10 (Alternative) Things to Do in California

Oh no! Not another Top Ten list of California Attractions! Don't worry, this isn't a list of the usual suspects, I promise. That's right - no Disneyland or Hollywood, no Yosemite, Alcatraz Island, etc... You probably know all about those kinds of sights by now, and they probably either figure into your plans already, or you're sick to death of hearing about them. If you do want something mainstream, you can always try our guide to Amusement Parks in Califoria.

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway credit: Glen Scarborough some rights reserved

However if you're looking for something slightly different but still uniquely Californian, then read on. California's a huge state, diverse in its scenery and endless in its possibilities. I'm going to tell you about some must-see attractions and must-do activities that probably wouldn't occur to the casual tourist. Consider this list a chance to live like a local, with the benefit of a little inside information. So without further adieu...

If you want to have a genuine California experience then (in no particular order) you should:

  1. Attend the Pageant of the Masters.
  2. Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts Theater
    Pageant of the Masters Theatre
    credit: Neil Kremer
    Some rights reserved

    A pageant? That sounds kind of, um, boring. Trust me, this is something you're going to remember long after it's over. What we're talking about here is a ninety minute show of living pictures. Called the art of tableaux vivants, it features real people posing in painstaking recreations of works of art. It's one of those things that you can see and understand but somehow still not quite believe what it is you're looking at. Add a beautiful outdoor amphitheater, a professional orchestra, an original score, live narration, intricate sets, sophisticated lighting, expert staff, and hundreds of dedicated volunteers, and you have a unique and unforgettable experience. The Pageant is one of California's best kept secrets and a Laguna Beach tradition since 1932.

    The Pageant of the Masters only happens in the Summertime and tickets run between $20 and $70.

  3. Eat an In-N-Out Burger.
  4. In-N-Out Burger sign
    In-N-Out Sign
    credit: Courtney "Coco" Mault
    Some rights reserved

    Now I'm sure someone's going to write to me and say that it's not technically a "unique California experience" any more, now that In-N-Out Burger has branched out into some of the bordering states. But they're wrong. In-N-Out will forever be linked to Southern California and remain an indeliable part of its culture. As a native Californian, I've always felt kind of sorry for the rest of the country who couldn't experience this incredible burger.

    What's so great about it? In-N-Out started in 1948 as California's first drive-thru hamburger stand. As the company gradually expanded it remained family-own - it never franchised. The service is great. The ingredients are always fresh and the burgers are always made to order. No freezers, no microwaves, no heat lamps... ever. The menu is very simple but it's easy to customize - you see, though it's not written down, there's a secret menu. I won't ruin it for you, because discovering all the different goodies on it is half the fun. I will only say this: "Double Double animal-style". You will not be sorry (unless you're a vegetarian).

  5. Forget Napa Valley. Go wine tasting in Paso Robles.
  6. Paso Robles Hills
    Highway 46 Green Hills
    credit: Linda Tanner
    Some rights reserved

    I don't mean to be hard on Napa, but it's not what it used to be. It's become more heavily commercialized and touristy. On the other hand, Paso Robles is kind of like what Napa used to be. In fact as California's fastest growing wine region it probably will be like Napa in another 10 years, so see it soon. For now this is a charming, unpretentious area that a lot of people don't yet know about.

    "Paso" is a hidden gem located on California's beautiful Central Coast. The Paso Robles wineries are often distinguished by whether they are "46 East" or "46 West", 46 being the highway that runs through the area. At last count, there over 160 wineries there, many of them producing excellent vintages. Paso Robles wines tend to have deep colors and rich flavor due to the intensity of the sun, with fairly bright acidity due to the region's cool nights.

  7. Take a trip to Pismo Beach.
  8. Sunset at Pismo Beach
    Pismo Sunset
    credit: Anita Ritenour
    Some rights reserved

    This one almost didn't make the list - not because it wasn't good enough, but because I didn't feel like sharing it. If you look up "Classic California Beach Town" in a dictionary you'll see a picture of Pismo Beach (okay, maybe not, but you should). This small town is easy driving distance south of Paso Robles (above), it has great beaches, a 1,200-foot wooden pier, waters rich with marine life, nice restaurants (if you like a good steak, you must try McClintock's) and shops, and about 50 hotels with great ocean views. Also, six state beaches, two nature preserves, and three state parks can be found within a 30-minute drive.

    What's there to do in the area? Kayaking, golf, surfing, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, and dune riding for a start. There's also some excellent wineries nearby, not to mention Hearst Castle, and cosmopolitan San Luis Obispo. Pismo beach is also home to large grove of Monarch butterflies in Winter and a huge classic car show in June. As fun as Pismo is in Summer, it is near perfection in Winter. Why? Because the weather is mild and it feels as if you have the whole town, the beach, and the ocean to yourself. Relaxation is virtually assured. Now do you see why I didn't want to share?

  9. Cruise PCH.
  10. Morro Bay
    PCH North of Morro Bay
    credit: advencap
    Some rights reserved

    California State Route 1, aka Highway 1, aka Pacific Coast Highway, or known to most natives as simply, "PCH" is arguably the most beautiful drive in America. State construction of what is now Highway 1 began in 1919 and is a distinct part of California history. Traditionally, PCH begins at San Juan Capistrano (South of Los Angeles), and ends where Route 1 merges with Highway 101 south of Eureka, California. In between, PCH will bring you to L.A., Big Sur, Hearst Castle, and San Francisco as well. How long will this trip take? Well, you could easily spend 2-3 weeks exploring this road - at any rate give yourself at least 2 days because you will want to take your time.

    So exactly what is the big deal about Highway 1? Not much really, unless you're into picture perfect ocean views, scenic cliffs overlooking roaring surf, waves breaking against rocky shorelines, dense forests, dozens of historical landmarks like Spanish Missions, and the chance to participate in just about any kind of outdoor activity you could imagine. Really, you could search the globe and still not find the unique combination of scenery and recreational opportunities already available along PCH. So rent a convertible, drive this winding road into the heart of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, stop and get out whenever you feel like it, and lose yourself in an adventure only to be found in California.

  11. Visit (and eat at) Farmers Market in Los Angeles.
  12. Farmers Market clock tower
    Farmers Market at the Holidays
    credit: Loren Javier
    Some rights reserved

    Actually I'm killing two birds with one stone here, because Farmers Market is not only uniquely California, it is uniquely Los Angeles. Located at Third and Fairfax, the Market wasn't planned so much as it just kind of happened. In 1934, a group of local farmers pulled their trucks into (what was then) an empty lot and started selling fresh produce on their tailgates. Crowds gathered. Someone decided that the farmers and their customers alike might get hungry and started selling sandwiches. In turn, a wider variety of vendors showed up which drew even more crowds. 75 years later Farmers Market is an LA (and a Southern California) institution.

    What's great about Farmers Market, is that this casual open-air venue contains an impressive variety of fun little shops and delicious food. In fact you can find just about any kind of world cuisine you can think of, all of it as fresh as can be, much of it being prepared right in front of you. Between the cooking, exotic spices, fresh bread and pastries, and flowers, the aromas in this place are near-intoxicating. Some of the restaurants here (Bob's Coffee and Doughnuts, Dupar's, Mr. Marcel Pain Vin Et Fromage, Pampas Grill, and Patsy D'Amore's Pizza to name but a few) are local traditions in themselves. Making up your mind for lunch here is not easy.

    Just in case you can't get enough shopping, The Grove (an upscale mall) is located right next door. In addition to the usual first class shops, restaurants, and theaters, The Grove features musically choreographed dancing fountains and free live concerts in The Park.

  13. Survive Death Valley.
  14. Death Valley
    Death Valley Sand Dunes
    credit: jeremy avnet
    Some rights reserved

    And now for something completely different. On April Fool's Day in 1907 an ad appeared in Death Valley's local Chuckwalla magazine. It went something like this: "Death Valley: all the advantages of hell without the inconveniences!" About six years after that ad appeared, this desert reached 134°F (in July, at the aptly named Furnace Creek) - to this day the highest reliably reported temperature in the Western hemisphere. (It's interesting to note that Furnace Creek reached a record low of 15°F later that January.)

    So, is this the source of Death Valley National Park's mystique? Okay, it can get really hot, but what else is there? There's also the fact that it's the lowest location in North America at 282 feet... below sea level. And, it's the driest, with the average annual rainfall being about 1.5 inches.

    Now if you're an adventure traveler (and/or slightly insane), I've probably already sold you. But why should anyone else want to come here? What's there to see? Well, you can start with the lowest spot in the park, Badwater (you really have to love the names here - other Death Valley landmarks include Coffin Peak, Hell's Gate, Starvation Canyon and Dead Man Pass to name a few). Badwater is basically a lake that's not there any more - it evaporated thousands of years ago, leaving behind a five mile wide swath of white salt. Then you could visit the Devil's Golf Course (not a real golf course) with mounds of salt crystals carved by the wind, that give it the look of a coral reef. Or you could take in some amazing scenic views from Zabrieskie Point or Dante's View. Just some of the other attractions include the eccentric Scotty's Castle and an Old West ghost town or two.

    Simply put, Death Valley has a rugged and desolate (yet suprisingly colorful) beauty that somehow connects with one on an almost spiritual level. And apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so. Death Valley saw about 1 million visitors last year, many from Europe. Though I'm a California native, when I visit Death Valley I feel like I'm on another planet. If you're from back east, you'll probably feel like you've fallen into another dimension. Either way, this is a destination you'll be talking about for years to come.

  15. Look up... at some very big trees.
  16. Redwood trees
    Redwood Cathedral
    credit: Richard Masoner
    Some rights reserved

    Remember when I was talking about PCH and I said it ends when it merges with U.S. 101 south of Eureka? Well, if you keep going on the 101 from there, you'll find yourself on a 78-mile stretch of road known as the Redwood Highway. This is where the 101 runs parallel to California's northwestern coast. This is home to Sequoia sempervirens, more commonly known as the Coast Redwood. Here ocean mists and winter storms nuture some of the tallest trees in the world, while its wide bays and estuaries teem with life.

    Redwoods can reach heights well over 350 feet tall (the current tallest tree, Hyperion, was measured at 379 feet as the world's tallest living thing) and after looking up at one up close, it can be difficult to get the word "majestic" out of your head. But as awe-inpsiring as that experience can be, there is something else about these Redwood forests, something subtle yet even more powerful - their age. The oldest known Coast Redwood is about 2,200 years old - meaning it was already about a century old when Julius Caesar was born. And that's not all. These virgin forests contain descendants of some of the oldest plants on Earth. Suddenly the word "ancient" takes on a whole new meaning. In addition to the already abundant wildlife, you might now catch yourself expecting to see a dinosaur or two.

  17. Ski (or snowboard) Lake Tahoe
  18. Lake Tahoe
    Lake Tahoe
    credit: Dawn Hopkins
    Some rights reserved

    So maybe you're wondering how this can be uniquely California when part of Lake Tahoe is in Nevada? Okay, you got me, but since two-thirds of the shoreline is in California, and since the south shore is dominated by South Lake Tahoe (on California soil), I'm claiming it for our side.

    Mark Twain once said of Lake Tahoe, "I thought it must be the fairest picture the whole earth affords." Who am I to argue with Mark Twain? Lake Tahoe is gorgeous. It's also the second deepest lake in the U.S., and one of the highest (with an elevation of 6,225 feet), which may be why it has a reputation for appearing so blue. The crystal clear water reflects the deep blue sky making for some gorgeous panormas. Oh, and I guess I could mention that the slopes surrounding the lake offer some of the best skiing in the world (yes, Heavenly and Squaw Valley are here). Incidentally, Tahoe City, California can boast the world's first snowboard halfpipe (which was literally located at the city dump).

    If you're not into skiing there's hiking, backpacking, kayaking, and sailing to name a few of the Summer activities. Still, if you do get bored of all the breath-taking beauty that this "Jewel of the Sierras" has to offer, I suppose you always could hop over to the Nevada side and "donate" some of your money to some of the casinos there...

  19. Spend a day (or two) at Balboa Park, in San Diego.
  20. Casa del Prado Theater
    Casa del Prado Theater
    credit: Cortney Martin
    Some rights reserved

    In many ways San Diego is the perfect example of a California city. It's near-optimum climate, Spanish heritage, great beaches, laid back attitude, and nightlife all mark it as a West Coast haven.

    So... if San Diego's the quintessential California city, then what's the quintessential San Diego experience? Balboa Park. This isn't really so much a park as it is a 1,200 acre cultural center and a National Historic Landmark. To give an idea of the scale, the world-class San Diego Zoo is just one of its attractions (albeit a big one). There are also 15 museums, beautiful gardens, shops, restaurants and performing arts venues. Think of the "park" as an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink California experience. For this reason, if you visit you might want to consider purchasing a Balboa Park Passport offering various degrees of an all-in-one admission purchase.

    To sum up, Balboa Park is a unique combination of the historical, the cultural (and horticultural), the educational and the recreational. In this one place you can find things like priceless works of art, highly-ornamented architecture, exotic animals, intricate model railroads, folk art from around the world, sports memorabilia and historic aircraft.