Lake Tahoe

Travel: California’s Nature Experiences

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Elisabeth King finds 10 manly challenges for the active traveller within USA’s Golden State.

LA is a major magnet for Aussie travellers. Over 500,000 of us cross the Pacific each year and in 2012 Australia became the city’s second biggest source of foreign tourists behind Mexicans. That’s not enough for the local tourism authorities though, who have launched a US$2 million advertising campaign to entice more Australians to head for the Golden State. But there’s one caveat. They want us to spend less time in LA and San Francisco to get out and explore more of the state’s 400 million-plus square kilometres, ditching the false impression that California is all about Hollywood.

1. Spring in Anza Borrego
Two hours drive from San Diego is Anza Borrego Desert State Park, a 200,000 hectare sprawl of sand, rock and cactus tailor-made for die-hard road trip lovers. Made up of 800 kilometres of dirt roads, a web of hiking trails and 12 wilderness areas, the park is named after Spanish explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, and the Spanish word borrego for the bighorn sheep that call this spectacular wedge of California desert home.

Anza Borrego’s wildflower season is Southern California’s version of Groundhog Day. From March, great swathes of brittle bush, popcorn flowers, desert lilies and sunflowers erupt around each dusty bend. There’s plenty of wildlife, too. I was disappointed not to see a red diamond rattlesnake (or maybe not) or a roadrunner on a recent visit but there were plenty of golden eagles, iguanas and mule deer. One of the hottest places in the US, Anza Borrego doesn’t close when the mercury soars past 40°C – enjoy the solitude of the desert out of peak season. Go to

2. No Country For Old Men
At 4,418m, Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the “lower 48”. One of the most “bagged” mountains in the US, it’s a lottery – literally – whether you’ll be able to make the official climb. Like Mount Everest, a planned assault needs weeks of prep work and applications have to be made to the Inyo National Forest Services annual lottery system –

Those who get the permit to go break the climb into two parts, with an overnight stay in the magnificent desolation of Consultation Lake. Late summer through autumn is the best time to attempt an ascent and you need to be very, very fit. In addition to hauling your body up the mountain, including the 100 switchbacks to the top, you have to lug food, camping gear and water. Rental companies in Bishop and Lone Pine can supply you with all the advice and gear such as bear-proof food containers. Too tough? The most popular route to the summit is the Mount Whitney Trail, a 35-kilometre hiking trail which also boasts a very strenuous rating.

Mt Whitney
Mount Whitney

3. Whitewater Rafting on the American River
The California Gold Rush kicked off at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in 1848. Most people come here for a rush of another kind these days – adrenalin – to book a rafting trip on the South Fork American, the most popular stretch of whitewater in California. The rapids flow fastest in winter through a series of raging water torrents called The Gorge and the Triple Threat. Both yield enough thrills and screams for first-timers but more seasoned whitewater rafters prefer the tougher North and Middle Forks. There are still plenty of takers during the slightly calmer waters of summer when the scenery is as heart-stopping as the rides. Check out Tributary Whitewater Tours on

4. Redwood and Elk-Spotting
Just shy of the Oregon stateline is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park – one of the last strongholds of the Roosevelt Elk, the largest elk species in North America. Urban America seems light years away as you drive through the park, momentarily taking your eyes off the road to gaze up at the world’s tallest trees. You can’t miss an elk sighting because it’s usually preceded by a whistling bugle cry that can be heard for kilometres. The prime time for a testosterone-fuelled visit is during late autumn when the 500 kilo bull elks develop massive antlers to fight for the right to mate with the largest number of females. For more information, go to

5. Dock Holiday at Shasta Lake
Fabled singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie spent much of the 1930s in California and wrote “This Land Is Your Land”, the unofficial American anthem, while working on the construction of Shasta Dam. The resulting lake is the largest reservoir in California and calls itself the “houseboating capital of the world”.
It’s no idle boast. You can hire a houseboat from one of 10 marinas around the lake’s 587-kilometre shoreline – from plush yachts with staterooms and jacuzzis to tarp-covered fishermen’s motorboats. There’s plenty of kayaking, parasailing and canoeing on offer but it’s the fishing they come for – a small army of male-only groups casting their lines for bass, sturgeon and catfish. Take time to visit Shasta Dam, the second largest in the US after Hoover Dam.

6. Yosemite Through A Lens
The Jeffrey Pine in Yosemite National Park, immortalised by Ansel Adams in 1940, keeled over a few years ago and is now a semi-rotten husk. The legendary photographer’s family still owns a gallery in the park named after the man who gave Yosemite its best-ever ad campaign for free. Many photographers – professional and amateur – make the pilgrimage to re-capture such haunting images as the Half Dome, the Cathedral Spires and Siesta Lake. You can buy a book at the gallery for a DIY tour, sign up for photography workshops or tag along on the free camera walks.

Yosemite National Park

7. The Hamptons Out West
There’s never a dull moment at Lake Tahoe – summer or winter. The 116-kilometre drive around the lake’s rim is touted as the most beautiful drive in America and on any day the sun shines off the crystal-clear waters of the largest alpine lake in the US it’s impossible to disagree. Skiers converge on the area in winter and the tech and private equity booms have prompted a glut of lush lakefront mansions that have turned Lake Tahoe into the California equivalent of The Hamptons in summer. For fans of the great outdoors there’s a huge roll-call of activities from hot air ballooning through paddle boarding and wave surfing but one of the best sports – for exercise and exploration – is kayaking. You can book a few hours on the water or plan a customised multi-day camping trip. Top tip: Tahoe City Kayak –

Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe

8. Think Big At Mammoth Mountain
Fancy taking on a kamikaze? Be careful what you wish for, even a daredevil teenager can get the willies hurtling down the biking trail of the same name at Mammoth Mountain. Other names to put the wind up the brave are Skidmarks and Velocity. The famous ski resort developed Mammoth Mountain Bike Park ( to lure summer visitors and the strategy has paid off in spades. You ride to the top of the 3,369m summit in a gondola and then pick a trail to hurtle down the mountain at breakneck speed. Mountain bikes can be hired at the Adventure Center or Mammoth Village and the skittish or beginners should select the Paper Route or Trail Home.

9. Abalone Diving Up North
Don’t watch the doco Abalone Wars before setting off for the safer waters of Salt Point State Park, a three hour drive north of San Francisco, or you may baulk at jumping in the water. Sonoma Coast Divers ( have put together a challenging one day tour which allows keen divers to don a snorkel, wet suit and fins to try to locate the elusive shellfish.

10. Boot Camp Ranch
Maybe it’s the overseas cachet but Australians make up a significant number of the clienteles of such luxury Californian boot camps as Cal-A-Vie and The Ashram. Both offer kickass activity schedules but if you really want to return home looking a lot fitter than you left, The Ranch at Live Oak near Malibu serves up a NO OPTION fitness routine of weight training, hiking, core and ab work, and a little yoga if your muscles seize up. A week’s stay is an exy US$6,200 but the endurance benefits are priceless. Go to