Just beyond Yosemite, the resort town of Mammoth Lakes still retains a laid-back, off-the-beaten-track vibe. But the less-heralded Eastern Sierras are on the cusp of a boom. Check out Mammoth's sawtooth peaks and sublime lakes before their secrets go the way of its big wooly namesake.
Rugged headlands, brushy hillsides, piney ridges, and pocket beaches—Point Reyes is a soul-soothing stretch of California coast that's less than half a gas tank from San Francisco. And when the day-tripping tourists leave, you've got it virtually to yourself. Accessible only by a 2- to 5-mile walk, Point Reyes' hike-in campgrounds are the best way to experience the Bay's favorite coastal wilderness wonderland. Grab one by reserving ahead or sacrificing some sleep (see below). Coast Campground is only a 1- to 2-minute walk from sublime Santa Maria beach, which is nearly vacant toward the end of the day.
If you're looking for the quintessential Northern California pocket beach, head to Marin's Pirate's Cove. Only accessible by a moderate 1.5 mile hike, this secluded haven of soft white sand is bookended by tall, rugged cliffs. And the coast-hugging trail you must take to get there is almost as spectacular as the cove itself. Starting from Muir Beach, you ascend a fire road for about three-quarters of a mile until you reach the crest of the trail, and then—wow! Your high vantage point (pictured) offers stunning views of the craggy coast all the way to Pacifica—and you'll spot the stretch of sand that's your destination. Pirate's Cove's privacy made it a great staging area for bootleggers in the 1920s.
Skip, dance, frolic. You may be inspired to do all three on your first visit to Black Sand Beach in Marin. This half-mile stretch of chocolate-colored coastline just northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge is roughly the size of Baker Beach—with only a fraction of the crowds. Walk ten minutes down the 253 wooden steps from the dirt parking lot, then spread a blanket behind one of the several rock outcroppings (a great windbreak on gusty days).
The rolling green hills, the bicycles, the wineries … if Tuscany had an American counterpart it would be found an hour and fifteen minutes north of San Francisco in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. The mostly flat back-roads of the valley make exploring by bike easy, even for those with little or no road-biking experience. Bring your own iron horse or rent a bike from Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg. John Mastrianni, a former competitive cyclist, has run this shop for three years and will properly fit you with a new Trek Pilot road bike or the more casual Trek Hybrid. Pedal along West Dry Creek Road, where picket fences, multiple wineries, and shady trees line both sides.
Who says you have to drive to Tahoe to get away? The Marin Headlands provide their own sort of seasonal inspiration along this three-part, seven-mile loop on majestic Mount Tam (pick up a Mount Tam trail map at boredfeet.com).
Part 1: Beginning halfway up the slopes of Tam’s western flank, take the Matt Davis Trail from Pantoll Ranger Station to Stinson Beach. Gobble up spectacular, bluff-side Pacific panoramas and hear caroling brooks as you whorl toward sea level.
It was a heart-sinking sight after a wildfire erupted on the Bay Area's Angel Island State Park on Sunday, October 12, lighting it up in bright orange streams. The park reopened to visitors on Monday, and though areas that were burned and most hiking trails are currently off-limits, this is a great time to visit, with fewer crowds, nice fall weather, and almost half the island untouched by the fire.
It’s surprising how many locals have never been to the Wave Organ; many don’t even know where it is. This “acoustic sculpture” is actually a huge marble-and-granite musical instrument created in 1986 by the Exploratorium’s senior artist Peter Richards and master stone mason George Gonzales. This surprise is located on a jetty behind the Golden Gate Yacht Club; follow Lyon Street toward the water from where it meets Marina Boulevard, continue as it becomes Yacht Road and go all the way out to the end of the jetty.
The Big Easy: Part Lewis and Clark, part laid-back lazing, the Big River invites the exploration of a wide tree-lined estuary with resident river otters, sea lions, and kingfishers. The water vehicle of choice is a handcrafted, wooden outrigger canoe that’s as smooth and steady as it is swift and fun. Because the river is tidal, you want to paddle upstream with the incoming tide and downstream with the outgoing tide.