Our research is editorially independent but we
may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
California is a huge and diverse state with pretty much every landscape imaginable. Where else in the U.S. can you go to the beach, hit the ski slopes, drive through a tree, and be entertained in the film industry capital of the world? It’s easy to literally spend years in California and still never experience all it has to offer. But to get started, here are 10 of the best things to do in California that will show you just how fascinating this place really is.
Redwoods are the tallest trees on the planet, and this national park helps protect them near Crescent City, California. There are five visitors’ centers in the park where you can learn more about the trees and then head out into the backcountry for some epic hiking. While there aren’t any hotels or lodges in the park, you can stay at a developed campground or in one of the eight designated backcountry camps. Backcountry camping is free, but you do need to pick up a permit before pitching your tent. In addition to hiking, there’s a paved scenic drive for either driving or biking and a single-track through the forest for mountain biking enthusiasts. If you visit in the summer, consider taking a kayak tour of the Smith River.
Check Out Universal Studios Hollywood
More than just another theme park, Universal Studios Hollywood is a must-visit spot for anyone traveling to Southern California. You can take a 60-minute studio tour to learn about film-making and go behind the scenes of a real movie studio. Other highlights of a trip to Universal are the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Walking Dead Attraction, WaterWorld, and Transformers: The Ride 3D. Other rides celebrate favorite TV shows and movies like The Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy, Despicable Me, and Jurassic Park. You can purchase one-day or two-day general admission tickets in advance on the venue’s website.
Yosemite has been a protected area since 1864 and is well-known for its iconic waterfalls, huge meadows, giant sequoias, and vast wilderness. Popular things to do in the park include rock climbing, hiking, photography, fishing, and boating. The peak waterfall season is May and June, and some of the most popular ones to see and photograph are Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Falls, Ribbon Fall, and Bridalveil Fall. Meanwhile, Half Dome and El Capitan are the famous rock formations that are must-sees. Numerous campgrounds are available for both tents and RVs in Yosemite.
Alcatraz Cruises provides transportation from the mainland to Alcatraz Island, which was once home to some of the most notorious criminals in America. A federal penitentiary operated here between 1934 and 1963 and inspired the movie, “The Rock.” You can hop on a ferry from Pier 33 along the northern waterfront promenade in San Francisco. This is only about a quarter mile from Fisherman’s Wharf, and audio tours are offered to learn more about the prison’s history.
One of the lesser-known areas of California that is stunningly beautiful and worth a visit is the Eastern Sierras. Hiking enthusiasts love this area because of its wide-open spaces and impressive high-altitude landscapes. Excellent areas to visit here include the Big Pine Lakes, Mono Lake, Mammoth Lakes, Lundy Canyon, and Duck Pass. You can also summit Mount Whitney if you’re up for a 22-mile ascent with 6,000 feet of elevation gain.
People who think California is all about beaches and 75-degrees haven’t probably spent much time in the Tahoe region. Tahoe is an awesome place to be in the winter if you love snow sports, but it also offers year-around recreation and a fun nightlife scene. Top ski and snowboard resorts to check out in this area include Heavenly, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley, Sugar Bowl, and Boreal. The Tahoe region gets lots of snow and sunshine, and there are also lots of backcountry trails for cross-country skiing too.
With perfect views and even more perfect weather, San Diego is a wonderful place to plan a California vacation at any time of the year. One great place to start your exploration of the city is Balboa Park, which offers much more than just pretty green space. There are over 16 museums here, several performing arts venues, gardens, trails, and the famous San Diego Zoo. You can visit the Japanese Friendship Garden, watch a performance by the San Diego Youth Symphony, see the Cabrillo Bridge, and spend the entire day with your family here in Balboa Park.
If crowds of people and long lines aren’t your thing, then consider slowing down the pace of your California vacation with a trip to Mendocino. Located in Northern California, this small town along the Pacific Coast offers a ruggedly beautiful coastline, mild year-around weather, and a quaint artsy vibe that will make you instantly fall in love with the place. The scenery is dramatic, there are lots of adorable B&Bs to stay at, and the seafood is so fresh and delicious. Top outdoor attractions include the Mendocino Headlands State Park, the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park, and Russian Gulch State Park.
Death Valley is known as the hottest, driest, and lowest place in all of North America. Visit this national park in the fall or winter to beat the scorching temperatures and experience a land of extremes. This is a place to find artistic inspiration, to reconnect with yourself and nature, and to immerse yourself in otherworldly landscapes that don’t even seem real. Top sightseeing spots include Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, and Artist’s Palette.
There are actually several prominent wine-making regions in California, but the most famous one is Napa Valley. This region is near the San Francisco Bay Area and has over 400 wineries that all have their own unique styles. Many of the wineries are family-owned and operated, and they offer tastings, picnic opportunities, and group tours.