5 places that aren’t on your California bucket list, but they will be after you read this

Need some post-pandemic travel inspo?

Emerald Bay lies under blue skies at Lake Tahoe.
Emerald Bay lies under blue skies at Lake Tahoe. (Getty Images)

Raise your hand if you’re planning a trip (or 10!) for once the pandemic is officially a thing of the past -- or once you’re fully vaccinated and comfortable with traveling.

We’ve been seeing a lot of chatter on social media about bucket lists, post-pandemic vacations; the works. Where will you go first?

If you’ve been thinking about the Golden State, I’m here to help.

I lived in California for about four years (not too long ago), and when I was there, I traveled in-state as much as I could. I won’t bother to tell you about Los Angeles, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Napa or San Diego -- we all know those are incredible destinations with some of the best offerings in the country -- well, in my humble opinion.

I think today, we should talk about some of the lesser-known cities and places.

So, with that in mind, instead of Muir Woods, how about ...

1. Calaveras Big Trees State Park

The redwoods are beautiful, and CRAZY tall, if you hadn’t heard. They’re still worth scoping out, if you ever get a chance. But for some truly massive trees (and I mean width and height), I say skip the San Francisco hotspot and hit up Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It’ll take you about two hours if you fly into Sacramento, and then you’ll drive through the rolling foothills, all the way to the city of Arnold, California. The whole area is quaint, picturesque and basically perfect. Yes, I’m clearly biased and fell in love with it.

I know this picture doesn't even do it justice, but for what it's worth, I'm in the pink shorts. (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

Arnold’s neighboring city of Murphys boasts delicious food and drinks; we even found a lake to hike around nearby -- which was a little strange, considering we were at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, but cool! -- and we went wine-tasting. It made for the best long weekend.

As for the trees themselves, you almost have to see them to believe them. Big Trees State Park preserves two groves of giant sequoias, the world’s largest trees. One of them is a little more family-friendly with tours and ice cream cones (well, when we’re not in a pandemic), while the other is a bit more off the beaten path. Imagine it taking you a full minute or two to walk around the base of a tree.

It’s almost hard to picture.

You can also stroll through some of the fallen trees, and I saw a tour group congregating on a stump. As in, a dozen or two people, all sharing the same STUMP.

Visitors have been coming to the area since 1852, the park’s website said. I found this virtual tour as well, if you’re curious but not quite ready to start scouring Kayak.com for flights.

Next up: Instead of Big Sur, how about ...

2. Trinidad, California

(Don’t get me wrong, Big Sur is gorgeous. And if you go, start at Andrew Molera State Park).

But we’re not here to talk about Big Sur. Instead, let’s chat about Trinidad, an awe-inspiring seaside town in Humboldt County, located right on the Pacific.

This is VERY Northern California: A lot of people picture Sacramento as pretty far north, but we’re talking 5 1/2 hours northwest of the capital city.

The trip is oh-so worth it. It’s the prettiest place I’ve ever seen in real life. The best crabby patty melt I’ve ever eaten. The most insane ocean views.

You can crawl around on the big rocks, hike, play on the beach, take in the views, nosh on the best seafood of your life -- just existing in Trinidad feels a little surreal. There’s so much natural beauty in every direction. Stay at the bed and breakfast across the street from the lighthouse and be sure to eat at Larrupin and/or Moonstone Grill. It’s hard to locate a TV (so don’t expect to catch an NCAA Tournament game if you’re out and about), but other than that, you won’t find anything else to dislike about this lovely little destination. And when I visited, it was nearly empty -- a stark contrast from Big Sur or some of the other tourist-packed coastal towns.

The view from our B&B. (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

3. San Luis Obispo

I have a thing for college towns, and I was torn between Chico and SLO for this list, but SLO definitely had some edge, as it’s more of a destination than Chico -- which is a cute town but doesn’t offer much beyond college-type bars and Sierra Nevada Brewing (which is still notable).

Anyway, San Luis Obispo is home to Cal Poly, and it’s in the coolest area of Central California. It’s pretty close to the ocean, and honestly, I was mostly baffled that people went to school in such a neat location (and yes, I’ve been told to Google Pepperdine).

Can you tell I attended college in the Midwest?

No regrets, but we didn’t exactly have the Pacific Ocean nearby.

In SLO, you’re going to want to eat a tri-tip sandwich from Firestone Grill, walk around the downtown area at night, stay in the nearby city of Morro Bay, sample the Central California wines and maybe even check out Hearst Castle (which, to be fair, is about 45 minutes away, but I still think if you’re going to explore the middle of the state, you could knock out both trips in one). And, full disclosure: The castle was recommended to me a lot, and I never got the timing just right. So this is a tip from my friends. 🙂

4. North Lake Tahoe

When you hear about Lake Tahoe, this miiiiight be a generalization, but I’m willing to bet a lot of people are referring to South Lake, and if we’re discussing skiing or snowboarding, they’re talking Heavenly Valley. That’s right on the California-Nevada border, and it’s a really fun area. I went to a bachelorette party in South Lake once, and it felt like the perfect city to host that sort of thing: Packing casinos, good nightlife, big crowds, the works.

But how about instead, you try North Lake? Truckee and Tahoe City were some of my favorite towns when I lived on the West Coast, and here’s why:

  • They’re a little more local-feeling.
  • Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows (which weren’t merged in my day, but they look like they are now), offer some of the best skiing in the region, hands-down.
  • The food and beer scene is on point.
  • The lake is somehow prettier in person than it is in the photos -- although I guess this is true no matter what side you’re on. The water is so crystal clear and there are some truly incredible hikes and hotspots where you can take in the sights. Bonsai Rock and Emerald Bay are gorgeous, the Eagle Falls Trail is fun to explore and you can even hike at the ski resorts (I’ve done Squaw, which offers cool Olympic history and even a pool if you take the tram to the top of the mountain).
  • PS, you’ll fly into Reno.

And finally, instead of Napa ...

5. Sonoma -- or anywhere else for wine that’s off the beaten path

This almost feels mean to type, because if you’ve been to Napa, you know there’s a lot to love. The wine? Some of the best you’ll taste. The tours? You learn SO much. Chatting with the winemakers? You won’t forget it.

It can just be so expensive and busy. Tastings really do add up.

Many people have heard of Sonoma, which sits about 13 miles from Napa. A lot of that region seems to flow together, but I think you see my point by now: Try some of these places that aren’t traditional Napa locations. They’re not as stiff, you might not need an appointment, and the wine is every bit as delicious.

Once I went to a NASCAR race in Sonoma (not my usual thing, but the tickets were free), and we went winery hopping a bit afterward. We’d done 0 advanced planning and had no idea where we were headed, but it was all so casual and free. Also, Sonoma offered a lot more than just cabernet sauvignon, which is Napa’s No. 1 thing (and for good reason).

If it’s wine you’re after, the whole state is glorious. Head up toward Santa Rosa or even kick all the way out to Highway 1. That drive might make you feel a little nauseated if you’re not ready for it, but I’m not kidding when I say you’ll just see signs for wineries off the highway, and it’s so much better than whatever you’re drinking at home -- well, probably.


One final thing: I hope this got your wheels turning!

This is intended to be a guide for post-pandemic, but if you’re looking to travel now, be sure to Google some of these places before you head out or book any concrete plans. I’m not sure how COVID-19 precautions have changed operations, or whether you now might need reservations somewhere that didn’t used to require them. Know what I mean? Happy travels!


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