We are approaching one year since COVID-19 made its way to the United States. Now more than ever people are chomping at the bit to get out of the house. Being one of the most popular vacation destinations in the country, California has struggled to keep COVID-19 under control, leading to lockdowns and further restrictions on public activity. However, there is still hope for a California Vacation!
We are lucky enough to have access to just about any type of geological landscape. From open beaches to snow-capped mountains, vast deserts to densely packed forests, the Golden State has it all. From North to South, this is a guide of the best activities to choose from for your California vacation. We are not advocating for traveling outside of your sphere of influence. We encourage people to get outside and stay safe by wearing masks, respecting social distancing guidelines, and sanitizing. Protect yourselves and those within your community by doing your part.
California Mountains Vacation
California’s geology is highly complex, with a total of 352 intertwining mountain ranges that run throughout the state. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more diverse landscape in the United States. While the North holds the Cascades, the famous Sierra Nevadas are the crown jewel of California. The coastline is characterized by the North America Coast Ranges that provide beautiful escapes for all travelers. I personally like to stay nearby the ocean, so my mountain explorations are typically in the Coastal Range. No matter where you find yourself on a California vacation, you’re not far from rolling hills, snowy peaks, and wild waterfalls.
Ski/Snowboard California Vacation
For the snowbound thrillseekers out there, the topography means there’s no shortage of activities to satisfy that itch. In the winter, the Sierra Nevada and Transverse Mountain Ranges yield some of the best ski/snowboarding conditions in the country.
Known for being the highest ski resort in California, Mammoth Mountain produces unusually large amounts of snowfall in the winter, making it one of the most popular peaks for skiers and snowboarders. This is also one of the most expensive resorts in the state. If you have high standards for snow quality and a variety of features, then Mammoth is a must-see. There are plenty of other smaller resorts as well throughout the state, such as my home mountain, China Peak.
If you have never been to the Lake Tahoe area, then you are missing out! Overlooking the emerald-blue Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley Ski Resort boasts some of the longest ski runs in North America. Since hosting the 1960 Winter Olympics, Squaw has become revered for its advanced terrain and excellent ski conditions. My first experience at this resort was actually during the summer! I did a full day hike from the lodge to the top of the mountain and then took a ride back down. This is truly a beautiful piece of California. Make sure to check out rafting in the Truckee River while you are here!
If you are in Southern California, then Big Bear Mountain Resort is considered the epicenter for progression and development in snow sports. Home to the largest learning area in SoCal, it’s no surprise that skiers and snowboarders from around the world come here.
When things warm up in the Summer, the same mountains that offer world-class ski slopes shed their outer layer and reveal another identity; they become a go-to location for mountain bikers. Just another reason why California is a year-round travel destination for all travelers seeking an adventurous vacation!
Although its population is only in the hundreds, the town of Downieville has become a hub for California’s mountain bikers. The renowned “Downieville Downhill” singletrack trail has a 4,000 ft drop over its 17-mile length. Shuttles are available to take riders to the trailhead above, which also includes long suspension bridges that cross canyons and streams.
While most congregate to gorgeous beaches and pristine waters of Lake Tahoe during the summer months, those looking to get away from the crowds can look to the world-class MTB trails that surround the Tahoe Basin. With a variety of routes that cater to all difficulties, Tahoe is a classic MTB stop on anyone’s California Vacation.
Situated in the Santa Cruz mountains along the central coast of California is the Soquel Demonstration State Forest (SDSF). Uniquely located near the urban areas of San Francisco and Monterey Bay, Soquel offers a much more accessible option for riders from the city. Many of the singletrack trails carve through old logging road cuts created in the 1930s. This network of trails will change as timber harvests are conducted throughout the forest. This array of changing trails is always a new experience!
For those seeking a more tranquil activity, a California Vacation is hardly complete without exploring the diverse landscape on foot. From the coast to the border with Nevada, from north to south, some of the best trails in the country have been blazed here.
One of the most famous National Parks in the country, Yosemite, is truly a hiker’s paradise. With over one hundred trails that range from 2 miles to 211, anyone from the casual stroller to hardcore climber will find a trail that suits them best. However, if there’s one trail that stands out from the rest, it would have to be Yosemite Falls. This is the highest waterfall in North America!
Big Sur Coastline
My personal favorite place to do day hikes in California is the Big Sur Coast. Located along the midpoint of California’s coast, Big Sur is one of the most scenic stretches of California’s coastline. The undulating hills and steep cliffs along the ocean are interjected by dense redwood forest. This provides incredibly diverse scenery and amazing hiking trails. A prime example is the Andrew Molera State Park, which has trails leading through the Big Sur River, forest, coastal bluffs, and down to the beach. If you are looking for A quick hike to a beautiful waterfall, then Salmon Creek is your best bet. This quick walk off the highway has numerous falls, swimming pools, and massive boulder caves to explore.
If you want to pick up the difficulty, Mount Shasta in the Cascade Mountain Range is a great option that doesn’t require the physical conditioning of Mount Whitney. At just over 14,000 feet it’s still the fifth-highest peak in California. Shasta offers plenty of trails that cater to all levels of hiking. A popular choice is the Grey Butte Trail which passes through meadows, old-growth Red Fir forests, and the several peaks that offer panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Personal Recommendation California Vacation
In the Upper Owens Valley along the border of Nevada is another personal favorite spot to explore; The White Mountains. This area is home to the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine Trees (Pinus longaeva). The oldest tree they have sampled to date is over 5,000 years old. This species is incredibly resilient and will survive fires, drought, and low-nutrient soil that is common in the White Mountains.
California Coastal Vacation
Considering California takes up more than half of the west coast of the U.S, it’s no surprise that surfing is one of its staple pastimes. The diverse coastline and swells created by pacific storms mean surfing can be enjoyed year-round by beginners and professionals alike. For decades the sport has consistently grown in popularity and played an integral role in shaping the culture of coastal towns and cities. Luckily for those wanting to learn, California is home to some of the best instructors in the country, and waves can be found along the length of the state. For those looking to observe some incredible wildlife and stunning coastline, Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) Lessons or Kayak Tours are a great option during the Summertime when the water’s warm and the sun is shining.
California’s northern beaches are prone to very high surf. If you can handle the cold and have the experience then you will get some amazing waves. Head to the Bay Area’s Coastal side for consistently large waves at Ocean Beach, or Moonstone in Humboldt County which caters to a wider variety of skill levels. Ocean Beach is a place that can be deceptively dangerous; cold water and powerful waves make this spot an intermediate-advanced break only.
Central Coast of California
If you find yourself more central there’s no avoiding Santa Cruz, probably the most surf-influenced county in this area of the state. Steamer Lane is a legendary spot not for the faint of heart, while Cowell’s offers a more laid-back vibe with long rides heading towards the famous boardwalk.
Just a little further south, we find the cutest little beach town of Morro Bay. Cool water, consistent surf, and plenty of other activities in nearby San Luis Obispo. Bike Surf Slo in Morro Bay is a great spot for rentals and lessons if you need them! The quaint beach community of Morro Bay is one of the few remaining beach towns that isn’t overrun by big tourism and multi-million dollar homes.
Further down the coast, we have the cradle of the world surf industry: Southern California. While the waves might not get as big, they make up for it in shape and consistency. Rincon in Santa Barbara County is one of the most famous spots in the country, although there are great beginner surf spots as well. Head down further to Huntington Beach for year-round swell and wide-open space, or make the journey to Lower Trestles in San Clemente for one of the best and most consistent waves on the planet.
California Desert Vacation
California’s deserts are known for their unique ecosystems and form a popular tourism region of natural features and recreational development. Made up of the Mojave, Colorado, and Great Basin, all of these deserts are found in the southeast region of the state.
Set on the edge of the Colorado Desert, Palm Springs is one of the most popular vacation spots in California. The sun shines here just about every day of the year, meaning the summers are undeniably hot. The winter daytime temperature remains in the 70s, making it a wonderful place to be during the Winter. Whether you’re looking for lovely restaurants and shops downtown, some of the most gorgeous and well-designed golf courses in the state, or a ride on the aerial tramway 10,000 feet up Mount San Jacinto, there isn’t much you can’t do in Palm Springs. People often think that Palm Springs and Palm Desert have a huge water shortage. There is actually a massive water basin in the Coachella Valley that provides ample water for the hundreds of golf courses, as well as future a Surf Resort!
If you are looking for golf recommendations, then check out this write up about the 10 Best Golf Courses in Palm Desert.
For those who desire a more scenic vacation in one of California’s deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is a fantastic option. Joshua Tree has a stunning landscape filled with the comical trees for which the park is named. You are sure to find interesting rock formations, mountains, and serene open desert. This diverse environment has given the area a reputation for being incredibly peaceful and even spiritual. This is a great place to get away from the bustle and buzz of busy cities. Numerous hiking trails lead through the trees and high points of the park, and in winter it becomes a go-to spot for rock climbers.
Despite the not-so-welcoming name, Death Valley National Park is a hugely popular area to visit. There are far more activities to partake in than you would initially think. Thanks to its distance from highly developed areas, Death Valley is one of the best places for stargazing. The lack of light pollution makes the night sky darker and stars far brighter. Nighttime will offer the most comfortable conditions because of the high daytime temperatures.
Death Valley also has more miles of roads than other national parks, making it a prime destination for off-roading. Whether you’re on four wheels or two, you’ll have nearly 1,000 miles of snaking roads to get lost along, and there are rentals available for those who don’t own their own rock-bashing 4x4s.
California Vacations in Review
No matter where your vacation takes you in California, there are limitless opportunities for outdoor adventures. I highly recommend doing vacations in one central location, and then branching out in the area. I have seen so many people doing road trips throughout California for just a week or two. You could spend an entire week in Yosemite, Big Sur, or Joshua Tree. There are so many hidden gems in these places that you will miss if you’re just “passing through”. My best advice is to take your time. Do one trip in Yosemite, another one someplace coastal, and maybe take another trip during a different season. The seasons can drastically change your experience in the same place. Do enough planning to know where you want to explore, but keep your schedule flexible enough to change your plans.