Planning a California road trip? With so many gorgeous natural wonders in California, it can be difficult to narrow down the choices.
To help you decide, I’ve teamed up with experienced travelers to develop this list of the 21 most beautiful places in California.
From spectacular mountain views to lush old-growth forests and jaw-dropping coastlines, California scenery is hard to beat. You just have to choose.
If nature is your thing, here are the 21 best places to visit in California, with top tips from the experts on what to see and when. It also includes ideas for California road trips and a handy map to help you find the must-see natural attractions in California.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Bioluminescent waves
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Painted Canyon
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
- Laguna Beach
- Torrey Pines State Reserve
- Death Valley National Park
- Sequoia National Park
- Natural Bridges State Beach
- Point Lobos State Reserve
- Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
- Redwood National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Half Dome
- Lake Tahoe
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Bodega Bay
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Mendocino/Fort Bragg coastline
- Big Sur Coast
- Mount ShastaCalifornia Road Trip IdeasCalifornia Map
Natural Wonders in Southern California:
Bioluminescent waves on the southern California coast
By Catherine Housseau from Catherine Housseau Photography
Bioluminescence off shore of San Diego brings a huge crowd to the coastline and photographers rush to capture the beauty of the neon waves.
This phenomenon is a must-see if you are lucky enough to see it. The glowing waves owe their color to blooming microscopic plants called phytoplankton. By day, the organisms collect on the water’s surface to give the water a reddish-brown hue, known as the red tide.
By night, the algae put on a light show of fluorescent blue.
Red tides, which stretch from Baja California up the coast to Los Angeles, have been observed since the early 1900s and can last from a few days to a couple of months.
The effect is not only mesmerizing but truly magical.
It has been said that the bioluminescence is to the ocean what the Northern Lights are to the sky.
It is an experience you will never forget once you witness it and it will leave you with a feeling of awe and wonder.
Joshua Tree National Park
By Chris and Heather Boothman from A Brit & A Southerner
California is blessed with a myriad of natural attractions that should be on everyone’s radar but in our opinion, Joshua Tree National Park is frequently left in the shadow of Yosemite when you contemplate national wonders to visit in the state.
If you are heading to SoCal and staying in the Los Angeles area, a day trip to Joshua Tree is an experience you won’t want to miss. Alternatively, a multi-day camping trip to this national park is certainly a rewarding experience, especially for the adventurous folks out there.
Covering 794,000 acres intersecting the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree is located only 130 miles east of downtown LA. There are three entrances, depending on the direction you are visiting, each of which offers a unique perspective on Joshua Tree’s distinctive landscape.
Whether you are an avid hiker or simply enjoy taking a self-guided driving tour through a national park, Joshua Tree is definitely one that everyone can enjoy. When it comes to the best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park, consider Ryan Mountain Trail, Warren Peak Trail or Hidden Valley Trail, all of which offer breathtaking close-up experiences with the infamous natural features that make Joshua Tree such a spectacular landscape. The Skull Rock Trail is perhaps the most iconic in Joshua Trail, primarily because among the plethora of rock formations is one that distinctively looks like a skull.
For those of you that prefer to stay inside your vehicle, a self-guided route between two of the entrances is a great way to experience the best of the park. You will likely want to get out to take a stroll around the Cholla Cactus Garden, simply because of the uniqueness but remember, do not touch any of these cacti unless you want to spoil the rest of your trip!
By Lizzie Lau from lizzielau.com
Painted Canyon is a terrific hiking destination about 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs in the Mecca hills.
The Mecca hills were formed by the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate converging along the San Andreas Fault. It caused the formation of some amazing slot canyons and some of the trails are only accessible by ladders. The Ladder Canyon Trail is about a 4.5 mile loop that passes through a slot canyon, up to a ridge, and returns along the bottom of Big Painted Canyon. It will take 2-3 hours to complete the loop, so make sure to take enough water.
A lot of the trail surface is sand and loose gravel. The trail isn’t always well marked, but there are always people who have done the trails and can point or lead you in the right direction. For example, after the parking lot you’ll walk along a wide canyon until you see a pile of rocks in the shape of an arrow pointing you to a rock slide to the left – which is the entrance to the first slot canyon. There’s a marker on the right side of the trail, but it’s easy to miss. If you do miss this entrance you can keep going and do the loop in reverse, but it’s easier to to go up the ladders at the beginning of the hike than go down them at the end.
It may feel sketchy at times, but it is outrageously beautiful and worth the effort. There are some amazing views at the top. You can see all the way to the Salton Sea.
How to get there: From Palm Springs take Highway 111 east to Mecca. Turn left at 66th Avenue and follow it through Mecca. 66th becomes Box Canyon Road. Watch for a sign for Painted Canyon Road, turn left and take this dirt road until you reach the parking area.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
The largest state park at 600,000 acres Anza-Borrego is jam-packed with California nature from badlands to palm oases and cactus-studded hills. The park, a United Nations Biosphere preserve, is about a two-hour drive from Palm Springs or San Diego.
It’s also home to one of the most popular natural attractions in California – – the annual apring bloom of desert flowers from late February through March. The best way to see this lovely California scenery is to walk the trails. Palm Canyon Trail, Little Surprise Canyon, the Cactus Loop Trail and Bow Willow Canyon are all good bets.
You’ll find surreal landscapes in Borrego Valley and Borrego Badlands, but, beware of visiting during the heat of summer. This is one of the hottest locations in the U.S.
Be sure to take in the night skies in Borrego Springs, the town inside the park. It is designated as an International Dark Sky Community and offers spectacular night sky views.
By Kimmie Conner from Adventures & Sunsets Blog
Laguna Beach has one of the most gorgeous coastlines in California and is full of rock arches, cliff formations, caves, and tide pools. Some of the best beaches in southern California are visible from the Pacific Coast Highway, but to find others, you must locate concealed stairwells or navigate winding streets.
Laguna Beach is located in south Orange County, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. I recommend taking a road trip down Pacific Coast Highway and spending a generous amount of time exploring this beach town and its surrounds.
As an Orange County local, I can’t give away TOO many secrets – but I can recommend Thousand Steps Beach, Three Arch Bay, and Victoria Street as some of the most scenic and incredible places in Laguna. If you want to have amazing views right from your hotel, stay in The Montage or Surf and Sand – you won’t regret it!
Downtown Laguna has some great little eateries that have maintained their small-town feel despite the ever-growing popularity of the area. When you aren’t relaxing on the beach, you can explore art galleries and also go hiking to even more spectacular views.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Located just north of San Diego on the Pacific Coast Highway, Torrey Pines State Reserve is perfect for those who love hiking and relaxing at the beach.
This is home to the torrey pine, one of the rarest pine tries in the world.
For hiking, take the road that winds upward from the beach side entrance to the top of the sandstone bluffs. Here you can choose from six hiking trails or take guided nature walks. The easiest trail is Guy Fleming Trail. Take a break about halfway along the looped trail at benches overlooking the sea. It’s a great spot to catch views of dolphins at any time of the year, or whales during migration.
The popular Beach Trail runs from the Visitor’s Centre parking lot down to the beach. There is plenty of parking near the park’s main entrance.
For an exhilarating experience, try tandem paragliding at nearby Torrey Pines Gliderport.
Natural wonders in central California:
Death Valley National Park
By Michelle Stelly from The Wandering Queen
One of the most exciting places to visit in California is Death Valley National Park. This park is extraordinary yet strange and bizarre all at the same time. It is filled with pastel-colored mountains, brown spiky formations of salts, rocks that move on their own, great sand dunes, white vast salt flats, and an enormous crater. This national park has it all!
One of the best things to do is to visit the mesquite sand dunes for sunset. The glorious views and colors make this a great spot to enjoy on a cool evening. Just be prepared for a difficult trek. Hiking in sand can be strenuous.
Another great activity is to watch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point. This is an ultra-popular spot for photographers. But don’t worry, there is plenty of room for everyone to catch the sun going up. Right after sunrise, start the Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, and Badlands Loop Hike. The trailhead is located right next to Zabriskie point. This incredible hike is filled with views of canyons, colorful mountains, and unusual weblike formations. It is one of the best hikes in the park. Just make sure to bring plenty of water! It can get pretty hot, and there is no shade.
Death Valley National Park is one of the most bizarre locations in California. That is why it is a unique and fun place to visit this year.
Sequoia National Park
By Kris Morton from Nomad by Trade
California‘s Sequoia National Park is known for its awe-inspiringly huge sequoia trees. By volume, these are the largest trees – and largest living things – in the world and no photo could ever do them justice. The largest one in the world, named General Sherman, is 275 feet tall with a diameter of 36 feet at its base.
There are several areas of the park where you can view these magnificent trees up close. There are some easy trails that are suitable for all levels, and the area around the General Sherman tree is wheelchair accessible. There are plenty of other things to do in Sequoia National Park, particularly if you want to go backcountry hiking. You can even summit Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental US.
Sequoia National Park is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of Fresno and south of Yosemite National Park. It’s approximately a 3.5 drive from LA or 4 hours from San Francisco.
Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
By Teresa Gomez from Brogan Abroad
California is full of large scale natural wonders that you will often find in people’s bucket lists, but this beautiful state also has some smaller gems that should not be ignored.
Natural Bridges State Beach is not as well known as Yosemite or Joshua Tree National Parks, but it is a unique natural spot with an added touch of magic.
It is located at the end of West Cliff Drive, one of the big attractions in Santa Cruz, and even though it takes up a small area, Natural Bridges State Beach, is one of the most photographed beach icons in California.
Just off the beach itself, there is a natural arch on an offshore rock that is an important wildlife haven. You will often see colonies of cormorants and pelicans there. From the viewpoint, you can also often see other marine wildlife such as whales, seals and otters.
But there’s more to this small State Park than the beach. If you go inland, there is a visitor centre and hiking trails too.
Point Lobos State Reserve
By Noel Morata from Travel Photo Discovery
Probably one of the most special and scenic California natural wonders worth visiting is located in Central Monterey County at Point Lobos State Reserve. This gorgeous stretch of coastline and rugged interior forest is a wonderful reserve that preserves the pristine interior areas and coastline of the state park.
With stunning cliffs, beaches and wonderful coastal pathways to explore, Point Lobos, located just a short drive from Carmel and Monterey, is a fantastic landscape to explore and enjoy. There are really beautiful coastal trails that take you on some magnificent walks, with views and vistas to see wildlife, lovely California wildflowers and interior forests that echo the Monterey coastal region of long ago and lovingly preserved for the public to enjoy.
Check out this post on visiting Point Lobos State Reserve here for more images, details and planning a visit to this wonderful natural wonder in central California.
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
One of the lesser known places to visit in California, you might think you’re on another planet at the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.
This desert preserve, on the eastern side of the high Sierras, was established to preserve the amazing “tufa towers” – calcium carbonate spires formed by the mix of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water (2.5 times more salty than the ocean). This lake is a million years old, a salty remnant of an ancient inland sea. It also protects this sensitive habitat for the one to two million birds that feed at the lake each year.
Start your visit at the interpretive centre, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains). There are trails throughout the reserve. Try the walk in the South Tufa Area for close-up view of the spires. During the summer, there are guided walks and paddles available.
Natural Wonders in Northern California:
Redwood National Park
By Hannah Kacary from That Adventurer Blog
Redwood National Park is renowned for being home to some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world. Redwood trees are believed to have been on earth for 240 million years and they can grow to be over 300 ft (91m) tall!
Besides the trees, there are also prairies, oak woodlands, rivers and around 40 miles of coastline which combine to make this a super special place to visit.
Technically, the area often referred to as Redwood National Park is made up of four parks: Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek State Park, Jedediah Smith State Park and Del Norte State Park.
While you can see redwood trees throughout California, the Redwood National Park area is in northern California. The park is about 1.5 hour’s drive from the Oregon-California border or roughly 6 hours from San Francisco. Driving to Redwood National Park is the easiest way to get there. Alternatively, there are domestic airports in Eureka and Crescent City. The best place to stay is in the Eureka Inn which once hosted Sir Winston Churchill!
The best things to see in this Californian National Park is the redwoods, of course! You can do this by taking a scenic drive through the forests, or by taking a short hike. There are some great easy, circular routes such as the Circle Trail to Big Tree Wayside which get you up close with these giants.
Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
By Jenny Kotlyar from Campsite Vibes
By Sierra Schmidt from Free to Travel Mama
California is filled with natural wonders and the beautiful coastline in Bodega is no exception. This area is filled with rocky bluffs, sandy beaches, clear water, unique rock formations, white capped waves, and an adorably quaint town selling essentials from kites to lobster mac and cheese.
Several tiny beaches dot the shoreline, each offering their own amazing experience. Shell Beach is a perfect spot for tidepools, while Goat Rock is a magical place to watch the sunset. Bodega Head offers a beautiful and easy hiking trail on its small peninsula with great panoramic views. Doran Beach is popular with families.
The coastline in this area is stunningly beautiful but is not safe for swimming in most areas. Check with a ranger when in doubt, and never turn your back on the waves. The undertow current can be extremely dangerous.
Bodega Bay is located in beautiful Sonoma County. A brief drive down Highway 1 off the main Highway 101 makes it very easily accessible from the wine country. If you’d like to stay overnight with an ocean view, Bodega Bay Lodge would be a great choice. Check out Spud Point Crab Company for award winning clam chowder and grab an easy and delicious dessert from Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy.
Mendocino/ Fort Bragg coastline
By Constance from the Adventures of Panda Bear
The Mendocino and Fort Bragg coastlines are some of the most beautiful areas along the coast of northern California. Fortunately, it is super easy to reach Mendocino and Fort Bragg, you can take a road trip from San Francisco to the redwoods and stop by along the way.
Mendocino, in particular, is famous for its beautiful cliff bluffs that drop into the Pacific Ocean. Here you can kayak into sea caves, hike, and explore the quaint downtown area.
Fort Bragg is another sleepy coastal town that’s well known for its Glass Beach, created due to the somewhat poor decisions of previous generations. The beach originated back in the day when people used to throw their garbage into the ocean. At the time, most of their trash consisted of glass bottles and over time the ocean turned the debris into pebbles known as sea glass.
The best time to visit the Mendocino and Fort Bragg area is in the spring or fall when the weather is mild, but less foggy due to cooler inland temperatures. Staying at the Travelodge in Fort Bragg is convenient for exploring both cities.
Big Sur Coast
By Dhara from It’s Not About the Miles
The Big Sur Coast is one of the natural wonders in California you definitely must put on your itinerary for the state. With the expanse of the Pacific Ocean juxtaposed against the rugged rocky coastline, the views all along the coast are spectacular.
Driving the Big Sur coast is, of course, one of the best things to do in California. For a Big Sur road trip, start at Carmel and drive all the way to Ragged Point or Lucia (or vice versa) to view the most scenic part of the highway. There are multiple state parks along this stretch of the coast, where you can hike, and beaches where you can relax by the water. The redwoods at Big Sur State Park, the Point Sur Lighthouse, the sea birds at Point Lobos State Park, and the beautiful McWay Falls are all worth the time to enjoy. Also, allow for enough time for stops at designated pullouts if you just plan to drive through. The Bixby Creek Bridge, a civil engineering marvel, is a popular stop.
To get to Big Sur from San Francisco in the north or Los Angeles in the south, you can rent a car and drive to Big Sur along scenic Highway One. Monterey, just north of Big Sur, has a regional airport, but it’s easier to arrive here by car from one of the bigger cities along the coast.
You can stay in Carmel at one of the many inns in the quaint village (we like L’Auberge Carmel), or you can pick from one of the lodges within Big Sur, such as the Big Sur Lodge.
At over 14,000 feet high, Mount Shasta is the largest volcanic peak in the contiguous United States.
The mountain, and the town of Mount Shasta are located 60 miles south of the Oregon border, or about a 5 hour drive north of San Francisco on the Interstates 505 and 5. It has a special feeling of being removed from the main tourist areas.
Skilled mountain climbers can summit the volcano’s peak, but for the rest of us, there are easier paths through the wildflower-filled meadows and forests. Try the two-mile path along the Mccloud River, which leads to a lovely trio of waterfalls.
Other popular activities include camping, caving, fly fishing, and in the winter, skiing.
California road trip ideas:
This list provides the recipe for some amazing road trips in California. Just pick your favourite natural wonders in one region of the state and, depending upon how much time you have, craft your road trip around them.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park (188 miles) : Start in Redding and head up the I-5 to Shasta Lake and Shasta Mountain. Head south on Highway 89, stopping at Burney Falls, and onto Lassen Volcanic National Park.
- Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg (175 miles): Head north from San Francisco to the dramatic cliffs and remote beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore. From there, continue through the Napa Valley and Sonoma wine country to the rugged Mendocino Headlands State Park and Fort Bragg.
- Beach to Desert Drive from San Diego (90 miles): From the beaches of La Jolla, take State Road 56 east to Highway 67 (which turns into Highway 78) towards the mountain town of Julian (have pie at the Julian Cafe & Bakery) and on to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
There are endless combinations to see the state’s stunning scenery. Enjoy the wonders that California has to offer!
Map of the most scenic places to visit in California:
Click on the place markers for location information.
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