CALIFORNIA OUTDOOR TRAVEL GUIDE
California boasts 9 jaw-dropping National Parks, more than other state, including the newest National Park, Pinnacles National Park. California is home to the highest point (Mt. Whitney, 14,505 feet) and lowest point (Badwater Basin, -279 feet) in the continental United States. Even crazier is the fact that these two locations are less than 90 miles from one another making for an awesome “Lowest to Highest” roadtrip!
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT CALIFORNIA
California has long been a haven for surfers, bikers, rock climbers and hikers, and the best time to visit California depends heavily on where you plan to go and what you want to do. One of the best parts about California is that you can visit many destinations year-round. California natives commonly brag that during the winter you can surf and ski in the same weekend.
TOP OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES IN CALIFORNIA
Surfing – All up and down the coast year-round
Kayaking – The Channel Islands offers great kayaking including the opportunity to visit natural sea caves and sea arches
Stand Up Paddleboarding – San Diego, Huntington, Marina del Rey in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Monterey offer great harbors for beginners to learn SUP basics. See my post about learning to SUP in SoCal to see what I mean. For fresh-water lovers, Tahoe is a favorite paddling destination.
Hiking – Home to the John Muir Trail and famous trails like Half Dome in Yosemite, the Sierras offer some of the best alpine hiking in the US. But hiking opportunities aren’t limited to these granite mountains. Griffith Park in Los Angeles, the largest urban park in the United States, offers more than 53 miles of hiking trails, including the famous Hollywood sign.
Biking – You can bike the entire California coastline along Route 1, while the Santa Cruz mountains have epic mountain biking.
Climbing – Joshua Tree & Yosemite are must-visit destinations for aspiring climbers.
TRAVELING BETWEEN NORTHERN & SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
California is a big state. Flying from San Diego or Los Angeles to San Francisco is definitely the fastest way to get from NorCal to SoCal but if you have the time traveling by car or train is great and economical. Amtrak has great options and takes 8 hours to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The Amtrak Surfliner train travels along the coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara area. The Surfliner train even has special racks to carry bikes and surfboards for all your outdoor adventures. By car you can take the coastal route along CA-1 or you can take the inland route which gives you easier access to Sequoia, Yosemite, Joshua Tree & Death Valley.
NATIONAL PARKS IN CALIFORNIA
Channel Islands National Park encompasses five remarkable islands. Located off the coast of Santa Barbara, these islands have incredible wildlife, beautiful campsites, kayaking, and world-class SCUBA diving.
Joshua Tree National Park named for its famous Joshua Trees, is a desert oasis. A mecca for rock climbers, Joshua is also great for beginning hikers as many of the hikes are short and flat. Don’t miss exploring the nearby town of Joshua Tree during your visit to the Park, and check out our list of recommended Joshua Tree hikes.
The hottest, driest and lowest National Park in the US, Death Valley, offers colorful sunrises and sunsets, against a desert backdrop of sand dunes and much bigger-than-expected peaks.
Kings Canyon National Park is one of our all time favorite parks and offers serious backcountry backpacking trips with granite peaks, waterfalls, high alpine lakes and isolated camping.
Sequoia National Park lies side by side with Kings Canyon National Park and is known for its huge sequoia trees, including General Sherman, the largest living Sequoia in the world.
Pinnacles National Park is the newest National Park in the United States and is a unique and diverse landscape that evolved from volcanoes erupting 23 million years ago. Pinnacles also offers your best chance at spotting an endangered California condor.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the few areas in the world where all four types of volcanos can be found. It’s boiling mud pots, stinking fumaroles, and warm hot springs rival Yellowstone National Park, but without the crowds. Don’t miss the historic Drakesbad Guest Ranch if visiting in the summer!
Redwood National Park is known for its tall giants but the park is also home to banana slugs, gray whales, black bears, sea anemones and beautiful Douglas-fir trees.
Yosemite National Park was a favorite photography subject of Ansel Adams, and is the most iconic of California’s National Parks. Think waterfalls, valleys, sheer granite peaks and domes, and no matter how many times you visit, you are still blown away driving into the valley.
OTHER MUST-SEE CALIFORNIA DESTINATIONS
Big Sur is often described as the greatest meeting of land and water in the United States, with rugged coastal mountains rising out of the Pacific Ocean.
Napa Valley has long been known for its incredible wine offerings and restaurants, but it’s also a haven for bikers. Check out the bike route that goes all the way from downtown San Fran to Napa Valley. Not a die-hard biker? You can also rent bikes in Calistoga or St. Helena to explore.
The “Lost Coast” in Northern California got its name from a section of land that was deemed too steep and rugged for building a road, thus the famous coastal US-1 veers inland to detour around this remote section of coastline. This “Lost Coast” makes for an incredible 25 mile coastal backpacking trip through King Range National Conservation Area. Most people hike it in 3-4 days.
Muir Woods National Monument is just 12 miles north of San Francisco and visiting offers the excuse to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge! It’s a short jaunt outside of the city to explore the famous redwood grove.
Lake Tahoe, nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is the largest alpine lake in North America. From stand-up paddle boarding and kayakingto skiing at one of Tahoe’s MANY resorts in the winter, the area offers year round recreation.
TOP CALIFORNIA TOWNS TO EXPLORE
San Diego is a surfer’s paradise. There is something to please everyone in San Diego – from visiting the famous museums of Balboa Park, to exploring Sunset Cliffs of Ocean Beach, to hiking to potato chip rock! Don’t miss the baja fish tacos at South Beach! Driving from San Diego north to Los Angeles you’ll find some great small coastal towns – like Encinitas – worth exploring as well.
Santa Barbara, just an hour north of Los Angeles, has got to be one of the prettiest coastal towns in the country. Often referred to as the American Riviera, for its moderate year-round weather, it is nestled between the Santa Monica mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Spend your time exploring the dozens of wineries in town or hop over to the Channel Islands for kayaking, diving, and camping.
San Francisco has a bit of everything to offer. Our favorite neighborhoods are the Mission, where you’ll find the best burritos in California, and the Haight, home to the Grateful Dead and Amoeba Record Shop – a must for music fans. Also for the best people watching of all time, head to Dolores Park on a weekend afternoon. In addition to what the city has to offer, our favorite thing about San Francisco is that you don’t have to travel far outside the city to have some pretty big adventures.
Bishop, CA is at the base of of the Sierra Nevada mountains close to Yosemite and Death Valley National Parks. Bishop is often described as a small town with a big backyard. Not far from Mammoth, Bishop offers tons of awesome camping, world-class bouldering, and quick access to some incredible hiking trails.