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California may be famous for its golden sands and coastal towns, but it’s home to many other Instagramable sights, from the majestic redwoods to the mysterious desert, along with some impressive architectural landmarks. You could easily create a vacation exploring many of them. Whether you want to take in one region or the entire Golden State, these are the top spots to hit.
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Many travelers visit San Francisco hoping to capture that iconic shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, but few know where to find it. Locals know that Baker Beach is one of the best vantage points, a mile-long stretch of sand at the foot of rugged cliffs just west of the bridge. Bring a picnic and keep an eye out for the harbor porpoises frolicking in the surf too. If you want another perspective of the bridge, walk, bike or drive across it to Battery Spencer on the Marin County side.
Located northwest of Redding, Arthur-Burney Falls State Park is popular for hiking and camping, with Lake Britton nearby providing opportunities for water sports like kayaking and paddleboarding, but the highlight is Burney Falls. Visitors can snap a shot of the 129-foot-high waterfall from above at the lookout point and by walking the trail to the pool at the base of the falls. There are a number of trails to hike that follow alongside a creek and meander through the evergreen forest too.
Joshua Tree National Park is home to countless bizarrely-shaped plants that are indigenous to the region, like the Joshua tree it’s named after and Teddy Bear cactus. While those are fabulous to photograph, the rock formations make for some especially Instagramable shots with ginormous boulders rising hundreds of feet into the sky. Skull Rock, as the name belies, looks just like a skull. It was created by the elements over time, with rain accumulating in tiny depressions eroding the granite. Eventually, two hollowed-out eye sockets were formed and the “skull” that you see today is the result.
Located along the coast of Northern California, Redwood National and State Parks include the national park along with Prairie Creek Redwoods, Jedediah Smith and Del Norte Coast state parks, which protect nearly half of all remaining coast redwood old-growth forests. While you’ll find lots of photo-ops, one of the most iconic is captured by turning up toward the top of some of the world’s tallest trees as the sun shines through the canopy. Be sure and drive the 10-mile-long Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway too, watching for the resident Roosevelt elk that graze in the prairie.
Just an hour north of San Francisco, the Point Reyes Lighthouse dates back to 1870 and provides one of the most spectacular photo-ops set stop dramatic cliffs along the rugged coast. It’s a great spot to watch for migrating whales and the harbor seals that can frequently be seen lounging on the rocks. While you’re here, don’t miss the tiny town of Point Reyes Station, home to the Station House Cafe which serves delicious dishes featuring local, organic ingredients. Around the corner is Tomales Bay Foods which hosts the creamery and tasting room for the famous Cowgirl Creamery.
One of the most popular spots for photos in Northern California, the Cypress Tree Tunnel is located on the Point Reyes Peninsula. It’s an enchanting tunnel of Monterey cypress trees, with the roadway leading to an old building that houses the Point Reyes National Seashore North District Operations Center and historic KPH Maritime Radio Station. Guglielmo Marconi sited and commissioned the station for wireless telegraphy transmitting in the early 20th-century.
Big Sur is home to one of the world’s most unique stretches of sand. Pfeiffer State Beach is a rare purple sand beach with various hues of the color that are derived from the manganese garnet deposits in the cliffs that surrounded it. With numerous sea stacks just offshore and the azure waves of the Pacific crashing against the sand, it creates an even more stunning scenery. A short drive south will bring you to another Instagramable shot: McWay Falls, an 80-foot-tall waterfall that spills onto a beach below in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
You’ll find lots of photo-ops throughout Santa Cruz, from the beautiful beaches to the Boardwalk. If you want to capture wildlife, be sure to head to the Santa Cruz Wharf, located at the north end of the Boardwalk. On any given day there are countless sea lions hanging around. Keep an eye out for pelicans, sea otters, porpoise and whales too. You can also get some great shots from the Sky Rider (gondolas) at the amusement park.
Old Mission Santa Barbara is one of the most iconic landmarks on California’s central coast, built in 1876 on a hilltop overlooking the city and the Pacific. With its blend of Roman, Greek and Spanish architectural styles and six pink columns, the façade is one of the most popular among Instagrammers. The grounds are beautiful too, filled with roses and palm trees.
One of the most famous castles in the U.S., Hearst was built in 1919 as a residence for newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Donated to the state of California in the 1970s, it’s since been designated a state historical monument, with magnificent architecture, antiques and an extensive collection of impressive works of art. Inspired by a Spanish cathedral, it sits across 250,000 acres along the coast and includes 127 acres of gardens, the stunning Neptune pool and a Roman pool, providing plenty of photo-ops.
The world-famous Winchester Mystery House is a Victorian mansion designed by Winchester Rifle heiress Sarah Winchester. The construction of the house began in 1884, and occupied the lives of craftsmen and carpenters for nearly 40 years, until 1922 when Sarah died. It’s filled with so many unexplained oddities like doors that lead to nowhere, that it became known as the Winchester Mystery House. It has 160 rooms, over 40 fireplaces and three working elevators. While tours are available, it’s worth visiting just for the exterior.
Located in the northeast corner of Los Angeles County, when springtime comes, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is a must-visit. It’s one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular shows, with the hills blanketed in orange thanks to the impressive technicolor display of California poppies, the state’s official flower.
The Hollywood sign is an iconic Los Angeles landmark in Griffith Park. By taking a hike through its western frontier you’ll get a close-up view for a great shot below the ridgeline at the summit of Mount Lee. If you want a longer trek, you can ascend above and behind the 45-foot-tall aluminum letters. Not only will you get a great view of the sign, but the downtown Los Angeles skyline, and on a clear day, the ocean. Don’t expect to be able to touch the sign because human hands are strictly prohibited. In fact, the sign is protected by fencing, so staying on authorized trails is the best way to get a good view.
Glass Beach is made up of hundreds of thousands of small, smooth, colored pieces of “sea glass.” The site was used as the city dump, from the early 1900s to the 1960s. Over the next several decades the pounding waves cleansed the beach, breaking down everything but glass and pottery, resulting in those colorful tiny pieces that cover it today. While it’s often been called a “mecca for sea glass collectors,” it’s illegal to remove it, so it’s better to take pictures than any glass you find, leaving it for others to enjoy.
Potato Chip Rock has become one of those iconic Instagram shots, so don’t expect a tranquil hike as you follow the challenging 8-mile trek to reach it. The rock looks as if it will break at any moment, but it’s plenty sturdy enough to stand on. Go as early in the morning as possible and be prepared to wait in line for a photo. You’ll enjoy beautiful views from your perch too.
In the summer, Yosemite Valley is jam-packed with visitors, making it feel more like a trip to Disneyland than a national park. It’s not easy to get those pictures with so many others trying to do the same, but if you visit in the fall, you won’t have to fight off the masses to enjoy the views and snap your photos of spots like Yosemite Falls highlighted with the colors of autumn. Although many of the trees in the park are evergreen, the park is also home to big-leaf maples, black oaks and many deciduous trees that turn vibrant shades of red and yellow around mid-October. There are miles and miles of hikes to enjoy, bringing countless other photo-ops too.