There is so much to love about the Golden State. These epic things to do in California show just how truly it is one of the most diverse states in the country. From National Parks to an incredible food scene, you find yourself wanting to do a little bit of it all.
As a California native, I’ve spent my entire life living here in California. I’ve explored a lot of the state, from the very south to the very north, east and west. But even after embarking on several road trips and weekend escapes, I’m consistently always taken by surprise.
I always find something new, whether it’s a hike, a restaurant, an unique accommodation, or a simply a new perceptive. This is what makes California truly wonderful. That no matter how many times you visit or travel around, you’ll always find something to appreciate.
I hope this list of 50+ epic things to do in California will inspire you to get outdoors and experience all of the wonderful things our state has to offer.
50+ Epic Things to Do in California
Before You Travel
It’s good to note that in California extra safety precautions are in place. One recommendation before making any travel plans in the state is to read this post “How To Travel Responsibly And Safely In California” to understand what measures are in place.
You’ll notice that many things on this list are located in the outdoors and for good reason. It allows us an opportunity to connect with nature and be distanced from others. Please keep in mind when enjoying our incredible nature, that we leave no trace. This post titled “A Beginner’s Hiking Guide: Essential Gear + Helpful Tips” has a few tips on how to be a responsible hiker and how to enjoy nature respectfully.
1. Take a Dip in A Heart-Shaped Hot Spring in the Eastern Sierras
Many people head towards Mammoth Lakes for either a summer road trip or a weekend of skiing. Did you know that this area is full of natural hot springs? There are so many just south of Mammoth Lakes, and whether it’s during the summer or winter, you can take a soak year-round. One of my favorite hot springs is called Wild Willy’s Hot Spring and it has a hot spring shaped like a heart! It is open to the public and free. I’d recommend getting there for early morning hours to have fewer crowds. And remember, leave no trace!
2. Stay the night in Yosemite National Park
I know many have driven to Yosemite National Park for the day, but did you know you could stay overnight in the park with a little bit of planning? There is both hotels, cabins, and camping available for bookings. My favorite time of the day in park is at sunrise when there is hardly any visitors and you feel like you have the entire place to yourself.
The valley floor lights up when the sun comes up over Half Dome, illuminating the golden fields and reflecting the mountains over the creeks.
With a bit of planning, you can snag a reservation. My recommendation is to go off-season and actually try 1-2 weeks ahead of time if you can’t score one far in advance. A lot of people will book far out and then cancel when they get closer to.
3. Go Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park
When it comes to being out in nature with no light-pollution, Joshua Tree National Park is the first place I think of. The park is incredible to explore during the day, for hikes and scenic viewpoints. But at night, the desert comes to life.
The skies fill with stars, and with the lack of a major city nearby, it’s one of the best places to go stargazing. If you’re looking to go out there and do so, you won’t want to miss this “Architect’s Off-Grid Stargazing Cabin in Twentynine Palms” which is not too far from Joshua Tree.
4. See the Lowest Point in the USA in Death Valley National Park
California is full of National Parks, which most hold some nation-records. Death Valley National Park is home to the lowest point in the country at a place called Badwater Basin. It’s 279 feet below sea level.
From the photos, you can see how this basin looks like a scene from Mars, making it not only an unique location but incredible photogenic. Head there for sunset for open skies that illuminate in pastel colors.
5. Walk Through the Redwoods in Redwoods National and State Parks
If you make your way all the way up north along the coast, Redwoods National and State Parks are home to some beautiful hikes in the forest. The weather there is always much cooler in the summer, so it’s an amazing spot to head to during the hotter months.
A favorite park is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. There are a lot of hikes that start from the visitor’s center. I’d recommend the Foothills Trail to Big Tree and the informational Revelation Trail.
6. Road Trip The Coast of Big Sur
Our central coast of California is truly one of a kind. Combine the steep cliffs with pastoral landscapes, and blue ocean waters, and you have yourself one epic postcard of our state.
Road tripping the coast of California to Big Sur is at the top of everyone’s list, and especially if you’ve seen Big Little Lies. I’d recommend booking a night or two here to truly soak it all in if you can.
7. Chill out at a Mid-Century Modern House in Palm Springs
For those looking to get out and find a place to just relax for the weekend, head to Palm Springs. This is one of the ultimate weekend breaks in California and here’s why: you can rent a beautiful home with a pool at one of the most affordable rates. Plus, the mild temperatures in the spring/fall make it easy for a sunny escape.
The architecture in Palm Springs is also a major plus, especially if you want some chic digs for your stay.
8. Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Napa Valley
This may be one of the most epic experiences in California. If you’re planning a special weekend trip to Napa Valley to celebrate, I’d highly recommend looking at Napa Valley Aloft Hot Air Balloon company. They offer sunrise balloon rides over the vineyards and it’s truly one of the most magical experiences.
The company is very professional and does an excellent job of coordinating the experience.
9. Hit the Slopes With a View of Lake Tahoe
Hit the slopes at some of the best ski resorts in the state located near Lake Tahoe. There are several ski resorts to choose from in the greater Tahoe region, so depending on where you’re staying, you could try a few out. The top ones and often the busiest are Squaw Valley, Sugar Bowl, and Northstar Ski Resort.
The weekends in Tahoe are always very busy, so if you plan to leave on a Friday, be sure to be prepared for the traffic. When I can, I prefer to go mid-week on a Wednesday or Thursday. My all-time favorite ski resort is Squaw Valley as the amenities here are incredible and the slopes are endless.
10. Visit the Largest Tree in Sequoia National Park
The world’s largest tree is located in one of the best national parks in California. The General Sherman Tree is a sequoia tree and measures at 275 ft tall and 36 ft in diameter. Since you can only find sequoias in California, you won’t want to miss this if you’re road tripping through the Golden State. Be sure to put Sequoia National Park on your list.
11. Do the Most Epic Day Hike to Big Pine Lakes
The hike to Big Pine Lakes may be one of the best day hikes in California. The color of the turquoise lakes will take your breath away. Located in the John Muir Wilderness and nestled in the Sierra Nevadas, it’s a full day hike to get up into the series of lakes. Be sure to check the weather ahead of time as the winter months may be too full of snow.
12. Catch the Waves in Santa Cruz
If you’re looking to go surfing in California a bit further up the coast, make your way to Santa Cruz. The surf here is some of the best in the state. For some of the popular spots, be sure to check out Steamer Lane and Cowell Beach.
13. Climb a Volcano in Lassen Volcanic National Park
One of the most underrated national parks in California has to be Lassen. There is something otherworldly about this park, with its geothermal activity and natural sites. One of the highlights is the chance to hike up a volcano. Cinder Cone Volcano in Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the few cinder cone volcanoes and you can take the grueling path up for incredible views. One unique part of this hike is that you’ll be able to spot the painted dunes.
14. Go for a Swim In California’s Iconic Lake Tahoe
The second deepest lake in the U.S. and 72 miles of shoreline make Lake Tahoe one of the best lakes to go for a swim in. For me, it’s childhood favorite spot for a summer day out on the lake. There is so much to discover around the area, so we often find a new trail to hike and then end the day at one of the beaches like Kings Beach or Incline. By mid-summer, the lake is warmed up enough for a brisk jump in and you’ll find many people stay for the weekend.
15. Experience Glamping Along the Pacific Ocean
Located on the cliffs on Mendocino is a glamping spot called Mendocino Grove. If you’ve never been glamping, this is one opportunity to do so in California. These luxury safari tents are propped up and nestled in the woods. It’s an experience to remember, and it’s the perfect blend of being in the outdoors with a bit of luxury.
There are several other glamping spots in California if you can’t snag a spot here. Be sure to read this post “The Best Glamping Spots In California: 20+ Epic Locations” for more locations.
16. Visit a National Park Located on an Island
Just off the shores of Santa Barbara, are the Channel Islands. The Channel Islands are a National Park, set with five islands and home to incredible scenery and wildlife. You can take a day trip here by boat and even camp overnight.
Many people refer to the Channel Islands as the “Galapagos Islands of North America.” Because of the limited visitors each day, there is an untouched beauty to these islands. Certainly an epic day trip for those looking to get outdoors near the ocean.
17. Ride Bikes on the Famous Railroad in Fort Bragg
Did you know you can ride bikes on a railroad in Fort Bragg? The famous Skunk Train created these “rail bikes” that glide across the railroads into the redwoods here. They make for a totally different experience. The guided tours run throughout the day and give you a little history of the area and the importance of the railroad. Be sure to book in advance to do this.
18. Visit Fern Canyon Where Jurassic Park Was Filmed
It’s hard to put into words just how beautiful Fern Canyon is. Located in the the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park further up in Humboldt County, California, it’s a small canyon lined with ferns. Jurassic Park filmed a few scenes here for its movie, and you can see why. Prehistoric looking, it feels like you are in completely other world.
There is a creek that runs through it, so I’d suggest wearing shoes you don’t mind getting a little wet. Also good to know, it’s a dirt road that runs out to the parking lot, so keep in mind your car will get dirty as well.
19. Drive the Famous Avenue of the Giants to See The Tallest Trees in the World
Located in Humboldt County, the Avenue of the Giants is a road you’ll want to drive. The Avenue of the Giants is a 31-mile stretch of road that runs parallel to Highway 101. This road is lined by the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and has the largest virgin redwoods in the world and United States. There are several pullouts to stop and go for a hike. You can even camp at designated campgrounds in the area.
20. Try Some of California’s Best Oysters in Marshall, California
The oysters in Marshall might be some of the best around in California. There are a few local spots to slurp down these salty bivalves, and my favorite is Hog Island Oyster and at the restaurant, Nick’s Cove. If you haven’t tried them before, there is not a better place to get them fresh.
21. Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and Catch the Sunset
There are no words to describe the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, driving across it at least once is a must. You can even walk or bike across as well. My favorite time of day is sunset here, as the city of San Francisco lights up in a golden hue, pelicans soar across the sky, and the ocean looks dreamy. There are a few points to catch the sunset. My recommendation is to go on the Marin County side and choose either the west or east points that are adjacent to the bridge. It’s the first and second exit as you get across the bridge.
22. Road Trip the Northern Coast of California From Mendocino to Humboldt
Some roads less taken are always worth the journey. One of the most scenic and my personal favorite is the northern coast of California. I love to start in Mendocino and then work my way up to Humboldt County to explore towns like Ferndale and Trinidad. There is so much to see here that you could easily make a week-long trip of it.
Read more here: The Ultimate Northern California Coast Road Trip Itinerary
23. Dine Out at In-N-Out Burger and Definitely Order Animal-Style Fries
Quintessential California food is certainly In-n-Out Burger. I’ve eaten there so many times it’s hard to count. Their fresh burgers and fries, never frozen, is an icon of California. The menu may seem pretty simple, but did you know there is an entire secret menu? Be sure to try the “animal-style” fries where they add melted cheese and their house sauce, with grilled onions on top. Or get your burger “protein-style” where they use a lettuce wrap instead of a bun.
24. Hike through Mount Tamalpais With Ocean Views
Located in Marin County, the Mount Tamalpais State Park is chalk full of incredible hikes with ocean views. It sits up over Stinson Beach, and it’s wooded hills have endless hiking trails. Each time of year here is incredibly different in terms of scenery. The winter and spring months are lush and green and by the mid-summer, it turns in golden fields. It’s a personal favorite for even photographing the fog layer that sits right below it.
Some of the best hiking trails here are the Dipsea Trail and the Panoramic Loop Trail.
25. Explore the History of Gold Country in Coloma
Up in Gold Country, the town of Coloma is set along the American River. We grew up going to Coloma to see where gold was discovered, see the historic buildings, and tour around. Now, there are a few new ways to experience Gold Country. Be sure to check out one of the oldest pioneer farms, Bee Love Farms, and grab lunch at Argonaut right in town. You can even go whitewater rafting on the American River, we love All-Outdoors Rafting for our outfitter.
26. Visit Santa Cruz and Experience a Quintessential Boardwalk
Santa Cruz is home to the famous boardwalk that is set with food vendors, arcades, and even an old wooden rollercoaster called the Giant Dipper. The boardwalk is currently open right now with limited retail/food open (arcade/rides are temporarily closed), so you can go enjoy a stroll outside. They are offering as well right now a drive-in movie experience so be sure to check their website for current updates.
27. Stay at a Hotel in Wine Country That Has A Michelin-Star Restaraunt
Wine and food are synonymous in wine country, but did you know some hotels have a Michelin-star restaurant onsite? Two hotels in Sonoma County offer an incredible stay with an opportunity to dine at well-awarded restaurants. The first one and the most expensive is SingleThread near Healdsburg. It has three Michelin stars and is focused on a seasonal fare with a Japanese twist. You can book a room at their inn as well.
The other hotel is near Forestville in Sonoma County called the Farmhouse Inn. The hotel is intimate and has its own pool to relax by. The restaurant there has one Michelin star and serves seasonal cuisine.
28. Get a Taste of Europe at Catalina Island
Some times you want to get a taste of Europe when traveling in the United States. One of my favorite places to do so is to get out onto Catalina Island off the southern shores of California. If you look at photos, you can see just how much it resembles a Balearic Island with its turquoise bay and sailboats that rock in the harbor. It’s truly a wonderful place for a weekend escape. You can go for the day and catch the ferry from Long Beach or even consider an overnight stay at a hotel. If you stay in the main harbor, you can easily walk to restaurants and go for a dip in the ocean.
29. Float Down the Russian River in Guerneville
Sonoma County may be known for its wineries and food scene, but the Russian River is certainly the heart of it all. During the summers months, take the drive up Highway 101 and head towards Guerneville. You can rent kayaks and canoes at Johnson’s Beach for the day and work your way down the river. Or if coordinated, you can bring your own inner tubes to float down the river.
30. Take A Traditional Outrigger Canoe Up a River in Mendocino
Get out on the water in Mendocino and do it one of the most unique ways possible: a traditional outrigger canoe. These wooden canoes that you’d find in French Polynesia are here in Mendocino. You can rent them for a few hours or even hop on one of the tours (check to confirm) from Catch-a-Canoe in Mendocino. While you work up the river, you’ll also get a chance to see the local wildlife.
Read more: A Weekend Guide To Mendocino, California
31. Drive Through the Famous Cypress Tree Tunnel in Point Reyes National Seashore
No shortage of scenic drives in California, one of the most beautiful and frequently photographed is the Cypress Tree Tunnel near Point Reyes Station. You can drive through to the end of it, and the towering cypress trees feel like a scene from Ireland. It’s well worth the detour to take this drive, plus you can explore more of Point Reyes National Seashore while there.
32. Take a Surf Lesson in Laguna Beach
Southern California is home to our most swimmable beaches in California, and definitely the warmest waters. So what better place to grab a surf lesson than at the scenic Laguna Beach? This beach is truly one of the best in the area and several outfitters like California Surf Experience offer surf lessons. With current health climates, a lot of the companies are offering these lessons at a distanced lessons to help you get out on the water.
33. Wine Taste at a Chateau-Like Property in Carmel Valley
Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the most charming towns on the California coast but did you know the valley is home to incredible wineries? I discovered how many beautiful things there are to do in Carmel Valley a few years ago. My favorite find was Folktale Winery which is set in this chateau-like property and has gorgeous views of the vineyards. Be sure to book in advance, their outdoor patio is incredibly spacious.
34. Ride the Iconic Cable Cars in San Francisco
When you think of San Francisco, does your mind immediately think of the cable car? It does for me and I feel like most postcards of the city have a cable car in it! It is an icon of San Francisco and the city is home to these historic cable cars that wind through the city. A bucket list experience is definitely hopping on for a ride.
With the current health crisis, they are temporarily on hold for business but will hopefully soon be operating again. Please be sure to check this website for the latest updates.
35. See California’s Marine Wildlife in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Monterey County is well-known for its stretch of coastline that is home to so much marine wildlife. A great spot for some chances to see the local marine wildlife is at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This reserve is home to coastal trails that curve around the point, and you can peer out towards the ocean. You’ll often spot seals, sea otters, peregrine falcons, and the occasional whales that pass through.
36. Catch the Fall Colors at June Lake
Another gem tucked behind the Eastern Sierras is June Lake. And there is not a better time to visit than during peak fall season. The colors at June Lake are unlike anywhere else and are coveted for a bucket list photography experience. The June Lake Loop is a scenic drive that takes you around the lake and you’ll find many stops to soak in the views.
37. Grab Delicious Fish Tacos in San Diego
I know San Diego is home to some epic museums and zoos like the San Diego Zoo and the historic USS Midway Museum. But did you know it has an incredible food scene? The Baja-style fish tacos here are truly incredible and worth at least one meal to experience. We grew up eating fish tacos at Oscar’s and they have several locations around the area.
38. Stay in A Pinecone-Shaped Treehouse in Santa Cruz
We have an array of unique accommodations in the state of California, and the one that tops the list is the pinecone-shaped treehouse located in Santa Cruz. Propped up in the trees, this pinecone treehouse is an architectural gem. You’ll need to book far in advance to stay here.
39. Catch Sunset Over the Geothermal Hot Springs in Mammoth
More gems in the Mammoth region include the incredible geothermal activity. One highlight for California is the Hot Creek Geological Site. It is not only picturesque but a unique landscape where a creek runs through with hot springs popping out of it. You cannot swim here but I do recommend coming for sunset to soak in the views.
40. Hike to Hidden Lakes in the Northern Sierra’s
Located in the Sierra Buttes, about two hours north of Sacramento, is an amazing area that is filled with lakes. It’s a perfect weekend day trip for those looking to take a hike in a more remote wilderness area. The trails are often less populated as the effort to get there requires more time, but it’s really worth it. My favorite two lakes are the Sardine lakes. You can park at the trailhead and hike the short distance to see them.
41. Get Some of The Best Crab Rolls in Bodega Bay
California’s strong connection with seafood is one of my favorite things to experience. When it comes to top things to do, it’s hard not to eat your way through the Golden State. Located in Bodega Bay, Spud Point Crab Company serves up some of the best crab rolls. If you’re in the area, you’ll want to make a detour just to come here. It’s a personal favorite and love that the fresh crab comes right off our coast!
42. Take a Cruise on the Nation’s Oldest Ferry, the Madaket in Eureka
Located in the harbor of Eureka in Northern California, the Madaket is the nation’s oldest ferry still in operation. They offer tours around the harbor and bay, taking you around to get a taste of history. It makes for a scenic hour on the water, and they even serve drinks!
43. Tour One of the Most Incredible Castles, Hearst Castle
A National Historic Landmark is located along the central coast of California. And it may be on everyone’s Highway 1 road trip list for good reason. Hearst Castle was built between 1919 and 1947, and its 165 room castle with 127 acres of land is absolutely breathtaking. You will need to book a tour to visit here so be sure to plan ahead.
*Please note: at the time of this being written, it is temporarily closed. Please check their website for the most up to date information.
44. Hike Out to The Incredible Burney Falls in Northern California
This one is still on my bucket list for things to do in California. The Burney Falls is located in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park in Shasta County and has these incredible falls that pour into a swimming hole. The hike out is around one mile and often quite busy, so I’m waiting for the slower season to go explore. When I see the photos of these beautiful falls, it reminds me of Bali.
Find the All Trails hike information here.
45. Take a Tour of the Winchester Mystery House
The Winchester Mystery House is an architectural wonder located in San Jose, California. It’s a well known haunted mansion that offers an opportunity to explore the expansive house that was the personal residence of Sarah Winchester. It’s a peculiar place and intrigues a lot of visitors who are looking for a spooky tour, especially their night tour.
*At the time of this being written, only the gardens are currently available to visit. Please check with their website when the interior tours will be reopened.
46. Stay at an Inn That Has Llamas in Mendocino
On a recent trip up the north coast of California, we discovered this charming inn that has llamas on the property! Located near the town of Mendocino, the Glendeven Inn & Lodge is one of the cutest inns I’ve stayed at in the area. They have an entire farm right there, set with chickens and llamas. Llamas always win my heart, and you can even go for a walk in the pasture with them. Plus, the views of the Pacific Ocean make for a great backdrop. In the mornings, breakfast is delivered to your room, and they use the eggs from the chickens right there on the property.
47. Go For A Dip In Tahoe’s Lesser-Known Lake, Donner Lake
Lake Tahoe may be one of the best lakes in Northern California, but did you know there is a lesser-known lake just 30 minutes away? Donner Lake is one of the most incredible lakes in the Tahoe Region, and I love it for a few reasons. It’s hardly as crowded as Tahoe during the summer months, especially on the dock lines. We come here all the time and really enjoy getting to sit out on a dock, sunbathe, and take a dip. The lake also has boat rentals, so you could rent a boat from a local outfitter as well.
48. Do the 4-Mile Trail For Epic Views Over Yosemite Valley
When it comes to taking new heights, Yosemite National Park offers a few ways to do so. Our go-to hike in Yosemite for years has been the 4-mile hike. It starts at the base of the valley and works its way up to the top, giving incredible views of Half Dome. Words never do justice to how beautiful this view is and this hike is the best way to get there.
Plan to spend at least a proper half-day to do it, I recommend starting early in the morning. Keep in mind it is a seasonal hike.
Read: The Ultimate Weekend Guide To Yosemite National Park
Stay: AutoCamp Yosemite (these are the coolest accommodations nearest the park)
49. Spot the Local Wildlife in Point Reyes National Seashore
One of the best-kept secrets of our northern coast is the wildlife you can easily view. Most people don’t realize just how much wildlife there is here and you can easily get to see them. One of the most famous is the Tule Elk and the elephant seals, and both are located in Point Reyes National Seashore. To see the elk, just follow directions for the Tule Elk Preserve, and the elephant seals can be viewed from the elephant seal overlook point.
50. Hike to the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles
The famous Hollywood Sign is a symbol for Los Angeles. You see it when you fly into LAX and you instantly know where you are. There are a few hikes that will get you to a scenic viewpoint of it. The easiest is the Hollywood Trail from Griffith Park and you can opt to take the shortest route by starting at Griffith Observatory. Find all the details for your options to get there here.
Other things to do in the area includes a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood. Please note it is still temporarily closed at the time of this being written, check their site to see when the reopening is.
51. Stay in a Yurt in Hope Valley, California
Few people know of this destination near Lake Tahoe as so many go to the lake. This small valley just around 30 minutes away is an incredible destination for fall colors. The newly-renovated Wylder Hotel took over an existing property and made it one chic outdoor getaway. They have these incredible yurts that sit back off the valley, making it a unique way to stay overnight.
52. Try Soup Dumplings in San Francisco
After almost a decade of living in San Francisco, one of our favorite meals to bring friends and family to was dim sum. We found our favorite spot after a few misses, and it’s called Kingdom of Dumpling. Located off 19th and Taraval Street, Kingdom of Dumpling is home to the soup dumplings or xiao long bao. They’re dumplings filled with pork meat and a soup broth, and they explode in your mouth. Seriously some of the best I’ve had, and remind me of the ones I had in Taiwan.
They are open, doing only takeout and delivery. If you’re passing through, I’d recommend ordering for pickup on GrubHub in advance.