Please keep in mind, this is meant to be a review and summary of several locations in California that do not see much foot traffic. I realize that some of you readers may have been to several of the locations mentioned, and if so, congratulations. This article is meant to raise awareness of trails and destinations that don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve.
This first park is a National Monument, and something like Yosemite’s younger sibling. Devil’s Postpile and Yosemite used to be part of the same park, until gold, discovered in the nearby Mammoth Lakes, quickly made the land public property. It wasn’t until the threat of a dam destroying the area that the complaints of several Californians, including John Muir, convinced the government declare the area now known as “Devil’s Postpile” a National Monument. The main attraction of the site is mostly what it is named for, the large basalt columns formed by lava close to 100,000 years ago until a glacier, similar to what carved out the Yosemite Valley, exposed them for all to see. There is also a wonderful waterfall on the San Joaquin River, Rainbow Falls, which also draws plenty of visitors. The trails are moderately challenging, owing to the terrain, but all sections of the park are reasonably accessible by foot. This makes the monument a wonderful place for day hikes, to see the more popular attractions, or for wandering about on its 750 acres to your hearts content.
Lost Coast may be my favorite on this list. A wonderful stretch of coastline in Mendocino County in Northern California, this area has been largely undeveloped and is relatively unpopulated, hence the name “Lost Coast.” The main thing that protects this beach and section of the King Range Conservation Area (a protected stretch of mountains and country that runs through Northern California) is its inaccessibility. It almost had highways and local roads stretching all through it before it was discovered that, due to the terrain, this would be far more trouble, and money, than it was worth. This left thousands of acres of pristine coastline and forest all along the Northern edge of California.
The area is near impossible to drive into — the easiest way is to park a ways out and hike for several miles until you reach the coast. This may sound difficult, and in some places it is, but “experienced” hikers can make it about an hour, maybe less. Once you reach it however, you can be sure it was worth the effort when you see some of the most gorgeous coastal views in America.
Hikers will want to pack plenty of water with them, as there are no fountains in the area, along with rain gear if you are visiting between October and April. The area is open to backpackers as well and I have backpacked there myself several times with my Scout Troupe. No matter what the weather man says, it is a finicky section of California, rain and fog can come at any moment, and the wind rarely lets up. Dress as warmly as you can for hiking — you won’t regret it. You can walk along the beach, being serenaded by hordes of sea lions, or try your luck on the forest paths. There are also several natural drainage creeks that make for spectacular hiking and bouldering all along the coast.
This park has a rather colorful history, being bounced back and forth from a Monument to a Park, mined, privately owned in sections, until it was finally passed through congress to be signed into a National Park by President Barack Obama. The area of the park is immense, well over 10,000 acres, and once contained the San Andreas Fault. The Fault has since shifted four miles away from the park, and seismic activity is not uncommon in the area. Streams and rivers, along with several valleys show visible shifting in their flows and composition as the area continues to move and shift with each quake. The peaks and landmark which the park is named for were not originally where they are, as they shifted over 200 miles to where they are now. They are the pieces of a long dead volcano, leaving behind only the large black stones and monument that is there today.
Trails abound in the area, but there are no roads from one side to the other. If you want to get anywhere, it will need to be by creative footwork and plenty of walking. This may sound like it is difficult, but this depends entirely on where you want to be. My father took my younger sister and I to the park several times, and it was never too challenging so long as we avoided most of the uphill sections. That being said, there is something for everybody here, plentiful wildlife and foliage, amazing rock formations, from the long dead volcano and the fault, along with some of the most beautiful desert chaparral views this side of Joshua Tree. Make sure to pack plenty of water and sunscreen. The Eastern section of the park has plenty of shade and follows along the water, but the Western edge is completely exposed for the sun. Plan on it being very hot and dry, but if you get there at the right times (early morning or early evening) the sun should have died away enough to make it an amazing experience.
This is a park that I was raised on as a child growing up in the Bay Area. It’s not as large as some of the preserves across the bay in San Francisco, but this one has always held a special place in my heart. It started out as a part of the salt flats in the area, but over the decades it grew into a national wildlife preserve for many native species of birds, including the Red Tailed Hawk, which can be seen with some regularity year round at the preserve. It is relatively small, so far as nature preserves go, only a few hundred acres, but it still has a range of low hills, lakes, and several outlets to the bay that make for wonderful hiking or casual walking. My father and I would walk out dog there every Saturday morning, before the sun got too high, so that we could see the hawks, deer, and rabbits before the last two bedded down and the first flew off to roost.
If you want to walk in to the park, there are several lots about a half mile out that are free, but if you wish to stay at one of their campgrounds, there is parking available for a small fee within the park limits. There are dozens of trails, ranging from a short one to two miles around a hillside to the massive Bay Trail, which as almost 10 miles, with three of it actually ranging out into the bay on a jetty that was built for the sake of several species of fish. If you walk there in the morning or evening, dress warmly. The wind off the bay is unforgiving and cold. If you stick to the hills, there is still plenty to see, with many rock formations and small valleys. For the most part, visitors are required to stay on the paths, especially along the boardwalks into the marches, but I have been bouldering there many times on the formations that are closer to the trails. Overall, this park is something of a local favorite, but is often missed in guide books, which choose to focus on its more impressive companions in San Francisco or Santa Cruz.
This small slice of wilderness is reclaimed from former ranch land in an area of California about an hour from San Francisco and through the Niles Canyon. It is a park that, while not National, is protected by the state as a former Native American site, along with several species of amphibian and endangered fish regularly passing through its river. The area is crisscrossed with trails, some leading up into the mountains and some snaking around them, or through their valleys. It is also home to an area that has been dubbed “Little Yosemite”, a section of river that falls over, through and around massive boulders that fell off the nearby hillsides over the centuries. For the ambitious hiker, or those that are in the mood for some top notch bouldering, there are several easy ways up and down from the area from the trails that run past it. Keep in mind that many of the rocks are slippery, due to their proximity to the water, safety first and all that. For the adventurous types, there is the infamous “Ohlone Wilderness Trail”, an impressive stretch that runs from Mission Peak, the local mountain, all the way down and through Sunol until it runs out into Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore, a distance of 28 miles. There are campgrounds and springs from which you can filter and purify drinking water all along the way. A special permit is required to walk and camp along the trail in the designated areas, but it is an unforgettable experience that takes you up and down several hills and mountains, including Rose Peak, which is considered by many, myself included, to by the high point of the trek, both literally and metaphorically. There is constant conservation work and, depending on the trail, you may need to step aside to allow park service vehicles to pass, but the area is well worth the effort.