You know how in the Wizard of Oz when Dorthy gets to Oz and there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. She is temporarily enthralled with it, but soon she wants to find out what’s behind the smoke – and literally what’s behind the curtain. Her curiosity leads her to the almighty Oz, a man who lives in the shadows.
I’m sort of like Dorthy when I travel – I like to go beyond the smoke and mirrors and find the real Oz. It’s easy to get caught up with all of the popular attractions that get all of the attention from the tourism departments and social media; after all, millions of dollars spent on marketing each year. But I want to know what’s behind the curtain; what’s not being marketed and where are the places and things people don’t really know about. That’s how I went about my trip to discover California.
Table of Contents
Discover California Secrets in These Rural Regions
My California discovery led me to find and talk to some fascinating California locals we met along our epic California 19 day, 8 region road trip. I asked them one simple question,
“The wide open spaces that you can see forever, night time stars in the dark skies, and normally very blue skies with white clouds. You have to branch out into a wider circle. On the way to Death Valley if you allowed a day and a half extra around Ridgecrest, you can really add to your vacation and understanding of the area.” —Carol Porter from USO Historical Museum Ridgecrest California
2. North Coast
“This is like California 50 years ago. No traffic. No crowds. Untouched and undeveloped coast. People should know about sleepy little towns like Trinidad where Californians vacation because it reminds them of old California.” —Richard Humboldt North Coast California
3. Gold Country
“There’s more to do here than just go to wineries. There are museums, and history to learn. So many things happened in this region to make California what it is today and it’s not just reserved for 4th grade history. I want more people to embrace that history we have here.” —Tracy Berkner Volcano Union Inn Gold Country
4. High Sierras
“I’ve lived here for 18 years and I’m still finding spots I’ve never been to. The area/mountains are so big and massive that you never tire of it. This is so much bigger than me and it’s so beautiful. It’s a place where you can let your guard down and let the stress evaporate.” – Gabe in Mammoth Lakes High Sierras
5. Shasta Cascade
“The national parks are where people come to learn and preserve. But the National Park Recreation Areas are where people come to have fun.” —Ranger Ray from Whiskeylake National Recreation Area in Shasta Cascade
6. Central Coast
“We like to call the Central Coast the heart of California because we connect LA to San Francisco. Normally it’s just about Highway 1, but we want people to realize that it’s more than that; there are hundreds of wineries and the terrain changes.” —Michelle Central Coast California
7. Inland Empire
“It’s a place to come to chill out and meditate and do yoga in the vines. It’s convivial here. “ —Chef Leah at EAT Marketplace in Temecula Inland Empire
8. Central Valley
“I want people to know the beauty of the California Delta and of the many ways people can enjoy it. Whether kayaking, paddleboarding, boating,fishing, wine or farm tours, there’s something for everyone. As the largest estuary on the Pacific coast, it’s existence and health affect nearly every California resident.” —Kathy Bunton Delta Kayaks in Central Valley California
But the Real Secret is the Local People of California
And I have a special bonus – a 9th secret! During my intense 19 days traveling throughout these rural regions, I discovered a secret too.
Meeting locals while I travel is always something I strive for. So it’s no surprise to me that my best ‘discover Californi’a moments were those I spent with locals.
I specifically had a few people stick out to me who were responsible for my most memorable experiences of the trip. These are people you should travel to meet because they are just that impressive.
Margaret From Unbeaten Path on California’s North Coast
Marget Lindgren is one of these people who just ooze passion for what she does. She has a special love for the Stornetta Public Lands and runs walking tours, Unbeaten Path Tours, along the coast. But don’t expect that it’s just a simple walking tour, it’s not. It’s an education where you’ll walk away armed with new information about the California coast and a little bit of her passion too!
Stornetta Public Lands
The public lands contain more than 1,000 acres of scenic coastal habitat harboring wildlife. It is one of only five oceanic upwellings that occur off the coast. It is officially called the California current and it’s the foundation of the food web for the entire region. “This part of the pacific ocean is like the Whole Foods for every oceanic species,” explains Margaret. Be filled with knowledge and take in the beautiful views and wildlife as Margaret walks you around the coastal cliffs explaining the erosion, sink holes, and tectonic plates; she makes learning fun.
Renata and Tom of Mar Vista Cottages on the California North Coast
Note: 2021 Update – Renanta and Tom have since retired and have sold the farm/cabins. However the new owners are following in their footsteps. Renanta and Tom were pioneers in the agritourism movement in this region and it’s so wonderful to hear their legacy is living on!
Every time I think of Renanta and Tom I think of the movie “Up”. They are just that adorable. They run the simple and colorful Mar Vista Cottages in South Mendocino County. This place has a special meaning to me – and that is one of simplicity and love. Never before have I experienced a hotel/cottages that have such a magical quality for guests, filled with simple pleasures.
Get your Hands Dirty at Mar Vista Cottages
Renata and Tom weren’t from this area originally, but it sure feels like they were meant to be there. Renanta used to run fancy hotels in San Francisco, but in 2000 they were looking for a more simple lifestyle and came across Mar Vista Cottages. It was going to be torn down when Tom and Renanta decided to buy it and fix it up. Renanta decided they should have a garden and chickens since each cottage had a kitchen. Tom was from NYC and knew nothing about gardening so he went to horticulture school to learn enough to know how to ‘pull an egg out of a hen’.
When you go to the cottages, expect to get your hands dirty. You can pick fresh vegetables and herbs from the community garden, gather eggs from their hens, and then cook up your own feast in your cabin. A truly hands on experience. Enjoy the cottage dogs, goats, hiking trails, and beach access; but most of all, enjoy meeting Tom and Renata who will make you feel like you are at a family gathering.
Gold Panner Gillian Kelly in Gold Country California
The day I met Gillian she had to hold back her smile. Ironically she had just lost a tooth, and hadn’t had time to go to the dentist yet. Instead she was crouching here with me on the banks of the American River teaching me how to pan for gold and sharing her passion for being a gold miner.
When she was 10 years old her dad took her sister and her right here to Sutter Millls/Coloma to pan for gold – ever since that day she’s been fascinated with gold. Then 20 years later she learned how to pan herself. She now lives a gold mining lifestyle. Ten years ago her partner and she got an RV and dropped everything in Silicon valley and moved up to Gold Country. And they’ve been living here full time and mining for a living.
” You’ve got to love adventure because every day you are out on a treasure hunt. It’s not really glamorous…in fact it’s not glamorous at all. But it’s for the adventurous spirit.” – Gillian
Tracey Berkner in Volcano California Gold Country
Tracey Berkner has a passion for food and history…and she loves a good fixer-upper. Tracy and her husband Chef Mark Berkner have bought and fixed up 2 hotels now in the little town of Volcano. I visited her at the Volcano Union Inn for a special wine pairing lunch.
There’s already a rich food and farming culture in Gold Country, but she wants to advance the culinary culture. For our lunch she brought out little bowls of spices and we were asked to try small amounts on our fingertips and then try the wine. We talked about what went together well. Then the next course the chef infused those spices we all agreed went together best into the sauce served with the seafood! It was a real time wine and food pairing!
Changing the Image of Gold Country Wines
There is an old stigma that it’s hot in the foothills and the grapes are overripe, and the wines are high in alcohol. She has been working hard to change that opinion and showcase Gold Country as a world class wine region producing varietals that are food friendly. Her love of the area shined through in everything she did, and because of that, I’d make a special trip to little Volcano any day!
Margaret Brush curator of the Trona Old Guesthouse Museum
“I just turned 90 years old,” Margaret proudly announced to us as we entered the museum. This quickly set the scene for respect. Not only because Margaret was 90, still as lively as ever, and had a memory like a steel trap, but the hour I spent with Margaret was about respecting history. Trona is a small town (which is getting smaller) created from the borax mining industry in the Searles Valley, and now it barely exists. But Margaret is going to ensure that when people do pass through Trona, they know how great it once was.
An Evolution of a Forgotten California Town and Mine
She was born into a poor mining family that made their way to Trona for work. She grew up in the mining business holding various jobs as secretaries, nurse, and other typical female rolls. She led me through each museum room and told me about her life growing up here. She showed us pictures of her in high school and walked us through the history of all of the different companies who owned the borax plant in Trona. And of course she whispered when she talked about the Mexicans. She wouldn’t let us take any pictures inside the museum insisting that if people see it on the internet then no one has a reason to come visit in person. I thought about trying to explain what I did for a living and decided it was better left alone.
Margaret has compiled an incredible historical look at the evolution of the town and the mine that is worth seeing. But honestly – the best part is just meeting Margaret, an icon of the Searles Valley.
Chef Leah Di Bernardo founder of E.A.T in Temecula, Inland Empire
“It’s important to know where your food comes from, what nutrient dense means, and what’s happening with our farmers and their soil. It’s important to understand why food costs what it does because food isn’t meant to be cheap. There is a value to that life from the animals getting raised to the farmers growing the crops to the people picking it to the people driving it. People need to get back to the dirt.” This was the first lesson I learned from Chef Leah, the enthusiastic founder of EAT Marketplace. After that, I sort of hung on her every word, and enjoyed ever last crumb of food she fed me!
Farm to Table Passion
EAT Marketplace is a farm-to-table style eatery, specialty food marketplace, sustainable education/event space, and home delivery service for both local organic produce and meals, located in the heart of Old Town Temecula. All of her chefs are required to spend time every month with the local farmers. Chef Leah is one of the most passionate food advocates I met in California. Her laid back style and forward thinking in farm to table is what makes her memorable.
EAT and Chef Leah wasn’t originally on our itinerary – we just had the luck to go there and meet her. Needless to say – we spent the whole morning with her learning about her vision of local eating. It was hard to leave her…and her delicious gluten free donuts.
Discover California for Yourself
If you venture behind California’s ‘curtain’ you too will enjoy these secret finds and secret people in California; it will surely be the best parts of your ‘Discover California vacation’. And in the words of a true Oz, Tom from Mar Vista Cottages said to me with a grin, “This is the best kept secret in California, so stay away…”
I was a guest of Visit California for a #CaliforniaWild project during my time in California. However all opinions expressed here are my own.