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10 Unexpected Wonders

10 Unexpected Wonders

Visit these off-the-beaten-path destinations to discover a different side of California

From a turquoise river in Crescent City to a winding maze of canyons in Indio, here are 10 otherworldly landscapes and locations that even most California locals don’t know.

1. Salt Point State Park, Jenner

This Sonoma County park encompasses 6,000 acres of coast—a beautiful meeting of sea and forest. Wind-lashed headlands are crowned with Bishop pine groves, and sandstone cliffs drop abruptly to the sea. Follow the main road to Gerstle Cove, where bluffs are lined with honeycomb formations called tafoni. Hike up to the pygmy forest, where century-old cypress grow only 10 feet tall, or wander the Bluff Trail for views of pocket beaches and an ocean-forever vista from Sentinel Rock.

2. Mecca Hills Wilderness, Indio

Not far from the Coachella Valley’s date farms, the Mecca Hills shelter a maze of pastel-hued canyons formed by movement along the San Andreas Fault. See these badlands close-up with a hike through Big Painted Canyon. Or for a more daring adventure, ascend a series of metal rungs in Ladder Canyon—a slot canyon bounded by slick walls and dry waterfalls. Both top out at a high plateau where towering ocotillo plants frame a view of the shimmering Salton Sea.

3. Carrizo Plain National Monument, California Valley

Wandering in Carrizo Plain is like stepping back in time to California three centuries ago, when pronghorn and tule elk grazed the boundless savannahs. These are the largest remaining native grasslands in California—vast, treeless prairies that turn green every spring before exploding in wildflower blooms. The Chumash Indians hunted these lands for thousands of years. See their pictographs of snakes, deer, and human figures at Painted Rock, a 50-foot-high sandstone canvas.


Santa Rosa Island

4. Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park

California’s second-largest island—three hours by boat from Ventura—has pearl-white beaches, archeological sites, and diminutive island foxes. There’s substantial ground to cover, so give yourself time by camping at Water Canyon campground. Walk along the coastal crescent of Bechers Bay to admire Caribbean-blue waters. Hike to Lobo Canyon to see rare succulents growing within eroded sandstone walls.

5. Mineral King Valley, Sequoia National Park

This spectacular glacier-carved bowl is surrounded by 11,000-foot summits. But alpine arcadia takes some effort to reach: a 25-mile drive from Three Rivers on a narrow road with 698 tight curves. Once there, spend a few nights at Silver City Mountain Resort’s cabins or pitch a tent in the aspen groves nearby. Then hike to a different lake every day: Eagle Lake, Monarch Lake, Franklin Lake, the Mosquito Lakes, and more.

6. Mount Baldy, San Bernardino County

Make an easy alpine escape to Mount Baldy, the Inland Empire’s massive 10,064-foot peak that’s only 15 minutes from Interstate 10. Ride the Sugar Pine chairlift to the Top of the Notch, then spend the night in a tent cabin so you can get an early start for peak-bagging. Baldy’s summit is only 3.3 miles away, but the trail traverses the hair-raising Devil’s Backbone. If you don’t like steep drop-offs, consider a long (around 15-mile) trek to the Three Ts instead—Thunder, Telegraph, and Timber peaks—or settle for a picnic under the big conifers in Icehouse Canyon.

7. Smith River, Crescent City

The largest undammed river in California, the Smith River flows 25 winding miles from the Klamath Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Its sparkling waters attract anglers chasing the autumn chinook salmon run or winter-to-spring steelhead run, and kayakers seeking whitewater challenges. In summer, the river turns lazy, and swimmers hit the banks for tubing and picnicking. Lay your towel on beaches at Mary Adams Peacock Bridge, Myrtle Beach, or Panther Flat Picnic Area off Highway 199.

8. Headwaters Forest Reserve, Humboldt County

More than two decades ago, this sublime old-growth redwood forest was the focus of a long, contentious battle between loggers and environmentalists. Ultimately, the trees were saved, and these nearly 7,500 acres are now protected. Swathed in cool fog, the silent, primitive glades pulse with life: ancient trees, tall sword ferns, thickets of huckleberry, and carpets of sorrel. Savor the enduring wildness with an easy meander along the South Fork Elk River on the Elk River Trail, then loop back on South Fork Trail.


Trinity Alps

9. Trinity Alps, Trinity Center

Think of this mountain range as the Sierra Nevada’s twin, but more compact. The Trinity Alps hold glacier-carved summits, dense conifer forests, boisterous waterfalls, and alpine lakes, but they yield their secrets only to travelers on foot. Choose from 600-plus miles of trails: Walk the Canyon Creek Trail to the chiseled granite splendor of Canyon Creek Lakes; climb to the top of Granite Peak for jaw-dropping views of the Trinity Divide and Trinity Lake; or trek to Tangle Blue Lake or Boulder Creek Lakes to swim, fish, or sleep under starry skies.

10. Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, Alturas

Tucked into California’s northeastern corner, this 7,000-acre oasis is fed by snowmelt from the Warner Mountains. An extensive system of dikes and ponds controls the water in wetlands and meadows to provide the best possible food sources for greater sandhill cranes, ducks, and geese. Drive slowly or pedal your bike along the three-mile auto tour loop. In spring and fall, stop at Teal Pond to look for colorful teal, wigeon, and mallards. A pair of binoculars will give a close-up of mule deer, pronghorns, and tule elk.