Amazing adventure sports in California

With mountains galore, 1.6 million acres of state parks and 840 miles of coastline, the Golden State just screams adventure. From the unusual sport of parahawking in San Diego to highlining in Joshua Tree National Park, we’ve rounded up some of the most heart-pounding (and sometimes extreme) experiences across California.

Tandem paragliders high above a sandy coastline with a large hawk flying very close to them
Paraglide with a trained hawk in tow © Fly With a Bird

Go gliding in Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego is well worth a visit thanks to gorgeous coastal cliffs, wildlife sightings (gray whales migrate here from December to April) and hiking trails galore. With consistent sea breezes, Torrey Pines ranks as one of the best flying locales in the world for hang gliding and paragliding.

But imagine telling your friends you went parahawking, a wild excursion that involves tandem paragliding with a trained raptor. Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of only three places in the world where you can check this off the bucket list. Book your flight with Fly With a Bird, then belt out some 'wahoos' as the breeze carries you over the cliff. Expect to stare in awe as the bird lands inches away thanks to snacks from the pilot.

Prefer to keep your feet on the ground? Total Raptor Experience offers falconry lessons. Afterward, take a sea-cave kayak tour with Everyday California where sea lion sightings are nearly guaranteed. From July to September, this area has the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world. (Don’t worry, they are harmless and quite beautiful.)

Skydive from a helicopter in Orange County

Skydiving from a plane is so blasé. Kick things up a notch and leap from a chopper instead. Avid skydivers with lots of experience under their belts can sign up for the ultimate jump with OC Helicopters. Meet at John Wayne Airport for a pre-flight orientation, suit up, and it’s go time. Of course, if you’d rather don scuba gear and free-fall 15 feet from the chopper, no worries; that, too, can be arranged. Believe it or not, heli-diving is a thing. To master it, you must already have your open-water certification and be comfortable with heights, not to mention the whirring chopper blades above.

An upwards angle of a climber in safety gear ascending the trunk of a very large redwood tree
Try climbing a redwood tree in Santa Cruz © Aaron Wockenfuss

Climb a redwood in Santa Cruz Mountains

Northern California has more than its fair share of beauty. And the mammoth redwoods often take center stage. Walking among the tallest trees on earth is quite the treat, but what about climbing one? In the Santa Cruz Mountains you can climb to the crown of Grandfather, a redwood tree somewhere between 600 and 1000 years old. You will win bragging rights, no doubt. It’s likely that more people have summited Mount Everest than have climbed to the top of an old-growth redwood tree.

Every March, Tree Climbing Planet offers this excursion to a limited number of people. This particular grove of redwoods is said to be the only place on the planet to legally climb a redwood. At 180ft, you’ll have a view of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Capitola and the Monterey Peninsula.

Highline, slackline and climb in Joshua Tree National Park

Between the craggy rock faces inside J-Tree, you can sometimes spot people walking across rigged lines in an extreme sport called highlining. It involves slowly making your way across an inch-wide nylon line several hundred feet up. You are attached by a tether, but that nylon line is prone to swaying! Hall of Horrors, a rugged patch of the desert, is a classic spot for highliners. To get to this level, start by slacklining, a similar concept, but only a few feet off the ground.

Alternatively, channel your inner Spiderman and scale the monzogranite with Joshua Tree Guides. The volcanic granite rock here is perfect for steep-face ascents and crack climbing. With 8000 killer routes and 2000 bouldering problems, it’s impossible to be bored.

Visit during the 5th Annual Night Sky Festival (Sep 21) or the Joshua Tree Music Festival (Oct 10–13), and you’ve got yourself a pretty special weekend.

Fly a stunt plane in San Diego

Score some serious Gs with Sky Combat Ace in San Diego by hopping into an aerobatic stunt plane. Take over the controls and master insane maneuvers like high-altitude barrel rolls, spins and tailslides (flying the plane vertically upwards until it loses momentum and starts heading backwards towards earth). For the ultra-competitive, go next-level with an aerial dog-fighting session, like an extreme game of laser tag in the sky. The best part: no experience is needed.  

A scuba diver in full gear looks closely at part of a shipwreck, which is covered in colourful coral
An experienced diver admires the coral on a wreck in San Diego's Wreck Alley © Jonathan Schmitt

Scuba dive the shipwrecks of Wreck Alley

Divers from around the globe flock to San Diego for a glimpse of Wreck Alley, a series of shipwrecks a few miles offshore. Crowd pleasers include the HMCS Yukon, a 366-ft-long Canadian destroyer escort, and the Ruby E, a 156-ft-long Coast Guard cutter. With strong currents, chilly water temps and possible disorientation, only advanced open-water-certified divers need apply.

Keep those peepers peeled: whales and sunfish could cruise by. Plus, schooling fish, sea slugs and the occasional octopus are not uncommon. Pro tip: check the portholes for wolf eels. With the variety of marine life, plus blotches of strawberry anemones and purple gorgonians, it’s the perfect photo opp.

For more travel inspiration in California head to San Luis Obispo County. Fancy trying other sporty adventures? Check out these extreme sports and the best places to try them.

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