Can’t visit all of our 101 best California experiences? Don’t miss the top 10

Fannette Island, the only island in all of Lake Tahoe, rises 150 feet from the lake’s Emerald Bay.
(Getty Images/EyeEm; illustrations by Grace Danico / For The Times)
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This is part of “California 101,” our guide to the best experiences across the state.

What separates our favorite travel destinations from the rest? The way memories linger.

I hope you’ll get out to every spot on the 101 best California experiences list, which celebrates just how much there is to see and do here. (Print out our checklist in color or in black and white.) But if you’re looking for a short list — maybe you want to give visitors a taste of this state without involving the Hollywood sign — I’ve picked 10 places that resonate most deeply for me. This is the list that, after having covered California travel, nature and culture for more than 30 years, I find myself reciting most often.

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I feel a certain depth in these places, and usually ease too, perhaps because nobody needs to sell them. You show up, take a deep breath, listen a little, have a look around, and you are reminded of your good luck — our good luck — in calling California home.

1. Emerald Bay State Park, Lake Tahoe

A sunrise over Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve been here three or four times and it’s always been gorgeous, but never the same way twice. On the most recent visit, last fall, I got up early to shoot sunrise photos, steered through bursts of rain to Inspiration Point above the bay, then watched the clouds part. The sunbeams came flooding in, the bay began to glow and a rainbow arched above. The scent of wet forest hung in the air. At that moment, besides me, there were two families at the point and some of the kids were dancing around in the tiny parking lot. I looked at the parents and they looked back in silent triumph. Nobody wants to get up early in the rain, but sometimes it pays off big.

2. Ferry Building and waterfront, San Francisco

San Francisco’s Ferry Building sits along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve been eating in the Ferry Building since its redevelopment in 2003 as a food-focused retail-and-restaurant complex — oysters from Hog Island, comfort food from Gott’s Roadside, neo-Vietnamese at the Slanted Door (which is supposed to reopen late this year).

Elsewhere along the waterfront, I’ve nodded along to live jazz at Pier 23, pedaled a bike out to Fort Point, savored the Golden Gate view from Torpedo Wharf and bought many snacks at the Warming Hut along the San Francisco Bay Trail bike path. And just about every walk by the water takes me back to an uneasy memory: One May day in 1987, some buddies and I walked out onto the Golden Gate Bridge to join its 50th-anniversary celebration. Way too many other people had the same idea. About 300,000 of us were stuck in pedestrian gridlock for hours and the bridge actually sagged under the weight. Even when it’s not cold, seeing that bridge makes me shiver a little at first. Then I perk up. I think that’s the upbeat orange paint job at work. (Thank you, Sherwin Williams.)

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3. Yosemite Valley

Half Dome is reflected in the water in Yosemite Valley in winter.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The valley’s Swinging Bridge Area (whose bridge doesn’t swing at all) is one of my favorite spots for pictures of Yosemite Falls. But I am also a big fan of the Wawona Swinging Bridge, 27 miles south and still inside park boundaries. And this one actually does swing, over a swimming hole. That’s where our friends Ed and Mona brought me, my wife, Mary Frances, our daughter, Grace, and a gaggle of my college buddies several years ago for an afternoon of snacking and soaking in the south fork of the Merced River. No tourist masses, just a bunch of old friends and their kids, flopping on the sun-dappled rocks.

4. Big Sur

McWay Falls drops over an 80-foot cliff onto the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park along California Highway 1 in Big Sur.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

I don’t believe I’ve ever visited Big Sur without dropping by Nepenthe restaurant. Not because of the food, which is fine. And not exactly because of the view, which is more than fine. Because of the way its neo-Bohemian, global-nomad vibe brings those elements together.

5. Badwater, Death Valley National Park

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.
(Andia / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

I’ve caught sunrise from Zabriskie Point and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes — both great, golden memories. But neither matches the end-of-the-world feeling you get standing on the crusty salt floor of Badwater Basin as the sun drops, the sky darkens and awed tourists whisper in half a dozen languages. I listened to pianist Keith Jarrett’s “The Koln Concert” in my car on the way to one of my first sunsets there. Now every time I hear that album, I can close my eyes and see long shadows at Badwater.

6. Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

In and near Hidden Valley Campground, Joshua Tree National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In May 2020, when the first round of pandemic closures eased and several national parks abruptly reopened, thousands of Californians went rushing to camp somewhere, anywhere. I came to Hidden Valley. Pretty soon every campsite was full. I hopped from campfire to campfire with my notebook, mask and camera, listening to city people and their kids tell how they dropped everything so they could take a few free breaths among these big boulders and beseeching trees.

7. South Fork, American River, near Placerville

River guide Kyle Brazil in the South Fork of the American River, near Coloma.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
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When I was 10, my family and I joined an outfitter’s two-day rafting-camping trip on this stretch of river. I remember loving the tumult of the rapids, the idea that right around here, someone saw something shiny, started the Gold Rush, changed the world. I also remember being awed by the worldly wit of two older TV writers (in their 20s) who were part of our group. Almost 50 years later, I joined another outfitter on the same route. No witty TV writers. But between bouts of white water, the young woman behind me (in her 20s) told me how she’d just kicked heroin and rejoined her family. As the saying goes, you never step into the same river twice. Maybe that’s why these waters call to me the way they do. And even though the rapids look a lot smaller now, they’re still a thrill.

8. Grand Central Market, Los Angeles

Activity and foot traffic peaks during lunchtime at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Since the Los Angeles Times building was a few blocks from here for about 25 years, I’ve seen this food hall from every angle in bad times and good. Now the market is livelier and more prosperous than ever before — but since I no longer work downtown, I only get the occasional glimpse and taste. I do love the weighty combination plates from Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, but I miss the steady relationship.

9. Torrey Pines Gliderport, La Jolla

Torrey Pines Beach in La Jolla is a dramatic landscape.
(Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As a teenager down on the beach below, I used to throw Frisbees and body-surf for hours. Nowadays, visiting from out of town, I head for the bluffs, admire the stark design of the Salk Institute on the way in, grab a picnic table and treat my family to $7 sandwiches from the Cliffhanger Cafe. While we chew, the hang-glider pilots run and leap into the wind, 350 feet above the waves. This place always makes me happy.

10. Chicano Park, San Diego

Chicano Park, known as the geographic and emotional heart of Barrio Logan, is in Logan Heights in San Diego.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For years, I zoomed over Chicano Park on the bridge to Coronado, even though I knew there were supposed to be cool murals down below. This was partly because Barrio Logan had a reputation as a tough neighborhood, but mostly I was just lazy. Still, I did get there eventually, and loved all that infrastructural concrete filled with bright colors and Chicano imagery. Now the neighborhood has sprouted so many cafes, galleries and restaurants that some people are nervous about gentrification, and all sorts of visitors come. A few years ago, I joined a few dozen tourists, almost all seniors, who had come straight from a Princess cruise ship, bypassing the rest of San Diego’s visitor attractions, to eye the murals and eat tacos. Here’s to destinations that never stand still. Neither should we.