The varied California landscape turns up in movies, song lyrics and great works of art. With the iconic stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway leading you to landmark after landmark, it’s hard to narrow down our list of ten places to visit in California. Taking in the Golden State and making pit stops along the way makes for an unforgettable journey.
Perhaps you picture yourself wearing Hollywood sunglasses, catching a wave, or venturing through some of the greatest national parks in the country. Of course, any traveller planning a California vacation will want to hit the hottest wineries and observe the historic tech boom in Silicon Valley.
Our specialized itinerary takes you approximately two to three weeks, as you hit the open road from north to south for a completely unobstructed view and easy pullover opportunities. Of course, you can speed up or slow down to take in all the amazing places that California has to offer!
1. San Francisco
When you arrive to the City by the Bay, acclimate yourself to Californian life as you walk the famous Golden Gate bridge. For a twist, rent a bike and take the ferry back as you take in the sights of Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the most well-known places to visit in California. Have dinner and shop Chinatown, and take in the best views of the city as you sip cocktails from the top of Nob Hill at The Mark.
Before you leave the city, select a few tours nearby. Jaunts to Napa Valley, Muir Woods, Half Moon Bay and Silicon Valley are all within easy reach and take a half or full day to complete.
2. Cruise the Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is actually a stretch of road beginning in Washington State and stretching along the west coast through Oregon and down the California coastline to San Diego. The California portion of the highway takes about ten hours to drive in total, and hitting the best spots along this route takes planning. A California vacation would not be complete without experiencing the winding roads and outstanding views that await.
Stretches of this highway are notoriously dangerous and don’t always have guardrails, so remind yourself to get a good night’s rest and be alert during your drive. It helps to make use of vista points and travel during off-peak times (avoid July and August).
Located on the central California coast, Monterey was once the capital of Alta California (a province of new Spain) and also a territory of Mexico after the Mexican War of Independence.
Despite its shifting roles, the city has historically been a transport hub as the only port of entry for taxable goods in California. Visit Old Fisherman’s Wharf for an active taste of history. The area includes open-air clam bars, galleries, jewellery shops and whale-watching tours for the seafaring tourist. Monterey also has one of the nation’s best aquariums, where you can watch otters play in the water!
Monterey also happens to be one of the best places to visit in California for surfing. Experienced surfers will enjoy the powerful waves of the coast, and beginners will find many opportunities for guided lessons in more sheltered beach spots.
4. Big Sur and Pfeiffer State Park
Enter, the most notorious stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. Known to travellers planning a California vacation simply as Big Sur, prepare to experience one of the most rugged, and for many years, most inaccessible stretches of California. Big Sur has no formal boundaries and is sparsely populated in the interior. You can make your way south and pause briefly in Carmel-By-The-Sea to stroll down Ocean Avenue.
With Pfeiffer State Park offering endless photo-ops, this is a great location to explore, especially if you are planning a California vacation that includes visions of camping out. If tenting isn’t your style, consider renting an RV or staying at one of the rustic cabins in the park, but make sure you book ahead!
Not far from the park’s campground, you will find one of the most underrated places to visit in California. Sykes Hot Springs is closely guarded by locals, but if you have a bit of time, and you enjoy hiking, these relatively accessible hot springs are a gem worth discovering, especially in the autumn months.
5. Los Angeles and Venice Beach
After taking in the Pacific Coast Highway, Los Angeles may come as a culture shock, so prepare yourself! Planning a California vacation means choosing your base carefully while still maintaining your sanity. When considering where to stay in town, try Santa Monica for a more suburban feel with close beach access. From here, you can venture into the city as needed with the added bonus of being able to take a stroll along the Santa Monica Pier in your downtime.
From your refuge on the outskirts of the city, check some easy-to-reach sights off your bucket list. Visit the famous Hollywood sign and take a Universal Studios tour. Visit some celebrity homes, and then go shopping at the hottest spots in LA, or people-watch as you sip a latte.
In the evening, meander along the Hollywood Walk of Fame and enjoy some rooftop cocktails after sunset. For the more adventurous night owls among us, plan to party the night away on Venice Beach, one of the most happening places to visit in California state. Cap the night off and grab some friends as you cozy up OC-style with our Fold ‘n Go blanket until sunrise. On to the next stop!
6. San Diego
Don’t underrate San Diego as a point of interest as you are in the planning stages of a California vacation. It may be the most southern destination on your list, but San Diego embraces Californian culture and is well worth the extra two hours of driving, especially if you are travelling with kids. Not only does it boast one of the world’s most popular zoos, San Diego has a great museum culture.
Put the USS Midway Museum near the top of your list. As the lead ship of her class, the USS Midway was the largest ship in the world until 1955, and is now a floating museum. From Vietnam to San Diego’s Navy Pier, the USS Midway has finally found a permanent home.
Before heading out of the city, make sure to take advantage of the urban nightlife. Visit the Gaslamp Quarter and see what up-and-coming San Diego looks like at night. From classy establishments to dive bars, do as the millenials do and sample small-batch craft brews, lay back, and relax.
7. Joshua Tree National Park
Everyone planning a California vacation should have an original print of a twisted yucca brevifolia, or Joshua tree customized for their wall upon return. From the bustle of Los Angeles, wind down again at Joshua Tree National Park, home to the Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems.
This trip will take you a bit off the coastal highway, and further east into the state, but the rock formations and pristine deserts make for an amazing habitat for several unique species. Follow Highway 62 to the entrance of the park and make your way to Hidden Valley for some hiking.
Millions of years ago, Joshua Tree National Park would have resembled an African savannah, with roaming camels, mammoths and bison. Situated along the San Andreas fault, it’s no wonder the geography of this landscape is known for inspiring musicians, artists and soul-searchers alike.
8. Death Valley National Park
As the name hints, Death Valley National Park is named for those who met unlucky fates in the area during the California Gold Rush in the late 1800s. Planning a California vacation reaching through Death Valley will take you into a different type of state –– one reminiscent of the Old West.
Located near the border between California and Nevada, one of Death Valley’s claims to fame is hosting North America’s lowest point at Badwater Basin. The standing water is salty but makes for a great panorama.
Other points of interest include an old mine and a deserted town. If you’re looking for more great vistas to photograph, head to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes or take in the greatest view of the park from over 5000 feet elevation at Dante’s View. Be forewarned though, Death Valley is blazingly hot in the summer months, and it is one of the hottest places to visit in California, so pack appropriately.
9. Mammoth Lakes
After all that heat, you might need to cool down a bit, so when you’re planning a California vacation, head north to Mammoth Lakes for a bit of refuge from the sun. From the lowest point to the top of the world, take in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on this majestic drive and experience another homage to the California Gold Rush and home to Lake Mono, the million-year-old lake.
Mammoth Lakes is a town known for skiing, hot springs and adventure. The entire area is a hiker’s paradise and a visit to the quaint Rainbow Falls is well worthwhile. Biking, horseback riding, fishing, and all kinds of boating are easily accessible from Mammoth Lakes.
If you want to go a bit further but aren’t sure where to start, Mammoth Lakes has a superbe network of guides for basically any type of outdoor activity.
10. Yosemite National Park
Before heading back to catch your flight home, spend at least a few days walking among the giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is the nature-lovers dream, and planning a California vacation wouldn’t be complete without a stop here. The stunning highlight at a drop of 2,425 feet is Yosemite Falls, but that’s only the beginning. Home to thousands of waterfalls, enormous sequoia trees and granite cliffs, photo ops abound.
From thirty minute jaunts to multiple-day interior hikes, Yosemite has a variety of trails to suit any skill level. Some require permits, but others just take a bit of time. Like Mammoth Lakes, guides are an option and come recommended for local knowledge and wisdom. For an introduction, try the Mirror Lake loop.
Yosemite is currently at risk due to wildfires and environmental change, so make sure to check local conditions before you go. Accommodations range from camping to luxury hotels, but whatever your preference, book early because this park is on many a traveller’s bucket list and is often described as one of the most beautiful – and threatened – places in America.
From Yosemite, you’re ready to return to your departure point of San Francisco. If you have a few more days, rest assured, there is more to see in the city before you catch your flight.
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Planning a California vacation can be exhausting but hugely rewarding, so if you haven’t done so already, book your tickets for this epic ride and stop by Cabeau’s shop to top up your rental car with some essentials, like our Evolution® Pillow that will have you feeling great on every leg of the journey.