Bucket list suggestions for your 2019 California travels

Huge steam donkey provided power to skid and mill logs in the Tuolumne City area.

Back road’s discovery; Cosumnes River Preserve just north of Thornton and Lodi.
Atlas Obscura is a fine guide to weird and wacky treasures both in California and much beyond.
Wildflowers surround an old windmill near the entrance to Carrizo Plain National Monument, just a few hours south on Interstate 5 from San Joaquin County.
Discover Hetch Hetchy Valley and Lake, just a short detour off your next trip to Yosemite Valley.

Exploring California in the new year; bucket list suggestions for your 2019 California travels

In our years leading up to retirement, and particularly since, my spouse and I frequently reflect on the quote (author unknown), “Travel far. Travel wide. Travel close to home. Life is not meant to be lived in one place”.

This column shares ideas on “traveling close to home”, primarily in our great state of California. Here are a few tips and different ways to think about what you might want to see when you polish your travel plans within the Golden State:

Explore back roads: Ever since riding with my dad as a pre-teen in our 53 Plymouth,  remembering him saying “let’s see where that road will take us”, I have been a fan of exploring back roads. My motto: Avoid freeways, and particularly Interstates, if it all possible! As example, if visiting Lodi and surrounding wine country, back roads like Thornton Road will take you to a marvelous little bakery in Thornton, Consumnes River Farms for wine and olive oil tasting, and north to Cosumnes River Preserve, for spectacular bird-watching along the riparian banks of the Cosumnes River.

Our Sierra foothills are bisected by back roads gems: If you’re near Sonora, perhaps checking out Black Oak Casino, follow Tuolumne Road a bit further to Tuolumne City, tied both to gold rush history and several huge, now shuttered lumber mills. The city preserves some of the buildings of huge Westside Lumber, which closed in 1960 – it represents two bygone eras of the gold rush and timber production.

Take exploratory day trips: Use special events like the upcoming Stockton Restaurant Week (January 18-27, 2019, 30 participating restaurants) as a reason to dine at several new places and see elements of the city you’d forgotten about, including exciting new restaurants in downtown Stockton.

Or explore Lodi, starting with breakfast at a favorite, Richmaid on Cherokee, a throwback to the 1950s (with the Vintage Reserve Garage across the street, featuring 20 to 30 classic and vintage autos for sale), and check out local jewels like the San Joaquin Historical Museum, the World of Wonders Children’s Museum and the quaintest of reborn downtowns. Another idea, explore Oakland and San Francisco using public transit; the Bay Area ferries, street cars, cable cars along SF’s Embarcadero and waterfront.

Explore lesser scenic wonders near major attractions: Instead of the crowds that pack Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, check out often overlooked national monuments like Carrizo Plain National Monument (several hours down Interstate 5, stunning in the spring with wildflowers a-plenty). Find historic Jolon and Mission San Antonio de Padua near Pinnacles National Park, itself an undiscovered treasure just south of Hollister.

Regional or state parks usually experience lighter crowds, like Black Diamond Mines Preserve in the East Bay (preserving remnants of California’s coal mining empire which prospered from the mid-1800s until the early part of the 20th century) or Mt. Diablo State Park (on a clear day, you can see 100 miles, camp overnight and enjoy miles of hiking trails). For a California desert experience, skip often-jammed Death Valley National Park and check out Anza Borrego State park, larger than the other 250 state parks combined, offering similar desert wonders as Death Valley, and the eerie Salton Sea just east.

If you’re off to iconic destinations, find gems along the way: On the way to Yosemite, look for interesting stops along Hwy. 120; walk the several blocks of gold rush town China Camp, once home to a huge Chinese mining and merchant population, now just a shadow of its former grandeur. Before reaching Yosemite, detour along Evergreen Road and check out huge O’Shaughnessy Dam and spectacular Hetch Hetchy Valley, which John Muir compared as an equal to Yosemite Valley. It gets about 4% of Yosemite’s traffic, and is a worldly wonder in its own right.

Prospect lesser-visited parts of the state: Explore the Eastern Sierra along Hwy. 395 including Bodie (one of the west’s iconic ghost towns), Mono Lake and its other-worldly tufa columns, Manzanar Internment Camp (were thousands of Japanese-Americans were sadly interned during World War II), beautiful Mammoth Lakes Area and the stark but scenic Alabama Hills area where scores of Hollywood westerns were filmed. California’s north coast, or the Big Sur Coast and points south offer equally interesting scenery and discovery potential.

Ask locals about secret wonders: On a tour of Death Valley, several locals suggested exploring just east of the park to Rhyolite, a once thriving silver mining city with its own rail station, numerous hotels and dozens of buildings and one-time almost 10,000 citizens, now slowly decaying since its abandonment in the early 20th century. We were tipped off about the Salton Sea while visiting Anza Borrego State Park (by the park’s campground host), California’s inland sea formed by huge floods from the Colorado River in the early 1900s, now site of failed resort towns and a growing man-made ecological disaster.

Use guide-book resources: Atlas Obscura (by Fuer, Thuras, Morton) or Weird California (Bishop, Oesterle, Marinacci) profile scores of interesting and amazing oddities that will make you a back roads aficionado.

And, remember to travel while you can; don’t put off your travels when you can start close to home, with some of the USA’s grandest destinations just a few minutes or hours away. Stay active and fit with brisk neighborhood or trail walks, and, “get traveling”!

Resources: the Guidebooks noted; for California travel, visitcalifornia.com, and local resources like Stockton travel, visitstockton.org.

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 your world!

Posted in Central California, Northern California, Sacramento/Capitol region, San Francisco Bay Area, Sierra Nevada, Southern California, Stockton/San Joaquin County | Leave a comment

New Year travel plans for the frequent but frugal traveler

Visitors admire Half Dome from Yosemite's Glacier Point. Yosemite makes a great place for a mini-vacation if you live in northern or central California!

The Marchants of Baynes Lake, British Columbia, Canada, were our first Affordable Travel Club hosts a few summers ago.
Close-to-home mini-vacations, like exploring Rose Hill Cemetary in Black Diamond Mines Regional Park in the East Bay area of CA. The cemetery is final resting place of over 100 miners and their families from CA’s coal mining district, which boomed in the late 1800s.
The America the Beautiful federal senior pass has saved is over $3,000 in last five years. Get all the discounts (AAA, AARP, travel clubs, annual passes) that you are entitled to!
Church of the Steps (circa 1859) interior, in historic Mt. Adams district, Cincinnatti, OH. Use surprise trips (like for an Ohio wedding) as opportunity for exploration!

Extend your New Year travel plans; ideas for the frequent but frugal traveler…

With the New Year approaching, many of us are contemplating our upcoming travel plans. I’m reminded of the Susan Sontag quote, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” My wife and I are retired, but even if you’re still working, we will get creative to extend your travel days.

First, don’t overlook travel close to home, or in your nearby region. Take weekend overnight trips to the gems like the gold rush towns in the Sierra foothills, or to lovely nearby towns like Lodi or Modesto. Within two hours are the allure of Lake Tahoe, Napa/Sonoma wine country, the Bay Area and the Big Sur coast.

I’m also reminded of the quote, author unknown, “travel while you can”. We’ve known too many friends who stated “we’ve got big travel plans upon retirement”; their health or financial situation changed and those plans never reached fruition. Work at staying fit, take brisk neighborhood or trail walks or use a gym membership (paid for as part of our Kaiser Permanente membership) to maintain your traveling tone.

Should business travel or unexpected trips present themselves, use them to tour new places; a niece’s August wedding gave us a chance to explore Cincinnati, OH, and we discovered the history and unique neighborhoods of the old “Queen City” on the Ohio River.

Don’t hesitate to use all your allotted vacation; if you can, harness a vacation week with a three day holiday weekend, making it a 10 day vacation. Or, if you can save unused vacation over to the next year, bank the days for an extended, longer vacation.

Use discounts for all they’re worth. AAA, AARP and other travel clubs discounts will save you money on many purchases. If you’re a veteran, many places offer 10% discounts; ask! When booking hotel or motel rooms, wait until the day the room is needed, and book through Priceline.com or booking.com, saving up to 50%. We once thought we had to book our hotel motel rooms weeks in advance; we never do that and rely on same-day reservations for big savings – and have never missed out on a  room.

For extended stays look at VRBO.com or Airbnb.com. Over the last two years, we’ve booked weeklong stays at beautiful beachfront condominiums on Kauai and Hawaii’s Big Island for about $105 a night. If VRBO existed 20 years ago, we would never have bought two timeshares. And, with Uber and Lyft, do you really need a pricey rental car for a week’s stay in many destinations?

If you frequently visit national parks, monuments and other federal properties purchase an annual pass or, if age 62 and older, the federal senior pass. Our America the Beautiful senior pass offers half off entry fees to all national parks and monuments, and half off almost all campground fees – saving us more than $3000 over the last five years as we toured the US with our classic 64 Scotty travel trailer (another marvelous way to see the country and save money).

Booking airfares? Most experts suggest booking about 60 to 90 days out, with best prices usually posted on Tuesdays. Pack light and save on checked luggage. Take Uber or Lyft to the airport and save on long-term car parking fees.

Meal savings? We take advantage of motel breakfasts, can get a cheap lunch almost anywhere.  For dinner, Susan and I have become expert at dining early by sampling several happy hour dishes while savings on drinks. If we splurge on a real dinner, we ususally split a main course and a salad, and never leave hungry.

For frequent travelers, consider inexpensive travel clubs like the Affordable Travel Club, affordabletravelclub.net; or Evergreen Travel Club, evergeenclub.com. Membership is $65 a year; when you travel you email or phone ahead a week or so, spend a night or several with one of the 2500 members in cities and towns across the US, Canada and world; hosts offer a nice bed, breakfast in the morning and you tip them $20 on the way out the door. It sure beats a $140 Comfort Inn!

We have met 10 classy members that way, making new friends in the US and Canada, and hosted almost as many, including a retired couple from England who have offered to put us up when we get to their country. Club membership also opened the door to us to six housesitting gigs in the last three years, at wonderful homes in Seattle (twice), Denver, Tucson, St. George, Utah, (and three weeks in Albuquerque, NM coming up). Virtually free travel accommodations, if you have the time and don’t mind watering plants to watching over a cat or dog.

In the next two weeks we’ll bring you bucket list recommendations for both California and the western United States travel destinations. Use holiday family time to discuss and plan the coming year’s travel plans. “Get traveling!”, Rick Steves would note.

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 your world!

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California’s Riviera: where the endless summer lives on…

Family poses with Mickey Mouse for photo at Disneyland.

Balboa Island Ferry connects with a short hop to Balboa Peninsula.
The brig Pilgrim lies at anchor in the Dana Point Boat Harbor.
San Clemente Pier, home to surfers and Fisherman’s Restaurant!

Corona Del Mar State Beach is adjacent to entrance to the Newport Beach Harbor.

Visit California’s Riviera, where the endless summer lives on…

Continuing on our quest to find nearby warm weather destinations for touring, camping and sun-worshiping, this week we take you to the Orange County, CA, coast, 360 miles and seven hours down Interstate 5.

It’s a land defined as “California’s Riviera” since the early 1900s, when both sun-worshipers and Hollywood discovered this sun-kissed 42 miles stretch of sandy beaches offering respite to rich and poor, young to old. We’ve been heading down that way in winter or early spring, to recharge our batteries after too many grey, gloomy days of northern California winter.

The county is home to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the LA Angels of Anaheim baseball team and Mighty Ducks hockey team and many other attractions, but it’s the beachfront towns which we’re tracking. Let’s pack our beachwear, hiking shoes and bicycles, and explore sunny Seal Beach down to San Clemente!

Seal Beach, northern most in the county, is home to a lovely 3/4 mile strand of sand popular with beach-goers, the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge and Hennessey’s Seal Beach, a great place for breakfast or lunch, indoor and outdoor tables, and only a couple of blocks off the water. The beachfront cycling trail also connects with the San Gabriel River Bike Trail, as well as continuing south down Huntington Beach Bike Trail.

Huntington Beach Long ago earned the nickname ‘Surf City USA’, featuring three beaches, Huntington City Beach, Huntington State Beach and Bolsa Chica State Beach, popular for volleyball, surfing, fire rings, even beachfront camping. Just across Highway 1 is Bolsa Chica’s almost 1500 acres of wetlands, the largest saltwater marsh between Tijuana, Mexico and Monterey Bay.

Huntington Beach features the International Surfing Museum and the Surfing Walk of Fame along Main Street. Walk out on the Huntington Beach pier and watch world class surfers both north and south.

The Santa Ana River separates Huntington Beach from Newport Beach and offers a lovely bicycle trail following the river about 25 miles inland, through urban vistas, past the Los Angeles Angels ball park and the Honda Center, home of the hockey team, and up into the foothills east of LA.

Newport Beach boasts the world’s largest small boat harbor, two walkable peirs, the Balboa and Newport Piers, along a sandy beach front and lively bike path. Take the Balboa island ferry, (pedestrians and bikes welcomed) for an all-too short voyage between Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula, connecting two lovely communities of waterfront cottages, boutiques and restaurants. Take the time to tour the 1905 Balboa Pavilion on the peninsula side, home to harbor tours, whale-watching tours and Santa Catalina Island cruises. The lovely town of Avalon is only 26 miles and about an hour and a half by ferry and well worth the detour if you’ve not been there. Newport offers plenty of upscale restaurants, but check out a funky favorite, the Crab Cooker on Newport Bay, casual, inexpensive and just right for families.

Block off a morning or an afternoon for a foot or bicycle tour of Balboa Island, circled by a wide walkway lined with $4 to $5 million waterfront “cottages” and stop for a famous Balboa Bar, ice cream on a stick, dipped in chocolate and covered with your favorite toppings, drawing a crowd since 1945. Just beyond the Newport Beach harbor entrance is Corona Del Mar State Beach, one of the most popular beaches along this sunny stretch.

Not to be missed, the south end of Newport Beach features Crystal Cove State Park, with miles of trails along and above the Pacific. Within the park, the old beachfront town of Crystal Cove. preserves mostly-refurbished cabins, renting for $200 a night. Plan a sunset meal at Beachcomber’s Restaurant, anchoring Crystal Cove, and tour the small next-door museum that tells the story of the many movies shot in the 1930s to 80s, including Beaches starring Bette Midler, Herbie the Love Bug, Treasure Island, Son of Tarzan and many more. The park also offers the new Moro Campground on a bluff overlooking the ocean, a bargain if you can book a spot.

Heading south on Highway one, Laguna Beach is the next upscale town, offering many additional beaches, as well as the Laguna Art Museum and Laguna Playhouse. Across from the quaint downtown, packed with shops, restaurants and boutiques, is Main Beach Park.

Next town south is Dana Point and Harbor, popularized by Richard Henry Dana who wrote the 1840’s masterpiece “Two Years Before the Mast“. Tour the Dana Point Harbor, featuring well over 2000 boat slips, home to the Ocean Institute and Maddie James Seaside Learning Center, featuring replicas of the Pilgrim, the brig on which Dana sailed, and Spirit of Dana Point, a 1770’s privateer used during the American Revolution. It’s a photographer’s paradise.

At the southernmost end of the county is San Clemente, once home to President Richard Nixon, offering a lovely, 10 block long walkable downtown along Avenida Del Mar. Follow Delmar all the way to the beach and find San Clemente Pier, with shops and one of our favorite restaurants, Fisherman’s, right on the pier, perfect for delicious dinners blessed by incredible sunsets. San Clemente Beach State Park, with camping, is just south.

For more insight: Huntington Beach, surfcityusa.com; Laguna Beach, visitlagunabeach.com; Newport Beach, newportbeach.com; Orange County Visitor’s Association, visittheoc.com.

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 your world!

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California dreamin’… warm weather touring in Death Valley, Anza Borrego

Badwater Basin, salt deposits and stagnant water, at 282 feet below sea level.

Harmony Borax Works old water tanker and borax wagons in Death Valley.
The old Rhyolite railroad station stands sentinel over this large ghost town.
Sand dunes and knarly trees grace a portion of Death Valley National Park.
Bighorn sheep, high above Anzo Borrego SP.
Spindly Ocotillo plant in bloom, following light rain.
California Fan Palm oasis at top of rocky trail, Anza Borrego SP.

A California dreamin’ tour… find warm weather in Death Valley, Anza Borrego

Already tired of chilly mornings and frosty windshields? Use the winter and early spring to visit two of California’s more scenic and spectacular destinations, the desert wonders of Death Valley National Park and Anza Borrego State Park.

Take a tour of Death Valley and Anza Borrego, just 250 miles apart and perfect for winter touring for exotic wildlife, marvelous scenery and, later in the winter and spring, wild flower blooms.

Take the scenic route, up and over Highway 88, then down Highway 395 to reach Death Valley. Hwy. 395 will take you past a number of remarkable destinations, Including unique towns like Bridgeport, Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes, Bishop and Lonepine (offering a number of low cost motels and B&Bs). Points of interest include Bodie, one of California’s most impressively preserved gold rush towns (though the access road is off closed in Winter), Mono  Lake with its eerie Tufa towers, the June Lake loop, Mammoth Lakes and the World War II internment camp of Manzanar, where Japanese citizens were sadly detained.

Heading to Death Valley from this direction, you’ll enter through the northwest portion of the park and the town of Panamint Springs, where you begin a steady drop in elevation below sea level. In the summertime, Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world, with temperatures frequently reaching 125°F. In winter, it’s a pleasant place with temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s (though, chilly nights); winter rains begin to bring the desert plants to life.

Death Valley was named during the 1849 California gold rush when an immigrant wagon train from the Midwest suffered a fatality cutting across the arid valley. One of the 49ers, looking back, noted “goodbye, Death Valley” and the name stuck. As you tour the park watch for desert tortoise, roadrunners, hummingbirds and bighorn sheep.

Death Valley was home to native peoples thousands of years ago, and more recent settlers brought by the gold rush. But it was silver discovered in the park in 1873, causing  Panamint City to swell to more than 5000 residents. Silver soon played out, then “white gold” was discovered, borax. A stop at the Harmony Borax Works reveals the refinery and huge 20 mule-team wagons which operated from 1883–88.

Gold was also found within the park; the Keane Wonder Mine has been reopened after safety modifications, a gold mine that boomed from 1907 to 1912, producing over $1 million in gold inside the park. In 1904, gold was discovered just east of the park, leading to the last real American gold rush. Rhyolite, on the park’s eastern edge, is one of the more interesting ghost towns in the west. The town quickly expanded with thousands of miners, several roads and a railroad built into the district; a financial failure led to the end of the era by 1912.

Some of the park’s points of interest include Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level and Golden Canyon – just a short hike off Highway 190. Hike the canyon late afternoon when the setting sun offers spectacular colors. South is Natural Bridge, just off the main road and another short hike takes you to this natural wonder. And, tour Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast sandy desert expanse, wonderful for photo taking.

For wildflower blooms, a number of factors are at play, including rainfall, temperature, topography and elevation.  For updates on desert blooms, see desertusa.com, offering the best timing and locations to find often-stunning blooms of mimulus, encelia, poppies, verbena, evening primrose, phacelia, desert star, blazing star, desert gold and species of cacti (usually well above the valley floor). Death Valley boasts a number of campgrounds and hotel accommodations within the park.

Anza Borrego State Park, southeast of Palm Springs, is larger than the other 259 California State Parks combined. The vast park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista De Anza and the Spanish word borrego, for bighorn sheep. The park is ringed by mountains and sand dunes, and, depending upon sparse rainfall, diverse wildflowers, exotic palm groves and a cacti prosper. The elusive bighorn sheep, Roadrunners, kit foxes, mule deer, chuckwallas, iguanas and rattlesnakes call the park home.

This is the Colorado Desert; millions of years ago, the Colorado River met the Gulf of California. When tourists visit today’s Grand Canyon and puzzle over where all that dirt and rock went – the answer is Anza Borrego. Park headquarters and visitor center offer insights and a developed campground is located on the edge of Borrego Springs, a city offering restaurants and motels.

For an adventure follow the Palm Canyon trailhead. The 1.5 mile hike up a bone dry canyon,  reaches a point where you’ll hear running water and find a pretty stream and increasing vegetation. At the top you’ll discover a beautiful California fan palm oasis (fan palms are California’s only native palm tree).

Sharp-eyed hikers may spot the elusive Peninsular bighorn sheep, as well as a variety of desert plants including indigo bush, brittlebush, creosote, blue palo verde (with yellow flowers), cholla, barrel and hedgehog cactus, Ocotillo and Mojave yucca. At nightfall, Borrego Springs, a Dark Sky community, provides outstanding opportunities for reveling in a wondrous star-filled night sky.

For more information: Anza Borrego State Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638; phone (760) 767-5311;  Death Valley National Park , nps.gov/deva, (760) 786–3200.

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

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Dodge Ridge, Tuolumne County prepare for coming winter!

Grandson Jack Taylor and author enjoy Jack's first chairlift ride at Dodge Ridge.

Skier enjoys deep powder in the Sonora Glades of Dodge Ridge Resort
Family enjoys a groomed run with spectacular view in Boulder Creek Canyon.
Kids pan for gold, including grandson Hunter Blomgren (center), at Columbia State Historic Park
The old roundhouse and turntable at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
Engine #3 from the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Plan a trip to Dodge Ridge Ski Resort and Tuolumne County during ski season!

Last week’s storms brought serious rain to the San Joaquin Valley and carpeted the central Sierra with its first consequential snow. Hence, Dodge Ridge, the closest ski and snowboarding resort to San Joaquin County, is gearing up for another lively season. In addition, Tuolumne County, with so many additional attractions, is a fine destination for an extended visit.

As a 25 year member of the Dodge Ridge National Ski Patrol, I know this scenic part of the Sierra very well. My spouse and youngest daughter have skied there, and grandson Jack began his snowboarding experience at Dodge Ridge two seasons ago.

Dodge Ridge, almost 70 years old, has built its reputation as a family-friendly resort and marvelous destination to learn to ski. In more recent years, the addition of chairs 7 and 8 have opened up serious advanced and double black diamond runs, so the resort also offers serious skiing challenges throughout its 1600 vertical feet and 862 acres. Chair 8, dropping into north-facing Boulder Creek Canyon, offers spectacular views as well as intermediate to advanced runs in an area known for deep snows.

Dodge Ridge, where so many Sierra skiing families learned to ski, makes it a destination where you’re sure to run into friends who also learned here. The mountain focuses on its lesson programs, teaching youth from ages two and up. With two Magic Carpet lifts, a rope tow and a gentle chair 6 beginner’s lift, new skiers learn quickly.

Special packages including the Kids Club 5 Pack for ages 4-12, the Progression Pass, for level 1-3 skiers, ages 13 and up, the Summit Pass, ski and levels 4-6, for kids13 and up and Intro to Snow classes, offering one-on-one private lessons for kids as young as two years old. We’ve had grandson Jack in several lessons; he instantly took to the instructors, the Magic Carpet lifts and, late last season, managed a fun afternoon on gentle Chair 6.

Dodge Ridge’s skiable 862 acres extend far into the Sierra, to Chair 8 terrain with remarkable variety and stunning Sierra views into Boulder Creek Canyon. With 1,600 vertical feet serviced by 8 chairlifts, a T-bar, rope tow and two Magic Carpet lifts, Dodge Ridge has something to offer beginners all the way to adrenaline-fueled skiers and riders. A majority of the route along all-weather Hwy. 108 is below the snowline, which makes it one of the easiest ski commutes. Dodge Ridge is also one of the more affordable winter resorts, from some of the lowest-priced lesson programs to one of the best lift ticket deals available, only $68 for adult lift tickets (available at nearly 70 different Save Mart & Lucky’s Supermarkets).

If you enjoy cross country skiing or snowshoeing, Dodge Ridge rents gear for each and cross country trails fan out from the base area as well as several places along the Dodge Ridge access road. Pinecrest, just below, also offers cross country and snowshoeing opportunities along the snowy lakeshore.

What makes Dodge Ridge such a special winter destination are the additional family-friendly options nearby. The Tuolumne County seat, Sonora, offers shopping, fine restaurants and several history museums throughout its historic downtown area. Columbia State Historic Park is just a few miles north, offering one of the best preserved gold rush ghost towns. Lovely old towns like Jamestown, Twain Harte and Tuolumne City dot the nearby foothills, offering gold rush history, unique shopping and dining experiences. The Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, known as “the Movie Railroad”, offers huge locomotives, rail cars, seasonal steam train rides and roundhouse tours.

Favorite restaurants, starting at Pinecrest and working west along Hwy. 108, include Steam Donkey in Pinecrest, Mia‘s in Cold Springs, the Pie (great pizza) and Alicia‘s Sugar Shack (baked goods, breakfast and lunch) in Mi Wuk Village and the Rock in Twain Harte are all good options. The Service Station in Jamestown, with beer garden in back, and Standard Pour in Standard offers a unique brew pub in an historic building of the old Standard Lumber Company, featuring lots of TVs for sports and wonderful food.

For places to stay, check out Pinecrest Resort, Pinecrest Chalet, Long Barn Lodge with their covered ice rink and Christmas Tree Inn in Mi Wuk Village. If casinos are your thing, Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne City offers the casino experience, lodging and fine dining.

From San Joaquin County, Dodge Ridge is about 100 miles and two hours. Take Hwy. 4 east to Copperopolis, go south on O’Brynes Ferry Road, then east on Hwy. 108.

For more information, Dodge Ridge, dodgeridge.com, (209) 965-3474; for Tuolumne County visitor insights, visittuolumne.com, (800) 446-1333.

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

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Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe; winter touring in Northern California

Vernal Falls in Yosemite, taken last January; again, no snow in a drought year.

Cross country skiers on road to Glacier Park, usually snowed in from December to March (photo courtesy National Park Service).
Our Scotty in front of Yosemite Falls last January; note, no snow in the valley.
The Truckee Hotel is just north of Squaw Valley; and provides overnight accomodations.
Rangers lead a snowshoe tour along Lake Tahoe from Sugar Pine Point State Park.
Squaw Valley’s main entrance off Hwy. 89 pays homage to the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Adventure touring in Northern California; Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe:

We north/central Californians are blessed by close proximity to an amazing world just outside our door. Take a late fall or winter tour to several wonderful cold-weather destinations, Yosemite National Park or the Lake Tahoe area!

California’s first thoughts often fall to our most visited western national park, Yosemite. Veteran Yosemite explorers know the park is an active and special place in winter. You may, or may not, find snow on the floor of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls are almost always flowing freely, even as snow closes other portions of the iconic park.

Yosemite’s winter season typically runs December through March, though snow can be, or not be, present even in January (it was absent on a mid-January visit last year). The Yosemite Valley and Wawona are accessible by car all year, while the Tioga road is usually closed by sometime in November or early December. The road to Glacier Point is also closed about the same time, though the Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is plowed to the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard area (formerly Badger Pass Ski Area) where cross-country, downhill skiing and snowshoeing are popular.

Winter in the park can be cold and snowy, so take proper clothing, and chains for your vehicle if not a 4 wheel-drive. Also check current forecasts to avoid smoky conditions that may occur even during winter. Hiking and cycling in the valley offers opportunities, though they can be covered by snow. Again, check ahead with the Park service.

The park offers overnight lodging from the very up-scale Grand Yosemite Hotel to less expensive options. Upper Pines Campground is open year-round, but it does get dark very early in the winter. Tip: If you’re planning on a nice dinner at the nearby Grand Yosemite Hotel, formerly the Ahwanee, take a collared shirt and a sports coat – or you will be turned away (as I was last January).

Smashing as Yosemite is, don’t overlook other nearby winter wonders such as Lake Tahoe, where you can rekindle the Olympic Flame and enjoy cross-country, downhill skiing and snowshoeing as well as stunning winter scenery.

Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 VIII Winter Olympics, offers vestiges of the old Olympic Village, as well as the ski runs and much of the romance of the Olympics.  Just 16 miles away are the cross-country and biathlon trails used in the Olympics, open for skiing or snowshoeing, at Sugar Pine Point State Park on Lake Tahoe’s west shore.

You can ski or snowboard on the runs that made USA’s Penny Pitou famous, snowshoe or cross-country ski in the tracks where the Soviet women swept the 10K race and imagine the crack of the biathlon rifles on the range where  a Swede would triumph, or merely explore these venues on foot and by car.

Much of the Olympic spirit remains, some of the venues and a good portion of the Olympic Village. All of this Olympic finery, and much of the history, are wrapped around Lake Tahoe’s north shore, a spectacular destination in its own right.  Nearby Tahoe City, just six miles from Squaw, offers a wealth of fine dining and over-night accommodations, in addition to what you will find at Olympic Valley/Squaw Valley Resort.

The mountain/ski, skating, jumping venues: At Squaw Valley, all the skiing, skating and jumping venues were within walking distance. Squaw Valley offers 2,850 vertical feet of elevation drop; and one can ski the Olympic downhill, slalom and giant slalom courses on KT22 Peak, Squaw Peak and Little Papoose Peak (ask the friendly National Ski Patrol on the mountain and they can point out Olympic runs).

A compact Olympic Village was constructed at the north end of Squaw Valley, consisting of four dormitories for athletes, the Blyth Memorial Ice Arena, three outdoor skating rinks and a 400 meter outdoor speed-skating rink.  Many of these facilities have been removed, though a number of the 1960s buildings remain.

The cross country/biathlon venues at McKinney Creek Stadium (now Sugar Pine Point State Park): Just 15 miles south on Highway 89,  McKinney Creek Stadium was a 1,000 seat temporary arena where six cross country races started and finished, as well as the biathlon event (a 20 km skiing/shooting event, making its Olympic debut). Over 18 Km of the Olympic trails and the biathlon rifle ranges remain, marked with a series of plaques.  One can cross country ski or snowshoe in the tracks of the Soviets, Swedes and Finns who dominated these events.  The cross country trails are groomed weekly and the park charges a $5 parking fee.

How to get there: Yosemite National Park is about 130 miles, go south on Hwy. 99, then east at Manteca on Hwy. 120 to the park; for Squaw Valley/Olympic Valley, USA, 170 miles from Stockton; north on I-5, to US Highway 50E to S. Lake Tahoe, then north on Highway 89 to Squaw Valley.   From Squaw Valley, Tahoe City is 6 miles; Sugar Pine Point State Park is just 10 miles south on Hwy 89.

For more information: Yosemite Park, nps.gov/yose; Squaw Valley, squaw.com; Cross country skiing/snowshoeing at Sugar Pine Point State Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=510.

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 your world!

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Our national parks in dead of winter; a once-in-a-lifetime must-do!

Old Faithful Geyser thunders into a winter sky at dusk; with three visitors to watch and one lone coyote.

Trumpeter Swans in Yellowstone’s Firehole River near Old Faithful area.
Buffalo and calf, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Park.
Lake McDonald Lodge, closed in winter, marks end of the Going to Sun Highway.
Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, taken from Going to the Sun Highway.
Spend the night in a caboose at the Issac Walton Inn on edge of Glacier NP.

Visit our national parks in dead of winter; Yellowstone and Glacier NPs make for a once-in-a-lifetime must-do!

Winter is a special and spectacular time in our national parks. Summer and early fall crowds that can choke these national treasures dwindle to a few. In Yellowstone, wildlife comes down to the thermal features where hot steam melts snow, allowing easier grazing. On our first trip to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser our view at dusk of the geyser thundering into the skies was shared by one other tourist and a lone coyote.

However, temperatures drop precipitously and snow closes many of the interior roads of these parks; preplanning is of the essence. Here are suggestions for enjoying two of our iconic Montana and Wyoming parks.

Yellowstone National Park offers several modes of winter access. From California, we have entered from two sides of the US’s oldest national park, at West Yellowstone and the north entrance of the park, Mammoth Hot Springs.

West Yellowstone is 900 miles from San Joaquin County; be prepared for cold, snowy days (on a visit three years ago, overnight temperatures descended to 40 below zero; AAA had a hard time helping us get our car started). The town, at 6200 feet, usually has quantities of snow on the ground, welcomed by a passel of snow-shoers, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers who fan out from the town both into the park and surrounding National Forest land.

The city’s eastern edge offers the lovely Riverside Trail through a snowy forest and to the banks of the park’s lovely Madison River. Another trail, the Boundary Trail, also begins on the town’s east side and follows the park boundary northward. From West Yellowstone, one can arrange snowmobile trips or snowcoach trips into the park’s inner-sanctum, such as the Old Faithful area.

From West Yellowstone, head north, past the huge Big Sky Ski Resort to Bozeman, east 30 miles to Livingston, then 60 miles south to the town of Gardiner on the northern edge of Yellowstone. Enter the park through the historic Roosevelt Arch, its cornerstone laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, and reach Mammoth Hot Springs in four miles, dodging bison and elk, sharing the road.

Gardner and Mammoth Hot Springs, at lower elevations, are wintering grounds for much of the park’s wildlife. You’ll usually find scores of elk and bison, bighorn sheep on rocky escarpments and occasional sightings of coyotes.

Tour the boardwalks around the massive Mammoth Hot Springs, with fumaroles and steam vents spitting scalding clouds into the sky and huge hot springs cascading from the hillsides above the historic town. Those with cross country skis or snowshoes can also take a ski trail around the area.

Head east along the park’s Montana Hwy. 212 (open in winter) through the Lamar Canyon and Valley for sightings of wolves which prosper here. Take serious binoculars or spotting scopes or telescopes and telephoto lens for cameras, for often wolves are only seen from miles away.

From Mammoth, the park concessionaire runs modern snowcoaches into the park, to destinations of Canyon Village and Old Faithful. We took the snowcoach tour into Old Faithful five years earlier, a magical place made more stunning in the depths of winter.

Glacier National Park, located on the Montana/Canada border, encompasses over one million acres and more than 130 lakes.  It contains portions of two rugged mountain ranges and some of the US’s remaining glaciers.  The park has limited winter access – but you still will enjoy views of its icy splendor. Reach Apgar Village area on the park’s west side by car, and, hike, snow-shoe or cross-country ski on trails along the edge of Lake McDonald. Longer trails will take one high above the lake on its north side, allowing a view deep into the park’s interior.

From Apgar, you can drive 11 miles east on Going to the Sun Highway, barricaded in winter at Lake McDonald Lodge. While the lodge is closed for the winter and sits eerily abandoned, the views along the vast lake and into the park, shared with only a handful of other winter tourists, make them all the more memorable.

Montana Hwy. 2 skirts the southern border of the park – here you’ll discover the small town of Essex and the Izaac Walton Lodge. Built by the Great Northern Railway in 1939 to house railway workers, the lodge offers rooms, several cabooses, railway club cars and a locomotive, all converted for cozy lodging. Surrounded by cross country and snow-shoe trails to take one above the park, or into the park for remarkable winter splendor, it’s a special place.

Closer to home for winter visits are parks like Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic parks, more in a future installment.

Where to stay: Yellowstone Park: In West Yellowstone, we have enjoyed the Stagecoach Inn (http://yellowstoneinn.com/; in Gardiner, the Park Hotel is a classy, nicely appointed 120 year-old hotel with nine cozy suites (parkhotelyellowstone.com). Inside the Park, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or the Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only winter choices, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/. Glacier Park, find plenty of hotels, B&Bs in Whitefish, the lively resort town just west of the park (explorewhitefish.com).

For more information: Yellowstone Park, nps.gov/yell/, (307) 344-7381.  For snowcoach service into the park, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce can offer choices of private snowcoach providers, (406) 646.7701.  For Yellowstone’s North park entrance (Mammoth Hot Springs) and south park entrance (Flagg Ranch/Teton Park) snow coach service, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays, contact Zanterra, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com. For Glacier National Park, nps.gov/glac, (406) 888-7800.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com; follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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California coastal touring in fall, winter; Big Sur to Morro Bay!

Bixby Bridge, circa 1932, is a fixture on the scenic Big Sur Coast.

McWay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is highly photographed.
Ragged Point Resort in Big Sur offers beautiful gardens.
Hearst Castle’s Casa Grande mansion is quite the place.
Sunsets are often spectacular at Morro Bay!
Horseback riders enjoy a sunny afternoon with Morro Rock and Bay in background.

Take a California coastal tour this fall, winter; Big Sur to Morro Bay!

With fall upon us and winter quickly approaching, too many people shelve their road trip, camping and resort travels until warmer weather arrives. My suggestion – think the California coast during these cooler days. The combination of warmer air off the ocean, frequent sunny days, reduced crowds and stunning scenery is enough to keep your travel juices flowing.

Start with Big Sur, lying along the rugged California coast just south of Monterey, a favorite destination for both families and romantics. Warmed by the Pacific, Big Sur offers rocky coastline, lovely resorts, secluded getaways, frequent sunny days, classic campgrounds and marvelous restaurants. Stunning photo ops lie around almost every turn on the iconic CA Hwy. 1.

The Spanish called it “El Sur Grande”, the Big South, for the miles of difficult to reach, unexplored and treacherous California coastline. Today, 90 miles of Big Sur extends from Monterey to San Simeon, home to Hearst Castle.  Though Mexico awarded several land grants in the early 1800s, it wasn’t soon settled. Eventually, a lively logging economy began to thrive, with timber shipped to San Francisco and south to Los Angeles. Highway 1 was completed in 1937, after 18 arduous years building this rugged and scenic highway, leading to today’s thriving tourist-driven economy.

Pretty and secluded campgrounds track south down the coast, from Andrew Molera State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Lime Kiln State Park and Kirk Creek Campground, a Forest Service gem perched on the bluff overlooking the Pacific. Julia Pfeiffer Burns is a favorite, for seclusion, the stream that runs through the campground and nearby access to the Pacific coast.

For motels/resorts, many choices abound, from expensive to very pricey. Ragged Point Inn, high on a bluff above the ocean, is a favorite, offering both lodging and a fine restaurant. Seasonally, Elephant seals can be seen at Ano Neuvo State Park (reservations required) and at the six-mile long Piedras Blancas rookery.

Don’t overlook Pinnacles National Park, which can be visited on the way to the coast. Pinnacles leaps up from the Gabilan Mountains 30 miles south of Hollister, CA, the rugged remains of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles south, near Los Angeles!  Pinnacles sits on the San Andreas Fault and is moving a few inches north each year, distancing itself from the mother volcano!

Visitors will find a stunning landscape of rugged spines, deep canyons, eerie talus caves, verdant foliage, streams and wildlife from deer, wild turkeys and bobcats, to the majestic California Condor with wingspans up to seven feet.   Take flashlights or headlamps, for the park’s talus caves are perfect for family exploration.  Pinnacles has a sunny campground; motels are found in Hollister to the north, and King City, south.

Just south of Big Sur lies San Simeon and Hearst Castle, rising regally in the hills overlooking the ocean and Santa Lucia Mountains.  This huge estate owes its origin to the dramatic profits of the Hearst newspaper and publishing business in the 1800s and early 1900s.  George Hearst initially acquired  40,000 acres in 1865, while son William Randolph Hearst enlarged the estate to 250,000 acres and constructed a huge and palatial home of 165 rooms, spectacular grounds and world-class art.

The main house, Casa Grande, offers 60,000 square feet of grandeur.  With 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, a theatre, indoor and outdoor pools and a 127 acre estate with tennis courts, airfield and private zoo complete with zebras, it was one of the largest and most extreme private homes in the United States.

Hearst’s art collection rivals many of the world’s top museums; it, and the surrounding gardens make the visit well worth the trip to see it.  Now a state park, fees do apply and reservations are a must, so see the Hearst Castle web site before planning your trip to this memorable destination.

The lovely coastal towns of San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos and Morro Bay lie just south of Hearst Castle.  Morro Rock stands as a huge sentinel (many describing it as the Gibraltar of the Pacific coast), anchoring the central California coast to ancient mariners.

Morro Bay is a pretty town with just over 10,000 residents and is named after Morro Rock, the huge granite volcanic dome off shore. Featuring an active harbor and fishing industry, oysters, halibut and salmon remain mainstays on local plates.  Surrounding vineyards and harbor-view restaurants and beautiful beaches make this quaint city one to remember.

Morro Rock was once surrounded by water; during World War II, a US Navy base was constructed on its north side so that sailors could practice landing craft skills.  While Morro Rock can be reached on foot, today it is off-limits to visitors, as a home to protected peregrine falcons.

Nearby are some of California’s nicest state parks including Montana de Oro State Park and Morro Bay State Park to the south, Morro Strand Park to the north – offering camping and nearby beach access.
All these seaside parks can get crowded on weekends, so reserve a campsite well in advance; the city offers an assortment of motels and B&Bs.

For more information: Big Sur coast, bigsurcalifornia.org; Camping can be booked through recreation.gov;  Friends of the Elephant Seal, elephantseal.org, Hearst Castle, hearstcastle.org; Morro Bay, morrobay.org; Pinnacles National Park: nps.gov/pinn.

Reach Tim at tviall@msn.com, or follow at blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valley travel. Happy travels in the west.

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Touring the “Mile-High City” of Denver and central Colorado

Denver's popular 16th Street Mall is lined with shops, restaurants and brew pubs!

Author, under the Rocky Mountain High Dispensary sign (Colorado an early state to allow recreational marijuana sales)
The Blue Bear, a true photo op, at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center (photo courtesy of Visit Denver).
The archway to the lovely and historic downtown of Golden, in foothills of Rockies above Denver, a gold rush town and home to the huge Coors Brewery.
Huge bull elk, left, monitors his herd in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Snow begins to show on the upper slopes of Steamboat Springs Resort in N. Colorado.
The colors of fall brighten the Colorado River between Steamboat Springs and Vail.
Fall color lines the stream running through Vail Village.

Take a tour with us of the “Mile-High City” of Denver and central Colorado!

We had the luxury of house-sitting (through our club, affordabletravelclub.net) a nice home in Broomfield, outside Denver. Hence, an opportunity to explore both the Mile-high City and much of central Colorado, chock-full of mountains and adventure-related things to do.

We begin our tour in large and bustling downtown Denver. What better place to start, than a location designated a “mile high”? Stop at the State Capitol; stand on the west steps at exactly 5,280 feet above sea level – one mile high – then climb to the Rotunda for a western panoramic panoply of 200 snow-capped peaks, some over 14,000 feet.

Many other sites await your downtown visit, including:

16th Street Mall: This beautiful one mile stretch helps make Denver the fourth most walkable downtown in the US, with hundreds of street trees and thousands of flowers, with outdoor cafés and marvelous people watching. Architect I. M. Pei designed the pink and gray granite pathway; a free shuttle bus can take you back if you tire. We parked on Wazee Street: the nearby Rocky Mountain High Dispensary quickly reminded us we were in a state that pioneered recreational marijuana use. Along the Mall, we found The Blue Agave for Saturday brunch (and $5 margaritas ‘till 2 pm).

The Mall is anchored by the Daniels and Fisher Tower, built in 1910 as part of the city’s largest department store. At 325 feet tall it was then the tallest building between St. Louis and California. When the department store was torn down in 1971, the tower was saved, now home to shops and apartments and a lofty observation deck.

LODO Historic District: the Lower Downtown district is filled with historic buildings, home to restaurants, rooftop cafés, and scores of brewpubs and sports bars. Don’t miss Wynkoop Brewing Company, Denver’s first brewpub. The next day, we returned down town for Sunday brunch at La Loma, packed with Broncos football fans, directly across the street from the historic Brown Palace Hotel.

US Mint: Learn how the US stamps 50 million coins each day, with a tiny little “D” denoting Denver, offering free guided tours daily.

Colorado Convention Center and the giant Blue Bear: The 40 foot tall Blue Bear, by Colorado artist Lawrence Argent, offers great photo-taking opportunities. If you are a sports fan, nearby Coors Field,  home to baseball’s Rockies and the NFL’s Bronco’s Stadium are part of downtown.

Downtown Denver also offers the transformed Denver Union Station, a 1914 train terminal now a favorite for restaurants, shopping and entertainment. Other downtown stops include Larimer Square, a block of stately Victorian buildings, Confluence Park, featuring the Downtown Aquarium, Children’s Museum of Denver and the Platte River Trolley. Additional highlights include Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver zoo and Denver Botanic Gardens; we had not time for all.

A fine day-trip takes you through Boulder, Lyons and Estes Park, the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park (see my article on the park in last week’s Record, or my blog). We did not have time for the state’s other two national parks, Great Sand Dunes (five hours south of Denver), and Mesa Verde National Park (eight hours to the Southwest).

Golden, just 20 miles west into the foothills, was capital of the Colorado Territory from 1862 to 1867. Founded in the 1850s as part of the Pikes Peak gold rush, it’s home to the huge Coors Brewery (self-guided tours daily, and samples to those over 21), Colorado School of Mines, National Earthquake Center, California Railroad Museum and an historic downtown with shops, restaurants and brewpubs spread throughout.

We spent a day in Lakewood, a Denver suburb, visiting the headquarters and small ski museum of the National Ski Patrol, then had a late lunch at a quaint brew pub nearby, Colorado Plus.

Seeking mountain scenery, off we went for a two-day tour to visit the state’s big ski areas and mountainous interior, starting with a back-roads trip to Steamboat Springs. Plan a downtown stop at F. M. Light and Sons, an historic western shop crammed with everything needed to deck you, or your kids, out as a Colorado cowboy . After overnighting there, the next morning we toured down to Vail, passing by other major ski resorts and beautiful countryside, admiring changing fall colors in the valley along the Colorado River.

Plan on weather variables: when we arrived in Colorado, coming down from Wyoming, we were met with a few days in the mid 80s, followed by cloudy, gray and 40 to 50° weather for five days, followed by a sunny 70° day. Then temperatures dropped into the mid-20s and it snowed four inches in time for the Broncos football game, the coldest October game in the team’s history. If planning a long stay, bring cold-weather gear, and, perhaps cable chains for your car.

Colorado appears prosperous, with new office buildings, apartment complexes and spotless homes; in the mountains, thousands of spectacular homes, cabins and condominiums cover valleys and hills within 10 miles of the state’s dozens of ski areas. I spotted no graffiti, but for one building on edge of downtown, in two weeks.

For more information, Colorado, Colorado.com; Denver, Denver.org.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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Best road trips for Fall color in Northern California and the Central Sierra

Don't ignore Fall sunrises and sunsets, this sunrise over Meadow Lake, Stockton, last November.

Sierra mountainside is alive with yellows and oranges, off Hwy. 88.
Ironstone Vineyards, just above Murphys, offer yellows, ochres and reds during the fall.
Aspens turn bright yellow, dusted by light snow, near Ebbett’s Pass on Hwy. 4.
Oranges and reds dot this Sierra mountainside near Tuolumne Pass.

Plan a road trip for best Fall color in Northern California and the Central Sierra!

Need a perfect reason for a road trip? The late fall season of changing colors of yellows, oranges and intense red in Northern California and our Central Sierra provides an excellent adventure, capped by those stunning fall colors.

Depending on your destination, you’ll find elderberries changing colors, California ash, tiny cones of incense cedar with red berries and leaves turning gold, willow and aspen, soon to change from green to gold, even poison oak turning scarlet (don’t go there!). Students of color will often overlook high mountain meadows changing from green to ochre and yellow; don’t, for that’s where early color is frequently first spotted.

Depending on your destination you’ll find Idyllic vistas of deer or antelope, horses or cattle grazing in meadows below lofty mountains and snow beginning to make an appearance on the highest of the Sierra peaks. Native American and gold rush historic sites are found on almost any route you choose. If you are a camper, you’ll find memorable camping opportunities reaching into late October or early November, and bed-and-breakfasts and classy old hotels dot these highways, sprinkled with memorable restaurant stops.

Hence, check local visitor’s bureaus and go to California Fall Color, Californiafallcolor.com, a marvelous website with pictures, current conditions, predictions of coming color palettes and links to several dozen websites offering insight. Then, get out your maps or consult your GPS and plot that road trip. All of these suggestions are within several hours, more or less, of San Joaquin County. Here are our favorite road trips, ranging from south to north running up the Sierra.

Highway 140 takes travelers to and through Yosemite national Park, winding through the Tuolumne Meadows area and down the Eastern slope to Lee Vining on Highway 395. The route is a scenic and always spectacular option despite the fires near Yosemite; most of the park itself was untouched, and black oak, maple and dogwood in the valley and above were not touched.

If you venture over to the Eastern Sierra, check the area both north and south of Lee Vining on Highway 395. Just north, explore the colors on the road up to Bodie State Historic Park, one of the coolest of the old west ghost towns, preserved in a state of “arrested decay“. Just south, stop at Mono Lake and marvel at it’s strange tufa columns rising like ghost ships along the lake shore. Heading south down Highway 395, the June Lake Loop and roads in the Sierra just above Mammoth Lakes offers color aplenty as well as high mountain views and alpine Lakes galore.

Highway 108, heading east above Sonora and past Pinecrest Lake, is a favorite. At Pinecrest, the Steam Donkey restaurant is always a great place for lunch or dinner (as is the Dodge Ridge ski resort, just 3 miles above Pinecrest, open on weekends – get your early season pass!). Then head up 108 into the high Sierra past changing stands of ash and aspen, and also see the sobering result of the Donnell Fire, which burned thousands of acres, several score vacation cabins and torched the old Dardanelle Resort. Just above Kennedy Meadows, the highway steeply ascends towards Sonora Pass – marvelous views and guaranteed striking colors on both sides of the pass.

Choose Highway 4, with a stop at Murphys, and drive the several miles up to Ironstone Vineyards for a pleasant stop, snack and wine tasting and see changing colors on the winery property. Heading higher, you’ll pass Calaveras big trees State Park, home to some of the largest sequoias on the western Sierra slope, into the forests and through the meadows of Bear Valley and the ski resort just above. Highway 4 continues east, where Lake Alpine Resort offers a good lunch stop as the road ascends towards Ebbott’s Pass; always offering jaw-dropping vistas and changing colors.

Hwy. 88 offers the option to stop in gold rush historic gems like Jackson, where Stanley’s Restaurant in the lower level of the National Hotel provides respite and a quick history lesson. Continue east, past Pine Grove, pretty Mount Zion State Forest and Pioneer (both towns offer dining options), and reach Kirkwood Resort and its meadows and changing color scene (the Kirkwood Inn is a great place for lunch). Head further east, into the Hope River Valley, and find one of the ultimate destinations for both Sierra scenery and changing aspen, ash and other foliage palates.

Don’t overlook your local fall color scene, including city street trees, changing colors in vineyards from Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Cabernet grapevines (almost anywhere just north of Stockton and around Lodi and Woodbridge), as well as fall sunrises and sunsets, often right outside your door.

For more info: Check Tuolumne and Calaveras Visitor Bureaus web sites for tips (visittuolumne.com, gocalavaras.com), and the California Fall Color map site, (californiafallcolor.com), for current conditions, predictions of best times for viewing and links to several dozen other color sites.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

Posted in Central California, Northern California, Sierra Nevada, Stockton/San Joaquin County | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
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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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