The Seven Wonders of Christine’s World
The day I saw the sunset from Mt. Wittenberg was the day I realized that I want to experience as much beauty as possible before I die — AKA the Great Revelation of 2014.
So, in hopes of inflicting this addiction upon my friends, I’ve painstakingly chosen seven magnificent places on the west coast to rule them all (and in the darkness bind them).
7. Sky Camp & Mt. Wittenberg, Point Reyes, California
The 1.5-mile hike in from Limantour Road to Sky Camp was a bit of a hassle because we were unprepared, but if you have a backpack it’s a rather easy and flat walk to the campsite.
An hour before sunset, head south along Sky Trail until you reach the intersection of Sky, Mount Wittenberg, and Meadow. The hike is exquisitely and inescapably green, with trees towering above, arching and flexing every which way. Continue along Meadow Trail until it opens up into a grand meadow, and look to the right.
The setting sun casts a final golden wash of light, sweeping across the entire valley before your eyes. In the distance, you’ll see water from a ravine that eventually drains into Kelham Beach, miles away.
Get ready — you’re in for one of the most spectacular sunsets of your life.
Tip: Don’t forget to bring a flashlight so you can find your way back to camp!
6. Lands End & Sutro Baths, San Francisco, California
Sutro Baths is the most beautiful place in San Francisco. There, I said it. Imagine: bath house ruins, filled to the brim with water reflecting the sky above. Silhouettes of visitors walking along the stone edge between the baths and the ocean… From where you’re standing, it looks like they’re walking on water.
Find a clear day and aim to get here early in the afternoon to take the Lands End trail, for a great unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
While the Lands End trail is more of a walk than a hike, there are a LOT of stairs between the parking lot and the baths… Which makes for a tiring trip back up.
If you’re wearing comfy shoes, I highly advise walking along the baths to the south end of the area, under the Cliff House restaurant. At the end of the ruins, you can climb down to the beach and dig your toes into the (admittedly cold) sand and water.
Tip: Don’t come here on a foggy day; you won’t see much of the Pacific. SF gets foggier in the summer, so you might want to visit during the winter months (when it’s not raining, of course).
5. Mammoth Lakes, California
To escape the heat, find your way to Mammoth Lakes during the summer. The drive down is half of the beauty! Huge rocks in varying shades of red and gray loom overhead while majestic trees spatter the natural valley just outside your car window.
After arriving, take the Crystal Lake Trail — a strenuous uphill climb with plenty of rocks to rest on. It takes you high above Lake Mary, Lake George, and the Sherwin range, then up and over a mountain to the other side. Boulder your way through rocks and trees to the beach on the other side of Crystal Lake. This hike is not for the weak!
After the 3–4 hour hike, explore the trail around Lake George. Here, right along the water, you’ll get close to some extraordinary trees and wildflowers. On the other side, there’s a 20-foot-high rock with a ledge that doubles as a diving board. Challenge yourself with a jump into Lake George! Careful — the water is freezing, even during the summer.
The sky above the lakes is a canvas in itself, clouds licking across like puffy flames of gold. Sunsets are best experienced from these shores, with friends who double-dog dare you to jump into Mary’s clean waters. Note: it’s not worth the suffering and you lose feeling in your toes quite quickly.
Tip: I’d suggest leaving early so you’ll have plenty of sunlight through Stanislaus National Forest and Mono County down Highway 395.
4. Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California
I’m a sucker for natural playgrounds. And here, you don’t even need shoes to play!
One of the unique aspects of Pfeiffer Beach is the metallic purple which graces its shoreline. The vivid color comes from manganese garnet mineral deposits in the surrounding rocks, but isn’t always present — so count yourself lucky if you get a glimpse!
If you continue along the beach farther down, you’ll enter a more unkempt area, where you can find tide pools with small crabs, fish, barnacles, and other squishy sea life.
Even more remarkable, there’s an entrance from the beach into the forest. Almost no one goes in, which is a huge plus for an adventurer who takes the road less traveled. Just a few steps, and you’ve left the bright sun and crashing waves for a shady, tranquil retreat.
Don’t be afraid to explore further into the forest. If you climb up the hill on your right, there’s a small alcove located on top that overlooks the entire beach.
The sunset here is so beautiful, I have a framed print hanging on my wall. With the dirt under my bare feet and the wind in my hair, I couldn’t imagine a more majestic sunset experience than Pfeiffer Beach.
Tip: The drive is stunning, but the road is long and winding: try to drive during the day. Also, parking here is limited, so make sure to get here early, especially on holidays and weekends!
3. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California
By themselves, there’s nothing too special about these particular dunes. They’re not even the tallest in the area, and since they’re so easily accessible, the first few dunes are always speckled with human footprints. However, having just read the first two books of Frank Herbert’s Dune series and re-watched some old Star Wars movies, I was awestruck by the stark beauty of the desert landscape. The sand was incredibly fine and soft, which made running on the dunes hilariously difficult… Or should I say, attempting to run? It’s insane to imagine real-life stories of people crossing entire deserts full of sand like this.
The magic here lies at night. Crossing the sand dunes in the moonlight can be surreal — magical, even. Since we didn’t research the time of the moonrise, our trek through the dunes was difficult and a bit frightening with only flashlights to light our path. This crucial mistake allowed me to witness the purest and darkest night sky I’ve ever seen in my life.
They say that in Death Valley, the stars begin at your feet. The remote location makes for a splendidly black night, with no light pollution whatsoever. As we walked out further into the sand dunes, the mountains and dunes around us blocked off all light from the parking lot. Looking up into the night sky, I saw an entire hemisphere of brilliant stars that seemed closer and brighter than ever before. And this, my friends, is how everyone experienced the night sky just a century ago.
Tip: Download the Skyview app to make the trip interactive and educational! With such a clear sky, it was easy and fun finding famous stars and constellations in the night sky.
2. Crater Lake, Oregon
I never believed a lake could be so purely, inspirationally blue until I set my eyes upon Crater Lake. The lake fills a crater formed thousands of years ago by the collapse of volcano Mount Mazama. Astoundingly, there are no rivers leading into or out of the lake, which means the evaporation is offset by just rain or snowfall.
The lake is surrounded by epic cliffs and mountains, from which you can view its two islands. Wizard Island, pictured below, was formed from an erupted cinder cone.
The best time to visit is during the summer, otherwise some of the roads will be closed due to snow (even in May!). In the summer, you can hike, swim, and sail. In May, you can play in the snow. Unprepared in California-winter apparel, your toes might feel like they’re about to fall off.
Tip: If you’re driving from California, spend a day or two exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park on the way up. It’s worth it!
1. Vernal & Nevada Falls, Yosemite, California
I knew Yosemite was going to be high on my list, and despite temptations to pick the obviously impressive Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, or Yosemite Valley, I decided on the grueling journey to the top of Nevada Fall, which lies beneath the monumental Liberty Cap. As my first long hike, it was an extreme challenge for me, which made it all the more worthwhile.
The beginning of the trail is easy but crowded, and takes you to the Vernal Fall footbridge. It’s a little overwhelming to stand face to face with a waterfall over 300 feet high. But at the base of the fall, you can often see a double rainbow through the mist.
After taking the slippery staircase at the beginning of the Mist Trail, you’ll get to see the top of Vernal Fall. The hike becomes more arduous, with little to no shade along the countless rocky switchbacks under Nevada Fall. However, the views are striking and boast lofty, unforgiving cliffs around the valley.
Finally, after you reach the top, there’s a trail that leads you along Merced River, which eventually opens up to the mouth of Nevada Fall. Don’t be afraid to take a short nap on one of the many shady rocks, or have a quick dip in the water. Just be aware that the level and force of the river could change at any moment!
Before you head back down, stop by the footbridge crossing Merced River and get a closer look at the waterfall. The view from the top this 600-foot fall instilled me with crazy feelings of insignificance, but also a certain pride for hiking the toughest 2.5 miles of my life.
Tip: Take the John Muir trail on the way down — it’s 4 miles instead of 2.5, but is shadier with a kinder incline for your overworked knees.
For me, to this day, a scenic hike transcends all other experiences in the world. I leave you with a photo of the grand Sentinel Dome, and the assurance that any place in Yosemite, any place in the world, can yield equally incredible experiences. Hope to see you around soon, if we cross paths in our adventures chasing beauty. ☀