Epic Guide – 47 Incredible Things to Do in California (and hidden secrets)

Okay. You are ready for your California road trip or short vacation and you are wondering what are the best things to do in California? That is a difficult question to answer in one blog post, but we are here to help.

woman and child looking at view of Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

California is probably the most diverse state in the USA. You can find what is unique about the USA in this one state: mountains, beaches, deserts, farmlands, amazing cities, incredible national parks, small towns, theme parks, great food and wine.

So diverse that in many places you can be skiing in the morning on the slopes and surfing the waves by mid-afternoon.

We’ve been traveling to and through California for years, and still have so many things left to do on our bucket list.

We’re taking our top attractions and California experiences, plus recommendations from friends and readers still on our list to share with you this BEST of the best things to do in California!

As you can see the comments at the very bottom have been lit up with great recommendations. We’d love for you to add yours to this growing community resource list.

This is your hub for all the best places to visit in California, including top California attractions, theme park secrets, cool cities, unique outdoor adventures, amazing national parks, and beautiful beaches.

Side story:

My new hobby this year is my record player. Savannah and I love to dance to California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas. It takes me back to our memories of California travels each time. Put that song on while you read this post.

Table Of Contents
  1. Experience a California Beach Sunset
  2. Learn and Play at Balboa Park, San Diego
  3. Kick Back at Ocean Beach, San Diego
  4. Hike the Torrey Pines Coastal Walk, San Diego
  5. Go Surfing at Huntington Beach
  6. Visit the lowest and hottest point in the US: Badwater Basin
  7. Sunrise and Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
  8. Camp on the Colorado River, The Needles
  9. Love the Joshua Tree National Park
  10. Honky Tonk in the High Desert at Pappy & Harriet’s
  11. Attend the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
  12. Attend the Disneyland Halloween Party
  13. Ride the Incredicoaster & Guardians of the Galaxy, California Adventure Park
  14. Play volleyball at Manhattan Beach, LA
  15. Bike Venice Beach to Santa Monica, LA
  16. Slide The Oue SkySpace, Downtown LA
  17. Peruse The Last Bookstore, Downtown LA
  18. Pose with the Melrose Place Murals
  19. Hike Malibu Creek State Park
  20. Hike Griffith Park (Hike to Hollywood sign)
  21. Take in the View of LA at Griffith Observatory
  22. Soak in a Rooftop Sunset in LA
  23. See General Sherman, the World’s Largest Living Tree
  24. Shop, Eat and Play in Santa Barbara
  25. Spend time in Danish Solvang
  26. Kayak the Sea Caves of the Channel Islands National Park
  27. See (and smell) the Elephant Seals at San Simeon
  28. Surf Santa Cruz
  29. Road Trip the Big Sur
  30. Hike with Rainbows at Yosemite's Mist Trail
  31. Experience Tunnel View, Scenic Drive HWY 41, Yosemite
  32. Bike Golden Gate Bridge
  33. Visit Alcatraz
  34. Visit the Oldest Chinatown in the USA – San Francisco
  35. Hug a Redwood Tree at Muir Woods, San Francisco
  36. Hike the Lands End Trail in San Francisco
  37. Eat the Best Croissants in the Country, San Francisco
  38. Wine Tasting Napa Valley | Sonoma
  39. Tube the Russian River with a Pliny the Elder
  40. Go Supping (and Skiing) at Lake Tahoe
  41. Visit the Bodie Ghost Town
  42. Kayak Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
  43. Lassen Volcanic National Park
  44. Road Trip the Adventurous and Scenic Lost Coast
  45. Drive the Avenue of Giants
  46. Grab a brew and delicious meal at SeaQuake Brewery
  47. Campsite Dreaming at Panther Flat Creek Campground
  48. Fern Canyon, Redwoods National Park
  49. What else should we do in California?
  50. Sightseeing Pass: Save Money on California Travel
  51. Car Rental for California
  52. Booking California Accommodation
  53. G Adventures Tours

Experience a California Beach Sunset

Sunset at Pacific Beach in San Diego, California
Sunset at Pacific Beach in San Diego

There’s something amiss if you don’t catch a California beach sunset. It’s FREE and readily available. Grab your cooler and kick back on the sand or cliff to watch this fiery evening event.

I’ll never forget my first one from the deck of the hole-in-the-wall bar on Pacific Beach, San Diego. The whole bar started clapping once it sunk below the horizon. This was something I had never experienced before and felt it just as memorable as the beauty of this natural daily event.

We’ve always seen our favorites in the San Diego and Hermosa Beach area.

Learn and Play at Balboa Park, San Diego

girls looking at view of Balboa Park, San Diego, California
Beautiful Balboa Park

Balboa Park is America’s largest urban cultural park and one of the best things to do in California with kids – it has everything to suit all ages and your family’s preferences:

All up there are 17 Balboa Park museums and you could literally spend an entire day here.

Even just wandering around appreciating the incredible Spanish Renaissance and Southwest architecture and beautiful gardens is enjoyable.

Kick Back at Ocean Beach, San Diego

crowds on ocean beach
Ocean Beach, San Diego

We’ll be honest with you, there aren’t too many California beaches we’ll hang out on. We find the ocean way to cold, and the air temperatures a little too moderate (not all the time but mostly), they can be overcrowded and not as visually spectacular as I imagined.

And beyond San Francisco they are too wild. For beach days, we prefer East Coast USA.

But, there are a couple of beaches we love, Ocean Beach in San Diego is one of them. It;s an experience and reminds us of Byron Bay in Australia.

There’s a grassy strip out the front which is full of adults who haven’t lost the joy of unencumbered play with friends and strangers.

Groups of men and women support each other’s Acro Yoga poses, another group encourages balance mastery on the slack lines, hula hoop wanabees wiggle those hips (my girls included) and others let their spirits free in drumming circles with bongo drums, acoustic guitars and voices.

We spent days here back in 2004 with friends and locals playing beach volleyball during the day, hitting the bars up at night, and enjoying bonfires. That’s the California Dreaming I’m talking about.

Read More: 16 Amazing things to do in San Diego with kids

Hike the Torrey Pines Coastal Walk, San Diego

woman and children looking at view of pacific ocean from viewpoint
Beautiful views all round

One of my favorite cheap things to do in San Diego with kids is visit Torrey Pines State National Reserve.

It has a collection of coastal hiking trails with ocean vistas and native vegetation, including the rare Torrey Pine, which is only found in Torrey Pines State Reserve and Santa Rosa Island.

The Torrey Pines hiking trails are of various levels for all ages and run along the cliff faces or switch back down to the shores below.

We hiked the Guy Fleming trail, which is an easy 2/3-mile loop walk and one of the most popular Torrey Pines hikes.

Go Surfing at Huntington Beach

girls looking at huntington beach and volleyball courts
Huntington Beach

As Aussies, we know what makes a great beach. Huntington Beach in Orange County is our favorite California beach for the total package: cool surfing culture and vibe, stunning sunsets, boutique shopping, and along the beachfront you’ll find rows of beach volleyball nets – which are used by pros and Olympic gold medalists, and free for you!

And famous Huntington Beach Pier is where the local surfers used to jump off to catch a wave, and every August the US Surfing Open is held at this beach.

Huntington Beach California is noted for its consistent waves that brings surfers from across the globe. If you want to learn how to surf, HB is one of the best beaches in California for surfing, and that would be one of the coolest things to do in California!

While there, stay at the Kimpton Hotel in a room with ocean views. It’s one of our favorite California boutique hotels.

Read more: 15 Things to do in Orange County with kids and top things to do in Huntington Beach, CA, a guide to the Mission San Juan Capistrano and things to do in Buena Park

Visit the lowest and hottest point in the US: Badwater Basin

women and children with arms outstretched on Badwater Basin Death Valley np
Badwater Basin, Death Valley

You may find Death Valley appear on this California list of things to do a few times. It’s one of the most extraordinary and uniquely beautiful national park in the US.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the US on the salt plains. The name says it all. This also known as one of the hottest places on earth.

Kick off your shoes and walk along the salt trails. It was incredibly windy when we visited.

Read More: Top 9 Things to do in Death Valley National Park

Sunrise and Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

people sitting on sand dunes

Zabriskie Point is one of the most strikingly beautiful vistas I have ever seen. Just when you think you’ve seen all colors, shapes and swirling designs in Mother Nature, something comes along that’s so new and unique.

The great thing about this Death Valley National Park attraction is it’s beautiful at sunrise and sunset and looks completely different each time. Don’t miss either.

Camp on the Colorado River, The Needles

aerial view of Pirates Cove Resort Needles on edge of water
Loved this RV campsite in California

Chances are you have not heard of this place in California. We only wish we didn’t have forward plans and stayed here longer. It’s a true hidden California gem.

The Colorado River is the border between Arizona and California, and the Pirate Cove Resort lies on its banks.

This secluded California oasis is located at the Moabi Regional Park just 11-miles southeast of Needles, California, a city in eastern San Bernardino County near the borders of Arizona and Nevada and roughly 110 miles from the Las Vegas.

Nestled among the palm trees and surrounded by pristine white sandy beaches, this is the place to come for those who love spectacular scenery, off-roading and ATV adventures, camping and boating.

I loved watching the sunrise over the river early each morning. It was fantastic to stay by the Colorado River after seeing the masterpiece it carved up in the Grand Canyon.

This RV resort is massive. Our camp site was isolated and two miles away from the main area where the restaurants are. It was so pretty and peaceful. They have a funky pirate bar and regular events.

Love the Joshua Tree National Park

girl walking on trail at Barker Dam Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

We fell in love with the Joshua Tree, which reminded me so much of the Truffula trees in the Lorax. It has a similar playful, unique, and striking presence and aura.

It’s not just the Joshua Trees to love here but junipers, scrub oaks, Mojave yuccas and the prickly pear cactus, one of our favorites from Big Bend National Park.

The scenery is spectacular with its white boulders and Joshua Trees dotting the landscape. Anyone who loves rock climbing will want to visit Joshua tree – it’s a renowned California climbing place.

Read More: Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park with kids

Honky Tonk in the High Desert at Pappy & Harriet’s

historic wooden building on dusty road Pioneer Town California
Pioneer Town – home of Pappy and Harrietts

This may be one of the most unique California attractions no one has told you about yet. Perched in the high desert in a dusty abandoned town reminiscent of a spaghetti western is Pappy & Harriet’s, an infamous music venue.

It’s at Pioneer Town which was originally constructed to be an Old West movie set.

Pappy’s is the place legends are mad of and a spot on the map for music lovers. We loved coming here for dinner and watching some live music.

Don’t expect anything fancy though – that’s part of its magic.

You’ve got a bar, knotted beams, and a small stage and bar filled with cowboys and bikers, hippies, and musos. Grab yourself some mesquite barbecue and sit back and enjoy some tunes. You just never know who you may see here.

Attend the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

pam trees with mountains in distance Coachella Valley, California
Coachella Valley, California

No California Bucket List would be complete without a live festival experience.

One of the most well-known in California is the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, in the Coachella Valley in the Colorado Desert.

The event unfolds over two consecutive weekends in April and has hosted a wide range of artists, from rock standouts and indie bands to mainstream pop performers like Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.

It’s location in the Greater Palm Springs area also gives you access to cool experiences like desert hiking, and Palm Springs eating, shopping and nightlife. I have not attended yet, but it’s high on my list!

Attend the Disneyland Halloween Party

family dressed in costume posing at the Disneyland Halloween Party
Disneyland Halloween Party

OK, Disney fans. How can you have a things to do in California Bucket List without including Disneyland?

I’m not a huge fan and would MUCH RATHER do everything else on this list and have that be my California memories and I do think Orlando has the better version of the theme parks, but I’ll mention it just for you.

If you are going to visit why not make it a Bucket List experience and attend the Mickey’s Halloween Party because I did think that was pretty awesome!

Disneyland Halloween Time is not like what you might find in theme parks like Universal Studios or SCarowinds in North Carolina.

There are no haunted mazes or scary costumed characters jumping out to frighten you. Mickey’s not so scary Halloween party is a separate-admission Halloween-themed event held annually.

It’s just pure family-friendly costumed and Halloween treat fun. Get dressed up and take in a big treat bag – the amount of Candy you collect is ridiculous!

Read More: All of our tips for the Disneyland Halloween Party

Ride the Incredicoaster & Guardians of the Galaxy, California Adventure Park

family posing in front of Ferris wheel Disney California Adventure Park
The Incredicoaster

I did really enjoy California Adventure Park though, which is next door to Disneyland and has some really cool rides.

Most memorable to me (and the stories we’ll tell forever) were the Incredicoaster Ride and Guardians of the Galaxy

The incredicoaster is a roller coaster that shoots off at the start and goes really fast around the track and has one loop. It plays the Incredibles theme song which makes it more intense, and it’s a long ride too.

One of the best rides I’ve been on is Guardians of the Galaxy. . I’ll never forget our little elevator capsule alternating between terrified screams and riotous laughing at everyone. I never expected such an epic ride.

Read More: Our best tips for enjoying California Adventure Park, Anaheim

Play volleyball at Manhattan Beach, LA

people riding bikes along Manhattan Beach LA
Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach is the beach volleyball capital of the USA. Bring your ball and your friends and enjoy the nets lined up and down the beach front. You could probably even ask to join a group if you are on your own.

Manhattan and Hermosa Beach is our favorite area of LA and is where we typically head to if we are visiting Los Angeles. Craig and I attended the Six Man Volleyball competition here in 2006. IT was a hoot watching teams in costume playing volleyball.

You can ride, walk or roller blade along the beach promenade between the two. It’s a unique perspective of LA beach lifestyle.

Bike Venice Beach to Santa Monica, LA

peopel riding bikes along Venice Beach, California
Bike to Venice Beach

We are not big fans of Santa Monica at all and are surprised that it is such a hot destination for Australian tourists to California.

However, we do enjoy riding bikes along the beach promenade from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. It’s a beautiful and easy bike ride and great opportunity to see California beach lifestyle.

Venice Beach is also a hoot. It’s the most eclectic, stuck in an 70’s acid trip, place I’ve ever been. The girls typically don’t like staying there for too long. Enough time to watch a few skateboarders do their tricks and basketballers carve up the court.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide of best things to do in Los Angeles

Slide The Oue SkySpace, Downtown LA

person coming down slide Oue Skyspace LA
Fun slide in Downtown LA

Are you brave enough to slide from the 70th to the 60th floor of California’s tallest building on a glass slide?

I thought nothing of it, but a few people behind me screamed the city down and many on social media said they wouldn’t do it.

The slide was over so quick you barely notice you’re held up by a piece of glass hanging off the side of a building. I thought it was fun and I promise you it’s not scary. I loved seeing the girl’s reactions doing it!

It is expensive though. It cost me $35 for a trip up to see the 360-degree panoramic views of LA, including one turn on the slide.

It will cost you an extra $8 each time you want to do the slide again. But the Oue Skyspace is a unique experience and worth doing if your budget is not too tight.

It’s also included in the Los Angeles Sightseeing Pass

Peruse The Last Bookstore, Downtown LA

girl posing surrounded by books The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles.
Such a cool photo!

Kinda weird that a bookstore is on a best thing to do in California list? Not really. It remains the most popular Instagram photos of ours – twice now.

The Last Bookstore is California’s largest used and new book and record store and began in a Downtown LA loft. It has grown since then to 22,000 square feet and is housed in the grand atrium of what was once a bank.

The best treasures are kept upstairs. It’s a labyrinth of books suspended in flight as they erupt from a bookcase, tunnels built from books, hidden side rooms with more than 100,000 used books for sale, plus free-standing sculptures, and mobiles.

Read More: 14 Classic and Fun Things to do in Downtown LA

Pose with the Melrose Place Murals

girls posing in front of murals Melrose Avenue Walking Tour in LA
Loved this selfie tour

Are you unsure of how to pose when it comes to taking photos with murals? I’m unsure without them as well.

It’s one of the reasons we loved this Melrose Ave tour. Not only did we learn a little about this famous street and artistic community, find great good options, and see beautiful murals, our guide was fantastic in helping us pose and get some great family shots.

This Melrose Ave selfie guided tour is one of our favorite tours we did in LA and in California. I just love looking back on these photos – priceless memories. Instagram lovers will check this as one of their favorite things to do in LA.

This was one of the tours on the LA Sightseeing Pass?

Read More: 20 Fun Things to do in LA with kids

Hike Malibu Creek State Park

views of creek and mountains in Malibu Creek State Park California
Beautiful Malibu State Park

Malibu Creek State Park is such a hidden treasure of Los Angeles and California. There was only two other people there when we visited. It’s like wondering into the wilderness of Southeast Asia. Oh wait, scenes form Mash were filmed here!

The park was formerly owned by 20th Century Fox Studios and has been seen all over the world in movies and television shows, and is L.A.’s most spectacular park!

There’s over 8,000 acres of rolling tall grass plains, oak savannah’s, and opportunities for mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing and horseback riding.

We combined our visit with a coastal drive from Malibu into Santa Monica which is part of the Pacific Coast Highway. You can check out Malibu Beach while here, which many say is one of the top beaches in California, but I beg to differ.

Hike Griffith Park (Hike to Hollywood sign)

people Hiking in Griffith park LA
Hiking in Griffith Park

Located a 20-minute drive north-west of downtown, Griffith Park is one of the largest urban wilderness municipal parks in the US.

It offers several hiking trails, deep canyons, pony rides, and stunning views over Los Angeles.

We did the hike to the Mt Hollywood Summit, a 4-mile loop trail, which offered spectacular views of Downtown LA, the Griffith Observatory, Hollywood Hills and the Hollywood sign.

Take in the View of LA at Griffith Observatory

View from Griffith Park Observatory
Griffith Observatory view

Griffith Observatory which sits perched on a hilltop below the Hollywood Sign.

You can incorporate a visit here when you take on one of Griffith Parks hikes. It gives a beautiful view of Los Angeles.

Soak in a Rooftop Sunset in LA

Speaking of epic California sunsets, while in LA, don’t discount a downtown LA sunset. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and best observed from a funky roof top bar.

My two favorites are the rooftop bars of the art deco buildings, the Perch Rooftop Bar, and the Ace Hotel.

Popular Los Angeles Tours

Popular Los Angeles Day Trips

Los Angeles Videos

Watch our playlist from our LA travels

See General Sherman, the World’s Largest Living Tree

general sherman tree sequoia national park
The General Sherman

Devastation. That’s what we felt at not being able to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. We didn’t have a lot of good luck on our 1 year RV US road trip with the weather.

We timed our visit to this region with a huge snowstorm that closed it. It’s on our California Bucket List for the future.

It’s worth a visit to see the beautiful, gigantic trees, especially the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree by volume. It reaches 275 feet into the blue Sierra sky and has a girth of 36 feet at its base.

There are other taller and wider trees in  Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, but none has the combined weight and width of this giant.

If you can’t make it to these two California national parks, but can go to Yosemite National Park you can see giant sequoias there at Mariposa Grove

Shop, Eat and Play in Santa Barbara

A view of a city with a mountain in the background

Santa Barbara on the Central California coast is one of our favorite places in California for its ocean location set against a stunning mountain backdrop, mixed Mediterranean Spanish colonial style architecture, boutique shopping and upmarket bars and restaurants.

Plus, you have nearby wineries – visit Kalyra Winery, it’s what we named our daughter after!

Spend time in Danish Solvang

dutch style buildings with windmills Danish Solvang California
Complete with windmills

If you’re tired of American culture, you can escape to the small Danish village of Solvang about 45 minutes from Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Baked goods are served fresh each morning, the village is filled with activities, seasonal festivals, wine tasting, and delicious Danish food. l

Craig visited briefly with the girls and his family in 2018 and they enjoyed walking around the village and visiting a pumpkin patch farm.

Kayak the Sea Caves of the Channel Islands National Park

Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park, California
Channel Islands National Park

Dubbed the Galapagos of North America, the Channel Islands National Park is one of the most underrated and under visited national park in the USA.

We loved our day trip here from Ventura sea cave kayaking adventure on Santa Cruz Island.

There’s not much else over on Channel Islands except for beautiful beaches, cliff faces, valleys and canyons for hiking, and sea caves to explore on kayaks.

Oh, and snorkeling through the kelp forest and tiny island foxes waiting to grab your lunch. What more do you need?

It’s probably one of the most adventurous things to do in California, and one of the most beautiful places to visit in California.

Read More: Day trip to Channel Island National Park

See (and smell) the Elephant Seals at San Simeon

elephant seals san simeon
Wowzer! Giant Elephant Seals

Called elephant seals for a reason, these giant marine mammals can be seen on the beach just off Highway 1 in San Simeon.

The Northern Elephant Seal migrates to the rookery, twice each year. While offshore, the elephant seal spends eight to ten months diving up to 5,800 feet deep for up to two hours. The remaining months of the year, they mate, birth, molt, and rest onshore between trips.

The Piedras Blancas Rookery hosts up to 24,000 elephant seals each year. Be warned they can be pretty smelly – but well worth the stop if you a road tripping highway 1.

Nearby is also the famous Hearst Castle – still on our to do list for California.

Surf Santa Cruz

view of amusement park on beach at santa cruz california
Santa Cruz California

Santa Cruz has a kind of notoriety about it for its eclectic mix of people and experiences, but also its surf town vibe.

It’s surf history dates back to 1885 1885 when three visiting Hawaiian princes rode the local waves on redwood planks. Top surfers arund the world seek out the breaks here.

Craig and I didn’t love Santa Cruz when we visited in 2006. Mostly because of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an esplanade with rides and games like Santa Monica. It’s jut not our thing.

But we’ve heard so many people rave about this place for its other wonderful qualities that we want to go back and dive deeper into it.

Road Trip the Big Sur

bridge and big sur road wrapping around coastline
Big Sur Road Trip Image source: DepositPhotos.com

While we have not yet taken the girls on this famous California road trip, Craig and I did it in 2006 and camped along the way. It was incredibly beautiful and everything you’ve dreamed on.

Big Sur is a rugged stretch of California’s central coast between Carmel and San Simeon. It’s bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the west by the Pacific Ocean, and it’s traversed by narrow 2-lane State Route 1, known for winding turns, seaside cliffs and views of the misty coastline.

The classic USA scenic drive through this roughly 90-mile-long stretch of coast along twisting Highway 1 is one of the best things to do in California and offers plenty of highlights like the famous Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Limekiln State Park, Pfeiffer Beach, and 17 Mile Drive.

Hike with Rainbows at Yosemite’s Mist Trail

rainbow over hiking trail Vernal Falls Mist Trail Yosemite
The beautiful Mist trail

Rainbows on a misty hike up to a beautiful waterfall? Of course, you do!

If we were to recommend one to make the things to do in California bucket list it would be the Vernal Falls.

There are so many amazing hikes to do in Yosemite National Park. You can read all of them in our in-depth guide on Visiting Yosemite with kids.

Yosemite is about waterfalls, and what makes this one so special are the 600 stone steps taking you beside Vernal Falls as it thunders 317 feet down and sprays you. It’s a very dramatic walk – and slippery so take care.

The highlight – look back and see all the rainbows. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Keep going to the top of the Vernal Falls and witness the power of the water surging over the edge as well as some pretty Emerald Pools (DO NOT SWIM)

Experience Tunnel View, Scenic Drive HWY 41, Yosemite

waterfalls cascading down the moutnains in Yosemite Valley
WOW!! Tunnel View

Are you ready for one of the most spectacular views in California?

Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park is best seen in May when the waterfalls are raging with all the snow run off.

It was out of this world beautiful. It was like watching the Lost World appear in a Disney Movie.

Bridalveil Falls plunders over the top down into the forested valley. Here is where you’ll get your classic view of El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rocks and Cathedral Rocks.

When you’re driving through Yosemite from the south gate down to the valley, you’ll drive through Wawona Tunnel. After you exit the tunnel, you are at Tunnel View! 

Three Yosemite Falls and McWay Falls were featured in our Best Waterfalls in the US list.

See more amazing viewpoints and Yosemite experiences in this 3 day tour highlights post.

California National Park videos

Check out the beauty and diversity of California’s national parks

Bike Golden Gate Bridge

close up of  Golden Gate Bridge to corssing the two mainlands
Bike ride the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most iconic sites in the USA. Make It one of the best things to do in California by biking across it.

It was too cold to do it when we visited with the kids, but Craig and I did it in 2006.

It was one of our most memorable San Francisco experiences. We rode over from the Fisherman’s Wharf area, stopping at Sausalito for fish and chips on the harbor and then continued riding to . and then catching the ferry back. Do as we do!

Read More: 28 Fun Things to do in San Francisco with kids

Visit Alcatraz

water with an island in the background
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco

I was worried Alcatraz was just going to be a kitschy San Francisco attraction, but I was so wrong. The girls loved it as well and I’m sure are convinced now to never go against the law.

The Alcatraz Island tour is a fascinating and real insight into life in this notorious prison isolated on a small island in San Francisco Bay. The narrated audio tour – complete with audio effects – makes it all so real. Be sure to book this tour in advance.

Visit the Oldest Chinatown in the USA – San Francisco

people jumpin gin street Chinatown in San Francisco
Leap for joy in Chinatwon

As the biggest Chinatown in the world, and the oldest in the USA, this is one of the best things to do in San Francisco with kids from a cultural perspective as they will feel like they have been transported to China.

Chinatown is bustling with markets, restaurants and small alleyways. Wander the streets and admire the pagodas and murals depicting Chinese customs, culture and beliefs.

While here be sure to grab your infamous Golden Fortune Cookies, visit Ross Alley, and eat Dim Sum.

A hidden secret is the Tin How Temple, the oldest extant Tao Temple in temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and one of the oldest still-operating Chinese temples in the United States.

Read more: Neighborhood Guide for San Francisco

Hug a Redwood Tree at Muir Woods, San Francisco

peopel walking on the trail in Muir woods California

California is known for redwoods, the tallest living thing, and you can see them in many places.

They are magnificent trees and very huggable. An easy place to see them is just outside the city of San Francisco.

Do the easy 2-mile loop walk and if you have kids be sure to embark on a journey of redwood discovery with their Junior Ranger Program.

Hike the Lands End Trail in San Francisco

woman taking photo of san francisco bay with fog covered golden gate bridge in distance
Lands End

A spectacular coastal trail in San Francisco filled with beautiful views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge is the Lands End trail.

The Sutro Baths at the end of the Lands End Trail is fascinating. It was once the largest public swimming recreation area in the worl before being destroyed by fire.

Read More: 20 Hidden Gems in San Francisco the locals love

Eat the Best Croissants in the Country, San Francisco

trays of croissants
Arsicault chocolate croissants

It pays to have insider knowledge. We were excited when our friend, Michael showed us around his home town San Francisco and introduced us to Arsicault bakery, one of the true hidden food gems of San Francisco!

The croissants here are award winning. Not just any award, but the BEST CROISSANTS IN THE COUNTRY award!

Oh My Gosh. They were divine! Have the ones filled with chocolate.

Read More: Mom‘s Solo 1 Day in San Francisco Adventure

San Francisco Videos

Watch our videos from our trip to San Francisco

Popular San Francisco Tours

Popular San Francisco Day Trips

Wine Tasting Napa Valley | Sonoma

people tasking wine at Alexander Valley Vineyards
Wine tasting Alexander Valley Vineyards, Sonoma

Just north of San Francisco is Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, both well-known wine tasting regions in California.

There are five towns that make up the Napa Valley region, and each one offers something different, from hot springs to hiking and boutique shopping to fine dining.

Besides the outstanding wine on offer, another reason to visit is the world-class food served up in the award winning restaurants.

Sonoma Valley seems to have more free wine tasting experiences; Napa being the more upmarket vineyard area.

We enjoyed a little wine tasting during our stay in Russian River in Sonoma County (see below) Wine tasting in Napa Valley is also on our list still to do in California. We also enjoyed wine tasting in Santa Barbara (Pink now has a winery here!)

Tube the Russian River with a Pliny the Elder

aerial view of tubing on Russian River
Russian River tubing

What is a Pliny the Elder you ask?

Visit Santa Rosa in the Sonoma County area and you’ll soon find out with the never-ending stream of people walking out of the Russian River Brewery with a $60 case in hand.

Yep a beer that good it fetches outrageous Australian prices and Pliny lovers line up for hours for the limited release of Pliny the Younger each year.

Pliny the elder and younger is known as one of the US’s best beer.

I did enjoy its smooth ride down my throat on a hot summer’s day and found it paired even better with a refreshing tube ride down the Russian River just steps away from our RV campground.

This is one of California’s hidden secrets.

Read More: 3 Reasons to Visit Russian River

Check out this wine tasting I did in Sonoma on my Northern California tour (also includes Lake Tahoe!)

Go Supping (and Skiing) at Lake Tahoe

view of lake tahoe with mountains in background
Beautiful Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is one of those dream California destinations – beautiful and available all year round. Nature abounds here and in the summer you can hike and enjoy water activities, like my favorite paddle boarding, and in the winter you’ll’ find some of the best skiing in the country.

Lake Tahoe is on the border of California and Nevada, whose crystal-clear waters and backdrop of towering mountains and granite cliffs earns it the reputation of being one of the most beautiful lakes in the USA.

Visit the Bodie Ghost Town

people looking at wooden buildings in bodie ghost town california
The Fascinating Bodie, California

The Bodie State Historic Park, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of North east California, is one of the best “life frozen in time” gold rush, ghost town experiences.

By its peak in 1879, Bodie had a population of 7,000–10,000, one of the biggest towns in this area at the time, and it produced more than $35 million in gold and silver.

Bodie Ghost Town is preserved in a “State of Arrested Decay”, meaning Bodie is exactly as it looks when abandoned in 1942, right down to goods still on the grocery shelf and the weights lying around on the gym floor.

It had a reputation for lawlessness, stage holdups, street fights, and gun fights and became known as a shooters town. Tombstone had nothing on the Wild West-style gunfights often erupting throughout the town, no doubt after a shot or two at any one of the rumored sixty-five saloons.

Read more about my tour of the Bodie Ghost Town

Kayak Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

tufas rising out of Mono Lake California
The mystical Mono Lake, California

In the middle of the Eastern Sierras near Yosemite National Park, you’ll find the ancient and mystical Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.

At over a million years old, Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America and has an average depth of 100ft.

Mono Lake is known as the Dead Sea of California. It’s 2.5 times saltier than the ocean and high in alkalinity. This is because Mono Lake has no outlet and only collects water where large quantities of salt accumulate.

It is known for its uniquely shaped Tufas – columns and spires of solid calcium carbonate formed when freshwater springs met the alkaline water of the lakes.

Read more about my visit to Mono Lake, California and what you can see and do.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

pine tree forest in front of mountain lassen volcanic national park

One of the lessor known national parks in the USA is Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.

It’s rich in hydrothermal sites like Bumpass Hell, with its acres of bubbling mud pots, steaming sulphur vents, and, boiling springs. IT sounds like a mini Yellowstone National Park.

Lassen Peak Volcano blew its top in 1914. Now it’s dormant, and trails and overlooks let you these amazing sites from within dense woods and sparkling lakes. The summit offers views over the surrounding wilderness.

Road Trip the Adventurous and Scenic Lost Coast

woman looking at view of black sand beach Lost Coast scenic drive
Black Sand Beach at Shelter Cove

Lost Coast Scenic Drive is an adventure in itself and I recommend you put it on your list of things to do in Northern California.

We started from the town of Ferndale and finished amongst the redwoods of Humboldt Redwoods State park which took us through high alpine forests and along the rugged coast.

Be warned, this road gets narrow and a bit bumpy in places, and allow approximately 4 hours to complete – it’s an extremely isolated section of the California coastline.

The highlight is the spectacular Black Sand Beach at Shelter Cove, one of the most beautiful and unique beach in California.

This is a California attraction not many people do! Off-the-beaten path here we come.

Read More: Lost Coast California Road trip: Your guide to adventure

Drive the Avenue of Giants

car parked on side of road beside towering redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants,
Avenue of the Giants, Northern California

The Avenue of the Giants is a 31 mile scenic road that snakes through the Humboldt Redwood State Park between Phillipsville (south) and Pepperwood (north) in Northern California.

It’s renowned for the soaring redwoods standing guard along the road and welcoming you.

Humboldt Redwood State Park has the largest remaining old-growth redwood forest in the world with more than 17,000 acres of ancient coast redwood and Douglas-fir trees.

There are plenty of places to stop along the way and hiking trails to experience the redwood groves. It’s spectacular and we share all the places to stop along the Avenue of the Giants in this post for short walks and tree hugging experiences.

Grab a brew and delicious meal at SeaQuake Brewery

close up of beer
SeaQuake Brewing, Crescent City, Great California brewery!

California is full of great breweries and places to eat. It’s hard for us to recommend certain places as they all blend into each other. (Leave your favorite brewery or restaurant in California in the comments.)

One that we does not get lost in the crowd is SeaQuake Brewing in Crescent City on the Northern California coast near the Redwoods National Park.

We loved the ambiance, food, brew and craft cider from here. The Veggie Seastack was delicious! SeaQuake was one of our favorite breweries in California that we visited.

Campsite Dreaming at Panther Flat Creek Campground

Panther Flat Campground in the forest beside the creek
Panther Flat

Panther Flat Creek Campground is further north, yet still in redwood country.

We loved this relaxing stay by the stunning Smith River in the Six Rivers National Forest. The campsite was spectacular in the middle of the forest with largest sites, campfire rings and river access.

This was the RV camping experience I had been dreaming of.

Surrounding us were sections of the Redwood State and National Park. Don’t miss While there we took a scenic drive through the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park which was just spectacular.

You’ll find protected ancient redwood groves, open prairie lands, two major rivers, and 37 miles (60 km) of pristine California coastline to explore.

Fern Canyon, Redwoods National Park

person walking on trail surrounded by fern walls in fern canyon northern california
Fern Canyon

Up in the Redwoods State Park is a canyon in a narrow gorge carved out by Home Creek. Its steep cliff walls are covered with ancient species of lush fern.

We wanted to visit here when exploring Northern California and in the Crescent City area but we just couldn’t make it happen as it was a little more off-the-beaten path.

A short trail follows a series of small footbridges past hanging gardens, miniature waterfalls pour down rock faces, and moss wallpapers every surface. Steven Spielberg filmed a Jurassic Park II scene within this canyon.

As a lover of all things green, forestry and ferns, this would be a wonderful California sight.

Fern Canyon is a canyon in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County, California. The Redwoods National and State Park area is unusual as it is comprised of multiple state and national park areas.

Northern California Playlist

Watch our videos from our Northern California road trip.

What else should we do in California?

While we have seen and done a lot in California, there is still so much left on our bucket list. We have a few more things to experience based upon stories from friends and recommendations from our community.

Grab a printable copy of this bucket list when you join our free VIP email community. Lots of insider tips, guides, checklists and itineraries.

California Bucket List
Your FREE Guide to the BEST of California. Printable checklist + personal updates and insider tips! 
Featured Image

Share your recommendations and tips in the comments for the best things to do in California on our next visit.

Sightseeing Pass: Save Money on California Travel

Cable Car goind down hill in  San Francisco

Discount tourist cards are a great way to save money on popular attractions. With their skip-the-line tickets they can also save you a lot of time.

The Sightseeing Pass is our favorite discount attraction pass as it often includes quirky local attractions, walking tours, discounted food and shopping, and has a huge range of attractions and flexibility.

Check out these California Sightseeing Passes:

Car Rental for California

California is a fantastic road trip destination. If you have your own car, keep on reading.

If you don’t, Rentalcars.com is our most trusted source for car rental. (We’re affiliate partners with them as a result!)

Booking California Accommodation

Each of the posts below have accommodation recommendations specific to the destination and from our personal experiences + ones we have thoroughly reviewed.

We recommend finding California accommodation on Booking.com (includes apartments, villas, hotels)

G Adventures Tours

For those, who don’t want the hassle of organizing your own road trip of California, we highly recommend G Adventures guided tours.

Pin Below To Save On Pinterest

You may also like

You may also like

About The Author

4 Powerful Ways to Travel More & Create Better Memories
Want to know how we've made a lifetime of travel for 24 years? Insider tips and updates! 
This is what gives us incredible memories to share around the campfire. Join our community for insider tips and updates!
Scroll to Top