In anticipation of summer and some possible weekend escapes, I’ve started to dream of some of the best places to visit in California. For as many adventures had around the state, there are still so many destinations I’ve yet to discover. California is home to truly everything — a stunning coastline, national parks, and incredible cities.
Whether it’s for a weekend of hiking in a national park like Lassen Volcanic National Park or a long drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to a coastal town, I have my eyes set on being outdoors. These outdoor destinations are what makes California such a special state and I can’t wait to discover more of them.
My big motto right now is to dream now and travel later. We’re still holding tight but looking forward to exploring California’s incredible destinations when we can.
15 Best Places to Visit in California
1. Yosemite National Park
Hands down my favorite destination in California is Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is one of those places that once you’ve been, you’ll be itching to return. The draw and lure of the valley is hard to describe — it feels like you’re a world away from everyone else. It’s the perfect destination for a day trip or an overnighter if you can grab nearby accommodations or one of the rentals in the park. From day hikes to bicycling the valley floor, it’s one place you don’t want to miss.
- The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Yosemite (read this for cheap accommodations in the park)
- The Ultimate Summer Hike in Yosemite
2. Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re looking for a beautiful desert escape, look no further than Joshua Tree National Park. One of those gems down in Southern California, the national park is an incredible place of discovery for those looking to be outdoors. Known for its famous Joshua Tree, the desert is home to a wide variety of cactuses and desert animals. I love going there for some quiet time in nature and hiking. If there’s one thing you don’t want to miss, it’s sunset in the cholla gardens — the entire field lights up at night.
This whole area is filled with incredibly well-designed homes, so peruse Airbnb for a stay. My personal favorite is the Joshua Tree House by our friends Rich and Sara.
3. Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Continuing with our outdoor theme, Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County is another one of those incredible outdoor destinations. I was there this last year for my first time and had no idea how much there was to do. The most famous thing is certainly a drive through the Avenue of the Giants, where some of the tallest redwood trees tower of you. There are plenty of day hikes and makes for a great family weekend trip.
4. San Francisco
Where I once called home, San Francisco may be one of the most stunning cities in the nation. We always said it was the city of a thousand views because truly, there are so many beautiful places. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the wharf, the rolling hills of San Francisco make the city what it is. Amidst it all, incredible restaurants and boutiques are spread out across different neighborhoods. If you do get the chance, be sure to drive or walk over the Golden Gate Bridge, you won’t want to miss sunset there.
- My List of Secret Restaurant After Living There
- Best Coffee Shops in San Francisco
- 5 Best Photography Spot in San Francisco
5. Lake Tahoe
Growing up in Auburn, California, our weekend trips almost always included Lake Tahoe. Located in Northern California, Lake Tahoe is a classic weekend away for both winter and summer. It is incredibly stunning with the Sierra Nevada Mountains peaking over. The lake is crystal blue and worth a visit any time of the year. There are several places to stay from South Lake Tahoe to Incline, I love somewhere in between. It’s a great destination to go with friends and enjoy the fresh alpine air.
6. Sequoia National Park
High on my list of national parks I want to visit is Sequoia National Park. Right in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the national park is home to the large sequoia trees. In the area is Mount Whitney and Kings Canyon National Park, so there is plenty to do for a few nights here. It’s noted that some of the best times to visit are during the summer months when the weather is mild before the winter months.
7. Muir Woods
A favorite for visitors around the world, Muir Woods national Monument is located just about 45 minutes north of San Francisco. This State Park does require reservations in advance for parking so do keep that in mind. It’s a lovely wooded area, that lines Mount Tamalpais. One full afternoon here is plenty of time to explore. You could even pack in your own lunch to bring out on the trail.
8. Channel Islands National Park
Another gem of a national park not often talked about is the Channel Islands. Off the coast of Santa Barbara, these 5 islands are famed for its abundance of wildlife. You can visit but definitely requires a bit of an effort to get out there. There are a few ways to get there, most popular are by guided boats and there are day flights that also run there. This is truly a nature-lover’s ideal destination.
9. Big Sur
Located on the central coast of California, Big Sur is a bucket list destination for most travelers abroad and in California. It’s an iconic stop on a road trip up the coast of California. From the Bixby Bridge to McWay Falls, I truly can’t put into words just how beautiful this part of California is. There are a few accommodations in the area and it is also known for camping as well.
10. Palm Springs
Have you ever been to Palm Springs? It’s always one of those places that people either love to return to or go only once. I’ve included on this list because for those who love design and architecture, it’s a place you don’t want to miss. From beautiful hotels to restaurants, a wonderful museum to nearby outdoor activities, Palm Springs has the best of both worlds. Yes, the summer months are piping hot but you can be poolside most of the time. Palm Springs is a wonderful weekend trip and you can even go to Joshua Tree from there if you’re looking to combine two desert destinations.
11. Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley
Though this area of California may be high on the list of tourist attractions, there are still plenty of gems in wine country that feel untouched. Both of these valleys are iconic for their wine and food. The area also has incredible spas and beautiful hotels nestled amongst the vineyards. So if you’re looking for a romantic weekend away, Napa or Sonoma Valley are a great choice — especially if you’re coming from the Bay Area.
For those who want a quieter version of Napa Valley, I’d recommend going further back towards St. Helena or Calistoga. For gems in Sonoma Valley, I love the area of Forestville which has local wineries and beautiful hotels.
12. Santa Cruz
From their beaches to hiking trails in the mountains, Santa Cruz is great for those who want a quaint coastal city experience with proximity to nature. Our friends head here frequently to surf and lounge on the beach and it’s somewhere I’m itching to go explore soon again. It has a long wharf and boardwalk that reminds of something you’d see on the East Coast which makes it fun for families with young kids.
13. Death Valley
When it comes to places that you blow your mind, I think Death Valley just about does it. After scrolling through photos, I’ve never seen such a diverse landscape in our state. It’s the lowest point in North America, so its climate produces some incredible scenery. You can visit everything from salt flats to sand dunes here. You’ll want to plan accordingly as it can be treacherous during extreme weather.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a fairytale town on the northern central coast of California. Just south of Monterey, the picturesque town is dotted with historic buildings that look like they belong in Hansel & Gretel. From world-class cuisine to a rising wine region, Carmel is often coveted for how temperate the weather is year-round. I personally love this town because of how calming it is. The air here is fresh — you can go for walks along the beach or in the nearby state parks like Point Lobos.
- Travel Guide to Carmel
- Best Things to Do in Carmel
- 20 Best Restaurants in Carmel
- The Best Hotels in Carmel
Up the coast of Northern California is cute and quaint town called Mendocino. For those who’ve been, there’s a certain allure to this part of the state. It’s certainly rugged but yet peaceful. The area is lined with coastal parks, great for day hikes and walks through headlands that peer over the ocean. Local farms and fishermen bring in most of the food found in restaurants, so there’s a deep connection with the local ingredients. You’ll find restaurants often only serve what is fresh and seasonal, which for foodies is an added bonus. Whenever I’m looking for a retreat away, I usually think of Mendocino first.
16. Redwoods National and State Parks
One of the furthest points up in California I’ve been to has been Redwoods National Park. Have you heard of it? This area stretches from the ocean inland and is famed for a backpacker’s haven. If you’re wanting to be far out in nature, I couldn’t recommend it more. Trinidad is just south of it, so you can make a home base there for day trips into the park. One sight you won’t want to miss in the park is Fern Canyon. This small canyon is over forty feet tall and drenched in ferns with tumbling water.
17. Mount Shasta
Mt. Shasta is one of the furthest destinations in Northern California for outdoor adventure. The mountain itself is actually a volcano and the city itself is only a few miles away. There are wonderful overnight camping here and day hikes around the area. Nearby is the Lava Beds National Monument, a popular site to visit when in this region.
18. Mammoth Lakes Area
This is number one on my list for road trips in California this year. Mammoth Lakes area is home to so much goodness, I can’t wait to go discover it myself. From natural hot springs that line up against the mountain to the beautiful fall colors of the June Lake Loop, this is one of the best places to visit in California for a long weekend. Though many go in the winter months for ski, I’m looking to go right before the big snowfall.
19. San Diego
The very southern part of California is home to San Diego. Life here is relaxed — it has that barefoot, no worries state of mind. I grew up going here as a kid and always loved the beaches and wharfs to explore. There is a lot on offer in this area and has a wide range of experiences for all types of travel. You can stay at stunning resorts with golf courses along the beach or be in the heart of downtown for a city escape. San Diego is a wonderful place to explore if you’re looking for a relaxed getaway.
20. Laguna Beach
Last but not least is Laguna Beach and arguably my favorite place in Southern California. It has the perks of the area — like good food, great beaches, and a lively culture, but feels removed. It’s an enclave artists and incredible design. Laguna Beach is a special place and the first I love to recommend when visiting the region.