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California Bucket List: 25 Essential Golden State Experiences

California Bucket List: 25 Essential Golden State Experiences
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I’ll admit it: I never thought I would consider myself a “Californian.” In fact, I still don’t – even after living here almost four years! I moved to California back in 2017 for a job, and just never left. Like many others, I was drawn here chasing my fortunes, and discovered I like so much about California that I may never leave!

Maybe you’re considering a move to California, or just planning a trip to explore, and wonder what there is to do. Because of California’s size, there is a huge diversity of experiences to have. From big cities like L.A. and San Francisco to smaller towns like Mendocino and Palm Springs and then into the great outdoors – Yosemite! Shasta! – there is honestly a lifetime of adventures and experiences here.

But let’s be real: whether you’re short on travel time or acutely aware of the YOLO sentiment, we’ve got to narrow it down. To help, I’ve put together what I consider to be the ultimate California bucket list. This isn’t exhaustive, but it covers all of the things I think you absolutely must do when visiting or living in California. Which items are still on your California bucket list?

1. Visit the Coastal Redwoods

If you know me or have read this blog before, it should come as no surprise that I put seeing the Coastal Redwoods as #1 on my California bucket list. The Redwoods are my absolute favorite tree (anyone else have a favorite tree… just me??) and I feel so fortunate that I live close to them and have been able to visit many times.

There are a lot of places to see Redwoods, including near San Francisco. My favorite places are the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Redwoods National & State Parks (further north up the coast). You can also do a Coastal Redwoods road trip if you find you love them as much as I do.

2. See the Giant Redwoods

While I definitely love the Coastal Redwoods best, I also think that you can’t skip the Giant Sequoias if you’re visiting California. This redwood species grows inland in the Sierra Nevada mountains – there are only about 70 Giant Sequoia groves in the whole world and they’re all in California!

The best place to see them – and some of the most massive trees in the world – is in Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks. This park is more easily accessed from Los Angeles, but if you’re not visiting SoCal, you can also find Sequoias east of the Bay Area like at Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Calaveras County.

3. Walk the Hollywood Walk of Fame

I’ll be honest and admit: for many years, the #1 thing on my personal California bucket list was “Walk the Walk of Fame.” I don’t know why – I was just a Hollywood/movie-obsessed little kid and wanted to see what it was like.

Turns out it’s only mostly impressive – but still one of those quintessential experiences you can only have in California.

Hollywood Boulevard is in the heart of L.A. and only takes about an hour or so to walk before the rest of the neighborhood gets dodgy. Be sure to stop and take a photo outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where movie premieres happen – don’t be surprised if you get sucked into posing for a photo with your favorite character too; there are lots of buskers and such around.

4. Hike to the Hollywood Sign

California Bucket List - Hollywood Sign

Little did I know when I visited Griffith Observatory for an L.A. space story a few years ago that I was right around the corner from the Hollywood sign! The most popular way to hike to the Hollywood sign is from the Griffith Observatory parking lot; it’s a three-mile out-and-back trail to get a wide view of the sign and Los Angeles’ sprawl below.

If you plan to do this hike, prepare in advance to arrive early to get parking, and bring plenty of water and sun protection.

Note: This one is still on my own California bucket list!

5. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway Northbound

I’ve traveled solo a lot, but rarely take solo road trips – they’re just not as fun as having a co-pilot. But, one of my favorite solo road trips I took was driving the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to Seattle.

While you don’t have to do the entire PCH from Washington to California, you can do parts of the PCH to get a sense of the experience. I personally love the stretch from Crescent City to San Francisco; a more popular stretch that’s also logistically easier is to drive from San Francisco to San Diego.

6. Wine Tasting in Napa or Sonoma

If you’re visiting California, then at least one wine tasting outing to its famous wine country (Napa or Sonoma counties) should absolutely be on your California bucket list.

An easy 60-90 minute drive from San Francisco will take you into one of the most scenic parts of Northern California. Wine country is resplendent with rolling hills covered with vineyards, charming wineries with beautiful gardens, and some of the best restaurants in the world for a taste of California’s bounty.

Napa has one of the most diverse appellations in the world while Sonoma is the oldest viticulture region of California. Although both these regions cover a gamut of varietals and wines, Napa is mainly known for its bold Cabernets while Sonoma is world-famous for its fruity Pinot Noir. 

As for where to book your tasting, from the hundreds of wineries in wine country? Try St. Helena, Calistoga, Yountville, or Rutherford (Napa), or Kenwood, Healdsburg, Windsor, and Sebastopol (Sonoma).

Contributed by Paroma from Year of the Monkey. If you love wine tasting with your best friend, check out her guide to dog-friendly wineries in wine country.

7. Wine Tasting in Temecula

I went wine tasting in Temecula as part of my friend Kerri’s (pictured) bachelorette in Palm Springs.

If Northern California’s wine country isn’t your style but you still love wine – never fear. Temecula Valley is one of Southern California’s most stunning wine regions and should definitely be on your California Bucket List too.

Wine tasting is the main reason why people go to Temecula Valley. Temecula is a great choice, as it is a lot less touristy than the California wine regions further up north and most tourists you will encounter are locals from San Diego or Los Angeles. You can either drive around and explore the wineries at your own leisure or join a wine tour. This is a great choice because then you don’t have to worry about drinking and driving and can simply enjoy the wine tasting experience.

Aside from wine tasting, you can also do some fun outdoor activities, like a romantic sunrise balloon ride or exploring the backcountry on horseback. If you are more into glitzy nightlife and entertainment, add the Pechanga Casino and Resort to your itinerary. 

Contributed by Maria from San Diego Explorer. Read her guide to the best Temecula Winery Hotels to help you finish planning your trip.

8. Explore Lake Tahoe

Carson Valley - Hiking

Lake Tahoe is one of California’s most popular year-round playgrounds. The rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range houses a forest full of 17 million trees. And the deep, blue Lake Tahoe has 72 miles of shoreline. This means that the recreational opportunities in Tahoe beat anything else in California.

Popular things to do in the summer include hiking, boating and swimming at one of the 11 state parks in the area. Winter activities include downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. And any time of year, you can enjoy gambling at a Nevada casino or having a cold one at one of Tahoe’s many breweries.

As Mark Twain once said about Tahoe, “The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? It is the same as the angels breathe.”

Contributed by Carol from California Crossings. Curious about those beer spots she mentioned? Here’s her guide to Lake Tahoe breweries.

9. Walk or Bike Across the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world.  At the time of its completion in 1937, it was the longest suspension bridge spanning 1.7 miles. 

When you visit the Bay Area, you shouldn’t just see the Golden Gate Bridge but you must go across it from San Francisco to Marin County (or reverse depending on your transport). The views of the city skyline, Alcatraz, and the San Francisco Bay are worth it.

To get the full experience, ride a bike over the bridge to Sausalito which is about 8 miles. There is a side for bikes (the west side of the bridge) and pedestrians (the east side). It will allow you to see the bridge from many different vantage points.  

You can rent the bike in the Fisherman’s Wharf area and then take the ferry back from Sausalito. While you wait for the ferry in Sausalito, reward yourself for all the hard work by enjoying a meal by the water or some boutique shopping. (Valerie note: this is where I live!)

Contributed by Anisa from Two Traveling Texans. If you want to cycle across the GGB, read her complete guide to biking across the Golden Gate Bridge.

10. Explore San Francisco’s Chinatown

Speaking of San Francisco, you should definitely explore the rest of the city while visiting to tick the Golden Gate Bridge off your California bucket list. One area you can’t skip is Chinatown: it’s the oldest Chinatown in the U.S., the largest Chinese community outside Asia, and the most densely populated area west of Manhattan.

The best way to explore Chinatown is on foot; you’ll spot gorgeous street art, smell aromas wafting out of bakeries, bodegas, and dim sum restaurants, and can stop into the Fortune Cookie Factory to pick up a bag of tasty souvenirs.

11. Chase Waterfalls in Northern California

Mount Shasta Weekend - Middle McCloud Falls

As we’ve lived in California for a few years now and have gotten to explore more, one of my favorite discoveries is all of the waterfalls. I know Washington and Oregon have a ton of great waterfalls (like this road trip route), but that continues into Northern California!

Some of my favorite falls/falls on my California bucket list include:

  • McCloud Falls near Mount Shasta
  • Burney Falls
  • Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite (especially during Firefall!)
  • McWay Falls in Big Sur

Seriously, is there any better reward on a hike than a waterfall view at the end?

12. See California Condors at Pinnacles National Park

California Bucket List - Condors

There is something really special about seeing a California Condor and it’s not just because the California Condor is North America’s largest bird. The population was in steady decline since the 1900s and facing extinction.  In 1987, the last 22 California Condors were captured as part of the California Condor Recovery Plan. 

Through this plan, Condors were bred in captivity with the long-term plan to start reintroducing them into the wild.  In 2003, Pinnacles National Park was selected as a release site for the California Condor.  As of 2019, there are approximately 30 wild California Condors including two breeding pairs that reside in or near the park and about 500 birds in total the wild or captivity.

Pinnacles National Park is one of the best places to see the California Condors flying in the wild and it’s not just because it’s a release site.  Hiking in Pinnacles National Park takes park visitors up to the summit of the Gabilan Mountains and into the world of condors.  The birds are often see soaring above the mountains or resting on the rock formations.  Visitors are often treated to close-up views of these amazing birds that should be extinct. 

If you are lucky enough to see a California Condor, pay attention to their wings.  They are up to nine feet wide but more importantly, there will be a colored tag(s) on the wings.  The color and number on the tag identify the bird and NPS asks that all condor sightings be reported. As well, you can look up the history of that bird online at Condor Spotter

Contributed by Jennifer from National Park Obsessed. Read her guide to visiting Pinnacles National Park for everything else you can do in Pinnacles too.

13. Meet Mother Nature in Lassen Volcanic National Park

National Parks in California - Lassen Volcanic

Of California’s nine national parks, Lassen Volcanic is among the least visited. Maybe this is because it doesn’t have awe-inspiring rock formations (Yosemite), unique ecosystems (Death Valley), or towering trees (Redwoods, Sequoia/King’s Canyon). In any event, Lassen Volcanic has something unique and special of its own: the chance to see the forces of nature up close.

Lassen Volcanic is the southernmost terminus of the Cascade Mountain Range (that starts up in Washington!) and like other Cascades, it’s a hotbed for volcanic activity. You can see fumaroles, where sulfurous gases are escaping from the molten core of the planet, and walk through otherworldly landscapes actively being formed by volcanic action. Seriously, so cool!

Note: Lassen is still on my California bucket list, but I’m actively planning a trip!

14. Be Awestruck at Yosemite

3 Days in Yosemite - Yosemite Valley

I’ve mentioned a few of California’s national parks already, but I haven’t yet included the most popular: Yosemite. Of course Yosemite is on your California bucket list – it’s on everyone’s! That’s why it’s so popular!

The best way to experience Yosemite the first time is from the Yosemite Valley floor. You can drive the park road, see many of the park’s top sights (Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, Half Dome), and take a few easy hikes. If you have more time, you can use my three-day Yosemite guide to plan in more advanced hikes and jaw-dropping viewing opportunities.

15. Explore Otherworldly Landscapes at Joshua Tree

After the Redwoods, I think my next favorite national park in California is Joshua Tree. (Maybe I’m secretly an untrained botanist?) Joshua Tree is the most otherworldly park I’ve been to (I haven’t yet visited Death Valley though!).

You can easily spend one day to three days in Joshua Tree. While there, be sure to catch sunrise in the Cholla Cactus Garden, go for a few hikes among the rock formations and funky J-trees, catch sunset from Keys View, and go stargazing.

16. Go Stargazing in Death Valley

As I just mentioned, I’ve actually never been to Death Valley; it was one of many trips canceled in 2020… *sigh*

My blogger friend Marissa and I hope to visit again in the future though, to see the wild landscapes both by day (she loves hiking) and at night (I love stargazing). I’d especially love to visit one year when there’s a wildflower superbloom – but we’ll see when that happens in the future! As the lowest and hottest place in North America, it’s a particularly unique place to explore. And it’s right on the California-Nevada line!

While this one is still on my own California bucket list, it should also be on yours too.

17. Kelp Diving at Channel Islands National Park

California Bucket List - Kelp Diving

The Channel Islands are a series of 8 islands just off the southern Californian coast.

The islands are a mecca for water sports and hiking. One of the best activities to do is scuba dive among the giant kelp forests that surround the islands. This is one of the prime places in the world for giant kelp and swimming between fronds of golden seaweed stretching from the sea bed to the ocean’s surface far above is one of the top diving experiences you can do. For non-divers, there is plenty more to do.

The five northernmost islands make up the Channel Islands National Park. The southernmost island, Catalina, has two small townships where you can stay (more on that below). Ferries leave from San Pedro, south of Los Angeles; Ventura just north of LA and Santa Barbara. There are national park visitor centers in the latter two towns.

Contributed by James from Parks Collecting. Read his complete guide to visiting the Channel Islands.

18. Sail to Catalina Island

California Bucket List - Catalina Island

Catalina is a popular day trip for Southern Californians and over the years has even become an afternoon stop for passing cruise ships. If you want to kick it up and make it a true bucket list experience, the best way to enjoy Catalina is by spending the night on the island and enjoying the quiet island life here.

The tiny town of Avalon is only 1 square mile and packed full of things to do and feels stuck in time. This was one of the popular getaways during Hollywood’s golden era and was where stars would spend their holidays and where Marilyn Monroe was discovered being a taffy puller at the candy shop that is still open today.

To reach Catalina Island, you can book a spot on one of the two ferry services that run from the mainland. The Catalina Express runs from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point twice daily (with seasonal adjustments), and the Catalina Flyer sails from Newport Beach once daily.

Contributed by Megan from Bobo & Chichi. If you’re sold on visiting, here’s their full list of things to do on Catalina Island.

19. Go Whale Watching off the California Coast

California Bucket List - Whale Watching

Would you believe that in all the time I’ve lived in California, and all the coastal adventures I’ve been on – I’ve never seen a whale off the California coast?! Every year, thousands of whales (humpbacks, greys, blues, and others) migrate north and then south along the California coastline. Depending on when you visit California, you can see different species migrating to cooler and/or warmer waters.

While the best odds for seeing whales are from a boat tour, you can even spot them from land sometimes. (We heard during one visit to Carmel that they spotted whales right in the Monterey Bay the day before we were there!)

20. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Speaking of Monterey, that’s a good transition: the Monterey Bay Aquarium is arguably the best of its kind in California. It should definitely be on your bucket list if you’re exploring Central California.

This huge aquarium is home to a number of different California aquatic ecosystems, and you can see basically countless different species in simulated versions of their natural environment. Best of all, the aquarium is known for their commitment to research and environmental conservation, so you can feel good about the experience.

21. Go Surfing in SoCal

When we moved to California, I just knew Mr. V and I had to try our hands at surfing. Turns out we both love it!

While I actually took one surf class up in Bolinas on my own, we took our first surfing lesson together in Huntington Beach. I definitely recommend learning to surf in SoCal if you can – the water isn’t much warmer, but the sun is stronger and the beaches are nicer when you sit out to take a break!

You can find surf lessons in almost every coastal California town though, so you’ve got plenty of choices no matter where you choose to try and hang loose. 🤙

22. See California’s Stunning Wildflower Blooms

California Bucket List - Wildflowers

Over the past few years, California’s picturesque poppies have been in the headlines – and not for good reasons. These gorgeous blooms draw crowds – including influencers who have taken to tromping through on their own trails, destroying the flowers everyone has come to see.

That said, if you are committed to being a responsible visitor and staying on the trails to take your pictures, I think seeing the wildflower blooms should definitely be on your list. Antelope Valley State Park is the most popular spot, but you can see wildflowers in other places like Death Valley (which I mentioned), Channel Islands National Park, and even Mount Diablo State Park near San Francisco.

23. Trace Gold History on Highway 49

California Bucket List - Highway 49 Route - Photo by Cindy Rochelle
Photo by Cindy Rochelle

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but did you know that California is called the Golden State (in part*) because of its golden hills that also contain gold?

Obviously we all know about the California Gold Rush in 1849 that drew thousands of prospectors to the region and transformed California’s future. Today, California Highway 49 (named for the forty-niners) traces a path along the golden western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where gold was found.

This is a great road trip from San Francisco that allows you to explore smaller historic towns that still draw hopeful folks to the “gold in them there hills.”

*It also earned the nickname for golden California poppies, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the golden tones of sunsets over the Pacific Ocean

24. Meet the Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County

California Bucket List - Calaveras County Fair - Photo by Jeff White
Photo by Jeff White

I’ve mentioned Calaveras County before (in #2 about Giant Sequoias), and it’s also located along Highway 49 (#23). This county might blend into the patchwork of others in the area, except that Mark Twain visited the region and wrote what seems like a fantastical tail in 1865: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

As you can see though, it is not fantasy: Calaveras County is home to a Jumping Frog competition that occurs each May. Competitors bring their own frogs or use a local California bullfrog to see which one is the champion jumper. It’s quite a sight – and definitely a unique one for your California bucket list!

25. Visit All 9 of California’s National Parks

National Parks in the West - American Beautiful the Pass

If you’ve done everything else on this California bucket list already, you’ve also done this one – visiting all nine of California’s National Parks! As a reminder, they are:

  1. Channel Islands National Park (#18 & #19 on this list)
  2. Death Valley National Park (#16)
  3. Joshua Tree National Park (#15)
  4. Lassen Volcanic National Park (#13)
  5. Pinnacles National Park (#12)
  6. Redwoods National & State Parks (#1)
  7. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (#2)
  8. Yosemite National Park (#14)

If you want to visit them all in one trip, I have a 10-day California national park road trip itinerary. I also recommend using the America the Beautiful Pass (pictured above) if you want to visit all of California’s national parks; it will save you a ton on entry fees.

There you have it: some of the experiences I think simply must be on your California bucket list. Which ones are on yours? Or which ones have you done? If you have any questions, let me know in the comments!

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