The Golden State's views glow with beauty Scenes: Sights from mountaintops, trails and tramway can stir the senses and move the spirit

Destination: California.

December 27, 1998|By Tom Stienstra | Tom Stienstra,San francisco Examiner

SAN FRANCISCO - The power of a memorable place is difficult to define, but for those who have felt it, easy to understand. You get more than a dramatic view - you also get a sensation, and that is why the experience can stay with you - sometimes for years.

The highlights of the best viewpoints in California include long-distance panoramas from mountaintops, an aerial tramway, famous and not-so-famous lookouts, from San Francisco to Mount Shasta to distant canyon rims at sunrise. All share one element: They are places so gifted with natural beauty that you leave refreshed, infused with the beauty, a feeling that can be recharged for months.

* Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park: There is no more perfect view anywhere, and anyone can reach the point by car or shuttle bus. Yet the experience can be enhanced by taking either of two trails (Panorama or Pohono) that provide a far more private and extended tour into California's most breathtaking landscape.

* Mount Tallac, Tahoe National Forest: When you look down from Tallac's 9,735-foot summit, the cobalt-blue water of Lake Tahoe cradled in an alpine mountain bowl is one of the most breathtaking sights in the world. From Mount Tallac, directly below you is Fallen Leaf Lake, Emerald Bay and then Tahoe, all of it surrounded by forest and sky. The hike up is a climb of 3,175 feet over the course of six miles. It's a tough trip, and you may ask, "Can it be worth it?" Yes. Yes. Yes.

* Mount Eddy, Shasta-Trinity National Forest: You can sit here in awe for hours, as if you are absorbing power as well as beauty. Mount Shasta is by far California's most beautiful mountain, and though it is visible from a 125-mile radius, there is no more stunning viewpoint than from the top of Mount Eddy. That is because Mount Eddy (9,025 feet) is set directly to the west of Mount Shasta (14,162 feet), with Interstate 5 (at 3,200 feet) running right down the middle between them, so you get a powerful impression of how Shasta rises up 11,000 feet from the valley floor.

* San Jacinto Peak (via aerial tramway), Mount San Jacinto State Park: From start to finish, there is no experience like this anywhere in California. From near the town of Banning, you start the trip by taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which carries you nearly 6,000 feet to the staging area at 8,516 feet. With long-distance views en route, for many, this is the end of the trip. But it gets even better: A 2,300-foot climb over the course of six miles takes you to San Jacinto Peak, 10,804 feet high, where you feel you can see to infinity: virtually all of Southern California.

* Mount Livermore (at night), Angel Island State Park: At night, San Francisco is transformed into the Emerald City, and the bay area becomes a land of charm when seen from the top of 781-foot Mount Livermore. Long after the last ferryboat has left for the day, the view is available only for those spending the night, camping at one of the hike-in sites.

* Coast Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore: In one turn of the body, you can take in a view like no other. My favorite lookout here is two miles north of Wildcat Camp on the Coast Trail, where there is a rock outcrop that towers over the coast. From north to south, you feel you are absorbing the view, taking in Point Reyes, Drake's Bay, Sculptured Beach, Arch Rock. Then you turn and scan miles of ocean, and look south to Alamere Falls, Wildcat Lake, Stormy Stack and miles of untouched coast. You may also spot passing whales, ships and fishing boats, pelicans, cormorants and murres.

* Mount Whitney, John Muir Wilderness: You have a foothold in the sky atop Mount Whitney, at 14,496 feet the highest point in the continental United States. Both near and far and in all directions, the view is staggering. To the north are rows of mountain peaks (dozens over 12,000 feet) lined up for 125 miles; to the east is an awesome drop of 11,000 feet into the Owens Valley; to the west is the entire Great Western Divide.

* Klamath Overlook, Redwood National Park: Where else can you sense the curvature of the Earth? Nowhere better than on the Requa Trail, where the view can trigger all kinds of feelings. The Klamath Overlook is located just north of the Klamath River in Redwood National Park, where you can drive to a place to view the ocean. It turns out that this is just a start. From here, you hike, climbing 2,000 feet over the course of four miles to this drop-dead gorgeous view, where you really can see that the horizon is curved, that the Earth is round. It can set off emotions you'll never forget.

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