12 must-visits in California; freshen your travel bucket list!

San Francisco's historic Ferry Building should be the start of your SF waterfront tour!

Freshen your California travel bucket list with 12 months of suggestions!

Sutter's Mill in Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, Coloma, is where gold was discovered in the state in 1848.

As we enter the new year, take time to tune-up your travel bucket list. Let’s start with 12 ultimate destinations in California, with suggested month by month schedule (next week we’ll bring you suggestions for the western US). Here are California’s best, as well as a few alternates:

January, start the year with a tour of the Oakland/San Francisco waterfront: Begin at Oakland’s Jack London Square, park your car, take in the shops, then ferry over to San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building. Hop on the waterfront trolley to Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Hyde Street Pier with a half-dozen historic sailing ships, adjoining San Francisco Maritime Museum and Aquatic Park. Further west, discover the Marina District, Crissy Field and old Fort Point (only pre-Civil War era fort on west coast) under the Golden Gate Bridge (info, jacklondonsquare.com, sftravel.com).

February, follow the Gold Rush Hwy. 49: Start at Coloma (at the Marshal Gold Discovery State Park, where gold was discovered in 1848), and follow 49 south, taking in Placerville, Sutter Creek, Jackson, Columbia and Sonora. Don’t miss ghost towns along the way like Fiddletown, Tuolumne City and China Camp (historichwy49.com).

Wildflowers bloom after winter rains in Death Valley National Park; photo taken in February, 2016.

March, Death Valley National Park: In most years, February or March is the month for both comfortable temperatures and spectacular wildflower blooms. The lowest point in the United States, the desert offers hiking among golden canyons and vast Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, old gold, silver and borax mines, Scotty’s Castle and more (nps.gov/deva).

The Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir is a part of Yosemite Lake; Hetch Hetchy was dammed to send water to San Francisco, despite John Muir's strident protests.

April, Yosemite National Park: Everyone’s been to Yosemite, right? Even if you’ve been, take the 20 mile Evergreen Road off Hwy. 120 to access Hetch Hetchy Valley, the sister valley that John Muir tried to save a 100 years ago before San Francisco dammed it for its water supply. It’s equally inspiring despite the reservoir; walk across the 430 foot tall O’Shaughnessy Dam and take the hiking trail on the north side to huge waterfalls that rival Yosemite Valley’s (nps.gov/yose).

May, Orange County Coast: South of LA, “California’s Riviera” is home to surfers and family fun with beach towns to explore like Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. Kids love Anaheim’s Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. From Newport Beach, take the ferry over to Catalina Island to extend the fun (visittheoccom)!

Lake Helen, still frozen in June, frames Mt. Lassen towering in background.

June, the volcano circuit: Explore the Pacific’s “ring of fire”, starting at Lassen National Volcanic Park (nps.gov/lavo), where hot pots and fumaroles bubble and churn just like Yellowstone’s, then head north to Mt. Shasta; extend your trip into southern Oregon and take in Crater Lake National Park. These ancient volcanoes are surrounded by quaint towns and inexpensive lodging or camping options.

July, Northern California Coast: Beat the summertime heat and spend a few days on the northern California coast. From Bodega Bay, head north through Jenner, where the languid Russian River meets the Pacific, past old Russian Fort Ross and Point Arena Lighthouse on the rugged and desolate California Coast to Mendocino. Sea Otters, sea birds, spectacular views await (sonomacounty.com).

The Point Arena Lighthouse is open for tours on the northern California coast.

12 men stand on a huge redwood stump in this photo from the 1880s, before some of the ancient groves of redwoods were protected in national and state parks.

August, Redwoods National Park: Visiting Northern California’s redwood coast, you’ll be stunned by the myriad of state and national parks set aside to preserve our “big trees heritage”.  Marvel at thousands of the tallest trees in the world, reaching over 300 feet, fast-flowing river canyons, rugged coastal views and ancient wilderness; a large part of the fun of this trip are the quaint, small towns along the Avenue of the Giants Parkway (nps.gov/redw).

September, Pinnacles National Park and Big Sur:Pinnacles National Park, in the Gabilan Mountains south of Hollister, CA, offers the rugged remains of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles south near Los Angeles!  On the San Andreas Fault, the park is moving a few inches north each year, distancing itself from its mother volcano! Pinnacles offers a stunning landscape of rugged spines, deep canyons, eerie talus caves, streams and wildlife from deer, wild turkeys  and bob cats, to the majestic California Condor (nps.gov/pinn).  With a good map, take winding Nacimiento Road west through the mountains to drop you dramatically into Big Sur.

Machete Ridge is the backbone of rugged Pinnacles National Park.

October, Eastern Sierra: Fall is the perfect time to head over the Sierra to ghost-town Bodie, the eerie Mono Lake (strange tufa towers) and lovely Mammoth Lakes area. For high Sierra alpine vistas and small-town delights, this is the place (visitmammoth.com).

Purple lupine frames Mt. Tallac on Lake Tahoe's western shore.

November, North Lake Tahoe: Explore the delightful small towns on Tahoe’s north shore, beginning with Truckee, Tahoe Vista, Brockway, Kings Beach and Incline Village. The lake, mountains and slower pace make for a fine vacation destination (gotahoenorth.com).

Hearst Castle is framed by reflecting pools like this, accenting its 165 rooms and over 100 acres of surrounding gardens.

December, take in San Luis Obispo and Hearst Castle: SLO is an exciting and quaint mid-California coastal town, and Hearst Castle, just north, built by William Randolph Hearst from the Roaring 20’s to the 1940s boasts 165 rooms, legendary art, pools, terraces and 123 acres of gardens, extravagantly decorated for Christmas (hearstcastle.org)!

Alternates: If you’ve already checked off these grand places, several alternates: Joshua Tree National Park (east of Palm Springs), Anza Borrego Desert State Park with the nearby eerie, almost deserted Salton Sea (east of San Diego), Sequoia and adjoining Kings Canyon National Parks (east of Fresno), the San Diego Bay area and the Ventura coast and Channel Islands National Park.

Ranger shares details of the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, the largest tree in volume in the world!

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in the west!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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