Cheerful Trails

18 Perfect Places For A California Summer Vacation

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Wondering about some of the most amazing places that will make your California summer vacation exceptionally memorable? Here are some of the best spots to help you plan your summer in California.

Summer is just a few months away and now is the perfect time to plan an epic getaway or staycation. California being one of the most diverse states in the United States offers vibrant cities, beach fronts, lake towns, hiking spots, wineries and a lot more.

With many outdoor adventures, relaxing coastal areas, charming sites and natural beauty, Summers in California are a call to wonderful times. Check out some of the best places to visit for a fantastic California summer vacation.

Best Places For A California Summer Vacation

Big Sur - California Summer Vacation

If you are looking for the perfect summer destination in California, you really cannot go wrong with the absolutely breathtaking Big Sur on the Central Coast. With landscapes that are the stuff of dreams, any trip to Big Sur is sure to be memorable.

Located roughly thirty miles south of Monterey Bay, you can also reach this incredible natural area via a  road trip to Big Sur from Los Angeles  or other California cities.

Once you are there, there are lots of things to keep anyone occupied in this beautiful setting. Take the time to go on one or two of many hikes in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, take in the iconic Bixby Bridge, enjoy the views of the McWay Falls as the water cascades onto the beach or simply pull over at a few of the many vista points to gaze in awe at the dramatic cliffs and seaside.

There are few places in the United States that are as famed as Big Sur and once you visit, it’s not hard to see why. So if you’re looking for an unforgettable destination in California, then you absolutely cannot go wrong with visiting the inimitable Big Sur!

By Maggie of The World Was Here First

2. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara - California Summer Vacation

Santa Barbara makes an ideal  weekend getaway in Southern California . Just north of Los Angeles and south of San Luis Obispo, it’s the gateway to California’s central coast. With the Santa Ynez mountains as a backdrop and colorful red tile roofs everywhere, Santa Barbara feels upscale and sophisticated—after all, plenty of celebrities have homes in Montecito here—yet easy-going and accessible.

Plus, the whole town is walk-able, making it a breeze to enjoy an evening out at any one of the many award-winning restaurants here. Santa Barbara’s foodie scene has always been on point.

Spend time at any of the beautiful beaches here or go wine tasting in The Funk Zone near lower state street. One of the best things about Santa Barbara is the beautiful bikes-only path that stretches from downtown all the way along the beach up to the university (UC Santa Barbara) north in Isla Vista. Cycling here is a dream come true.

Visiting Santa Barbara in summer is ideal. In fact, it’s famous for its June Solstice Festival , a beautiful annual tradition with a world-class parade filled with colorful costumed revelers. With more time, head into the hills 30 minutes to access world-class wine tasting opportunities in the Santa Ynez Valley . Whichever activities you choose, your Santa Barbara visit is sure to surprise and delight.

By Chris of Explore Now Or Never

3. San Diego

Hotel del Coronado, San Diego - California Summer Vacation

San Diego is known for its 70 miles of beautiful coastline. With summer temperatures in the low 80s during the day and temperatures in the 60s at night, it is a fantastic summer destination with plenty to explore. Arrive early to see the popular La Jolla Cove seals and sea lions. Alternatively, take a kayak tour, or a s eal tour , to enjoy the seals and panoramic views of San Diego from the water.

Explore the  USS Midway Museum , the most popular Naval Warship Museum in the United States. Allow 3-4 hours to explore it. The museum gets extremely busy, so arrive early. Wander the Gaslamp Quarter, while enjoying the history, Victorian architecture, and restaurants featuring world-renowned chefs. The Gaslamp Quarter is a lively downtown neighborhood that is easily walkable.

Don’t miss Balboa Park , a 1,2000-acre historic urban cultural park that features green space, gardens, several museums and theaters, and one of the best Zoo’s in the world, the San Diego Zoo.

Coronado is one of America’s finest beaches. With a long sandy beach, it is a great place to enjoy some time relaxing in the sunshine. Plus, driving across the 200 foot tall Coronado Bridge provides one of the best views in San Diego.

By Debbie Fettback of World Adventurists

4. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel - California Summer Vacation

If you are looking for a relaxing, gorgeous location for your California summer vacation, Carmel-by-the-Sea is for you. Carmel is a small, coastal city located just 1.5 hours south of San Francisco . It’s home to many bohemian artists, writers and poets and known for its whimsical feel and fairy-tale-like cottages. 

You can sunbathe and listen to the waves on Carmel Beach or window shop and stroll art galleries on Carmel’s famous Ocean Avenue. And when you are ready for a snack, pick up a delicious treat from Carmel Bakery which is over 100 years old. 

Take a short drive to Point Lobos State Park for some easy hikes to see Carmel’s breathtaking, rocky coastline. While you’re there, be sure to see China Cove’s crystal-clear, turquoise waters!

Summer travel to Carmel is perfect for travelers who love a good summer festival. Swing by the annual Carmel Art Festival, Carmel Surfabout or the world-class Carmel Bach Festival (just to name a few!).

By Jenessa Van Woerkom of Destination Daydreamer

5. Mammoth Lake

Mammoth Lake - California Summer Vacation

Although Mammoth Lakes is famous for skiing and other winter activities, it’s actually an awesome place to visit in the summer, too! From hiking to mountain biking to camping (and even gondola rides), you won’t run out of fun things to do in Mammoth Lakes , even if you spend your whole summer in this lovely mountain town.

While Mammoth Lakes is full of incredible hikes, one of the most iconic is Devil’s Postpile/Rainbow Falls. An easy trail will take you to both the unique basalt columns and the gorgeous 101 foot waterfall, named for the rainbows it often creates on sunny days.

Also make sure to pay a visit to Mono Lake, just outside of Mammoth. This saltwater lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America (it’s over a million years old!) and features cool-looking tufa rock formations. Don’t forget to stop at nearby Mono Cone in Lee Vining for a yummy summer treat.

And even though you won’t find any powder to ski at Mammoth Mountain in the summer, you can still ride the gondola and take in the panoramic views of the whole area to scope out your next adventure!

By Allison of She Dreams Of Alpine

6. Mendocino

Mendocino - California Summer Vacation

Mendocino  is one of the best places to visit in California in the summer. Located on the North Coast of California, Mendocino offers lots of fun things to do outdoors. Although Mendocino has a temperate climate all year long, the long daylight hours of summer make it possible to explore more.

Visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which are flush with blooms in the summer. The rose garden and summer heathers are particularly spectacular. Walk the coastal trail to enjoy the beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.

Explore some of the state parks around Mendocino, which feature redwood forests, coastal bluff trails, and opportunities to spot wildlife. A little north, you can visit Glass Beach to look for the sparkling colored glass pieces on the beach.

In the town, stroll the pretty streets to admire the architecture, and visit a museum or two to learn more about the history of the area. Mendocino is home to charming inns, and great places to eat and drink: Trillium is both a cafe and an inn.

By Dhara Of Roadtripping California

7. Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park - California Summer Vacation

Sequoia National Park is the  perfect Californian summer vacation . Home to the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, as well as most of the world’s sequoia trees, the national park covers a significant portion of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The elevation makes it much cooler than most of the state.  Summer daytime temperatures are typically in the 70’s. 

The park is also home to the eponymous sequoia trees, the largest trees on earth.  These, along with pine, fir and cedar trees, make ideal hiking destinations. There are plenty of trails and visitors can fill their days gazing in awe at enormous sequoias and admiring the beauty of the mountains. The Congress Trail is a particular highlight, as it passes many of the largest trees on our planet. Moro Rock is another fun trail to hike.

In the mornings or evenings, it is common to see black bears and other animals feeding in the meadows. Don’t miss the Giant Forest Museum to gain insight into the growth of these amazing trees.

By James Ian of Parks Collecting

8. San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo - California Summer Vacation

San Luis Obispo is one of the most gorgeous spots along the central California Coast. Located approximately halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, SLO, as locals call it, offers enough to keep you busy for at least a couple of days. Begin your trip in downtown San Luis Obispo, where you can check out the Bubblegum Alley. Learn about the history of the area at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, one of the city’s top historic landmarks, and grab local produce at the local farmer’s market.

While San Luis Obispo is located inland, however, it sits near some of the best beaches in Central California. The area also boasts some incredible hikes since it is surrounded by the Nine Sisters, a chain of dormant volcanic cones that present a great opportunity for hiking and mountain biking. These craggy mountains include the popular Bishop Peak, Cerro San Luis, Cerro Cabrillo Peak, Hollister Peak, Black Hill, Islay Hill, and Cerro Romauldo among others. 

By Daria Bachmann of The Discovery Nut

9. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach - California Summer Vacation

California is filled with so many fun summer getaways and Pismo Beach is one of them. Pismo Beach is a classic  beach town  located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco that offers so much to do.

One of the best things to do in Pismo Beach is to hang out at the pier. While here, keep your eyes open for dolphins and other marine life. Afterward, head over to the pedestrian-only promenade where you can wander through shops.

Another fun thing to do in Pismo Beach is to spend a day hopping from winery to winery. A few of the best wineries in the region include Edna Valley Vineyard, Wolff Vineyards, and Saucelito Canyon Vineyards.

A visit to Dinosaur Caves Park is also a must. The views of the coastline from here are beautiful. Don’t forget to stroll through the Shell Beach neighborhood. Here you’ll find old-fashion beach cottages. Lastly, be sure to enjoy the local seafood while you are in Pismo Beach. You cannot leave without trying clam chowder at Splash Cafe.

By Disha Smith of Disha Discovers

10. Bay Area

Bay Area - California Summer Vacation

The Bay Area of Northern California is probably best known for the beautiful hilly city of San Francisco. But the Bay Area itself actually covers nine counties offering a wonderful mix of city and nature. Although this is a year-round destination, summer is the most popular time to visit. 

San Francisco is buzzing in the summer with fun activities such as wandering the lovely Golden Gate Park, cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge to the charming town of Sausalito, or watching the sea lions at Pier 39 while eating fish and chips.

Wine lovers will be in heaven exploring the Sonoma and Napa Valleys . The wineries are great to visit year-round but in the summer there’s the added charm of small town festivals and live outdoor entertainment.

If you’re looking to escape the city and immerse yourself in nature head to Big Basin Redwoods State Park or Muir Woods to see the awe-inspiring giant redwoods. Or for stunning coastline and fresh sea air you have got Ocean Beach or Point Reyes with its iconic lighthouse.

Accommodations in the Bay Area are abundant and varied. Choose from full-service hotels, quaint guest houses and inns, simple motels and everything in between. You can even go glamping in the Bay Area for a delightful balance of nature and comfort.

By Sarah & Nathan of All About Glamping

11. San Francisco

San Francisco - California Summer Vacation

San Francisco is one of the prettiest cities in the world and it’s no wonder that there is so much to do and see. Summer is a great time to visit San Francisco because of the mild weather and blue skies. Some of the most popular things to see are the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, Palace of Fine Arts, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, The Seven Sister, Nob Hill, SFMOMA, Yerba Buena gardens, the Missions etc. The list goes on and on. 

Besides the famous landmarks, a perfect day trip to San Francisco would include beautiful mosaic steps and sunset sail in San Francisco Bay.

For the chocolate lovers Ghirardelli Square is an absolute must visit. San Francisco is a foodie paradise with something for every palette. Some of the popular cuisine are Italian food at Stinking Rose in Little Italy. Authentic Chinese food and the original fortune cookies in China town. The best sushi in Mission area at Shizen. The best Indian food at Ambar and many amazing Mexican places such as Gracias Madre.

By Jyoti of Story At Every Corner

12. Napa Valley

Sterling Vineyards Napa - California Summer Vacation

Napa Valley in the summer can be a wonderful trip with kids if you know where to go! Start your day with a reserved tour of Castello di Amorosa and wow your kids with a real Italian Castle. (And their wine is delicious as well!) Kids will love exploring the castle and there are chickens and peacocks to chase as well.

Next, drive less than 3 miles down iconic State Route 29 to Sterling Vineyards. This is the only vineyards in the valley that has an Aerial Tram or gondola to take you to their tasting room in the hills. Kids will love the ride and adults will love the views. A hot air balloon adventure too takes you over the gorgeous views of the vineyards, hills and agricultural fields

Finally, drive just 8 miles south to Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena and end your day of exploring with a well-deserved meal at The Farmstead. It’s a delicious farm-to-table restaurant, outdoor café, and general store which is a “one-of-a-kind Napa Valley experience.” There are outdoor games for kids and an extensive, delicious menu and wine list for the adults. And on your way home, check out these non-screen  car activities  for your kids.

By Jennifer of FamilyTripGuides

13. June Lake

June Lake - California Summer Vacation

June Lake, located in the Eastern Sierras, is one of the most beautiful spots to visit in California. In the summer, June Lake has so much to offer:  hiking, swimming, kayaking, camping and more! To get there, you could either fly into Mammoth Airport, Reno Airport, or drive about 6 hours from Los Angeles. Driving is the most popular option, as it’s a super scenic and easy drive!  

If you’re planning on camping, Oh Ridge campground is one of the best. The views are epic and the campground is conveniently located right near the beach side of the lake – which is the perfect place to hang out during the summer. Make sure you reserve ahead of time, as the campsites fill up quickly, especially for weekends! If you’re not the camping type, there are quite a few cute Airbnbs or hotels/lodges located in the town of June Lake.

Hanging out at the lake itself is one of the  best things to do in June Lake  – it’s absolutely beautiful! Have a beach day, bring some floats, and soak in the amazing views. If you find yourself walking around the cute town of June Lake, try out June Lake Brewing for some great beers (and an awesome Hawaiian food truck!), or June Pie Pizza Co for delicious pizza!

By Lauren Wilson of Ready Set PTO

14. Shasta Cascade

Burney Falls, Shasta Cascade - California Summer Vacation

The Shasta Cascade region in Northern California is absolutely beautiful any time of the year. However, summer is extra special as it’s a great time to be outdoors enjoying all the natural beauty. There are many waterfalls, swimming holes, and lakes. Be sure to check out Burney Falls, one of California’s gems. And if you’re a hiker there are tons of amazing trails in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Castle Crags State Park, and beyond.

For the ultimate hike, you can summit Mount Shasta. This is a strenuous hike but a non-technical climb. However, anyone can enjoy the many  Mount Shasta viewpoints  in the area. The mountain is so large, it can be seen from many miles away. 

To get to the Shasta area you can fly into Redding, which is the major city in the area. The drive to Shasta is about an hour and most of the waterfalls and hiking is within an hour’s distance. Summer is a great time to camp and a great option if you’re planning to do most outdoor activities.

By Jeanine of Le Wild Explorer

15. Palm Springs

Palm Springs - California Summer Vacation

Palm Springs , located about two hours southeast of Los Angeles, is the perfect place to soak up some California summer sun. While the city can see temperatures hitting triple digits during the summer months, the low humidity and desert-like climate creates the quintessential “dry heat”, perfect for enjoying Palm Springs’ infamous pool scene or better yet, exploring local attractions.

For example, check out the Moorton Botanical Gardens for gorgeous displays of cacti and other desert flora or make a trip to the neighboring Joshua Tree National Park to climb on interesting rock formations and marvel at the eponymous, Seussian trees.

For such explorations, it’s best to plan doing the majority of your exploring in the early morning or the late afternoon to beat the brunt of the summer sun, but these limitations are worth it- you’ll enjoy fewer crowds and more affordable prices during the summer months. And most importantly, that will leave your daytime free for lounging by the pool.

By Jessica Schmit of Uprooted Traveler

16. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe - California Summer Vacation

Located right on the state line between California and Nevada, this freshwater alpine lake is the perfect summer destination with warm daytime temperatures, sports and activities for a range of interests, special summer events like boat shows and fireworks displays, along with beautiful sunsets. 

Besides relaxing on the beach, you might enjoy getting out on the water in a kayak or stand up paddle-board to enjoy the crystal clear lake waters anywhere along the shoreline. Try parasailing for panoramic views or rent a jet ski to really get out and explore. You can also rent equipment for boating activities like water skiing, wake-boarding, tubing and fishing, try the King’s Beach area for rentals. 

There are also great hiking trails around Emerald Bay and options for horseback riding from a few resorts, or consider doing the Tahoe Rim Trail all the way around the lake !

The small city of South Lake Tahoe offers a range of hotel options. Budget travelers might try staying at a nearby campground, and Emerald Bay State Park is a popular choice. Groups or families could also rent a lakeside cabin. Remember to book accommodation well in advance for busy summer weekends and holidays. 

By Claire of  Claire Pins Travel  

17. Joshua Tree National Park

places to visit in california this summer

Located in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is an incredible location for a California summer vacation. Summer is the lowest season for tourism in Joshua Tree because of the hot weather. However, visitors can take advantage of this opportunity and score an excellent campsite inside the park, something that is very difficult to do during peak seasons.

If you are planning on  staying near Joshua Tree , then you will generally find more variety and affordable accommodations. No matter which season you decide to visit Joshua Tree, one of the best activities to do is to explore the hiking trails. Some of the best hiking trails in Joshua Tree are Warren Peak Trail, Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Ryan Mountain Trail, as they offer incredible views and insights into the flora of the region. Just remember to avoid the midday heat when doing any outdoor activity.

If you are able to secure a campsite inside the park, then you must not miss the opportunity to go stargazing. Due to the lack of light pollution, Joshua Tree National Park is rated as one of the best places to go stargazing in US. Summer offers a unique stargazing experience because August is the perfect time for the annual Perseid Meteor Shower.

By Sean of Living Out Lau

18. Albama Hills

Albama Hills - California Summer Vacation

Summer is a great time for a road trip in California. One of the coolest places you can see is east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Alabama Hills is a bizarre landscape with piles of rounded rocks juxtaposed against the jagged mountains. It is popular for camping because it’s a public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, meaning you can do free dispersed camping throughout the area.

If you prefer a more formal campsite, Tuttle Creek Campground outside of Lone Pine is your best bet. Because of its unique landscape, many movies have utilized Alabama Hills for filming, including Django Unchained and Iron Man. Movie Flats Road takes you throughout the area and can lead you to other noteworthy sites such as the Mobius Arch and the Heart Arch.

Less than 10 miles north you can also explore Manzanar, one of the previous sites of Japanese and Japanese-American internment during WWII. You can find Alabama Hills about 3 hours away from Los Angeles on Highway 395. 

By Taylor of Taytrum Travels

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Anjali Wadhwa (cheerfultrails) is a travel consultant and enthusiast who has traveled to 15+ countries. She shares about her explorations through her writings. You will find detailed itineraries, best travel tips and well experienced recommendations for food, transportation and hotels on her blog.

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26 top things to do in california.

There's something for everyone in the Golden State.

Top Things to Do in California

Looking up through sequoia trees at Redwood National Park.

Getty Images

California is full of beautiful destinations and fun attractions to experience.

California's attractions are so diverse that travelers of all types will have no problem finding things to thrill them. Beaches , lakes , forests, mountains and deserts all sit side by side within the state's borders. Amid its natural wonders, California is also home to several wine regions, luxury hotels 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 the south and everything in between, these are the top things to do in California.

17-Mile Drive

Lone Cypress, a prominent landmark along the 17 Mile Drive, on a foggy day

California's 17-Mile Drive is a spellbinding and awe-inspiring route that weaves along the most scenic stretch of the Monterey Bay coastline. This must-visit road, winding through 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 time to stop at the various lookout points marked along the way, including the famous Lone Cypress.

If you're interested in bedding down in Pebble Beach, consider splurging on a room, or at least stopping 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 . If you are not staying overnight or dining here, expect to pay a vehicle fee to access 17-Mile Drive. Also note that motorcycles are not allowed.


Empty trail by the coastline at Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

This small community in Monterey County is one of the most unique and charming towns in California. Its enchanting coastal location, wooded streets, fairytale-like architecture, and bevy of local shops and restaurants make Carmel-by-the-Sea well worth the detour from the iconic state Route 1. Even if you only have a half-day in Carmel, browse the art galleries, take a walk on the beach and enjoy a meal in one of the quaint restaurants.

Be sure to visit a few of Carmel's beaches, starting with the namesake Carmel Beach, which is located at the end of Ocean Avenue, the town's main drag; pet owners will be pleased to know it's a dog-friendly beach . Carmel River State Beach, which is lesser known and typically not as highly trafficked, connects to the even more secluded Monastery Beach via the Carmel Meadows Trail. 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 .

[Read: The Top Weekend Getaways From Los Angeles .]

Visit the theme parks

"The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle" at "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Courtesy of Universal Studios

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 Resort . However, if you're not up for paying Disneyland's notoriously high ticket fees, consider exciting alternatives such as Legoland California . There are Six Flags amusement and water parks near both Los Angeles and San Francisco – perfect for thrill-seekers – and Universal Studios Hollywood is home to the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the new Super Nintendo World.

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. Legoland has two kid-friendly hotels to choose from, though travelers can also opt for a stay at the well-received Cape Rey Carlsbad Beach, a Hilton Resort and Spa , which is located right on the beach and only a short drive to Legoland.

Read: The Top California Theme Parks

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley National Park with a huge waterfall

If you only have time to visit one outdoor destination during your California trip, make it Yosemite . With the national park welcoming more than 3 million 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 750,000-acre park that you'll need several days to take it all in. If you're unsure where to start at this California bucket list destination, know that Glacier Point, Half Dome, Tunnel View and the Mist Trail are considered iconic, can't-miss Yosemite attractions , according to recent travelers.

There are three hotels within Yosemite, including the luxury Ahwahnee hotel. You'll also find cabins, canvas-sided tents, campgrounds and RV campsites spread around the park, as well as several dining options. Be warned that the park does get very crowded during the summer months, so visiting in the offseason is a great idea – especially with Yosemite's picturesque snow-capped peaks. Check for road closures during winter months; tire chains may be required.

Explore the desert

Springtime flowers in desert in California

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 approximately 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 85 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. You'll want to plan a multiday trip to explore either of these vast parks. Traveler favorites in Joshua Tree include the 3-mile out-and-back Ryan Mountain trail and the 1.7-mile Skull Rock loop trail. In Anza-Borrego, visitors enjoyed the 2.6-mile out-and-back Pictograph Trail and the more moderate 2.3-mile Slot loop trail. Due to the desert's extreme summer heat (think: daytime temperatures in the 90s or even 100-plus degrees), it's best to visit during the spring and fall.

See more of Joshua Tree National Park: Things to Do | Photos

Laguna Beach

Aerial view of residences along Laguna Beach

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 state Route 1. Laguna Beach'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 Crescent Bay Beach, as well as larger shorelines, including traveler-favorite Crystal Cove State Park, which receives praise for its beautiful setting between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar.

Laguna Beach is also home to a bevy of luxurious accommodations , including The Ranch at Laguna Beach and the traveler-approved five-star Montage at Laguna Beach . Once an artists' colony, Laguna Beach is known for its summer art festivals and numerous art galleries. There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy too, such as mountain biking, skimboarding and hiking. Parking can be hard to find in the summer months and on holiday weekends, but there is a free open-air trolley service that runs along the area's stretch of coastline.

See more of Laguna Beach: Things to Do | Photos

Waves breaking on El Matador beach in Southern California

Located a little more than 30 miles west of Los Angeles, Malibu is often seen as a coastal refuge for the rich and famous. While that impression is certainly true, Malibu is worth a visit for its superb beaches and the exceptional parks a stone's throw away.

Drive up state Highway 1 and make a pit stop at popular shorelines, including Robert H. Memorial State Beach, Zuma Beach and Point Dume State Beach. Nature lovers should also take time to hike some of the many trails at Point Mugu State Park, Topanga State Park or 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. Check for trail closures before heading out.

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 , The Surfrider Malibu and Hotel June Malibu. Stop by Malibu Country Mart for high-end shopping and farm-to-table dining, or check out Trancas Country Market for snacks at Vintage Grocers or lunch at Malibu Brewing Company.

Read: The Top Los Angeles Beaches

San Francisco

Trolley cars and street in San Francisco

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 in 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 U.S.

While here, check out all the visitor-favorite sights , including the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown. You can also take advantage of the outdoor spaces that make up the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, such as Land's End, Muir Woods National Monument and more. As for where to stay, you have endless hotel options in San Francisco , including Ritz-Carlton , Four Seasons and St. Regis outposts.

See more of San Francisco: Tours | Photos

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island in the low sun

While in the San Francisco Bay Area, take a tour of the infamous Alcatraz Island , an island that has housed a fort, military prison and penitentiary. Self-guided audio tours are included with your ferry ticket to Alcatraz: Listen to the stories of past inmates as you walk through what was once a maximum-security prison. On the island, you'll also find an exhibition about the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz that took place for 19 months to advocate for Indigenous civil rights.

Alcatraz features amazing views of the San Francisco skyline, historic gardens and a sanctuary for nesting waterbirds. The ferry ride aboard Alcatraz City Cruises takes about 15 minutes. Advance reservations are recommended.

San Diego skyline from the ocean

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 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 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 .

See more of San Diego: Tours | Photos

Death Valley National Park

Sunrise in Ubehebe Crater at Death Valley National Park, California

This national park is one for the books, breaking records as both one of the hottest places on Earth and the driest land in North America. A visit to Death Valley is not easy; the closest major 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 past colorful 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.

Waterfall along coast in Big Sur, California

This laid-back remote region located along the central coast of California should be on everybody's bucket list. The beauty of Big Sur 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 Alila Ventana Big Sur , where you can book spa treatments 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 and visit McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can also check out the inspiring Hawthorne Gallery or browse the Henry Miller Memorial Library before capping off the day by sitting in an Adirondack chair in the river at the Big Sur River Inn or catching a sunset at Pfeiffer Beach, home to the famous Keyhole Arch. Don't miss out on the delectable pastries at Big Sur Bakery. For lunch with a view and artisan souvenirs, Nepenthe is a must.

If Ventana Big Sur is out of your price range for accommodations , 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. Or, pitch a tent at Ventana Campground.

places to visit in california this summer

Tips on Trips and Expert Picks

Travel tips, vacation ideas and more to make your next vacation stellar.

Los Angeles

Aerial of Los Angeles skyline in California

The City of Angels is a go-to 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 state-of-the-art Getty Center; self-guided 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. An easy way to take in the sights is through bus tours: Some tours allow you to skip the line for popular 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 , Hotel Bel-Air or The Peninsula Beverly Hills .

See more of Los Angeles: Tours | Photos

Indulge in wine country

Vineyard in Napa Valley, California

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, offering more diversity in terms of attractions , including the beaches of Sonoma Coast State Park and the African-style game drives run by Safari West. Travel farther south to 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, has produced hundreds of award-winning wines from its member wineries. With so many wine regions in California, you are likely to be within driving distance of at least one wherever you are in the state.

Behold the giant sequoias and redwoods

Road through Sequoia National Park

Did you know that the Pacific Coast of the U.S. is the only place in the world where giant sequoias and coastal redwoods grow naturally? Visiting these natural wonders is a must-do when in the Golden State. Contrary to popular belief, redwoods and sequoias are not the same tree; they require two separate climates to survive. To see giant sequoias, head into the Sierra Nevada mountain range, such as 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 Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park or Humboldt Redwoods State Park (don't miss the Shrine Drive Thru Tree). All these parks sit in northwestern California. These parks offer a variety of camping experiences, such as individual campsites, group sites and trail camps for wilderness backpacking and backcountry camping. Tent camping sites and cabins are available.

Summer views across Lake Tahoe

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. This alpine lake destination is lauded for its spectacular clear blue waters and beautiful mountainous landscape, and it 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, such as the 4.4-mile out-and-back Emerald Point Trail at Emerald Bay State Park. What's more, there are a bevy of highly rated hotels in the area, including The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe ; The Lodge at Edgewood Tahoe; and the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino .

See more of Lake Tahoe: Things to Do | Photos

Experience wildflower season

Orange wildflowers across mountain in California

Spring and summer are great times to see an abundance of wildflowers – such as the state flower. Depending on where you go, the California poppy has been known to blanket valleys and hills with its vibrant orange tint. How much of a bloom you see and where varies based 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 Recreation Area 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. Just be sure to respect the landscapes by staying on designated trails, checking to see if dogs are permitted before you bring your furry friend, and visiting only during park hours.

Santa Barbara

Aerial of white buildings in Santa Barbara

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. Santa Barbara's alluring Spanish and Mediterranean architecture also makes this destination feel like a true getaway.

Visit the Funk Zone for wine tasting and art, State Street for shopping and dining, and the one-of-a-kind Ganna Walska Lotusland. Hotel options in Santa Barbara are just as dreamy as the setting, with highly rated spots like The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara and El Encanto, a Belmond Hotel . What's more, Santa Barbara sits around 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles (about a two-hour drive), which could make it a convenient addition to your LA itinerary.

See more of Santa Barbara: Things to Do | Photos

Learn to surf at Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach Pier at sunset with dramatic clouds and a surfer

One of the most quintessentially Californian things to do during your trip is learn how to surf . There are several places you can surf up and down the coast, but beginners shouldn't go just anywhere: The best shorelines for novice surfers feature calm waters and knowledgeable lifeguards. Surf City USA (the nickname for Huntington Beach ) fits that bill perfectly, with several surf schools here. Highly rated operators include Corky Carroll's Surf School, Learn2Rip Surfing and Ocean Academy, and Banzai Surf School. After hitting the waves, rest your sore muscles at top-rated beachfront hotels , including the Kimpton Shorebreak Resort or the Pasea Hotel & Spa .

See more of Huntington Beach: Things to Do | Photos

Explore one or more of the national forests

National park in California on a sunny day

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 the Cleveland, Angeles, San Bernardino or Los Padres national forests (but check with the U.S. Forest Service before you go to ensure they're not under closure orders caused by fire or storm damage when you visit). These options sit in proximity to vacation hot spots like San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

North of Sacramento, outdoor lovers have their choice of nearly a dozen national forests, including the Mendocino, Six Rivers and Klamath national forests, to name a few. These forest destinations offer beautiful wilderness landscapes, hiking trails and camping options.

Trek along the Lost Coast

The Lost Coast in California on a sunny day

Intrepid travelers looking to experience the untouched landscapes of California should consider a trek along one-of-a-kind 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 major roads and can be accessed via a 25-mile-long hiking trail. The trail takes about two to four days to traverse (one way), so you should only attempt this hike 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.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore from Chimney Rock trail at sunset

Point Reyes National Seashore gives visitors a glimpse into a wilderness landscape on the Northern California coastline with no development. Conveniently situated less than 40 miles northwest of San Francisco, this national seashore is easier to reach than Big Sur and the Lost Coast.

Here, you'll be treated to breathtaking stretches of coastline, some of which are only accessible by trail, including the popular 9.7-mile round-trip Tomales Point Trail. A visit to Point Reyes will also take you through verdant, wooded landscapes and put you in close contact with wildlife such as elk, bobcats, seals, beavers and much more. You'll find campgrounds on-site for backcountry hike-in and boat-in camping, as well as modest accommodations in nearby towns, including Olema, Point Reyes Station and Inverness.

Griffith Observatory

Aerial view of Griffith Observatory and Los Angeles city skyline at sunset in California

Griffith Observatory sits on the south face of Mount Hollywood and overlooks the Los Angeles basin. Its location gives visitors impressive views of the surrounding area, which many rave about. But there's more than just a pretty photo-op here: The observatory hosts fascinating exhibits and features a top-notch planetarium. Recent travelers cited the breathtaking setting as Griffith Observatory's main draw, though the free entry was certainly a bonus. Use of the public telescopes is also free, but you will have to pay a fee for the planetarium shows.

Hollywood Sign

The Hollywood Sign in the distance on Mount Lee, overlooking the Hollywood district of Los Angeles

The iconic Hollywood Sign is located in Griffith Park on Mount Lee. Visitors can hike to this iconic landmark on a few different routes and get sweeping views of LA, but the sign itself is fenced off and is typically guarded. Many visitors say that seeing the sign up close is a must-do.

The sign was originally built in 1923 and read, "Hollywoodland," the name of a real estate development, before the last four letters were removed in 1949. After years of neglect, the dilapidated sign was finally rebuilt in 1978 and has been a universal symbol for the glitz and glamour of the movie industry ever since. In 2023, the sign is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Griffith Park is free and open to the public daily with limited complimentary parking provided throughout the property.

Palm Springs

Golden light over Indian Wells Golf Resort, a desert golf course in Palm Springs, California, with view of the San Bernardino Mountains

If you're looking for a place to unwind, Palm Springs is hard to beat. The Sonoran Desert provides a beautiful backdrop, warm weather and plenty of outdoor activities. In the late fall and early spring, temperatures typically range from the 50s at night to the 80s during the day. If you just want to chill, you can spend the day sipping cocktails poolside or get pampered at a luxurious spa. For travelers seeking an active vacation, other draws to the area include golf, tennis and miles of hiking trails.

A traveler-favorite Palm Springs attraction is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which whisks visitors from the desert floor up 2.5 miles to Mount San Jacinto State Park. When the sun sets, head out to one of the city's hip bars or restaurants for a gourmet meal or craft cocktail, such as Bar Cecil or Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. Make it a weekend away with an overnight stay at a Palm Springs hotel like the new wellness-focused Sensei Porcupine Creek or the modern yet rustic Sparrows Lodge .

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Orange Jellyfish in blue tank at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Located on the central California coast, the Monterey Bay Aquarium draws nearly 2 million visitors per year. This institution houses more than 200 world-class exhibits that highlight the marine habitats of the area, as well as plants and creatures of the deep ocean. Guests can watch sea otters frolicking, witness glowing jellyfish and admire a 28-foot-tall kelp forest.

The aquarium also prides itself on working to protect the Pacific Ocean off California's coast. Its initiatives include reducing plastic pollution in the ocean, promoting sustainable seafood choices and helping rebuild sea otter populations. Past visitors recommend taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium.

You might also be interested in:

  • The Best Places to Visit in California
  • The Top Romantic Getaways in California
  • The Top Things to Do in Big Bear Lake, California
  • The Top Things to Do in Orange County, California
  • The Top Hot Springs in California

The 13 Best National Parks in California

Parks in California

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23 Most Beautiful Places to Visit in California

From the mountaintops to the lowest point in North America, these are the best places to visit in California.

places to visit in california this summer

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California has a reputation for being a surfer's paradise . And sure, its sandy beaches are something to marvel at and indeed a must-see on any visit. But as the third largest state in the nation, it’s so much more . From mountains to deserts to wine towns and the Mouse House, here are 23 most beautiful places to visit in California. 

Palm Springs

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Those seeking a chic, mid-century modern getaway should consider Palm Springs . The average high never falls below 69 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning no matter when you visit, you’ll get to enjoy some fun in the sun. Book a few nights at The Good House , a bungalow-style hotel that sits on its own natural hot springs, which will leave you feeling renewed. 

Joshua Tree

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Not far from Palm Springs, Joshua Tree offers more desert fun. However, you’ll want to trade in your poolside outfit for hiking gear. Explore the massive Joshua Tree National Park, then check out the plentiful vintage shops in downtown Joshua Tree to hunt for treasures. Stay a few nights at AutoCamp Joshua Tree for a glamping stay unlike any other.

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It’s time to head to California’s wine country . And no, we aren’t talking about Napa. Head to the southern part of the state’s wine region, Temecula . Located in southwestern Riverside County, this destination is home to gorgeous vineyards growing some 50 varietals of wine, from cabernet sauvignon to chardonnay. Enjoy a boutique stay at The New Inn , which comes with just five stunning villas for ultimate privacy.  

Santa Monica Pier

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The entire city of Santa Monica is worth a visit, but don't miss the iconic Santa Monica Pier while there. The 1,600-foot pier comes with a little amusement park featuring a roller coaster so you can get a bird’s-eye view of the beach below before taking a short, belly-flipping drop back down. Then, rest your head at the Shore Hotel , which provides views of the pier, too.

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For a dose of Southern California cool, head to Long Beach. As the name implies, the seaside community comes with plenty of beach frontage, but it also boasts its fair share of culture. That includes the RMS Queen Mary , docked at Queensway Bay; colorful pieces at the Museum of Latin American Art; and more than a few fish swimming at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Stay at The Cove Hotel , which is within walking distance of all the city’s best attractions.

Mammoth Lakes

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You'll want to trade your surfboard for a snowboard with a visit to Mammoth . The beloved ski resort is home to some of the best powder in the world, as well as one of the longest ski seasons in the nation. Don’t feel intimidated if you’re a newbie, as the mountain has a robust ski school available. Stay at the Sierra Nevada Resort , a revamped classic that’s equal parts rustic and charming, making for an ideal mountain getaway.

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Gulp in a breath of fresh air during a visit to Lake Tahoe . This lake destination, tucked in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, straddles the neighboring state of Nevada as well. It’s an all-season delight, with skiing in the winter , wildflowers in spring, warm days by the shore in summer, and fall foliage to round it out. Book a room at Edgewood for a luxurious stay with lakeside views to boot.

Santa Barbara

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Santa Barbara deserves a spot high on any must-see list of California. Its gorgeous beaches, quaint shops, stunning street art, and plenty of delicious seafood restaurants make it a place worth experiencing for more than a long weekend. Book a stay at the divine San Ysidro Ranch , a 500-acre private enclave tailor-made for total relaxation. 

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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Take in the endless vistas at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park . Visitors here may find super blooms in the spring, but don’t skip over this destination in the summer, fall, or winter, either. The state park is a stellar place for hiking, admiring avant-garde art at Galleta Meadows, and even pitching a tent just about anywhere with a bit of backcountry camping.

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Looking for awe-inspiring views? Take a drive up Highway 1 to Big Sur . The cliffside community overlooks some of the most jaw-dropping coastline in the state, and it's home to some hiking trails worth exploring, too. Sleep at the Post Ranch Inn , which provides those epic ocean views out of every window.

Disneyland Resort/Christian Thompson

Sneak in a little magic by paying a visit to the Happiest Place on Earth:  Disneyland . Choose between visiting either one of its two parks, or snag a Park Hopper pass to see both in one go. Then, spend your nights at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa , where you can view the park right out your window. 

Yosemite National Park

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Feel inspired by Mother Nature at every turn with a visit to Yosemite National Park . Here, you can gaze upon the breathtaking views of Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome while hiking to lookout points or taking a slow drive with the windows rolled down. Stay inside the park and camp at Curry Village , home to 14 tented cabins that sit under centuries-old trees.

Channel Islands

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Hop a boat to the Channel Islands , an archipelago that remains wild and free. Explore the eight islands, which are home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals, by hopping from one to another or scuba diving off the coast. Again, it’s another perfect spot to pitch a tent, so you never have to leave the great outdoors. 

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Looking to paddle out with the best surfers in California? Then, it’s time to head to San Diego , the place to be for a surf lesson (or two) and lounge session on the warm, sandy shore. But the city also has plenty more to explore, from fantastic breweries to the world-class San Diego Zoo. Book a stay at Pendry San Diego , which features a rooftop pool so you can take a dip and enjoy the city skyline all in one.

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For more wine-centric fun, head to the small town of Healdsburg, where you’ll find plenty of wineries happy to pour you their best glass. Guests here can also live like a local by shopping, dining, and strolling through the Plaza, exploring the downtown area, or taking a hike through the pristine landscapes. Book a night or more at the Montage Healdsburg , which comes with so many luxuries, you may never want to leave.

San Francisco

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Get an urban escape in San Francisco . The NorCal city is home to plenty of delicious dining venues and shopping galore on Haight Street. While here, take some time to explore the outdoor spaces too, like The Presidio and Golden Gate Park, both of which offer fantastic views. Stay at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco , beloved by Travel + Leisure readers, as it was voted the best hotel in the city in our 2022 World’s Best Awards.

Death Valley

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Don’t let the name Death Valley fool you. Death Valley National Park is a place teeming with life — if you know where to look. Visit Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and check out the endless salt flats, which happen to be home to an endemic snail only found here. It's also worth exploring Salt Creek, home to another endemic species — the pupfish, which have evolved to live in the salinated waters. Then, snag a room at the historic Inn at Death Valley , a recently revamped desert oasis that will cater to your every whim. 

Big Bear Lake

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Find smaller mountain magic at Big Bear Lake. In the winters, the community becomes a snow-filled heaven, much to the delight of skiers and snowboarders in Los Angeles, who can get there in under a three-hour drive. Come summer, Big Bear transforms into lakeside bliss, so no need to pick one or the other, as every season here is perfect. Book a stay at Noble + Proper , a gorgeous, high-design hotel.

Santa Catalina Island

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Grab a boat to Santa Catalina Island , where you can hop on a bike (we recommend an e-bike to help battle the massive hills) and pedal for as far as your legs will take you around the jagged coast. Stop in for a bite, a drink, or an ice cream in the city of Avalon, or head inland for a tour of the island’s wild buffalo herd. Lay your head at the Hotel Atwater , a more than 100-year-old gem in Avalon. 

Redwood National Park

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Located in the northern part of the state, Redwood National Park is home to some of the tallest trees in the world — some so large, you have to drive through them to get by. Again, it’s best to stay in the park, which is entirely possible, thanks to the delightfully charming little abodes at Elk Meadow Cabins . 

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Even though Hollywood is actually a relatively small neighborhood in Los Angeles, its larger-than-life reputation makes it a star. Come see the famed Hollywood sign , honor your favorite celebrities on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and tour icons like the TCL Chinese Theatre. Stay at ​ The West Hollywood Edition , a sleek property located in the center of the action.

Laguna Beach

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See one more surf mecca by visiting the Southern California gem of Laguna Beach. This coastal town is bursting with artistic talent, which you can check out in its numerous galleries or by taking a self-guided tour to admire its impressive outdoor public art. Like San Diego, it, too, is a great place for a surf lesson. Or, you can always just hang on your board long enough to watch a pod of dolphins swim by. Spend the night at the Surf & Sand Resort and leave the windows open all night to snooze to the sound of the crashing waves outside. 

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The charming community of Solvang is well-known for its Danish-style architecture that will make you feel like you've been transported to Europe. Here, visitors can indulge in more of California’s wine culture, too. Book a stay right in town at the Mirabelle Inn , home to First & Oak, a Michelin Plate-designated restaurant. 

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14 Must-Visit Spots in California in Summer

Laguna Beach - California in summer

From gorgeous coastline to blue skies and sunny weather, California has everything it needs to be the ultimate summer destination—in fact, many consider California to be the place of the “endless summer.” And while that’s true for many destinations around the state, visiting California in summer still requires some pre-planning as there are locales that aren’t ideal summer destinations due to scorching heat (ahem, Death Valley), and even surprisingly foggy weather like in San Francisco.

While you can pretty much get away with an idyllic vacation anywhere in Southern California in summer, crowds are another important thing to consider. Around Los Angeles, SoCal really explodes with tourism in the summer. So if that’s something you’d prefer to avoid, definitely keep that in mind. Trust me, I live here, so I know!

Thankfully, there are plenty of great, low-key options that can be taken advantage of during the summer months.

Whether you’re looking for breathtaking hikes in a National Park, city vibes, or crystal clear water and perfect surf, California in summer offers an abundance of sun-filled experiences and adventures. This post is here to guide you to the best places to visit in the Golden State during the summer season, no matter what type of trip you’re seeking!

Lifeguard tower in Laguna Beach, California in summer

Your Ultimate Guide to the Best Places to Explore in California in Summer

Coastal view of Big Sur

If you’re looking to plan an epic summer road trip in California, Big Sur is the ultimate destination. In fact, it’s up there on my list of best road trip destinations in the entire United States, as the coastal drive itself along Highway 1 has a front-row seat to dramatic rocky cliffs that plunge down into the most gorgeous turquoise water.

Big Sur is personally one of my favorite destinations in all of California, but in the summer months you can risk some foggy weather. That being said, a bit of fog and cloud cover can add to the drama of Big Sur and make you feel like you’re hanging out in the clouds. To avoid a completely foggy trip to Big Sur, make sure to stay over for several nights and wait to visit toward the end of the summer if you can, when better weather and smaller crowds are more common.

From a sunset photoshoot at Bixby Bridge to a walk through the redwoods, there are plenty of outdoor activities to do in the summer here. I also highly recommend taking advantage of the longer day and better weather by having beers with a view at Nepenthe (which is one of my favorite spots in Big Sur).

Read More : How to Plan an Epic Big Sur Road Trip

Sequoia National Forest 

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Despite the fact that I have only visited Sequoia National Park during the winter, it is most popular in the summer thanks to the weather and amazing hiking trails. Though I loved experiencing the majestic redwoods covered in snow, there is something about Sequoia National Park that screams summer—and a major benefit is that much more of the park is open for exploring during this season.

If you’re into camping, hiking, and just general “outdoorsy-ness,” this is the place for you! During the summer, the weather stays pretty warm, making June through August the best time to visit. That being said, this is also the most popular time in the park, so being able to plan your trip during the weekdays can help cut back on the crowds.

Keep in mind that temperatures will depend a bit on the elevation. In lower elevation areas of the park, temps can reach the mid-90s during the day, though in higher elevations it’s a bit more comfortable with highs sitting around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The evenings are cool and remain around the low 60s.

If you’re into photography, love the outdoors, or just want to check a new National Park off your bucket list, then visiting this California gem in summer is a must.

Read More : The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Sequoia in Winter

Laguna Beach

where to visit in California in summer: Laguna Beach

If you grew up in the 90s/early 2000s, then I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of Laguna Beach and the MTV show that made it famous. But if not, let me introduce you to this tiny town in Orange County that is known for its crystal clear water, impeccable surf, and affluent residence. It’s a little less than two hours from L.A. without traffic, and though I love the beaches in Santa Monica and Venice, Laguna is the best place to plan a beach day during the summer.

The water is so much cleaner and warmer, and in my opinion, the surrounding scenery of the beaches is a lot more idyllic. One thing to keep in mind when planning a trip to Laguna Beach, California in summer is the fact that this town is not cheap. In fact, most accommodations will cost you a pretty penny.

However, it is possible to get last-minute deals during the weekdays, and since the beach can get pretty packed Saturday through Sunday, weekdays are more enjoyable in general. You’ll also have an easier time with parking this way.

Though it is a great place to take the kids for a family vacay, I also love visiting Laguna with girlfriends. Watch the sunset while sipping on a drink at The Deck before dancing the night away at Skyloft or enjoying a nightcap in your hotel room overlooking the ocean.


11 Can't-Miss Things to Do in Mendocino, California

Mendocino is a quaint seaside town on the northern coast of California known for its rocky beachside cliffs, local art scene, and wonderful coastline trails. Though winter is great for whale watching, summer has better weather, and since it is still a pretty low-key town, you can definitely avoid crazy crowds.

I highly recommend checking out the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens , as it is the only botanical gardens situated right above the beach. There are also great wineries and restaurants here, just be sure to make reservations early in the summer. All in all, if you’re an outdoorsy traveler with an appreciation for food and wine, then you’ll really love the natural beauty and culture of Mendocino. It makes for the perfect summertime destination for those who like a blend of outdoor excursions and more high-end experiences.

Read More : 11 Can’t-Miss Things in Mendocino

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San Diego is a super family-friendly destination, and it really is the perfect mix of big city vibes and laid-back beach town. If you’re traveling with kids, San Diego in the summer means spending your days building sandcastles on the beach or visiting  Balboa Park  and the  San Diego Zoo .

However, San Diego is just as fun for adults as it is for kids—especially in the summer! From Pacific Beach to Little Italy, San Diego has a great nightlife scene. The crowd in PB tends to be on the younger side, while the Gaslamp Quarter is more diverse in age and scene. Personally, I love Little Italy! In addition to the bars in San Diego, there are some great wine tasting rooms, and you can even book a full tour through San Diego Tours and hit all of the best spots.

During your visit, don’t miss beach days at Sunset Cliffs and sunset strolls along Torrey Pines to experience the classic California endless summer vibes.

Mammoth Lakes

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Mammoth Lakes is truly one of the most breathtaking destinations to visit in California in summer. The surrounding mountains serve as a picture-perfect backdrop to the bright blue lake, and you can take part in a multitude of outdoor activities ranging from mountain biking to hiking to kayaking.

Though Mammoth is super popular during the winter for skiing and snowboarding, the warmer weather and clear skies definitely bring crowds in the summer. In fact, typical summer in Mammoth Lakes sees about 1.5 million visitors, making it the busiest season of the year (and for good reason).

That being said, there is plenty of room to spread out and explore while being out in nature, just be sure to book accommodations in advance. Though they’re not lavish, places like the Mammoth Mountain Inn and Tamarack Lodge are cozy and conveniently located near everything.

The Adamson House in Malibu

Malibu is one of the most exclusive beach towns in Southern California, and it definitely comes alive in the summertime. If you live in Los Angeles, Malibu is the ultimate place for a beach day. Since I live in Santa Monica, it only takes me about thirty minutes to get to Malibu, so LA locals can definitely make this a day trip.

However, if you are visiting from further away, Malibu is definitely a splurge when it comes to summer vacation. All of the hotels are stunning, but they are definitely on the pricier side (especially during the summer). Some of my favorites include the Malibu Beach Inn and the Surfrider Malibu .

From Nobu to Geoffrey’s, there are some amazing upscale restaurants that are right on the coast. If you can, try to make a reservation at either place around sunset so that you can enjoy dinner while the sky lights up over the Pacific.

In addition to hitting the beach, Malibu is also great for hiking, visiting the iconic pier, tide pooling, shopping, and even wine tasting! Though Malibu Wines is one of the more popular options, I think Cielo Farms is the best place to taste some vino and take in the views.

Pismo Beach

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If you’re looking to go beach camping this summer, Pismo Beach should be at the top of your list! Though the temps stay between the 70s and 80s, you may find that there is a pretty constant layer of fog in the mornings, but it should burn off in the afternoon most days. That being said, Pismo Beach is most popular from September to November, so if you’re hoping to explore the sand dunes and check out the pier without the crowd, summer is ideal!

No visit to Pismo is complete without a visit to the Oceano Dunes SVRA for some playing in the sand dunes. It’s seriously a blast (but also sort of scary), and adrenaline junkies will definitely get a thrill. There are also about 500 camping units here. However, if you’re looking for something a bit more high-end, check out the Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach or the Cliffs Hotel and Spa .

Santa Barbara 

Hotel Californian in Santa Barbara for California in summer

Santa Barbara is without a doubt one of the dreamiest and most stunning places on the California coast. Though it is technically the start of the Central Coast, some still lump it in with the rest of SoCal. That being said, I love how you can start to notice the difference in topography once you reach Santa Barbara.

From paddleboarding in the harbor to wine tasting in the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara is home to so many summer activities, making this a great place for a weekend away. It’s only about an hour and a half from Los Angeles, but if you are coming from further away, I recommend at least three days in Santa Barbara.

Once July hits, the weather in Santa Barbara definitely heats up, though I would recommend always having a light jacket or sweater on hand for the evenings. One of the most epic things to do in the summer in Santa Barbara is book a sunset sail with the Santa Barbara Sailing Center . It is the most breathtaking place to watch the sunset and you almost always get to see some dolphins during the trip.

Read More : Hotel Californian Review in Santa Barbara

Michelle Halpern on a picnic for California in summer

If you’re looking for a true coastal getaway this summer that’s off the beaten path, then it doesn’t get better than Trinidad. This charming coastal town is located in Humboldt County, and with a population of less than 400, it is one of the smallest inhabited cities in all of California. My time in Trinidad was so peaceful, filled with days spent kayaking in the bay, beach picnics and breathtaking sunset sessions.

Though more and more travelers have discovered the beauty of Trinidad, it still sees much smaller crowds in the summer when compared to places like Carmel-by-the-Sea and Point Reyes since it’s much further north and a bit of a trek to get to.

You’ll find that the beaches here provide a totally different setting from those in SoCal, with more hidden coves and rocky features. My favorite spots in particular are Moonstone Beach and College Cove. What’s even cooler is that Trinidad provides easy to access to the beaches one day and majestic redwood forests the next, as Redwood National and State Parks are just a 25 minute drive away.

If you visit in summer though, don’t expect constant sunny skies, as Trinidad’s wet season is between June and December, so you may experience some random showers. Though they don’t last long, they often come out of nowhere (but honestly, it’s kind of cool and refreshing, especially in the summer).

Read More : Northern California Road Trip Guide for Nature Lovers

Orange County

places to visit in california this summer

Though Laguna Beach is technically in Orange County, I wanted to highlight the fact that the OC in general is a great place to visit in California during summer. From Huntington Beach to San Clemente, Orange County has beautiful beaches, great food, and perpetually sunny weather. Even more inland Irvine is a foodie’s dream, featuring an amazing restaurant scene that specifically highlights a variety of Asian cuisine ranging from Chinese and Vietnamese to Thai.

If you’re looking for a fun birthday or bachelorette idea, consider renting a Duffy in Newport Beach. These little boats can be driven by pretty much anyone, and it’s the perfect way to get out onto the water without having to stray too far from the coast. Even just strolling around Balboa Island and bar hopping makes for a festive weekend away.

Orange County is also known to go all out for the 4th of July, so if you’re looking to experience stunning fireworks right over the water, this is the place to be.

Channel Islands

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The Channel Islands are one of the coolest and most underrated natural places in California. Though most people have heard of Catalina, the other Channel Islands are almost completely untouched, allowing you to connect with nature and see a totally new side to the West Coast.

To access the islands, simply take a boat from Ventura (which is only about an hour away from Los Angeles). While you do have the option to camp on Santa Cruz island, day trips are also an option, and you can do everything from kayaking to snorkeling to hiking. The water here seriously looks like something from another planet, and it’s crazy to think that these islands are actually a part of California.

This is also the ultimate summer destination for animal lovers as you can expect to see creatures like the famous island fox, dolphins, colorful fish, and even sharks.

Catalina Island

Where to visit in California in summer: Catalina Island

Looking to take a European-esque vacation without leaving the state? Catalina Island is the closest that you can get to the Amalfi Coast or French Riviera in California. From snorkeling in the crystal clear water to posting up with a drink at Descanso Beach Club , summertime in Catalina is a literal dream.

That being said, the summer brings pretty crazy crowds, and since the island is so small, you might be a bit overwhelmed. However, the weather really is best during the summer, and if you can plan your visit Monday through Thursday, you might have better luck with hotel prices and less crowding.

To get here, all you need to do is book a boat ride through the  Catalina Express . The ride itself only takes about an hour from the ports in Long Beach or San Pedro, and it’s not uncommon to spot some dolphins along the way. Though I recommend booking a hotel for a night or two (I love The Edgewater and The Avalon Hotel ) Catalina can be accomplished in a day trip since the boats start super early and the latest leaves around 8:00 PM.

Read More : How to Spend the Perfect Weekend on Catalina Island

Lassen Volcanic National Park

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Lassen Volcanic National Park is such a beautiful and underrated National Park in California. If you want to enjoy epic views and stellar hikes without the crowds that you’ll find in Yosemite during the summer, Lassen Volcanic National Park is a great alternative. One of the best things about Lassen Volcanic National Park is the fact that even the in the summer, the weather stays pretty mild during the day but gets very cold at night (we’re talking high 30s, low 40s).

Located in the northern part of California, Lassen is best known for its bubbling mud pits which have a prehistoric feel to them. This park is very otherworldly, and it’s a really unique place to take photographs and camp out under the stars. Bumpass Hell is one of the most popular hypothermal spots and is definitely a must-see while in the park.

Camping is definitely the best option when it comes to accommodations, and there are seven different campgrounds within the park to choose from. Though they are not required, reservations are strongly recommended in the summer due to bigger crowds.

Where do you plan on visiting in California this summer?

Planning a trip right now don’t miss my go-to websites for booking everything from flights and tours, to accommodation and more:.

  • for the best hotel deals
  • World Nomads for flexible travel insurance
  • VRB O for awesome home rentals
  • Skyscanner for finding the best flight deals
  • Hostelworld for budget accommodation
  • for easy car rentals

Where to travel in California in summer pin cover

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Parks & Trails


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The 40 best California outdoor experiences. Period.

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This is the California we’ve been pining for — 40 summer destinations that call to us loudly in good times and bad.

To build this list, I thought about the places I was most eager to see, hear, feel, smell and taste again after decades of traveling the state and 14 months of staying home. There are no deserts here, because we’re talking about summer. And no theme parks, because they get enough attention. But what epic, irresistible wonders there are! I’ve road-tested them all, except for one spot 14,505 feet above sea level. (Fortunately, my colleague Mary Forgione, of “ The 50 Best Hikes in L.A. ,” has that summit covered.)

If you’re getting to know California, these 40 are great places to begin. But we’ve tried to make this list more than a starter kit. Even if you’re an old hand, there will be destinations that you’ve missed, and I’ve added a pro tip to every destination.

Has the pandemic changed these places? Yes. Scores of restaurants and other businesses are gone. Among those remaining, there are smaller staffs, more patio seats, shorter hours and tighter crowd limits. All those circumstances are evolving, so check websites.

If you have a nomination for this collection, send it to @mrcsreynolds ( Twitter or Instagram ), [email protected] or tell us here . Like us in the face of adversity, this list needs to grow and change.

Now let’s get back on the road.

The 40 best California experiences: Fall edition

The Winter Top 40 List

The 40 best California experiences: Winter edition

A rainbow over Alcatraz Island in a view from Crissy Field at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

American River by raft

El Prado and the Lily Pond in Balboa Park

Balboa Park

A woman walks along the shore near Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach.

Nepenthe, Big Sur

Burney Falls

Burney Falls

Kites fly along the shore at Carpenteria State Beach.


Aerial view of Catalina Island's Avalon harbor.

Catalina Island

The tunnel cut through Chandelier Tree with a Volkswagen van about to nose through it.

Chandelier Tree

Artists unveil a new mural in Chicano Park

Chicano Park

The weathered-wood exterior of Cold Spring Tavern.

Cold Spring Tavern

Outside the office of the Columbia Gazette in Columbia State Historic Park.

Columbia State Historic Park

A string of cabins along Crystal Pier.

Crystal Pier

Shoppers stroll the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market.

Downtown SLO Farmers Market

Ocean-worn debris known as sea glass sparkles in the sun.

Glass Beach

A pond lined with artfully shaped trees in the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park.

Golden Gate Park

Griffith Observatory, lighted at night, with the downtown Los Angeles skyline beyond.

Griffith Observatory

Hollywood Bowl at night

Hollywood Bowl

A woman looks at American mastodon skeletons on exhibit at the La Brea Tar Pits museum.

La Brea Tar Pits

Beachgoers at Kings Beach in Lake Tahoe

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Pedestrians head toward the entrance to Malibu Pier.

Malibu Pier

An idle row boats floats in Silver Lake near Mammoth Lakes.

Mammoth Mountain

A man sits at a window counter eating from a platter of oysters at the Marshall Store.

Marshall Store

A man and child explore the rocky Monterey Bay shoreline.

Monterey Bay

A surfer and Morro Rock are reflected in the water at low tide.

Mt. Tamalpais State Park

Mt. Whitney blanketed in snow.

Mt. Whitney

Food is delivered to tables in the gold-curtained Napa Valley Wine Train.

Napa Valley Wine Train

The colorful entrance to the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters.

Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach

A plein-air painter at her canvas above China Cove at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

A man sits on a rocky shore on Santa Cruz Island.

Santa Cruz Island

Blackberries, blueberries and raspberries at a stand at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.

Santa Monica Farmers Market

Sunrise begins to light the sky beyond the glowing, multicolored "Field of Light."

Sensorio, Paso Robles

A man in a straw hat watches surfers ride waves at Steamer Lane.

Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz

Hot air balloons above Temecula Valley

Temecula Valley by balloon

A glider hovers above Torrey Pines Gliderport, with the ocean beyond.

Torrey Pines Gliderport

Towering Paul Bunyan, beside his blue ox, Babe, waves at a family below.

Trees of Mystery

A photo of the Venice Venus mural

Venice Beach

Sea lions sunbathe on a dock at Pier 39.

Ferry Building and waterfront

Yosemite Falls seen in the distance through an avenue of pine trees.

Yosemite National Park

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Summer in California: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

What's Special in California During the Summer

places to visit in california this summer

If you plan to go to California in the summer, you'll find it colored gold. After the winter rains end, the hillside grasses turn golden, their color intensifying in the late afternoon sun. It gives credence to the idea that California's nickname "The Golden State" comes from the color of its hills - although, in reality, it came from the California Gold Rush of 1849.

Summer is peak vacation season all over the state. You'll find all the major attractions packed with people and well-known hiking trails may be busier than the city sidewalks.

Summer is the time to enjoy locally grown fruits and vegetables. Especially delicious are strawberries from around Watsonville or Oxnard and stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots and the like) from the central valley. To find a place to buy them check the farmers' market guide .

Summer is also a great time to dine outdoors, but if you're anywhere near the coast, bring a jacket. It can cool off faster (and get colder) than you might expect.

California Beaches in Summer

California beaches are best in summer, and these are the best California beaches to visit or try these top places for a California beach vacation . If you expect every one of those beaches to be sun-drenched and looking like a scene from Baywatch , you may be surprised.

California's summer coastal weather pattern has its own nickname: June gloom. In early summer, the cloudy "marine layer" hangs around over the coast all day long. It can happen even as far south as San Diego. In some years, it continues into "No Sky July." In northern California, it can start as early as "May Gray," extending into "No Sky July" and can last into "Fogust." To find out more and what to do when it happens, see the guide to June Gloom in California .

Beaches in Orange and San Diego Counties are also susceptible to so-called "red tides" in the summer when red-colored algae grow so fast that they "bloom," coloring the water in the process. It's unsightly for sure, and it's safer to avoid swimming while they're happening. Find out  everything you need to know about red tides here . 

During spring and summer, two to six nights after the full and new moons and right after high tide, thousands of small grunion fish come ashore on southern California beaches. In about 30 seconds, the female digs a small hole lays her eggs, and the male fertilizes them. The result is a summer evening's fishy version of an X-Rated movie, and thousands of people come to watch at beaches around San Diego and Los Angeles.

California Weather in Summer

California's summer weather is usually dry and pleasant, but Southern California can get unbearably hot at times.

The deserts get even hotter, forcing residents into air-conditioned comfort and keeping tourists away. Death Valley has a well-earned reputation as one of the hottest places on earth, making it a place you may want to avoid. Its highest recorded temperature was 134°F and summer highs top 120°F.

You can get details of the highs and lows around the state by consulting the guides to the average highs, lows, and more weather facts in these popular tourist destinations:  San Diego ,  Los Angeles ,  Disneyland ,  Death Valley ,  Palm Springs ,  San Francisco ,  Yosemite , and  Lake Tahoe .

What to Pack

In a single day, you could be in conditions that vary by 20 degrees or more. The desert will be too hot to think about. The mountains will be cool. It may be hot in the cities, but San Francisco may be foggy. And it's always cooler at the coast than it is inland.

You can check the average temperatures using the links above, but the only thing to do about all that variation is to know that you might need almost anything except a parka and earmuffs. The only reliable way to plan your packing is to check the forecast for a few of your destinations a few days before your trip.

Where to Go in California in the Summer

Two of California's most scenic highways are open only in the summer and either of them would make a great road trip:

  • Tioga Pass through Yosemite may open anytime after April 15, depending on when they can clear the snow off the road. The drive through Tioga Pass is the most direct route to the fascinating area east of the Sierras that includes the ghost town of Bodie and the world's oldest living things - the Bristlecone Pines.
  • Sequoia National Park is open year-round, but the road into Kings Canyon opens in early summer. This spectacular drive into the heart of a glacier-carved canyon is well worth planning a visit when it's open.
  • Any of the seven California routes that will make you swoon (or more than one linked together) would make a perfect summer weekend trip.

These places are also at their best in summer, or only open then:

  • The Sacramento River Delta is very popular for boating and water sports.
  • Lake Tahoe is often thought of as a winter destination, but there's more for everyone to do there in summer.
  • Some theme parks are open only in summer, and they all have longer hours and more going on.
  • Yosemite High Sierra Camps and Sequoia High Sierra Camp are open only in summer. Plan ahead to get into the lottery for the Yosemite camp.
  • Find the best places for a summer getaway , with fun events and plenty of sunshine.

Things to Do in California in the Summer

  • Wildflower blooms continue into early summer at higher elevations. In some years, you'll find them blooming all summer along roadsides in Yosemite and Sequoia.
  • Nesting season for herons and egrets continues through early July. Use this guide to find the best places to see them .
  • The Perseid meteor showers occur in mid-August, with as many as 60 meteors per hour streaking through the summer night sky.  Big Sur , Mendocino, and locations along  Scenic Highway 395  are some of the best places to see it. Check the exact dates for this year's  spectacular show in the sky.

Summer Events in California

  • Summer in California is the time for festivals and concerts. Almost every weekend, someone is celebrating a food or wine festival.
  • Outdoor theatre performances and outdoor concerts are some of the best things to do on a summer evening. And California is the home of lots of big music festivals.
  • Father's Day is the third Sunday in June. For ways to have fun with good ol' Dad,  try these great Father's Day ideas .
  • Fourth of July is the zenith of summer celebration. Locales from Lake Tahoe to San Diego set off pyrotechnic extravaganzas. Use our guide to find the one that best suits you .
  • Labor Day marks the end of summer, the last chance for a fun getaway with an extra day to do it. Check some of these great Labor Day ideas .

Summer Travel Tips

If you're looking for more details about visiting California in the summer, you can check these monthly guide to California in  June ,  July , and  August .

And contrary to any urban legends you may have heard, California does have four seasons. Check them out in the guides to California in Spring ,  California in Fall , and  California in Winter .

The claim that Mark Twain once said: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" isn't true, but the sentiment is and many visitors who think otherwise end up wishing they had taken plenty of warm layers to San Francisco's Fourth of July fireworks show.

Highways are generally open in summer except for repairs and improvement projects. To be sure your route is clear before you go, check highway status .

July in California: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

Scenic California Drives: 7 Routes That Will Make You Swoon

Spring in California: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

Yosemite National Park: The Complete Guide

Fall in California: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

Weekend Getaways in California: 34 Trips You Can Take

The Best Spring Getaways in California

California's Top Summer Getaway Locations

June in California: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

When and Where to See the California Wildflowers

July in San Diego: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

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Father's Day in California

December in California: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

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10 Amazing Summer Destinations in California for Families

By: Author Leslie Harvey

Posted on Published: May 22, 2023

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California is a destination that can be explored year-round, but there’s something special about summer in the Golden State. The season in California conjures up iconic moments in time and popular culture, from the Summer of Love in San Francisco to the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer.

Summer in California inspires wanderlust. With school out and pleasant weather in most corners of the state, travelers flock to California. Locals like our family enjoy weekend excursions or road trips to yet-to-be-explored nooks and crannies on our personal California bucket lists.

Summer Destinations in California - Mendocino Coast

Where are the best California destinations for travelers with kids during the summer months? While many top family-friendly destinations like San Francisco , Los Angeles , or San Diego are a fit year round, there are a number of places that are really in their prime during the summer months.

Your best bet in the summer in California is to understand the weather differences all over the state. In our family’s travels all over California, we have found it best to stay on the coast or in the mountains in summer. The Central Valley and a lot of other inland destinations can get blazingly hot, making some destinations that might be perfect for spring break or a fall getaway uncomfortably warm from approximately June to August.

So, without further ado, family travelers should consider these destinations in California in summer.

Top Destinations To Visit in California in Summer with Kids

1. monterey.

Summer Destinations in California for Families - Monterey Cannery Row

A world class aquarium, delicious seafood and wine, amazing beaches, and plenty of outdoor space to hike and explore make Monterey an ideal family travel destination in summer. It’s no wonder that Monterey welcomes several million visitors every year.

Just be aware that a lot of other travelers are on to this little secret by now. Summer in Monterey is always busy and hotel prices are more expensive than usual during summer months. Consider staying a little bit inland to save on hotel costs. Or try to schedule a trip for weekdays to avoid the legions of weekenders escaping San Francisco (like my family!).

For activities when you get there, check out my top 10 things to do in Monterey with kids .

2. The East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, & Alameda)

Childrens Fairyland Entrance in Oakland California

San Francisco often overshadows its neighbors to the east. Travelers who never leave the city, however, are missing out. As an East Bay resident myself (I live in Alameda) I can attest to the fact that the area is pretty glorious in the summer. The East Bay gets far less fog than San Francisco but rarely gets too hot either. A lot of family-friendly activities are far less costly. The restaurant scene rivals San Francisco’s, but with its focus slightly more attuned to comfort food, the dining experience is more kid-friendly.

Take in an Oakland A’s baseball game (while they are still here – boo to the latest 2023 stadium news!), pay a visit to Children’s Fairyland (a personal inspiration for Walt Disney when he was building Disneyland), have STEM adventures at the Lawrence Hall of Science or Chabot Space and Science Center, or play pilot aboard the USS Hornet. Although parts of Alameda County are very urban, there are lots of hiking trails as well as beaches (we are partial to Crown Beach and Crab Cove in Alameda, of course!).

Our family’s favorite place to stay when we are looking for a staycation is the historic Claremont Club & Spa by Fairmont . The hotel has an enormous pool area and other recreation options like tennis courts.

For more ideas on what to do in the East Bay, check out these top things to do in Alameda with kids or my guide to  things to do in Oakland with kids .

3. Orange County

Disneyland Castle and Partners Statue

Forget the OC cliches. The area is pretty much heaven for family travelers in summer months, with beaches and theme parks leading the list of family-friendly things to do. Orange County boasts both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm as well as six world-famous beaches (Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente).

But lest you think a vacation to the OC is too much about leisure, there are educational opportunities for family travelers too. Stop by Mission San Juan Capistrano for a history lesson about the mission settlements in California. Or pay a visit to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda to spark a family discussion about presidential politics.

4. Mendocino County

Mendocino County California with Kids - Fort Bragg Beach

Go north, young families! While Napa and Sonoma may get all the press, Mendocino County just to the north of them is a smart wine country alternative in the busy summer travel months. Mendocino is still a bit undiscovered. As a result, it can really be an inexpensive and family-friendly choice.

The town of Boonville is home to the Anderson Valley Brewing Company where you can take a tour or try a few beers in the family-friendly tap room. Then head out to the coast to the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Ride the historic Skunk Train, stroll through the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, visit Glass Beach, or explore the coast’s famous lighthouses.

Check out even more travel tips in this complete guide to visiting Mendocino with kids .

5. Gold Country (Nevada County)

Grass Valley California Downtown Mural

Bring the Gold Rush era to life with a visit to Nevada County. The two main towns, Grass Valley and Nevada City, have numerous gold rush-related attractions for families. Make sure to explore mining history at the Empire Mine State Park and the Northstar Mine Museum.

And with an area so focused on 19th century history, you can bet that there is a serious focus on trains here too. Train-loving kiddos should be sure to make a stop at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum or take a trip on the Railbus.

There are several lakes popular for summer recreation in the county so consider some time on the water as well.

Related : Guide to Every Train-Related Attraction in Northern California

6. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park Bumpass Hell

Lassen Volcanic National Park near Redding is one of the country’s least visited national parks. But don’t let that status fool you. It has all the geothermal intrigue of Yellowstone but without the crowds or the cost. It gets so few visitors because of its isolated location and also due to the limited number of months the road through it is open – not because of what it has to offer!

Most of the snow usually melts in June or by early July, so don’t go too early in the summer season. Always check the official website to make sure the road is open when you plan to go. The area’s high elevation keeps Lassen pleasant even in the summer months. And Bumpass Hell is one can’t-miss hike with just the right amount of challenge for younger kids.

7. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Editor’s Note: As summer 2023 season approaches, be aware that some of the roads in both parks are closed due to flood and storm damage. Many attractions and some lodging options are currently closed. Check current conditions here .

Don’t want to fight the summer crowds of Yosemite ? Another less-visited national park destination, Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Park, should be on your list. Kids can gawk at the world’s largest living creatures: the giant sequoia trees.

The hiking and camping opportunities are pretty endless. Make reservations early if you want to explore Crystal Cave, as tickets are limited and the area is traditionally only open in the summer ( Editor’s Note: Crystal Cave is still closed in 2023 due to fire damage, but is anticipated to reopen in 2024 ). The area has suffered some fire damage in the last couple of years, so always be prepared for the risks of travel in wildfire season , especially for visits later in the summer when fires are most common.

Related : Beginner’s Guide to National Parks Travel

8. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe blue waters in summer

Let’s face it, Lake Tahoe needs to be on this list every season of the year. In summer, activities revolve around boating and beach-going and hiking and biking for adventurous families. If you are planning to take a plunge in Lake Tahoe, bring a wetsuit – it stays cold! Another popular water activity many families enjoy is floating/rafting down the Truckee River.

Consider a trip into the town of Truckee for delicious and unpretentious restaurants. And take some time for California history with a visit to Donner Memorial State Park’s Visitors Center and Museum.

Just be prepared for some serious traffic in summer, especially on weekends, as Tahoe is a popular destination for millions of Bay Area residents and other Northern Californians.

Related : First Timer’s Guide to Visiting Lake Tahoe

9. Carlsbad

Legoland California on a Budget - Bring Your Own Stroller

Pretty much every kid has a Lego phase. And when they do, make a beeline for Carlsbad, the home of LEGOLAND California . The neighboring SEA LIFE Aquarium and adjacent LEGOLAND water park mean that you can easily spend a weekend or longer in the area.

The area has more to do than just theme parks, with numerous gorgeous beaches in town and the surrounding communities. The nearby beach towns of La Jolla to the south and Oceanside to the north are easy outings for even more coastal adventures. And of course, the city of San Diego isn’t far away either with even more family-friendly things to do.

10. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara California Stearns Wharf

Keeping things along the coast, the city of Santa Barbara is another glorious beach destination for families in summer. Located between LA and San Francisco on California’s Central Coast, it’s drivable as a weekend summer getaway for millions of Californians.

Stearns Wharf is a fun place to explore or eat. Visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center for some marine education. My family loved renting a surrey to bike the beach paths the last time we visited. Santa Barbara is home to one of the largest missions in California, so there are opportunities for some California history lessons as well.

Not far up the road is the city of Solvang – the “Danish Capital of America.” Families can enjoy delicious Danish food and baked goods and stroll the town to check out the architecture that naturally features a windmill or two.

Share your favorite summer travel spots in California in the comments! What did I miss?

California’s Best Destinations in Every Season

Don’t miss my travel guides for every season in California:

  • Best Spring Break Destinations in California for Families
  • Best Summer Destinations in California for Families – YOU ARE HERE
  • Best Fall Destinations in California for Families
  • Best Winter Destinations in California for Families

Planning summer travel in California? These top 10 Golden State destinations are kid-friendly, perfect for June, July, and August family vacations and road trips.

Disclosure: A few of the destinations in this list have provided hosted attractions or lodging to my family over the years. All opinions are my own.

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Quirky small towns in California to visit this summer

May 23, 2019 • 9 min read

The sun sets over a valley in Ojai, California casting orange, yellow and pink bands in the sky

Every evening the sunset casts a rosy pink glow over everything, the perfect cap to a relaxing day in Ojai © Photoview Plus / Getty Images

It’s now nearly June, and that means summer is here — the perfect excuse for a road trip or quick getaway to explore quirky small towns.

Given that California is bigger than many countries, there are plenty of options to choose from. I grew up here and spent many childhood weekends sandwiched between two brothers on family car rides throughout the state. Although I try to avoid the nausea-inducing middle seat these days, I still love to explore California’s various destinations — with a preference for the weird and charming small towns. Here are some of my favorite California towns that you should consider this summer.

The sun sets over a valley in Ojai, California casting orange, yellow and pink bands in the sky

Find your zen in Ojai

There’s nowhere more hippie-cool than Ojai, an artists’ colony, spiritual-retreat town and Zen paradise. The town of 7,500 is centered around a picturesque village filled with art galleries, restaurants that serve healthy food, yoga studios, spas, aromatherapy stores, crystal shops…you get the idea — all arranged along a historic California-mission-style main street. This sun-soaked little town is a great place in which to escape. Personally, I decided Ojai was one of the coolest places I had ever seen back when I was 12 years old, and after traveling to about 15 countries, I still agree with that assessment.

Although many people come down to Ojai to relax at spas, there are a lot of activities in this little town—like  going for a bike ride  among the citrus trees or taking in the nightly “ pink moment ” just before sunset, when the light bounces off the Topatopa Mountains and the entire valley is awash in pink. Some residents believe Ojai has a special spiritual vortex. As for places to stay, there a lot of beautiful little inns, like the mission style  Su Nido Inn  or classic B and B’s like the  Lavender Inn . The food in this organic-obsessed oasis is also incredible; try smoothies, tea and vegan treats at  Hip Vegan , or enjoy tapas and local craft beers and wine at Spanish-style  Azu .

Reason to go soon:  During the first weekend of June, Ojai holds an annual music and wine  festival  with concerts and lectures; the local wineries all participate and pour. Ojai is a haven for artists and creatives, and the festival is a celebration of its Bohemian spirit.

Favorite quirky things to do:  Make sure you check out  Bart’s Books , the city’s outdoor bookstore with shelves of literature arranged around a courtyard instead of a traditional building. Also, make a visit to  Dharma & Dog , Ojai’s self-described “pets and people emporium,” which sells a combination of metaphysical supplies, such as singing bowls and eco-sourced yoga clothes, in addition to toys and raw pet food.

A small girl runs down a sandy path to the beach near Jenner California

Hide out in Jenner

The tiny village of Jenner , with fewer than 200 people, is calm and friendly and a little weird. The town does have a twilight-zone feel, given the thick fog that often completely envelops it. The area is a quick drive from the metropolis of the Bay Area but couldn’t feel farther away from the bustle of downtown SF; it’s ideal for an unplugged weekend with spotty cell service at best.

Take the weekend to  hike along the beach ; eat some clam chowder at  Cafe Aquatica  (or just stop in for their locally roasted organic coffee);  kayak  on the ocean; and enjoy the stunning vistas that make Northern California’s coast so magical. You can also drive over to the Sonoma Coast State Park to immerse yourself in the area’s remarkable nature. The  Jenner Inn  is a sweet place at which to spend the night, serving homemade dishes and local wines. The  River’s End Restaurant & Inn  is also a good option, with a seasonal menu and beautiful ocean views. Adventurous travelers can also camp in Jenner.

Reason to go soon:  The wildflowers are in bloom through June, covering the coast in a riot of color.

Favorite quirky thing to do:  Visit Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy , a roadside pink-and-white-striped shop with hundreds of colors and flavors of taffy to choose from (I highly recommend the orange creamsicle). Patrick’s is an institution, and it’s about only 20 minutes from Jenner on the way to Bodega Bay.

Cypress trees planted on either side of a long road bend inwards to create a tunnel

Enjoy Good Food and Good Views in Point Reyes

While the Point Reyes National Seashore brings tourists from all over the world, most of them never even see the quaint town of Point Reyes Station , home to awesome farm-to-table restaurants, beautiful views and a tight-knit community of about 850 residents. Although there’s high-end dining here if you want it, I highly recommend the small and intimate  Side Street Kitchen , a stepped-up, locally sourced diner that serves incredible dishes in a bright, cozy yellow space. I love the seared bratwurst and the roast chicken (my reward after a 10-mile hiking day recently). Point Reyes is also famous for the cheesemaker  Cowgirl Creamery , which sells incredible cheese out of a restored barn in downtown Point Reyes called Tomales Bay Foods.

Reason to go soon:  The Point Reyes Lighthouse , known for its dramatic vistas and vertigo-inducing downhill hike, is currently closed for repairs. This is actually good news, because it leaves the road to the lighthouse completely empty of the usual scores of tourists. Read on to find out why.

Favorite quirky thing to do:  Along the road to the lighthouse is one of the weirdest and coolest parts of Point Reyes: the  Marconi RCA Station.   B uilt by Gugliemo Marconi, an Italian man who received the first-ever patent for radio technology in 1899. He went on to build transmitting stations all over the world, including this one, which is believed to be the only Marconi-era station left in North America. On weekends and holidays, you can still hear the signal over the radio thanks to efforts to preserve it as a heritage experience. The road leading to the station is lined with Cypress trees that form a sort of tunnel over the path, which makes for a beautiful and stunning photo opp — especially without the crowds.

people bike, scooter and walk down a palm tree lined street

Get nostalgic at Hermosa Beach

Hermosa is a nostalgic and lovely city on the Santa Monica Bay that maintains a laid-back ’70s surfer vibe that most of Southern California lost years ago. It’s unpretentious and just as bright and happy as you’d imagine a place with 200 days of sun a year might be.

You can enjoy the restaurants and shops along the town’s Pier Avenue, which runs for several miles along the ocean and is closed off to cars at the base to allow for safe and fun beach revelry. Try  Palmilla  for great Mexican food and tequila drinks, or the  Hook & Plow  for seafood and delicious craft beers. You could also lounge on the beach, which is much more chill than Santa Monica or Venice Beach, and maybe catch some live music — the town has a stacked schedule of festivals and outdoor concerts. If you’re looking for an oceanview stay, the best beachfront hotel in Hermosa is the  Beach House ;  Hotel Hermosa is also a good option - it’s courtyard has firepits and pool tables.

Reason to go soon:  Summer is a great time to visit, especially Fourth of July weekend, which the town takes extremely seriously. The whole village becomes a blur of red, white and blue for days. There is a classic parade down the main street featuring both impressive official floats and, even better, DIY ones (a few years ago, I saw an older man blazing through town on a bedazzled electric scooter wrapped in bunting and sporting no fewer than four American flags).

Favorite quirky thing to do:  Hermosa has a long greenbelt that connects all the way to nearby Manhattan Beach . Walking or biking along the path is the best way to get a sense of the Peter Pan culture of Hermosa beach. Along with the usual joggers and baby strollers, the path is also popular with wetsuited surfers and roving bands of skateboarders of all ages.

Lavender blooms down a hill with the ocean in the background

Visit the monarchs in Pacific Grove

Pacific Grove is my personal favorite alternative to the often crowded towns of Monterey and Carmel . Affectionately called “Butterfly Town USA,” it’s a stop on the route of thousands of monarch butterflies, which arrive in October of every year on their way to Mexico for the winter. The town’s monarch sanctuary is magical during the butterflies’ visit; the bright monarchs carpet the trees and fill the air. Their influence can be felt all year in Pacific Grove, though; images of them are painted on street signs and store awnings, and the residents are quick to tell you how much they love them.

Reason to go soon:  Although the butterflies won’t arrive until fall, early summer is a perfect time on the Central Coast, with consistent sunshine and blooming wildflowers.

Favorite quirky thing to do:  Make a stop at   the  Mindshop , run by the Center for Spiritual Awakening. It has just the right level of new-age charm to please any traveler looking for a touch of weird—plus, there’s a beautiful Zen garden in the back.

Shop signs along a street

Experience Danish Solvang

If you can’t afford a trip to Denmark, Solvang is the next best thing. It’s a Danish village complete with tulips, windmills, warm pastries and a lot of kitsch. Founded in 1911, Solvang was the brainchild of a group of Danes in Ohio who couldn’t hack the Midwestern winters. That was good news for us, since today it’s a time warp that’s perfect for travelers. Solvang is a little bit bizarre, but that’s part of its appeal. It’s a little bit like Disneyland—suspend your disbelief, and you’ll have a lot of fun.

I recommend starting with the gastronomical. Embrace the theme and try some  ableskiver , a decadent Danish dessert with powdered sugar and strawberry jam. Then indulge in some Danish meatballs. Because my motto is that dessert should always come first on vacation. The most popular place at which to try  ableskiver  and other Danish specialties in town is  Solvang Restaurant,  beloved by both locals and visitors for its mastery of the pastry. For delicious locally sourced fare, try  Mad & Vin  inside the Landsby, a beautiful Scandinavian-inspired boutique hotel close to downtown. Don’t miss the duck-fat fries. If you’re looking for somewhere a little campier to stay to embrace the full Solvang experience, try the  Royal Copenhagen Inn ; its buildings are an exact duplicate of a street in Copenhagen.

Reason to go soon:  If you really want to dive into Danish culture, drive down to Solvang for  Danish Days,  the annual festival of patriotism, pastries and clogs that takes over the down during the third weekend of September. But the weather in the Santa Ynez Valley, the larger area that encompasses Solvang and five other wine-country towns, is lovely all summer. The local wineries offer a  summer tasting pass,  which gets you tastings at 14 participating wineries for $55, including five in Solvang.

Favorite quirky thing to do:  Once you’re satisfied with Danish treats, the real adventure can begin: ostrich petting. That’s right—Solvang has its very own  Ostrichland . You can get acquainted with 50 emus and ostriches, up close and personal.

This article originally appeared on The Bold Italic .

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20 Best Places to Visit in California

20 Best Places to Visit in California

These are the best places to visit in California and the must-see places in 2022. California is home to truly everything — a stunning coastline, national parks, and incredible cities.

Whether it’s for a weekend of hiking in a national park like Lassen Volcanic National Park or a long drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to a coastal town, there is so much to see. The Golden State is broken into three distinct areas: Northern California, Central California, and Southern California. Each is unique in its offerings and the best part is you can easily travel between them.

Your Ultimate California Guide!

Unlock the best-kept secrets of Northern & Central California with my curated Google Map, showcasing 600+ accommodations, eateries, coffee shops, and unique experiences. Get the map here!

California is certainly best visited by car if you plan to see more of the coast and national parks. You could visit cities without a car like San Francisco or even parts of L.A. It truly depends on the experience you would like to have.

1. Yosemite National Park

Hands down my favorite destination in California is Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is one of those places that once you’ve been, you’ll be itching to return. The draw and lure of the valley is hard to describe — it feels like you’re a world away from everyone else.

It’s the perfect destination for a day trip or an overnighter if you can grab nearby accommodations or one of the rentals in the park. From day hikes to bicycling the valley floor, it’s one place you don’t want to miss.

Helpful Guides: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Yosemite (read this for cheap accommodations in the park) The Ultimate Summer Hike in Yosemite

2. Joshua Tree National Park

If you’re looking for a beautiful desert escape, look no further than Joshua Tree National Park. One of those gems down in Southern California, the national park is an incredible place of discovery for those looking to be outdoors. Known for its famous Joshua Tree, the desert is home to a wide variety of cactuses and desert animals.

I love going there for some quiet time in nature and hiking. If there’s one thing you don’t want to miss, it’s sunset in the cholla gardens — the entire field lights up at night.

This whole area is filled with incredibly well-designed homes, so peruse Airbnb for a stay. My personal favorite is the Joshua Tree House by our friends Rich and Sara.

Helpful Guides: The Dreamiest Airbnb in Joshua Tree

3. Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Continuing with our outdoor theme, Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County is another one of those incredible outdoor destinations. I was there this last year for my first time and had no idea how much there was to do.

The most famous thing is certainly a drive through the Avenue of the Giants, where some of the tallest redwood trees tower of you. There are plenty of day hikes and makes for a great family weekend trip.

Helpful Guides: A Guide to Visiting the Avenue of the Giants

4. San Francisco

Where I once called home, San Francisco may be one of the most stunning cities in the nation. We always said it was the city of a thousand views because truly, there are so many beautiful places. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the wharf, the rolling hills of San Francisco make the city what it is.

Amidst it all, incredible restaurants and boutiques are spread out across different neighborhoods. If you do get the chance, be sure to drive or walk over the Golden Gate Bridge, you won’t want to miss sunset there.

Helpful Guides: My List of Secret Restaurant After Living There Best Coffee Shops in San Francisco 5 Best Photography Spot in San Francisco

5. Lake Tahoe

Growing up in Auburn, California, our weekend trips almost always included Lake Tahoe. Located in Northern California, Lake Tahoe is a classic weekend away for both winter and summer. It is incredibly stunning with the Sierra Nevada Mountains peaking over.

The lake is crystal blue and worth a visit any time of the year. There are several places to stay from South Lake Tahoe to Incline, I love somewhere in between. It’s a great destination to go with friends and enjoy the fresh alpine air.

Helpful Guides: A Quick Summer Guide to Lake Tahoe 10 Airbnbs to Rent in Lake Tahoe

6. Sequoia National Park

High on my list of national parks I want to visit is Sequoia National Park. Right in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the national park is home to the large sequoia trees.

In the area is Mount Whitney and Kings Canyon National Park, so there is plenty to do for a few nights here. It’s noted that some of the best times to visit are during the summer months when the weather is mild before the winter months.

7. Muir Woods

A favorite for visitors around the world, Muir Woods national Monument is located just about 45 minutes north of San Francisco. This State Park does require reservations in advance for parking so do keep that in mind. It’s a lovely wooded area, that lines Mount Tamalpais. One full afternoon here is plenty of time to explore. You could even pack in your own lunch to bring out on the trail.

Helpful Guides: NPS Site for Muir Woods

8. Channel Islands National Park

Another gem of a national park not often talked about is the Channel Islands. Off the coast of Santa Barbara, these 5 islands are famed for its abundance of wildlife. You can visit but definitely requires a bit of an effort to get out there. There are a few ways to get there, most popular are by guided boats and there are day flights that also run there. This is truly a nature-lover’s ideal destination.

Located on the central coast of California, Big Sur is a bucket list destination for most travelers abroad and in California. It’s an iconic stop on a road trip up the coast of California. From the Bixby Bridge to McWay Falls, I truly can’t put into words just how beautiful this part of California is. There are a few accommodations in the area and it is also known for camping as well.

Helpful Guides: The Complete Extended Travel Guide To Big Sur, California The Best Big Sur Hotels For All Budgets

10. Palm Springs

Have you ever been to Palm Springs? It’s always one of those places that people either love to return to or go only once. I’ve included on this list because for those who love design and architecture, it’s a place you don’t want to miss.

From beautiful hotels to restaurants, a wonderful museum to nearby outdoor activities, Palm Springs has the best of both worlds. Yes, the summer months are piping hot but you can be poolside most of the time. Palm Springs is a wonderful weekend trip and you can even go to Joshua Tree from there if you’re looking to combine two desert destinations.

Helpful Guides: Incredible Things To Do In Palm Springs The 10 Coolest Airbnbs In Palm Springs The Hip Guide to Palm Springs Best Design Hotels in Palm Springs 20 Best Restaurants In Palm Springs

11. Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley

Though this area of California may be high on the list of tourist attractions, there are still plenty of gems in wine country that feel untouched. Both of these valleys are iconic for their wine and food. The area also has incredible spas and beautiful hotels nestled amongst the vineyards. So if you’re looking for a romantic weekend away, Napa or Sonoma Valley are a great choice — especially if you’re coming from the Bay Area.

For those who want a quieter version of Napa Valley, I’d recommend going further back towards St. Helena or Calistoga. For gems in Sonoma Valley, I love the area of Forestville which has local wineries and beautiful hotels.

Helpful Guides: Best of Wine Country in Sonoma and Napa Valley

12. Santa Cruz

From their beaches to hiking trails in the mountains, Santa Cruz is great for those who want a quaint coastal city experience with proximity to nature. Our friends head here frequently to surf and lounge on the beach and it’s somewhere I’m itching to go explore soon again. It has a long wharf and boardwalk that reminds of something you’d see on the East Coast which makes it fun for families with young kids.

13. Death Valley

When it comes to places that you blow your mind, I think Death Valley just about does it. After scrolling through photos, I’ve never seen such a diverse landscape in our state. It’s the lowest point in North America, so its climate produces some incredible scenery. You can visit everything from salt flats to sand dunes here. You’ll want to plan accordingly as it can be treacherous during extreme weather.

14. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a fairytale town on the northern central coast of California. Just south of Monterey, the picturesque town is dotted with historic buildings that look like they belong in Hansel & Gretel. From world-class cuisine to a rising wine region, Carmel is often coveted for how temperate the weather is year-round. I personally love this town because of how calming it is. The air here is fresh — you can go for walks along the beach or in the nearby state parks like Point Lobos.

Helpful Guides: Travel Guide to Carmel Best Things to Do in Carmel 20 Best Restaurants in Carmel The Best Hotels in Carmel

15. Mendocino

Up the coast of Northern California is cute and quaint town called Mendocino. For those who’ve been, there’s a certain allure to this part of the state. It’s certainly rugged but yet peaceful. The area is lined with coastal parks, great for day hikes and walks through headlands that peer over the ocean.

Local farms and fishermen bring in most of the food found in restaurants, so there’s a deep connection with the local ingredients. You’ll find restaurants often only serve what is fresh and seasonal, which for foodies is an added bonus. Whenever I’m looking for a retreat away, I usually think of Mendocino first.

Helpful Guides: A Weekend Guide to Mendocino Ultimate Northern California Coast Road Trip Itinerary

16. Redwoods National and State Parks

One of the furthest points up in California I’ve been to has been Redwoods National Park. Have you heard of it? This area stretches from the ocean inland and is famed for a backpacker’s haven. If you’re wanting to be far out in nature, I couldn’t recommend it more.

Trinidad is just south of it, so you can make a home base there for day trips into the park. One sight you won’t want to miss in the park is Fern Canyon. This small canyon is over forty feet tall and drenched in ferns with tumbling water.

Helpful Guides: A Road Trip Guide To California’s Wild North Coast

17. Mount Shasta

Mt. Shasta is one of the furthest destinations in Northern California for outdoor adventure. The mountain itself is actually a volcano and the city itself is only a few miles away. There are wonderful overnight camping here and day hikes around the area. Nearby is the Lava Beds National Monument, a popular site to visit when in this region.

18. Mammoth Lakes Area

This is number one on my list for road trips in California this year. Mammoth Lakes area is home to so much goodness, I can’t wait to go discover it myself. From natural hot springs that line up against the mountain to the beautiful fall colors of the June Lake Loop, this is one of the best places to visit in California for a long weekend. Though many go in the winter months for ski, I’m looking to go right before the big snowfall.

Helpful Guides: 7 Incredible Things To Do In Mammoth Lakes A Guide To Hiking California’s Epic Big Pine Lakes

19. San Diego

The very southern part of California is home to San Diego. Life here is relaxed — it has that barefoot, no worries state of mind. I grew up going here as a kid and always loved the beaches and wharfs to explore. There is a lot on offer in this area and has a wide range of experiences for all types of travel. You can stay at stunning resorts with golf courses along the beach or be in the heart of downtown for a city escape. San Diego is a wonderful place to explore if you’re looking for a relaxed getaway.

20. Laguna Beach

Last but not least is Laguna Beach and arguably my favorite place in Southern California. It has the perks of the area — like good food, great beaches, and a lively culture, but feels removed. It’s an enclave artists and incredible design. Laguna Beach is a special place and the first I love to recommend when visiting the region.

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Ps — are you booking a trip soon use my booking checklist.

These are the sites I use most to book my own trips. Using the links below is a great way to support Bon Traveler’s travel journalism at no extra cost to you . If you need help organizing your itinerary, get my free travel itinerary template here .

1. Book Your Flights

Use Skyscanner to find the best flights. It searches 100s of airlines and websites across the globe to ensure you’re not missing out on any route options or deals.

2. Book Your Accommodations

Use for hotels and guest houses. They have the biggest inventory and consistently offer the best rates.

3. Book Your Tours & Experiences

Use Viator or Get Your Guide to find the best tours and experiences. They are my favorite tour search engines. I always check both as their inventory varies depending on the destination.

4. Book Your Car

Use Discover Cars or to find the best car rental deals. I recommend comparing rental agency reviews on Google to ensure you are booking with the best company in that destination, as the reviews are often more accurate than the car rental search engines.

5. Don’t Forget Airport Lounge Access

Get a Priority Pass membership to gain access to 1,400+ VIP lounges and airport experiences worldwide. The Priority Pass app is the first thing I check when I have a layover. I’ve been a member for over a decade, and having a comfortable place to relax before and between flights makes air travel so much more enjoyable.

6. Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

I never leave the country without travel insurance. It provides comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong (ie. illness, injury, theft, and cancelations, etc.). I use it frequently for my travels to stay protected.

My favorite companies that offer the best coverage and rates are:

  • World Nomads (best for all-around)
  • Safety Wing (best for frequent travelers)

Xx, Jessica

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17 Best Places to Visit in California

Written by Lisa Alexander Updated Apr 13, 2023 We may earn a commission from affiliate links ( )

Author Lisa Alexander is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area in California and returns regularly.

California beckons you to visit with its sunshine, stunning landscapes, and urban sophistication. A place of dreams, this alluring state has it all: a spectacular coastline, snowcapped mountains, expansive deserts , idyllic farmlands, and ancient redwood groves, along with vibrant multicultural cities .

You should put San Francisco at the top of your travel itinerary for sightseeing, shopping, museum hopping, and gourmet dining. Next, head to Los Angeles to experience the quintessential Southern California lifestyle and to soak up the Hollywood glamour. For balmy weather and golden-sand beaches, San Diego and Santa Barbara are the places to go.

Spectacular nature sites await you in California . At Yosemite National Park, you will marvel over the majestic granite cliffs draped with voluminous waterfalls. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can go hiking and skiing in an exhilarating alpine environment. Closer to the Pacific Ocean, the world's tallest trees at Redwood National and State Parks will leave you awestruck.

Plan your travels to "The Golden State" with our list of the best places to visit in California.

1. The San Francisco Bay Area

2. los angeles, santa monica, and pasadena, 3. san diego: sunshine, beaches, and spanish architecture, 4. yosemite national park: a unesco world heritage site, 5. lake tahoe: hiking, mountain biking, and skiing, 6. seaside towns and nature sites of marin county, 7. gold country in the sierra nevada foothills, 8. rural sonoma county, napa valley, and calistoga, 9. mendocino coastline, 10. big sur and hearst castle, 11. santa barbara: sandy beaches and a charming downtown, 12. palm springs, 13. santa cruz, monterey, and carmel, 14. san luis obispo and the central coast, 15. anaheim, 16. the redwood forests of humboldt county, 17. mammoth lakes: hiking, fishing, and skiing, map of places to visit in california.

Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline

When the afternoon sun shines on the hillsides or the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean over the Golden Gate Bridge , this breathtaking city has a mystical beauty. Almost every neighborhood of San Francisco features iconic postcard scenes, from the curves of Lombard Street to the rows of fanciful Victorian houses and the marvelous bay views.

San Francisco packs an incredible number of tourist attractions into just seven by seven square miles. It's a small, walkable city as long as you don't mind hiking up steep streets or hopping on a cable car.

Go on a self-guided walking tour through the city's most atmospheric neighborhoods, which are packed with famous tourist sights.

Whichever way you get around San Francisco, it's fun to explore Chinatown , a bustling area of shops and authentic Chinese restaurants; North Beach (Little Italy); and Fisherman's Wharf , a popular waterfront tourist destination.

Today, San Francisco ranks high on the list of top cities in California. This sophisticated metropolis offers world-class opera and ballet, a wide range of theater performances, and gourmet dining. The city has an impressive assortment of restaurants that serve local specialties and locally sourced farm-to-table meals, as well as global cuisine and trendsetting menus.

The hip and edgy Mission district is the place to try up-and-coming restaurants or sample ethnic cuisine, relax in a coffee shop, and browse unique shops. The stylish Hayes Valley neighborhood is renowned for its restaurants, as well as unique retail boutiques.

Coit Tower in San Francisco

Across the San Francisco Bay (just a 30-minute Bart train ride away) are the university town of Berkeley, with its high-caliber cultural attractions and acclaimed gourmet restaurants, and the multicultural city of Oakland , which boasts interesting museums, historic theaters, lively neighborhood events, and summer festivals.

Try a guided walking tour of Berkeley's foodie highlights or delve into the authentic cuisine of Oakland at popular local restaurants.

Nature lovers can drive 30 miles south of San Francisco (via the scenic Highway One) to Half Moon Bay . Tucked away behind rolling hills, this oceanfront town fronts a stretch of wild, rugged Pacific coastline. It's a great place for walking along the beach, hiking, golfing, fishing, and bird-watching, or enjoying a seafood meal by the harbor.

About 17 miles farther south is Pescadero , a rural community with many small farms; a bird sanctuary at the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve; and a goat dairy (Harley Farms), which offers guided tours of the farm. Harley Farms has picnic tables and a boutique that sells goat cheese and other products made on the farm.

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Santa Monica Beach

Los Angeles epitomizes the seductive image of sunny Southern California with its wide, palm-fringed boulevards; exclusive designer boutiques; trendy restaurants; and sun-drenched sandy beaches. Despite being a sprawling urban metropolis, the city has pleasant neighborhoods, spacious parks, and refreshing beachfront promenades.

The city established its raison d'être during the film industry boom of the 1920s and 30s and is still synonymous with Tinseltown glitz and glamour. Among the top tourist attractions of Los Angeles is the famous neighborhood of Hollywood, which has many iconic sights , including the Walk of Fame lined with star plaques honoring prominent movie directors, actors, and musicians.

Those intrigued by the idea of spotting Hollywood stars should head to their stomping grounds on Rodeo Drive , lined with haute couture boutiques; the exclusive Beverly Hills and Bel Air neighborhoods; and the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard. The upscale neighborhood of Franklin Village in Hollywood is also a good place for celebrity sightings.

Rodeo Drive

Favorite L.A. beaches include the eclectic Venice Beach, a fun-loving scene of rollerbladers, cyclists, joggers, and street performers; and in the fashionable town of Santa Monica , the 3.5-mile Santa Monica State Beach (15 miles from Los Angeles, accessible by the Expo Metro line), which has an iconic pier and a beachfront path for walking and cycling.

Besides movie stars, beaches, fine dining, and shopping, Los Angeles is also known for its art scene and cultural offerings. The city boasts world-class museums and performance venues such as the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Walt Disney Concert Hall (jazz and classical music performances) at The Music Center , and the Hollywood Bowl (pop music concerts, jazz, and classical music/orchestra performances).

Near the leafy town of Pasadena with its pleasant tree-lined streets (11 miles from Los Angeles) is The Huntington 's 130-acre Botanical Gardens , filled with 16 different themed gardens, including a Desert Garden, an authentic Japanese Garden, and a Shakespeare Garden featuring plants cultivated in Renaissance England.

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View of downtown San Diego from Coronado Island

Dip your toes in the sand and experience the fun-loving California lifestyle when you visit sunny San Diego. Appreciated for its year-round balmy climate, gorgeous scenery, beautiful sandy beaches , and outdoor adventures , this SoCal city seems to have it all.

Some of the key attractions in San Diego proper are Balboa Park , an expansive green space with ravishing gardens and several museums; the historic Gaslamp Quarter , which is full of boutiques, art galleries, and good restaurants; and the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park , where museums, retail shops, and restaurants occupy the old adobe buildings.

If you are traveling with little ones, you'll love the city's kid-friendly attractions, as well as the family-friendly resorts. The top things to do in San Diego with kids include visiting San Diego Zoo ; watching the dolphin and whale shows at SeaWorld ; exploring the playgrounds at Balboa Park ; admiring colorful sea life at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla; and spending time at The New Children's Museum .

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

San Diego has the original Spanish mission (founded in 1769), the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá which was the birthplace of Christianity in California. The adobe building complex features a distinctive campanario (bell wall), a simple Mission Church (a National Historic Landmark), and a courtyard garden filled with tropical flowers and bougainvillea.

Mass is celebrated at the Mission Church twice daily Monday through Friday, once daily on Saturdays, and several times on Sundays. You may visit the Mission for an admission fee. Guided tours are available.

Several nearby destinations are good day trips from San Diego . For sunbathing and shopping, La Jolla (14 miles north of San Diego's downtown) is prized for its sandy beaches, as well as its quaint downtown full of gourmet restaurants, art museums, performing arts venues, and antiques shops.

Another worthwhile excursion from San Diego is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, in a tranquil setting 66 miles north. For the taste of a different culture, travelers can visit Tijuana in Mexico, just 20 miles south of San Diego. For a stress-free visit, take an organized tour from San Diego to Tijuana.

Slightly farther away (within two hours of San Diego) are many wonderful weekend getaway destinations such as the dreamy Catalina Island and the mountain resort of Idyllwild .

Yosemite National Park: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Nothing prepares you for the jaw-dropping natural splendor of Yosemite Valley. This striking landscape features sheer granite cliffs and domes carved by glaciers millions of years ago. When John Muir discovered Yosemite Valley in the 1860s, he described it as the "grandest of all special temples of Nature" and helped to establish the area as a protected national park.

A vast High Sierra wilderness of 1,200 square miles, Yosemite National Park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 and boasts 800 miles of hiking trails. Visiting Yosemite ranks among the top things to do in California . Keep in mind that you may need reservations to enter Yosemite National Park.

Every area of the park is dazzling, from its expansive meadows, free-flowing waterfalls, and crystal-clear streams to the giant sequoia tree groves. The park has incredible biological diversity, with more than 400 different animal species, including 262 species of birds.

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

The most emblematic sights of Yosemite are Yosemite Falls , an amazing 2,425-foot waterfall, and Half Dome , the sheer-faced granite mountain. The trail to the top of Yosemite Falls and the all-day trek up to Half Dome are among the most challenging hikes in Yosemite; you must be in excellent physical fitness for both hikes and a permit is required to hike Half Dome.

If you're an avid hiker, you will enjoy the wide array of hikes at Yosemite National Park . There's even a portion of the legendary Pacific Crest Trail , found alongside the gushing Tuolumne River .

Easier trails include the hike to Vernal Falls footbridge and the loop around Mirror Lake , a pleasant spot sheltered by granite walls.

Yosemite National Park has two historic lodges ( The Ahwahnee and the Wawona Hotel ) and the modern Yosemite Valley Lodge . Visitors can also choose from hotels located in the nearby towns outside of the park such as Oakhurst, Groveland, and El Portal.

For those who prefer camping, there are rustic cabins and campgrounds throughout the park. It's recommended to make reservations for all types of overnight accommodations, including cabins and campsites, well in advance.

Read More: Top Attractions & Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

Lake Tahoe

Surrounded by snowcapped mountains, Lake Tahoe is a place of sublime beauty and serenity. The lake has brilliant turquoise waters with a translucent quality, and the scenery is so picturesque that it has a meditative effect.

The top things to do at Lake Tahoe include hiking, alpine skiing, and scenic boat cruises. To admire the alpine landscape, you can choose from many wonderful hiking trails in the South Lake Tahoe area. Some of the best campgrounds are also found in South Lake Tahoe.

For enchanting lakeside scenery, head to Emerald Bay State Park, the peaceful forests and beaches of D. L. Bliss State Park, and the densely-wooded Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point State Park . These parks also provide well-groomed nature trails and scenic spots for picnicking.

Kings Beach on the sunny North Shore of Lake Tahoe is a favorite place for swimming and boating, including kayaking and paddleboarding. Kings Beach is also a bustling town with many restaurants, casual eateries, shops, and street vendors.

Winter sports enthusiasts flock to Lake Tahoe from December until April (depending on seasonal snowfall) for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding. The Palisades Tahoe ski area, the awe-inspiring Heavenly Ski Resort , and family-friendly Northstar California are world-class destinations for downhill skiing. Several other Lake Tahoe ski resorts also have top-notch facilities and superb alpine terrain.

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Just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County is one of the most popular day trips from San Francisco . However, travelers should note that a car is required to get around in Marin, except for Sausalito, which is accessible by ferry from San Francisco.

The picture-perfect waterfront town of Sausalito has a quaint historic downtown, beautiful marinas, and sensational views of San Francisco. Sausalito is very touristy but is definitely worth visiting because of the unique setting.

For those sightseeing by car, it's a short drive from Sausalito to gorgeous nature sites: Tennessee Valley , appreciated for its springtime wildflowers and gentle walking trail to the beach, and Muir Woods National Monument , a dense forest of giant 1,000-year-old coastal redwood trees.

Because Muir Woods is such a popular destination, many tour companies offer organized day trips from San Francisco. For all other visitors, reservations are required for the paid parking at Muir Woods National Monument, as well as for the shuttle service from Sausalito (ideal for those traveling without a car).

A spectacularly scenic but difficult winding coastal drive along Highway One (about 30 to 45 minutes from Muir Beach) leads to Stinson Beach , appreciated for its 3.5-mile-long sandy shoreline and excellent facilities (picnic area, snack bar, public restrooms). The town owes its Bohemian ambience and touch of flower-child flair to the locally owned shops and organic restaurants.

Alamere Falls, Point Reyes National Seashore

To experience the wild, natural beauty of Marin County's coastline, drive six miles north of Stinson Beach to the Point Reyes National Seashore on Tomales Bay. This splendid coastal environment includes peaceful hidden coves, sandy beaches , nature trails with sweeping ocean views, and protected estuaries that are ideal for kayaking.

A paradise for bird-watchers, Point Reyes is home to a remarkable variety of avian species, including the snowy plover, northern spotted owl, Peregrine falcon, and brown pelican.

Continuing farther north is Bodega Bay , a fishing village and laid-back resort area (27 miles north of Point Reyes Station in the Point Reyes National Seashore) where Marin County borders Sonoma County. If you're outdoorsy and a beach lover, you will appreciate the area's invigorating natural environment.

Head to Bodega Bay for nature walks, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and surfing. Despite being a quiet coastal community, Bodega Bay has an extensive choice of hotels, lodges, and vacation rental options.

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places to visit in california this summer

In 1848, when John Sutter and James Marshal were building a sawmill at Coloma along the American River, they discovered small nuggets of gold on the site. This pivotal moment led to the "Gold Rush" of 1849, changing the course of California's history. Thousands of gold-seekers flocked to this location in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, hoping to find their fortunes.

You can see where gold was discovered at the old sawmill in Coloma (today it's part of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park ). Try panning for gold in the American River just as the gold miners did in 1849. The park offers gold panning lessons. After touring the site, explore the park's hiking trails or have a picnic under the oak trees.

About 40 miles north of Coloma are the atmospheric Gold Rush towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City. At Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley, you may tour the old mining area and the property's Victorian "cottage."

Be sure to visit the charming downtown of Grass Valley . This historic town has many mid-19th-century buildings that are filled with art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants.

Don't miss Nevada City , known for its historic inns and restaurants. Nevada City also hosts cultural events such as First Friday Artwalks, summertime music concerts, and several film festivals throughout the year.

Beautiful nature sites are found throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills. Nestled in a canyon, the South Yuba River State Park is a good place for bird-watching, swimming, and hiking.

For summertime recreation, the American River attracts many visitors to its riverfront parks. Dave Moore Nature Area (two miles from Coloma) has hiking trails and picnic areas. In the Coloma-Lotus Valley, the South Fork of the American River is the place to go for white-water rafting experiences.

The Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park in Pilot Hill (four miles from Coloma) has 12 miles of hiking/biking trails plus fishing areas.

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Hiking trail in Sonoma County

Tucked away along a rugged stretch of ocean bluffs and craggy headlands, the Sonoma Coast State Park offers pristine scenery, solitude, and secluded sandy beaches.

Sonoma County is one of the best places to visit in Northern California for scenic hikes in the rolling hills and along the coast.

To explore the picturesque sun-drenched countryside of Sonoma County, head to Trione-Annadel State Park where you can go hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding along the park's network of trails. Trione-Annadel State Park is also a great place for spotting springtime wildflowers and fishing at the park's Lake Ilsanjo.

The Foothill Regional Park offers seven miles of trails through a serene landscape of oak woodlands, flowering meadows, and gently rolling hillsides, plus three ponds for fishing. There are also picnic tables located in various areas of the park.

Besides stunning nature sites, Sonoma County and neighboring Napa Valley boast plenty of cultural attractions.

A favorite tourist destination, the town of Sonoma features a central plaza and an old Spanish Mission. The central square of Sonoma is a great place to take leisurely strolls, browse the boutiques, and indulge in a gourmet meal. Sonoma is known for its restaurant scene. You can also enjoy picnics on the tree-shaded lawn of the central square.

The trend-setting Napa Valley is a mecca for luxury resorts, boutique hotels, and gourmet restaurants. Napa Valley's most renowned restaurant (and the most difficult place to reserve a table) is The French Laundry in Yountville (10 miles from Napa), awarded three Michelin stars.

Nestled in the foothills of Mount Saint Helena and surrounded by vineyards, Calistoga (30 miles from Napa) has a charming downtown and spas with mineral hot springs.

The Calistoga Spa Hot Springs hotel & spa treats guests to a pampering experience at its geothermal hot springs and recently updated resort property. The Calistoga Spa Hot Springs resort offers the famous Calistoga mud baths as well as yoga classes and massage treatments.

Read More: Top-Rated Hot Springs in California

Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino

For spectacular scenery, few places compare to Mendocino's dramatic coastline, where the deep blue waters of the Pacific crash up against sheer cliffs and lap into quiet, sheltered coves. Visitors are rejuvenated by the fresh air and inspired by the panoramic ocean views.

Typical of Northern California, the weather is often cool and foggy, better suited to hiking than sunbathing. Nature lovers enjoy walks along the ocean bluffs and secluded beaches, as well as through shady redwood groves at Mendocino County's many state parks .

Set on an ocean bluff overlooking Mendocino Bay, the historic village of Mendocino is a destination in itself. This well-preserved Victorian-era logging town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You will be delighted by the many tourist attractions, art galleries, locally owned boutiques, bed and breakfasts, and a wide selection of restaurants in Mendocino.

The town of Mendocino also hosts a wide variety of festivals throughout the year, from a Whale Festival in March to organic farming workshops and an Art in the Gardens event in August.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mendocino

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Blooms along the Big Sur coast

Incomparably beautiful, Big Sur is a 90-mile stretch of mountainous coastline in central California. The two-lane Highway One route through Big Sur winds along daunting hairpin turns overlooking the ocean. One of the best West Coast road trips , the route starts just south of Carmel and ends at San Simeon, and the entire stretch feels a world apart because of its remoteness.

Guaranteed to take your breath away, the dramatic landscape of Big Sur features rugged ocean bluffs, shady redwood forests, and precipitous cliffs that drop off into the Pacific's crashing waves. Hiking is a good way to soak up the scenery. Many trails afford sensational vistas. There are also viewpoints at luxury hotels and restaurants throughout Big Sur.

At the southernmost point of Big Sur in San Simeon is Hearst Castle , which ranks high on the list of tourist attractions in California . Built between 1919 and 1922 for newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, the castle is an architectural masterpiece perched on a hilltop high above the Pacific Ocean.

Hearst called this magical place "La Cuesta Encantada" ("The Enchanted Hill"). In fact, the 38-bedroom (115-room) castle resembles a 16th-century Spanish cathedral. The enormous estate, including 127 acres of manicured gardens, pools, and walkways, has been converted to a State Historical Monument that is open year-round to the public for guided tours (available daily). The site has a Visitor Center with a cafeteria and gift shop.

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The Santa Barbara County Courthouse and red tile roofs of the city

Santa Barbara is a dreamy seaside city in Southern California , a place for sunbathing, relaxation, and pampering. Often called "The American Riviera," this upscale resort destination is a beach lover's paradise with balmy weather, a lovely waterfront area, an expansive coastline of golden-sand shoreline, and amazing sunsets.

Traditional Spanish-style buildings, tile-adorned walkways, and palm-fringed streets give the downtown of Santa Barbara its special charm. You could spend hours exploring the downtown's art galleries, open-air markets, and locally owned retail boutiques, only to stop for a snack at a sidewalk café or a delicious meal at one of the top-notch restaurants.

Surrounded by luxuriant gardens, with the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop, Old Mission Santa Barbara is known as the "Queen of the Missions" because of its graceful adobe architecture and exquisite natural setting. The Mission is open to the public daily (from 9:30am until 4pm) for self-guided tours of the Mission Church, Sacred Garden, and museum. The site also has a gift shop.

Old Mission Santa Barbara has been home to a community of Franciscan friars since 1786. The mission continues to serve as a space for Franciscan ministries and also has an active parish church. Mass is celebrated throughout the week at the Mission Church; services are held Monday through Friday at 8am, on Saturdays at 4pm, and on Sundays at 7:30am, 9am, and 11am.

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Palm Springs

With the towering San Jacinto Mountains and swaying palm trees as a backdrop, this desert oasis is synonymous with stylish poolside vacationing. In fact, Palm Springs has been a popular winter resort destination for Hollywood celebrities since the 1920s and continues to attract all kinds of tourists today.

The serene scenery and warm weather give the place a relaxing holiday ambience, while golf courses, gourmet restaurants, and interesting museums give visitors plenty to do. Just outside of Palm Springs are fabulous hiking trails at Mount San Jacinto and Indian Canyons.

Palm Springs hosts many cultural events throughout the year including film festivals and live music concerts. One of the most popular events is Modernism Week , which celebrates mid-century modern architecture and design, which is well represented in buildings throughout Palm Springs.

The famous Coachella music festival takes place just 23 miles from Palm Springs in April ( purchase tickets well ahead of time before they sell out).

Less than an hour away is Joshua Tree National Park . Home to Joshua trees and dramatic rock formations, this is a popular area for sightseeing, hiking , camping , and climbing.

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Santa Cruz, California

This little pocket of Northern California coastline rivals Southern California in its seaside charm and vacation vibes. For those seeking a classic California beach town complete with a boardwalk amusement park and surfing scene, sunny Santa Cruz is the place to go. Surprisingly, it's only about a 90-minute drive south of foggy and frigid San Francisco.

The hillsides above the Santa Cruz coastline are covered with lush redwood forests, which can be explored on a train ride. With its fleet of old-fashioned steam locomotives, the Roaring Camp Railroads company operates scenic train rides through the redwood groves of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The company also runs trains from Roaring Camp in the mountains down to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

A gritty 19th-century seaport and fish-packing town, Monterey (about 40 miles south of Santa Cruz) provided inspiration for the vibrant stories in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row novel. Today Monterey's beautifully restored waterfront is home to the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Old Fisherman's Wharf, a historic pier lined with restaurants and gift shops.

For a romantic getaway, Carmel allows you to experience the enchantment of an adorable seaside village. This postcard-perfect town features fairy-tale cottages, hidden passageways, and enticing one-of-a-kind boutiques. Carmel has all the draws of a premier seaside resort destination: fine-dining restaurants, luxurious hotels, and a picturesque sandy beach.

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Avila Beach on the Central Coast

Known as the "Happiest City in America," San Luis Obispo welcomes you with its friendly atmosphere and interesting tourist attractions. Tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains just 10 miles from the beach, this fun-loving college town boasts year-round sunshine, a historic Spanish mission, and a weekly farmers' market with live entertainment

Two popular beaches on the Central Coast are within a 30-minute drive from San Luis Obispo: the surfer's favorite Pismo Beach and the more secluded resort-like Avila Beach which is a top destination for sunbathing, paddle-boarding, kayaking, and fishing.

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Ferris wheel in Anaheim

The Disneyland Resort amusement park is the main tourist draw of Anaheim . However, this sunny Southern California city (about 30 miles from Los Angeles) offers plenty of other attractions.

If you're traveling with kids, be sure to visit the Knott's Berry Farm theme park (located six miles from Anaheim) and the playground at Yorba Regional Park , a landscaped 140-acre green space with picnic areas and hiking/biking paths.

Anaheim has several noteworthy destinations for dining, including the Anaheim GardenWalk near Disneyland, the Food Hall at the Anaheim Packing House , and the palm tree-lined Center Street Promenade .

For fresh air and inspiring scenery, head to the 58-acre Oak Canyon Nature Center in eastern Anaheim has four miles of scenic hiking trails nestled in coastal canyons, oak woodlands, and scrub-covered rolling hills.

The redwood forests of Humboldt County

Humboldt County is an escape to the great outdoors, a remote area of redwood groves, secluded beaches, and rushing rivers. The combination of fragrant forests and salty ocean breezes give the air an invigorating quality.

While the wide-open spaces and towering trees may make you feel small, the incredible scenery instills a respect for nature. This unspoiled environment provides an inspiring backdrop for hiking, hunting, fishing, and outdoor adventures.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as an International Biosphere Reserve, the Redwood National and State Parks (which comprise four separate parks: Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park) contain the world's oldest and tallest redwood trees, some reaching over 375 feet in height.

Many of the best hikes in the Redwood National and State Parks are found at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park . This lush old-growth redwoods park features a scenic 10-mile drive, 75 miles of trails for hiking, picnic areas, plus a pristine beach.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is most famous for Fern Canyon . This fern-covered canyon traversed by a fresh-water creek was the filming location for some scenes in The Lost World: Jurassic Park movie.

A little over an hour south of Redwood National and State Parks is Humboldt Redwoods State Park , California's biggest redwood state park (covering 53,000 acres), which includes the world's largest old-growth redwood forest (17,000 acres).

Tourists under a giant redwood in Redwood National Park

Not to be missed is the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Be sure to drive through at least part of this 32-mile-long route through the forest to admire the lofty redwood trees and get a sense of the forest's enormity. The park also has 100 miles of hiking trails with plenty of variety for all fitness levels.

Amid the magnificent redwood forests along the Humboldt Bay is the historic seaport of Eureka , Humboldt County's main urban center. Among the top attractions of Eureka , the Historic Old Town boasts hundreds of ornate Victorian buildings. The most notable is the Carson Mansion built in the 1880s for lumber baron William Carson.

Several of the old Victorians have been converted into bed-and-breakfast hotels, such as the luxurious Carter House Inns . Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the English Tudor-style Eureka Inn (now part of the Trademark Collection by Wyndham) was built in 1922 for nature-loving vacationers.

If you don't care much about high thread-count sheets and prefer to sleep under the redwood trees and stars, Humboldt County has camping sites in pristine locations.

Among the best campgrounds in the Redwood National and State Parks are Mill Creek Campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, the Elk Prairie Campground in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and the Jedediah Smith Campgrounds at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Read More: Best National Parks in California

Mammoth Lakes

One of California's top off-the-beaten-path destinations , Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra Mountains is a mecca for outdoor adventures. The sunny weather and crisp mountain air invigorate the body and soul, while the incredible scenery provides an amazing setting for hiking and mountain biking.

Mammoth Lakes has more than 300 miles of hiking trails in diverse wilderness areas such as Devils Postpile National Monument and the backpacking routes along the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail . The landscape varies from peaceful valleys, meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and pine forests to high-mountain desert and granite crags, including a summit that soars to 11,053 feet.

With nearly a hundred lakes, as well as streams and creeks, Mammoth Lakes is an incredible place for fishing during the season, which runs from the end of April through early November. An exception is made for catch-and-release fishing, which is allowed year-round at the Upper Owens River and East Walker River.

In the winter, Mammoth Lakes is popular for cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, and snowboarding, as well as ice skating and sledding. The alpine ski terrain at the extensive Mammoth Mountain Ski Area covers over 3,500 acres with 175 trails. Because of the abundant snowfall at this high-alpine location, the downhill ski season extends as late as August.

Any time of year, Mammoth Lakes is ready to welcome visitors to its gourmet restaurants, rustic lodges, and upscale mountain resorts.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mammoth Lakes

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Best Beaches in California: Searching for the perfect beach destination in California? Have a read through our list of best beaches in California to learn about the wide variety of beaches. Be sure to plan ahead and book a place to stay. For tips on accommodations, see our article on the top beach resorts in California.


Outdoor Adventures in California: Exciting adventures await at the nature sites of California. Favorite things to do include exploring the best hiking trails in California and camping beneath the giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park. In wintertime, powder hounds hit the slopes at California's ski resorts , whether it's black diamonds at Palisades Tahoe or the bunny hills at Sugar Bowl.

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mcway falls as seen on big sur from above, one of the best places to visit in california

25 Beautiful Places to Visit in California (Vacation Spots Not to Miss!)

From redwood forests in the north to vast deserts in the south, a stunning coastline in the west to the craggy mountain peaks and alpine lakes in the east, the sheer diversity of the most beautiful places to visit in California is mind-boggling.

With more national parks than any other state in the USA and hundreds of must-explore state parks, the Golden State offers visitors an unparalleled experience when it comes to getting close to nature.

The most captivating towns and cities to visit in California are no less enticing.

Cities like San Francisco and LA are home to renowned landmarks, world-class museums and gardens, distinctive neighborhoods, and excellent eateries.

Coastal towns like Monterey, Mendocino, and Morro Bay will charm you with their relaxed coastal vibes and the opportunity to look for marine life.

view of sunrise on coronado island california with palm trees in the foreground, one of the most romantic getaways in the us

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Whether you choose an epic  California road trip   as a means to explore the best of the state, or you choose one (or a few) places to visit, the Golden State will wow you at every turn.

While covering every fantastic weekend getaway in California would require a book, not just a blog post, we’ve curated this guide to include some of the best California vacation spots from every category, from major cities to national parks.

Here are some of the absolute best places to visit in California!

This California travel guide was written for Our Escape Clause by Golden State local Dhara from Roadtripping California . Thanks for joining us, Dhara!

Table of Contents

The Best Nature Getaways in California

Iconic california cities for weekend getaways, the best small towns in california to visit.

View along highway 1 pacific coast highway california with the ocean taking up most of the shot

One of the most spectacular stretches of coastline on the planet, Big Sur is definitely among the best places to visit in California.

Hiking is one of the most popular  things to do in Big Sur .

As you walk, enjoy the jaw-dropping vistas and wildflowers in season, and look for birds and wildlife.

Stop to snap photos of the striking Bixby Creek Bridge and the picture-postcard McWay Falls.

Look for purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach, have lunch with a view at Nepenthe Restaurant, and walk among the redwoods in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

bixby creek bridge on pch, one of the best vacation spots in california

Yosemite National Park

One of the country’s most-visited national parks, Yosemite National Park is famous for its towering granite domes and rock formations, and its many breathtaking waterfalls.

Tunnel View and Glacier Point, two of the most visited vista point in the park, offer fabulous views of some of the park’s best features, including Half Dome and El Capitan.

Walk the easy trail to the bottom of Yosemite Falls.

From the viewing area at the base, you can see both the Lower Fall and the Upper Fall, a total length of 2,425 astonishing feet!

Yosemite offers many epic hiking trails, including to the top of Half Dome, rock climbing, biking, scenic driving, and camping.

Yosemite national park as seen from above, one of the top national parks in america. yosemite falls is visible in the background

The largest alpine lake in the country, Lake Tahoe straddles the California-Nevada border and offers a variety of recreation opportunities in all four seasons.

Visit in the winter for world-class downhill skiing and snowboarding, and other winter sports like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowmobiling.

In the warmer months, you can relax at one of the many beaches along the shore, hike, drive the scenic road around the lake, go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, or take a cruise.

Surrounding places like South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City make excellent bases and rank among the best mountain towns in California .

Regardless of what time of year you visit, there’s no doubt that Lake Tahoe is one of the top California vacation spots!

Clear water of Lake Tahoe California in summer with snowcapped mountains in the background--one of the best places to visit in the USA bucket list

Death Valley National Park

Home to the lowest point in North America, and famous as the hottest place on earth, Death Valley National Park is a must-visit for its majestic landscapes.

Sunrise is a wonderful time to visit Zabriskie Point, to watch the sun’s rays paint the badlands gold.

Also, be sure to drive up to Dante’s View for panoramas of the valley.

The enormous salt flat at Badwater Basin, the multi-hued mineral deposits of Artist’s Palette, and the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat are other unmissable sights in the park.

Given its infamy as one of the hottest places on Earth, Death Valley NP is best visited in the winter.

Martian landscape of Death Valley NP with 2 small humans in the bottom left corner. Death Valley belongs on any bucket list for the united states

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

At Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, prepare to gape in amazement at the size of the giant sequoias!

The General Sherman Tree, in Sequoia National Park, and the General Grant Tree, in Kings Canyon National Park, are the two largest trees in the world.

Both parks offer stunning scenery, with rock formations, mountains, canyons, and waterfalls, and the road that connects the two parks is very scenic.

person standing in front of general sherman tree, one of the most beautiful places in california to visit

Joshua Tree National Park

A hugely popular rock scrambling (and climbing) destination in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its magnificent rock formations and its namesake Joshua trees.

Straddling two deserts, the Colorado and the Mojave, Joshua Tree National Park has many hiking trails, varying in length and difficulty, to help you experience the park’s scenery, flora, and fauna up close.

You can also tour Keys Ranch, the former homestead of Bill Keys, one of the area’s prominent early settlers, and take in the panoramic views at sunset from Keys View.

Don’t miss the otherworldly sunrises at the Cholla Cactus Garden while you’re there–this is one of the most unique places in CA to visit!

desert landscape at sunrise in joshua tree national park, an excellent part of several of the best west coast road trips usa

San Francisco

San Francisco’s iconic landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, should definitely top your San Francisco weekend itinerary if you are visiting for the first time.

Fisherman’s Wharf is touristy, but it makes for a fun stroll, with the many shops and restaurants, the street performers, and the cute sea lions at Pier 39.

Be sure to explore San Francisco’s vibrant neighborhoods as part of your visit!

Wander through the largest Chinatown outside Asia, enjoy great Italian cuisine in North Beach, or take in the 60s vibes in Haight-Ashbury.

And allow plenty of time for Golden Gate Park during your trip to San Francisco.

Visit the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Garden and tour the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, too.

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco CA shot from above on a clear day

A city that has the charming vibes of a coastal town, Monterey is one of the best places in the world to go whale-watching.

And on a cruise, you will very likely see other marine life as well: dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, and more.

In downtown Monterey, Cannery Row is touristy but makes for a fun stroll.

Once upon a time a center of sardine canning (the street is named after Steinbeck’s  Cannery Row ), today it boasts shops, restaurants, hotels, and even a couple of beaches.

Visiting the aquarium is one of the top  things to do in Monterey .

Huge tanks offer stunning views of the flora and fauna of the ocean.

It’s a very popular attraction, so time your visit for a weekday or early in the day.

Be sure to include the scenic 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach on your itinerary for Monterey.

With its spectacular ocean views, it is one of California’s most scenic drives.

yellow flowers blooming along pacific coast highway most beautiful places in california vacation spots

Santa Barbara

Gracious Santa Barbara is one of California’s must-visit vacation spots.

Its Mediterranean tiled roofs have earned it the nickname of the “American Riviera.”

Downtown Santa Barbara is both lively and elegant.

Stroll State Street for shopping, wine tasting, and dining.

You’ll find more top-notch restaurants and wine tasting in the nearby Funk Zone, where you can also admire the street art.

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a must-visit, both for the beautiful murals and tile work inside, and for the superb 360-degree views from the Clock Tower.

Old Mission Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful Spanish missions in California.

Also do not miss the Presidio, the fort built by the Spanish, where you can see two of the original adobe buildings.

palm trees of santa barbara as seen from the ocean during a vacation california travel destination

Los Angeles

From the glamor of Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu and the vibrant vibes of downtown LA, there is no doubt that the City of Angels is one of the best places to visit in California.

But it’s also true that Los Angeles traffic is the stuff of nightmares.

So plan your sightseeing wisely, sticking to one area each day, to minimize time spent just sitting in traffic.

Hollywood is a must if it’s your first visit, although it isn’t as glamorous as it used to be.

Visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and snap a photo of the TCL Chinese Theatre.

Visit the Griffith Observatory for stunning views over the city. You also have a great view of the Hollywood Sign from the observatory!

Head to Santa Monica to admire the giant Ferris wheel and stroll the bluff path at Palisades Park.

Nearby Venice Beach offers excellent people watching on the boardwalk, where you can also watch street performers, shop, and eat.

Skyline of Los Angeles CA with palm trees in the forground, one of the best places to visit in the US

Known for its year-round beautiful weather, San Diego is one of the best vacation spots in California for couples, families, solo travelers, or groups.

It has something for everyone!

The sprawling Balboa Park, in the heart of downtown, offers multiple gardens and museums.

All but one of the gardens are free, and the beautiful architecture invites wandering.

Take the ferry to Coronado Island, where you can enjoy the beautiful silver sand beach and stroll the little town.

Be sure to leave room in your itinerary for two of San Diego’s most lively neighborhoods: Gaslamp Quarter, and Little Italy.

Both areas boast exceptional eateries and excellent people watching!

San Diego CA harbor with rows of sailboats in the foreground and the skyline in the back right of the photo

Palm Springs

The gateway city to the California desert, Palm Springs is known for its many resorts, golf courses, and spas.

But it is also a great destination to enjoy the outdoors!

Taking the aerial tram to the upper station on Mount San Jacinto is one of the  best things to do in Palm Springs .

The views over the desert floor are breathtaking, and there are several hiking trails to walk at the top.

Hike one or more of the palm oases at Indian Canyons or the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve. Tour the beautiful desert gardens at Sunnylands.

Enjoy the shops and restaurants on Palm Canyon Drive, and stop to take a tour of the mid-century modern homes and buildings.

And be sure to enjoy a date shake while you are in Palm Springs!

mid century home surrounded by palm trees under a sunset in palm springs california travel

Located just south of Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California, Arcata offers history, charm, and oodles of natural beauty, from redwoods to sand dunes.

Admire Jacoby’s Storehouse, the only building left from the original structures built by early settlers in the mid-19th century.

Today, it houses shops and restaurants.

Enjoy a movie at the Minor Theatre, which dates back to 1914!

Stay in the historic Hotel Arcata , which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and also dates to the early 1900s.

woman in a yellow jacket hiking amongst the redwoods when visiting california usa

Located along the rugged Northern California coast, charming Mendocino is one of the most beautiful coastal places to visit in CA.

While the village makes for a pleasant wander, take the time to explore the many state parks around the town.

You can walk among redwoods, hike through pygmy forests, and enjoy stunning ocean views.

At Glass Beach in nearby Fort Bragg, look for colored glass honed by the waves from bottles tossed into the ocean as trash years ago.

town of mendocino california as seen from the water

The captivating town of Sonoma is located at the southern end of Sonoma Valley, one of California’s top wine country destinations.

It boasts a historic plaza and excellent farm-to-table restaurants.

Sonoma State Historic Park is an aggregation of several sites, some of which you can see right along the plaza in downtown Sonoma.

Also in the plaza is the historic (and photogenic!) Sebastiani Theatre.

There are several beautiful wineries you can tour in and around Sonoma, not only for their wine but also for their architecture and gardens.

dark purple grapes growing on the vine on a vineyard in sonoma county wine country

A quaint town located at the northern end of California’s famed Napa Valley, Calistoga is best known for its mud baths and thermal mineral pools.

It even has a geyser!

Downtown Calistoga makes for a nice walk, with many boutique stores, art galleries, eateries, and wine tasting rooms.

Shop for artisanal foods like olive oils, honey, and teas.

You’ll find many beautiful wineries around Calistoga if you want to do a tasting tour!

castle winery in calistoga california napa valley

A small coastal town located just south of Santa Cruz in Central California, Capitola is known for its colorful Instagram-worthy facades and beautiful beaches.

If you’re looking for a colorful, whimsical beach town, add Capitola to your list of California vacation spots to visit soon.

Sandy Capitola Beach is popular and can get crowded, but drive a short distance out to New Brighton State Beach for an equally beautiful but less crowded experience on nice weather days.

Stroll Capitola Village to browse the many cute boutique shops and art galleries.

Snag a table with a water view for dinner!

Many restaurants have patios with amazing views of Monterey Bay.

colorful houses on the beach of capitola california places to go


Just one square mile in size, Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the cutest places to visit in California.

You’ll find European-style boutiques, many art galleries, and excellent dining and wine tasting in the village.

Carmel Beach is a gorgeous stretch of white sand that’s perfect for a long walk.

Scenic Road, just above the beach, makes for a beautiful walk or drive as well.

Just south of Carmel, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of the most scenic state parks in California, with many nature trails with views of the ocean.

cove beach in carmel by the sea, one of the most romantic places in usa for couples

Morro Bay has a charming fishing village feel.

It offers great beaches, scenic hiking trails, and some of the best wildlife viewing and birdwatching along the California coast.

Admire Morro Rock, a giant volcanic plug that lies just offshore and towers over the little town.

You can walk right up to the rock and look for nesting peregrine falcons.

In town, enjoy fresh-caught seafood at one of many waterfront eateries.

Browse the shops and galleries along the Embarcadero, and admire the many murals.

famous morro rock in morro bay ca with boats in the foreground

The Danish-themed village of Solvang is part of the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley, known as a wine country destination just outside Santa Barbara.

In downtown Solvang, snap photos of the beautiful Danish architecture, look for Denmark-inspired landmarks (including a Little Mermaid!), and sample aebleskivers.

There are several Danish bakeries if you want to indulge your sweet tooth and numerous wine tasting rooms.

From Solvang, you can also tour plenty of local California wineries.

Where to Stay in Solvang, California

  • Hotel Corque: This stylish boutique hotel is a short walk to Old Mission Santa Inés. Rooms are colorful and spacious, and there is a pretty garden to enjoy drinks.
  • The Winston: Beautifully decorated, luxurious and perfectly located to explore the town.

danish inspired architecture with windmill in solvang california places to visit

Laguna Beach

One of the prettiest beach towns in Orange County, Laguna Beach has that perfect laid-back California coastal town ambiance.

But there’s also plenty to do here!

Crystal Cove State Park has more than three miles of pristine beach.

But also across the road from the water, the park contains many acres of beautiful wilderness, with trails offering stellar ocean views.

Laguna Beach is known for its public art installations.

Grab a map at the visitor center and go on a self-guided tour to enjoy it!

aerial view of laguna beach california beach town

Avalon is one of two towns on Santa Catalina Island, one of the Channel Islands that lie off the coast of Southern California.

Accessed by ferry, Avalon makes for a wonderful California getaway.

Avalon offers a wealth of recreational activities in or on the water.

Go swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, or take a kayak out to enjoy the scenery from the water.

On land, you can hike, bike, golf, or laze the day away on a sandy beach or in a spa.

Be sure to join a guided tour to explore less-developed parts of the island!

avalon ca on catalina island as seen from above, one of the most beautiful places in california to visit

Just north of San Diego, La Jolla is known for its beautiful beaches and its cute sea lions.

But from murals to museums, and hiking to hang gliding, La Jolla offers much more to see and do.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of the most beautiful state parks in California.

Hiking one of the ocean view trails here is a must!

Go shopping on Prospect Street, popularly known as the Rodeo Drive of San Diego.

You’ll find many boutiques and art galleries to browse, as well as great dining.

Beach in La Jolla California with purple flowers in the foreground, a fantastic stop on a west coast usa road trip itinerary

Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes is a popular ski resort town in the Eastern Sierra of California, but it makes for a wonderful getaway in any season.

The scenery, with tall mountains and jewel-blue alpine lakes, is spectacular.

While you’re there, take the scenic gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain for panoramic views.

Be sure to also go boating on one of the many lakes, and hike some of the trails around the lakes and into the mountains.

In the summer and early fall, Devils Postpile National Monument is a must-visit, not only for the unique formation of basalt columns but also for Rainbow Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state.

woman standing with her dog overlooking a lake when hiking in beautiful mammoth lakes ca vacation destinations

Nevada City

Want to take a step back in time to the California Gold Rush era?

Nevada City is one of several Gold Rush-themed towns you can visit in California’s Gold Country.

In downtown Nevada City, admire the old west facades and the many historic buildings, including a much-photographed firehouse from 1861 and the state’s oldest continuously operated hotel.

Just a few miles out is Empire Mine State Historic Park, the site of one of the richest gold mines in California. You can tour some of the mine buildings, and the historic home and gardens of the mine’s owner. 

For travelers interested in the famous Gold Rush, Nevada City is definitely one of the best places to visit in California.

2 photos of california vacation spots, laguna beach and pch. black and red text reads "25 cool places in california"

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The Atlas Heart


55 Fun & Best Things to do in California [2024 Bucket List]

101 Things to do in California

Mimi McFadden

| Last Updated: February 7th, 2024 | Reviewed By: Suneel Jain

Although there are a lot of stereotypes about California (and Californians), you really can’t put the people or the landscape into a box – it’s much too varied.

There is SO much more to discover here than just famous people, sunshine, Hollywood, and Disneyland. 

I hope you’ll get to experience both the local aspects and tourist attractions around California through these recommendations. 

These are my favorite must-have experiences and the best things to do in California, as someone who has spent 80% of her life living in three different regions of the Golden State.

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips. 

What to do in California

Let’s start with the most popular things to do in California that everyone should do at least once to fully embrace everything the Golden State has to offer.  

If you’re wondering what to do in California, these are the top California sights and experiences you absolutely can’t miss in the state. 

Get Your FREE California Travel Planner + printable checklists for 101 things to do in California!

Table of Contents

Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

pacific coast highway - top 10 things to do in California

Highway 1, also called the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), is well known as one of the most scenic routes in the world.

Officially starting from Leggett in Northern California and stretching down to Dana Point in Orange County, the Pacific Coast Highway takes 15-20 hours to complete without stops or much traffic.

But believe me, the trip is worth it. Along the way, you’ll experience stunning coastal views, seaside towns, hushed redwood forests, and more. 

Read my full guide on how to plan the perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip . Plus, where to stay and where to eat on the way . 

Disneyland & California Adventure

Southern California attractions | Disneyland & California Adventure - fun things to do in california

One of those very fun things to do in California that’s on every first-timer’s bucket list – experiencing Disneyland and California Adventure is a must if you’re visiting California. 

Whether you excitedly jog from ride to ride, grab a treat from a themed land, or watch the fireworks show at night, you’ll want your day to last forever (especially if you know how to use the FastPass correctly).

If you only have time to visit one, definitely head to Disneyland. It’s a classic and worth a visit if you’ve never been. However, if you can fit in both parks over a couple of days, do it! 

Read my full guide to the best things to do in Orange County .  

Hollywood Walk of Fame – Los Angeles

Hollywood, Los Angeles | Things to Do in California

Posing with a sidewalk star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame is practically a rite of passage for a California vacation. It’s also one of LA’s most beloved free attractions and one of the most popular things to do in California!

The world’s most famous sidewalk boasts 2,500 stars (and counting) and is one of the first places to visit if you’re new to LA and want to soak up the most popular sights. 

If you are looking for a particular star, there’s an online tool available called “Star Searcher” .

Recommended Experience: Hollywood Behind the Scenes Walking Tour

Universal Studios Hollywood – Los Angeles

Hogwarts, Universal Studios Hollywood, California

Universal Studios Hollywood is part amusement park part studio tour, with plenty of attractions to keep the whole family entertained for a day. 

Take a tour of some of Hollywood’s most popular movie and TV sets, ride Revenge of the Mummy and the Jurassic World ride, and head over to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a pint of butterbeer. 

After you’re done with the rides, shows, and tours at Universal Studios, grab dinner and go shopping at Universal CityWalk Hollywood. 

You can grab your tickets for Universal Studios Hollywood ahead of time here.  

Urban Light & LACMA – Los Angeles

LACMA Urban Light Installation | unique things to do in Southern California

This Insta-worthy art installation is one of the hallmarks of the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA) .

Besides Urban Light and Levitated Mass (be prepared to feel very, very small), LACMA is home to some incredible exhibits such as Miracle Mile by Robert Irwin.

Santa Monica

People flock to Santa Monica in droves for a chance to show off their swimsuit bods and take in its sandy beach and the historic Santa Monica Pier.

After shopping at 3rd Street Promenade and riding bikes along the beach, head to the Santa Monica Pier to explore Pacific Park, full of carnival games and rides.

It’s the perfect spot from which to watch the sun go down over one of the most iconic spots in California. 

Hollywood Sign & Griffith Observatory – Los Angeles

Griffith Observatory | Southern California attractions

Perched on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood, Griffith Observatory is an astronomer’s dream with its own planetarium, the Tesla Coil, and public telescopes.

As if those weren’t enough, from the Griffith Observatory, visitors are treated to free admission, stunning Greek-inspired architecture, and world-class views of the Los Angeles Basin and the Pacific Ocean. 

In the distance and a short hike away from Griffith Observatory, you can make out another iconic Los Angeles landmark in the distance, the Hollywood Sign. 

Venice Canals – Los Angeles

A taste of Italy can be found near Venice Beach at the Venice Canals. This picturesque residential district has been a unique attraction in Los Angeles since 1905.

It’s a fun place to simply walk around and admire the man-made canals and postcard-worthy views. 

Sprinkles Cupcake ATM – Los Angeles

Southern California attractions | Sprinkles Cupcakes ATM

Ever since Sprinkles Cupcakes first launched in Los Angeles, this dessert chain has amassed a cult following that can’t get enough of their mouth-watering treats.

Get your fix of delicious frosting and cake from the pink Sprinkles ATM in Beverly Hills to see what all the fuss is about (you won’t be disappointed). 

Read my full bucket list of the best things to do in LA . 

Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge | California sights - places to visit in Northern California

One of the most popular places to visit in California, San Francisco is an eclectic and condensed city known for its fog, tech scene, classic landmarks, and layered history. 

This is the spot to see a completely different side to the Golden State compared to cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. And, of course, the top sight to see in the city is the Golden Gate Bridge.  

The Golden Gate Bridge provides an unforgettable walk or bike ride with the most surreal experience of all: top-of-the-world views and a gentle sway from the suspension cables.

Climb to the top of the South Tower. When you look down, a grated catwalk makes you feel as if you’re floating on air, gazing straight down 750 feet to the water.

Not a fan of heights? Keep your feet firmly on the ground from with the Best Golden Gate Bridge Viewpoints .

Alcatraz Island – San Francisco

best things in California | Alcatraz Island

If you want to visit Alcatraz Island, a pro tip is to buy tickets early! Tickets to Alcatraz Island are wildly popular and sell like hotcakes, sometimes selling out two months in advance in the summer. 

Once you get off the ferry at Alcatraz Island, you’ll soon discover why tourists flock to this now-abandoned maximum-security prison that once held the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and other notorious criminals. 

Its unique and layered history, stellar audio tour, and views of the San Francisco skyline are hard to beat.

If you’re feeling brave, you could even sign up for a night tour of one of California’s most famous islands .  

Grab your Alcatraz tickets here + a San Francisco City Tour .

Read my full guide to the best things to do in San Francisco at night .   

Golden Gate Park – San Francisco

things to do in Golden Gate Park - Conservatory of Flowers

The equivalent of New York’s Central Park (but much bigger), Golden Gate Park is a hotspot for outdoor and cultural activities in San Francisco.

Not only can you visit the De Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, and San Francisco Botanical Garden within its leafy boundaries, you can also check out the Buffalo Paddock and see American bison grazing on the wild grasses!

Chinatown – San Francisco

San Francisco’s Chinatown is truly a sight to behold, with the gilded Dragon’s Gate and glowing red lanterns looming over you at its entrance.

This place has been the bedrock of the Chinese-American community since the days of the Gold Rush, so it makes sense that its alleys and buildings are rife with history.

You can easily get a bag of fortune cookies for a steal at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, help yourself to some egg tarts, grab a Mai Tai from Li Po, or enjoy dim sum during your time in Chinatown.

Boudin Bakery – San Francisco

The weather in San Francisco is best described as “perpetually chilly,” which means that it’s always soup weather!

San Francisco bakery chain, Boudin Bakery , is world-famous for its sourdough bread bowls, and, if you didn’t know already, San Francisco sourdough is kind of a thing. 

You really can’t beat a piping hot bread bowl of clam chowder after a brisk afternoon outside.

Not feeling sourdough? There are a number of other classic San Francisco treats to try around the city, like Cioppino, fresh Dungeness crab, Mai Tais, Irish coffee, fortune cookies, and Mission burritos. 

Ride a Cable Car – San Francisco

You’ll notice San Francisco’s iconic cable cars gliding up and down steep streets in the busiest parts of the city. In operation since 1873, the cable car was one of the city’s first forms of public transportation. 

Today, more tourists than locals use cable cars to get around but it’s still one of those quintessential things to do in San Francisco with a first-time visit. 

Take the stress out of buying tickets. Read my Guide to Cable Cars in San Francisco .

Lands End & Sutro Baths – San Francisco

lands end hike to sutro baths

Located in the northwest corner of San Francisco in the Presidio neighborhood, the Lands End trail is where you’ll find some of the best bayside views featuring the Golden Gate Bridge.

Start from the historic ruins of the Sutro Baths and make your way toward the Golden Gate Bridge. The views are unbeatable on a sunny, clear day.   

Read my full guide to the best urban hikes in San Francisco . 

Angel Island – San Francisco

Angel Island Camping | best things in California

Angel Island is the second-largest island in the San Francisco Bay Area, offering amazing views looking out at the San Francisco skyline. 

Once an immigration station, Angel Island is now a national historic landmark and state park located right in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. 

Spend an afternoon hiking around the island, visiting its many historic buildings, and walking up to its highest peak for stunning views of Karl the Fog rolling into the city before the ferry comes to take you back. 

Read my full guide to the best things to do in San Francisco . 

Napa Valley Wineries (And Beyond)

California wineries and vineyards, wine tasting in California

California wine predates California statehood, with Spanish Missionaries planting the first grapes in the 1700s.

From there, it steadily grew into becoming the wine region it is today, which is known as one of the best in the world.

With 138 American Viticultural Areas (or AVAs) and over 4,000 wineries that produce over 80% of the wine made in the US, California is serious about wine and its winemaking culture. 

Napa Valley wine country tends to get most of the attention. It’s the most popular wine region in California with beautiful scenery and castle-like wineries and it’s conveniently located an hour north of San Francisco, making it perfect for a weekend getaway . 

With that said, there are plenty of other wine countries to explore besides Napa wine country, such as Sonoma, Paso Robles, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Auburn, Anderson Valley, and Temecula, among many others.

Big Sur, Bixby Creek Bridge

If you can only pick a few places to go in California, Big Sur should be on your bucket list. Doing a road trip down the Big Sur coastline is easily one of the most beautiful things to do in California. 

This roughly 87-mile-long stretch of relatively undeveloped waterfront and scenic nature between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle is one of the prettiest parts of California. 

Whether you drive it entirely or stop in for just a hint of Central Coast beauty, Big Sur is where you come to see it all: bluffs, sea, and endless sky.

Explore the Beaches & Beach Towns

boardwalk santa cruz main beach

With 840 miles of sparkling coastline and hundreds of sandy beaches, it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to exploring the beach culture in California. 

In the north, especially around the Mendocino coastline and above, you’ll find a more rugged and undeveloped coast that beckons you to get away from it all. 

To the south, you’ll find pristine, picture-perfect beaches filled with people, great weather, and popular resorts. 

The Los Angeles and Orange County beaches and beach towns are usually what you think of when you think of “beach culture” in California, with that endless summer vibe and long, sandy stretches to lay out on. 

Spend the day in Malibu on one of its scenic beaches or hiking trails looking over the Pacific Ocean.

Grab a bike and ride the 21-mile Marvin Braude Bike Trail that cuts through some of LA’s most popular beaches.

Or rent a car and check out the best beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway all the way down to Dana Point. 

If you’re looking for cute beach towns to discover, make a stop in Santa Cruz and Capitola , Pismo Beach, Morro Bay , or Carmel-by-the-Sea. 

Whichever beaches and beach towns you decide to add to your California to-do list, there are fantastic options up and down the state, it just depends on what you’re looking for. 

Eat a lot of Mexican Food

Mexican food in California - Mission-Style Burritos

One of the best things about California is the abundance of amazing Mexican food. 

Crawl up and down State Route 99 to seek out the region’s finest taco stands, mulita specialists, enchilada masters, pan dulce shops, and more. 

Grab fresh churros and champurrado from one of the many food trucks around LA. Head to San Diego to taste its famous fish tacos, which can be found for as little as $2 on Taco Tuesdays.

And you can’t leave the state without trying the fusion “California Burrito” that sounds disgusting to anyone who isn’t from here (who puts french fries in a burrito?), but believe me when I say it’s delicious. 

Lastly, in San Francisco, you won’t want to miss out on the rice-heavy, huge Mission-style burritos that are so unique to the city. 

Go Surfing (Or Learn How to Surf)

learn how to surf in california - malibu zuma beach

The Beach Boys said it best in their song, “Surfin’ USA” when they talked about California being the best place to surf in the country. 

For those who already know how to catch a wave, head to popular spots like San Onofre State Beach, Trestles, Huntington Beach, Mavericks Beach, or Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz. 

For beginner surfers , there are plenty of spots up and down the coast that provide perfect conditions for those just getting their feet wet. 

If you want to learn how to surf or you’re just getting started, head to Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica, Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz, Mondo’s Beach in Ventura, Surfrider Beach in Malibu, or La Jolla Shores in San Diego. 

Whale Watching


Throughout the year, various types of whales make their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico and back, which means the whole coast of California is a prime whale watching area. 

From Mendocino to the Monterey Bay and down to San Diego, you’ll find whale watching opportunities and tours on offer at most times of the year. 

Sometimes you don’t even have to go on a whale watching tour, you can just see them at a distance from the beach because they come in so close to the shore (although it helps if you have binoculars ). 

The most common whales that migrate along the West Coast are gray, blue, and humpback whales.

You’ll most likely spot gray whales and orcas from December to May, humpback whales from May to November, and blue whales from July to October. Dolphins can be spotted year-round from the coast as well. 

Soak in Natural Hot Springs

If you’re looking for fun things to do with friends in California, there’s nothing better than soaking in a natural hot spring with an incredible view in front of you. 

With California’s geothermal nature, it’s not surprising that there are a number of great hot springs to be discovered around the state, both free and at resorts and spas. 

Most of the best hot springs are in Northern and Eastern California, especially around the Eastern Sierra region, although there are a few that can be found in Southern California as well. 

Read my full guide to the best California hot springs to learn more. 

things to do in lake tahoe, california

Straddling the state line of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a stunning alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

In fact, Lake Tahoe is one of the clearest, largest, and deepest alpine lakes in the entire world.

The deep cerulean blue of Lake Tahoe combined with the pine tree-rimmed shoreline and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains sets it apart as one of the most unique destinations in the world.

A trip to Lake Tahoe can be anything you want it to be. In the summer, take advantage of the many state parks and hiking trails around the lake, do some adventure water activities, or discover hidden beaches . 

In the winter, hit the slopes at one of the 15 ski resorts, go snowshoeing, or enjoy après-ski happy hour drinks around the fire. 

If all else fails, there’s always testing your luck at the casinos on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe. 

Read my full guides to the best things to do in Lake Tahoe , North vs South Lake Tahoe , Lake Tahoe camping , and where to stay in Lake Tahoe . 

Visit the National Parks

California has the most national parks out of any other US state with nine in total. 

Visiting them is not only one of the best things to do in California, it also allows you to see the diversity of the landscape and just how impressive it can be. 

These are some of my favorite parks that are worth a visit for different reasons – just don’t forget your national park passport . 

Yosemite National Park

San Francisco to Yosemite National Park

If there’s one park to visit in California, it’s Yosemite National Park . At Yosemite National Park, take in the incredible views at Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Valley View, and Olmsted Point. 

Hike to the top of Yosemite Falls or snag a permit to tackle the famous Half Dome hike. 

Or if you’re feeling adventurous, witness the awesome beauty of Yosemite National Park in winter when most of the crowds are gone and the park becomes a hushed winter wonderland. 

Whenever you decide to visit, spending the weekend at Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular and iconic things to do in California. 

Read our two days in Yosemite itinerary , and our guides to experiencing the Yosemite Firefall and how to get from San Francisco to Yosemite .

Joshua Tree National Park

top things to do in California | Joshua Tree

One of my favorite places to travel in California is Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree National Park is the complete opposite of Yosemite National Park. Instead of sheer cliff faces, pine trees, and high altitudes, you’ll find a dry desert full of funky-looking Joshua Trees, palm trees, and old mines. 

At Joshua Tree National Park, tackle a desert hike or go rock climbing, take in the sunset from Keys View, walk around a cholla cactus garden, enjoy the stellar stargazing while camping (or glamping ), and tour a piece of California’s pioneer past at Keys Ranch. 

Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Park

Located at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are often grouped together because they’re right next to each other. 

At Sequoia National Park, take in the view from Moro Rock, see General Sherman (the largest tree in the world), and tour the dark cavern that is Crystal Cave.   

At Kings Canyon National Park, drive the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, visit General Grant Grove, and have a picnic at the scenic Zumwalt Meadow. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Home to all four types of volcanoes (shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome), Lassen Volcanic National Park literally bubbles, steams, and roars.

This is where you can really see California’s volcanic past and geothermal nature come to life. Walk through the burping Bumpass Hell, take in the reflections at Manzanita Lake, and climb up a volcano called Cinder Cone. 

Death Valley National Park

Best things to see in California | Badwater Basin

Death Valley National Park is a place of extremes. Really, the best way to describe its atmosphere is post-apocalyptic. 

Don’t let its intense nature scare you away though, Death Valley National Park is one of the most distinctive parks in the world that should be on everyone’s bucket list. 

Head to Badwater Basin to visit the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level), take in Zabriskie Point at sunrise or sunset, and enjoy the colorful hues at Artist’s Palette. 

Read our guide to the best things to do in Death Valley .  

Channel Islands National Park

Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

The most remote and hardest to get to of the national parks in California, Channel Islands National Park takes some advanced planning to visit but it’s well worth the journey. 

Choose from one of five islands that make up the national park and plan to spend a night or two camping to get the full experience. There aren’t any restaurants, hotels, or other conveniences on the islands, so you’ll want to be prepared. 

Santa Cruz Island is the best for first-time visitors. Don’t miss out on signing up for a kayaking tour to explore its unique sea caves. 

Pinnacles National Park

pinnacles national park

Established in 2013, Pinnacles National Park is California’s youngest national park. An easy day trip from San Francisco, come here to witness majestic California Condors in the wild, see unique rock formations, and explore dark and musty caves. 

Read our guide to visiting Pinnacles National Park .

Looking to see all of California’s national parks in one trip? Read our itinerary for an epic California national parks road trip .

Balboa Park – San Diego

San Diego might not have quite as many iconic tourist attractions as SF and LA, but there’s still a lot to love about “America’s Finest City.” 

From family-friendly points of interest to those pristine beaches you can only get in Southern California, there are a ton of bucket list activities to enjoy in San Diego. 

San Diego also has some of the best free things to do in California (and on the West Coast as a whole) with its variety of outdoor activities, nearby nature spots, and hiking trails. 

And one of my favorite free things to do in the city is visiting Balboa Park.

Home to multiple museums, performing arts venues, and gardens, the 1,200-acre Balboa Park is a stunning monument to Spanish Renaissance architecture and the pride of San Diego.

Must-sees are El Prado, the Botanical Building, and the Old Globe Theatre (a replica of the Globe Theatre in London).

San Diego Zoo & Safari Park – San Diego

San Diego Safari Park

San Diego Zoo & Safari Park are so huge that it’s easy to spend the whole day admiring the many animals that live in each park.

The panda and gorilla exhibits are always a hit at the San Diego Zoo and you can easily get your steps in wandering from the Australia exhibit to the Tiger Trail and Africa Rocks.

If you want to observe exotic animals up close, the Safari Park is a great option to see your favorite giraffes, lions, and zebras out in the open.

Grab your skip-the-line tickets for the San Diego Zoo here and for the Safari Park here . 

USS Midway Museum – San Diego

USS Midway Museum | San Diego, California

The USS Midway Museum is a hotspot for maritime lovers and an opportunity to step onto the Midway aircraft carrier itself.

You can explore the Midway and the other exhibits (including flight simulators and the Battle of Midway Theater) on your own with the self-guided audio tour.

Otherwise, you can join the guided Island Tour (included with the price of admission) with one of the museum’s experienced docents.

Get your skip-the-line ticket here for the USS Midway Museum. 

La Jolla – San Diego

I might be biased since I went to school at UC San Diego, but I think La Jolla is one of the prettiest neighborhoods in San Diego and a tourist attraction in its own right. 

Head over to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve to hike amongst golden-hued cliffs and coastal views, grab brunch in downtown La Jolla, and snorkel the 6,000-acre Underwater Park.

Coronado Island – San Diego

Things to Do in Southern California | Coronado Island

With panoramic views of the San Diego skyline, the historic Hotel del Coronado, and plenty of sandy beach areas, Coronado Island is the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon. 

You can walk around the Coronado peninsula in about two hours, grab a pint at Coronado Pub, or simply relax on the beach while taking in the windswept views. 

Read my guides to the best things to do in San Diego and the best camping near San Diego . 

Order from In-N-Out Burger’s Secret Menu

In N Out Burger | California foodie spots

A must-do on any California road trip and one of the best cheap things to do in California is to grab a meal from In-N-Out Burger. 

With 256 locations just in California, it’s usually pretty easy to find an In-N-Out Burger nearby, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and beyond.

If you want to get the most out of your visit to California’s most famous burger joint, look up the secret menu on Google ahead of time. You can thank me later once you try animal style.

Go Skiing or Snowboarding

places to visit in northern California | Northern California

One of the great things about California is its diverse landscape. You could spend the morning at the beach and later that day be skiing or snowboarding in the mountains. 

Most people probably don’t think of winter sports when they think of California, but skiing and snowboarding are some of the best things to do in California during the colder months. 

Head to Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes , Big Bear , Mount Shasta, or Mt Baldy to test your skills on the slopes and enjoy California’s version of a winter wonderland.

Read our guides to the best snowboard pants for women and the best snowboard gloves .  

Walk Amongst the California Redwoods

redwood regional park - east of san francisco

One of the best things to do in California is to hike through a hushed coastal redwood forest, there’s nothing else quite like it in the world. 

California’s redwoods, also known as Sequoia sempervirens or Hyperion, are not only the tallest trees in the world, they’re also pretty ancient, with some of them reaching 2,000 years old. 

A few popular spots to see California redwoods include Muir Woods National Monument, Avenue of the Giants, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, and Redwood National and State Parks. 

Read my detailed guide to the best places to see redwoods near San Francisco .  

Monterey Bay Aquarium – Monterey

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is all kinds of cool, educational, and inspiring and one of the top things to do in California that should be on everyone’s bucket list. 

Located along the coast in Monterey , this is a must-see in California and a great place to visit for anyone who loves the ocean, whether you’re a kid or an adult.  

During your visit, explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s diverse marine life, many educational exhibits, and unique sights like its 28-foot kelp forest.   

Experience the State Capital – Sacramento

State Capitol Building - Sacramento, California

Often overlooked for other California hot spots, Sacramento is an underrated destination and one of the best places to visit in California to get to know the state capital and the state’s pioneering history. 

Choose from one of the many top things to do in Sacramento, such as stepping back in time in Old Sacramento, touring the California State Capitol building, or walking around the historic Sutter’s Fort. 

If you’re looking for outdoor activities, you can do a float trip on the Sacramento River , bike the American River Bicycle Trail, smell the flowers at McKinley Park, do a self-guided street art walk, or go for a hike at one of the many nearby parks. 

Point Reyes National Seashore & Tomales Bay

Point Reyes Lighthouse | places to go in California

One of the most impressive parks and top things to do in the Bay Area, Point Reyes National Seashore boasts gorgeous coastal views, bountiful wildlife, and a good dose of history. 

Head to the more than 100-year-old Point Reyes Lighthouse. Have a picnic at one of the park’s breezy beaches and take a picture in the Cypress Tree Tunnel. Then go for a coastal hike or try and spot animals at Tule Elk Preserve and Elephant Seal Overlook. 

Nearby, visit the small towns of Point Reyes Station, Tomales Bay, and Marshall to try some of the best and freshest oysters in California from Hog Island and The Marshall Store. 

If you’re staying overnight, don’t miss the nighttime kayaking tour to discover the bright green bioluminescence that lights up Tomales Bay. 

Local tip: Located only an hour north of San Francisco, Point Reyes is not only a bucket list destination, it’s also one of the foggiest places in the world and the windiest place on the Pacific Coast.

Make sure to bring layers and don’t be surprised if you’re met with dense fog at some point during your trip. 

Read my guide to the best things to do in Point Reyes . 

Catalina Island

The perfect Catalina Island Day Trip

Whether you’re exploring the beaches , zip-lining with panoramic coastal views, partying it up at Descanso Beach Club, sipping on a buffalo milk cocktail, shopping the local boutiques, camping at Parsons Landing , or going for a hike , there’s something for everyone on Catalina Island. 

If you’re looking for more adventure, hike the multi-day Trans-Catalina Trail to see a different side of the island and spot the famous Catalina bison along the way.  

This is also a great tour to get you started with seeing the most scenic spots around the island. 

Read my guide to the perfect day trip to Catalina Island . 

Palm Springs

Best Things to do in Palm Springs, California

Visiting Palm Springs for a rejuvenating desert getaway has been one of the top things to do in California for decades, whether you’re a famous socialite, tourist, or burnt-out LA local. 

Besides its many pools and spas, Palm Springs is known for its mid-century architecture, famous house tours, pool parties, desert hikes, and LGBTQ-friendly nightlife. 

Palm Springs is the perfect destination to visit year-round for anyone who’s looking to get away from it all in the California desert.

Read my guide to the best things to do in Palm Springs . 

Flower Fields

Flower Fields in Carlsbad, San Diego | southern California attractions

California has a lot of Instagram spots but some of the most famous revolve around wildflower season in the spring and summer.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying that frolicking through flower fields is one of the top things to do in California. 

Head to the flower fields in Carlsbad to walk amongst 50 acres of every shade of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers from March to May. 

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, the Santa Monica Mountains, and Anza-Borrego State Park are all popular places to see California’s state flower up close and in the thousands from mid-February to May.

If sunflowers are more your thing, there are a number of bright yellow fields that can be found in full bloom off the side of the road in Yolo County in June and July. 

And finally, lavender farms are also a popular thing in California, especially around Napa and Sonoma. 

Head to spots like Lavender Bee Farm, Bees n Blooms Sonoma, and Monte Bellaria di California in mid-May to mid-July to make all of your purple-infused lavender-smelling dreams come true. 

Winchester Mystery House – San Jose

One of the top things to do in the Bay Area, see a haunted house come to real life on a Winchester Mystery House tour in San Jose.

This Victorian mansion is the result of decades of architectural oddities, no master building plan, and the whimsical tastes of heiress Sarah Winchester.

Sarah Winchester’s spirit-warding touches such as decoy bathrooms, the number 13, and spider-web motifs throughout the manor only add to its mysterious and spooky nature. 

Read our guide to the best things to do in San Jose .

Santa Barbara

There are a lot of beautiful spots along the Central California Coast, but one of the prettiest is Santa Barbara. 

Located between Big Sur and Santa Monica, Santa Barbara is all about Spanish colonial architecture, fresh seafood, and multi-hued sunsets. 

It has fantastic beaches with resident seals, stellar shopping along State Street, and impressive coastal scenery dotted with palm trees that can only be found in California. 

If you’re looking for fun things to do in California for couples, Santa Barbara is an ideal getaway with its scenic nature, perfect weather, and a plethora of romantic activities. 

17-Mile Drive – Monterey

Things to do in Cali | 17 Mile Drive

There are a lot of scenic coastal drives in California, but one of the most popular routes that doesn’t skimp on good views is the 17-Mile Drive . 

Starting from Monterey and traveling through the gated community of Pebble Beach on the way down to Carmel-by-the-Sea, the 17-Mile Drive is a good introduction to Central California scenery at its finest. 

Famous sights on the route include the Lone Cypress Tree, Bird Rock, and Del Monte Forest. 

Non-residents have to pay a $10.25 toll to drive the 17-Mile Drive but it’s worth it for the beautiful route and gorgeous seaside views. 

California Amusement Parks

If you’re looking to partake in fun California activities, checking out one of the state’s many amusement parks is a good option. 

There’s a lot more to California’s theme park scene than just Disneyland and Universal Studios. 

Head to California’s Great America, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Six Flags Hurricane Kingdom, Knott’s Berry Farm, Knott’s Soak City, or Raging Waters for theme parks full of rollercoasters, waterslides, and plenty of thrill rides.

If you’re looking for more of a classic theme park vibe and more than just rollercoasters, make a visit to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. 

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the oldest surviving amusement park in the state and one of the few oceanside amusement parks in California and the West Coast as a whole.

In Southern California, get your thrills at Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Knott’s Soak City. Or, head to the all-ages family-friendly theme parks like Balboa Island’s Fun Zone, Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, Legoland, or Belmont Park in San Diego. 

Explore Hidden Caves

Looking for adventurous things to do in California? The Golden State is home to a number of hidden caverns that are open to the public. 

Some of the most popular caves in California can be found at the Lake Shasta Caverns. 

Accessible by guided tour, you’ll find a 300-foot man-made tunnel into the mountainside where you’ll be immersed in a subterranean wonderland, sure to impress even the most skeptical visitors.

Otherwise, a trip to Moaning Caverns and Mercer Caverns in the Sierra Foothills is another good option to make your spelunking dreams come true. 

If you don’t want to do a guided tour, you can always explore the caves of Pinnacles National Park on your own. 

Or, for a truly impressive experience, make the trek to Lava Beds National Monument, a spot that features over 700 caves, a look into California’s volcanic past, and Indigenous American art in Tulelake. 

Visit the Monarch Butterflies

Free stuff to do in Santa Cruz | Natural Bridges Monarch butterflies

Although marine life usually gets most of the attention on the West Coast, one of the most magical things to see in California is a eucalyptus forest that’s filled with thousands of monarch butterflies. 

There are two spots in California that are known as migration hot spots for monarch butterflies – Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz and the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach (south of Big Sur).  

The butterflies start nesting around late October and stay until mid-February (they can leave as early as January though so it’s good to check ahead of time). November is usually the best month to see the most butterflies. 

Highway 395

Bodie State Historic Park | California

Although not as popular as the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the best things to do in California to see a different side of the state is a road trip through the Sierra Nevada, along Highway 395. 

A Highway 395 road trip is one of those bucket list experiences, full of panoramic views featuring mountainous landscapes, pioneering history, ghost towns, and hot springs. 

Top attractions include Travertine Hot Springs, Bodie Ghost Town, Mono Lake, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, Devil’s Postpile Monument and Rainbow Falls, Hot Creek Geological Area, Wild Willy’s Hot Springs, Bishop Creek, Ancient Bristlecone Forest, and Alabama Hills. 

Hearst Castle

One of the best bucket list things to do in California, Hearst Castle , also known as Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, is located along the coast just south of Big Sur. 

Attracting around 750,000 annual visitors, Hearst Castle (really, more of a mansion museum) is a National Historic Landmark. 

It was built by the famous California architect, Julia Morgan, and owned and lived in by newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, from 1919 to 1947.

Hearst had very interesting interior decorating tastes that would best be described as “eclectic gaudiness,” but a guided tour is worthwhile to explore the historic, sprawling property, and the hundreds of rooms within it.  

40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara you’ll find Solvang , a unique danish-themed town and a top attraction on the Central Coast. 

Solvang is known for its Danish-inspired architecture complete with windmills and wineries, as well as Danish bakeries and the bountiful amount of Danish flags within city limits.  

So where did all this Danish inspiration come from? The city was founded by a group of Danes in 1911 who were trying to escape the intensely cold Midwestern winters.

The city has never forgotten its roots nor its love for all things Danish since then. It’s one of those bucket list destinations that’s fun to visit on a California road trip. 

Read our guide to the best things to do in Solvang .

Embrace the Diversity

California is a place of diversity and not just in terms of its landscape. The Golden State is a melting pot of different cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives. It’s one of the reasons why it’s such a welcoming and progressive place. 

This is why embracing California’s diversity is something you should definitely experience while visiting California. 

One of the most fun ways to do this as a tourist is to find cultural neighborhoods within major cities. These neighborhoods tend to be historic and feature fantastic food, distinctive architecture, regular cultural events, and unique museums.  

A few of the best cultural neighborhoods in California include the following:

  • Chinatown and Japantown in San Francisco
  • Little Portugal and Japantown in San Jose
  • Chinatown in Sacramento 
  • Little Manila in Stockton
  • Cambodia Town in Long Beach
  • Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown, Little Italy, Thai Town, Chinatown, and Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles. 
  • Little Saigon in Orange County
  • Little Italy, Old Town, and Little Saigon in San Diego 

Salvation Mountain & Slab City

unique things to do in southern California | Salvation Mountain

One of the more unique things to do in Southern California, a few miles away from the Salton Sea, visionary Leonard Knight took it upon himself to create an actual mountain out of adobe, straw, and non-toxic paint.

Today, Salvation Mountain attracts thousands of visitors every year with its candy-bright colors and biblical murals.

Even if you’re not religious, Salvation Mountain is worth visiting due to its sheer creativity.

Nearby Slab City is an unincorporated community in the middle of nowhere, a place that can only be found in the California desert.

Queen Mary – Long Beach

Note: The Queen Mary is currently closed while it goes through a change in ownership. There’s no definite reopening date yet, although some people speculate it could be sometime in 2022 or 2023.  

One of the more unusual things to do in California, it’s not every day you get to explore a supposedly haunted ship turned hotel in the Long Beach Harbor. 

The RMS Queen Mary operated from 1934 to 1967 as a transatlantic liner, cruise ship, and military transport. 

This 1,019-foot boat is now permanently docked in Long Beach as an interactive museum, featuring three restaurants, 346 hotel rooms, and guided tours to explore the layered history of this famous ship.

Read our detailed guide to the best things to do in Long Beach . 

Explore the Best Literary Spots

Jack London State Park

California has been home to plenty of famous authors throughout the years, from Jack London to John Steinback, Joan Didion, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), and Charles Bukowski, to name a few.  

If you’re a fan of books and literature, one of the best things to do in California is to pay homage to these great writers by visiting the places they lived, worked, and adored the most. 

A few literary attractions in California include Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma, Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Napa Valley, Jack Kerouac Alley and the Beat Museum in San Francisco, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur.  

See the Barking Elephant Seals

If you’re looking for unique wildlife things to do in California besides whale watching, seeing elephant seals in their natural habitat is another bucket list experience to enjoy in the Golden State. 

Two of the best places to see California elephant seals are Año Nuevo State Park near Santa Cruz and Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery near Hearst Castle. 

These windswept points in California are not only scenic spots to while away an afternoon, but also home to large elephant seal colonies where you can watch seals fight over mates, welcome pups into the world, and molt.

The best time to see elephant seals at their most active are the months of January (breeding and birthing), April (molting), and October (juvenile haul-out). 

Local tip: Guided tours are required from mid-December through the end of March at Año Nuevo State Park.

Road Trip the Rugged Northern California Coast

Places to go in California - Russian Gulch State Park

Although most people stick to seeing the sights between San Francisco and Los Angeles, one of the more unique things to do in California is to take a road trip up the Northern California Coast. 

From San Francisco to the start of the Oregon Coast , the Northern California coastline is the best place in North America to immerse yourself in giant redwood forests.

It’s also a great place to explore historic lighthouses, unique beaches, and small, welcoming coastal towns along the way.    

It’s the perfect bucket list trip for anyone who’s looking for more rugged landscapes and remote wilderness.  

Don’t miss stops in Bodega Bay, Jenner, Mendocino, Fort Bragg, Ferndale, Eureka, and Crescent City. 

Top sights along the way include Bodega Head, Fort Ross, Bowling Ball Beach, Point Arena and Point Cabrillo Lighthouses, Russian Gulch State Park, the colorful Glass Beach, the Skunk Train, Railbiking, Avenue of the Giants, Fern Canyon, and driving through the Klamath Tour Thru Tree.

Read my guide to the best things to do in Mendocino .

Other Things to do in California

San Francisco Giant's Game | Things to Do in California

And finally, a few other places and things to do in California that I couldn’t fit into this already massive post but deserve a mention. 

  • Admire the majestic Burney Falls
  • Take a tour of the Jelly Belly Factory
  • Try garlic ice cream in Gilroy
  • Catch a sports game, take your pick from MLB, NBA, NFL, MLS, or NHL
  • Dance the weekend away at a music festival – a few to choose from include Coachella, Outside Lands, Stagecoach, BottleRock Napa Valley, and Lightning in a Bottle
  • Go whitewater rafting 
  • Eat at the nicest Taco Bell in the World in Pacifica
  • Birdwatching at Elkhorn Slough
  • Go for a hike in Calaveras Big Trees State Park 
  • Visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
  • Explore the Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno
  • Drive the scenic Fresno County Blossom Trail
  • Do a self-guided tour of the local breweries, especially in craft beer hotspots like San Diego (read my guide to the best California breweries )
  • Make a stop at the iconic Madonna Inn (and sneak a peek at the bathrooms) 
  • See the oldest tree in the world at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
  • Visit apple orchards in the fall in places like Julian or Apple Hill (read my guide to the best things to do in Julian )
  • Get into the fall spirit at a Half Moon Bay pumpkin patch (Half Moon Bay is the pumpkin capital of the world)
  • Hear the whistling sand dunes at Mojave Preserve
  • Watch the sunrise at Fonts Point at Anza Borrego Desert State Park
  • Snap a picture with the metal sculptures near Anza Borrego Desert State Park at Galleta Meadows
  • See the fall foliage in June Lake and Bishop Creek 
  • Ride an ATV over the Oceano Sand Dunes
  • Road trip the 21 California Missions (from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and all the way down to San Diego)
  • Take a day trip to Mexico  

Best Time to Visit California

places to visit in northern california | Henry Cowell State Park

As you can probably gather from this massive list of things to do in California, there’s really no bad time to visit California. 

The majority of the state has nice weather for year-round outdoor activities like surfing, hiking, and road trips. 

You can also find winter wonderlands in the colder months, colorful fall foliage in autumn, and vibrant wildflowers in the spring and summer.  

With that said, there are a couple of things to note if you’re planning a visit to California.

First off is fire season. August through October is peak fire season and you can expect at least a handful of wildfires happening in different parts of the state during this time of the year.

The second thing to note is the landslides in the spring, especially around the Big Sur coastline. These aren’t as common as wildfires, but after a day or two of heavy rain in the spring, it’s not uncommon to hear about parts of the coastline succumbing to erosion. 

Lastly, although summer is a popular time to visit, we get “June Gloom” on many parts of the coast and “Fogust” in the Bay Area, with overcast skies most days.

Spring or fall is usually when you’ll find the overall best weather throughout the state. 

If you’re looking for a full guide on more things to do in California and how to road trip the Golden State, I wrote a whole book on it. You can check it out here .  

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Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.

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10 Places To Visit In California Before The End of Summer

10 Places To Visit In California Before The End of Summer

Now is the time to embark on a journey of exploration, creating new memories, and thinking outside the box.

Roubina Al Abashian

August 02, 2021

You’ve been to all the unique beaches , you’ve seen all the weird spots , you’ve driven past all the quirky roadside attractions ; you’ve basically checked off everything on your summertime bucket list . But there’s still something missing—it’s like, you’ve been everywhere, but something’s not right. You can’t help but think: “Is there something I’m forgetting?” 

To answer this question, yes, you probably are. Now is the time to embark on a journey of exploration, creating new memories, and thinking outside the box. From cool boardwalks and haunted spots in L.A. to free places in NorCal and just straight-up awesome must-visit locales , it’s time to compile one last bucket list of places to visit in California to end this summer with a bang. 

Unique Places To Visit In Southern California

places to visit in california this summer

1. USS Midway Museum

Location : 910 North Harbor Drive, San Diego

History enthusiasts, this is one of the places you want to visit in San Diego . Along the shores of San Diego Bay, the USS Midway Museum floats proudly at Navy Pier. Here, you’ll get an insider look at the longest-serving American aircraft carrier of the 20th century. Visitors explore the 29 restored aircraft at the museum, some of which have flown in World War II and the Korean War.

During the tour, you'll see the crew's sleeping quarters, ship's jail, engine, and flight control room. Take the self-guided audio tour of the San Diego museum or let the volunteers tell you all the ins and outs of this naval aircraft. Enjoy, sailor!

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places to visit in california this summer

2. Bart’s Books

Location : 302 West Matilija Street, Ojai

The valley town of Ojai is home to a gem that not many people acknowledge its value— Bart’s Books , the world’s largest outdoor bookstore. Established in 1964 by Richard Bartindale, this bookstore now has over 130,000 books on its shelves—you’re going to want to see this place in California . 

Today, Bart’s Books is divided into three parts—the sidewalk, outdoor patio, and house interior. The “honor system” is applied on the sidewalk, meaning you can take whatever you like and leave any sum of money in the coffee cans. Want to enjoy the smell of new books? You know where to go. 

3. Franceschi Park

Location : 1510 Franceschi Road, Santa Barbara

In the heart of the American Riviera is another magnificent place to visit in Southern California . The 15-acre Franceschi Park is named after renowned Italian horticulturist Francesco Franceschi, who owned a 40-acre parcel of land in the area. Franceschi created a garden with plants imported from all around the world—soon, it became a botanical garden and nursery. 

Nowadays, Franceschi Park serves as a place to wander, ponder, and spend time in the great outdoors. Here, you can simply relax and observe the beauty of Santa Barbara and the ocean below—a much-needed peace of mind after a busy summer.

4. Whale House

Location : 999 Adante Road, Santa Barbara

Whale House in Santa Barbara is a hidden gem and one of those unique places to visit in California . This nature-inspired fantasy villa was designed by architect Michael Carmichael and took three years to complete. Its large, gray, and shingled exterior replicates—you guessed it—a whale. There are no flat walls or straight lines in the house.

Curious to know how Pinocchio felt? The Whale House is available for rent, so hurry up and book now.

Breathtaking Places To Visit In Northern California

5. wild willy’s hot springs.

Location : Mammoth Lakes, Mono County

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And when nature gives you a spa, you take a dip. Out of all the hot springs in California , Wild Willy’s in Mammoth Lakes is one of the must-visit places in Northern California . Around 750,000 years ago, a massive volcano erupted in the area, resulting in many of the regions’ natural landmarks we now enjoy. Wild Willy’s Hot Springs, along with the Sierra Nevada, were a byproduct of the eruption.

Today, visitors can find two pools in the area that are around 50 feet apart. The mineral springs are generally 97 degrees, but the smaller pool can heat up to 107. We don’t know about you, but we’re totally down to (re)treat ourselves . 

places to visit in california this summer

6. Bodie State Historic Park

Location : California State Route 270, Bridgeport

During the California Gold Rush , Bodie was a thriving mining town with a population of almost 10,000. The town attracted fortune hunters from all over the state. However, by the late 1800s, Bodie’s fame started fading away until it was completely abandoned. Now, it’s merely a ghost town in California that people visit every now and then. Almost 200 structures remain standing, and many of their interiors are in their original state. To step back in time, make sure to visit this town and enjoy its once functioning cars, machinery, barbershops, and houses.

7. Church of 8 Wheels 

Location : 554 Fillmore Street, San Francisco

If you’ve been looking for an abandoned church-turned-roller skating rink, look no further than the holier-than-thou Church of 8 Wheels . What was once the Sacred Heart Catholic Church is now one of the coolest rinks in San Francisco— you know what to do the next time you’re in Fog City . As one of the coolest places to visit in California , this spot is one you just can’t miss. Glide across the wooden floors, under disco balls, and led lights; the stained-glass windows depicting Jesus and Mother Mary will probably be impressed with your moves.

As if roller skating wasn’t fun enough, a DJ will make sure your spirits remain high as you skate to the beats of disco, funk, and pop music. Make sure to get there early—it gets packed.

places to visit in california this summer

8. Haight-Ashbury 

Location : Haight-Ashbury District, San Francisco

Welcome to one of San Francisco’s most expensive neighborhoods that just so happens to be its most striking. Known as a prominent area of the hippie and counterculture of the 60s, Haight-Ashbury is lined with impressive Victorian-style structures painted in bright colors. While the neighborhood has undergone many changes since the Summer of Love, it still preserves much of its persona.

You need a full itinerary as to how to spend your day in the neighborhood—check out these ideas. Check out the stores along Haight Street for some awesome wall art, tapestry, and books. And don’t forget to visit Hippie Hill on the east end of Golden Gate Park .

places to visit in california this summer

9. Japanese Tea Garden

Location : 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco

Prepare to be enchanted by the beauty of cherry blossoms and well-groomed trees—another unique place to go in California is the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden gate Park. Here, you’ll find the oldest public Japanese tea house in the entire nation. 

The garden was created as part of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. While parts of the garden are demolished now, structures like the Drum Bridge continue to stand proud. If you’re still wondering about places to travel in California , this garden tops every must-visit list.

10. Confusion Hill

Location : 75001 Highway 101, Piercy 

As the name suggests, visiting Confusion Hill will leave you puzzled. Located in the forests of Mendocino County, this amusement park opened in 1949 and has been causing trouble ever since. Among the illusions to experience include standing on a wall and throwing a ball out the window and watching it return to you—just like a boomerang. The Gravity House is designed to give the impression that people need to stand upright when they already are. As for people who go loco for locomotives, don’t forget to go on a ride amidst the woods. Now that’s one of the best places to visit in California !

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Summer Bucket List: Top Things to Do This Summer

things to do in this summer

As the warm days of summer approach, it’s time to start planning for a season filled with exciting outdoor adventures and fun-filled family activities. Whether you’re in sunny LA or exploring new travel destinations, there’s no shortage of things to do this summer. From discovering new hobbies to embarking on unforgettable adventures, there’s something for everyone to experience and enjoy.

So, what should be on your summer bucket list ? Let’s dive in and explore some ideas for making the most of this season. From thrilling outdoor activities to creative hobbies, there’s a world of possibilities waiting for you.

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways:

  • Make the most of summer by creating a bucket list of activities and experiences.
  • Explore the outdoors and engage in thrilling adventures.
  • Discover new hobbies and make this summer a time for personal growth.
  • Create lasting memories with family-friendly activities .
  • Plan your summer travels and explore exciting new destinations.

Visit the Ocean

A day at the ocean is a classic summer activity that should not be missed. Whether you live near the coast or are planning a beach vacation, make sure to include a visit to the ocean on your summer bucket list. There’s something enchanting about the salty sea breeze and the sound of crashing waves that instantly transports you to a state of relaxation and bliss.

One of the most beloved activities at the beach is building sandcastles. Get creative with your family and friends and construct magnificent structures out of sand. It’s a wonderful way to bond while unleashing your inner architect.

Another exciting beach activity is seashell hunting . Take a leisurely stroll along the shoreline and keep an eye out for beautiful seashells. These treasures from the sea not only serve as unique souvenirs but also make lovely home decorations.

For a fun-filled experience, fly a kite on the beach. Let the strong ocean breeze carry your colorful kite high up in the sky as you revel in the joy of flying. It’s an activity that never fails to bring smiles to people of all ages.

beach umbrella

Don’t forget to bring a beach umbrella to provide some shade from the sun. It’s the perfect spot to relax and enjoy a picnic while admiring the stunning ocean views.

Whether you’re splashing in the waves, burying your feet in the sand, or simply unwinding by the shore, a visit to the ocean promises a day of pure enjoyment and tranquility. So grab your sunscreen, beach towel, and sense of adventure, and make unforgettable memories at the beach this summer!

Go for a Swim

Cool off from the summer heat by going for a swim. Whether it’s in a lake, ocean, river, or pool, swimming is a refreshing way to have fun and get some exercise. Take a break from the sun and dive into the cool waters. Feel the weightlessness as you glide through the water, leaving all your worries behind.

If you’re near a lake, why not embrace the tranquility and enjoy swimming in its calm waters? Lakes offer a peaceful setting for a leisurely swim or a challenging distance swim.

If you prefer the vastness of the ocean, head to the beach and dive into the rolling waves. Let the saltwater rejuvenate your body and soul. Remember to always swim within designated areas and be mindful of currents and tides.

For a more adventurous swim, explore the rivers in your area. Find a spot with clear waters and a gentle current, and let the river carry you as you swim downstream.

And of course, if you have access to a pool, take advantage of it. Whether it’s a community pool, a private pool, or even your backyard pool, swimming in a pool provides a controlled and safe environment for all ages. Have a relaxing float on a pool float or embrace your inner child and splash around with your family and friends.

Gaze at the Stars

Experience the awe-inspiring beauty of the night sky by adding stargazing to your summer bucket list. There’s something magical about looking up at the stars and contemplating the vastness of the universe. To truly appreciate the splendor of the cosmos, find a spot away from city lights where you can fully immerse yourself in the celestial display.

For a truly unforgettable experience, consider sleeping under the stars. Set up a cozy campsite and spend the night under a blanket of shimmering stars. Allow yourself to be entranced by their brilliance as you drift off to sleep.

As you gaze at the stars , challenge yourself to spot constellations . Look for familiar patterns and connect the dots to identify these celestial formations. To enhance your stargazing adventure, download a stargazing app that can help you locate and learn more about the constellations in the night sky.

And if you’re lucky enough to time your stargazing adventure right, you might even witness a meteor shower. These celestial events occur when the Earth intersects with a stream of debris left behind by a comet or asteroid, resulting in a breathtaking display of shooting stars streaking across the sky. Check the meteor shower calendar for the best times to witness these stunning phenomena, and plan your stargazing adventure accordingly.

gaze at the stars

Benefits of Stargazing

  • Relaxation and stress relief: Gazing at the stars can be a peaceful and calming activity that helps reduce stress and promotes relaxation.
  • Connection to nature: Stargazing allows you to connect with the natural world and appreciate the wonders of the universe.
  • Inspiration and awe: The vastness of the night sky can evoke feelings of awe and inspire a sense of wonder about our place in the universe.
  • Educational experience: Stargazing offers an opportunity to learn about astronomy, celestial bodies, and the science behind the stars.
  • Bonding and quality time: Stargazing can be a shared experience, allowing you to spend quality time with loved ones and create lasting memories.

Add gazing at the stars to your summer bucket list and let the wonders of the cosmos captivate your imagination. Whether it’s a quiet night in your backyard or a remote stargazing spot, take the time to appreciate the beauty and mystery of our universe.

Try Whitewater Rafting

Looking for an adrenaline rush this summer? Whitewater rafting is the perfect activity for thrill-seekers and adventure enthusiasts. Hop aboard a raft and navigate through exhilarating rapids, experiencing the heart-pumping excitement that only whitewater rafting can provide.

With numerous whitewater rafting destinations across the country, there’s a perfect spot for everyone. From the raging rivers of Colorado to the scenic beauty of the American River in California, you’ll find a variety of options to choose from.

Picture yourself paddling down the rapids, surrounded by breathtaking natural landscapes. The rush of adrenaline as you conquer each rapid is unmatched, making whitewater rafting an unforgettable experience.

Whitewater Rafting Destinations

  • Colorado River – Colorado
  • Snake River – Idaho
  • American River – California
  • Lehigh River – Pennsylvania
  • Chattooga River – Georgia & South Carolina

These are just a few examples of the incredible whitewater rafting destinations available. Each location offers unique challenges and stunning scenery, ensuring that your whitewater rafting adventure is nothing short of amazing.

So, if you’re ready for an unforgettable summer adventure, book your whitewater rafting trip today and get ready to experience the rush of a lifetime!

Whitewater Rafting

Take a Road Trip

Embark on a road trip to explore new places and create lasting memories. Whether it’s a weekend getaway or a longer journey, road trips are the perfect way to check off items from your summer bucket list and have new experiences . Hit the open road and let the adventure begin!

For a quick escape, consider a weekend road trip to a nearby location. Pack your bags, hop in the car, and set off on a mini-adventure. Discover hidden gems, enjoy scenic drives, and indulge in local cuisine. A weekend road trip allows you to recharge and immerse yourself in a new environment without taking too much time away from your daily routine.

If you have a bit more time, a longer road trip offers endless possibilities. Plan a route that takes you through multiple destinations and gives you the opportunity to explore various landscapes and cultures. From national parks to bustling cities, each stop on your road trip will offer unique experiences and sights. Take your time, savor the moments, and make memories along the way.

One of the best things about road trips is the flexibility they offer. You can customize your itinerary according to your interests and preferences. If you love nature, plan stops at breathtaking viewpoints, hiking trails, or camping sites. For history buffs, include visits to museums, historical landmarks, and quaint towns. If you’re a foodie, research local eateries and try regional specialties as you make your way to your destination.

A road trip is not just about the destinations; it’s also about the journey itself. Enjoy the freedom of the open road, play your favorite music, and let the scenery inspire you. Stop at roadside attractions, take spontaneous detours, and capture unforgettable moments along the way. The beauty of a road trip lies in the unexpected discoveries and serendipitous experiences that await you.

So, gather your travel companions, plot your route, and get ready for a summer adventure like no other. Whether it’s a weekend road trip or a longer excursion, taking to the road guarantees new experiences and unforgettable memories. Don’t forget to document your journey with photographs and journal entries, so you can relive the magic of your summer road trip for years to come.

  • Add new experiences to your bucket list
  • Discover lesser-known destinations
  • Create a memorable soundtrack for your road trip

As I wrap up this article, I can’t help but feel excited about the summer adventures that await! Creating a summer bucket list is the perfect way to ensure that you have an unforgettable summer filled with joy, exploration, and relaxation. By adding a variety of activities to your list, you can tailor your summer experiences to suit your interests and desires.

One of the highlights of any summer is a visit to the ocean. Whether it’s building sandcastles, hunting for seashells, or simply enjoying the crashing waves and sea breeze, the beach offers a magical setting for fun and relaxation.

In addition to beach days, diving into the refreshing waters of a lake, river, or pool is a must-do summer activity. From a relaxing float to splashing around with your loved ones, swimming provides both a reprieve from the summer heat and an opportunity to create cherished memories.

To add some wonder to your summer nights, I recommend stargazing. Sleeping under the stars and spotting constellations can be a truly magical experience, and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a mesmerizing meteor shower.

No summer would be complete without some adrenaline-pumping adventure, which is why I encourage you to try whitewater rafting . Feel the rush of navigating through rapids while taking in the breathtaking surroundings.

Finally, don’t forget to embark on a road trip to explore new places and make the most of your time-off. Whether it’s a short weekend getaway or an extended journey, road trips offer endless opportunities for new experiences and memorable moments.

So go ahead and start planning your summer bucket list today. Enjoy this summer to the fullest, embrace new adventures, create lifelong memories, and make it a summer you’ll always remember!

What are some things to do in this summer?

There are plenty of activities and experiences you can add to your summer bucket list. From outdoor adventures to family-friendly activities , there’s something for everyone to enjoy this summer.

Why should I visit the ocean?

Visiting the ocean is a classic summer activity. You can build sandcastles, search for seashells, fly a kite, or simply relax under a beach umbrella and enjoy the crashing waves and sea breeze.

How can I cool off in the summer?

Going for a swim is a refreshing way to cool off from the summer heat. Whether it’s in a lake, ocean, river, or pool, swimming is a fun and relaxing activity for the whole family.

What can I do at night during the summer?

Stargazing is a great activity to do at night during the summer. Find a spot away from city lights and enjoy the awe-inspiring beauty of the night sky. You can even try to identify constellations or plan your stargazing adventure during a meteor shower.

What is a thrilling summer activity I should try?

Whitewater rafting is a thrilling summer activity that you should definitely try if you’re a thrill-seeker or adventure enthusiast. Choose a whitewater rafting destination and book your trip in advance to experience the rush of adrenaline as you navigate through rapids.

What is a great way to explore new places and create lasting memories?

Taking a road trip is a great way to explore new places and create lasting memories. Whether it’s a weekend getaway or a longer journey, road trips offer the perfect opportunity for adventure and discovery.

How can I make the most of my summer?

By creating a summer bucket list and including a variety of activities, you can ensure that your summer is filled with fun, adventure, and relaxation. From visiting the ocean to trying new outdoor activities, there’s something for everyone to enjoy this summer.

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These Are The Most Unique Small Towns To Visit In California

  • Explore charming Cambria on the Central Coast, with its beautiful beaches, art galleries, and boutiques. Don't miss the opportunity to spot elephant seals at Piedras Blancas and enjoy a relaxing getaway in this quaint seaside village.
  • Discover Tahoe City on the northwest shore of stunning Lake Tahoe, where you can immerse yourself in the region's natural beauty. From outdoor activities like boating and skiing to strolling down the historic main street, Tahoe City is the perfect hub for adventure and relaxation.
  • Experience the quintessential coastal hamlet of Mendocino, perched on a rugged headland overlooking the Pacific. This artsy village offers unique galleries, spectacular ocean views, and a welcoming small-town atmosphere. Don't miss the opportunity to explore Mendocino's stunning coastline and enjoy a retreat away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

California is well known for its big, vibrant cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. But scattered throughout the Golden State are dozens of charming small towns that offer a delightful change of pace from urban life. These quaint villages have their unique personalities, histories, and attractions that make them fascinating places to explore. Whether you're looking for scenic coastal views, Old West charm, artsy vibes, or outdoor adventures, there's a cute California town calling your name. Here some of the unique and picturesque small towns in California that should be on every traveler's bucket list. From seaside hamlets to mountain hideaways, each city provides an intimate window into the diverse landscapes, cultures, and histories found across the state.

Nestled on the Central Coast, the seaside village of Cambria charms visitors with its beaches, art galleries, and boutiques. One of the town's claims to fame is its colony of elephant seals that haul out on the sand at Piedras Blancas. Travelers can watch the enormous marine mammals lounging from a viewing platform. Scenic Moonstone Beach has tide pools to explore. Downtown Cambria's East and West Villages are filled with restaurants, shops, and B&Bs, perfect for a relaxing getaway.

  • Attractions: Moonstone Beach, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, East West Village
  • Things to Do: Browse art galleries and boutiques, hike coastal trails, watch elephant seals
  • Accommodations: Cambria Pines Lodge , Cambria Landing Inn & Suites , Blue Dolphin Inn

Visit in January or February to see adorable seal pups nursing on the beach.

Related: 10 Small Beach Towns In California That You'll Choose Over Venice

On the northwest shore of beautiful Lake Tahoe sits one of the most beautiful towns in the region , Tahoe City, an idyllic mountain town surrounded by stunning alpine scenery and . Known as the "heart of North Lake Tahoe," Tahoe City is a hub for outdoor recreation like boating, hiking, and skiing. Wander down the historic main street lined with restaurants, bars, and shops. Visit the Gatekeeper's Museum to learn about the area's history and Native American heritage. Enjoy breathtaking lake views on a scenic cruise or kayaking tour. Tahoe City offers easy access to nearby ski resorts and state parks.

  • Top Attractions: Gatekeeper's Museum, Tahoe City Kayak, Truckee River Rafting
  • Things to Do: Skiing, hiking, boating, shopping, dining
  • Best Time to Visit: Summer for water sports, winter for skiing
  • Accommodations: Cedar Glen Lodge , Pepper Tree Inn, Firelite Lodge

Perched on a rugged headland overlooking the Pacific, the village of Mendocino is the quintessential coastal hamlet. Visitors adore the town's New England-style saltbox cottages and creative, artsy vibe. Dozens of unique galleries and boutiques line the charming streets. Nearby headlands offer spectacular ocean views and excellent hiking trails. Travelers can stay in a quaint B&B, enjoy fine dining and seafood at bistros and cafés, or relax over local wines at tasting rooms. With its dramatic seaside setting and welcoming small-town atmosphere, Mendocino is a delightful retreat.

  • Attractions: Mendocino Headlands State Park, Mendocino Art Center, Kelley House Museum
  • Things to Do: Hiking, beachcombing, whale watching, art galleries
  • Accommodations: Brewery Gulch Inn , Sea Rock Inn
  • Best Time to Visit: September - October for nice weather and fewer crowds

Visit in September for the Mendocino Film Festival.

Located in the mountains east of San Diego is the former gold mining town of Julian, one of the beautiful towns in California one should visit . This quiet village transports visitors back to the Old West with its preserved main street lined with shops, eateries, and wooden facades. The surrounding Cuyamaca Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop for outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, and horseback riding. Julian is famous for its fresh apple pies and hard cider. Tour the Julian Mining Company or pan for gold. The fall apple harvest season is a popular time to visit this high desert hamlet for its charming historic vibe and famous fruit.

  • Top Attractions: Julian Mining Company, Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve
  • Things to Do: Shop, dine, hike, fish, pan for gold
  • Accommodations: Julian Hotel , Julian Lodge , Orchard Hill Country Inn
  • Best Time to Visit: Fall for apple picking and cider.

Far off the beaten path in central California lies the tiny town of New Cuyama. Surrounded by ranch lands and rolling hills, this remote village offers a taste of the Old West. New Cuyama's claim to fame is the Cuyama Buckhorn Saloon, a legendary County roadhouse and bar serving drinks and hospitality since 1949. Travelers passing through can belly to the bar for cold beer, enjoy live music on weekends, or stay at the rustic adjacent motel. With its isolation and cowboy spirit, New Cuyama is a unique stop for roadtrippers seeking an authentic rural California experience.

  • Attractions: Cuyama Buckhorn Bar & Motel , Russell Ranch
  • Things to Do: Have a drink at the saloon, stay at the motel, visit Russell Ranch
  • Best Time to Visit: Weekends for live music at the Buckhorn
  • Length: Located 140 miles northwest of LA

Bring cash; most businesses don't accept credit cards.

Related: California's Mendocino Complex Wildfire Now The Biggest In State History

Nestled in the green rolling hills outside San Luis Obispo is the charming historic town of Old Edna. This living museum village provides a glimpse into turn-of-the-century life in rural California. Tour pioneer farmhouses, a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, barn, and more restored buildings from Edna's founding families. Costumed docents demonstrate traditional crafts and skills. Enjoy picnic areas along shaded Creekside. Old Edna hosts folk art festivals and holiday celebrations like Pumpkin Days. For a relaxing trip, visit this endearing replica of an 1890s town.

  • Top Attractions: Livery Stable, Watson's General Store, Creekside Picnic Area
  • Things to Do : Take a guided tour, attend a festival, picnic
  • Best Time to Visit: Spring & fall for nice weather
  • Tour Duration: Allow 2-3 hours to see everything

Two Harbors

On the remote west end of the scenic Catalina Island lies Two Harbors, an idyllic seaside village reachable only by boat or helicopter. This magical spot features sweeping ocean views, diving, kayaking, hiking, and relaxation. Stroll down the quiet village road that leads from the iconic Two Harbors Lightstation to the quirky Banning House Lodge. Go snorkeling or scuba diving in the kelp forests that surround the island. Watch the island foxes play. Dine on fresh seafood and enjoy the scene from The Pier Bar. Two Harbors' remote island location makes it a true escape.

  • Attractions : Two Harbors Lightstation, Catalina Island Conservancy
  • Things to Do : Hiking, snorkeling, diving, kayaking
  • Accommodations: Banning House Lodge, Two Harbors Campground
  • Best Time to Visit: Summer for ideal weather & snorkeling

Escape to the San Jacinto Mountains and immerse yourself in the alpine village of Idyllwild, one of the unique towns in Southern California . Nestled among tall pines, Idyllwild charms with its cozy log cabins, independent restaurants, and mom-and-pop shops. Outdoor enthusiasts flock here to hike the numerous forest trails on Tahquitz Peak and nearby Mount San Jacinto State Park. Idyllwild is a popular destination in winter for snowboarding at Humber Park and sledding on the town sled run. With its woodsy charm and fun outdoor recreation, Idyllwild is the perfect mountain getaway.

  • Attractions: Humber Park, Tahquitz Peak, Idyllwild Nature Center
  • Things to Do: Hiking, sledding, snowboarding, birdwatching
  • Accommodations: Strawberry Creek Inn B&B , Creekstone Inn
  • Best Time to Visit: Winter for snow sports, spring & fall for hiking

Get an Idyllwild Recreation Pass for discounts on sledding, snowboarding, and more.


Step back in time to the Old West in Pioneertown near Yucca Valley . Built in the 1940s as an Old West movie set, Pioneertown still retains its historic façade of saloons, jailhouse, and an old Wells Fargo building. Wander down Mane Street past the cantina and livery stable. Catch a show at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a legendary honky tonk bar and music venue. Nearby Pioneertown Mountains Preserve has excellent hiking among the boulders and desert landscapes. With its authentic pioneer vibes, Pioneertown will delight any Old West fan.

  • Attractions: Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, Pioneertown Mountains Preserve
  • Things to Do: Live music, hiking.
  • Accommodations: Pioneertown Motel, Rimrock Ranch Cabins
  • Best Time to Visit: April - June & September - November for nice weather

Related: 10 Small Towns In Northern California That Are Off The Beaten Path

Three Rivers

The sleepy community of Three Rivers at the entrance to Sequoia National Park offers stunning mountain scenery in a laid-back setting. Surrounded by the forests and granite domes of the Sierras, Three Rivers beckons nature lovers. Hike forested trails to cascading waterfalls that feed into the Kaweah River flowing through town. Go rock climbing on monolithic domes or kayak Class IV whitewater on the Kaweah's Middle and South Forks. Three Rivers' selection of cabins, cottages, and B&Bs make it the perfect basecamp for exploring Sequoia National Park's natural wonders .

  • Attractions: Sequoia National Park, Kaweah Whitewater Adventures
  • Things to Do: Hiking, climbing, kayaking, rafting
  • Accommodations: Buckeye Tree Lodge , River View Grill & Bar
  • Best Time to Visit: Summer for nice weather & full river flows

These Are The Most Unique Small Towns To Visit In California


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