Take a couple of weeks, hit the road and explore the best of America’s west, from nature’s biggest, tallest and most powerful features to beautiful wineries, before finishing by heading back to San Francisco or north to Seattle.
San Francisco: Best
for unusual views
Fly into San Francisco and spend a couple of days soaking it up before hiring
a car and setting off.
The San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen once wrote, ‘Take anything from
us – our cable cars, our bridges, even our bay – but leave us our hills.’ If
one feature defines this city, it’s the 50-plus hills ranging from 30m to 283m.
They delineate neighbourhoods, create microclimates and provide drop-dead
San Francisco is just seven square miles at the tip of a
peninsula surrounded by the Pacific and San Francisco Bay, which meet at the
Golden Gate. To see the city means viewing it from a height. Rising 281m near
the city’s geographic centre, Twin Peaks is the loftiest point: the 360-degree
panoramic view is the city’s best, which is why many tour buses converge here.
Local performing artist Monique Jenkinson chooses a different spot. ‘On a clear
day, you can see the entire Mission District and the bay from Bernal Hill – a
view tourists rarely get.’
The city has a long history of being at the leading edge of
performance art and courts the unusual: Isadora Duncan danced in the courtyard
outside the Legion of Honor Museum and Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning
work, Angels in America, debuted not in New York, but here.
Gender impressionism is one of the city’s contemporary
forms; Monique is known on the street as Fauxnique, her
female-to-male-to-female drag persona, which falls under the rubric of ‘faux
queen’ in current San Francisco parlance.
Underground artists like Monique step into daylight at
Dolores Park, colonising the grassy slopes near 20th and Church Streets,
spreading out blankets and nursing hangovers on any sunny weekend. The park
presents a mini cross section of San Francisco’s population, from club kids and
gay sunbathers to Mexican grandmothers and teen footballers. The downtown
skyline provides the backdrop. For a glimpse of the local scene, no place else
provides an easier foray. ‘On a warm evening,’ says Monique, ‘I love to grab a
bottle of wine and a friend, then head to Dolores Park around sunset – and
maybe sneak in a ride on the swing set in the children’s playground.’
Just across the Golden Gate, it’s hard to conceive this is
America’s sixth-largest metropolitan area when you’re standing atop the cliffs
of the Marin Headlands, a grassland preserve that rises 213m, with hawks and
eagles soaring overhead and waves crashing against rocks below. But there,
right at eye level, stand the tops of the 80-storey bridge towers, with
skyscrapers reflecting sunlight in the distance.
Where to eat
Boulevard: Waiters in long,
white aprons deliver ‘New American’ cuisine (read: French technique, with
American ingredients, such as fried green tomatoes and soft-shell crabs)
beneath vaulted brick ceilings and blown-glass light fixtures. Put yourself in
the hands of the professional staff, who will expertly pair diners’ tastes with
the frequently changing menu. Reservations are essential (mains from £20).
Where to stay
The 1950s-style Hotel Bohème has
sheets of poetry and jazz music découpaged on hallway lampshades. Rooms have
big armoires and mossie-nets-cumcrown- canopies above beds. Set in the heart of
North Beach, the city’s little Italy, rooms on Columbus Ave overlook the
action, so light sleepers should book in the back (from £121).
Park: Best for the outdoors
Out on a spur from your coastal journey, Yosemite is 190 miles east of San
Francisco, four hours by car.
Understanding California requires an appreciation for the
vastness of its landscapes: Yosemite is your crash course. Two-mile-high peaks
surround Yosemite Valley, a river meadow sprawling between granite walls rising
900m – over twice the height of the Empire State Building.
You need a day or so to take in the scale. And then there’s
the waterfalls. Come April, when snowmelt is at its peak, the thunder of
Yosemite Falls resonates through the valley in a constant, crashing hum. But,
for all its hugeness, the seven-by-one-mile valley constitutes a mere five per
cent of the park’s total size. To grasp just how big Yosemite really is, hit
The most ambitious ascend Half Dome before dawn, but this
demands peak fitness. Instead, head for the lower part of John Muir Trail,
which meanders along the Merced River through oak and pine forests. Grandparents
and kids usually turn back after the first mile, once they’ve glimpsed Vernal
Fall from a rustic footbridge. The better target: the 2.7-mile hike to the top
of Nevada Fall, where the cascade roars like a jet engine. ‘You’re assured a
spectacular rainbow as you ascend the granite steps to Vernal Fall,’ says park
ranger Scott Gediman. ‘As water cascades down the walls, it conjures the
glaciers that cut through the Merced River Canyon 1.2 million years ago to form
If you had two months spare, you could continue 209 more
miles to Mt Whitney (4,418m), the highest peak in the lower 48 states. To learn
just how big California really is takes time – and a good pair of boots.
Where to eat
Room at the 1927 Ahwahnee Hotel merits a look even if you don’t stop for a
large meal. Granite pillars line the 10m-high dining room, its ceiling crisscrossed
with timbers. The food costs twice as much as it should: you’re paying for the
room. Go for a carbo-loaded breakfast before hiking, or midday for a lazy
lunch, when you can take in the grassy meadow and soaring granite-wall views
(lunch mains from £10).
Where to stay
Staying in Yosemite Valley proper saves time. Of the three valley lodgings, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls
is the mid-range choice, with simple chainhotel- style rooms, in two-storey
buildings, all newly refurbished. Its best feature is its location: smack next
to the falls, on the shuttle-bus route and within walking distance of major
trailheads. The on-site restaurant serves steak, pasta and seafood, and there’s
a food court, ideal for those on a budget (£144 summer, £85 winter).
Point Reyes: Best for
Point Reyes is about 230 miles northwest of Yosemite National Park, under 5
hours by car.
When the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco and levelled
the city, Point Reyes Peninsula moved a whopping 6m northwestward. To prove it
there’s a broken fence along the Earthquake Trail near the Bear Valley Visitor
Center. As the main road, Sir Francis Drake Blvd, crosses a short bridge
connecting the mainland and the peninsula, it’s hard to imagine that the little
creek beneath sits atop such a massive rift zone.
Point Reyes National Seashore’s western tip juts 10 miles
out to sea and stands 183m high, with sea lions lazing on the rocks below. It’s
an ideal perch from which to see the January-to-May migration of California
grey whales. Just east at Chimney Rock is a large elephant seal breeding
colony, complete with a dedicated lookout spot.
‘My favourite time of year is winter,’ says park ranger Doug
Hee. ‘The migrating whales, the mating elephant seals, the profusion of
wildflowers – everything comes alive in colour from January to April.’
Wintertime bird-watching is sensational, especially from a
kayak on Tomales Bay. The Pacific Flyway, the route migrating flocks follow
between the tropics and the Arctic, sits just overhead. ‘Forty-five per cent of
all North American bird species have been spotted at Point Reyes – there are
great opportunities to see very rare birds,’ says Hee.
The most thrilling spectacle is the herds of tule elk, a
native-California species of 500-pound reindeer-like beasts, roaming the
peninsula’s northern finger, Tomales Point. Come rutting season, their bugling
echoes across the valleys as the males spar and lock horns in a fight for
dominance, wooing potential harem members. The footpath wends right through the
440-head herd, and on weekends from July through September, the parks service
provides binoculars for a closer look. It’s a little disconcerting hiking so
close to these giant animals, but Hee assures, ‘They’re very tolerant of people
on the trail, but if you step off it, the whole group can scatter and the bulls
can lose their harems.’
Not that you’d want to step off the trail when you see
what’s ahead. Just beyond the elk, the wildflower-studded footpath tops out on
high, windswept bluffs with superb vistas. On one side, the Pacific churns; on
the other lies mellow Tomales Bay, whose stillness belies the staggering power
of the San Andreas fault just beneath its surface.
Where to eat
A roadside bar perched over Tomales Bay, the Marshall Store is the place to sample
oysters. The store is not licensed to serve the alcohol it sells on the
premises, so take your wine to the bay-side car park, a sandy strip lined with
barrel tables. The speciality is barbecued oysters, but there’s also a terrific
clam chowder (mains from £8).
Where to stay
Nick’s Cove and Cottages are an
assembly of 1930s cottages on the edge of Tomales Bay. Nick’s feels like a
summer place that’s been in the family for years. Refurbished in 2007 when
famed local restaurateur Pat Kuleto took over, the cottages have luxury extras
including high-thread-count sheets and heated marble bathroom flooring, but the
decor remains decidedly folksy. The best rooms are on stilts, jutting out over
the bay – come midweek for lower rates. Otherwise, Point Reyes is an easy
daytrip from San Francisco (from £192).
Sonoma County: Best
Sonoma Valley is 40 miles northeast of Point Reyes, 80 minutes by car.
Napa put California on the world’s viticultural map but,
nowadays, gone are the family farms that once defined its landscape. Not so in
Sonoma, however, which remains truer to its agrarian roots. Countless
you-pick-em orchards, goatcheese farms and vegetable stands dot the winding
‘Sonoma has a rich agricultural tradition that predates the
emergence of the California wine industry,’ explains Scott Adams, founder of
Bella Winery. ‘What makes Sonoma County unique is its rich diversity. The vast
majority of the wineries in the Sonoma area are still making wine on a small
You feel just how small this scale is wending towards Adams’
winery up West Dry Creek Rd, an undulating trail – just one-lane wide in some
spots – and the favoured route of winery-hoppers on bicycles. At the road’s end
sit two contrasting wineries, Bella and Preston: new Sonoma, old Sonoma.
Although Bella Winery has a block of 95-year-old, gnarled
zinfandel vines on its estate, the winery building itself is new and its
magnificent, cool caves were bored into the hillside only in the late 1990s.
Its wines break with local tradition. Most red Sonoma vintages are big and
jammy – one local winemaker describes his syrah as ‘slutty’. But at Bella, the
single-vineyard zinfandels are elegantly lean and structured, taking a cue from
Europe, not its neighbours. The vibe is playful and young: with its
late-harvest zinfandel tastings, Bella serves peanut-butter cups.
Across the road, the maturer Preston Winery occupies a
century-old organic farmstead surrounded by a weathered picket fence, with
large wicker rockers lining the big front porch. This is salt-ofthe- earth
Sonoma, with a mishmash of different Rhône varietals and vegetables for sale.
Each Sunday locals gather here, bringing their own jugs to fill and sit under
the shade of walnut trees, drinking wine and playing bocce ball (Italian
boules), munching on Mr Preston’s homemade bread and olive oil between turns.
‘It’s a great drive up West Dry Creek,’ says Adams. ‘You’ll
feel like you’re completely lost, then discover someplace you hadn’t heard of,
and suddenly it’s your new favourite winery.’
Where to eat
At Zazu, husband-and-wife team
Duskie Estes and John Stewart use local ingredients. John raises heirloom pigs,
which he transforms into salumi, and Duskie makes her own pasta using eggs from
their own hens. With dishes inspired by rural-Italian cooking, this is one of
Sonoma’s top tables for seasonal, local cooking (mains from £17).
Where to stay
Set on a late-19th-century farmstead in rural Sonoma Valley and surrounded
by rolling hills and fields of horses, Beltane
Ranch is the most atmospheric place to stay in Sonoma County. Wicker
rockers sit on wide, wraparound porches and the decor, a mishmash of antiques,
matches the house. Guests have their own entrances and complete privacy (except
on the shared outdoor decks), and unlike at some b&bs, the owner will never
demand you pet the cat. There is also a tennis court and walking trails to experience
coast: Best for sea escapes
The middle of the Sonoma-Mendocino coast is around 120 miles from Sonoma
Valley, 2½ hours by car.
Forget the California you’ve seen on TV: the rugged north
coast is nothing like the Baywatch beaches. Rocky headlands jut into the sea,
studded with pines, not palms. The ubiquitous fog keeps the air cool, even in
July; there’s a reason Tippi Hedren wore fur as she drove along this coastline,
en route to the town of Bodega Bay, in Hitchcock’s classic The Birds.
The Sonoma-Mendocino coast is largely undeveloped, looking
pretty much as it always has and, best of all, there’s not a single traffic
light for over 150 miles.
‘Where else can you go in California and be the only person
on the beach in the middle of summer?’ asks Renata Dorn, proprietor of Mar
Vista Cottages in Anchor Bay. ‘It’s a place to focus on yourself, not on shops
and other distractions. People come here to connect with nature.’
Like they do at Bowling Ball Beach, where rows of
near-perfectly round boulders line seaweed-covered rock alleys, an
other-worldly scene that only emerges at low tide. Or at Stornetta Public
Lands, surrounding the Point Arena Lighthouse. From the top of the 35m-high
tower, you can spot the San Andreas fault line slicing between the coastal
hills. Dorn says, ‘The land here is full of Pacific drama – the crashing,
curling surf, birds and bobcats busy with their prey, and even wild pintos on
the hill above Point Arena.’
At Manchester State Beach, where the fault dives into the
sea, a 3½-mile strand unfurls beside undulating dunes. Unlike most California
beaches, Manchester faces northwest and gets pummelled by long, rolling
breakers: the surf positively roars.
Hardly anyone stops here. For that matter, hardly anyone
drives this stretch of coast, preferring the inland freeway, Route 101, towards
Mendocino, a 19th-century village of salt-box cottages, built by homesick New
England whalers. It’s like a Cape Cod town plunked on the California coast.
Charming yes, but lately it’s become a parody of itself, with too many b&bs
decorated with cabbage-rose wallpaper. After a day of gallery-hopping and
shopping, nothing beats heading back south to solitude, off the tourists’
radar, and napping in a hammock at Mar Vista with a book on your face.
Where to eat
Surf Supermarket: This
well-stocked supermarket caters to finicky weekenders from San Francisco
staying at second homes in nearby Sea Ranch. Assuming you’re staying at Mar
Vista, you’ll need all the basics to fill your kitchen: coffee, local cheese
and wines, grass-fed steaks and free-range chicken to complement the salads
from the garden. If you don’t feel like cooking, or you’re just passing
through, Surf makes tasty sandwiches to order and runs a car-park barbecue on
Where to stay
Mar Vista Cottages’ 1930s style
defines seaside simplicity. The basics have all been mastered: bed linen
line-dried over lavender; an organic vegetable garden from which guests feed
themselves and cut flowers to decorate their cottages; and freshly laid eggs
for omelettes every morning. You bring the rest. No phones and no TVs mean
total escape (cottages from £108).
Forest: Best for the world’s tallest trees
The Redwood National Park is around 3½ hours from the Sonoma-Mendocino
‘A redwood is a mystic thing to our people,’ says local
Yurok Indian tribe elder Lavina Bowers. Standing beneath the world’s tallest
living things, you can see why. Salamanders scurry by, disappearing beneath
roots as fat as your thigh. Massive trunks vanish overhead in fog, which
twirls, evanescing like ghosts and provides the trees’ main water source,
plip-plopping to the ground.
It’s compelling to hug one, to feel its rutted bark. It
takes a dozen adults, arms outstretched, to encircle the largest. Wind whooshes
through the canopy, carrying the scent of cedar and the ocean. Only a rare
shaft of sunlight makes it to the forest floor. You can’t help but feel solemn
gratitude before such overwhelming natural beauty.
Some animals spend their entire lives in the branches, never
once setting foot on earth. The forest’s ecosystem is as complex as the
tropical rainforest and equally at risk: of the original old-growth redwood
forests, which once covered (and existed almost exclusively on) the northern
California coast, only six per cent remain. The bulk stand here as both a World
Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve.
Many 20th-century American luminaries also saw the redwoods
as sacred, people such as Lady Bird Johnson, for whom one of the most
awe-inspiring groves is named. A gentle, one-mile trail takes you beneath the
giant trees along the forest floor, carpeted with electric-green moss, pink
rhododendrons and shoulder-high ferns.
Parts of the reserve look prehistoric. At Fern Canyon,
feathery fronds cling to sheer rock walls. Steven Spielberg used the locale in
his film The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Many don’t make it this far north,
turning back after seeing the fantastic Avenue of the Giants, where the trees stand
so tall that vehicles look like Matchbox cars.
Time seems to stand still at the north coast’s kitsch
roadside attractions, like the Drive-Thru Tree Park, where a square-cut
driveway lets an SUV pass through the trunk of a still-living, 96m-high tree.
Redwoods are durable. The tallest rise over 113m high and
the oldest is 2,000 years old. The massive downed trunks decaying on the forest
floor may predate Julius Caesar. Ms Bowers puts it simply: ‘They’re just one of
those special things the Creator gave us.’
Where to eat
Redwood country is not renowned for good food. Stop en route to stock up on
fresh, organic produce at Wildberries
Marketplace. There are picnic grounds at many groves, as well as the
seaside Thomas H Kuchel Visitor Center at Redwood National Park. Expect wind
and fog, so dress warmly to picnic. On a more balmy day, head to the Klamath
River Overlook picnic area, above the ocean at the end of Requa Road.
Where to stay
On a hill above the Klamath River where it meets
the shoreline of Redwood National Park, the 1914 Requa
Inn has a welcoming, rustic vibe. Its 10 b&b rooms have a fresh,
country decor. Book a river-view room and spot eagles and osprey diving for
salmon (from £74).
The article 'The perfect trip: California' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.