Our Lonely Planet California Trips (Regional Travel Guide) has a serious case of coastal bias: out of 68 itineraries, less then a quarter venture inland. And needless to say it doesn’t contain a trip focused on avoiding crowds in California national parks without spending a fortune. Once again we are left to create our own trip: national parks, cheap motels and fresh fruit pit stops. Time: 7 - 10 days. Distance: 1000 miles. Best time to go: April - October. Start: Palm Springs. End: Folsom.
Start in 1. Palm Springs where, amid luxurious, but totally inaccessible houses, you can try to spot mid-century modernist architecture. Head toward Coachella Valley to stop at 2. Oasis Date Gardens to dutifully taste a date shake and stock up on fresh dates of more varieties than you thought existed. This is going to be your high-calorie snack for the next few days. Turn left into winding Boxy Canyon Road that will deliver you to the south entrance of 3. Joshua Tree National Park. Pick a hike or two and drive up to Twentynine Palms learning about more or less unsuccessful attempts at farming and ranching in the desert along the way. This is a less popular part of the park so savor your solitude. It won’t last.
In Twentynine Palms find the only place that deserves to call itself a restaurant: 4. 29 Palms Inn. You can spend the night there or head to a nearby Motel 6 to observe firsthand customs of young soldiers and their more or less permanent girlfriends.
Well rested go back to Joshua Tree Park to hike some more and envy climbers
who are much better equipped to avoid invading hordes otherwise known as tourists. For the night zip to 5. Bakersfield
where you can find a vast selection of chain motels and few people. If you are too tired to visit the only nightclub in town
wait till morning when it magically transforms itself back to a
pumpkin place where your motel serves
continental breakfast. As you leave the town take your time to admire orange trees and stop at the farmers stand to buy some
Next stop allows you to check out the largest trees on earth. To avoid crowds head to 6. Sequoia National Forest. A friendly ranger at the Lake Isabella station will advise you on best trails among sequoias. Skip the Trail of 100 Giants unless you are into people watching. In that case for a modest parking fee of $5 you get to observe multi-generation families fighting to occupy the most photogenic spot. Photographing a sequoia is not a mean feat and, finally it gives you a pretext to back off far enough so that no one can tell apart posing family members. Works great with ugly aunts. If you’d rather look at the trees, don’t despair. There are at least 32 other sequoia groves in the forest completely devoid of people.
Spend the next night in Visalia where local population missed on the sweeping trend and didn’t desert downtown. And they actually narrowed down their Main Street making it surprisingly walkable. As a result there are couple of competent restaurants there: 7. Brewbakers Brewing Company with fancy named burger choices is our pick.
As you head toward 8. Sequoia National Park to see more sequoias, as one never tires of giant trees, stock up on strawberries. Differently than in grocery stores, those are not year-round red vessels of sugary water. Chinese immigrants tend seasonal patches that bear sweet fruit May to August. Buy more than you think you can eat, you won’t be sorry.
If after a day of hiking and driving among, through, over and under sequoias you still don’t have enough of them - don’t worry: there are more sequoias in your itinerary. In the meantime head to Fresno to get some Korean food. Fresno has more freeways than it needs but to justify it, inhabitants just drive around for fun. In the morning, experience one of a kind bizarre sight: 9. Forestiere Underground Gardens. It’s an ingenious answer to central valley weather - oppressive summer heat and biting winter frost - imported straight from Sicily. A lesson in gardening and housing that unfortunately nobody learned. Why did he build it? Not that it matters but academics spend time puzzling over the issue. Leaving Fresno will give you ample opportunities to buy fresh sweet cherries. If you think price is too high - haggle. It worked for us.
Drive through Sierra National Forest. If you have enough time and the road is open, take 10. Sierra Vista Scenic Byway. To give yourself as much time as possible for the next attraction without spending a fortune on lodging inside the park, stay at 11. Queen’s Inn by the River in Oakhurst and relax with a glass of wine in their wine bar. Don’t miss Cajun food at 12. Woody’s New Orleans West.
13. Yosemite National Park is probably the most frequently visited one. Start early, pick the most strenuous hike you can stomach and walk fast. As you gain elevation and asphalt gives way to stone you’ll find yourself with less and less company to compete for waterfalls’ views. On your way out you can dine at 14. Savoury’s, the best restaurant in Mariposa where the best part is to watch French tourists confronted with American dining customs.
Between 15. Merced and 16. Modesto stock up on almonds, pistachios and walnuts. Taste wines in 17. Lucas Winery in Lodi and buy a few bottles to express your gratitude to your friends in 18. Folsom for saving you from yet another night in a cheap motel.