California is a land brimming with stunning natural landscapes, diverse cultures, and deep histories. As a tribute to summer freedom and exploration, we’ve come up with a short list of destinations across the state that provide an opportunity for adventurers of all ages to engage with their surrounding while learning about the people and events that came before them. Each photo included below comes from our permanent collection and will be featured in Teaching California, a set of new classroom-ready history curriculum resources set to become available next Summer. The images provide a glimpse into the past, framing each destination as it once was and prompting consideration of how time, change, and human experience shape the places around us.
The natural wonder of the Sierra Nevada cannot be overstated with geologic masterpieces shaped by millions of years of interaction between glaciers and rocks resulting in canyons, jagged peaks, domes, rivers, vast waterfalls, and the highest mountain peak in the contiguous U.S., Mount Whitney.
What to do:
- Tour Crystal Cave. Beneath the shade of massive trees lies more than 250 underground marble caves. Crystal Cave is the only one open to the public and is filled will walls of marble, stalactites, and stalagmites.
- Visit the Giant Forest Museum. The museum is the starting point for visits to the Giant Forest sequoia grove and provides visitors with an opportunity to learn about local ecosystems. The Giant Forest includes the famous General Sherman tree, currently the largest living organism on the planet, by volume.
- Visit Buck Rock Lookout. Built in 1923, Buck Rock is one of the oldest fire lookout buildings still in use in the area and is the place where rangers once sat to scan for smoke signifying forest fires.
What to do:
- Walk through Portsmouth Square. The city’s oldest public square was established in the early 1800s in the community of Yerba Buena, which later became San Francisco. The San Francisco Bay’s shoreline was only about a block away. The park is now a bustling Chinatown community fixture where locals gather to catch up with friends, play mahjong, or practice tai chi.
- Grab a treat from the Golden Gate fortune cookie factory. This tiny fortune cookie factory down a classic Chinatown side alley was opened in 1962. Visitors can watch as fortune cookies are made fresh and can sample the treats fresh off the griddle.
- Visit the Chinese Historical Society of America. Explore rotating exhibitions which highlight the experiences of Chinese in America and San Francisco.
3. El Pueblo de Los Angeles National Monument
Los Angeles was founded by Spanish settlers in 1781 on a site close to what is now El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Mexican independence in 1821 welcomed the establishment of the first streets and adobe structures in that same area, a place that we now associate with the heart of LA’s original Mexican community. As Los Angeles rapidly expanded throughout the late 1800s and beyond, the original settlement fell into disrepair. In the 1920s, Christine Sterling launched a revitalization campaign to restore the historic pueblos and create a modern marketplace and tourist destination which celebrated Mexican history and culture.
What to do:
- Take in Olvera street. Explore the colorful Mexican marketplace, shop for handcrafted items and folk art, fill up on tacos at outdoor cafés, and listen to strolling mariachi music. Olvera Street, originally named Vine Street after the vineyards that spread across the area, is full of well-preserved historic buildings.
- Tour Avila Adobe. Built in 1818, the Avila Adobe is the oldest existing residence in LA and was the home of wealthy cattle rancher and Mexican native, Francisco Avila. A tour of the home will give you an idea of how the first settlers in the area lived under Spanish rule and the structure itself is built from local resources including clay from the LA River and tar from the La Brea Tar Pits.
- See the Siqueiros mural. “América Tropical” was painted on the side of the old Italian Hall in 1932 by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, a contemporary of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. The mural was controversial due to its imperialist subject matter and was whitewashed soon after its creation. The mural was rediscovered in the 1960s and recent efforts have restored it. It can be seen from a viewing platform on Olvera Street.
- Explore Fort Ross. Fort Ross Historic Park was once a Kashaya Native settlement and later became a Russian settlement and fur trading post before becoming a hub for agriculture and logging. The area is now a state park which showcases the Russian-era fort.
- Go on a Sonoma County farm tour. Take part in one of the many farm tours offered throughout the area’s verdant hills and farmland. Take your pick from offerings by local farms and ranches including cheese making classes, sustainable farming demonstrations, and goat cuddling. Buy fresh eggs or be the first in line for organic peaches. Many farms are family-run and focused on sustainability.
- Explore Mission San Francisco Solano. The mission is the 21st and last mission founded in California in 1823 and the only mission founded after Mexico’s independence from Spain. The mission is part of Sonoma State Historic Park which also includes Sonoma military barracks built by General Vallejo and is where the first bear flag was raised over California declaring it a republic, independent from Mexico.
- Visit the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center. This museum presents California Native history and culture from a native perspective and offers educational and cultural activities.
5. Mojave Desert
- Visit Mojave National Preserve. This 1.6-million-acre park is full of sand dunes, Joshua trees, wildflowers, volcanic cinder cones, canyons, mountains, limestone caves, petroglyphs, abandoned mines and military outposts. Hike, camp, and explore, making a stop at the Kelso Depot a Spanish Mission Revival style railroad stop opened in 1924.
- Explore Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Historic Park. This interpretive center for the Native American cultures of the Great Basin and surrounding regions holds more than 7,500 Native American artifacts and pieces of art from 12,000 years of human history.
Of course, the destinations listed above are only a glimpse into the myriad of experiences available to explore the colorful stories of California. As summer draws to a close, we encourage you to harness what time you have available and get out to explore the history of the state.
by Katie Peeler, California Historical Society