Fall Northern California destinations, far from the maddening crowds!

The South Fork of the American River is where Sutter's Mill at Coloma was sited, and gold quickly found!

Replica of Sutter's Mill in Coloma sits on the original site of the mill where gold was discovered in 1848.

Jack London waterfront features ships large and small in popular Oakland district.

The historic Ferry Building, on San Francisco's Embarcadero, can be reached by ferry from Jack London Square in Oakland!

Author Tim stands outside entrance to one of Pinnacles National Park's tallus cave (bring a headlamp or flashlight!).

The rugged, volcanic Machete Ridge juts up from Pinnacles National Park (photo by USPS).

The Point Arena Lighthouse is one of the attractions on the rugged California coast, above Jenner and Ft. Ross.

Author's granddaughter Jessica revels in the Sonoma Coast surf, just above Bodega Bay.

If you are like many Californians, you’ve visited the California ocean shore or one of our national parks in the summer and faced monster crowds to reach the beach or the park’s attractions, to find a place to eat and found hotel fees in the stratosphere.

Depending on our forecasted El Niño, Northern California often offers it’s nicest weather in late October right into December. Why not visit when the kids are back in school and the crowds have vanished? You’ll find it easy to get into restaurants, campgrounds and motels offering seasonal rates. Here are four of our favorites, far from the maddening crowds:

California Coast, Bodega Bay north to Mendocino: This piece of California (just three hours from Stockton) offers impressive vistas, spectacular food, great camping options and wonderful places to stop for the night. Our first destination is usually Bodega Bay (the town is different than nearby Bodega, home to the old school where the 1963 Hitchcock classic ‘The Birds’ was filmed).

Bodega Bay offers a variety of water-front restaurants and motels and several nearby beautiful campgrounds. Stop at the Tides Restaurant for delicious breakfasts or lunches, and check out a myriad state parks for tenting or trailering options. Wright’s Beach State Park, between Bodega Bay and Jenner, is right on the ocean!

Cross the languid Russian River northbound on Hwy. 1 to the town of Jenner, where the Russian spills into the Pacific. Stop at River’s End Restaurant for great food and stunning views; below their deck above the river, a cadre of harbor seals usually is visible sunning themselves on a sandy spit near river’s end.

One soon reaches Ft. Ross, the old Russian outpost from the early 1800’s, then you pass through a host of quaint coastal towns like Sea Ranch (stop at the Sea Ranch Lodge for breakfast or lunch), Gualala (Bones Roadhouse a fine lunch choice for BBQ or fish dishes, and Gualala County Regional Park just south of town, very pretty, secluded campsites) and Point Arena (visit the Point Arena lighthouse, for stunning coastal views).

Further north, Manchester, Elk, Albion and Mendocino beckon. Mendocino is the quintessential California coastal town, with trendy shops and several restaurants – don’t miss Mendocino Headwaters State Park, just west of town for superb ocean views of rocky bluffs.

Pinnacles National Park, CA: Rising up from the Gabilan Mountains south of Hollister, CA, are the spectacular remains of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles south, near Los Angeles! Pinnacles National Park lies on the San Andreas Fault, and is moving a few inches north each year, distancing itself from its mother volcano!

A landscape of rugged spines, deep canyons, eerie talus caves, verdant foliage and rushing streams hosts robust wildlife, from deer, wild turkeys, bob cats and feral hogs, to the majestic California Condor with wingspans up to seven feet.

Stay overnight in Hollister, or camp in Pinnacles Campground, the parks only campground, with store, visitor center, swimming pool (in season) and showers. And, a shuttle bus runs regularly, to take you to the two park main trailheads, about three miles away.

Hiking brings out the best in Pinnacles, so bring comfortable walking shoes and water. From the Bear Gulch Trailhead, a moderately strenuous one-mile hike takes you to the spooky Bear Gulch Cave (bring headlamps or flashlights) and Bear Gulch Reservoir; one can return on the Rim Trail for a change of scenery. One can venture further into the High Peaks area, for treks to Balconies Cave and views of Machete Ridge and the Balconies Cliffs.

Just south is the historic town of Jolon, Ft. Hunter Liggett (an active military base) and the historic Mission San Antonio; continue further west on occasionally very tight roads (not advised for trailers) and find Big Sur and a wild California coast! Pinnacles Park: nps.gov/pinn or call 831.389.4486.  Camping, recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

Oakland’s Jack London Square and San Francisco Embarcadero (by ferry): To beat the high cost and crowds of a Bay Area visit – start in the Jack London Square waterfront of Oakland and take the ferry across to the Ferry Building on the San Francisco Embarcadero.

Take your bikes and upon arrival you can bike (or walk) miles along the waterfront in either direction. Stop to explore the massive Ferry Building, recently renovated and full of restaurants, bakeries and shops. If you want to spend an overnight, motels in both Berkeley and Oakland are far less expensive than those you find in San Francisco.

Gold Rush foothills tour: Coloma, where the California Gold Rush began, is the place to start a tour of the lovely Gold Rush foothill towns along Hwy. 49. Sacramento’s Captain John Sutter hired members of a Mormon battalion in the 1840s develop saw mills to supply lumber to his growing empire.  One was James Marshall, who chose Coloma, on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, to cut timber and mill lumber.

When Marshall found flakes of gold in the saw mill’s tailrace, the discovery ignited the largest mass movement of people in the USA and Western Hemisphere to California.  Mormons built cabins, Chinese opened shops and several are preserved at the Marshall Gold Discovery Park in Coloma.

A walking tour gives kids and adults a first-hand lesson in gold mining, from panning for gold to the ‘California Stamp’.  Miners quickly discovered this crude ‘stamp’ could crush ore into powder, which could then be mined for gold and silver. Kids and adults can try panning for gold and enjoy “Living History Days” held on a regular basis.  Take the time to walk through Coloma’s history and picnic under riparian oak trees, and reflect on Marshall’s discovery 167 years ago.

Nearby is the historic town of Placerville, just eight miles south on Hwy 49; exploring further south you’ll find Mother Lode walkable towns like Fiddletown (seven miles off Hwy 49, from Plymouth), Amador City, Sutter Creek, Columbia and Sonora. Most of these communities offer a host of motel, hotel and bed and breakfast accommodations as well as restaurants, delicatessens, bakeries, grocery stores. For more information on the Marshall Gold Discovery Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484, {530) 622-3470.

Happy travels in the west!

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog.

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