Best Places to Visit in California in 2023
California is the third largest U.S. state, which is something to remember when planning a trip. Only Alaska and Texas are larger. So deciding which places to include in your itinerary can be challenging, especially on your first visit. This list of the best places to visit in California will inspire you and help you plan your dream vacation with your interests in mind.
California is a state of contrasts and records. With almost 39.2 million inhabitants, it is the most populous state in the U.S., so you'll find iconic metropolises, showbiz capitals, and places completely cut off from civilization. It's also one of the richest states in the U.S. No wonder Silicon Valley and Hollywood are located in Golden State. It's also the home of the first McDonald's restaurant. And almost 90% of the wine produced in the USA comes from California.
California is the perfect place for nature lovers. With 9 out of 63 national parks, this state holds the record for national parks. It is home to some of the highest peaks in the U.S. south of Alaska: Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada rises to 14,505 feet. If you like hot places, California's Death Valley has been recorded as having the highest temperature in the world - 134 degrees Fahrenheit. However, you can always escape to the shade of the giant sequoias because, in Sequoia National Park, you'll find the biggest tree in the world by volume - General Sherman. And if you like the sound of the sea, the California coast is 840 miles long and has many incredible public beaches. So let's dive into this list of California's best places to visit.
Best Places to Visit in California for National Parks Explorers
Yosemite National Park
Of California's nine national parks, visiting Yosemite should be on every bucket list with its stunning cliffs, waterfalls, giant sequoia groves, lakes, mountains, and glaciers. This is one of the most spectacular parks in the country. In addition, it is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the top things to do in this park is admiring Yosemite’s Waterfalls. Also, take pictures from stunning overlooks. The best are Yosemite’s Tunnel View with Half Dome, Valley View with Merced River, Glacier Point, and Olmsted Point. Walk Among Giant Sequoias in Mariposa Grove. Go for a hike. The best hiking trails are Valley Loop Trail, Mist Trail, May Lake, and Cathedral Lakes.
Death Valley National Park
In this park, you won't take refuge in the shade of trees or hear the roar of waterfalls, but you will experience emptiness, space, and landscapes like from the moon planet. This place has extremely high temperatures, so be prepared for your trip. One of the best things to do in Death Valley National Park is an Artists Drive, which is a 9-mile scenic drive. Also, walk on Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, sitting 282 feet below sea level. If you want some hiking, prepare for the heat, and start your hike early in the morning. A great experience is Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch, which is a 4.4-mile round trip.
Joshua Tree National Park
One of the best places to visit in Southern California is Joshua Tree National Park, with its stunning scenery of unique Joshua trees native to the Mojave Desert. It's one of the best western parks for camping under a desert sky. Take a walk among cacti in Cholla Cactus Garden. Go for a hike among giant boulders on Arch Rock Trail and enjoy Indian Cove Nature Trail. Don't miss Skull Rock, a natural formation resembling a skeleton's head. To get there, take a Split Rock Trail with Face Rock Spur. Take a picture of a sunset from Keys View at the end of the exploring day. Other hiking trails worth your effort are Discovery Trail, Black Rock Canyon Panorama Loop, Wall Street Mill, and Barker Dam.
Best Places to Visit in California for Water Enthusiasts
After exploring national parks, it's worth cooling down a bit. Lake Tahoe will be an excellent choice, as it's the largest alpine lake in North America and one of California's best places to visit. There are hundreds of activities around Lake Tahoe. You can take a SUP, boat, or kayak in Emerald Bay. Or hike through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A great attraction is taking an Emerald Bay Cruise on M.S. Dixie II. Take on the Tahoe Rim Trail to have spectacular vistas. Enjoy the scenery and hiking trails in Emerald Bay State Park, Sand Harbor State Park, and Donner Memorial State Park with an Emigrant Trail Museum.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is a perfect place as a weekend gateway, only 40 miles north of San Francisco. It offers excellent beaches, wildlife, hiking trails, delicious food, shipwrecks, and breathtaking scenery. See the famous Point Reyes Lighthouse, which is reached 313 steps down (which you must climb back up to return). The place was a filming location for the 1980 horror film The Fog. Visit the west shore of Tomales Bay to take pictures of the Point Reyes Shipwreck. Walk through the Cypress Tree Tunnel. Relax on Drakes Beach, Heart’s Desire Beach, or Great Beach.
Pacific Coast Highway
Famous State Route 1 is 656 miles long, the second-longest route in the US after Montana Highway 200. The Pacific Coast Highway road trip is a fabulous adventure, as it's one of the most scenic routes in the US. It starts in Orange County, a few miles south of Long Beach, and runs up to Mendocino County in northern California. Along the way, admire views and take pictures. All this route is spectacular. But if you have to choose where to stop, one of the most scenic spots on the Pacific Coast Highway are the Golden Gate Bridge, Monterey, Carmel by the Sea, Big Sur, Dana Point, and Point Loma.
Best Places to Visit in California for Vibrant Cities Enthusiasts
The famous Golden Gate Bridge should not be missing from your bucket list of places to see in California. So, plan at least three days in San Francisco to explore its main attractions. Be sure to take the ferry to Alcatraz (preferably before sunset for the best views of the famous bridge and skyline). Try excellent oysters at Fisherman’s Wharf and outstanding chocolate at Ghirardelli Square. Walk from Hyde Street to Lombard Street, the city’s most serpentine street. Count the seals at Pier 39. Ride old-fashioned Cable Cars. Take time to wander the crowded streets of the oldest Chinatown in North America. Admire street art in Mission District and visit Mission Dolores.
Visiting California is not complete without seeing Los Angeles. See L.A. from above at Griffith Park, and visit Griffith Observatory. Visit Natural History Museum and take a behind-the-scenes studio tour at Universal Studios. Take pictures of the Hollywood Walk of Fame and neon-lit Hollywood Boulevard. Enjoy tacos from Grand Central Market, a European-style food hall operating since 1917. Bike Marvin Braude Bike Trail (the Strand) is a 22-mile bike path along the coastline. Don't forget to head to Beverly Hills. Also, L.A. beaches are fabulous, including the famous Venice Beach, Zuma Beach, and Santa Monica Beach. Interested in art? There are several museums worth visiting such as Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Getty or extraordinary adult-only museums.
One of the best places to visit in California is San Diego. Top attractions include SeaWorld San Diego, LEGOLAND California, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Hit Balboa Park is home to 18 fantastic museums and the famous Old Globe Theatre. Worth your time is also USS Midway Museum, the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the U.S. For a nightlife scene, visit Gaslamp Quarter. The great idea is to take a sunset sail tour around San Diego Bay. For hiking, hit the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Also, San Diego is a prime spot to see humpback whales, so a whale-watching trip is worth booking.
Best Places to Visit in California for History Passionate
Historic Route 66
When visiting California, it is worth adding a few stops at the famous Historic Route 66. The highway, established in 1926, ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, Los Angeles, covering 2,448 miles. The best stops along Route 66 in California are Needles, Goffs, Amboy, Detour, Bagdad, Barstow, San Bernardino, Rialto, Monrovia, and Pasadena. Many towns are already abandoned, covered with the dust of time, so it won't take you long to see them. Make sure to see the abandoned Roy’s Motel & Cafe in Amboy, stop for a coffee at the iconic Bagdad Cafe, and visit Route 66 Mother Road Museum and the Western America Railroad Museum in Barstow.
Bodie Ghost Town
If you're interested in the history of the California Gold Rush, you should include one of the most exciting Gold Rush-era towns in your itinerary. In 1848, gold was discovered in California and significantly impacted California's development by spurring its economic growth. News of the gold brought some 300,000 people to California. One of the best preserved is Bodie Ghost Town, a perfect idea for a day trip from Lake Tahoe or Yosemite. It's an open-air museum where you can admire 170 buildings remaining from the gold rush times. Bodie offers amazing Wild West scenery.
Best Places to Visit in California - Conclusion
The list of the most exciting places to see in California is, of course, much longer. But for the first visit, it is worth choosing some of the sites above to get to know the essence of this splendid state. When planning your visit, carefully check the weather forecasts for your chosen destinations because California is huge, and there are significant differences between the climates of different regions. You can bask on the beach in LA in the morning and freeze in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the evening. If you plan to visit any California national parks, please visit their official website beforehand, and check actual weather conditions, road status, and alerts.
Agnes Stabinska is a content writer, photographer, and co-owner of The Van Escape blog. She loves wildlife, landscape photography, and outdoor adventures in national parks across the US. The blog focuses on trip ideas to Alaska, US Southwest, and US Pacific Northwest.