My Top 5 California Discoveries of 2015

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I tend to shy away from list posts and best this and best that. I normally find it trite. However, I would like to do a wrap up of 2015. 2013 led me to Mexico, 2014 had me in London, and in 2016 I'll be making my way to Vietnam, but in 2015 I never even left the state of California. In spite of that, I discovered new places and had great experiences even if they weren't the most exotic locales. To make the grade: had to be in 2015 and had to be a place I'd never been before.

5. Mother Lode/Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Railtown 1897 Hetch Hetchy
Railtown 1897 Hetch Hetchy

Riding antique steam locomotives, hotels that smell like corn chips, mysterious domes, and REALLY big trees. While it was a little hokey and homegrown, the Mother Lode has enough local California lore to give Huell Howser a permanent boner. 

Skip Angels Camp when it's not jumping frog season, only go to Columbia State Historic Park if you've got kids or a real hankering for gold panning, and definitely check out the steam locomotives Railtown 1897.

4. Henry W. Coe State Park

Henry W. Coe State Park
Henry W. Coe State Park

Henry W. Coe makes it onto the list not only because of it's spectacular fall foliage, but how surprisingly nice it was. I had quite low expectations for this enormous state park, but was presently surprised by the trees, views, and how nice the rangers were.

About an hour drive south of my San Jose apartment, Henry W. Coe State Park provides great recreation opportunities for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. Just avoid it during the summer months.

3. McWay Falls

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It's almost unbelievable, quite possibly sacrilegious that after living in Santa Cruz for a decade I never visited McWay Falls. Waterfall on a beach with water the color of Listerine. Yeah! It is a definite must stop for any road trip on the Big Sur coast.

So why is it not number one? Because while this 80 foot waterfall located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is incredibly special, it is overcrowded with selfie taking tourists and you're not allowed on the beach.

2. Fort Ross Historic State Park

Fort Ross Chapel
Fort Ross Chapel

Did you know about the history of Russians in California? Well, I only knew vaguely; Russian River kind of gave me a hint. We did not initially plan to visit Fort Ross Historic State Park on our trip to Salt Point State Park, which does not make this list, but thought we might as well see it on our way back to the bay area. Things did not initially bode well with the pouring rain and complete lack of other visitors at the park. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the informed docents and how well preserved the buildings were. Frankly, it was just kind of a chance for me to nerd out on a piece of California history that I was ignorant of.

Fort Ross is close to a number of other noteworthy places: Jenner, Salt Point, Bodega Bay and the Russian River.

1. Channel Islands National Park

Scorpion Ranch
Scorpion Ranch

My visit to Channel Islands National Park was special for a number of reasons: it was my final national park to visit in California, it's in my home county, and endemic foxes. You have to take an hour long ferry to get to the islands, and no a trip to the mainland visitor's center is not enough. Do you want to see a place that has more endemic species than the Galapagos? Then fork out the sixty dollars and spend a day or two on the islands.

I grew up seeing the islands from the coast and being able to finally see the coast from islands made me feel all giddy inside. I had mixed feelings about the experience when I was on the island, but looking back it was my best travel moment of 2015.