California is the most populous state in the USA, with close to 40 million residents, but outside of major urban areas, you can find large areas of pristine nature and lots of adventure to be had.
My home state is also a magnet, attracting new residents and millions of visitors annually. The mild climate year-round, long sandy beaches, and snow-covered mountains make it an ideal place to live and work (mostly).
The one thing that repels some people away from California is the traffic. It is unbearable in the major metropolitan areas. So, if you plan to live here, stay away from city centers and work close to home.
In the nature department, California was blessed with a great variety of environments like the Coastal Redwoods (Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Northern California), Giant Sequoia (Sequoia National Park and Yosemite), Lakes (Tahoe, Mammoth, Big Bear), and Rivers (Merced, Smith, Klamath) and amazing rock formations and mountains (Yosemite, Kings Canyon).
I like to brag about my home state, so the following is a recap of all the great destinations and adventures in California and links to more detailed articles about each. I hope you enjoy it.
Please feel free to add your own experiences and favorite places.
You can spend some time in Downtown LA and visit iconic places like City Hall, The Last Bookstore, Pershing Square, Grand Park, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Museum of Contemporary Art – to name a few.
Note: The observation tower closed down. In its place you will find the new restaurant Vista Patio.
At Santa Monica, you can enjoy the long beaches and the Santa Monica pier with carnival rides. For more fun, you can spend some time at the Third Street Promenade, which is a short walk from the pier.
Further to the south, take a stroll through Venice Beach with its quirky street performers and food and trinket vendors. A few blocks inland, you will be transferred into our own version of the Venice Canals, with beautiful villas and gardens along the banks of the canals.
Visiting The Getty Center or the Getty Villa is a must for museum lovers. At the Getty, you can enjoy modern architecture, art collections, and beautiful landscaping with gardens and fountains.
Right in downtown, take a look at the Museum of Contemporary Art with its unique collection of modern sculptures, photography, and paintings.
Further away from downtown, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and La Brea Tar Pits are worth a visit. At LACMA, you can spend days browsing the art exhibits in several buildings. At the Tar Pits, take a peek at ancient fossils preserved in Tar.
And don’t forget the California Science Center, where you can learn how things work, watch an Imax movie, or visit the Space Shuttle – all next to the University of Southern California’s (USC) beautiful campus and Exposition Park.
And, of course, a visit to LA is incomplete until you venture into Hollywood and Universal Studios. Walk on the main boulevard in Hollywood and step over the Stars of the famous and infamous. At Universal, witness how movies are made, take a few thrill rides, and go through Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Right outside Universal Studios, you can enjoy a stroll along City Walk with lots of shops and dining experiences. At the City Walk, you can also go skydiving (the indoor variety).
Go to Sturtevant Falls, Monrovia Falls at Canyon Park, or Eaton Canyon Waterfall for a nice hike and rewarding waterfall at the end – or go to San Antonio Falls for a thrilling adventure repelling through the waterfall.
Further above San Antonio Falls, take the ski-lifts to Mount Blandy Winter Sports Center for some fun in the snow during winter or hiking and dining during the warmer months.
You can also enjoy a stunning waterfall above Malibu at Escondido Falls.
OC is home to the Disney Resort in Anaheim, with 2 parks, an entertainment district, and several hotels. You can spend days hopping between Disneyland and California Adventure, or you can just spend an evening at Downtown Disney with many shops, restaurants, and an AMC movie theater.
Many visitors come to OC for Disneyland, but the area has much more to offer, like beaches, art colonies, surfing tournaments, great parks, and many entertainment venues.
Right next to Disneyland, you can enjoy some great food at the Garden Walk – with popular eateries like Cheesecake Factory, PG Chang, and Buba Gump. Then, enjoy a stroll through the shopping center or attend a concert at the House of Blues.
Laguna Beach is known as an artist colony with many galleries and two different Arts festivals. As you walk between the galleries, shops, and restaurants downtown, stop at the hidden Sculpture Garden adjacent to Dawson Cole Fine Arts Gallery.
Once you had your fill of art and food, head to the beach for some fun in the sand or on the surf – or take a stroll along Heisler Park on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. All along the bluffs, you can take ramps or stairs down to some secluded coves and beaches.
Huntington Beach, to the north, is known as Surf City USA, with many surfing competitions held on its beaches. Along with the long stretches of beach in HB, you can find a lot of dining experiences on Main Street, the Pier, and the new Pacific City Mall.
Newport Beach has a long Bay with many Islands where the rich and famous live. Take a bay cruise and learn about the great mansions dotting the islands – or get more adventurous and go on a Dolphin and Whale watching tour.
If you prefer, you can just spend some time at the Fun Zone with many rides for the kids and good seafood restaurants.
Another great beach town is on the southernmost border of Orange County. San Clemente feels like a Mediterranean coastal town with its white homes nestled on many hills. San Clemente State Beach is the main attraction for nature lovers, with RV and tent sites overlooking the ocean.
While in San Clemente, try the Coastal Trail for a 2.3-mile hike or bike. Start from the north end, at North Beach, and continue on the dirt road, passing through several beaches. Around mid-point, stop at the Pier for a well-deserved rest and tasty lunch or dinner at the Fishermen’s Restaurant. The restaurant sits on the pier with great views all around.
Although OC is mainly urban sprawl, you can still find very good hiking places. My favorite hikes are at Crystal Cove State Park. The park is huge, with a nice campground, a long stretch of beach right on PCH, and a long network of trails going inland.
Other great hikes are at Buck Gully in Newport Beach and Top of the World at Laguna Beach.
Newport is also a launching pad for trips to Catalina Island. The island is a short boat ride from Newport Beach, but it feels like a different country.
A large portion of the island is set aside as a conservancy to protect the plants and wildlife. At the main city, Avalon, you can enjoy a leisurely stroll along pedestrian roads, swim at the beach, go snorkeling in the clear waters, go ziplining, or spend hours hiking the protected trails.
If you are not in the mood for theme parks and zoos, spend some time at Balboa Park, with many museums, gardens, and sports complexes. Some of my favorites are The Fleet Science Center, Air and Space, and the Museum of Arts. Also, at the park, you can attend a free organ concert in an open theater every Sunday.
For some great dining and shopping, don’t forget to visit the Gaslamp Quarter in Downtown. The gas lamps are especially beautiful at night when the streets are busy with revelers enjoying the great weather and the many nightclubs in the neighborhood.
A few blocks away, you can reach the waterfront with many attractions like the Convention Center, Harbor Cruises, the USS Midway carrier, the Maritime Museum, and Seaport Village.
Outside the San Diego city limits, you must visit La Jolla Village for spectacular ocean views and nature hikes. At La Jolla Cove, you can have a nice hike overlooking some interesting rock formations, get close to the seals, or go down into a sea cave. At Black’s Beach, you can enjoy the beautiful sands or become a naturist and bear it all.
A visit to La Jolla is incomplete without a hike through Torrey Pines State Reserve. This park and beach have many trails with stunning views of the ocean.
The town of Carlsbad in SD County is home to Legoland and the famous Flower Fields. The Flower Fields are seasonal but definitely worth a visit when the flowers are in bloom. You get to walk among rows upon rows of multi-colored flowers or take a ride on the Tractor Wagon through the fields.
The waterfront offers a long hiking trail with many dining places right on the beach. For more nature walks, visit one of the Lagoon conservation areas or go deeper inland to Hosp Grove to hike around an extinct Volcano.
Southern California is known for its mild weather year-round, but you don’t have to go far if you love winter sports. The San Bernardino mountains are high enough to have snow-covered mountains during the colder months.
When ski resorts are open, you can enjoy skiing, snowboarding, or sledding through the snow. During the off-season, you can still have fun hiking through the many trails or just enjoy a picnic on the lake shores.
Big Bear Discovery Center is a good place to start your visit, learn about the area, hike the trails around it, and maybe stop for a snack or lunch.
This oasis in the middle of the Sonoran Desert grew rapidly to become a major tourist attraction despite the harsh conditions. With temperatures soaring to the 110s most summer days and freezing in winter, it is a wonder anyone wants to live or visit here.
But they do, and they spend some time at the major resorts partying around pools, playing golf, or doing some shopping and dining on the main drag, Palm Canyon.
Nearby, you can take the Aerial Tramway to a Height of 8500 ft to the top of the San Jacinto State Park for some hiking or winter fun. Also, close by, you can have a wild ride on ATVs through the sand dunes.
The first time I saw Joshua Tree NP, I thought I just crossed through the Twilight Zone and into another planet. The eerie landscape, rock formations, and the uncanny Joshua trees combined to transport me to a different state of mind.
Within the NP boundaries, you can enjoy an abundance of hiking and biking trails, camping, bouldering, and rock climbing.
At night, enjoy a stunning view of the heavens. Due to low light pollution and clear skies, the stars shine bright, providing a rare view for visitors escaping the city.
Imperial County and the Badlands
At Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) and the nearby Badlands, you can take your favorite 4-wheel toy and have an adventure of a lifetime. The campgrounds at the SVRA are primitive, so don’t expect showers or hookups. But the reward is a stunning night sky full of stars – after all, the rowdy riders go to sleep.
Go to the Badlands at your own risk. It is very rough terrain with huge boulders everywhere, but it is fun to try to navigate through this challenging landscape.
Another great spot for primitive camping and fun on the sand dunes is Glamis, close to the Arizona border. This stretch of dunes is about 45 miles long with many dry washes running through it – ideal for more 4-wheeling fun.
Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)
One of California's most amazing destinations is a Road Trip along the famous Pacific Coast Highway 1 (PCH). This highway goes all the way from San Diego to the Northern tip of California, passing through beautiful ocean views, historic bridges, coastal forests, and great beaches.
The southern part of PCH goes through densely populated areas like San Diego, Orange County, LA, and Ventura. After you pass Ventura, you will come across more laid-back towns like Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Monterey, and Santa Cruz.
Along the way, don’t forget to visit Hearst Castle and Big Sur. At Hearst Castle, enjoy some guided tours to learn about the history of this huge estate on the hills.
At Big Sur, have fun swimming or tubing on the river, camp along its banks, and visit the many National Parks in the area.
This archipelago of islands sits off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura and is a protected nature area – it is part of the National Parks system. A boat ride away, and you will be transferred into a pristine world of wildlife, steep cliffs, and beaches – away from civilization.
At this National Park, you can enjoy the long hiking trails on several islands or you can go Kayaking through coastal caves. Overnight camping is also allowed, but you must bring everything you need.
As an extension to the beaches in Pismo, a large area was set aside for 4-wheel fun on the sand dunes. The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) is 5.5 miles of beach dunes open to the public to enjoy with their favorite 4-wheel toys. You can rent ATVs right at the park entrance and get them delivered where the action is.
The aquarium offers a large collection of sea life exhibits and some hands-on experiences for the kids. The aquarium is also in the middle of Cannery Row, with many shops, restaurants, and bars.
At the Wharf, enjoy great seafood while observing the sea lions and otters from the windows. For the kids, go to the Dennis The Menace Playground right next to the Wharf. This playground has many fun rides for the kids and paddle boats on the large pond.
Santa Cruz is known for its natural beauty, pristine coastline, redwood forests, lifestyles, and socially liberal leanings. It is also home to the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a large student population and beautiful camps with great views of the ocean.
You can’t visit Santa Cruz without walking or biking on West Cliff Drive. This scenic drive takes you from the Municipal Wharf to Natural Bridges State Park.
The drive (or walk or bike) itself is amazing, with a great view of the bay, coves, and surfers below the cliffs. Towards the end of the drive, you are rewarded with rocks forming natural bridges along the shore. You will find a nicely shaded campground and a sandy beach inland from the rock formation.
You can enjoy tasty clam chowder and other seafood at the wharf at the many restaurants with a commanding view of the bay around you.
From the pier, you can see the famous Beach Boardwalk with many carnival rides. The view is especially dazzling at night with all the rides lit up. After gazing at it from afar, you can just walk a few steps to enjoy the rides.
Close to Santa Cruz, you can spend some time hiking or having a picnic in the Redwood Forest. There are two main attractions in the forest. You can go on a train ride through the woods and up the mountains at Roaring Camp Railroad, or you can go Ziplining at Mount Hermon for a great adventure.
If you choose to take this road trip, you will come across some sleepy beach towns like Davenport, Half Moon Bay, and Pacifica. You will also pass some beautiful State Parks and Beaches like Año Nuevo and Bean Hollow.
At Año Nuevo, go for a long hike over the sand dunes to see the Elephant Seals sunbathing and playing in the sand.
At Bean Hollow Beach, enjoy the view of huge waves breaking at rugged formations of black volcanic rocks. And on the beach, gaze at the wild vegetation with vibrant colors.
San Francisco is a huge urban area with many destinations and attractions. Most visitors flock to Pier-39 and Fisherman’s Wharf when they first get to SF. You can find the best Clam Chowder at the Wharf and you can go on a cruise or rent a bike right next to Pier-39. The pier and the wharf are great destinations but are usually very crowded.
Once you visit those places and enjoy the aquarium, shops, and seafood restaurants, head to lesser known places like Coit Tower with a 360-degree view of SF; Angel Island for some great hiking; and the Marin Headlands with a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge from above. During foggy mornings, you can be higher than the cloud bank and feel like you are walking on the clouds.
The Golden Gate Park offers more than a thousand Acres of parks, ponds, flowers, and venues. The Conservancy of Flowers and The Academy of Science are my favorites.
Muir Woods is a National Monument on the outskirts of SF with majestic Redwood trees and a creek with wood bridges crisscrossing it.
Finally, a visit to San Francisco is incomplete without taking the ferry across the Bay to neighboring towns or going on a cruise between the two bridges.
At his stunning place, you can spend your time hiking on the valley floor or through the expanse of meadows, mountains, and woods.
From the valley floor, you can climb through steep trails to several iconic waterfalls or take a longer journey through the John Muir trail.
The Mist Trail is very close to the roaring Nevada Fall and connects to the higher Vernal Fall. In between, you can relax at Emerald Lake.
If you don’t feel like hiking, just take the Grand Bus Tour through popular points of interest like the Giant Sequoia and Glacier Point.
Another great way to experience the Yosemite Valley is by riding a bike along the many trails and connecting to Mirror Lake.
For an extreme adventure, go on a whitewater rafting trip. The Tuolumne River will challenge you with level 4 and 5 rapids, so be an expert or go with a tour operator.
And finally, you can spend some time volunteering to help restore habitats and get close to nature.
California doesn’t end at San Francisco, but my journey ends here. Northern California is waiting for me to discover it, but I look forward to visiting the great National Forests covering a large swath of the land and the many rivers running through it.
If you know a favorite town, national park, or adventure in Northern California, please post an article or send me an email through the contact form.