Besides its top-tier national parks, California is also speckled with national monuments and historic sites, some in far-flung, beautifully remote destinations, stretching from the Mexico to the Oregon border.
Along the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway, Devils Postpile National Monument and Manzanar National Historic Site can easily be combined with your Yosemite vacation.
Near Mammoth Lakes, the Devils Postpile is a rare geological formation of columnar basalt. But that’s not the only attraction in this remote valley, where you can hike to Rainbow and Minaret Falls or along the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails.
When planning your trip, keep in mind that the monument is usually open from mid-June through mid-October, weather permitting. About 200 miles farther south along the scenic byway, outside the town of Independence, Manzanar tells the story of Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens who were forced into an internment camp here during WWII. The thought-provoking displays inside the interpretive center and along the self-guided driving tour are still very much relevant today in our post-9/11 world.
In the far northeastern corner of California near the Oregon state line, Lava Beds National Monument attracts spelunkers to its network of hundreds of lava tube caves. Families of beginners and expert cavers alike will find something to spark their imaginations here.
Native American pictographs, battle sites dating from a 19th-century war between the U.S. Army and Modoc tribespeople, and a vast lavascape sitting atop the Medicine Lake shield volcano await exploration, either on your own or with a ranger guide.
Birders flock to nearby Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a prime stopover on the migratory Pacific Flyway. American bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, American white pelicans, and several species of geese are just a handful of the birds spotted here.
A relaxingly rural day trip from San Francisco, Pinnacles National Monument rises abruptly from the chaparral-covered foothills of the Gabilan Mountains in California’s central valley. The monument is named for its spiring rock formations and monoliths, among which endangered California condors take wing.
The geology of the park is volcanic, with talus caves formed in boulder-strewn canyons that now shelter over a dozen different species of bats. Rock climbing and hiking are the most popular outdoor activities, with ranger-guided full-moon walks and after-dark astronomy and bat-viewing programs geared especially for families. The best times to visit are in the spring and fall; during summer, it can be too blisteringly hot to even walk around or breathe easily during the daytime. Note that the monument has two separate entrances, with no through road (only hiking trails) connecting the east and west sides. You’ll find the most visitor facilities, including the campground, near the east entrance, off Highway 146.
In Southern California, San Diego’s Cabrillo National Monument is a great place to learn about 16th-century Spanish exploration of Alta California, then take in the view from the lighthouse at windy Point Loma. Bring binoculars and you can try some shoreline whale watching in winter.