It’s no accident that photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, writers like poet Robinson Jeffers and Mary Austin (whose 1903 The Land of Little Rain is a classic), and filmmakers from Charlie Chaplin to Damien Chazelle found their muse in California.
The state also attracts visitors from throughout the world, but many merely take in the iconic sights and take home selfies. To reach California’s essence, you need to delve beneath the familiar. Here are some experiences that have inspired us.
In millions of travel photographs, the Golden Gate Bridge frames the entrance to San Francisco Bay. But its grandeur doesn’t truly sink in until you walk across the span and feel it as a moving, vibrating entity. We discovered this during a Sunday stroll from Nob Hill to Sausalito. Freighters and sailboats crossed far below, while traffic pulsed on the road beside us and fog wrapped the bridge in a gray blanket.
Sea and land collide at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve near Monterey. We set out on the Cypress Grove Trail, where wind and weather have molded cypress trees into gnarled sculptures, and sweet-smelling coastal shrub borders the path. Hundreds of brilliant red mushrooms dotted the forest floor, poisonous but beautiful. Before we saw the sea, we heard the crashing surf, cleaved by ageless formations. Sea lions—the “sea wolves,” lobos marinos, for whom the Spaniards named this space—barked on offshore rocks.
Death Valley National Park’s stark beauty draws visitors to its desert trails and vibrant vistas, but for us, the magic begins after dark. During a 1997 stay, we woke in the night and walked outside. Above us, like a spotlight, gleamed Comet Hale-Bopp, its double tail trailing stardust. Now on Death Valley visits, we look for the white lace of the Milky Way splashed across the canopy. We marvel at seeing a slice of our galaxy in a sky so filled with starlight that it’s bright enough to see the desert floor. We sense the wonder of the ancients in a time before electricity and megacities.
In a state where custodians preserve Sequoia National Park’s ancient redwoods and scientists at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory put rovers on Mars, we can believe that anything is possible.