21 Must-See Natural Wonders in California

21 Must-See Natural Wonders in California

Planning a California road trip?  With so many gorgeous natural wonders in California, it can be difficult to narrow down the choices.

You are reading: 21 Must-See Natural Wonders in California

To help you decide, I’ve teamed up with experienced travelers to develop this list of  the 21 most beautiful places in California.

From spectacular mountain views to lush old-growth forests and jaw-dropping coastlines, California scenery is hard to beat. You just have to choose.

If nature is your thing, here are the 21 best places to visit in California, with top tips from the experts on what to see and when.  It also includes ideas for California road trips and a handy map to help you find the must-see natural attractions in California.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Bioluminescent waves
  2. Joshua Tree National Park
  3. Painted Canyon
  4. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
  5. Laguna Beach
  6. Torrey Pines State Reserve
  7. Death Valley National Park
  8. Sequoia National Park
  9. Natural Bridges State Beach
  10. Point Lobos State Reserve
  11. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
  12. Redwood National Park
  13. Yosemite National Park
  14. Half Dome
  15. Lake Tahoe
  16. Lassen Volcanic National Park
  17. Bodega Bay
  18. Point Reyes National Seashore
  19. Mendocino/Fort Bragg coastline
  20. Big Sur Coast
  21. Mount Shasta
    California Road Trip Ideas
    California Map

Natural Wonders in Southern California:

Bioluminescent waves on the southern California coast

La Jolla Scripps Pier   – Image by Catherine Housseau

By Catherine Housseau from Catherine Housseau Photography

Bioluminescence off shore of San Diego brings a huge crowd to the coastline and photographers rush to capture the beauty of the neon waves.

This phenomenon is a must-see if you are lucky enough to see it. The glowing waves owe their color to blooming microscopic plants called phytoplankton. By day, the organisms collect on the water’s surface to give the water a reddish-brown hue, known as the red tide.

By night, the algae put on a light show of fluorescent blue.

Red tides, which stretch from Baja California up the coast to Los Angeles, have been observed since the early 1900s and can last from a few days to a couple of months.

The effect is not only mesmerizing but truly magical.

It has been said that the bioluminescence is to the ocean what the Northern Lights are to the sky.

It is an experience you will never forget once you witness it and it will leave you with a feeling of awe and wonder.

Tip:  No one can predict exactly when the bioluminscence will occur.  If you’re traveling to the southern California coast in the spring or mid-summer to early fall, be sure to check the news or social media.  It won’t go unnoticed!

Where to stay:
Hotel: Stay on the beach at the Tower 23 Hotel in San Diego or the Bed and Breakfast Inn at La Jolla.
Airbnb: Ocean Front Spacious Condo, steps to the ocean!

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park – Image by Chris & Heather Boothman

By Chris and Heather Boothman from A Brit & A Southerner 

California is blessed with a myriad of natural attractions that should be on everyone’s radar but in our opinion, Joshua Tree National Park is frequently left in the shadow of Yosemite when you contemplate national wonders to visit in the state.

If you are heading to SoCal and staying in the Los Angeles area, a day trip to Joshua Tree is an experience you won’t want to miss. Alternatively, a multi-day camping trip to this national park is certainly a rewarding experience, especially for the adventurous folks out there.

Covering 794,000 acres intersecting the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree is located only 130 miles east of downtown LA. There are three entrances, depending on the direction you are visiting, each of which offers a unique perspective on Joshua Tree’s distinctive landscape.

Whether you are an avid hiker or simply enjoy taking a self-guided driving tour through a national park, Joshua Tree is definitely one that everyone can enjoy. When it comes to the best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park, consider Ryan Mountain Trail, Warren Peak Trail or Hidden Valley Trail, all of which offer breathtaking close-up experiences with the infamous natural features that make Joshua Tree such a spectacular landscape. The Skull Rock Trail is perhaps the most iconic in Joshua Trail, primarily because among the plethora of rock formations is one that distinctively looks like a skull.

For those of you that prefer to stay inside your vehicle, a self-guided route between two of the entrances is a great way to experience the best of the park. You will likely want to get out to take a stroll around the Cholla Cactus Garden, simply because of the uniqueness but remember, do not touch any of these cacti unless you want to spoil the rest of your trip!

One million star view in Joshua Tree – Image via Airbnb

Tip: Visit Joshua Tree in spring or fall and avoid the heat of summer unless you want to experience searing California temperatures. The quieter spring and fall seasons will allow ample opportunities to experience the gorgeous hiking trails throughout Joshua Tree.

Where to stay:
Hotel: Stay in the 1950s hacienda-style Joshua Tree Inn in near the park’s west entrance or for more comfort, try the Hotel Paseo Autograph Collection in nearby Palm Desert.
Airbnb: The Ridge at Joshua Tree, 10 minutes from the west entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, or for a special view of the stars (photo above) try This Is The Place.

Painted Canyon

Painted Canyon – Image by Lizzie Lau

By Lizzie Lau from lizzielau.com

Painted Canyon is a terrific hiking destination about 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs in the Mecca hills.

The Mecca hills were formed by the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate converging along the San Andreas Fault.  It caused the formation of some amazing slot canyons and some of the trails are only accessible by ladders. The Ladder Canyon Trail is about a 4.5 mile loop that passes through a slot canyon, up to a ridge, and returns along the bottom of Big Painted Canyon. It will take 2-3 hours to complete the loop, so make sure to take enough water.

A lot of the trail surface is sand and loose gravel. The trail isn’t always well marked, but there are always people who have done the trails and can point or lead you in the right direction.  For example, after the parking lot you’ll walk along a wide canyon until you see a pile of rocks in the shape of an arrow pointing you to a rock slide to the left – which is the entrance to the first slot canyon. There’s a marker on the right side of the trail, but it’s easy to miss.  If you do miss this entrance you can keep going and do the loop in reverse, but it’s easier to to go up the ladders at the beginning of the hike than go down them at the end.

It may feel sketchy at times, but it is outrageously beautiful and worth the effort. There are some amazing views at the top. You can see all the way to the Salton Sea.

How to get there: From Palm Springs take Highway 111 east to Mecca. Turn left at 66th Avenue and follow it through Mecca. 66th becomes Box Canyon Road. Watch for a sign for Painted Canyon Road, turn left and take this dirt road until you reach the parking area.

Tip: Do the Ladder Canyon Trail loop clockwise so you’re climbing up the ladders instead of going down them.

Where to stay:
Hotel: The modern boutique L’Horizon Resort & Spa in Palm Springs.
Airbnb: Habibi House Ranch in Joshua Tree and located near Painted Canyon.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Wildflowers in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California.

The largest state park at 600,000 acres  Anza-Borrego is jam-packed with California nature from badlands to palm oases and cactus-studded hills.  The park, a United Nations Biosphere preserve,  is about a two-hour drive from Palm Springs or San Diego.

It’s also home to one of the most popular natural attractions in California – – the annual apring bloom of desert flowers from late February through March.  The best way to see this lovely California scenery is to walk the trails.  Palm Canyon Trail, Little Surprise Canyon, the Cactus Loop Trail and Bow Willow Canyon are all good bets.

You’ll find surreal landscapes in Borrego Valley and Borrego Badlands, but, beware of visiting during the heat of summer.  This is one of the hottest locations in the U.S.

Be sure to take in the night skies in Borrego Springs, the town inside the park.  It is designated as an International Dark Sky Community and offers spectacular night sky views.

Tip: Conditions vary in any given year, but the second week of March is often the peak of the wildflower bloom.  Be sure to take a hat and sunscreen.

Where to stay:
Hotel: La Casa del Zorro Resort and Spa  in Borrego Springs
Airbnb: Gorgeous Rams Hill Home in Santa Fe.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach – Image by Kimmie Conner

By Kimmie Conner  from Adventures & Sunsets Blog

Laguna Beach has one of the most gorgeous coastlines in California and is full of rock arches, cliff formations, caves, and tide pools. Some of the best beaches in southern California are visible from the Pacific Coast Highway, but to find others, you must locate concealed stairwells or navigate winding streets.

Laguna Beach is located in south Orange County, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. I recommend taking a road trip down Pacific Coast Highway and spending a generous amount of time exploring this beach town and its surrounds.

As an Orange County local, I can’t give away TOO many secrets – but I can recommend Thousand Steps Beach, Three Arch Bay, and Victoria Street as some of the most scenic and incredible places in Laguna. If you want to have amazing views right from your hotel, stay in The Montage or Surf and Sand – you won’t regret it!

Downtown Laguna has some great little eateries that have maintained their small-town feel despite the ever-growing popularity of the area. When you aren’t relaxing on the beach, you can explore art galleries and also go hiking to even more spectacular views.

Tip:  As summer months can get extremely crowded, a great time to go is September – when the weather is still warm but the crowds have lessened a little bit. Make sure to watch the sunset over the sea!

Where to stay in Laguna Beach:
Hotel: Montage Laguna Beach or the Surf and Sand Resort.
Airbnbs:  See our recommendations for 15 of the best Airbnb stays in Laguna Beach.

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines State Reserve in California

Located just north of San Diego on the Pacific Coast Highway, Torrey Pines State Reserve is perfect for those who love hiking and relaxing at the beach.

This is home to the torrey pine, one of the rarest pine tries in the world.

For hiking, take the road that winds upward from the beach side entrance to the top of the sandstone bluffs.  Here you can choose from six hiking trails or take guided nature walks.  The easiest trail is Guy Fleming Trail.  Take a break about halfway along the looped trail at benches overlooking the sea.  It’s a great spot to catch views of dolphins at any time of the year, or whales during migration.

The popular Beach Trail runs from the Visitor’s Centre parking lot down to the beach.  There is plenty of parking near the park’s main entrance.

For an exhilarating experience, try tandem paragliding at nearby Torrey Pines Gliderport.

Tip: Walk to the end of the beach to the south, where it’s less crowded.  But don’t be surprised if you see naturists at Black’s Beach, a clothing optional beach at the far end of the park.

Where to stay:
Hotel: Bed and Breakfast Inn at La Jolla or for a luxury stay, enjoy the Lodge at Torrey Pines
Airbnb: Birdrock Beach Bungalow, only five blocks from the waves in La Jolla.

Natural wonders in central California:

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park – Image by Michelle Stelly

By Michelle Stelly from The Wandering Queen

One of the most exciting places to visit in California is Death Valley National Park. This park is extraordinary yet strange and bizarre all at the same time. It is filled with pastel-colored mountains, brown spiky formations of salts, rocks that move on their own, great sand dunes, white vast salt flats, and an enormous crater. This national park has it all!

One of the best things to do is to visit the mesquite sand dunes for sunset. The glorious views and colors make this a great spot to enjoy on a cool evening. Just be prepared for a difficult trek. Hiking in sand can be strenuous.

Another great activity is to watch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point. This is an ultra-popular spot for photographers. But don’t worry, there is plenty of room for everyone to catch the sun going up. Right after sunrise, start the Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, and Badlands Loop Hike. The trailhead is located right next to Zabriskie point. This incredible hike is filled with views of canyons, colorful mountains, and unusual weblike formations. It is one of the best hikes in the park. Just make sure to bring plenty of water! It can get pretty hot, and there is no shade.

Death Valley National Park is one of the most bizarre locations in California. That is why it is a unique and fun place to visit this year.

Article post on: healthisthebest.com

Tip: The best time to visit this national park is in the winter. Summer and even Spring can bring extremely hot temperatures.

Where to stay:
Hotel: Treat yourself to old-world luxury at the Inn at Death Valley
Airbnb: Death Valley Getaway Cabin, located in Beatty, Nevada and close to the entrance of the National Park.

Sequoia National Park

The largest tree in the world. Sequoia National Park – Image by Kris Morton

By Kris Morton from Nomad by Trade

California‘s Sequoia National Park is known for its awe-inspiringly huge sequoia trees. By volume, these are the largest trees – and largest living things – in the world and no photo could ever do them justice. The largest one in the world, named General Sherman, is 275 feet tall with a diameter of 36 feet at its base.

There are several areas of the park where you can view these magnificent trees up close. There are some easy trails that are suitable for all levels, and the area around the General Sherman tree is wheelchair accessible. There are plenty of other things to do in Sequoia National Park, particularly if you want to go backcountry hiking. You can even summit Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental US.

Sequoia National Park is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of Fresno and south of Yosemite National Park. It’s approximately a 3.5 drive from LA or 4 hours from San Francisco.

Dramatic views over the river – Image via Airbnb

Tip:  Go during the shoulder seasons – late May or early September – as the roads that close for snow should be accessible during this time, yet the summer crowds won’t be there. Staying at a hotel or campground in the park will also allow you to get a head start on the crowds if you hit the popular spots early.

Where to stay:
Campground: Enjoy luxury camping at Sequoia High Sierra Camp
Airbnb: Riverfront and dramatic views, and only 11 minutes to the Park entrance.

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

Natural Bridges State Beach – Image by Teresa Gomez

By Teresa Gomez from Brogan Abroad

California is full of large scale natural wonders that you will often find in people’s bucket lists, but this beautiful state also has some smaller gems that should not be ignored.

Natural Bridges State Beach is not as well known as Yosemite or Joshua Tree National Parks, but it is a unique natural spot with an added touch of magic.

It is located at the end of West Cliff Drive, one of the big attractions in Santa Cruz, and even though it takes up a small area, Natural Bridges State Beach, is one of the most photographed beach icons in California.

Just off the beach itself, there is a natural arch on an offshore rock that is an important wildlife haven. You will often see colonies of cormorants and pelicans there. From the viewpoint, you can also often see other marine wildlife such as whales, seals and otters.

But there’s more to this small State Park than the beach. If you go inland, there is a visitor centre and hiking trails too.

Tip: If you are in the area between mid-October and mid-January, you will be treated to the most magical show of nature – the Monarch butterfly migration. Thousands of butterflies migrate every year to Monarch Grove and witnessing such wonderful phenomenon is a sight to behold.

Where to stay:
Hotel: For a hotel stay, we recommend the Dream Inn, or for a cozy B&B, the Babbling Brook Inn is a favourite, both in Santa Cruz.
Airbnb: Cozy & Sunny cottage in Seabright, an easy walk to Seabright restaurants.

Point Lobos State Reserve

Point Lobos State Reserve – Image by Noel Morata

By Noel Morata from Travel Photo Discovery

Probably one of the most special and scenic California natural wonders worth visiting is located in Central Monterey County at Point Lobos State Reserve. This gorgeous stretch of coastline and rugged interior forest is a wonderful reserve that preserves the pristine interior areas and coastline of the state park.

With stunning cliffs, beaches and wonderful coastal pathways to explore, Point Lobos, located just a short drive from Carmel and Monterey, is a fantastic landscape to explore and enjoy. There are really beautiful coastal trails that take you on some magnificent walks, with views and vistas to see wildlife, lovely California wildflowers and interior forests that echo the Monterey coastal region of long ago and lovingly preserved for the public to enjoy.

Check out this post on visiting Point Lobos State Reserve here for more images, details and planning a visit to this wonderful natural wonder in central California.

Tip: The best time to visit this special region would be in late spring when all the California wildflowers create large sprays of vivid colors and patterns on the landscape. It’s a spectacular show and photo opportunity.

Where to stay:  Enjoy the Carriage House Inn in Carmel-by-the-Sea or Relais & Châteaux luxury at L’Auberge Carmel in Carmel.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

The tufa towers at Mono Lake in California

One of the lesser known places to visit in California, you might think you’re on another planet at the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.

This desert preserve, on the eastern side of the high Sierras, was established to preserve the amazing “tufa towers” – calcium carbonate spires formed by the mix of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water (2.5 times more salty than the ocean).  This lake is a million years old, a salty remnant of an ancient inland sea.  It also protects this sensitive habitat for the one to two million birds that feed at the lake each year.

Start your visit at the interpretive centre, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains).    There are trails throughout the reserve.  Try the walk in the South Tufa Area for close-up view of the spires.  During the summer, there are guided walks and paddles available.

Tip:  Winter is a beautiful time at Mono Lake. The crowds are gone and the snow sparkles on the tufa towers. 

Article post on: healthisthebest.com

Where to stay:
Hotel: Options nearby are limited, but we like the basic cabins at the family-run Reverse Creek Lodge, about 15 miles away.
Airbnb: Comfy Modern Condo – Steps to Village & Gondola, located in Mammoth Estates.

Natural Wonders in Northern California:

Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park – Image by Hannah Kacary

By Hannah Kacary from That Adventurer Blog

Redwood National Park is renowned for being home to some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world. Redwood trees are believed to have been on earth for 240 million years and they can grow to be over 300 ft (91m) tall!

Besides the trees, there are also prairies, oak woodlands, rivers and around 40 miles of coastline which combine to make this a super special place to visit.

Technically, the area often referred to as Redwood National Park is made up of four parks: Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek State Park, Jedediah Smith State Park and Del Norte State Park.

While you can see redwood trees throughout California, the Redwood National Park area is in northern California. The park is about 1.5 hour’s drive from the Oregon-California border or roughly 6 hours from San Francisco. Driving to Redwood National Park is the easiest way to get there. Alternatively, there are domestic airports in Eureka and Crescent City. The best place to stay is in the Eureka Inn which once hosted Sir Winston Churchill!

The best things to see in this Californian National Park is the redwoods, of course! You can do this by taking a scenic drive through the forests, or by taking a short hike. There are some great easy, circular routes such as the Circle Trail to Big Tree Wayside which get you up close with these giants.

Tip: The James Irvine Trail is one of the best redwood hikes. It winds up and down through beautiful redwood forest alongside Godwood Creek. Pack a picnic for the beach at the mid-point of your hike!

Where to stay:
Hotel: Eureka Inn by Wyndham
Airbnb: Fern Hook Vacation Cabins, pet-friendly and located near Jedidiah Smith State Park.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park – Image by Shandos Cleaver

By Shandos Cleaver from World Heritage Journey

Yosemite is one of the most famous national parks in the USA, and it’s no wonder why. This area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is among the most beautiful places in California with towering cliffs, thundering waterfalls and tall forests. In 1984, it was inscribed on the World Heritage list for being a spectacular example of glaciation, plus for its rich flora and fauna.

Located less than four hours west of San Francisco, Yosemite is easy to access. Most visitors will arrive by car, although there are also public transport options available. In winter, snow chains may be required.

The central focus of the park is Yosemite Village. At the village, there are lodge options available, plus one of the main campsites. If staying in the park, it is essential to book in advance from April through to September, although there are also other options outside of the park available at shorter notice.

Highlights of any visit to Yosemite include hiking to some of the many waterfalls (shorter trails are available to Bridalveil Falls and the base of Yosemite Falls), spotting rock climbers on El Capitan, walking through the tall trees in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, and taking in the views of Half Dome from Glacier Point (accessible by car).

Tip: Head to Yosemite on a sunny day in October or November, prior to the first falls of snow. The park is still spectacular and easily accessible, but without the crowds.

Where to stay:
Hotel: For a romantic escape, stay at the Blackberry Inn B&B in Buck Meadows.
Airbnb: Serenity Suite, a luxury home that’s private and peaceful and, yes, really in Yosemite!

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Hiking Half-Dome – Image by Jenny Kotylar

By Jenny Kotlyar from Campsite Vibes

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is one of California’s most iconic hikes. It’s not an easy hike and permit can be challenging to get, but if you snag a permit and train, this hike is beautiful and helps you experience Yosemite in a new way. For tips on how to get a Half Dome permit, read through this blog post.

This 16-mile hike can be backpacked or done as a long day hike. It starts on the Mist Trail taking you past Vernal Falls then Upper Nevada Falls. Alternatively, you can also hike up the start of the John Muir Trail.

The best time to hike is from May to early October when the cables are up. During the spring months when these waterfalls are raging from the recent snow melt in the high country mountains, be prepared to get wet. In the fall months, as all of the snow melts away, the waterfalls become nothing more than a trickle, sometimes even stop flowing.

Before the hike, camp in the Valley. The Upper Pines campground is right across the street from the Happy Isles, which is where you start the hike. North Pines campground and Lower Pines campground are also in Yosemite Valley and not far from the trailhead.

Tip:  Bring rubber gardening gloves. It will help with your grip on the cables.

Where to stay:
Camping: Upper Pines campground
Airbnb: Serenity Suite, a luxury home that’s private and peaceful and, yes, really in Yosemite!

Can’t Miss Natural Beauty in Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe – Image by Meg Atteberry

By Meg Atteberry from Fox in the Forest

With its jewel-colored waters nestled high in the Sierra Mountain Range, Lake Tahoe is a must-see natural wonder in California that you can’t miss. The lake itself is over 21 miles long, making it the perfect spot to swim, boat, hike, and play. No trip to Lake Tahoe is complete without soaking in the many amazing Lake Tahoe viewpoints. The Cave Rock Trail is a local favorite, and totally worth a quick hike for sunset.

Head down towards one of the many awesome Lake Tahoe beaches during the summer to bathe in the crystal-clear waters and enjoy the mountain scenery. There’s plenty of incredibly scenic Lake Tahoe hikes to enjoy. Beginners and avid hikers alike will love the variety of hiking options.

You can reach Lake Tahoe by car or by plane. The nearest airport is the Reno/Tahoe International Airport while the lake is about a 3 hour drive from San Francisco. The best places to stay in Lake Tahoe can be found on the south or north shores. The south shore almost has a city feel, with skyscraper hotels that offer sweeping views of the lake. For a more tranquil mountain environment, head to the north side of the lake.

Tip:  Although you can visit Lake Tahoe any time of year, the summers get particularly busy. Plan to be up early to beat the crowds at popular tourist attractions and make the most of your Lake Tahoe getaway.

Article post on: healthisthebest.com

Where to stay:
Hotel: On the north side of Lake Tahoe, stay at the boutique West Shore Cafe & Inn or the eco-friendly Cedar Glen Lodge.
Airbnb: Little Black Cabin By The Lake, an original, hand built, 1940s Tahoe cabin.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park – Image by Kay Kingsman

By Kay Kingsman from The Awkward Traveller

As the state with the most National Parks in the USA, finding one without crowds in California can prove to be challenging. Thankfully, one of the least visited National Parks in California also happens to be one of the best in the entire country.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is closest to the city of Redding, California at 1 hour away, and it is about four hours away from San Francisco and the closest major airport. There is currently no public shuttles or transportation to or within the park, so make sure to bring your own vehicle. It should be noted that Lassen Volcanic National Park offers THE DARKEST night sky in all of California, devoid of ANY light pollution. You can spot galaxies with your own eyes.

As the name suggests, Lassen Volcanic National Park is a major hydrothermal site in Northern California. Bumpass Hell Trail is located within the largest hydrothermal area in the park, though the trail itself is an easy 3 miles round trip, passing multiple pools of bubbling sulfur. The Pacific Crest Trails also passes through the park, which will take visitors through the hills and forests that surround the park’s many valleys and lakes.

If you are searching for a more difficult adventure, visitors can even summit the peak of Lassen Volcano!  A vehicle pass for the park is $30 USD, and valid for a week after purchase. Holders of the America the Beautiful National Park Pass have their entrance included.

Tip:  Before you leave the park, a stop at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center is a must to learn more about the Indigenous and Native communities of the area!

Where to stay:  
Hotel: The Roseberry House Bed & Breakfast in Susanville offers charming rooms and home cooked breakfasts.
Airbnb: Cozy Log Cabin on 3 acres by Lassen National Park, with amazing views from the balcony.

Bodega Bay

Bodega Bay – Image by Sierra Schmidt

By Sierra Schmidt from Free to Travel Mama

California is filled with natural wonders and the beautiful coastline in Bodega is no exception. This area is filled with rocky bluffs, sandy beaches, clear water, unique rock formations, white capped waves, and an adorably quaint town selling essentials from kites to lobster mac and cheese.

Several tiny beaches dot the shoreline, each offering their own amazing experience. Shell Beach is a perfect spot for tidepools, while Goat Rock is a magical place to watch the sunset. Bodega Head offers a beautiful and easy hiking trail on its small peninsula with great panoramic views. Doran Beach is popular with families.

The coastline in this area is stunningly beautiful but is not safe for swimming in most areas. Check with a ranger when in doubt, and never turn your back on the waves. The undertow current can be extremely dangerous.

Bodega Bay is located in beautiful Sonoma County. A brief drive down Highway 1 off the main Highway 101 makes it very easily accessible from the wine country. If you’d like to stay overnight with an ocean view, Bodega Bay Lodge would be a great choice. Check out Spud Point Crab Company for award winning clam chowder and grab an easy and delicious dessert from Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy.

Tip:  Bodega can be quite windy and chilly! Even if you are experiencing extreme heat inland, never come to the coast without layers. Summers are your best bet for weather warm enough to dip your toes in the water, but some winter days in January are beautifully clear and filled with sunshine.

Where to stay:
Hotel: Bodega Bay Lodge
Airbnb: The Hen House, a guesthouse tucked away on a hilltop.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore – Image by Ze Wandering Frogs

By Patricia Pagenel from Ze Wandering Frogs

The Point Reyes National Seashore is on the Pacific Ocean’s coast, merely one hour north of San Francisco. Though it’s less popular than other national parks in California, the park offers many outdoor activities for adventurous enthusiasts visiting Northern California.

If you like the vast expanse of sand, you will enjoy the 10-mile long Point Reyes Beach. From the Palomarin trail, don’t miss the Alamere Falls. Walk the 300 steps to the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, from where you can try to spot whales between Mexico and Alaska during the migrating seasons.

Hiking is a popular activity. Among the popular trails, the 0.6-mile round-trip Earthquake Trail leads to the San Andreas Fault Zone, where interpretive signs provide interesting facts about the famous fault. The 10-mile round-trip Tomales Bay hike, passing by massive Tule Elks, offers stunning views of the Bodega Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Another must-see is Drakes Estero, where the brackish waters attract a large variety of marine life, especially harbor seals. Besides hiking, kayaking is a favorite activity in Points Reyes.

Most people visit Point Reyes National Seashore as a day trip from San Francisco. For longer stays, there is a youth hostel within the park, and primitive camping is possible. Otherwise, towns surrounding the park offer standard accommodation.

Tip:  Make sure to go early as there is a lot of ground to cover for a day. And bring a pair of binoculars, for a better chance at spotting wildlife.

Where to stay:
Hotel: If visiting Point Reyes on a day trip, stay at the historic Hotel Drisco in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood of San Francisco.
Airbnb: Windsong Guest Yurt – you can stay in a yurt!

Mendocino/ Fort Bragg coastline

Mendocino/Fort Bragg Coastline – Image by Adventures of Panda Bear

By Constance from the Adventures of Panda Bear

The Mendocino and Fort Bragg coastlines are some of the most beautiful areas along the coast of northern California. Fortunately, it is super easy to reach Mendocino and Fort Bragg, you can take a road trip from San Francisco to the redwoods and stop by along the way.

Mendocino, in particular, is famous for its beautiful cliff bluffs that drop into the Pacific Ocean. Here you can kayak into sea caves, hike, and explore the quaint downtown area.

Fort Bragg is another sleepy coastal town that’s well known for its Glass Beach, created due to the somewhat poor decisions of previous generations. The beach originated back in the day when people used to throw their garbage into the ocean. At the time, most of their trash consisted of glass bottles and over time the ocean turned the debris into pebbles known as sea glass.

The best time to visit the Mendocino and Fort Bragg area is in the spring or fall when the weather is mild, but less foggy due to cooler inland temperatures. Staying at the Travelodge in Fort Bragg is convenient for exploring both cities.

Tip: The Mendocino Headlands trail takes you around the coastal bluffs.  It’s our favorite trail to see Mendocino and isn’t overly crowded.

Where to stay:  Travelodge in Fort Bragg

Big Sur Coast

The Bixby Creek Bridge – Image by It’s Not About the Miles

By Dhara from It’s Not About the Miles

The Big Sur Coast is one of the natural wonders in California you definitely must put on your itinerary for the state. With the expanse of the Pacific Ocean juxtaposed against the rugged rocky coastline, the views all along the coast are spectacular.

Driving the Big Sur coast is, of course, one of the best things to do in California. For a Big Sur road trip, start at Carmel and drive all the way to Ragged Point or Lucia (or vice versa) to view the most scenic part of the highway. There are multiple state parks along this stretch of the coast, where you can hike, and beaches where you can relax by the water. The redwoods at Big Sur State Park, the Point Sur Lighthouse, the sea birds at Point Lobos State Park, and the beautiful McWay Falls are all worth the time to enjoy. Also, allow for enough time for stops at designated pullouts if you just plan to drive through. The Bixby Creek Bridge, a civil engineering marvel, is a popular stop.

To get to Big Sur from San Francisco in the north or Los Angeles in the south, you can rent a car and drive to Big Sur along scenic Highway One. Monterey, just north of Big Sur, has a regional airport, but it’s easier to arrive here by car from one of the bigger cities along the  coast.

You can stay in Carmel at one of the many inns in the quaint village (we like L’Auberge Carmel), or you can pick from one of the lodges within Big Sur, such as the Big Sur Lodge.

Tip:  Visit in the spring or fall to avoid winter mudslides and storms and the summer coastal fog that tends to obscure views.

Where to stay:
Hotel: Enjoy Relais & Châteaux luxury at L’Auberge Carmel or Big Sur Lodge in Big Sur.
Airbnb: Gorgeous Secluded Treehouse with Spectacular Views, located in Carmel Valley and an hour by car from Big Sur.

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta, California

At over 14,000 feet high, Mount Shasta is the largest volcanic peak in the contiguous United States.

The mountain, and the town of Mount Shasta are located 60 miles south of the Oregon border, or about a 5 hour drive north of San Francisco on the Interstates 505 and 5.  It has a special feeling of being removed from the main tourist areas.

Skilled mountain climbers can summit the volcano’s peak, but for the rest of us, there are easier paths through the wildflower-filled meadows and forests.  Try the two-mile path along the Mccloud River, which leads to a lovely trio of waterfalls.

Other popular activities include camping, caving, fly fishing, and in the winter, skiing.

Tip:  For the postcard view of Mount Shasta, drive north on I-5 to Weed and then north on US Hwy 97.

Where to stay:
Hotel: Enjoy a relaxing stay at the Inn at Shasta Lake.
Airbnb: Angel Cottage, with a sauna and amazing full view of Mount Shasta.

California road trip ideas:

This list provides the recipe for some amazing road trips in California.  Just pick your favourite natural wonders in one region of the state and, depending upon how much time you have, craft your road trip around them.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park (188 miles) :  Start in Redding and head up the I-5 to Shasta Lake and Shasta Mountain.  Head south on Highway 89, stopping at Burney Falls, and onto Lassen Volcanic National Park.
  • Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg (175 miles):  Head north from San Francisco to the dramatic cliffs and remote beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore.  From there, continue through the Napa Valley and Sonoma wine country to the rugged Mendocino Headlands State Park and Fort Bragg.
  • Beach to Desert Drive from San Diego (90 miles):  From the beaches of La Jolla, take State Road 56 east to Highway 67 (which turns into Highway 78) towards the mountain town of Julian (have pie at the Julian Cafe & Bakery) and on to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

There are endless combinations to see the state’s stunning scenery.  Enjoy the wonders that California has to offer!

Map of the most scenic places to visit in California:

Click on the place markers for location information.

More Information:

Tourism Information:  Visit California

Suggested Reading:  Lonely Planet California’s Best Trips, Fodor’s California with the Best Road Trips

Travel Insurance:  Make sure you have sufficient insurance for your California road trip.  Check out World Nomads for quotes and information.

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Post Tagged: California

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