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Hiking: California

A top-10 list of places where paths lead to century-old buildings, and the past comes alive

October 09, 1994|JOHN McKINNEY

When Californians think of state parks, most picture the natural treasures those parks preserve: ancient redwoods, dramatic mountains, warm sandy beaches from San Clemente to Refugio. Fewer travelers know that some parks also interpret California history. These State Historic Parks, as they're called officially, offer great walks, as well as learning experiences for young and old. They beckon us from our state's well-traveled highways to the remote byways where many are located.

Some historic parks consist of a single building in a remote locale; others include blocks of significant structures surrounded by cities such as Sonoma, Sacramento, Santa Barbara.

The best way to see them is on foot. From Old Town San Diego to the Old Custom House in Monterey, from the Santa Barbara Presidio to the Shasta County Courthouse, the walking is easy--a few blocks, a half-mile, a mile at most. And all are fascinating hikes into history.

Admission charges vary from park to park. Like their nature park cousins, some of our state's 40 historic parks charge a $5 per vehicle entry fee. Others let you park your car free but charge a couple of dollars per person to visit a historic building or museum. Some parks charge for guided tours, some do not.

Here is my top-10 list of walks, from south to north. It's admittedly subjective and, uncharacteristically for me, with history celebrated first and the walks themselves taking second place.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, built around a central plaza, offers a six-block stroll through California history during the latter part of Mexican control, and later, during our early American days. Walkers can view La Casa de Bandini, built in 1829 as a hotel and stagecoach station and now a restaurant; La Casa de Estudillo, a mansion with a lovely courtyard--among the finest of the original adobe buildings; Casa de Altamirano, Old Town's first frame building, restored as it was in 1868, when it housed the San Diego Union newspaper.

Other historic buildings include a schoolhouse and a stable with a carriage collection. Shoppers can explore specialty shops, while diners can select from several Mexican restaurants or an Italian or Greek eatery. Old Town San Diego is located near the junction of Interstate 5 and Interstate 8; 4002 Wallace St., San Diego, 92110; tel. (619) 220-5422.

El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, located in downtown Santa Barbara on Canon Perdido Street a block east of the chief thoroughfare, State Street, preserves a part of the old military fortress built by the Spanish in 1782 to guard the central coast. A walking tour (pamphlet available from Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation) can visit El Cuartel, the old guardhouse and Santa Barbara's oldest adobe. A must-see is the recently restored Presidio Chapel, a re-creation of the city's first church. The Spanish artifacts on the altar and colorful wall paintings provide an interesting contrast to the building's simple exterior.

Park headquarters, located in a historic adobe on Canon Perdido Street, displays artifacts found on the presidio. Several nearby adobes and historical buildings, as well as the beautiful Santa Barbara Courthouse and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, entice the walker to further explore what is one of the West Coast's most walkable cities; Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, P.O. Box 388, Santa Barbara, 93102; tel. (805) 965-0093.

Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument (Hearst Castle) offers four fabulous walking tours of the palatial estate of the late newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. More than 1 million visitors a year view the collection of world treasures on display in the 130-room home. Tour No. 1, recommended for first-time visitors, includes the major rooms of the mansion, swimming pools and gardens. Other tours, restricted to much smaller groups (12 to 15 people) cover the upper levels of the castle, the castle's guest wing, gardens, pools, wine cellar and guest house. Tour tickets are $14 for adults; $8 for children 6 through 12. After the tour, enjoy a picnic at William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach on San Simeon Road, east of California 1. Nearby Sebastian General Store, established in 1873, sells food and snacks; P.O. Box 8, San Simeon, 94352, tel. for recorded information (805) 927-2000; tel. MISTIX for tour reservations (800) 444-4445.

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