Everyone heads to the Golden State to find fame and fortune – but you can do better. Come for the landscape, stay for sensational meals, and glimpse the future in the making on America's creative coast.
1. Pacific Coast Highway
Make your escape from the hustle and bustle and cruise the coast in the slow lane. California’s coastal highways snake past dizzying sea cliffs and dozens of beach towns. PCH (the generic term for the whole route) connects the dots between major coastal cities: surfin’ San Diego, rocking LA and beatnik San Francisco. In between, you’ll uncover hidden beaches and surf breaks, rustic seafood shacks dishing up the day’s freshest catch, and wooden seaside piers for catching sunsets over boundless Pacific horizons.
2. Redwood Forests
Ditch the cellphone and hug a tree, man. And why not start with the world’s tallest trees, redwoods? California’s towering giants grow along much of the coast, from Big Sur north to the state’s border. It’s possible to cruise past these trees – or even drive right through them at old-fashioned tourist stops – but nothing compares to the awe you’ll feel while walking underneath these ancient ones. Meditate at Muir Woods National Monument, Humboldt Redwoods State Park or Redwood National & State Parks.
3. Sonoma Valley
More folksy than fancy, Sonoma’s sun-dappled vineyards are surrounded by pastoral ranchlands. The uniqueness of terroir is valued most in this down-to-earth wine country, where you may taste new vintages straight from the barrel inside a tin-roofed shed while playing with the winemaker’s pet dog. Who cares if it’s not noon yet? Relax and enjoy your late-harvest zinfandel with a scoop of white-chocolate ice cream drizzled with organic olive oil. This is Sonoma; conventions need not apply.
4. Disneyland Resort
Where orange groves and walnut trees once grew, there Walt Disney built his dream, throwing open the doors to Disneyland Park in 1955. Today, Disneyland is SoCal’s most-visited tourist attraction. Inside Anaheim’s mega-popular theme park, beloved cartoon characters waltz arm-in-arm down Main Street USA and fireworks explode over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle on hot summer nights. If you’re a kid, or just hopelessly young at heart, who are we to say that Disneyland can’t really be the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’?
5. Yosemite National Park
Welcome to what conservationist John Muir called his ‘high pleasure-ground’ and ‘great temple.’ At Yosemite National Park, meander through wildflower-strewn meadows in valleys carved by glaciers, avalanches and earthquakes. Everything looks bigger here, whether you’re getting splashed by thunderous waterfalls, staring up at granite domes or walking in ancient groves of giant sequoias, the planet’s biggest trees. For the best views, perch at Glacier Point on a full moon night or drive the high country’s dizzying Tioga Rd in summer.
6. San Francisco’s Golden Gates
Sashay out onto San Francisco’s iconic bridge to spy on ships threading through pylons painted ‘International Orange,’ then memorize 360-degree views of the rugged Marin Headlands, far-off downtown skyscrapers, and the speck that is Alcatraz Island. Across town, you could spend days getting lost in Golden Gate Park, uncovering secret haunts like the paddleboat pond and Japanese teahouse, and delving into its innovative art museums. On Sundays, the park is closed to traffic, making it a pedestrian’s paradise.
7. Ferry Building Marketplace
Other towns have their gourmet ghettos, but San Francisco puts its love – strike that, obsession – with food front and center at the Ferry Building. Like a grand salute, the building’s 240ft trademark clocktower has greeted millions of passengers since it opened in 1898. Today, with its waterfront tables with bay views, it’s the perfect place to grab a bite of Northern California’s locally grown bounty. Artisan cheeses, wine-country olive oil, organic veggies and even wild game all turn up at the thrice-weekly sidewalk farmers market.
8. Death Valley National Park
Just uttering the name brings up visions of broken-down pioneer wagon trains and parched lost souls crawling across desert sand dunes. But the most surprising thing about Death Valley is how full of life it really is. Spring wildflower blooms explode with a painter’s palette of hues across camel-colored hillsides. Feeling adventurous? Twist your way up narrow canyons, stand atop volcanic craters formed by violent prehistoric explosions, or explore Wild West mining ghost towns where fortunes have been lost – and found.
9. San Diego Zoo & Balboa Park
Beautiful Balboa Park is where San Diegans come to play (when they’re not at the beach). Bring the whole family and spend the day immersed in more than a dozen art, cultural and science museums, or marvel at the Spanish Revival architecture while sunning yourself along El Prado promenade. Glimpse exotic wildlife and ride the ‘Skyfari’ cable car at San Diego’s world-famous zoo, or take in a show at the Old Globe Theater, a faithful reconstruction of the Shakespearean original.
10. Santa Monica & Venice
Posh Santa Monica can grant instant happiness. Learn to surf, ride a solar-powered Ferris wheel, dance under the stars on an old-fashioned pier, let the kids explore the aquarium’s tidal touch pools or just dip your toes in the water and let your troubles float away. Did we mention jaw-dropping sunsets? Then join the parade of new agers, muscled bodybuilders, goth punks and hippie drummers at nearby Venice Beach, where everyone lets their freak flag fly.
Hollywood and its pink-starred Walk of Fame attracts millions of wide-eyed visitors every year. Like an aging starlet making a comeback, this once-gritty urban neighborhood in LA is undergoing a rebirth of cool, blossoming with hip hotels, glittering restored movie palaces and glitzy velvet-roped bars and nightclubs. Snap a souvenir photo outside TCL Chinese Theatre or inside Hollywood & Highland’s Babylon Court with the iconic Hollywood sign as a backdrop – go ahead, we know you can’t resist.
12. California’s Missions
If you road-trip along the coast between San Diego and Sonoma, you can’t help but follow in the footsteps of early Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests. Foremost among those colonists was Padre Junípero Serra, who founded many of California’s 21 hauntingly historical missions in the late 18th century. Some missions today have been authentically restored, with gorgeous gardens, stone arcades, fountains, and chapels adorned with spiritual frescoes. Others are just the ruins of an era long past, where ghosts still pace the cloisters.
13. Laguna Beach
In Orange County, Huntington Beach draws the hang-loose surfer crowd, while yachties play in the fantasyland of Newport Beach. But farther south, Laguna Beach beckons, with its sophisticated blend of money, culture and natural beauty: startling seascapes led an early-20th-century artists’ colony to take root here. Laguna’s bohemian past still peeks out in downtown’s art galleries, historic arts-and-crafts bungalows tucked amongst multimillion-dollar mansions, and the annual Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters.
Northern California’s fishing villages are made for heartier outdoors lovers – think John Steinbeck and his gritty novels of American realism. Hop aboard a whale-watching cruise out into Monterey Bay’s national marine sanctuary, some of whose denizens also swim in Cannery Row’s ecologically sound Monterey Bay Aquarium. Soak up the authentic maritime atmosphere at the West Coast’s oldest lighthouse in Pacific Grove, or downtown among flowering gardens and adobe-walled buildings from California’s Mexican past.
Who says you can’t turn back time? Speed over the two-mile bay bridge or board the ferry from San Diego to seaside Coronado, a civilized escape back to a more genteel era. Revel in the late-19th-century socialite atmosphere at the palatial ‘Hotel Del,’ where royalty and presidents have bedded down, and Marilyn Monroe cavorted in the 1950s screwball classic Some Like It Hot. Then pedal past impossibly white beaches all the way down the peninsula’s Silver Strand, stopping just long enough for ice cream and rainbow-colored cotton candy.
16. Big Sur
Nestled up against mossy, mysterious looking redwood forests, the rocky Big Sur coast is a secretive place. Get to know it like the locals do, especially if you want to find hidden hot springs and beaches where the sand is tinged purple or where ginormous jade has been found. Time your visit for May, when waterfalls peak, or after summer–vacation crowds have left but sunny skies still rule. Don’t forget to look skyward to catch sight of endangered California condors taking wing above the cliffs on thermal winds.
17. Santa Barbara
Calling itself the ‘American Riviera,’ Santa Barbara is so idyllic you just have to sigh. Waving palm trees, sugar-sand beaches, boats bobbing by the harbor – it’d be a travel cliché if it wasn’t the plain truth. California’s ‘Queen of the Missions’ is a beauty, as are downtown’s red-roofed, whitewashed adobe buildings all rebuilt in harmonious historical style after a devastating 1925 earthquake. Come escape just for the day, or maybe a wine-drenched weekend in the country.
Even if you never set foot on a board – and we totally recommend that you do – there’s no denying the influence of surfing on all aspects of California beach life, from fashion to street slang. With gnarly local waves, you won’t need to go far to experience the adrenaline rush for yourself. Pros ride world-class breaks off Malibu, San Diego, the OC’s Huntington Beach (aka ‘Surf City USA’) and Santa Cruz, while newbies get schooled at ‘surfari’ camps along SoCal’s sunny coast.
19. Gold Country
‘Go west, young man!’ could have been the rallying cry of tens of thousands of immigrants who invaded during California’s Gold Rush era, which kicked off back in 1848. Today, these rough-and-tumble Sierra Nevada foothills are a stronghold of Golden State history, thrillingly tainted by banditry, bordellos and bloodlust. Hwy 49, which winds past sleepy townships and abandoned mines, is also a gateway to swimming holes and white-water rafting, downhill mountain-biking bomber runs and tasting the fruits of some of California’s oldest vines.
20. Coastin' on Amtrak
Evocatively named routes like Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner will tempt you to leave your car behind. South of San Luis Obispo, you can glimpse remote beaches from Amtrak’s high-ceilinged observation cars. Blink and you’re already in Santa Barbara, where you can go wine tasting, then take a seaside swim at whistle-stop Carpinteria or Ventura before rolling into LA’s architecturally imposing Union Station. Next up, historic Mission San Juan Capistrano and eclectic North County beach towns before finishing in San Diego. All aboard!
21. Lake Tahoe
High in the Sierra Nevada mountains, this all-seasons adventure base camp revolves around the USA’s second-deepest lake. In summer, startlingly clear blue waters lead to splashing, kayaking or even scuba diving. Meanwhile, mountain-bikers careen down epic single-track runs and hikers stride along trails threading through thick forests. When the lake turns into a winter wonderland, gold-medal ski resorts keep downhill fanatics, punk snowboarders and Nordic traditionalists more than satisfied.
Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades Range volcanic chain, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents and steamy fumaroles, not to mention its colorful cinder cones and crater lakes. You won’t find the crowds of more famous national parks at this off-the-beaten-path destination, but Lassen still offers peaks to be conquered, azure waters to be paddled, forested campsites for pitching your tent and boardwalks through Bumpass Hell that will leave you awestruck.
23. Palm Springs
A star-studded oasis in the Mojave ever since the retro days of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, Palm Springs is a chic desert resort getaway. Do like A-list stars and hipsters do: lounge by your Mid-Century Modern hotel’s swimming pool; go art-golfing, gallery hopping or vintage shopping, and then drink cocktails from sunset till dawn. Feeling less loungey? Break a sweat on hiking trails that wind through desert canyons across Native American tribal lands, or scramble to a summit in the San Jacinto Mountains, reached via a head-spinning aerial tramway.
Mendocino is the North Coast’s salt-washed sandcastle of dreams. Nothing restores the soul like a ramble out onto craggy headland cliffs and among berry brambles. In summer, fragrant bursts of lavender and jasmine drift on fog-laden winds. Churning surf is never out of earshot, and driftwood-littered beaches are potent reminders of the sea’s power. Originally a 19th-century port built by New Englanders, Mendocino today belongs to bohemians who favor art and nature’s outdoor temple for their religions.
25. Point Reyes National Seashore
If one park could encapsulate Northern California, Point Reyes would get our vote. Step across the San Andreas fault, stand out by the lighthouse at what truly feels like land’s end and peer through binoculars at migratory whales. Witness the raucous birthing and mating antics of elephant seals at Chimney Rock, then hike among herds of tule elk and drive out to windswept beaches, where the horizon stretches toward eternity.