California boasts some of the country’s most iconic locations from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to Disneyland in Southern California. The Golden State has the largest population in the US and for good reason. The variety of attractions and locations can make for a lifetime of exploring. Whether you want to go camping in the vast deserts of Death Valley and Joshua Tree, hike through the giant forests of Sequoia and the Redwoods, go skiing in Lake Tahoe or Mammoth Lakes, or enjoy the white sandy beaches of Southern California, California is loaded with something for every type of traveler. I have been living in California for the past 12 years and these are my top 10 things to see in California.
1. The Redwoods
Nowhere else feels like the Redwoods. Located near the border of California and Oregon, these magical forests have some of the biggest trees on the planet. The Redwood National Park and State Parks are run as a single unit and include Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and my personal favorite Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Hike the James Irvine trail, located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, through the lush forest all the way to the foggy beach. Herds of elk are common to see. Take a scenic drive through the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Hike through Cheatham Grove to see the real Endor; where they filmed Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi. If you are looking for a magical and serene experience, with lots of fresh air, the Redwoods of Northern California should be at the top of your bucket list.
2. Yosemite National Park
One of the most famous natural landmarks in the entire United States, Yosemite is a national treasure. Known for its massive granite walls and waterfalls, Yosemite is a hiker’s paradise. The Mist Trail leads you up past two big waterfalls with a view for the ages. Mirror Lake Trail takes you on a calm walk around the peaceful lakes in the valley. Hiking Half Dome is an exhilarating and precarious experience that can create a very memorable trip. Stare in awe at Yosemite Falls or get some exercise by hiking up to the falls.
If hiking isn’t your thing, take a drive to some of the most iconic Yosemite views including Glacier Point and Tunnel View. Or take a short walk to see the thundering Yosemite Falls. Watch in awe from the comfort of the valley ground as world class rock climbers take on the famous El Capitan. Yosemite Valley can become quite crowded, especially during the peak summer season where traffic to get into the park can sometimes take hours.
3. San Francisco
On the bucket list for most travelers is the iconic city of San Francisco. Located in the middle of the state on the Pacific coast, San Francisco has mild and foggy weather that supports the beauty surrounding the city. Known for its steep hills and cable cars, the city’s most famous landmark is the Golden Gate Bridge. Take a drive across the bridge and visit the Redwood forests at Muir Woods National Monument, or opt for a ferry trip to the infamous Alcatraz Island. Explore the Fisherman’s Wharf where you can visit areas such as Ghirardelli Square, Pier 39, and the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.
4. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
With some of the biggest trees on the planet, Sequoia National Park is a must see for any nature lover. The massive forests help shed perspective on our existence. Both Sequoia and Kings Canyon are located at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, about 4 hours northeast of Los Angeles. Home to the largest tree in the world (by volume), The General Sherman, Sequoia offers many incredible hikes including the Congress Trail, The Big Trees Trail, Moro Rock, and Tokopah Falls. You can read more about the Best Things to do in Sequoia National Park here.
Kings Canyon National Park borders Sequoia and offers much of the same beautiful scenery with less of the crowds. Drive the iconic Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to take in sweeping views of the canyon and surrounding mountains. It’s also a very popular backcountry area where adventurous hikers can explore a completely remote forest.
5. Lake Tahoe
A California gem in both the winter and summer, Lake Tahoe is a must see attraction in the USA. While winter offers some of the best skiing in the United States, summer offers camping, boating, hiking and loads of wildlife. There are 23 ski areas in Lake Tahoe and the views of the lake and surrounding mountains while skiing down are astounding. If you aren’t into skiing or snowboarding there are still plenty of options in the winter including snowshoeing, winter hiking, sledding and ice skating.
The pristine blue color of the water gives Lake Tahoe a magical look. With the crisp smell of pine trees ever present, the alpine forests give Tahoe a true Sierra vibe. Be on the lookout for black bears which run rampant through the forests and campgrounds. Other wildlife include deer, raccoons, squirrels, beavers, coyotes, marmots, and mountain lions. Summer activities include kayaking, hiking, jet skiing, paddleboarding, boating or taking a ride on the gondola. Both summer and winter see a lot of visitors, so if you are looking for a more peaceful trip try for the shoulder seasons in Spring or Fall.
6. Big Sur
Containing the most scenic stretch of coastline in California, Big Sur is what most envision when daydreaming about a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway. With rocky cliffs and rugged coastlines on one side, and enchanting forests and waterfalls on the other, Big Sur is one of my favorite destinations in all of California.
On the north end of Big Sur, Point Lobos and Garrapata State Park both offer unique coastal hikes, lots of marine wildlife, and incredible views of the Big Sur coast. Limekiln State Park has peaceful redwood forests. Pfeiffer Beach and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park are highlights that should be included on any itinerary. But nothing tops the picturesque McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where an 80-foot waterfall crashes into the crystal clear blue ocean.
7. Los Angeles
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 12 years so it is odd to view it as a tourist attraction, and most visitors flock to the not-so-glamorous Hollywood Boulevard to see the Walk of Fame and the Hollywood Sign. But this city has so much more to offer and in my opinion is best experienced through its lifestyle rather than its attractions. But having said that, Los Angeles is a great city to visit and truly has it all. Some of the best attractions include the beach towns of Santa Monica and Venice, the mountains of the Angeles National Forest, the trendy hipster areas of Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz, and the palm tree lined streets of Beverly Hills.
Shop until you drop on Melrose Avenue, or opt for a more bougie experience by heading to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Visit the Getty Villa, hike through Griffith Park and up to the Griffith Observatory, or take a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu. Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, and Hermosa Beach are all an hour’s drive away (depending on traffic of course). Families will love Universal Studios and the close proximity to Disneyland in Anaheim. The dining options are endless as is the nightlife, with every neighborhood offering a different vibe and experience.
8. Death Valley National Park
If you are looking to get weird, Death Valley is the place to go. This vast desert has a plethora of fascinating attractions to visit that all feel very different. Visit the lowest point in the US at the salt flats of Badwater Basin. Hike up the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes or down into the Ubehebe Crater. Drive past the Artist’s Palette to see the wildly colored pastel hills. Watch the sunset over the badlands of Zabriskie Point.
It is not advised to visit Death Valley in the summer as temperatures can become extreme. The best time to visit Death Valley is between mid-October and mid-May, with the winter having the most ideal temperatures. Located on the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley is accessible by car and takes about 4.5 hours from Los Angeles or 2.5 hours from Las Vegas.
9. Joshua Tree National Park
Located about 3 hours east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park has some of the best desert landscapes in the country. A rock climber’s paradise, the park is filled with wild rock formations and the signature joshua trees. Listed as an International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree is a great place to look into the Cosmos if you are fortunate to nab a camping spot. Other than camping and rock climbing, hiking is another popular activity in the park. Come sunset the park is also a photographer’s dream. Due to its close proximity to Los Angeles and San Diego it can make for a great day trip, but I would recommend spending a night or two in the desert.
10. San Diego
One of my favorite cities in California, San Diego is located on the pacific coast just 30 minutes from the border of Mexico. Beach town vibes dominate the city that boasts a mediterranean climate and tons of sunshine. Balboa Park offers a slew of attractions for the family including the San Diego Zoo, the botanical gardens, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Man and the San Diego Museum of Art.
Walk the bustling boardwalk of Mission Beach, watch dogs run wild on the dog beach at Ocean Beach, or relax on the more family friendly Coronado Beach. Nature lovers will enjoy the tidepools at Cabrillo Monument, the marine wildlife at La Jolla Cove, and the rugged coastline of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. If you are looking for some good food and a night out, consider visiting the Gaslamp Quarter District in downtown San Diego.
11. Mammoth Lakes
If you are looking for the prime skiing and snowboarding spot in California, look no further than Mammoth. Situated on the eastside of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Mammoth has two major ski areas: Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain. Much like Lake Tahoe, Mammoth has both a popular winter season as well as a summer season, with different activities for both seasons. Hiking, kayaking, standup paddle boarding, and fishing are among some of the popular summer activities. Nearby natural attractions include Rainbow Falls, Mammoth Mountain, the Inyo Craters and the Devils Postpile National Monument.
12. Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands are made up of eight islands off the coast of Southern California near Santa Barbara. They have unique geological formations and are a great place to visit to see marine wildlife and escape into nature. Santa Cruz is the biggest of the islands and contains several hiking trails and an overnight campground. Santa Cruz is also the best place to see the island fox, which is endemic to the Channel Islands. Anacapa Island is another popular island to visit as day trips offer a chance to see the massive nesting ground for seagulls and other marine birds (due to the lack of predators).
California’s diversity makes it one of the best destinations in the entire world, not just the United States. There are so many more places to visit that I couldn’t squeeze on this list, but some honorable mentions that are definitely worth visiting are Santa Barbara, Napa Valley, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Pinnacles National Park, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, Big Pine Lakes, Temecula wine country, and the Anza Borrego Desert.