Sure, every California fourth grader gets a hefty dose of mission-era history (not to mention model-building) in school, but there’s nothing like a family road trip to convey the vast and varied wonders of the Golden State. Here are four teachable-moment destinations, each reachable in a day or less, with notable attractions nearby or en route.
DESTINATION: Hearst Castle, San Simeon
This year marks the 65th since William Randolph Hearst’s fanciful aerie became a state park and a full century since he inherited thousands of acres around San Simeon from his mother, the feminist and philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Another woman with vision, architect Julia Morgan, collaborated with the publishing tycoon on what became 165 rooms encompassing Spanish colonial revival and European Gothic and neoclassical styles, plus 123 acres of landscaped gardens, terraces and pools.
Today, a bus from a visitors’ center with a restaurant and massive gift shop leads uphill to the castle, past fields where zebras and other animals descended from Hearst’s former menagerie still roam. After most of the thoughtful guided tours of Casa Grande, as Hearst called it while entertaining guests during Hollywood’s Golden Age, visitors can also roam freely. Park yourself by the recently restored Neptune Pool to bask in its Greco-Roman opulence. 750 Hearst Castle Road.
ENVIRONS and EN ROUTE
Take a break from driving and stroll through one of Northern California’s most beautiful promontories, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Wildflower-lined trails pass coves where you’ll see seals, sea lions and sea otters (plus a scuba diver or two); two tiny museums, one in a former cabin built by Chinese fishermen, document the area’s cultural and whaling history. Off Highway 1, three miles south of Carmel.
Burgers don’t come with more beautiful views than those at Nepenthe in Big Sur, opened 70 years ago by the same family that runs it today. Below it, Cafe Kevah serves brunch, coffee and pastries on an open-air terrace with equally exquisite vistas. 48510 Highway 1.
Four miles north of the turnoff for Hearst Castle from Highway 1, the viewing point for the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery provides a free, easily accessed spot for observing the ungainly giants. While their numbers peak October through May, many young and adult males haul out here in June to molt through August; docents are on hand daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Off Highway 1, elephantseal.org
DESTINATION: The Petrified Forest, Calistoga
Near-flawless chardonnay-growing conditions were one result of the earth cracking open 3.4 million years ago and leaving the Napa Valley blanketed in volcanic ash, but that’s far from the most timeless effect. Back when the valley was still “an experimental wine region,” Swedish homesteader Charles Evans dug up what looked like ancient Roman columns in the hills west of Calistoga. The stone logs were once-mighty trees, blown down by the eruption seven miles away and then buried in silica ash. Over millennia, the ash seeped into the fallen logs and replaced their dead cells with minerals, leaving perfect fossils of a now-extinct variety of redwood.
These days the Petrified Forest, often overlooked in this wine-centric region, features trails for exploring both forest and fossils, including the Queen, a stone redwood 65 feet long that was already 2,000 years old before the volcano blew. On site are a cozy cafe, a gift shop with all manner of geologic curiosities and a guesthouse, all operated by the family that developed the park 105 years ago. 4100 Petrified Forest Road, Calistoga.
ENVIRONS and EN ROUTE
The geothermal landscape that makes Napa Valley’s northern end a hot spot for hot mud and mineral baths is also prone to steamy outbursts at Calistoga’s Old Faithful Geyser of California, spewing super-heated water about every half hour. After a fire in 2016, the owners expanded the attraction with a modern gift shop, a farm with llamas and goats, bocce courts and a kitchen where visitors can prepare picnic fare. 1299 Tubbs Lane.
For a concentrated and quirky dive into more of the area’s geology, geography and history, visit Calistoga’s Sharpsteen Museum. Features include a 30-foot diorama of the town circa 1860, a historical look at developer/huckster Sam Brannan, who founded Calistoga, and more information about Robert Louis Stevenson’s visit to the Petrified Forest (which in his book Silverado Squatters he called “a pure little isle of touristry among these solitary hills”). 1311 Washington Street.
The road up to the Petrified Forest leads past one of Wine Country’s best and least pretentious restaurants. Buster’s Southern BBQ in Calistoga is a monument to simple comfort food — ribs, tri-tip, chicken, fixings — where the chef is working the magic over a cooker in the parking lot. The meats are equally tasty as leftovers, so order more than you need. 1207 Foothill Boulevard.
DESTINATION: California Railroad Museum, Sacramento
You might assume the California Railroad Museum is geared toward avid “railfans,” the train buffs who can identify a vintage steam engine by its unique chugga-chugga.
But railroad history — the heritage, the culture, the fortunes — is so inextricably woven into the fabric of California that the sprawling complex in Old Sacramento is a warehouse of wonders for anyone even remotely interested in the state’s past, plus, yeah, really cool trains. Exhibits and brief documentary films explain the evolution of trains, as well as the stories of related places, progress and people, from Pullman-car porters to anything-but-altruistic railroad barons.
The museum’s strength is the multitude of locomotives — 19, dating from 1862 to 1944 — and rolling stock to explore, including the 1930s Santa Fe dining car that’s a stainless steel work of art. This summer will bring special events and exhibits to mark the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad. 125 I Street.
ENVIRONS and EN ROUTE
If looking and learning aren’t enough, visitors can climb aboard the Sacramento Southern Railroad, a 45-minute ride along the Sacramento River levee on a passenger-car excursion train pulled by one of the museum’s vintage steam or diesel locomotives. Some cars are enclosed and some are open-sided; plan accordingly for Sacramento heat. Trains run hourly from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends through September 29 from the Central Pacific Railroad passenger station, just outside the California Railroad Museum.
While Sacramento’s burgeoning DOCO (Downtown Commons) area is still evolving, one of the standouts already is an outpost of hip Punch Bowl Social, a multitasking hangout at the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel that includes a casual, quirky restaurant, game room, bowling alley and several bars. (Watch out for the boozy milkshakes. Seriously.) 500 J Street.
The fabled Nut Tree restaurant, farms and air museum may be gone, but travelers can still get a taste of the beloved Vacaville roadside attraction that once drew 3 million visitors a year. In addition to the whimsical carousel and pint-size Nut Tree Railroad, the new Nut Tree next to Interstate 80 also offers more than 20 spots to grab a bite. East Monte Vista Avenue.
DESTINATION: Marconi State Historic Park, Marshall
For those raised on Snapchat, Skype and social media, the advent of radio is truly ancient history. Yet it was only 125 years ago that Guglielmo Marconi figured out how to send Morse code across a room without wires, then developed ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications using radio waves that eventually spanned the Atlantic. After winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909, Marconi created a U.S. commercial radio empire that included San Francisco’s first radio station. Trans-Pacific communication began in 1914, after he built receiving and transmitting stations in Marshall and Bolinas, respectively. Part of a compound later owned by RCA and the infamous Synanon organization, several Marconi-era buildings remain in Marshall, now within a tranquil state park and conference/retreat center. There’s a small museum of radio equipment on site, and most visitors enjoy hiking trails across the 62 forested acres, especially to see Tomales Bay from the hilltop where the antennae once stood. 18500 Highway 1, Marshall.
ENVIRONS and EN ROUTE
San Francisco rebuilt so quickly after the earthquake of 1906 that it can be hard to comprehend the temblor’s magnitude. For an eye-opener, walk the easy, half-mile Earthquake Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore to the Earthquake Fence: a row of pickets jolted 20 feet apart when the San Andreas Fault ruptured. Interpretive signs explain the tectonics and more. Bear Valley Visitor Center Access Road, Point Reyes Station, nps.gov/pore Shine a light on seafaring history (and get your stair work in) by visiting Point Reyes Lighthouse, due to reopen June 21 after a yearlong $5 million renovation. Built in 1870, the 35-foot-tall, 16-sided beacon boasts America’s only first-order Fresnel lens and brass clockwork mechanism still in their original place — 308 steps down the windy cliff. At the end of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Inverness, nps.gov/pore Just five miles north of Marconi Conference Center, Nick’s Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar showcases West Marin’s produce and seafood from a rustic perch on Tomales Bay. Adults may enjoy slurping down oysters the most, but there’s an ample kids’ menu, too, plus a long pier for leg-stretching. 23240 Highway 1, Marshall.