Vibrant cities, beaches, theme parks and natural wonders unlike anywhere else on earth make California an intriguing land of opportunity for travelers. The gateway cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles are home to some of the state’s most famous sites, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Hollywood and Disneyland. But the national parks, which include mountains, forests, desert areas, coastal areas and islands, offer their own excellent experiences. The tallest and largest trees in the world, the largest alpine lake in North America and the famous sites of Yosemite provide unique opportunities for outdoor adventure.
1 San Francisco on the Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most beautiful cities in America, San Francisco should be on everyone’s must-see list. The ocean and hills provide a beautiful natural setting, but the quaint neighborhoods, historic sites, green spaces, inspiring cultural institutions and relaxed attitude are what make this city truly special. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is one of the main attractions and what many people remember when they think of the city, and even California. The orange frame against the blue waters of San Francisco Bay, or rising from the mist that often blankets the area, is an unforgettable sight. You can appreciate the bridge from afar or, for a more personalized experience, drive across it, walk across it or even cycle across it.
If you have time to explore the city and want to get a little exercise, see some of the sights on foot. Families traveling with children will find a world of activities to keep youngsters and even older kids entertained with our article on things to do with kids in San Francisco.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Francisco: Best Areas and Hotels
Read also: Discover the Best National Parks in Arizona
2 Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park in Northern California is one of the most scenic and most visited national parks in the United States. The mountains, valleys, rivers and spectacular waterfalls here have attracted tourists, artists and athletes for decades. Most of the top sights and things to do in Yosemite National Park are in Yosemite Valley. Sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age, the granite walls and enormous waterfalls are some of the park’s most striking features. Here you will find the major attractions such as Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and El Capitan. Beyond the Valley are the Tioga Road and the Glacier Point Road, both of which provide access to alpine areas, viewpoints and fantastic views. Sometimes overlooked by tourists, but also worth a look are the gigantic sequoias. The largest stand is located in Mariposa Grove, in the southern part of the park.
One of the best ways to explore Yosemite is to head straight into the landscape on some of the incredible hiking trails. These range from easy walks along streams and lakes to life-changing trails that take you to the tops of mountain peaks and famous landmarks. If you’re spending a few nights and want to stay here for a while, you’ll also find some excellent campsites in Yosemite and the surrounding area.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park
Located in Anaheim, Disneyland is California’s premier family destination and has been around for decades. This gigantic amusement park is home to all kinds of rides, games, shows and entertainment, complete with restaurants and hotels.
The park is a combination of thematic attractions and recreated worlds and cultures. You can find shows and other entertainment designed for both children and adults. Long lines and wait times have been somewhat reduced by the invention of passes, which give you a “return time” for various attractions. However, when children are out of school, for summer, Christmas, spring break or any other holiday, you can be sure that the park will be very busy.
Keep in mind that Disneyland is more than just the parks. The entire Disneyland resort experience offers hotels, restaurants, shopping in the Downtown Disney District and Disney Adventure Park. While the parks are certainly what the kids get to see here, there is something for everyone in the family.
Official site: https://disneyland.disney.go.com/
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Disneyland
4 Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park contains some of California’s most inhospitable areas, with extreme heat that has left this desert area strangely beautiful. Salt fields, dry parched land, sand dunes, mountains and a lake that lies below sea level create a unique landscape in this remote valley. Visitors can drive through the park and stop at overlooks, hike short trails, view the ruins of the valley’s former industry, and even paddle in the shallow Badwater Lake, if there is water in the lake at the time.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Death Valley
5 Big Sur
This beautiful stretch of California’s Central Coast offers visitors a chance to get back to nature. Camping and hiking are two of the most popular activities in the area, and Garrapata State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park are some of the best places for these pursuits.
Big Sur begins about four miles south of Carmel in Yankee Point and extends along Highway No. 1 to Salmon Cove, about 17 miles north of San Simeon. From Highway 1 you have beautiful views of the picturesque coastline. To the east stretches a true wilderness – the Santa Lucia Mountains and Ventana Forests, with more than 220 miles of trails.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a great place for hikers, sun worshipers and those looking for a nature escape. The park has camping facilities and, for anyone looking for a little more comfort, the Big Sur Lodge offers an oasis of peace in a beautiful location. One of the highlights in the park is Pfeiffer Waterfall, which is reached by the Valley View Trail. A branch off this trail leads to the Valley Overlook with views of the ocean and the Big Sur River Valley.
Garrapata State Park is another popular area of Big Sur. The main attraction here is Garrapata Beach, a long, wide, crescent-shaped stretch of golden sand. Waves can be big here and it may not be the best for swimming, but it is great for taking a walk and enjoying the sun. For those looking for a little exercise, there are also day hiking trails in the park with beautiful views of the coastline, mountains, and redwoods.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Big Sur
6 Lake Tahoe
Located high in the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a popular year-round vacation destination. The Blue Lake, with its turquoise bays and surrounding mountain landscape, is a summer playground for water sports enthusiasts, beachgoers, campers and nature lovers. You will find excellent hiking trails for all levels in the mountains and along the coastline. Campsites in the area are also excellent, with many beachfront locations or wooded areas. Much of the summer action centers around the town of South Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe is also California’s premier ski destination, with several popular ski resorts. During the winter, skiers from all over the United States descend on the area to take advantage of the incredible terrain and great snow conditions.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe: Best Areas and Hotels
7 Sequoia en Kings Canyon National Parks
Home to the largest trees on earth, visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is a bucket list event. The redwoods here are the largest living things in the world, and many of them are over 2,000 years old, with some even over 3,000 years old. These neighboring parks cover an area of mountains with majestic granite peaks, deep gorges, lakes, rivers and forests, but they are quite different from each other. If you plan to visit both parks, you will need at least a few days.
Although both parks are home to the giant sequoias, Sequoia National Park is arguably the best place to visit these ancient wonders. Easy walking paths, many paved, meander through the trees and provide easy access to the main attractions. This park is also home to Mt. Whitney, which at 14,495 feet is the highest mountain in the US (except Alaska). You can find a number of beautiful campsites in Sequoia National Park, many of which are well positioned for visiting the trees and other attractions, such as Moro Rock, and the famous giant sequoia known as General Sherman Tree.
Kings Canyon National Park is more rugged and wild, with jagged peaks, roaring rivers and remote areas where you can escape the crowds and enjoy nature. This is a popular park for walking. You’ll also find some incredible campsites in Kings Canyon, both close to the trees, in the Grant Grove area, and in the Cedar Grove area at the end of the Kings-Scenic Byway.
Where to Stay: Where to Stay near Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
8 Redwood National en State Parks
Walking through a forest of giant sequoias, which tower more than 1,000 feet above you, feels like entering another era. Descendants of trees from the Jurassic period, these are the tallest trees on Earth and they are truly one of California’s greatest treasures.
These jointly managed parks, including Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, stretch along a spectacular stretch of the Northern California coast. Each offers something a little different, but in all areas you can find great hiking trails and beautiful campsites.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Redwood National Park
9 Joshua Tree National Park
This park is truly a jewel in the desert. The Joshua trees bring a kind of magic to this otherwise moon-like landscape, where gigantic boulders and rock formations create unique shapes that capture the imagination. The park covers 800,000 hectares and offers an array of diverse sites that include much more than just the Joshua trees. The Cholla Cactus Garden, where chollas stretch endlessly along the hills to the mountains beyond, the ruins of the historic Keys Ranch, the giant palms of the Lost Palms Oasis and the view from over 5,000 feet at Keys View are just a few of the highlights. If you want to stay a while, consider spending a night under the stars and trees at one of the fantastic campsites in Joshua Tree National Park.
10 Universal Studios Hollywood
This amusement park and movie studio is one of the most popular attractions in California, and the perfect place for families with older children and teens. Rides and sets are based on famous films, featuring everything from shockingly realistic simulator rides to roller coasters and more. You can create large sets on organized studio tours. Some of the most popular experiences in the park include The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Fast and Furious – Supercharged, and The Walking Dead Attraction, among others. You’ll also find dining options, shows, unique shopping opportunities and various events throughout the year.
11 SeaWorld San Diego
This theme park is a classic family destination and draws people from all over the western United States. Orca and dolphin shows, opportunities for close-up encounters with some favorite marine life, and thrill rides are the main attractions. San Diego’s SeaWorld is strategically located on the waterfront in Mission Bay.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Diego
12 Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle, officially known as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, was founded in 1919 and built over a period of 28 years, resulting in a mix of architectural styles that make it quirky and stately all at the same time. Built by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, the 165-room castle was never completed. It sits atop a hill at an elevation of 1,600 feet and offers fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Range. One of the main attractions here is the immense art collection. The castle used to be home to the world’s largest private zoo and to this day zebras and other exotic animals can be seen on the grounds. The castle is located almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Official site: https://hearstcastle.org/
13 Santa Catalina Island
Part of the Channel Islands, Santa Catalina is located about 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. The island is a popular destination with water sports enthusiasts and day trippers. Avalon is the main population center and most of the action is centered. On the other side of the island is the much smaller village of Two Harbors.
While most people come to Santa Catalina Island to wander around and enjoy a day of leisure activities, other popular things to do include glass bottom boat tours, scuba diving, kayaking and parasailing. You can reach the island by ferry from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach and Dana Point.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Avalon
14 Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is made up of five separate islands and is a great place to see wildlife and a bit of unspoilt nature. The islands are only accessible by park concessionaire boats and planes or private boats. You can learn about current conditions and arrange transportation at the mainland visitor centers in Ventura and Santa Barbara.
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm
Where to stay: Where to stay near Channel Islands National Park