Our research is editorially independent but we may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
California is all about the outdoors, with plenty of spectacular scenery from the wild waves of the Pacific to soaring mountain peaks, roaring rivers and glistening lakes. All of that adds up to a place that is full of recreational opportunities, and these outdoor adventures are sure to inspire you to get out there and experience all that the Golden State has to offer.
YOU'RE ALL SET!
Look out for our newsletters in your inbox soon.
Surfing in Santa Cruz
Whether you’re an experienced surfer or not, as long as you can swim, surfing in one of the sport’s top destinations in the world is a must. If you already surf, well, it’s a definite no-brainer. Not only is Santa Cruz a National Surfing Sanctuary, host of the annual O’Neill Cold Water Classic contest, and home to numerous pro and big-wave surfers, but the sport is ingrained in much of the everyday culture here. Cowell’s Beach near the Boardwalk or 36th and East Cliff at Pleasure Point are two of the best spots around, but if you’re a beginner, you’ll probably want to take surfing lessons before you head out on a board. Surf School Santa Cruz boasts some of the city’s top pros, both your board and wetsuit are provided, and lessons take place at legendary Pleasure Point.
Kayaking and Paddleboarding in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe, set across the border of California and Nevada in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is renowned as one of the country’s most beautiful lakes. On its surrounding shores, you’ll find 55 acres of long, sandy beaches as well as forested areas and rocky coves. The crystal clear waters are ideal for water sports, including swimming, kayaking, and paddleboarding. When you paddleboard across the lake, you can enjoy a calm, tranquil experience, or one that’s more physically challenging. Either way, it’s an unforgettable way to get out on the water, gaze at the countless various shades of blue and green, and the spectacular surrounding scenery.
Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, Mohave Desert
The geologic formations at Joshua Tree are what attract rock climbers and bouldering enthusiasts from all over the world. Considered a “high desert monzogranite climbing mecca” the area is known for its traditional-style crack, slab and steep-face climbing. The park features over 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes with climbs available for all levels of ability. Some of the more popular spots, include Hidden Valley and the Sports Challenge Rock. Located in what’s known as the “real” Hidden Valley by climbers, Sports Challenge Rock offers a wide range of top-rope climbs along with some outstanding places to practice leading. At the Wonderland of Rocks, you’ll find more routes than any other part of the park, including everything from easy bouldering to challenging lead climbs.
Hiking or backpacking the Lost Coast Trail
The Lost Coast is a true slice of paradise as one of the few places in the Golden State where solitude and breathtaking beauty can still be found. And, hiking or backpacking the Lost Coast Trail is arguably the best way to experience it. There are no roads along this area of the coast as the terrain is too rugged. There is no cell phone coverage either. You’ll be totally disconnected from the modern world, and reconnected the land and the sea. The trail stretches for 25 miles, from Mattole Beach in the north to the small village of Shelter Cove in the south. You can do the whole thing, and have someone pick you up at the other end, or simply experience a portion of it and return to where you began. The trail is fairly flat, taking hikers from the coarse black sand beaches to beaches with slippery, wave-smoothed stones and the solid ground of the flats. As some of the sections are impassable at high tide, it’s important to read and understand the tide tables so that your timing is right.
Soaking In The Travertine Hot Springs, Bridgeport
It may not be a heart-pounding thrill, but soaking in the Travertine Hot Springs just south of the town of Bridgeport is definitely a heavenly experience. Here, you can enjoy awe-inspiring views of the Sierras while relaxing in the soothing, perfectly-warmed 103-degree waters, with rocks segregating the spring-fed pools that flow from a cool mountain stream. Though it is designated as “clothing optional” most bathers these days prefer to soak in swimsuits. What makes it so great, is this is a totally natural experience, the springs aren’t a commercial establishment, they’re the real thing. Of course, that also means there are no snack bars or anything of the kind, so you’ll need to bring your own food and water.
Whale Watching, Dana Point
Many different types of whales swim in the waters off California’s shores, including some 20,000 gray whales who make an epic 6,000-mile journey between Alaska and Mexico, and back again, every year. The migration is one of the most amazing, and relatively easy ways for people to witness, especially by joining a whale-watching excursion from Dana Point. While gray whales seem to get the most attention in this area, there are also humpbacks, orcas, massive blue whales, dolphins, and porpoises who ply the waters at various times of the year. Captain Dave runs one of the most famous whale watching trips – his videos of the animals have even gone viral. Daily excursions from Dana Point on a high-tech catamaran with underwater viewing are on offer.
Biking across the Golden Gate to Sausalito
The Golden Gate Bridge, once referred to as the “bridge that couldn’t be built,” is San Francisco’s most iconic landmark, and one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Opened in 1937, visiting it is a must, and one of the best ways to do that is to bike the 1.7 miles that stretch from San Francisco to the Marine Headlands while taking in the magnificent city skyline, the soaring 746-foot towers and the mighty Pacific, before rolling on to Sausalito, another 3.8 miles away. From there, you can easily take the ferry right back to Fisherman’s Wharf, but you’ll probably want to spend time in this picturesque waterfront town first. It’s bursting with art galleries, bookstores, and charming cafes, and is also famous for its vibrant community of over 500 houseboats that are fun to tour, with everything from re-purposed working boats to architectural gems.
Four-wheeling, Oceano Dunes
Formerly known as Pismo Beach, this 3,600-acre stretch of beach along California’s central coast is a rare find. Nearly half of its terrain is open for off-road riding, and there is nowhere else in the entire state where you can drive your vehicle right out onto the stand, pick your perfect spot to camp and spend your time enjoying fun rides across the dunes. The area is recognized by conservationists, scientists, the public and other organizations as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes that remain in the state. While the dune area can be explored in just a day of riding, there are plenty of other activities too, including swimming, surfing, horseback riding, and fishing.
Whitewater rafting on the American River, Northern California
California is home to numerous rivers that are ideal for whitewater rafting, but the American River arguably tops them all. If you’re looking for a family excursion, the South Fork offers action-packed Class III rapids that provide fun for nearly all ages. The Middle Fork offers bigger challenges with its Class IV rapids flowing through miles and miles of gorgeous wilderness scenery. The North Fork is known for its Class IV spring run-off thrills and striking natural beauty. There are a multitude of outfitters that offer a wide range of river experiences, allowing you to customize your own trip – they can include wilderness camping, B&B stays, fine wines and gourmet meals, or for those on a budget, brown bag lunches. Experienced guys will gear you up with all the necessary equipment, like life jackets, paddles, and rafts.