The Golden State has more to see than most countries, and it’s larger than many as well. Given its many landscapes — from forests and deserts and mountains to a coastline that runs along the entire western side — I’ve spent most of my life exploring this state and still find new points of interest constantly.
So what are the best places to see? As a native Californian, photography junkie, and perpetual traveler, here’s my ultimate California bucket list from south to north:
1. Surf’s Up in San Diego
San Diego is the third-largest city in California and probably has the best weather of anywhere in the world. Given its proximity to Mexico, plan on having some of the best food in the state and a nice mix of cultures (though that’s true all over California). Coronado Island, the beaches of La Jolla, and the funky culture of Hillcrest make these areas my personal favorites. Pacific Beach is a favorite of the twentysomething crowd, and Ocean Beach is a laid-back surfer/hippie spot.
On your way north, stop by Encinitas for even more of a hippie vibe, and the free Self-Realization Fellowship meditation gardens. If you’re super into surfing, you might already know about the famous waves at San Onofre.
2. Be Blown Away by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Font’s Point in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park must be the best sunrise in all of California, where sunsets usually reign supreme. The incredible rock formations and wind caves are super fun to explore, too. If you are camping, don’t forget to look up at night; the area is great for stargazing. I can’t say enough great things about this beautiful park! It’s only a 2.5-hour drive from Los Angeles, and best to visit in the winter.
3. Explore the Last Free Place in America, Slab City
I first went to Slab City to see the Salvation Mountain art installation, only to find that Slab City is actually a community of squatters and outcasts using what’s been rejected and left behind by others to create a free society that operates nearly independently of the rest of the world. It felt like entering a new dimension. The art installation alone, though, is worth the long drive into the middle of nowhere. It was created by US Army veteran Leonard Knight, a devoted Christian who expressed his dedication to his religion through art, though I’d say anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, would find the installation appealing. If you’d like a unique experience, rent a camper van and drive toward “the last free place in America.”
Read: A Guide to Slab City
4. See the Magnificent “Trees” in Joshua Tree National Park
If you enjoy hiking and love stargazing in the wilderness, Joshua Tree is perfect for both and beyond. It is also the only place that you can see Joshua trees, which are actually agaves, a succulent plant. This national park is famous for rock climbing and bouldering as well. Just be careful in the summer months — it can get blazing hot.
5. Take a Scenic Helicopter Flight over Orange County
Have you heard that the sunsets are better in Southern California? They’re brilliant with explosions of orange, red, and pinks, and sometimes even green flashes as the sun hits the watery horizon. What better way to see the OC sunset than on a helicopter ride? If you depart from John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach down the coast, and fly all the way to Dana Point and back, you will pass by Laguna Beach, Corona del Mar, and other iconic landmarks. Seeing these places soaking in the golden-hour glow is a beautiful and unique experience I highly recommend when in Orange County.
I also highly recommend watching the sunset from the Newport or Balboa Piers in Newport Beach, where I lived for four years. Other favorites of mine are Laguna Beach and riding a bicycle from Newport to Huntington for some great exercise. There’s even a drum circle at the Huntington Beach Pier on Sunday evenings if you’re into that.
6. Go to Disneyland
This one’s a classic. I grew up about 15 minutes from Disneyland and had a parks pass for most of my life and still never got tired of it. Even as an adult, I still love the Magic Kingdom. It’s so nostalgic and sparkling clean (unlike other amusement parks), and the food is honestly really good. You can also get beer and wine in California Adventure if that’s more your speed.
7. Learn to Ski in Big Bear Lake (in the Winter)…
Big Bear Lake is a mountain resort town in the San Bernardino Mountains that frame greater Los Angeles. It has been a ski town since 1925, and is the first place where I strapped on a snowboard. It is perfect for skiing enthusiasts of all levels — in fact, many come to Big Bear Lake to learn to ski for the very first time. There are two mountains to choose from: Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, though I’d say go for both if you can, since there’s a shuttle between the two. You could also snowshoe or sled in between.
8. …or Go Hiking & Camping in Big Bear Lake (in the Summer)
There are so many incredible hiking trails to choose from! You will be sure to find one that best suits your ability. Big Bear Lake also has many campgrounds and RV parks, so if you plan to spend the night, consider camping out — gear is available for rent, and the facilities are great. Serrano Campground is the most popular area for both tent and RV camping.
9. Hike to the Hollywood Sign
This hike surprises some people, given its steepness and exposure to the elements, but it’s a great way to see the whole city from one of the most iconic landmarks in LA. The hike is just over 6.5 miles, with over 1,700 feet of elevation gain. Prepare for a workout — go in the early morning or later afternoon hours if attempting it in the summer. As always when hiking in California in the summer, be aware of snakes, particularly rattlesnakes. I encounter them all the time in the dry summer months.
10. Spend a Few Days in Venice Beach
Venice Beach is a classic LA stop if you love places that are just a little bit weird. Check out the skate park, get an overpriced coffee on Abbot Kinney Blvd., and watch the sunset on the sand. If you’d rather go less weird and more classic, stay in nearby Santa Monica and watch the sunset near the pier as the Ferris wheel lights up. Alternatively, stay in Silver Lake for a hipster vibe close to the famous Sunset Blvd., or in West Hollywood if you want more of a party vibe. If I can talk you out of even visiting the Walk of Fame, allow me to try — it’s the worst part of LA and so overrated.
11. Explore the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve and Monument
Covering 1.6 million acres, the Mojave Trails National Monument is the largest national monument (protected area) in the contiguous United States; the Mojave National Preserve, next door, is huge as well. There are plenty of cool things to do, but personally, I think the sand dunes come out on top. Yes, you don’t have to travel all the way to Namibia to see sand dunes — I was so pleasantly surprised to have found them back home! They’re nowhere near as popular as the sand dunes in Namibia, but the experience was just as impressive, minus the crowds.
Hiking up through the loose sand can be pretty tiring, but the panoramic view you get from the top is absolutely gorgeous. You can glide down slowly after taking in the views. I recommend going barefoot for this.
The sand dunes are incredible at both sunrise and sunset and are accessible with a normal, non-4×4 car, as long as you stay on the tar road and don’t continue onto the sand.
Book your stay in Mojave National Preserve here or camp in the preserve itself. There are sites just at the base of the dunes, but they don’t have any services, like showers, toilets, or running water. Please pack everything out.
12. Stare at the Stars on Salty Flats in Badwater Basin, Death Valley
The Badwater Basin, which sits below sea level, makes up a large part of Death Valley National Park and is incredible for stargazing, or during a full moon. It’s a flat and easy walk out to them from the main viewing area; from there you can go as far as you please. It’s the lowest point in North America located in the hottest desert in the world, so if you’re visiting in the summer, do so after dark.
Another can’t-miss place in Death Valley that I love is Golden Canyon. The hike through this dry rocky terrain isn’t for the faint of heart, so make sure to read my guide to the Golden Canyon hike before you partake.
13. Visit the Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills are the gateway to Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in California, as well as the highest summit in the lower 48. The jagged formation of the mountain makes it a beautiful sight, especially when covered in snow. It’s got gorgeous arches, terrific views of the Eastern Sierras, and lots of Hollywood history. Both Mobius Arch and Boot Arch were highlights during my recent California desert road trip!
The best time to enjoy the Alabama Hills is in the winter or the spring. In the wintertime, you can see snow on the mountaintops, and sometimes snow in the Alabama Hills themselves, whereas in the springtime, there are swaths of wildflowers in bloom.
14. Look for McWay Falls in Big Sur
The Central Coast is my favorite part of California, beginning with Santa Barbara, where I attended college (I’m a UCSB Gaucho for life), and heading up to San Francisco via Big Sur. This is one of the most popular parks in California, so it usually books up well in advance for good reason. You will see incredible coastal redwood trees, and of course, find the unique McWay Falls, standing 80 feet tall and flowing directly into the ocean when the tide comes in. It is a gorgeous spot you don’t even need to hike to — just park your car outside of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and walk over.
Finally, no Big Sur road trip is complete without a stop at the infamous Bixby Bridge, which makes an idead ending for your Big Sur adventure as you head north to Monterrey.
15. See the World’s Biggest Trees
Heading back inland, you’ve got the trifecta of California’s most famous national parks: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia, the last of which is famous for the world’s most massive trees. It’s incredible to behold such old living organisms, without even being able to see all the way to the top in many cases.
16. Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most iconic landmarks in San Francisco, if not all of the US, the Golden Gate Bridge is best explored on foot and in the morning. You can walk across it and take a short walk in Golden Gate Park’s beautiful gardens afterward (a great spot for a picnic!). Another option is to rent a bike and ride across the bridge.
If you want to see it from afar, I suggest heading to Baker Beach, which is a nudist spot. Once you’ve got that splendid selfie with the bridge as your backdrop, there are plenty of great restaurants and cafés around to fill your belly.
17. Visit the Biggest Chinatown Outside of China
As cool as San Francisco is, don’t just stick to the normal Fisherman’s Wharf and Painted Ladies. Check out Chinatown for some seriously good food, and make your way to Oakland for live music or ecstatic dance. It’s easy when you can take BART and UberPool or Lyft Line all around the Bay Area.
18. Check Out Mammoth Lakes for Hiking or Skiing
Be sure to check out Mammoth Lakes, just south of Yosemite and on the other side of the Sierras from King’s Canyon, for some of the most brilliant stargazing, waterfall chasing, and skiing in the winter. I loved hiking there this summer and seeing the glimmering Emerald Lake and Duck Pass pictured above.
19. Explore Yosemite National Park
The crown jewel of California and the first land to be federally protected in the US, Yosemite is on everyone’s bucket list when they visit California — and it should be! You can have a fantastic time in the valley, but if you want to avoid the crowds, I suggest camping in White Wolf and sticking to the trails near Glacier Point, which is a great starting point for Nevada Falls and different views of Half Dome. That’s only possible to do once the snow has melted, but Yosemite is magical in the winter as well.
20. Backpack to Lake Aloha
This part of the Sierras reminds me a lot of Patagonia because of how pristine the wilderness is. Get blown away by how clear the water is at Lake Aloha, an underrated alternative to the mega-popular and far larger Lake Tahoe.
The hike to the lake is an adventure that is almost as beautiful as the lake itself, so you might want to consider adding a couple days to your backpacking itinerary just to enjoy the views. Find out how to hike to Lake Aloha here.
21. Enjoy the Crystal-Clear Waters of Lake Tahoe
Another favorite for swimming in the summer, Lake Tahoe, on the border with Nevada, is known for insanely clear water. It’s perfect for stand-up paddleboarding or hiking. It’s a big lake with southern and northern areas, the latter of which is less developed. Make sure to also explore Emerald Bay and Mt. Tallac when in the area!
22. …or Experience Lake Tahoe in Winter
The wealth of activities around Lake Tahoe is certainly not limited to the summer months. From skiing the slopes to snowshoeing through the mountains, there’s loads to do in Lake Tahoe in the winter. You’ll find cozy cabins tucked away high above the lake, which make for the ideal chilly getaway.
23. Relax in Wine Country
Though I’m not a wine drinker, this isn’t a complete list without mentioning the famous wine regions north of San Francisco. The most famous are Napa and Sonoma. The latter tends to be a bit cheaper and less posh, while Napa can be costly but has some of California’s most famous wines.
24. Head to Magical Mendocino
Mendocino captures everything that I love about NorCal: a foggy coastline, dolphins and whales in the distance, and crisp, spring-like weather year-round. A longtime favorite among Hollywood celebrities, renowned poets, and outdoors enthusiasts, Mendocino is sure to enchant you into wanting to return again and again. Find out what makes Mendocino so magical here.
25. Hunt for Sea Glass in Fort Bragg
Fort Bragg is often compared to its southern neighbor Mendocino because of its equally as charming atmosphere. However, you’ll likely find that Fort Bragg is a bit more affordable and has a distinct character of its own.
One of the most popular places in Fort Bragg is Glass Beach, where you might be able to find an abundance of sea glass on the shore. Find out what else to do in Fort Bragg here.
26. Climb Volcanoes in Lassen Volcanic National Park
As one of the least-visited national parks in the West, let alone California, Lassen Volcanic National Park feels a lot like a hidden gem. Although fewer people visit Lassen, it certainly doesn’t fall short its wow factor, and its incredible vistas, crystal-clear lakes, and hot springs are sure to impress.
For a complete list of what to do here, see this guide to tackling Lassen Volcanic National Park in 48 hours.
27. Visit the Lost Coast
You basically can’t go wrong driving north to Humboldt and along the scenic route between Moonstone and Trinidad and beyond. There are several viewpoints as well as great restaurants along the way.
Each beach is gorgeous in its own way. You’ll see locals walking their dogs, and surfers braving the cold and catching some waves. Oh, and you might spot some whales, too!
You can walk among the coastal redwoods in Humboldt and north into Redwood National Park. You will see very few tourists, which is always preferred.
I love this part of California so much, I’ve been back six times!
28. Hug the Biggest Tree in the World at Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks houses Hyperion, the name of a coastal redwood and the tallest tree in the world. Coastal redwoods, which are common in the park, can stand over 350 feet tall, are the most massive trees in the world, and can live as long as 2,500 years.
The park remains open all year, though the best time to visit is in the spring or fall, when the crowds are much smaller. Still, you won’t get nearly the visitor numbers of the geographically lower parks in the state.
It’s a humbling experience seeing these giants up close, let alone waking up surrounded by them, to say the least. If you are into camping, you can do so at the state park campgrounds (there’s none in the national park area). There are also a number of hiking trails.
29. Drive the 395 Freeway
If you want to see a number of things that are on this list already, consider packing up and heading out on an epic adventure along the 395 freeway, which includes big stops like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. This is definitely the road trip if you want to see the very best of what California has to offer.
Find out where to stop along the 395 freeway here.
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While those are some of the best places to see, you can bet there’s so much more beyond this list. As I said in the beginning, California can fill a lifetime with adventures.
What are some of your favorite spots in the Golden State?
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