Here's the paradox about California's San Andreas Fault. Yes, it can shake us silly. But it's also responsible for some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Another paradox: As powerful as it is, the San Andreas is also kind of shy. There aren't many places where you clearly see the fault and the landscapes it's shaped. Our list includes some of these areas, where you not only see traces of quakes, but also can enjoy spectacular hiking, especially in spring.
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park , Aptos Creek Trail. The demanding but beautiful hike puts you above the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Hike or bike along the Aptos Creek Fire Road 4 miles. At the Aptos Creek Trail, ditch the bike and walk about 0.6 miles to the epicenter, which is marked by a sign. From Soquel Drive in Aptos, take Aptos Creek Road 1 mile north to park entrance. Because of extreme weather, the trail and certain roads were closed at publication time; call ahead before making plans. 831/763-7062.
Coachella Valley Preserve , Thousand Palms Oasis. Here in the Coachella Valley, the Mission Creek branch of the San Andreas Fault has forced water upwards to create the lush Thousand Palms Oasis, a beautiful grove of fan palms. A short trail leads you through the grove. From I-10 in Palm Springs, 5 miles east on Ramon Road, then about 2 miles north on Thousand Palms Canyon Dr. 760/343-2733.
Devil's Punchbowl County Park, Loop Trail. With its wildly sculpted rocks, this park on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains is probably our favorite place to see the fault's workings. The 1-mile Loop Trail, which leads from the park nature center, gives a good introduction. From State 138 in Pearblossom (20 miles southeast of Palmdale), 7 miles south on Longview Rd. to 28000 Devil's Punchbowl Rd. 661/944-2743.
Point Reyes National Seashore , Earthquake Trail. This short (0.6-mile) scenic trail is the best place in Northern California to see traces ― ground fractures, displaced fences ― of the 1906 quake. From State 1 in Olema (35 miles north of San Francisco), follow signs ½ mile west to Bear Valley Visitor Center. Trail begins at Bear Valley picnic area, across from the visitor center, and is wheelchair accessible. 415/464-5100.
San Benito County
Pinnacles National Monument, Condor Gulch Trail. Talk about heavy lifting: The San Andreas Fault (which runs right through the monument) helped carry the eerie rock formations you see here some 200 miles from their original home between Lancaster and Gorman. The 2-mile round-trip hike on the Condor Gulch Trail gives a good overview of the geological spectacle. 26 miles south of Hollister on State 25, 5 miles west on State 146 to the east entrance of park, 3 miles to the trailhead. $5 per vehicle (without National Parks Pass). 831/389-4485.