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Aside from good food, nothing pairs with wine better than spectacular scenery. Wine lovers will get that perfect pairing this summer when they combine one of California’s 25 beautiful national parks with a nearby iconic wine country experience.
With dozens of diverse wine regions and even more grape varieties across the Golden State, wine lovers can savor their favorite wines and explore new ones on their way to and from great parks from Yosemite in the High Sierra down to Joshua Tree in the desert. Like the stewards of California’s unique national parks, winemakers and growers also feel a deep connection to the land, making California a world leader in sustainable winegrowing – and making it easy for eco-minded travelers to find the perfect wine to complement their journey.
While in wine country, outdoor enthusiasts should make time to add an inspiring hike, bike ride or picnic in a stunning vineyard or valley. Or take it all in with a bird’s eye view on a sunrise hot air balloon ride followed by brunch with your favorite local wines. Below are some great wine regions to experience as part of a trip to some of California’s leading national parks.
Redwood National and State Parks and Mendocino County Wine Country
Home to the world's tallest trees, these coastal redwood parks inspire visions of mist-laden primeval forests bordering crystal-clear streams. A perfect way to break up the drive and stay overnight is in picturesque and historic Mendocino, a great jumping point to the Mendocino County Wine Region. The county, which boasts a high percentage of acres farmed by sustainable, organic or biodynamic disciplines, grows a wide variety of winegrapes. If you’re a Pinot Noir lover, don’t miss the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Celebration on Sept. 7, where you can taste wines and meet the winemakers from 25 outstanding wineries, located at the Little River Inn overlooking Pacific Ocean.
One of the lesser-known but incredibly scenic parks, Point Reyes National Seashore is an easy 90-minute drive north of San Francisco, just south of the quaint town of Occidental and the dramatically beautiful Sonoma County Wine Region. Take the famous Highway 1 along the coast to this park, featuring thunderous ocean breakers crashing against rocky headlands and expansive sand beaches. Sonoma has many distinctions, but here’s one to note: it grows more Pinot Noir than any other county in the state. Gourmet farm and vineyard dinners are common here—a fitting expression of the area’s great wine, homegrown culinary culture and love of the great outdoors. This June 9-10, don’t miss the Russian River Valley Passport to Pinot Weekend, featuring barrel tastings at nearly 30 wineries, as well as amazing food pairings, artist demonstrations, vineyard tours and entertainment. The place to be for wine lovers on Labor Day Weekend is the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, featuring more than 200 world-class wineries and chefs showcasing their talents at stylish winemaker lunches and dinners, a show-stopping Taste of Sonoma event as well as the hugely popular Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction.
Muir Woods and Napa Valley Wine Country
One of the most celebrated redwood tree parks in the world, Muir Woods, a mere half hour north of San Francisco and an hour to the legendary Napa Valley Wine Region, was once declared by John Muir as the "best tree-lovers’ monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world." Reward yourself after a hearty stroll in this nature preserve with a day or two in another natural wonderland: the Napa Valley. Recognized on the global stage at the Judgment of Paris in 1976, Napa Valley’s world-renowned wines have found an equal match in the region’s cuisine. If in town July 13-22, meander to the 7th Annual Napa Valley Festival Del Sole, an event the New York Times calls a “feast for the senses.” Featuring world-class artistry, gourmet cuisine, fine wines and lifestyle programs this 10-day experience celebrates the art of life.
Tahoe National Forest and Sierra Foothills Wine Country/Lodi
This 800,000-acre national forest just east of Sacramento offers outstanding recreation year-round including hiking, camping, skiing and nearby Lake Tahoe. Pairing it with a visit to the Sierra Foothills Wine Region makes the trip even more special for wine lovers. Check out Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Nevada and Placer counties. Nestled in the heart of California’s storied Gold Country, the regions are known for their rich history and rich reds. This June 23-24 check out the 16th Annual Passport "Wine" Weekend, featuring gourmet foods, entertainment and special discounts at 23 Calaveras County wineries/ tasting rooms. On the way to Tahoe, you can also stop by the Lodi Wine Region, home to 80 wineries and an area known for Zinfandel.
Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and Madera County/FresnoFeatured on many bucket lists, Yosemite National Park stirs the soul of nature lovers, with its soaring granite walls, cascading waterfalls and majestic forests. Madera County is a great addition to a Yosemite visit with its fertile farmlands and vineyards. Don’t miss the Madera Wine Trail, featuring local wineries serving their highly acclaimed dessert, port-style and late-harvest wines, among others. If you’re going to Sequoia & Kings Canyon, visit the Fresno State Winery, the first university in the U.S. to have a fully licensed winery. You can enjoy tastings or buy the wine at the Fresno State Gibson Farmers Market where you will find a variety of award-winning offerings all harvested, created or grown by Fresno State students. The winery will be part of a 2012 Winemakers Dinner on August 25, featuring wines from several local wineries, dinner and dancing under the stars.
Pinnacles National Monument and Monterey/Paso Robles Wine Country
Rising out of the chaparral-covered Gabilan Mountains is Pinnacles National Monument, the mighty remains of an ancient volcano with massive monoliths, spires, sheer-walled canyons and talus passages. This impressive park is just over an hour from Monterey County Wine Region and approximately 90 minutes from Paso Robles Wine Country, both wonderful scenic areas to explore, wine and dine. While in Monterey, which along with the nearby Santa Cruz Mountain Wine Region was also recognized in the Judgment of Paris, check out Fisherman’s Wharf and the nearby tony shops of Carmel-by-the-Sea, then head over to one of the area’s 85 wineries. If around on June 9, you’ll want to stop by the 8th Annual Art & Wine Festival in Carmel Village, featuring pourings by regional wineries of their latest vintages, local bands and family activities from pony rides to arts and crafts. If exploring the Paso Robles wine region, a hot spot for Rhône varietals and blends as well as many other grapes, don’t miss the charming downtown square or nearby Hearst Castle on the coast. If you’re visiting during the beautiful Indian Summer, don’t miss one of the area’s iconic wine and food events, Sunset Savor the Central Coast in San Luis Obispo County, Sept. 27-30.
Los Padres National Forest and Santa Barbara Wine
A stone’s throw from Santa Barbara Wine Country, Los Padres National Forest offers 1,257 miles of coastal and mountain trails which provide both day-use and extended backpacking opportunities. Celebrate a morning of hiking with a tasting or picnic at one of the area’s many wineries, immortalized in 2004 by the film “Sideways,” which celebrated the area’s signature Pinot Noir. On June 30, celebrate another popular area varietal at The Chardonnay Symposium, featuring seminars and samplings from more than 50 wineries, and paired gourmet foods provided by local restaurants and caterers.SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Joshua Tree National Park and Temecula Wine Country
Viewed from the road, this desert park only hints at its vitality, with its beautiful Joshua trees. Closer examination reveals a fascinating variety of plants and animals that make their home in this land shaped by strong winds, unpredictable torrents of rain, and climatic extremes. Dark night skies for astronomy buffs, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the attraction of this place. A visit to this park wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Temecula Wine Country, about 2.5 hours southwest. Tempered by coastal fog, this warm region is best known for its Italian and Rhône varieties—and its annual Balloon and Wine Festival, taking place this year June 1-3. A great way to sample the wines from this charming region is to check out the 3rd Annual Wine and Culinary Showcase, CRUSH on Sept. 15 during California Wine Month in September, featuring award-winning wines from 30 wineries.
Mojave National Park and Cucamonga ValleySinging sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, and carpets of wildflowers are all found at this 1.6 million-acre park. A visit to its canyons, mountains and mesas will reveal long-abandoned mines, homesteads, and rock-walled military outposts. A great way to round out the trip is to stop and stay on the way to Los Angeles in the Cucamonga Valley, one of the oldest regions in the state and known for its historic wineries specializing in Old Vine Zinfandels and port wines. A cool happening this summer is the Los Angeles Food & Wine event August 9-12, featuring incomparable tastes from 140 celebrity chefs and nearly 300 acclaimed wineries.
(Wine Institute contributed to this article.)
Editor's note: Links to the websites of thousands of lodging and dining options near California's national parks can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.