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The Lone Cypress

California: Step off the beaten track

Explore beyond the big names

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23 April 2024 by Norire Arakelyan

Each year, thousands of travellers from around the world embark on road trips across the USA in search of adventure, exploration and the thrill of the open road. And, when it comes sheer size and variety, California is usually top of the list. But, while the allure of the likes of Los Angeles and San Francisco is undeniable, the Golden State also cradles plenty of hidden gems, lesser-visited attractions and authentic locales that are just as delightful. Take for instance the peaceful serenity of Yosemite National Park, or the tranquillity of Palm Springs’ desert oasis.

Giant Sequoia trees - Sequoia National Park

The hidden trails of Yosemite National Park

Away from the bustling city life of coastal California, shielded by the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is the jaw-dropping Yosemite National Park. Characterised by sheer granite cliffs, giant emerald-green valleys and hidden cascades, the park overflows with breath-taking panoramas – it’s no wonder it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Though it is one of America’s most visited national parks, it still holds plenty of surprises for those willing to step a little off the beaten path.

While many follow the leisurely Valley Loop Trail, adventurous souls might choose to tackle the park’s myriad secret trails, such as the one leading up to Half Dome, or along the Mist Trail which leads to Nevada Falls – a stunning 594ft permanent waterfall. Your efforts will be rewarded with stunning, blissful vistas and the chance to experience this iconic national park away from the crowds.

Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park 

Death Valley – nature’s extreme

Offering some of America’s most dramatic and hostile landscapes, Death Valley National Park more than deserves its place in any Californian road trip. From vast majestic salt flats to narrow canyons and vibrant mudstone hills that appear as if they were skilfully painted, Death Valley is home to an overwhelming abundance of natural beauty – the perfect antipode to nearby Las Vegas. Though it is known as one of the hottest places in the world and may seem inhospitable at first glance, Death Valley offers refuge to several hardy adapted animals which can often be spotted, such as coyotes, the greater roadrunner, jackrabbits and desert kit foxes. Venturing out into the isolated wild springs and creeks, you may even spot one of five types of critically endangered pupfish.

There are several options for overnight accommodation within the park itself, making it an ideal stop during your trip. Major highlights such as Furnace Creek Visitor Centre, Badwater Basin and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are a photographer’s paradise and can be visited within a day, along with a hike or two. Outside the boundaries of the park, near its eastern edge, the ghost town of Rhyolite is an interesting visit, offering an insight into the region’s gold mining history as one of its earliest camps.

Road through Death Valley National Park

Monterey – laid-back Californian charm

Just two hours south of San Francisco, the small city of Monterey enjoys an enviable location perched on the idyllic Central Coast. Blessed with historic charm, it ties together some of California’s most dramatic driving routes, from the sensational panoramas of Big Sur to the fairy-tale cottages of Carmel-by-the-Sea – the ideal stop on your way to San Francisco. The historic waterfront district of Cannery Row – a former sardine fishing hub – takes centre stage, with enticing seafood restaurants, charming boutiques and lively nightlife drawing the crowds, while picturesque hotels line the shorefront. The Monterey Bay Aquarium showcases marine life on a truly grand scale, and its immersive exhibits are must-see.

Capitola in Monterey Bay

The calm oasis of Palm Springs

Once known as a playground for Hollywood movie stars, Palm Springs is now a fun, laid-back oasis of upscale resorts, golf courses, hot springs and mid-century architecture. Fed by a deep underground aquifer in the middle of the Sonoran Desert and framed by the mountainous beauty of Coachella Valley, it is somewhat of a hidden gem among California’s headline-grabbing icons and enjoys a quiet ambiance that simply cannot be found elsewhere in the state’s big bustling cities.

Wellness lovers can rely on an abundance of luxurious spas – fed by natural thermal mineral water – offering everything from healing massages to equine therapy and sound baths, whilst away from the swaying palm trees and massage tables, the outdoorsy can seek more Californian sun and striking landscapes by hiking the likes of the Indian Canyons, whose extensive network of trails meander through the sublime desert terrain, past tumbling streams and dense palm groves.

One of Palm Springs' many golf resorts

Santa Barbara – the American Riviera

Sandwiched between the prominent Santa Ynez mountains and the sparkling Pacific Ocean, in-the-know road-trippers love Santa Barbara’s proximity to both Los Angeles and San Francisco. And, though it’s ideally situated along California’s famous Highway 101, or reached via the Pacific Coast highway, this coastal enclave offers far more than simply a quick detour or afternoon pitstop on your way between the two great cities. Oozing glamour and charm, it’s easy to see why so many movie stars – from Oprah Winfrey to Brad Pitt – have called this city home over the ages. Walk the streets and you’ll notice a distinct Iberian soul, with everything from the red tile clay roofs to the street names and colonial architecture evoking the spirit of Spain.

Along with idyllic beaches, the “American Riviera” is the proud home of California’s oldest working wharf – Stearns Wharf – plenty of museums and historic attractions, and more than 20 tasting rooms in downtown alone, offering a walking introduction to sample world-class wines from some of the county’s nearly 300 wineries.

Court House buildings, Santa Barbara 

Lake Tahoe – the gem of the Sierra Nevada

Flung out in eastern-most California, resting on its border with Nevada, Lake Tahoe is North America’s largest alpine lake. A true year-round destination, the pristine shimmering waters of the lake are just one of the many reasons why a few nights of your road trip should be spent here. Summer offers up a climate milder than the rest of the state, making it perfect for hiking, mountain biking and enjoying the spectacular scenery along its glorious shoreline, while the thick snowfall of winter and early spring is ideal to hit one of the many ski slopes and ice rinks dotted around the lake.

The more off-the-beaten-track northern shores offer sandy beaches, water sports and endless hiking opportunities, such as along the Tahoe Rim Trail for those looking to escape the crowds. Even a short hike through the trail is a rewarding experience, with blinding vistas, secluded meadows and staggered peaks all ripe for exploration.

Lake Tahoe, on the border between California and Nevada

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