When I first moved to California six years ago, my thoughts were anything but golden. I kept thinking “there’s no seasons, too much traffic (Los Angeles especially), crazy drivers, and no nature.” Boy was I close-minded.
California is one of the (if not THE) most diverse places I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. A place where you can travel roughly 800 miles one-way and still be in the same state (you’d hit the border in half of that distance if you were in Colorado). A place where you can watch the sunrise from the top of a mountain and the sunset over the ocean. A place where you can experience mountains, deserts and beaches with just a few hours of driving (but fair warning, by “few” I mean 3-5 hours in-between each). And most importantly, a place I am proud to call home.
There’s a lot to see in both NorCal and SoCal and at times the two can feel like two different states! In truth, I haven’t been to many places in California (except for the areas in/near Los Angeles), but I’m slowly making my way around! Lucky for me (and for anyone that visits California), there’s a lot to see! There’s so much that I’m convinced it’s impossible to run out of new places to see and things to experience. But to get you (and me) started, below are some of the places around California that I’ve heard are must-sees, organized into one grand road trip (in case anyone has the time to actually drive this 3000+ mile / 70+ hour route).
Some of these places are best seen during particular months, so my recommendation would be to visit the coast during the summer when the ocean is warmest, make your way to the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the Fall when the leaves are at their peak fall color (but you’d miss skiing in Tahoe and Mammoth), then down to the deserts during the winter time so that temperatures are actually reasonable in the desert.
If you ever go on this trip (or parts of it), I’d love to hear about your experiences!
NOTE: This trip and these places are just suggestions based on what I’ve read, not based on experiences I’ve had, unless otherwise noted. The trip idea starts and ends in Los Angeles since that is where I live. One day I hope to take this trip but for now, I’ll continue planning it!
Based on what I’ve read and heard, here are some ideas:
(1) LOS ANGELES
For a long time, I resented Los Angeles for its lack of green mountains and lots of traffic, and while this is still true, there is actually a lot of fun things to do. AND EAT. I love finding new places to eat – everything is so delicious! There are also a lot of touristy places and museums if you’re into that kind of stuff. In my opinion, the touristy places are cool to see at least once. And if you like seeing the sights featured in various movies (yes more than just La La Land has been filmed here) then you’ve come to right place! There are also some nice trails (albeit very urban, squished in between housing communities) that end with views of the city from high above. My personal favorite activity is watching the sunset over the city.
The further north you go, the less touristy and crowded it gets. Even just an hour away from Los Angeles makes a difference. Malibu is your classic Pacific Coast Highway area with great, secluded beaches (my personal favorite is El Matador State Beach) and houses that overlook the ocean (and are really expensive!). In the Santa Monica Mountains that connects Malibu and Los Angeles, there is also some great hiking that doesn’t feel as urban. In some places, you can’t even see the city at all! This was very true for the Mishe Mokwa Trail to Sandstone Peak. I haven’t been on many hikes in Malibu but I really loved the trail to Sandstone. And if the area received rain recently, the mountains are super green!
(3) PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY (HIGHWAY 1)
Nothing beats driving down the coast, windows down, listing to Weezer (or another tune of your choice). There are a lot of cool places to stop at/eat at along the way and you can hop on/hop off the highway anywhere you’d like. A lot of the cities I list in this post are along the PCH.
You may have heard this area in the news a lot lately because of the big Thomas Fire this past winter, but Ventura is so much more than just the fire. If anything, the fire is a reason to go and visit. Go support the area! Venture is also one of the cities where you can catch a boat to:
Who knew a place like this exists off the coast of California?! I’ve never been but based on all that I have read, there is a lot of fun things to do. There are five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Santa Rosa. Each island has similar activities (hiking, kayaking, camping, etc.) but some of the islands emphasize water activities while other islands feature better hiking trails and/or more prevalent flowers. National Geographic has a great article, What to Do at Channel Islands, to help you decide which island is best for you. I also found Travel + Leisure’s article to be pretty informative and Drink Evolve has a nice one too by the inspiring Renee & Matt Hahnel.
To get to the islands, you can catch a ride from either Ventura or Santa Barbara by boat (Island Packers) or plane (Channel Islands Aviation).
(6) SANTA BARBARA
Hiking, beaches, coastal towns with white stucco buildings and red-tile roofs, with mountains in the background. What’s not to love?! This area was also hit badly by the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslides and flooding caused by heavy rainstorms, especially in the Montecito area…
(8) MONARCH BUTTERFLY GROVE — This place is only open late October through February each year, when the monarch butterflies migrate here to seek shelter from the colder weather up north.
(9) PISMO BEACH
(10) MONTAÑA DE ORO STATE PARK — Called the “Mountain of Gold” because of the park’s golden wildflowers, this place is full of cliffs, beaches, and hills just waiting to be explored. Combined with the in-park campsite, Islay Creek Campground, this place seems like the perfect beach weekend getaway!
(11) SAN LUIS OBISPO (SLO)
(12) PASO ROBLES — known for its wineries and olive groves
(13) BIG SUR
With all of the mudslides in 2017 off Highway 1, accessing this area is a little trickier. But based on all that I have heard, it’s well worth the trip. I’m going in August and am so excited! Huffington Post’s article was very helpful when I was first looking into Big Sur and had no idea where to start, and U.S. News’ article helped me figure out when to go. Here are the places I feel have been recommended the most by others:
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (with the iconic McWay Falls), Andrew Molera State Par, Limekiln State Park, Garrapata State Park, Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach.
But I’m pretty confident that you can do no wrong in Big Sur no matter where you go (unless you touch all the poison ivy). In terms of camping, I am planning on staying at Kirk Creek Campground because it’s right on the coast/cliff!
(16) SANTA CRUZ
(17) SAN FRANCISCO
So much to explore, a lot of which is accessible by walking, buses and/or bikes! From the touristy places such as Alcatraz, Pier 39 and The Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory; to just walking around and taking in the architecture and crazy street slopes; to all of the food, especially the chowder!
If you’re feeling even more adventurous, another way to take in all things John Muir is to hike along the John Muir Trail, part of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains that stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney.
(19) POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE — The Cypress Tree Tunnel and Alamere Falls seem pretty popular!
(20) NAPA VALLEY — vineyards and more vineyards! Also the Staglin Family Vineyard where Parent Trap was filmed.
(26) LAKE TAHOE / EMERALD BAY STATE PARK — Large freshwater lake straddling the border of California and Nevada; the area is known for skiing.
There is SO. MUCH. TO. DO. And so much beauty! I’m going in late April and am so excited. There are a lot of articles out there with recommendations but here are the things I found most helpful:
(28) KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK — I’ve only been here once and didn’t spend a lot of time in the park, BUT I really enjoyed my visit to Hume Lake, walking in the canyon, and staying at Stony Creek Campground. The campground is in Sequoia National Forest which gives you two perks: less crowded than the campgrounds in the official park boundaries and the campground is in-between Kings Canyon and Sequoia which means both parks can be conveniently accessed.
(29) SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK — Not to be confused with Redwoods! From the NPS: “The giant sequoia is the largest tree in the world in volume and has an immense trunk with very slight taper; the redwood is the world’s tallest tree and has a slender trunk.” The NPS goes on to talk about other differences between the two types of trees, so if you’re curious, here is the link. If you only have time for a few things in this park, the hike to the top of Moro Rock should definitely be on your list. It is one of the coolest places I’ve seen in California so far, with its beautiful, sweeping 360 views of mountains, valleys and trees.
(31) INYO NATIONAL FOREST
THIS is the place I refer to when I talk about visiting the Sierra Nevada area in the fall. The hike I want to do in particular is the Big Pine Lakes via the North Fork trail which features seven alpine lakes!
There’s a lot of cool sights in this park (read Drink Evolve’s article to find out more!)but the thing I dream about most with this park is how far away it is from all light sources. Whenever I go to a desert, I try to plan my trip around a new moon so that I have the best chance to see stars. I’m going to Death Valley in a month for the first time and hope to see a bunch! Within each month, there’s really only one weekend I looked at: the weekend with a new moon. But deciding the month is trickier, since the closer to summer it gets, the more likely it is that you’ll see the milky way for longer during the night. But alas the hotter it gets too. So I compared these two charts to get a better sense of when to visit this park:
(33) MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE — Another desert worth seeing in the winter!
(34) BIG BEAR
Much closer to Los Angeles than Sequoia, Yosemite, etc. this town is nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest and is sure to give you that “quick mountain escape” whenever you need it. There’s plenty to do in both the winter and the summer. In summer, Pine Knot Campground and Serrano Campground are both great and there are a lot of nice hiking trails around the lake. Also an alpine slide! In terms of winter, I just got back from a weekend playing in the snow and had so much fun! We rented an Air Bnb nearby, rented our ski/snowboard gear from Getboards (You can even rent jackets, helmets and ski pants! Just not goggles), and bought the Big Bear 4-Pack Lift Tickets from Costco (you save tons if you buy this way!). Or if it’s your birthday, they pretty much give you everything for free. To get there, there are a few ways, some of which take you along the Rim of the World Scenic Byway (portions of CA Highway 138, 18 and 38) with tons of scenic overlooks that make you feel like you’re standing high above the world.
(35) JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK— Another great desert with tons of opportunities to scramble around rocks. If you’re looking for legit rock climbing, there’s plenty of that too! Also, STARS.
(36) ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK — Known for its plentiful wildflowers, among other things
(37) SAN DIEGO
(38) THE FLOWER FIELDS IN CARLSBAD — Open every Spring from March 1 through May 10.
And if you have time, Disneyland is on your way back up north!
(39) CATALINA ISLAND
There are two ports you can visit: Two Harbors and Avalon. Two Harbors is known for the hiking, kayaking and other outdoor activities. The town itself is barely a town. Avalon is more touristy, with a lot of shops and places to eat. To get there from the mainland, you can take a boat from either San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach, or Dana Point (free on your birthday!).
So there you have it. This is just a small fraction of all the places you could explore in California, but I hope it inspires you to get out there and find out what you love about California. The same goes for me.
Photos on the map are stock images from the Internet. Photos in the blog post were taken by me.