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  • Writer's pictureAdam Hlasny

Golden Nuggets - my starry-eyed Top 10 California experiences

California. US state, or state of mind? In my opinion, it's most definitely both. I've been fortunate enough to visit the Golden State four times in my life and, despite all its shortcomings (natural disasters, traffic, crowds, oh my!) I'd have to consider it my favorite state. There's just something dazzling about being on the opposite coast of a 3,000-mile-wide country that never fails to thrill this New Hampshirite.

This shot of Julia frolicking in the chilly Coronado waves (2019) is one of my favorites from all four trips

  • January 2008: my first California experience followed a frigid stop at the Grand Canyon and a westward push along Route 66. At age 25, it was Alyse and my first time west of Indiana, and it was totally tubular.

  • May 2014: Alyse and I started in LA and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco (and beyond) for our 5-year anniversary. A lifetime worth of beauty in one short, spectacular week.

  • June 2017: A night and day in the state's northwestern tip as a bonus element to the cross-country Given Latitude trip (Manchester, NH to Bandon, OR).

  • February 2019: A warm winter week in San Diego and metro LA with the family, this was Julia's first time in the western US. At age 8, she beat me here by 17 years. From the coast to the theme parks to the desert, we immersed her in California's golden glory during her school break.

Point Loma
The author and Julia checking out the coast with the most

This state's diversity of natural settings, people, and experiences pushes the limits of my comprehension. It has more landscapes within its vast boundaries than probably 2/3 of the world's countries, let alone states. Mountains, deserts, forests, dynamic cities, and of course, hundreds of miles of coastline ranging from bodacious beaches to primeval deserted outlooks. Without further ado, here's my very unscientific ranking of top 10 Cali experiences:


Santa Barbara - Paradise, with a price tag to match.

Beverly Hills - "Beverly Hills... that's where I want to be" - Weezer

Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive
Rocking my rumpled $10 Target polo in one of the swankiest towns in America

Sonoma - History, wine, and a cool name that's slightly less well-known than Napa.

Oceanside - Venturing too far from the pier/beach can land one in some gritty areas. However, it has to make the list for being the first place Alyse and I experienced the Pacific together. We liked it so much we returned with Julia.


10) Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

The remote outpost of Twentynine Palms was Alyse and my first-ever Golden State stop on January 17, 2008 - a lunch break before a couple of eye-opening mini hikes in this otherworldly park. We'd begun the day in Kingman, Arizona and crossed the AZ/CA border as if it were a portal to a new dimension. The prickly flora and rugged rock formations were a perfect introduction to this wildly diverse state and could not have been more different than the coastline we'd reach a few short hours later.

9) Disneyland Magic

The matching shirts were not my idea. They made me do it, I swear...

I posted the following after a Disneyland visit 5 years ago with an ecstatic 8-year-old:

I've always been skeptical of "magic". Thousands of bratty kids, excessively chipper Disney employees, and $8 hot dogs do nothing to help. But over the last two days things have somehow changed. Seeing Julia smile ear-to-ear for hours and randomly break into happy jigs has converted me.

Upon leaving Disneyland I understand that magic isn't just rides, characters, and perfect weather (although wearing shorts in February REALLY helps!) It's seeing the world through the fresh lens of a child, enjoying life's blessings, and realizing that no dream is too big. Magic persists beyond park gates; it lives within ourselves. Magic is real.

8) Shipping off to the Rock, San Francisco


Alcatraz Island (and shuttered prison tour) is something that should be experienced by anyone with even a passing interest in its checkered history. The gravitas (or ironic lack thereof) of arriving on this island as a tourist should not be underestimated.

The rec yard and view of what was tantalizingly out of reach for prisoners

The chilling - literally and figuratively - location is enough to give visitors pause, but contemplating the isolation of its imprisoned denizens makes for an unforgettable day trip.

7) The Silver Screen Comes Alive at WB Studios (Burbank)

Again, not my idea. When in California...

Full House façade

OK, some readers may roll their eyes at this one. However, I stand by my decision to include it. California's identity includes several movie studios, and I was able to visit Warner Brothers with the fam in 2019. Seeing where Hollywood magic is made is inspiring, albeit in a very different way than the ocean and mountains.

6) Strolling beneath Gentle Giants, Redwood NP/Muir Woods

Muir Woods, just north of San Fran

As vibrant and enticing as California's urban areas can be, sometimes you just need to walk in the woods. I've been blessed with multiple opportunities to do this on my CA visits, both at awe-inspiring Muir Woods State Park just north of SF, and at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (managed by Redwoods NP) in the state's far north.

A guest among the magnificent redwoods

There is a sublime peacefulness being surrounded by trees that were here before the US was a country and will hopefully be here centuries after you read this. To quote Given Latitude again, hiking beneath these giants gives one "the paradoxical triumph of feeling minuscule."

5) Moseying through Salty Chic Monterey

Nothing quite like a sunny May morning in Monterey

Monterey is my favorite American coastal town - at least so far. It's historical, laid-back, walkable, and oh-so-scenic. There's just something about the vegetation, the classy sidewalks, and the peaceful harbor that makes this a place I would consider living someday (if only I could afford it). Lazily bobbing watercraft and barking seals in the harbor round out that groovy quintessential California feeling.

4) Driving the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to the Bay

Julia Pfeiffer Burns, Big Sur
McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

This is a scenic byway unlike any other in the United States. Alyse and I yearned for this adventure for our 5-year anniversary in 2014, starting in traffic-snarled LA and ending up in foggy San Fran.

lone cypress, pebble beach
Lone Cypress, Pebble Beach

En route is a heart-stoppingly beautiful mix of landscapes, small towns, and small cities that alternately thrill and chill. Santa Barbara, Morro Bay, Big Sur, Pebble Beach, Carmel, and Monterey were among our stops as we wowed our way up a road that should be on every road-tripper's bucket list.

3) San Diego Vibes

Balboa Park, San Diego
Balboa Park morning

San Diego is my favorite big city anywhere. There, I said it. Does it have its issues? Of course it does. However, 60-80 degrees year-round, glorious architecture, a tantalizing coastline, mountains to the east, and lavish vegetation, even in the winter? Where do I sign up?

San Diego panorama
San Diego panorama

I tried to pick a SD experience since this is an experience Top 10, after all, but I just couldn't choose one. Balboa Park's Spanish arches, a world-class Zoo and Safari Park, Seaport Village, Point Loma, and on and on. I've been here twice and didn't want to leave either time. This is my urban happy place and just being here is an experience in itself.

2) Traversing the Golden Gate, San Francisco

Golde Gate Bridge, Conzelman Road
The 'Gate from Conzelman Road lookout

Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge had been a bucket list item of mine for years. Traversing it by motor vehicle was riveting, the moment amplified further since we were approaching from the north and hadn't seen it from the SF side as yet. From Full House to racing video games, this gentle orange giant is as iconic a bridge as any in the US, if not the world.

The following day, Alyse and I crossed again - on foot. Tired legs were a more than acceptable price for experiencing this iconic structure at a more tangible - and very scenic - level.

1) Pacific Sunsets

I will never forget my very first Pacific sunset. Alyse and I sped west, eyes on the clock, planning to arrive in perfectly named Oceanside for our first Pacific panoramas. Due to traffic, we actually missed the orb sinking into the waves (we'd time it right two nights later in Coronado) but still relished being enveloped in the lazily fading glow.

Coronado, sunset
Coronado sunset

I will quote here one of my favorite lines to describe this experience, from Given Latitude: "Toes ensconced in cool sand, we silently marveled as the sky blushed magenta and pomegranate before surrendering to star-flecked darkness. California!".

The sun has also set on my having a normal head of hair.

The number one experience on the list is also the most basic. What an indescribable blessing to breathe deeply and bask in gratefulness, the timeless crash of waves further enhancing this multisensory phenomenon. Experienced properly, a glimmering California sunset puts the gold in Golden State, and perhaps right into our souls.

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