Off The Beaten Path in California

Sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that I lived in Los Angeles for three years. It was the sort of place I never really considered visiting, much less making a home, but I’ve come to appreciate that life’s curveballs often offer the greatest rewards.

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An  evening in the Hollywood Hills

During the time I lived in California, I spent at least one weekend a month out of the City of Angeles, visited almost all of the National Parks in the state, tasted a lot of wine and climbed up a lot of mountains. I also went clubbing in Hollywood, took studio tours, went to live tappings of late-night talk shows, attended fancy rooftop parties and hiked to the Hollywood Sign (though I never did make it to Disney Land). Suffice to say, I made my way around the place.

If you are planning a trip to the Golden State, the most obvious tourist activities of Southern and Central California may be jumping out at you. But I’ve got a few off-the-beaten-path suggestions to get you away from the hordes of tourists and into the heart of California.

A Night at The Moth Story Slam

So I’m a bit of an NPR junkie. No matter where I am in the world, I’m usually streaming a live broadcast or have a horde of podcasts downloaded to help me pass the time. I’m also obsessed with real life stories and think radio is an incredible way to share common humanity (there’s just something about listening to someones voice – I hate, as a writer, to admit – that can be specifically impactful). Naturally, The Moth is one of my favorite things on the radio: random strangers getting on a stage and telling true, unscripted stories. In Los Angeles you can attend a live Moth Story Slam and listen to an hour and a half of these incredible stories in an intimate setting. It’s a different, more raw take on the many forms of entertainment that you can seek out in Los Angeles: you never know what you’re gonna get, but you’ll always be surprised.

For more information and schedules check out The Moth’s website. Do make sure to get in line early if it’s not a ticketed Main Stage event, as the smaller venues fill up pretty quickly.

Paso Robles Wineries

Ok, you’ve heard of Napa Valley. It’s elegant, the wine is delicious: it’s the it place. But there are many reasons my friends and I opted for many a weekend trip to the vineyards of Paso Robles over California’s more well-known wine regions.

Firstly, location. Paso Robles is situated exactly between LA and the Bay Area (about 3.5-4 hour drive from either direction) making it pretty convenient for a long weekend away. It is surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, which happen to be perfect mirco-climates for wine cultivation.

Secondly, it’s totally accessible to a burgeoning wine-o. When I first came to Paso, I knew I liked wine, but I didn’t know a darn thing about tasting, making, or the wine itself. Over the next two and a half years I learned so much from the wine makers here, partly because I felt like I could ask them even simple questions and get nonjudgmental answers. These people are proud of their craft. The cost is also accessible, ranging closer to $5 for a tasting of 5-7 wines rather than $15 or $20 as a starting price.

A few of my favorite wineries (there are so many, you could drive around for a week and not stop at them all) are Midnight, Cass and Whalebone, partly for ambiance but mostly for the wine.

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Cambria

Thirty minutes west of Paso Robles is the town of Cambria, a picturesque village along the coast. Not only is the drive through the hills between the two cities stunning, I also just love the cute, artsy vibe of this town. It’s full of amazing restaurants, unique B&B’s, crafty shops and beautiful walkways along the rugged coastline.

From here you can also travel just a few minutes up the coast to the spectacularly strange Hearst Castle and marvel as the monstrous elephant seals that congregate all year long at Piedras Blancas beach near San Simeon.* You can also find the tiny town of Harmony (population 18) just to the south, nestled between the hills.

*Peak Season for seal viewing is December-March, and depending on when you come, a whole different group of seals might be hanging out, from juveniles, to terrifying males ready to mate, to new mothers with infants. I’ve never NOT seen seals here, though. 

Malibu Beaches

Say Malibu and images of wealth, luxury and movie stars come to mind. And it’s true: you’ll find some of the highest-priced real estate value in the country in this stretch of a “city” up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica. You’ll also find some really dramatic beaches, like El Matador State Beach with it’s intriguing cliffs and rocky outcrops (and possibly find a photo or music video shoot – sorry, I mean almost definitely walk into one).

The water in Malibu is usually a few degrees colder than Santa Monica – and I get it: I’m from Minnesota and grew up swimming in Lake Superior, but if you can brave the water here, I’ve found it to be much cleaner than to the south. As a bonus, while I’ve swam here, otters and dolphins have popped their heads up within 10 feet of me. Not to mention, from the shore at Zuma Beach, I’ve seen pods of whales feeding all afternoon.

King’s Canyon National Park

Often overlooked in favor of Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks, King’s Canyon is a little harder to get to (ie: a longer drive) but it is truly magnificent. The High Sierras should be on anyone’s California bucket list, and though there is certainly a reason Yosemite is the most popular of the National Parks, if you’re looking to break away from the intensity of the crowds in Yosemite Valley, I would highly recommend Kings Canyon as an alternative.

You still get the towering, majestic Sequoias. You still drive into a valley surrounded by granite cliffs. There is camping, lodges and tons of back-country exploration, pristine mountain lakes and rivers dotted across the landscape. In particular, my friends and I enjoyed the hike to Mist Falls, a moderately challenging but rewarding walk that leads through the valley floor, up the cliffs to an incredible waterfall, and beyond.

California is an American classic, and there is plenty to explore in the big cities, movie studios and theme parks. There are also hidden gems across the state, where the locals are vacationing, and they are absolutely worth your stop, too.

Minnesota’s North Shore: Why you need to add it to your Bucket List

One thing that has continually amazed me as I travel and live in different cities around the USA is how rarely people appreciate the incredible place I was raised.The Midwest is so often written off as “flyover country”, and the Great Lakes seen as freezing, industrial, unsalted seas. I have come to think that the North Shore of Lake Superior is an utterly unappreciated gem of our country, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve argued with people who assume I left this place for lack of culture or inspiration. Let me set the record straight: I can’t fully explain why I felt compelled to leave, but it was not  because I needed new trails to hike or lakes to swim in.

Especially if you like camping and outdoor adventure, Northern Minnesota is one of a kind for rugged wilderness. How many other places can you find more than a million acres of lakes, rivers and forest, untouched by mining, logging and motorized vehicles? Where else can you hike for hundreds of miles along the largest lake in the world, all the way to the Canadian Border?

Though it’s a little off the beaten path of many of the classic American road trips, I believe that making a trip Up North is well worth the divergence, and that you’ll start to feel the magic as soon as you drive over the hill in Duluth and see Lake Superior stretching before you for the first time.

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At Palisade Head, the highest point along the North Shore of Lake Superior, just north of Silver Bay, MN.

Duluth, MN

Nearly every trip to the North Shore begins in Duluth, and it’s a city worth spending at least a day or two exploring. As the largest and farthest-west freshwater seaport in North America, Duluth’s harbor is busy and bustling all summer long with huge cargo vessels from all around the world (the boyfriend and I have joked about how many a ship will leave Duluth full of grain grown in the Midwest of the USA, bound for Italy to be transformed into pasta “Made in Italy”, then shipped back to the States for consumption) and it’s possible to watch the ships come into the harbor underneath the unique Aerial Lift Bridge. Duluth isn’t the rough shipping town it once was, though. Today it is a fantastic place to live and visit, named Best Town in America by Outdoors Magazine in 2014 and a perfect launching point for a North Shore adventure. You’ll find a plethora of parks and hiking trails in town, lots of unique shopping, good food, good microbrewed beer and plenty of museums to get you antiquated with the history of the area and vast variety of natural resources.

I’d recommend getting a hotel room in Canal Park, where you can walk to historic downtown and along the lake, braving a quick dip into Lake Superior on the beach at Park Point, prepping for outdoor excursions at the Duluth Pack Shop and making sure to drive up the hill to climb Enger Tower where one can truly appreciate the hugeness of Lake Superior from her mouth.

For more about what’s happening in Duluth during your visit (so many awesome summer festivals!) and for all the info you need to plan a great stay in the coolest* city in the USA, click here.

*Note: The huge, cold lake can cause pretty dramatic temperature shifts, even in the middle of August so being sure you’ve got a sweatshirt in your bag for your trek up the North Shore in case the wind’s change direction!

Superior Hiking Trail

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A section of the Superior Hiking Trail which runs just a few miles from my parent’s house.

Think Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails, but along the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Superior Hiking Trail runs 310 miles (499km) along the length of the the lake from south of Duluth to the Canadian Border, and is dotted with  93 free rustic campsites along the way. The portion of the trail reaching Jay Cooke State Park and the WI border was just completed this summer, 30 years after the original vision of the Trail was begun.  Along the way, you’ll hike through boreal forests, up and down the ancient Sawtooth Mountains, past smaller lakes and rivers and catch glimpses (and breezes!) of the incredible Lake Superior nearby.

You can take a day hike (I recommend heading north from Silver Bay towards Bean Lake and Mt. Trudee for some spectacular views and a good work out) or you can spend months on the trail, enjoying the changing landscape of the lake shore intimately.

Check out all the trail information, including sections for day hiking, backpacking and thru-hiking here, or stop in the Superior Hiking Trail Association office in Two Harbors.

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A section of the Superior Hiking Trail, climbing Carlton Peak near Tofte.

State Parks

Maybe you don’t have the time, energy or gear to get too far off the highway? The great news is whether you’re traveling north of Duluth by foot or by car, it’s easy to get out and experience the highlights of the area. Highway 61 winds up the coast of Lake Superior through a handful of small towns and 8 fantastic state parks where you can stop and take a short or long hike or camp for the night.

Just north of Two Harbors is Gooseberry Falls State Park, a non-negotiable in my personal tour of the neighborhood for newcomers. You don’t need to pay an entrance fee to park at the great visitor’s center and follow the easy, paved path to the breaking point of a three-tired waterfall rushing over the ancient volcanic stones which make the lake shore so unique. A little farther up the shore, Split Rock Light House is an iconic landmark, and in the summer you can take tours of the historic site. Temperance River State Park features a short, moderate hike along the gorges the river must pass through to reach Lake Superior which  you cannot miss.

Check out more about each of the parks you’ll find along the road here.

BWCA

dsc08204If you are looking for wilderness like you’ve never experienced before, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a treasure you must explore first hand to believe. Over a million acres have been set aside in the chain of lakes, rivers and short portages where no logging or mining and not a single motor vehicle is allowed. You explore the land the way the French Canadian voyageurs did in the 18th and 19th centuries: by canoe. In order to camp in the BWCA, not only do you need a permit, you’ll need to cross lakes, carry your canoe and gear through the forests for short (less than a mile typically) portages, and seek out the rustic camp grounds that dot the lake shores. It’s a fair amount of work, and takes preparation, but for the intrepid, it is a rare journey into a true wilderness area. One where you can really see the incredible star-filled sky, hear the loon’s eerie calls across the still water and disconnect away from the modern world as you swim, hike and bask in the wilderness.

It is possible to just go out paddling for a day, too. For all sorts of gear rental (by the 1/2 day or longer), as well as for quick tutorials on canoe carrying and BWCA info, I recommend Sawbill Outfitters, on Sawbill Lake, about 20 miles inland from the town of Tofte.

Grand Marais, MN

Of all the towns along the North Shore to stop at, I believe Grand Marais is probably my favorite. It’s far enough away from Duluth that the 1,300 people who live there have really chosen to be up north, whether for artistic or personal reasons, and the town culture reflects this. You’ll find more breweries, outfitters and artist’s shops, a marina and plenty of smoked fish to eat as well as festivals and unique events throughout the year. It was named the Coolest Small Town in America in 2015, in fact. (And I believe that may mean both temperature and quality of fun.)

The first time I brought my boyfriend here, he looked northwards, into the horizon of cold water and said “I truly feel like I’m at the end of the earth here – but there is a whole country and continent still beyond!” This feeling only intensified when we came back in the winter. The fact remains that Grand Marais does have the feeling of the farthest place one can go before they’re falling off the map.

If you’re partial to sleeping in town rather than a tent, Grand Marais makes a great home base for plenty of small day trips into the wilderness. If you want to see something truly incredible and spend some extra cash, grab a table (and or a bed) at the spectacular Naniboujou Lodge.

Winter

Yes, most of the activities I’ve described above are summer-based, but don’t disregard the long, cold Minnesota winter as off-season! Throughout the winter months, the North Shore is busy with cross country and downhill skiing, sled dog races and tours, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, surfing (no, I’m not joking!) and general fireside, hot coco sipping. There are a plethora of resorts that cater to the winter crowds and with a good base layer, you can find just as much delight on a cold January day as a hot August one.

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The yard of my parent’s house near Duluth, January

At the heart of my love for Northern Minnesota is not just the artists and adventurers who live here, not just the history of hard work and industry, not just the trees and trails and lakes, it’s not the silence of the forest and the sound of folk music. It is truly Lake Superior, the cool, calm, powerful force of nature that is unlike any other body of water I’ve come across in my travels round the world. Lake Superior is a grand mystery which calms and confounds, breathes quietly and shouts with winter gales. This water is ageless, it is uncompromising. But every once in a while it is forgiving, and you find the tides have turned just enough: you can slip into the water for a swim: an incredible gift, a quick submersion into something more ancient and intimate than any ocean who’s held me.

Go, and discover the gift that’s waiting for you in this incredible place.

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