Northern California: Five summer travel destinations, far from the maddening crowd



With summertime almost upon us, families, particularly those with kids, are targeting some of the most popular travel destinations in N. California. These include Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, to name a few.  That can mean maddening crowds, traffic snarls and impossibilities in book campgrounds or lodging nearby.

Close to the San Joaquin Valley are a number of equally stunning, less visited destinations, perfect for families, or empty-nesters . Summertime is a great time to visit, and all are within about four hours or less from San Joaquin County.

Here are my wife and my favorite five, and several more which will wow visitors. They include Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic and Pinnacles National Parks, the California coast north of Bodega Bay and the Central Sierra south of Lake Tahoe.

That is not to say these areas can’t be packed with summertime tourists, but they are less visited than places like Yosemite.  Summer, as well as late September and October, are great times to visit.  Visitors should plan in advance for lodging or campgrounds to avoid the busiest weeks or weekends.

Sequoia/Kings Canyon National parks: These majestic parks share a common border, located just east of Fresno.  The approach roads offer rapid and scenic rise from near sea level in the San Joaquin Valley to 7,000 feet in the Sierra, seemingly endless  stands of immense Sequoia groves and incredible views of the High Sierra, particularly in Kings Canyon!

The General Sherman sequoia is awe-inspiring, and much larger than its huge neighbors, measuring 40 feet in diameter, 275 feet in height (in total volume of wood, the largest tree in the world)! It makes for big crowds, as the most known feature in the park.  The General Grant sequoia, nearly as large, is an anchor attraction in Kings Canyon. With Moro Rock, the Auto-tree (drive your car through a huge, downed sequoia) and Kings Canyon (a canyon several thousand feet deeper than the Grand Canyon), plenty of campgrounds and classic lodges, these parks are not to be missed.

Lassen Volcanic National Park: Lassen is arguably the most impressive park of volcanic and thermal features in the country. With mud pots, fumaroles and a volcano that exploded just 100 years ago, hurling huge boulders for miles, it will thrill youngsters to seniors alike!  Lodging is available in several nearby towns like Chester, and the park offers several beautiful campgrounds. With Mt. Shasta just north, extend your stay and visit that huge peak and its surrounding quaint towns, for a week of adventure.

Pinnacles National Park: Pinnacles with its close proximity to the valley and evocative topography, stands out.  The park, the volcanic remnants of an ancient Los Angeles-area volcano, slowly moving north on the San Andreas Fault, is a gem.  Hike the talus caves and rugged volcanic spines in these coastal mountains and see California condors soaring above the majestic peaks and valleys. 

Overnight accommodations are found in nearby Hollister and the park offers several campgrounds.  Adventurous tourists can find Mission San Antonio just south and follow a winding road over the Santa Lucia Mountains to the center of Big Sur on the California coast. 

The Northern California coast, from Bodega Bay north to Mendocino: Both easy to reach (about three hours) and presenting some of the most stunning coast in the United States, you will find impressive vistas and spectacular food. Further north of Bodega Bay is Jenner, Ft. Ross (the old Russian outpost from the early 1800’s), Sea Ranch (stop at the Sea Ranch Lodge for breakfast or lunch). 

Further north are Gualala, Point Arena (check out the Point Arena lighthouse, for memorable coastal views), and Mendocino.  Great campgrounds line the coast and wonderful places to stop for the night are found in Bodega Bay, Jenner and Guerneville on the Russian River, Sea Ranch and Mendocino.

The Central Sierra, south and west of Lake Tahoe: The magical Central Sierra offers so much to see and do. Pick Hwy. 88, 4 or 108, and head east up into the cool, summer Sierra.  Camping, motel or lodge accommodations can lead to several days, or a week of scenic vacation. Hiking, biking and fishing at attractions like Pinecrest Lake, Lake Alpine and the Arnold Rim Trail, all within 1.5 hours of the valley, make for memorable family memories.

Here you will find the site of California’s gold discovery in 1848, Coloma; Mother Lode Gold Rush sites march south down the Sierra including Placerville, Plymouth, Fiddletown, Sutter Creek, Columbia, Sonora, and finish your tour in Jamestown’s Railtown 1897 Historic Park (the “movie railroad”, with locomotives appearing in scores of movies and TV shows).

A few more: if you love Napa and Sonoma Valleys but don’t want to fight the crowds, vacation nearby in the Lodi/Woodbridge Winegrape Appellation.  Start at the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center on Turner Road (complete with demonstration vineyard), and visit some of the dozen tasting rooms in downtown Lodi and 60 wineries open for tours in both Lodi and Woodbridge. 

The Eastern Sierra, from Bridgeport south to the Mammoth Lakes area. Here you have several lovely old towns, a true ghost town, Bodie, Mono Lake and Mount Whitney (tallest peak in California, 14,500 feet) towering in the background.

California coast from Big Sur south to Morro Bay:  Leave the crowds behind in Monterey and Carmel, and travel south down the wild California coastline, through the rugged Big Sur area, to Hearst Castle and Morro Bay. 

For more info:  Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks,; or phone  559.565.3341; Lassen Volcanic National Park, www.nps/gov/lavo, phone, 530.595.6100; Pinnacles National Park, :, phone: 831.389.4486; North CA coast,; Central Sierra area, For camping in national parks and forest service campgrounds,, or call 877.444.6777. If you are a senior, purchase the America the Beautiful senior pass, offering free admission to all national parks and half-off most federal campgrounds!

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: travel; to contact me, 

Happy travels in the West!

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