Known as “The Golden State,” California is one of the most beautiful and varied states in the U.S. Because of its immense size (only slightly smaller than the entire country of Sweden), environmental diversity (urban, desert, coast, and forest), ethnic variety, and history of innovation, the state has something amazing to offer just about any visitor. More than 15 million people from outside the U.S. visited California in 2014, along with a million more from other American states.
From sun-drenched deserts to dense, shaded redwood forests and snow-capped mountains, the Golden State offers a dazzling array of natural beauty. For city-lovers, California metropolises of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are among the world’s most fascinating and beautiful destinations.
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park in Northern California is one of the United States’ most scenic and famous national parks. The mountains, valleys, rivers and huge waterfalls have drawn visitors and artists here throughout the decades. Ansel Adams’ photographs of the park have famously captured some of the beauty and awe that has inspired visitors and photographers over the years.
Yosemite Valley, carved by glaciers during the last ice age, is located at the center of Yosemite National Park. Granite domes and many powerful waterfalls, including Upper Yosemite Falls which drops 1,430 feet at one point, rise above the forest covered floor.
One of the most famous sites in the park is the sheer rock face of El Capitán. Other must see sights in the park are the Cathedral Spires, Sentinel Dome and Sentinel Rock, Half Dome, the lookout from Glacier Point, and the beautiful view of Yosemite Falls from Eagle Peak, the highest peak of the Three Brothers. For a look at some huge trees, the Mariposa Grove, located in the southern part of the park, features the largest stand of giant sequoias in the park.
2. Disneyland, Anaheim
Disneyland, located in Anaheim, is California’s premier family destination and has been for decades. This massive amusement park is home to all kinds of rides, games, shows, and entertainment, complete with restaurants and hotels.
The park is a combination of theme rides, recreated worlds and cultures, all mingled with eating and shopping. Disneyland has everything from rides and roller coasters to fine dining (which will in some cases definitely require advance reservations). There are shows and entertainment designed for both children and adults. The long line ups and wait times of yesteryear have been reduced somewhat by the invention of passes which give you a “return time” to various attractions. However, when kids are out of school, either for the summer, Christmas, spring break, or any other holiday, you can be sure that the park will be very busy.
Keep in mind there is more to Disneyland than just the parks. The entire Disneyland resort experience features hotels, dining, shopping at the Downtown Disney District, and the new Disney Adventure Park. Although the parks are definitely what the children are here to see, there is something for everyone in the family.
3. Death Valley
Death Valley, which encompasses Death Valley National Park, contains some of California’s most inhospitable terrain, 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 lookouts, hike short trails, see the ruins of the valley’s former industry, and even paddle in the shallow Badwater Lake, if there is any water in the lake at that time.
4. Big Sur
This beautiful stretch of coastline and forest offers a chance for visitors to get back to nature. Camping and hiking are two of the biggest activities in this area. Garrapata State Park offers a beautiful section of beach, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a lovely place for hiking.
Big Sur begins about 4 miles south of Carmel in Yankee Point, and stretches along the Highway No. 1 as far as Salmon Cove, some 17 miles north of San Simeon. From Highway 1 there are splendid views over 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 bathers, and those looking for a nature escape. The park offers both camping facilities and, for anyone looking for a little more comfort, the Big Sur Lodge. One of the highlights in the park is Pfeiffer Falls, which is reached by the Valley View Trail. A branch off this trail leads to the Valley Overlook with views that extend to the ocean and the Big Sur River Valley.
Garrapata State Park is another popular area of Big Sur. The main attraction here is Garrapat Beach, a long, wide, crescent shaped stretch of golden sand. Waves here can be big and it may not be the best for swimming, but great for taking a stroll and soaking up the sun. For those looking to get a little exercise there are also day hiking trails in the park providing fabulous views of the coastline, mountains, and redwoods.
5. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe lies high in the mountains and is a beautiful spot year round. In summer the lake is a playground for boaters and beach goers. During the winter months the surrounding mountains offer some excellent terrain for skiing, with the Sugar Bowl Ski Area bringing in skiers from all over.
A tour of Lake Tahoe may include the Tahoe ski resorts, Tahoe Mountains, the lake scenery view areas, and Reno casinos. Luxurious mountain resorts offer scenic gondola rides on the lake. It’s a must-see during a visit to California.
6. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Known for their giant redwoods, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks cover an area of mountains with majestic granite peaks, deep gorges, mountain lakes, rivers and forests. The two parks are administered as one. They stretch from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in the west, on the edge of the San Joaquín Valley, to the main ridge of the Sierra Nevada in the east. Here Mount Whitney (14,495 ft) is the highest mountain in the U.S. (apart from Alaska), and many others peaks reach over 10,000 ft.
One of the main highlights in the park are the giant redwoods, which can reach a height of 250-300 ft, a diameter of 40 ft, and can live up to an astonishing 3,500 years. Within the park are whole forests of these mighty redwood trees. In the northeast of the forest stands the General Sherman Tree; 276 ft tall, with a maximum diameter of 36.5 ft and 103 ft in circumference at the base, it is the largest known redwood, and at about 3,000 years old, it is one of the oldest living trees on earth.
There are about 900 miles of tracks passing through the two parks. The eastern part of both parks, from which motor vehicles are barred, is crossed by the Pacific Crest Trail, here called the “John Muir Trail”. The complete trail is over 1300 miles long and passes through various national parks, and follows the line of the ridge of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Mountains all the way from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. In the south of Sequoia National Park the 40 mile High Sierra Trail runs eastwards from the Giant Forest Area, through beautiful countryside and eventually meets the John Muir Trail.
7. Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is one of those famous attractions that people tend to call to mind when they think of the city, and even California. The orange frame against the blue water of San Francisco Bay, or rising out of the fog that often covers the area, is an unforgettable sight.
A California tour is incomplete without a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge, which connects Marin County and the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula. The bridge is one of California’s key tourist attractions and also one of the most photographed bridges in the world. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful bridge in the world. This bridge is the only way to exit San Francisco and travel to the northern regions. The Golden Gate Bridge can have high traffic density at any time of the day.
8. SeaWorld San Diego
This theme park is a classic family destination, drawing 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 along the waterfront in Mission Bay.
9. Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park, covering an area of 1,070,000 acres, begins in Crescent City and runs south for 46 miles, mainly along the Pacific Coast. As well as the beautiful redwood trees, the park offers numerous walks and picnic sites. The headquarters of the park are in Crescent City.
Inside Redwood National Park, which was created in 1868, lie three State Parks, all on or near Highway 101. These include Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The latter possesses the tallest redwoods.
10. Santa Catalina Island
The island of Santa Catalina lies 26 miles southwest of Wilmington, the port of Los Angeles. The island is a popular destination with boaters or day trippers. Avalon is the main population center and where all the “action” can be found. Camping, swimming, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, and diving are some of the other main attractions of the island. Catalina is rocky, with a mountainous interior that reaches over 3,100 ft. The island measures 21 miles long and varies between 0.5 to 9 miles in width. The interior and most of the coast are uninhabited.
11. Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park, made up of five individual islands, is a great place to see wildlife and a little undisturbed nature. Isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth and helped preserve a place where visitors can experience coastal southern California as it once was.
The islands are accessible only by private boat, or park concessionaire boats. The mainland visitors centers are located in Ventura and Santa Barbara, from where transportation can be arranged.
12. San Diego Zoo
This zoo is located in Balboa Park, San Diego, and is a famous California attraction. Known for its giant panda, this zoo has over 800 species of wildlife. A tour of Southern California should always include the San Diego zoo. The zoo has won accolades for conservation efforts as well as for protecting endangered species. Pandas, tigers, black rhinos, and California condors are some of the endangered species you can find at the zoo.
13. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a United States national park that is located at the southern terminus of the Cascade Mountains in the Shasta Cascades region of California, approximately 50 miles east of Redding. Within the park’s 165 square miles / 106,000 acres are numerous volcanic features including four types of volcanoes, steam vents, mud pots, and painted dunes. In addition, with nearly 79,000 acres designated as wilderness area and fewer than 400,000 visitors per year, the park is an ideal place for a nature getaway.
14. Universal Studios Hollywood
This film studio and theme park is one of the oldest film studios still in operation. What started as a guided tour through the Universal film studios has become a theme park with a host of rides and attractions that have evolved over time. The Simpsons, Shrek, and Despicable Me are some of the most popular franchises on display here. There are also water shows and stunt shows that are performed live. Characters that wander the grounds greeting guests include Beetlejuice, the Blues Brothers, and Marilyn Monroe.
15. Hearst Castle
The main building at Hearst Castle is a 56-bedroom, 61-bathroom mansion, improbably built on a remote hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean – and that’s only the beginning. Surrounded by three guest houses larger than most people’s primary residences, 127 acres of gardens, an outdoor swimming pool named for the Roman god of the sea, tennis courts and – in Hearst’s day – the world’s largest private zoo, Hearst Castle could justifiably be called a monument to eccentric excess, on a scale not possible in the twenty-first century.
And that may be what makes it so fascinating
The spot alone is worth a journey, just for the views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain from the top of Enchanted Hill. Along with a tour through one man’s over-the-top castle, skillfully assembled by architect Julia Morgan from Hearst’s monumental collection of European antiquities, you get a glimpse into the epic newspaper mogul who created it – and his home movies are almost as much fun to watch as the house is to tour. And at the end, you can picture yourself languishing in the gold-and-azure-tiled Roman pool with Clark Gable or the hottest young starlet – what could be more romantic?