Four Road Trips to Unexpected Places

  • By Peter Lawrence Kane
  • Wed Jun 1st, 2016 5:30pm
  • FeatureNews

It's summer, which means it's foggy in the Outer Richmond. While the avenues “enjoy” a long string of projected highs in the upper 50s, the rest of California is sunny and hot. Did you sign up for this when you moved here from [insert name of place with lightning bugs and/or swimmable saltwater]? No!

But before you succumb to the urge to get the hell out of here and go where everybody else is going — some combination of Napa, Tahoe, and Yosemite — consider first these off-the-beaten-track road trips.

Pinnacles National Park
Near San Benito, Calif.
Distance from S.F.: 122 miles.

After President Obama elevated Pinnacles from national monument to full-fledged national park three years ago, it gave California nine national parks in total (more than any other state). And, at a mere 2 hours and 15 minutes south of S.F., it's closer than any NPS property of its size. Volcanoes formed this arid wilderness in San Benito County 23 million years ago, and in the summer, it doesn't cool off much from its molten origins. That can make extended backcountry treks challenging (or dangerous) for all but the most experienced hikers, but it also means fewer Homo sapiens clogging things up, even on the more developed eastern side. (Several trails are under two miles in length, and make for great jaunts early or late in the day.) You can cool off in Bear Gulch and Balconies Caves — although the former closes from May to mid-July so the bats can rear their bat babies — or in the pool at the east campground. Even if it's too hot to climb around the titular pinnacles, those rock formations are beautiful no matter what.

Bonus add-on: Johnny's Bar & Grill in Hollister is a biker bar dating from 1946 whose rowdy history inspired the Marlon Brando film The Wild Ones.

Distance from S.F.: 121 miles.

One good way to know you're in a tiny town is if the elevation exceeds the population. Philo — elev. 331 — somehow manages to retain the feel of a hamlet even though it's home to 349 souls, however. This beautiful bend in the road in inland Mendocino County, three hours north of San Francisco on Highway 128, can be a rainy place in the winter. But it comes alive in the summer, especially at the Madrones, a complex of tasting rooms and guest quarters that's neither a hotel nor a B&B but rather a working winery with sleeping accommodations (as well as Stone and Embers, Chef Patrick Meany's intimate restaurant). It's a great place to do absolutely nothing, but summer events like the Barrel-Tasting Festival and the Not So Simple Living Fair draw plenty of city dwellers to the area. Plus, can you ever really get tired of smelling redwoods?

Bonus add-on: Boonville, a slightly larger hamlet a bit further south on 128, is home to the Anderson Valley Brewing Company and its famous sour beers (plus a disc-golf course).

Grover Hot Springs State Park
Near Markleeville, Calif.
Distance from S.F.: 208 miles.

Markleeville, in Alpine County, is a difficult place to reach. For starters, mountain passes on two of the highways that reach it — on CA-4 and CA-89 — only opened in May. It's not for nothing that the local 129-mile bike race is called the Death Ride. And groups have tried to take it over twice: right-wing survivalists in the 1960s, and later the pro-LGBT Stonewall Nation. But the county seat of the least-populous county in the state has a lot to love, particularly its stunning alpine meadows. You can give yourself vertigo a la Julie Andrews, and later recuperate by taking the waters at Grover Hot Springs State Park, on a dead-end road four miles west of town. At $10 for adults, and $5 for kids under 16, these yellow-green pools — colored because of a reaction between the natural mineral content and the bromine added to keep things sanitary — are maintained at 102-104 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the winter. (There's a regular-temperature swimming pool, too.) Everybody goes to Tahoe, but for a quieter sojourn to the central Sierra without the temptation of gambling, make a detour.

Bonus add-on: If you're coming back to San Francisco via US-50, stop by the newly reopened Poor Red's Bar-B-Q, a roadhouse a few miles south of Placerville in El Dorado whose unique specialty cocktails make it the world's largest consumer of Galliano.

Lava Beds National Park
Near Canby Cross, Calif.
Distance from S.F.: 377 miles.

Seven hours north of the Bay Area and east of Interstate 5 are Siskiyou and Modoc counties, together a vast expanse of largely forested land that's bigger than Massachusetts yet home to only 55,000 people, most of them Republicans. But even the most hardened (that is, soft-bellied) urbanite should leap at the chance to visit, because the northeast extreme of California is a wonderful wilderness bursting with craters, lava tubes, and wildflowers. Lava Beds National Monument straddles the two counties, and it's full of peculiar rock formations like the Fleener Chimneys. Do you know your aa from your pahoehoe? (The former is lava that's rough and dense, the latter smooth and ropy.) Lava Beds contains a lot of aa, which makes for rigorous hikes, but there are plenty of junipers and Ponderosa pines to keep you shaded. Big Painted Cave has polychrome pictographs drawn by the long-gone Modoc people, and while arid, it seldom gets excessively hot. Better still, if you grew up somewhere where summer thunderstorms are common, you're as likely to see one near Lava Beds as anywhere else in California.

Bonus add-on: Get high at the turnoff from I-5 to US-97 in Weed, Calif., and contemplate whether or not aliens really do live on Mt. Shasta.


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