As the most geographically diverse state in the United States, California is a place where you can pretty much find yourself lounging by the beach one day, exploring mountains the next, and just about everything in between in one single trip!
See also: Off the Beaten Path California, How to Travel California on the Cheap, Best Small Towns on the West Coast; 8 Hidden Gems in California, The Ultimate California Bucket List
Dramatic mountains, gorgeous coastlines, deserts, alpine lakes, and landscapes that look straight out of this world are just a few of the things this wonderful state has to offer.
With so much to see and do, planning a perfect Golden State itinerary is no easy task. So, we decided to put together a list of some of the best things to do in California that everyone needs to complete at least once!
Best Things to Do in California for Your Bucket List
- Visit Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of the best places to visit if you want to get a taste of California’s alpine side.
As one of the prettiest lakes in the world, Lake Tahoe boasts bright blue waters and white sandy beaches, so you could pretty much confuse the location for an island somewhere in the Caribbean if it weren’t for the snow-capped mountains that surround it!
During the warmer months, the lake becomes a mecca for water activities like boating, kayaking, scuba diving, and swimming. Come winter, skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating are just a few of the activities on the menu. Hiking and scenic driving can be done year-round, too!
- Explore Big Sur on a Scenic Drive
Road trips are a wonderful way to explore a place, and one of the most scenic ones California has to offer is Big Sur (Highway 1).
Even though the drive is only 90 miles long, there is so much to do on the way that you could easily explore Big Sur for an entire week and still not get to do everything it has to offer.
The highway boasts mountains to one side and a coastline to the other, which means each and every mile of the way is as pretty as the last. All along the highway, you’ll find a variety of state parks and destinations worth making stops at. Can’t miss stops include Point Lobos State Park for hiking, Pfeiffer Beach to see purple sand, Carmel-by-the-Sea for fairytale town vibes, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see McWay Falls.
- Drive under the tallest trees in the world
Located inside Redwood National Park, the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway is a scenic drive that will have you exploring the best the park has to offer.
What makes Redwood extremely magical is the fact that it is home to plenty of old-growth redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, which can grow up to 300 feet high!
This short 10-mile drive will have you passing hundreds of them, all while giving you access to tons of trailheads in case you want to park and head out on a hike in the forest.
- Taste Californian wine
California produces some of the best wine in the world, and exploring its wine country is definitely one of the best things to do in the Golden State.
Napa Valley is one of the most popular wine regions in California and the one that most visitors head to. However, there are plenty of more areas, including Marin, Solano, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties.
During your time exploring the wine country of California, you’ll get the opportunity to go wine tasting at plenty of vineyards, all while getting to gorge on delicious food amid beautiful landscapes.
- Drive the alluring Tioga Pass through Yosemite
It’s not exactly a secret that visiting Yosemite National Park is a must on any California bucket list and driving the Tioga Pass is one of the ultimate ways to do so.
Tioga Pass, or Highway 120, stretches all the way through the park and will give you the chance to see the park from a completely different perspective than most visitors get. As you drive, you will get access to stunning views of the iconic granite cliffs of Yosemite (including Clouds Rest and Half-Dome), plenty of unique viewpoints, and tons of hidden gems scattered along the way.
- Hike amid the world’s largest trees
Remember us mentioning that in California, you can see the world’s tallest trees at Redwood National Park?
Here’s another thing you can do in California: See the world’s largest trees, too! Sequoia trees are also very tall, but their real wonder lies in how bulky they can get, with their circumference measuring over 90 feet!
Sequoia National Park is where you’ll find most of them. This impressive national park is located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and hiking or scenic driving here is as magical as it gets.
Moreover, aside from being home to groves of sequoia trees, Sequoia National Park also offers incredible views of the Great Western Divide Range and it’s also home to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States!
- See the colors of Death Valley National Park
Despite its somewhat grim name, Death Valley National Park is quite the opposite!
While its landscape can look pretty desolate at first glance, as you explore further, you’ll stumble across plenty of life and vibrant colors. This unique park is home to sand dunes, canyons, hills of borax, and plenty of landscapes that look almost out of this world!
One of the coolest things to do at Death Valley National Park is driving the Artists Drive Scenic Loop. This short drive will have you marveling at volcanic hills that come in a wide array of flashy colors, ranging from yellow to pink, green, and blue!
- Take a trip to Denmark
Technically, you’ll still be in California, but you may very well forget you’re in the United States at all!
Located in southern California's Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is a little town with vibes as European as they get. Being here will make you feel as though you’re walking through a village in Denmark, with windmills towering over the landscape, rural timbered houses, and bakeries selling Danish treats on pretty much every corner.
As if that weren’t reason enough to convince you to visit Solvang, it also happens to be a wonderful spot to get a glimpse of the Californian wine country. Thanks to its location on the Santa Ynez, Solvang is an ideal hop off point to explore vineyards, not to mention you’ll also find a plethora of tasting rooms in its downtown.
- Get your photographer on at Capitola
If an Instagrammable place is what you’re after, spending a day or two in Capitola is one of the coolest things to do in California for photography lovers.
This cozy seaside town is not only a great place to enjoy the beach, but it comes with the added benefit that it boasts houses as colorful as they get. Walking its streets feels like walking inside a painting, and every single corner is as Instagrammable as the last.
As a bonus, Capitola is somewhat of a hidden gem in California compared to more popular nearby beach towns like Santa Cruz. As a result, the atmosphere here is a lot more low-key, making it a perfect place to base yourself if you want to fully relax.