It takes some time to get to know the Golden State, even if groups are interested solely in focusing on its famous, fabulously diverse natural splendors.
About 770 miles long, California is, admittedly, as svelte as one of its Hollywood starlets, with an average width of 250 miles. But that still gives it plenty of room to offer a stunningly varied topography that no other state in the country can match, which makes it a particularly good destination for nature-loving groups. No matter the landscape travelers seek, chances are it can be found within Cali’s borders.
Encompassing an astonishingly scenic slice of the celebrated Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur unspools for 90-some miles along California’s central coast, between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle. Its rugged beauty historically drew creatives such as Jack Kerouac and Ansel Adams and, today, is still mostly isolated and undeveloped, Big Sur pulls in a whopping 5.8 million visitors annually. Parks fill some of the region, among them 3,000-acre Garrapata State Park, which boasts two miles of beachfront, coastal hiking and redwood groves.
But it’s that mythic twisty, turning drive that groups will want to experience first.
“It’s so remote and has these rocky, dramatic cliffs that plunge into the Pacific Ocean for a big portion of the drive,” said Rachel Dinbokowitz, public relations manager at the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And with its redwood forest and waterfalls, it’s just so stunning. There are so many pull-offs with vistas for people to stop and take pictures, and some can accommodate tour buses.”
After groups have gotten their fill of the region’s magnificent views, Dinbokowitz recommends they take in some of the county’s other nature-based attractions located mere minutes from Big Sur. The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers private tours to groups, which can then step outside for an amble along the shores of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, keeping an eye out for otters and sea lions. Princess Monterey Whale Watching is open to groups year-round, though gray, humpback and blue whales are seasonal visitors. And for sand-and-surf aficionados, lovely Carmel Beach is always a wise choice.
Joshua Tree National Park
Still famed for inspiring the title and album art of rock band U2’s mega-successful 1987 release “The Joshua Tree,” this Southern California national park draws visitors from around the world for plenty of other reasons, too.
“The thing that really stands out for me about it is that there is a sense of the desert ecosystems that come together here, and that’s the Mojave and the Colorado systems,” said Hannah Schwalbe, the park’s public information officer. “That leads to a fascinating variety of plants and animals that make their home here. The dark night skies are really spectacular. And there’s a really rich cultural history, some cool geological formations and a ton of wilderness.”
Schwalbe suggests that groups head to Intersection Rock or Cap Rock; both have parking available for motorcoaches. Cap Rock offers not only eye-catching granite formations, but also a forest of the Dr. Seuss-looking agave plant from which the park takes its name. The easy, half-mile Cap Rock Trail will allow groups to stretch their legs and wander among the Joshua trees. Birders will want to walk the half-mile nature trail located off the Oasis of Mara Visitor Center to spot year-round avian residents like the greater roadrunner and the phainopepla, as well as migrating birds such as warblers, western tanagers and indigo buntings.
Joshua Tree periodically offers stargazing programs, often in conjunction with park partner Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center.
Yosemite National Park
Rock climbing famously got its start at Yosemite’s famed Camp 4, but groups don’t need to scrabble up granite to fall in love with the park.
“In Yosemite, with every turn of the head, you see something incredible and inspiring,” said Frank Dean, president and CEO of the Yosemite Conservancy. “Its exceptional natural and scenic beauty can be seen comfortably from overlooks, accessible viewing areas and easy walking trails. There are many ways to experience and learn about the park, whether you want to relax by a river or lake, take a custom art class or go for a stroll on your own or with a naturalist guide. You never forget a visit to Yosemite.”
Ranging almost 1,200 square miles through the High Sierra and boasting some 4 million visitors annually, Yosemite was named a national park in 1890. Among its most beloved spots is Mariposa Grove, graced by more than 500 massive sequoia trees, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant. There are hiking paths for all skills levels throughout the area, including the .3-mile Big Trees Loop Trail.
Although the best viewing spots for some of Yosemite’s famous waterfalls are accessible only following an arduous trek, a few can be seen with ease, like 2,425-foot-tall Yosemite Falls. Groups can catch it from motorcoach-friendly Yosemite Valley Lodge, which is near its base, or from an easy one-mile loop trail.
Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park
For groups that want to experience fabled Lake Tahoe as it was when the Washoe tribe of Native Americans visited its shores to hunt and fish, there is perhaps no better destination than Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park. Encompassing 2,000 acres, it includes two miles of shoreline, as well as untrammeled pine, fir, juniper and aspen forests. There are plenty of challenging trails available farther inland, but casual walkers will enjoy the shorter paths winding around the historic Hellman-Ehrman Estate, also known as Pine Lodge.
Located in the Sierra Mountains at some 6,300 feet above sea level, Lake Tahoe became a getaway for California’s wealthy. More-action-oriented group members can rent kayaks during the warm-weather months on the beach.
There’s a lot to do in the park, which is why it’s great for groups, according to Heidi Doyle, executive director of the Sierra State Parks Foundation.
“What’s so nice about Sugar Pine Point State Park and the historic area around the mansion is that there is something for everybody,” she said.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Groups can double their fun at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, which sit adjacent to each other in the southern Sierra Nevada. In 1890, Sequoia became the second national park established, after Yellowstone; Kings Canyon was created a half-century later. Together, they encompass 1,353 square miles, 97% of which is designated wilderness, soaring from 1,370 feet in elevation to 14,494 feet.
“We are able to offer so many types of experiences; for example, we have hundreds and hundreds of miles of trails,” said Sintia Kawasaki-Yee, public affairs officer for the parks. “But for people coming up on motorcoaches, I think going to the General Sherman Tree and the General Grant Tree, going on the Big Trees Trail and to our Giant Forest Museum, those are the keystone experiences that people are looking for when they think of Sequoia and Kings Canyon.”
The Giant Forest is home to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest, which stands a jaw-dropping 275 feet tall and has a diameter of 36 feet at its base. Giant Forest Museum, which tells the story of the sequoias, is also in the area. Big Trees Trail, a great walk for groups, starts from the facility, circling around a lovely meadow in just three-quarters of a mile. The General Grant Tree, second only to the General Sherman in size, rises from Grant Grove. The area offers a number of hikes, including the General Grant Tree Trail, a .3-mile-long paved trail.