Insider’s Guide to Countercultural Cali

The Golden State may be in the midst of a new tech gold rush, but there are plenty of places throughout California that attracted free spirits in the 1960s and ’70s and still carry a torch for the Age of Aquarius, such as SoCal’s Topanga, Big Sur, the jewel of the Central Coast, San Francisco, and NoCal’s sparsely populated Shangri-la, Weaverville.

Here’s how to make the most of your visit to these epicenters of laid-back cool:

> Topanga

  • Where to Stay: The Topanga Canyon Inn feels like an Italian villa by way of Hollywood—rooms are named Fred and Ginger or Bogey and Bacall. Guests can take the ultimate Topanga hike from the inn’s front door to towering Elephant Rock.
  • Where to Shop: To look the part while tooling around Topanga Canyon, don’t miss Bouboulina, a roadside store dripping with tie-dyed blouses and dresses, as well as gauzy skirts in every color of the rainbow.
  • What to Read: Perhaps the best known author associated with Topanga is Carolyn See, who lived in the canyon for more than 30 years. Her novel Golden Days (1996) evokes arriving in Topanga, “loving that pure climb into the sky and the feeling that once you got up there … you were safe.”
  • Travel Trivia: The late Will Geer, best known as TV’s Grandpa Walton, founded Topanga’s Theatricum Botanicum stage in 1973.

> Big Sur

  • Where to Stay: In Big Sur, the historic, rustic Deetjen’s Inn serves heaping breakfasts. Big Sur Campground and Cabins is a swanky (as far as campgrounds go) alternative. 
  • Where to Shop: The Henry Miller Memorial Library sells all things Miller and Big Sur—books, posters, T-shirts. An impressive photo gallery and archive feature the author’s letters and manuscripts.
  • Where to Eat: It’s worth a pilgrimage to Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant for stellar sandwiches and pizzas, including the bacon and three-egg wood-fired breakfast pizza. For the price of a cocktail at the Post Ranch Inn’s rooftop Sierra Mar bar, guests can drink in one of the most spectacular views along the coast.
  • What to Read: Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962) is a loosely fictionalized account of the time Kerouac battled his demons while staying at pal Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin among the redwoods.
  • Travel Trivia: Musicians who performed at the Esalen Institute, a famed retreat in Big Sur, include Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Ringo Starr. The cliffside restaurant Nepenthe, in Big Sur, is located on property once owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

> San Francisco

  • Where to Shop: In the heart of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Love of Ganesha is packed with crystals, incense, saris, sacred stones and statuary, bright silk scarves, and spiritual greeting cards. And for restless minds, a silent meditation room is available.
  • What to Read: Season of the Witch (2012) by David Talbot captures San Francisco in the turbulent years between the Summer of Love and the early 1980s.

> Trinity County, NoCal

  • Where to Stay: The Strawhouse Resorts—the main building of which was fashioned from 575 bales of rice straw—offers cottages plus an organic coffeehouse along the Trinity River. And the nearby Weaverville Hotel & Emporium is in a Victorian building faithfully refurbished after an 1880 fire.
  • Where to Shop: In Trinity County, the Tibetan Treasures store at Chagdud Gonpa—a sprawling Tibetan Buddhist retreat built on top of an old gold mine—features Tibetan prayer flags, thangkas, butter lamps, offering bowls, and, of course, Buddhas.

This insiders guide, reported by Barbara Graham, accompanied a feature entitled “California Dreamin'” that appeared in National Geographic Traveler‘s May 2014 issue.