California's attractions are so diverse that travelers of all types will have no problem finding things to do that will thrill them. Beaches, lakes, forests, mountains and deserts sit side by side within the state's borders. The state is also home to several wine regions, Michelin-starred restaurants and, of course, star-studded Hollywood. With all this and so much more, it may be challenging to figure out how to fit all the state's most important must-sees in one or more trips. Let this guide assist you in your California vacation planning, whether you're a first-timer or a seasoned pro. From the north to south and everything in between, these are the top things to do in California. (Note: Some of the following activities and locations may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
The 17-Mile Drive is a spellbinding route that weaves along the most scenic stretch of the Monterey Bay coastline. This road, located in the exclusive community of Pebble Beach, takes drivers up into the Del Monte Forest, past palatial mansions and down along picture-perfect craggy beaches and bluffs. Take the time to stop at the various lookout points marked along the way, including the famous Lone Cypress Tree. If you're interested in bedding down here, consider splurging on a room, or at least stop for a meal, to behold the stunning scenery that surrounds the properties at Pebble Beach Resorts, including The Lodge at Pebble Beach or The Inn at Spanish Bay. Note that you'll have to pay a small fee to access 17-Mile Drive.
This small community in Monterey County is one of the most unique and charming towns in California. Its enchanting coastal location, wooded streets, fairy tale-like architecture and bevy of local shops and restaurants is well worth the detour from the Pacific Coast Highway. While here, be sure to visit a few of Carmel's beaches and not just the namesake Carmel Beach, which is located at the end of Ocean Avenue, the town's main drag. Carmel River State Beach isn't as highly trafficked and features the Carmel Meadows Trail, which leads to the even more secluded Monastery Beach. As for where to stay, consider treating yourself to one of the town's luxurious accommodations, including traveler-approved L'Auberge Carmel or La Playa Carmel.
Visit the theme parks
You are truly spoiled for choice when it comes to theme parks in California. The impressive amount of options will please every type of traveler. Kids will naturally be dazzled by Anaheim's world-famous Disneyland Park. However, if you're not up for paying Disneyland's notoriously high ticket fees, consider exciting alternatives, such as Legoland California and SeaWorld San Diego. There are also two Six Flags locations (one near Los Angeles and the other near San Francisco), perfect for thrill-seekers, and Universal Studios Hollywood, which is home to the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Due to the popularity of these parks, you'll have no problem finding nearby accommodations. Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa is a top choice among travelers, as is The Garland for those visiting Universal Studios Hollywood. And the well-received Cape Rey Carlsbad Beach, a Hilton Resort and Spa is not only a short drive to Legoland, but also offers a location right next to the beach.
Yosemite National Park
If you only had time to visit one outdoor destination during your California trip, make it Yosemite. Welcoming millions of visitors per year, Yosemite Valley has been known to stir awe for centuries with its grand granite peaks, magnificent waterfalls and lush, evergreen landscapes. There is so much to do in this nearly 760,000-acre park that you'll need several days to take it all in. If you're unsure where to start, know that Glacier Point, Half Dome, Tunnel View Outlook and the Mist Trail are considered iconic, can't-miss attractions, according to recent travelers. There are three hotels within Yosemite, including the Ahwahnee, Yosemite's only luxury hotel. You'll also find cabins, canvas-sided tents, campgrounds and RV campsites spread around the park.
Explore the desert
To properly appreciate California's diverse geological landscape, you'll need to venture beyond the coast and explore the desert. Luckily, two magnificent desert landscapes can be found less than three hours from Los Angeles and San Diego. Joshua Tree National Park, located about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, is an 800,000-acre oasis dotted with the unique Joshua tree, which can only be found in the American Southwest. Meanwhile, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, located about 75 miles northeast of San Diego, is California's largest state park and features striking scenery ranging from slot canyons to palm oases. Both of these parks offer memorable hiking trails and camping options. Traveler favorites in Joshua Tree include the 3-mile out-and-back Ryan Mountain Trail and the 1.7-mile Skull Rock loop trail. And in Anza-Borrego State Park, visitors enjoyed the 2.6-mile out-and-back Pictograph Trail and the more moderate 2.3-mile loop Slot trail. Due to the desert's extreme summer heat (think: daytime temperatures above 100 degrees), it's best to visit during the spring and fall.
If you're interested in experiencing small-town Southern California, Laguna Beach is the perfect place to start. Conveniently situated between Los Angeles and San Diego, Laguna Beach is located along the coast just off of California's famous Highway 1. Laguna's picturesque setting is characterized by pristine oceanfront parks and a collection of beautiful beaches wedged between its coastal bluffs. Be sure to visit unique cove beaches, such as Victoria Beach and 1,000 Steps Beach, as well as larger shorelines, including traveler-favorite Crystal Cove State Park, which receives praise for its beautiful setting. Laguna Beach is also home to a bevy of luxurious accommodations, including The Ranch at Laguna Beach and the traveler-approved Montage at Laguna Beach.
Located a little more than 30 miles east of Los Angeles, Malibu is often seen as a coastal refuge for the rich and famous. While that impression is certainly true, Malibu is also home to several superb beaches and is a stone's throw away from exceptional wilderness parks. Drive down Highway 1 and make a pit stop at popular shorelines, including Robert H. Memorial State Beach park, Zuma Beach and Point Dume State Beach. You should also take time to hike the many trails at Point Mugu State Park, Topanga State Park and the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. For hikes with spectacular ocean views, hit up the 3-mile Solstice Canyon Loop trail or the challenging 2.7-mile Mugu Peak loop trail. Due to Malibu's small size and affluence, you won't find many hotels that offer affordable rates, so you might want to bed down in nearby Los Angeles. If you are intent on staying in Malibu, you'll find comfort and luxury at the Malibu Beach Inn and The Surfrider Malibu.
A visit to California is not complete without a stop in San Francisco. There are several ways the city is a standout, not only in the state but the entire country. Its scenic bayfront setting, towering hills and the plethora of colorful Victorian homes that line them are a feast for the eyes. On top of all of that, the city is home to world-famous attractions and is widely considered to be one of the best foodie cities in the country. While here, stop at visitor favorites, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and Alcatraz, but also take advantage of the outdoor spaces that make up the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, including Land's End, Muir Woods National Monument and more. As for where to stay, you have endless options in San Francisco, including Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and St. Regis outposts.
The state's second-largest city is a great alternative for those who want a big city experience without the intense traffic and smog of neighboring Los Angeles. San Diego is a premier vacation destination thanks to its diverse array of attractions. Here, you have your pick of fantastic Southern California beaches, including Pacific Beach and La Jolla Shores. Other top things to explore include the world-famous San Diego Zoo, museum-heavy Balboa Park, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and traveler-favorite USS Midway Museum, located in a retired aircraft carrier. You'll find plenty of hotels near various points of interest in San Diego, including by the beach, the bay and in downtown. For a real treat, consider a stay at the elegant Fairmont Grand Del Mar or the historic Hotel del Coronado, Curio Collection by Hilton.
Death Valley National Park
This national park is one for the books, breaking records as both the hottest place on Earth and driest land in all of North America, not just the United States. A visit to Death Valley is not easy; the closest international airport sits nearly two hours away in Las Vegas. Should you decide to make the trek, you'll be rewarded with memorable desert landscapes, including walkable sand dunes and Artists Drive, a 9-mile paved road that features pastel-colored hills. There's also the Racetrack, which is home to the famous moving rocks. If you'd like to stay within the park, know that there are a variety of campgrounds and lodging options, including The Oasis at Death Valley.
This remote region located along the central coast of California should be on everybody's bucket list. Big Sur's beauty is so palpable and restorative that it's become a popular spot for a wellness retreat. You can achieve this with a stay at the famous Esalen Institute, a holistic educational and wellness center, or at the luxurious Ventana Big Sur, an Alila Resort, where you can book spa appointments and wellness activities. Travelers can also practice mindfulness while taking in all of Big Sur's stunning natural sights. First-time visitors should stop and admire Bixby Bridge, hike along the coast at Andrew Molera State Park, visit McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and catch a sunset at Pfeiffer Beach, home to the famous Keyhole Arch. If Ventana Big Sur is out of your price range, consider a stay at the more affordable Glen Oaks Big Sur or the Big Sur Lodge, both of which earn high praise from travelers for their serene woodland settings.
The City of Angels is one place that deserves a spot on every California itinerary. Aside from being home to Hollywood, Los Angeles also offers an incomparable dining scene, some of California's most famous beaches, including Venice and Santa Monica, world-class art institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center, hiking options galore, and a variety of other attractions. There is so much to do that you'd need more than a week to see it all. Like its attractions, LA is also filled to the brim with exceptional hotels. Give yourself the celebrity treatment and splurge on a stay at highly rated properties, such as The Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air or The Peninsula Beverly Hills.
Indulge in wine country
Many are aware of Napa Valley's reputation as a world-class wine destination, but Napa isn't the state's only wine producing hot spot. Sonoma is considered Napa's more casual sibling, and offers more diversity in terms of attractions, including Sonoma Coast State Park and Safari West, the latter of which is a safari park that offers African-style game drives to its visitors. Travel farther down south and you can experience the Santa Ynez Valley, considered one of the most diverse grape-growers in the country. Meanwhile, Temecula Valley Wine Country, found north of San Diego County, has produced hundreds of award-winning wines from its member wineries. There are so many wine regions (12 to be exact) that wherever you are in the state, chances are you are within driving distance of at least one.
Behold the giant sequoias and redwoods
Did you know that California is the only place in the world that houses giant sequoias and redwoods? This is all the more reason you should make a plan to visit these natural wonders. Contrary to popular belief, giant redwoods and sequoias are not the same tree. They require two separate climates to survive. To see giant sequoias, head into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, preferably to Sequoia National Park, where you'll find the world's largest tree measured by volume, General Sherman. To marvel at giant redwoods, you have your pick of Redwood National and State Parks or Humboldt Redwoods State Park, all in Humboldt County in northwestern California (about 200 to 300 miles north of San Francisco). These parks offer four developed campgrounds and eight campground cabins.
If you're the kind of traveler who enjoys a lake vacation, know that Lake Tahoe is California's best. Situated in Northern California, Lake Tahoe is so big that is spills into neighboring Nevada. Tahoe is lauded for its spectacular clear blue waters and beautiful mountainous landscape that also features some of the best skiing in the country. If you're visiting during winter, enjoy a ride along the slopes of Heavenly Ski Resort and Northstar California Resort. During the summer, soak up the sun with a dip at Kings Beach State Recreation Area or with a hike through one of the many trails that meander around the lake, including traveler favorites like the 4.4-mile Emerald Point out-and-back trail at Emerald Bay State Park or the 2.4-mile Rubicon Point Lighthouse loop trail at D.L. Bliss State Park. What's more, there are a bevy of highly rated hotels available, including the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe and The Lodge at Edgewood Tahoe.
Experience wildflower season
What California lacks in fall foliage it more than makes up for with wildflowers. Spring is a great time to see an abundance of the state flower, the California poppy, which, depending on where you go, has been known to blanket valleys and hills with its vibrant orange tint. How much of a bloom you see and where varies depending on the year's seasonal rainfall. Some of the best places to see wildflowers are in Southern California. Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Point Mugu State Park, Figueroa Mountain and Chino Hills State Park are a few of the most popular locations where you can spot pretty flowers. If your California travels will be concentrated in the north, try North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve or Lake Tahoe, the latter of which is known to feature a spectacular seasonal display of violet and deep blue lupines.
Santa Barbara's soothing setting and luxurious offerings make it an ideal getaway for travelers simply seeking a pause. Santa Barbara enjoys a beautiful location wedged between the coast and the mountains, affording visitors plenty of opportunities for hiking and time at the beach. Can't-miss shorelines include Summerland Beach, Arroyo Burro Beach and Leadbetter Beach, while popular hiking spots include Gaviota Peak and Los Padres National Forest. This, in combination with Santa Barbara's alluring Spanish and Mediterranean architecture, makes this destination feel like a true getaway. Hotel options here are just as dreamy as the setting, with highly rated spots like The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara and Belmond El Encanto. What's more, Santa Barbara sits around 95 miles northwest of Los Angeles (about a two-hour drive), making it a convenient addition to your LA itinerary.
Learn to surf at Huntington Beach
One of the most quintessentially Californian things you can do during your trip to the state is learn how to surf. There are several places you are allowed to surf up and down the coast, but that doesn't mean that beginners should go just anywhere. The best shorelines for novice surfers feature calm waters and knowledgeable lifeguards. Surf City USA ( Huntington Beach's nickname) fits that bill perfectly. What's more, there are several surf schools in Huntington. Highly rated operators include Corky Carroll's Surf School, Learn2Rip Surfing Lesson and Ocean Academy, and Banzai Surf School. After hitting the waves, rest sore muscles at top-rated beachfront properties, including the Kimpton Shorebreak Resort or the Pasea Hotel & Spa.
Explore one or more national forests
Did you know California has the most national forests of any state in the nation? In addition to its famous national parks, California has 18 national forests to its name. If you are vacationing in the southern part of the state, consider a visit to Cleveland National Forest, Angeles National Forest or Los Padres National Forest, the closest national forests to vacation hot spots like San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. North of Sacramento, outdoor lovers have their choice between seven national forests, including Mendocino, Six Rivers and Klamath national forests, to name a few. All of these forests offer beautiful wilderness landscapes, hiking trails and camping options.
The Lost Coast
Intrepid travelers looking to experience the untouched landscapes of California should consider a trek along The Lost Coast. Located less than 40 miles south of Eureka in Northern California, The Lost Coast is an undeveloped stretch of coastline. Unlike Big Sur, which shares similar geography, The Lost Coast is devoid of roads and can only be accessed via a 25-mile-long hiking trail. The trail takes about three days to traverse (one way), so you should only attempt this if you're an experienced backpacker. Visitors who make the journey will be treated to peace and quiet, empty beaches and plenty of wildlife, ranging from elk to elephant seals, not to mention striking views of the King Range, a collection of mountains that hug the coastline. Camping is allowed on the coast, but you need to obtain a backcountry permit in order to do so. If you want to see this stretch of California but don't want to hike that far, there is a more manageable 3-mile option available located at The Lost Coast's northern terminus, near the small community of Petrolia. Along this trail, you'll be treated to the same stunning scenery as well as the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore gives visitors a glimpse into what life on the Northern California coastline was like before development. Conveniently situated less than 40 miles northwest of San Francisco, this national seashore is much easier to reach compared its counterparts like Big Sur and The Lost Coast. Here, you'll be treated to breathtaking stretches of coastlines, some of which are only accessible by trail, including the popular 9.7-mile out-and-back Tomales Point Trail. A visit to Point Reyes will also take you through verdant, wooded landscapes and put you in close contact with wildlife, including elk, bobcats, seals, beavers and much more. You'll find campgrounds on-site and modest accommodations in nearby towns, including Olema, Point Reyes Station and Inverness.
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