There is so much to California that it’s pretty hard to believe that it all can fit into a single state. Lively cities, vast deserts, beautiful lush vineyards, snow-capped mountains, and rugged coastlines are all present in the Golden State, making it the ideal destination if a little variety is what you’re after.
In fact, you could spend your whole life exploring Cali and still not get to see it all. There are simply too many incredible things to do and beautiful spots to see, making it one of the best destinations in the world to visit regardless of the type of adventure you’re after.
With that said, it is not surprising that it’s impossible to narrow down the destinations to visit on a single trip because of its enormous size. To make planning a little easier for you, we’ve created a shortlist of the most wonderful and beautiful destinations in California, the kind you’ve got to see visit at least once in your life.
Places in California You’ve Got To Visit At Least Once
1. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Running along the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia National Park is the proud home of most of the biggest sequoia trees on earth. Their treetops, together with the snow-capped mountain peaks in the background, make for the most enchanting setting that will make you feel as though you’re walking inside a storybook setting.
While the marvel of seeing the world’s largest trees is more than enough reason to visit the park, Sequoia is also home to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States as well as one of the deepest canyons in the country!
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park may get overlooked at times by some of the more famous west coast national park neighbors such as Yosemite and Death Valley, but its actually one of our favorites!
2. McWay Falls
Big Sur is a magical experience, and McWay Falls is probably one of the most emblematic sights in the area. These waterfalls cascade down from a height of 80 feet into a stretch of pristine beach located in a secret cove, making the entire scene look straight out of a painting.
McWay Falls is nestled inside the alluring Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and getting to them requires a little hiking, making it the perfect place to stop and stretch your legs for a bit if you’re road-tripping Big Sur.
If you’ve got time to spare, make sure you also dedicate a few hours to exploring the rest of the park, as it provides wonderful hiking trails and unparalleled views of rugged coastline.
3. Yosemite National Park
Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite is one of the country’s most popular National Parks. Ancient sequoia trees and impressive rock formations make it the perfect adventurous location for families to enjoy, from climbing to hiking. With five waterfalls over 1000 feet, the crown jewel is the 2,452 feet Yosemite Falls.
Known for year-round adventures, May to September is the most popular with hikers and climbers, whilst winter sees some of California’s best beginner skiing and snowboarding opportunities at Badgers Pass Ski Area.
It is one of the most popular camping spot in California for nature lovers, and also one of the best places for a scenic drive in northern California.
Note that timed entry permits are no longer required for summer 2023.
- Don’t miss these superb scenic stops between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe!
4. Lake Tahoe
Featuring one of the largest lakes in the USA – and the clearest – the beautiful snow dusted mountain backdrop of Lake Tahoe is utterly irresistible.
Boasting 14 ski resorts, Lake Tahoe is a popular meeting point for winter sports lovers during the colder months of the year. Don’t worry if you’re not into skiing or snowboarding, though, because there’s a good variety of other fun activities like skating, snowshoeing, and searching for hidden winter gems (hiking to Emerald Lake is a must!)
Come summer, beach activities like swimming, boating, and sunbathing come to life. The lake takes center stage, with its shimmering bright blue and emerald-tinted waters creating the perfect setting for a day spent outdoors.
The sand here is so soft that you could easily imagine you’re on some kind of tropical island if it weren’t for the views of snow-capped Sierras off in the distance!
Continue your journey onward from Lake Tahoe, check out these sensational views and beauty spots in Nevada.
5. Temecula Valley
California is famous for its love for wine, and there’s no better place to experience a wine-tasting session than by visiting Temecula Valley. Imagine verdant vineyards that roll over golden hills, farm-to-table restaurants, and wine lists longer than the food menus.
Temecula may be lesser-known than its northern California neighbor Napa but utterly instagrammable with a small-town charm. Visiting wine estates is, of course, another prime activity here, as well as hot air balloon rides, horseback riding, biking, and strolling the streets of Old Temecula.
6. Joshua Tree National Park
California’s desert magic is a dream for adventurous hearts. Sitting at the point where the Colorado and Mojave deserts meet, this spot is a mix of different ecosystems, which creates a very peculiar landscape you aren’t bound to find anywhere else in the world.
Joshua Tree is a mecca for adventurous travelers, with hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, and rock climbing being just a few of the activities on offer. To top it all off, Joshua Tree is considered a prime destination for stargazing, so a night trying to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way is a must!
- Check out this spectacular drive from San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park – you can even incorporate a stop in Temecula Valley on your way!
7. Channel Islands National Park
Also known as the Galapagos of North America, Channel Islands National Park is a relatively unknown group of remote islands on the Pacific Ocean. Thanks to its isolated location, you’re very likely to get the views and experiences here all to yourself!
From vast ocean vistas to jutting rock cliffs and sightings of fauna you can’t find anywhere else in the world, a visit to Channel Islands is an experience you won’t soon forget, especially if off-the-beaten-path and unique experiences are your jam.
To get there, you need to take a boat to one of two main islands, which you can board year-round. The other three islands are a bit more difficult to get to, but sometimes it’s possible to find trips on a seasonal basis.
Be advised that there are no hotels or amenities here, so come prepared! The trip to Channel can be made as a day outing, but you can find some rustic campsites if you want to spend the night.
Hopefully, this bucket list of the best places in California to visit at least once in your life provided inspiration for your next family road trip. If you’re looking for further inspiration, make sure to check out the best scenic drives in California
More Tips For Your California Road Trip
- Before you set our road tripping in California, always check for latest highway updates. Many of the most scenic drives in California are susceptible to both bushfires and landslides.
- California State Parks come with daily parking fees of $10 – it’s good for 24 hours so make the most of it!
- Many of the most beautiful places in California are also difficult to access in mountainous countryside; invisible “black ice” can be an extreme hazard in winter – take note of our winter driving tips before you set out.
- Road tripping the mountains in winter, look out for “Snow Zone” signs as these will let you know about requirements for snow chains or traction tires.
- Never forget an important item for your family again! Download our ultimate family road trip checklist before you set out.
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