It’s part of “California 101,” our guide to the best experiences across the state.
What separates our favorite travel destinations from the rest? The way memories linger.
I hope you’ll make it to each location on the list of California’s Top 101 Experiences, which celebrates everything there is to see and do here. (Print our checklist in color or black and white.) But if you’re looking for a short list—perhaps you want to give visitors a taste of this state without involving the Hollywood sign—I picked 10 places that resonate most deeply with me. This is the list that after covering travel, nature and culture in California for over 30 years, I find myself reciting the most often.
I feel a certain depth in these places, and generally an ease too, maybe because nobody needs to sell them. You show up, take a deep breath, listen a little, look around, and remember your good luck—our good luck—in calling California your home.
1. Emerald Bay State Park, Lake Tahoe
I’ve been there three or four times and it was always beautiful, but never the same twice. Last visit last fall I got up early to take pictures of the sunrise, walked through gusts of rain to Inspiration Point above the bay, then looked the clouds part. Sunbeams came flooding in, the bay began to glow, and a rainbow arched overhead. The smell of the rainforest wafted through the air. At the time, besides me, there were two families there and some of the kids were dancing in the small parking lot. I looked at the parents and they turned in silent triumph. Nobody wants to get up early in the rain, but sometimes it pays off.
2. Ferry Building and Waterfront, San Francisco
I’ve been eating at the Ferry Building since its 2003 redevelopment as a food-focused retail and dining complex – Hog Island oysters, Gott’s Roadside comfort food, New Vietnamese at Slanted Door (which is supposed to reopen late This year).
Elsewhere along the waterfront, I nodded to jazz at Pier 23, cycled to Fort Point, savored Golden Gate views from Torpedo Wharf, and bought plenty of snacks at the Warming Hut on along the San Francisco Bay Trail bike path. And just about every walk along the water brings me back to a disturbing memory: One day in May 1987, some buddies and I stepped out onto the Golden Gate Bridge to join in its 50th anniversary celebration. Too many other people have had the same idea. About 300,000 of us were stuck in pedestrian traffic for hours and the bridge actually saggy under the weight. Even when it’s not cold, seeing this bridge makes me shiver a bit at first. Then I straighten up. I think it’s the upbeat orange paint job at work. (Thanks Sherwin Williams.)
3. Yosemite Valley
The Valley’s Swinging Bridge Area (whose bridge doesn’t swing at all) is one of my favorite spots for photos of Yosemite Falls. But I’m also a huge fan of the Wawona Swinging Bridge, 27 miles south and still within park boundaries. And this one actually swings, over a swimming hole. This is where our friends Ed and Mona brought me, my wife, Mary Frances, our daughter, Grace, and a group of my college buddies several years ago for an afternoon of snacks and dips. in the South Branch of the Merced River. No masses of tourists, just a bunch of old friends and their children, crumbling on the sun-dappled rocks.
4. Big Sur
I don’t think I’ve ever visited Big Sur without going to Nepenthe Restaurant. Not because of the food, which is fine. And not exactly because of the view, which is beyond beautiful. Because of the way its neo-bohemian and global nomadic vibe brings these elements together.
5. Badwater, Death Valley National Park
I caught the sunrise from Zabriskie Point and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – two great golden memories. But neither matches the doomsday feeling you get on the crusty salty floor of Badwater Basin as the sun sets, the sky darkens and amazed tourists whisper in a half -dozen languages. I listened to pianist Keith Jarrett’s “The Koln Concert” in my car on the way to one of my first sunsets there. Now every time I listen to this album I can close my eyes and see long shadows in Badwater.
6. Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park
In May 2020, when the first round of pandemic shutdowns eased and several national parks abruptly reopened, thousands of Californians rushed to camp somewhere, anywhere. I came to Hidden Valley. Soon all the campsites were full. I jumped from campfire at campfire with my notebook, my mask and my camera, listening to the townspeople and their children tell how they dropped everything so they could breathe freely among these big rocks and pleading trees.
7. South Fork, American River, near Placerville
When I was 10 years old, my family and I went on a two-day rafting-camping trip from an outfitter on this stretch of river. I remember loving the tumult of the rapids, the idea that right here someone saw something brilliant, started the gold rush, changed the world. I also remember being impressed by the worldly wit of two older television writers (in their twenties) who were in our group. Nearly 50 years later, I joined another outfitter on the same route. No witty TV writers. But between bouts of whitewater, the young woman behind me (in her twenties) told me she had just gotten off heroin and reunited with her family. As the saying goes, you never throw yourself into the same river twice. Maybe that’s why these waters call me the way they do. And even though the rapids seem a lot smaller now, they’re still fun.
8. Grand Central Market, Los Angeles
Since the Los Angeles Times building was a few blocks away for about 25 years, I’ve seen this food hall from every angle in bad and good times. Now the market is busier and more thriving than ever – but since I no longer work downtown, I only get the occasional glimpse and taste. I love the heavy combo plates of Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, but I miss the stable relationship.
9. Torrey Pines Gliderport, La Jolla
As a teenager, on the beach below, I used to throw Frisbees and bodysurf for hours. These days, visiting from out of town, I head to the cliffs, admire the austere design of the Salk Institute as I walk in, grab a picnic table, and treat my family to $7 sandwiches from the Cliffhanger. Coffee. As we chew, hang glider pilots run and jump into the wind, 350 feet above the waves. This place always makes me happy.
10. Chicano Park, San Diego
For years I’ve flown over Chicano Park on the Coronado Bridge, even though I knew there must be some cool murals down there. This was partly because Barrio Logan had a reputation for being a tough neighborhood, but I was mostly lazy. Still, I finally got there and loved all that infrastructural concrete filled with bright colors and Chicano imagery. Now the neighborhood has sprouted so many cafes, galleries, and restaurants that some people are nervous about gentrification, and all kinds of visitors come. A few years ago, I joined a few dozen tourists, almost all of them senior citizens, straight from a Princess cruise ship, bypassing the rest of San Diego’s tourist attractions, to look at the murals and eat tacos. . Here are destinations that never stop. We neither.