dwarfed by its granite walls.
It's as if Mother Nature put all her most spectacular bits in one spot so she could admire them all at once: the tallest waterfall in the United States (Yosemite Falls), the world's largest granite monolith (El Capitan), the Mariposa River and Half Dome.
America's second-ever national park is justifiably popular, and even a short visit to the famed valley is worth your time. Stay longer, and you can enjoy more, photographing the Valley from Tunnel View, peering down on it from Glacier Point and venturing outside it to visit the Mariposa Grove of giant redwood trees, Tuolumne Meadows or Tenaya Lake.
More About Yosemite Valley
If you need more information, check the... Complete Guide to Yosemite Valley. It will tell you about hours, how to get there and the best time to go.
Take a photo tour through these Pictures of Yosemite Valley to see what it's like.Continue to 3 of 12 below.
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Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
This red-painted bridge has been blown up in the movies so many times that you might want to go just to make sure it's still there. But that's only one of many reasons to visit the Golden Gate Bridge. First, there's the perfect marriage of geography and design that makes it so appealing to the eyes.
Views of it - and from it - are so varied that you could spend an entire day just driving around looking at it. I love to see it, photograph it and walk on it, But perhaps my favorite reason to be there is the landmark engineering achievement it represents. Its feet rest in some of the world's most tumultuous water, its cables drape across the first bridge support ever constructed in the open ocean and it boasts a safety record that was extraordinary for its day.
More About the Golden Gate Bridge
If you need more information, check the Complete Guide to the Golden Gate Bridge. It will tell you about hours, how to get there and the best time to go.
Take a photo tour of the Golden... Gate Bridge to see what it's like.Continue to 4 of 12 below.
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Big Sur Coastline
Along the section of California's coastline between Hearst Castle and Carmel, North America plunges precipitously into the Pacific Ocean, a little bit of highway clinging to the cliffs that's called California Highway One. The unique scenery along this stretch of road is so enthralling that you'll be tempted to stop at every turnout, whether it's your first visit or your fiftieth — and it never looks quite the same twice.
You can drive those 90 miles straight through in about 3 hours or linger a bit, have a meal overlooking the coast at Nepenthe restaurant, tour the lighthouse, or check out the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach. For an even more intensive experience, consider an overnight stop at Ventana Inn.
More About Big Sur
If you need more information, check the Complete Guide to Big Sur. It will tell you about hours, how to get there and the best time to go.
Take a photo tour of the Big Sur coastline to see what it's like.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park
The world's largest tree is 275 feet tall and 36.5 feet across - 83.8 by 11.1 meters, impressive numbers for sure. But they don't convey the awe-inspiring experience of standing at the foot of the General Sherman Tree, craning your neck to see the top, looking at branches thicker than you are tall.
Nearby and only slightly smaller are 8 of the 20 biggest trees on earth, some if them as much as 3,500 years old.
You've gotta admire a tree with the tenacity to grow up to be the world's largest (as measured by its volume). This little strip of mountain terrain is the only place in the world where Sequoiadendron giganteum can grow at all, much less to such monumental proportions. The national park General Sherman stands in also encompasses the Kings River Canyon, a place John Muir called "a rival of Yosemite," yet, by comparison, it's nearly free from the endless parade of camera-toting humanity that plagues that park.
More About the General Sherman Tree
If you need... more information, check the Complete Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon. It will tell you about hours, how to get there and the best time to go.
Take a photo tour of Sequoia and Kings Canyon to see the General Sherman and the place it grows in.Continue to 6 of 12 below.
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The main building at Hearst Castle is a massive, 56-bedroom, 61-bathroom mansion, improbably built on a remote hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And that's only the beginning.
The castle is surrounded by three guest houses that are larger than most people's primary residences, 127 acres of gardens, an outdoor swimming pool named after the Roman god of the sea, tennis courts and - in Hearst's day - the world's largest private zoo.
Hearst Castle could justifiably be called a monument to eccentric excess, on a scale not possible in the twenty-first century. And that may be what makes it so fascinating.
The spot alone is worth a journey, just for the views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain from the top of Enchanted Hill. You can tour one man's over-the-top castle, skillfully assembled by architect Julia Morgan from Hearst's monumental collection of European antiquities. You can also get a glimpse into the epic newspaper mogul who created it - and his... home movies are almost as much fun to watch as the house is to tour.
And at the end, you can picture yourself languishing in the gold-and-azure-tiled Roman pool with Clark Gable or the hottest young starlet - what could be more romantic?
More About Hearst Castle
If you need more information, check the Complete Guide to Hearst Castle. It will tell you about hours, how to get there and the best time to go.
Take a photo tour of Hearst Castle to see what it's like.Continue to 7 of 12 below.
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The Hollywood Sign
Hollywood as a real location where movies are made, and film stars live is more of a romantic dream than a reality in the 21st Century, but there's one spot you can nail down that's Hollywood for sure - the Hollywood Sign.
Sitting on a hillside facing the Los Angeles basin with 9 of the 13 original letters that once read Hollywoodland surviving, it's survived fires, vandals, the elements, attempted real estate development and attempts at imitation to become an icon.
When you see the Hollywood sign - and you can from lots of places around town - you can tell yourself "I was there" and snap a pic or two to prove it to the folks back home.
More About the Hollywood Sign
If you need more information, check the Complete Guide to the Hollywood Sign. It will tell you about the best views and a couple of hikes that will take you nearby.Continue to 8 of 12 below.
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Disneyland holds an undeniable place in American culture. The first theme park ever still sets the standards for all others, regularly raising the bar in innovative entertainment.
Where else could you watch a grand parade, see blazing fireworks, soar over London and take a ride through outer space all in one day? It's the suspension of the everyday world that makes the place so much fun, or so we think.
More About Disneyland
If you need more information, check the Complete Guide to Disneyland California. It will tell you about hours, how to get there and the best time to go.
Take a photo tour of Disneyland to see what it's like.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Badwater, Death Valley
It's hard to resist the appeal of extremes and Badwater is not only the lowest spot in the United States at 282 ft (86 m) below sea level but also the site of the highest temperature ever recorded. It was 134°F (56.7°C) here on July 10, 1913 - and it's only 85 miles away from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
All of Death Valley looks like it was designed by a minimalist, and Badwater could be the starkest spot in the entire national park, a wide, flat salt pan that dwarfs even the largest crowds of humans who walk out onto it.
Wonders of Death Valley don't stop at Badwater, though. The Devil has a cornfield and a golf course here, and you'll find sand dunes to climb, ghost towns to explore and the enigmatic Scotty's Castle (which isn't a castle and didn't belong to Scotty). It could take a few days to explore it all.
More About Badwater and Death Valley
If you need more information, check the Complete Guide to Death Valley. It... will tell you about hours, how to get there and the best time to go.
Take a photo tour of Death Valley to see Badwater and the place it's located in.Continue to 10 of 12 below.
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Where Land Meets Sea: A California Beach
California's beaches are part of its mystique, embedded in pop culture since the Beach Boys crooned about them and Frankie Avalon kissed Annette Funicello on them in the movies.
Surfing is also an integral part of California beach culture, so important that cities go to court for the right to call themselves Surf City. And some of the world's biggest surf draws elite surfers to the Mavericks surfing competition - but only when the waves are big enough.
If you're from a landlocked place, a visit to a California beach is an absolute must - but even if you live near the sea, you wouldn't have to look far to find one that's different than what you have at home. In California, you can find urban beaches lined with houses and sidewalks, rocky sea stacks bathed in mist, beaches covered in purple sand or pebbly stretches full of sea glass.
More About California BeachesContinue to 11 of 12 below.
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Agricultural Bounty and a Local Scene: A Farmers Market
When I say farmer's market, I don't mean the famous tourist attraction in Los Angeles - which is fun but different. In this case, I'm thinking of a local market where growers and consumers cut out all the middle men.
Why is this such an important attraction, you may wonder? It's a way to experience one of the great pleasures of living in California, where ninety percent of all the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States are grown. Buy a single peach, a vine-ripe heirloom tomato or a basket of berries picked ripe that morning, and you'll be like a friend who still gets almost teary-eyed at the mere mention of fruit purchased at the Watsonville market more than a decade ago.
Besides all the great produce, you'll find things at the farmer's market you can take home as a gift or edible souvenirs: dried fruits, jam, honey, herbs, handmade jewelry - and you'll always find a few eat-on-the-spot food stands as well.
Farmers markets happen somewhere almost... any day of the week and in summer, a trip to an evening neighborhood market lets you feel like a local. Use this resource to find one near wherever you're going.Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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Season's Best: Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall
Our last must-see is actually four attractions, one for each season of the year.
Spring: California Poppies in Antelope Valley
Every few years, conditions align to bring out a wildflower display in California's Antelope Valley that could leave you nearly speechless. It's a startling and magical experience to find yourself in a landscape ablaze with orange flowers as far as you can see in every direction. We've likened it to the poppy scene in The Wizard of Oz, or maybe the legendary Paul Bunyan was involved, carelessly splattering orange paint across the landscape, but no matter how you try to describe it, you'll be glad you went.
In general, the poppies bloom from mid-February through mid-May. Use this guide to find out more.
Summer: Lassen Volcanic Park
California summers can be extraordinarily hot inland and extraordinarily foggy at the coast. And finally, it thaws out enough in northern California for Lassen Volcanic Park to open. The southernmost volcano along the... Pacific Coast last blew its top in 1915, 65 years before Mt. St. Helens' eruption.
Lassen alone can be a spectacular stop, centered on the lava dome, one of the most massive on earth, with bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles, and places with colorful names like Bumpass Hell.
Autumn: Fall Color East of the Sierras
If you're used to fall colors in hardwood forests, you may think "ho-hum" when I use the word monochromatic to describe the eastern Sierras' fall foliage, but when that color is golden yellow, it's anything but boring.
Golden colored aspen trees seem to spill down the mountainsides like drips down the sides of an untidy painter's bucket. They reflect in clear mountain lakes while individual branches of gold, heart-shaped leaves arch delicately over mountain streams.
These photos of California's Best Fall Foliage should be enough to convince you to go.
Winter: Elephant Seal Rookery
Male Northern Elephant Seals top out at 14 to 16 feet long and weigh as much as 5,000 pounds, sporting a long, fleshy snout that inspired their name. They and their females spend ten months a year at sea, coming ashore along the California coast in December for a wild, two-month orgy of birthing, feeding, fighting, and mating.
When a colony showed up at Piedras Blancas, just north of Hearst Castle in 1990, they became an instant wildlife-watching hit. Seldom will you get so close to this kind of display of wild behavior, where all the action happens within easy view of boardwalks just steps from the parking lot. These photos will give you an idea of what it's like.
If you can't make it to Piedras Blancas, you can also see the elephant seals on docent-led tours at Ano Nuevo State Park south of San Francisco, but you'll need reservations.