Spring: California Poppies in Antelope ValleyEvery few years, conditions align to bring out a display in California's Antelope Valley that could leave you nearly speechless. It's a startling and magical experience to find yourself in a landscape ablaze with orange flowers as far as you can see in every direction. We've likened it to the poppy scene in The Wizard of Oz or maybe the legendary Paul Bunyan was involved, carelessly splattering orange paint across the landscape, but no matter how you try to describe it, you'll be glad you went.
Summer: Lassen Volcanic ParkCalifornia summers can be extraordinarily hot inland and extraordinarily foggy at the coast and finally, it thaws out enough in northern California for Lassen Volcanic Park to open. The southernmost volcano along the Pacific Coast last blew its top in 1915, 65 years before Mt. St. Helens' eruption. It's that much further toward recovery from the blast and the two make a nice study in what happens over time, but Lassen alone can be a spectacular stop, centered on the lava dome, one of the most massive on earth, with bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles, places with colorful names like Bumpass Hell. Use this guide to find out more and see what it's like in these photos.
Autumn: Fall Color East of the SierrasIf you're used to fall colors in hardwood forests, you may think "ho-hum" when we use the word monochromatic to describe the eastern Sierras' fall foliage, but when that color is golden yellow, it's anything but boring. Golden color spills down the mountainsides like drips down the sides of an untidy painter's bucket and reflects in clear mountain lakes while individual branches of gold, heart-shaped leaves arch delicately over mountain streams.
Winter: Elephant Seal RookeryMale Northern Elephant Seals top out at 14 to 16 feet long and weighs as much as 5,000 pounds, sporting a long, fleshy snout that inspired their name. They and their females spend 10 months a year at sea, coming ashore along the California coast in December for a wild, two-month orgy of birthing, feeding, fighting and mating.
When a colony showed up at Piedras Blancas, just north of Hearst Castle in 1990, they became an instant wildlife-watching hit. Seldom will you get so close to this kind of display of wild behavior, where all the action happens within easy view of boardwalks just steps from the parking lot. These photos will give you an idea of what it's like.
If you can't make it to Piedras Blancas, you can also see the elephant seals on docent-led tours at Ano Nuevo State Park south of San Francisco, but you'll need advance reservations.