California’s coastline – all 840 miles of it – defines the state’s landscape, culture and economy. For a rare glimpse of a wild and unspoiled shoreline, leave the clamour of Venice Beach and head north to Point Reyes National Seashore, located an hour from San Francisco. The 70,000-acre park, almost completely divided from the continental US by a rift zone, is the West Coast’s only dedicated seashore preserve. Its interior is made up of dense woodland groves that give way to golden cliffs surrounding beaches, lagoons and estuaries – home to more than 1,500 species of plant and wildlife. Head to Tomales Bay for a glimpse of tule elk, elephant seal and eagles (45 per cent of all North American bird species have been spotted around Point Reyes).
Few landscapes convey the awesome force of nature quite as effectively as Yosemite, California’s most-visited National Park. A rugged wilderness that backs onto the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite captured the heart of Park Service pioneer John Muir in 1868. The naturalist spent many summers within its glacier-carved granite walls. You’ll understand why after a glimpse of the world-famous Tunnel View, stretching across the valley toward Half Dome mountain (a climb up to Inspiration Point will put you far from the camera-wielding crowds). In the heart of Yosemite Valley come face-to-face with El Capitan, a shear wall of granite twice the height of the Empire State Building and a magnet for the world’s best climbers. The sight is enough to inspire vertigo even with feet firmly on the ground.
In the northwestern corner of California, a string of forests and beaches make up Redwood National and State Parks, home to the world’s tallest trees. Begin in Jedediah Smith Park, wandering among dense groves of 300-foot-high red trunks that seem to halt time and swallow sound, before driving south along 40 miles of protected coastline filled with rivers, woodland and prairie and home to herds of Roosevelt elk. Prairie Creek offers some of the best examples of redwood and Douglas fir groves in the park. A network of trails threads among the giants until you reach Fern Canyon, its walls alive with a dense cover of fern species. Look familiar? Scenes from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park sequel were shot here and a prehistoric quality infuses the surroundings. The trail ends at Gold Bluffs Beach, where it’s well worth reserving a camp spot on the sand.
Its otherworldly landscape, cultural cachet (providing inspiration for The Rolling Stones ,U2 and John Lennon) and proximity to LA have made Joshua Tree a mecca for urbanites in search of a city escape. Covering more than 790,000 acres, the park landscape is distinctly divided between the high Mojave Desert to the west and low Colorado Desert spilling into Nevada in the east. The two areas are striking in their differences – an abrupt transition from high land scattered with vegetation and enormous granite boulders to a forbidding swathe of arid desert lowland that, despite appearances, sustained the Pinto tribes and, later, gold-mine prospectors. Enter through California’s western gate to hike Hidden Valley until you reach the eerie outline of Skull Rock. Throughout the granite playgrounds of the Mojave, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the park’s iconic namesake tree, a type of yucca that appears like spiky candelabra on the skyline. Joshua trees are said to have been so-named by Mormon settlers, invoking a biblical image of Joshua reaching his hands to God.
The severe beauty of Death Valley, straddling eastern California and southwest Nevada, is as captivating as it is hostile. Holding the record for the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America, a visit should be carefully planned – especially during the summer, when the mercury can reach 49°C (120°F) at Furnace Creek. Nonetheless, those prepared to face the fierce heat will be rewarded with a staggering landscape of surprising biodiversity and Native tradition covering more than 3.3 million acres. Dawn is the time to see signs of life here (and beat the heat), so wake up before sunrise to walk the shifting white slopes of Mesquite Sand Dunes. Badwater Road leads to expansive salt flats that lie 86 metres below sea level. On your return, divert past Artist’s Drive, a nine-mile, one-way road beside the Black Mountains, where volcanic deposits and weathering have transformed metal compounds in the rock into delicate washes of purple, yellow and green that appear like an oasis in the desert.