Travel bucket list; update your travel plans for destinations close to N. California

We central Californians are blessed by close proximity to an amazing world just outside our door. Last week we ushered in a New Year with suggestions to update your bucket list of US and worldly travel destinations.  This week we offer suggestions within California.

August 25, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service and each park will be offering celebrations and special programs, so we start with national park suggestions. Of the USA’s 59 national parks, California leads with nine parks (perhaps make a plan to visit all!).

Hetch Hetchy Valley, part of Yosemite National Park, is not to be missed.

Californians first thoughts often fall to our most-visited national park, Yosemite. Real Yosemite explorers urge you to tour to lesser known corners of the park, such as hiking along the north shore of Hetch Hetchy Valley (John Muir called it Yosemite’s twin), just across the O’Shaunessy Dam, or hiking west along the Tuolumne River from Tuolumne Meadows. Get off the beaten path and discover new wonders of Yosemite’s Sierra.

Smashing as Yosemite is, don’t overlook other nearby wonders such as Pinnacles, Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Lassen National Parks.

Machete Ridge in Pinnacles National Park is the remnants of an LA-area volcano, slowly moving northward on the San Andreas Fault.

Pinnacles is both the closest to Stockton – only 2 1/2 hours away, just south of Hollister, CA, and our newest national park. It’s a portion of an old volcano, steadily moving about 3 inches north each year on the San Andreas Fault – distancing itself from the mother volcano north of Los Angeles. Pinnacles is a land of jagged volcanic spires, narrow slot canyons, tallus caves ripe for exploration (bring a headlamp or flashlight) and offers a moderate climate good for camping even in winter months.

The General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world, always draws a crowd in Sequoia National Park.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon share a common border, and are just 90 miles south of Yosemite.  Both parks are home to the mighty Sequoia, with the General Sherman Grove in Sequoia, and the General Grant Grove in nearby Kings Canyon.  Here you can drive your car under a mighty fallen giant, or tour to the end of Kings Canyon, with Mt. Whitney looming in the distance.  Both parks offer picturesque campgrounds and lovely lodges.

Manzanita Lake, with Mt. Lassen looming in background, also shelters a lovely campground on its shores.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is just four hours north of Stockton, and offers dramatic testimony to the 1915 volcanic blast that blew the top off Mt. Lassen. Lassen is part of the “Pacific ring of fire”, a ring of volcanoes that surrounds the Pacific Ocean, and is one of the four types of volcanoes found throughout the world, all represented here.  They include plug dome (Lassen), cinder cone (Cinder Cone), shield (Prospect Peak) and composite volcanoes (Brokeoff Volcano).

Take time to explore Lassen’s Sulphur Works, an area full of eerie hot springs and burbling mud pots. Until the 1950s, it was a privately owned sulfur works and tourist spa destination. Continuing up Highway 89, one comes to Bumpus Hell; a one mile hike takes one to this lively area full of thermal wonders; it’s only a bit further to Cold Boiling Lake. Further along Highway 89 is the Devastated Area, which will wow the kids. An easy hike takes tourists past 25,000 pound boulders blasted off the summit of Lassen in 1915, landing three miles away and knocking down miles of forest like they were matchsticks.

Rare Bighorn Sheep can be spotted in the mountains in Anza Borrego State Park.

Southern California deserts make for marvelous spring destinations: State parks like Anza-Borrego, or national parks like Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks each offer unique allure. With the start of a damp, promising El Nino winter, the parks offer promise of stunning wildflower displays, come April and May.

Anza Borrego is an hour south of Palm Springs, CA and as large as the other 200+ state parks combined. The park’s rugged features are “Colorado Desert”; millions of years ago, the Colorado River met the Gulf of California here. Today, thousands of tourists are peering into the Grand Canyon, wondering where all that dirt and rock went. To Anza-Borrego, of course.

Take the early morning hike to up Palm Canyon – a mile and a half up a stark, bone-dry gulch – where you’re likely to spy both snakes and Bighorn Sheep. At the apex, a beautiful California Fan Palm oasis emerges (fan palms are California’s only native palm tree).

Joshua Trees, the namesake of Joshua Tree National Park, are just one of many strange plants in this park.

Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks are located, respectively, east and north of the Palm Springs area. Joshua Tree offers a wild and other-worldly assortment of plant life.  From 18’ tall, spindly Ocotillo plants with slender red flowers, to Brittlebush, Smoketree, Mojave yucca and the strange Cholla cactus – we never imagined such creations.

The north-bound route through the park slowly climbs in elevation, past old mining roads, patches of Ocotillo, the Cholla Cactus Garden and through the Jumbo Rocks area (a very scenic campground at the Rocks).  Here a jumble of boulders and rock slabs is thrust into the sky like pick-up-sticks – a kid’s wonderland of climbing opportunities.

In the hundreds of years prior to California’s 1849 gold Rush, the Timbisha Shoshone people populated the Death Valley area.  It’s a land of extremes – the driest, the hottest, the harshest and the lowest lands in the USA.

Wagon trains of 49ers attempted to short-cut across the valley at the beginning of the Gold Rush – after one miner died, the group looked back and said “goodbye, Death Valley”, hence the name.  Entering the park at Panamint Springs – with elevation of sea level – the land continues to drop, eventually reaching its nadir at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level – lowest point in the US.  Make this year your time to explore these desert gems, all just eight or so hours south and east of Stockton.

Author and spouse Susan stand in Badwater Basin, the lowest place in the USA.

Next week, we’ll bring you suggestions within 90 minute’s drive of Stockton, like Big Sur coast just south of Monterey. Use the New Year’s start to update your travel plans, get the kids (or grandkids) involved, and plot new destinations for 2016!

For more information: National Park Service Centennial,

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in your world!

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