Most Beautiful Places to Visit in California: Road Trip Ideas & More


McCloud Falls | Photo courtesy of Discover Siskiyou

McCloud Falls | Photo courtesy of Discover Siskiyou

Spring is around the corner and with COVID cases in California (finally) trending downward, now might be a good time to start planning a road trip to safely explore the beautiful outdoors. Your options are endless: you can bask in 68 degree sunshine where the flowers are in full bloom or you can choose between the desert, beach, or mountains. From Dana Point to Idyllwild to Big Sur, the Golden State is one massive outdoor playground with scenic views for days. Here’s our list of natural wonders that you should add to your California bucket list.

Editor’s note: Please note that due to COVID-19, many of these places have modified operations to keep people safe. That means that, for the near future, facilities and services may be limited—including the closure of roads, parking lots, campgrounds, picnic areas, ranger stations, visitor centers, and more. Please check before you go anywhere to see what modifications may be in place.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
Photo by Christian Heeb for Visit California

You’ve likely seen photos of the vibrant orange poppy fields flooding your Instagram feed. Tucked away in the rolling hills of Lancaster, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve pays homage to the official flower of the state. The exact season depends on the rainfall that year but typically the best time to visit early on a sunny day in spring when the flowers are in full bloom (the flowers close to overcast skies and when it’s windy). Don’t pick the flowers and stay on the trail—treading on unofficial walking paths can potentially damage all the wildflowers in the surrounding area and you definitely don’t want to be that person. There is a $10 parking fee so make sure to bring exact cash or a credit card to pay with. 
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morro rock
Photo by Mason Trinca for Visit California

Morro Bay
Standing at 576 feet tall, Morro Rock, also referred to as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” is the focal point of a small coastal town called Morro Bay. The rock which is now recognized as a California Historic Landmark is part of the Nine Sisters which are nine volcanic peaks that stretch from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay. Throw back a few oysters (Morro Bay is famous for them) at one of their seafood markets on the embarcadero and enjoy views of the massive ancient formation while watching cute sea otters float in the water.
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bixby bridge
Photo by Myles McGuinness for Visit California

Big Sur
It’s hard to talk about beautiful places in California without mentioning the iconic Bixby Bridge along the Highway One coastline. This stunning bridge that was built in 1932 leads into Carmel-by-the-Sea heading north and it is a popular attraction for roadtrippers and photographers. The optimal time for photos is at sunset when the lighting is ideal. On the north end of the bridge, there is a popular turnout area where you’ll likely find other visitors trying to capture their close-up shots as well.   
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Visit Dana Point
Photo courtesy of Visit Dana Point

Dana Point
California is home to many sea caves, but the Dana Point Sea Caves are a bit lesser known and easier to access. Sometimes referred to as Pirate’s Cove or Pirate’s Cave, according to local lore, the caves were once used by seafaring buccaneers in the early 20th century. For the best views, drive to the Ocean Institute, head towards the rock jetty, and take the concrete stairs to the right. Follow the signs as you hike to Pirate’s Cave and get your camera ready to snap photos of the caves and the waves crashing in the background. It’s about a 1.2-mile round trip hike but beware, it can get rocky so wear proper shoes. You’ll want to visit when the tide is low because it can get slippery in some areas and you’ll likely get drenched during high tide. 
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At the eastern edge of California, just slightly north of Yosemite National Park, you’ll find a number of natural hot springs in Bridgeport. The most popular among them are the Travertine Hot Springs which are easy to get to, but also in a remote area which provides a nice escape from the city bustle. Take a dip in the Travertine Hot Springs while you admire the beautiful views of the Sierras and don’t be surprised if you see others bathing sans clothing. Pack your own snacks and water and make sure to clean up after yourself. These hot springs are free to visit so let’s keep it that way and respect Mother Nature and the local volunteers that maintain this magical place.
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There are no shortages of waterfalls in California but the McCloud River’s Three Waterfalls is one of the most underrated. It’s a well-maintained trail that’s about four miles roundtrip and provides swimming in the summer and beautiful foliage in the fall. Start at the Lower Falls parking lot then hike your way up the River Trail to check out the other waterfalls. Lookout for cool geological formations from nearby Mt. Shasta including basalt lava rock shaped in the form of columns.
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See Monterey
Photo courtesy of See Monterey

Only one mile long, Carmel River State Beach features white, sandy beaches and a lagoon formed by the Carmel River that attracts song birds and waterfowl. The protected bird sanctuary draws bird enthusiasts and is also a popular spot for dog owners or anyone who wants to enjoy a romantic sunset picnic. While you’ll spot a number of local divers and kayakers, the waves are really powerful so swimming is not encouraged.
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At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which is now open, you’ll find the magnificent Mount San Jacinto State Park. The tramway takes passengers to an elevation of 8,516 feet where you can hike more than 50 miles of trails and enjoy breathtaking views of the second highest mountain range in Southern California. There are also two restaurants, an observation deck, a museum, and a gift shop. Most areas of the park are designated wilderness areas so you might spot a few animals during your visit. 
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San Simeon
There are a lot of beautiful gems along Highway One and San Simeon Cove is one of them. It’s one of those viewpoints that most tourists don’t know about so you can enjoy stunning views without the busy crowds. Across from Hearst Castle you will find a parking lot adjacent to the beach and this is where you’ll want to start. When you get to the beach you’ll see an uphill hiking trail which you will follow along the bluff and continue on until you see spectacular views of the coastline. Enjoy the aromatic smells of eucalyptus and pines along the trail and make sure to pay attention for private property signs.
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Bowling ball beach
Bowling Ball Beach | Flickr/Daniela
Point Arena
If you go to Schooner Gulch State Beach at low tide and walk to the north, you’ll see a beach that looks like it’s covered in oversized bowling balls, which are actually the result of millions of years of a geological phenomenon known as “concretion.” It doesn’t sound as strange as it looks, so this is definitely one of those places you need to visit in order to understand how cool it is. Also, fun fact: Schooner Gulch got its name because, as the story goes, a schooner was seen stranded on the beach in the mouth of the gulch one night…but by morning it was gone.
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Victoria beach tower
La Tour | Elizabethmaher/Shutterstock
Laguna Beach
The locals call this strange 60-foot concrete castle-esque structure on Victoria Beach the “Pirate Tower,” but it wasn’t built as a place for pillagers to take refuge or lock up damsels in distress; rather, it was built in 1926 to house a wooden spiral staircase that connected a state senator’s home on the top of the bluff to the beach. The nickname came because a retired Naval officer who bought the house in the 1940s would dress up as a pirate and fill the tower with coins for kids to find. Go at low tide if you want to avoid climbing over rocks. Pirate costumes not required.
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Painted Canyon
Painted Canyons | Flickr/Chetan Kolluri
About 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs is one of the most unique hikes you’ll ever go on since it doesn’t involve just putting one foot in front of the other over and over again, but also climbing up (somewhat rickety) ladders to ascend a magnificent (and narrow) slot canyon named for colorful mineral deposits that cover the rock that were pushed up hundreds of millions of years ago by the San Andreas Fault system.
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Pfeiffer Beach Keyhole Rock
Pfeiffer Beach | Flickr/Gordon

Big Sur
This stunning beach is a must-visit for anyone with an Instagram account for two reasons: purple sand and Keyhole Rock. Due to the erosion of the cliffs above the beach that contain Manganese garnet rocks, the sand is filled with a marbling of deep plum that has to be seen to be believed. And as if purple sand weren’t enough, Pfeiffer Beach also has a huge rock with a natural arch at the base. Get there before golden hour and position yourself in front of it to capture the last rays of sunlight as they disappear behind the horizon. Find an amazing Airbnb near Pfeiffer Beach

fern canyon
Fern Canyon | Nora Yusuf/Shutterstock
Gold Bluffs Beach
The towering walls of this narrow canyon are draped with an ancient species of verdant ferns with ancestry dating back 325 million years and an otherworldly effect that has to be experienced in person. Every curve of the corridor brings another stunning view of vertical wetland, lush vegetation, miniature waterfalls, and a feeling like you’ve seen this somewhere before, which, oh right, you have if you’ve seen The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It was the backdrop in a couple of scenes, including the one where (spoiler alert) one of the characters becomes lunch for a flock of tiny Compsognathus.
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The Seven Tea Cups
Geology of the World and the Environment
Hidden in the Sequoia National Forest is one of California’s most stunning (and secret) natural wonders: the Seven Teacups, a succession of seven circular pools linked by waterfalls. It’s a very popular canyoneering site, but you can get to the upper pools with a moderate hike that doesn’t require any gear. Just, please, don’t even think about jumping in any of them unless you know what you’re doing.
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glass beach
Glass Beach in Fort Bragg | Aneta Waberska/Shutterstock
Fort Bragg
While we would never advocate for an entire town to dump its garbage along the coastline, that’s exactly what Fort Bragg did in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which certainly did a lot of environmental damage, but also happened to create Glass Beach, a stretch of shoreline that is covered with smooth and colorful sea glass. (While we’re pretty sure this is the cause, there is folklore that sea glass is actually created by the tears of mermaids. Sadly, it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out the truth.) Also sadly, because sometimes people can’t just appreciate beauty in the moment and insist on taking home a souvenir, the amount of glass is dwindling, so look and touch, but then leave it there. 
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Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point | Bill Perry/Shutterstock
Death Valley
Death Valley is probably best known for being home to the lowest point of elevation in North America (and one of the hottest places on the planet), but though we recommend you visit Badwater Basin, a sinkhole located 282 feet below sea level, at some point in your life. You’re really going there to check out this stunning rock formation that was featured on the cover of U2’s The Joshua Tree.
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burney falls california
Burney Falls | Flickr/Steven Bratman
Burney Falls isn’t going to win any technical competitions in California: it isn’t the highest, or the largest, and it definitely doesn’t fall directly into the ocean. But what it lacks in stats, it makes up for in beauty. Flowing at 100 million gallons every day, the 129-foot waterfall was dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” by Teddy Roosevelt, and is definitely worth a visit. You don’t have to walk far to see it as it’s right off of the main parking lot, but there are five miles of hiking trails to explore if you want to feel like you earned your reward. Our rec: Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it on the shores of Lake Britton (which you’ll need to access via the Rim Trail, as, currently, part of the Burney Creek Trail is closed due to storm damage/erosion).
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Black Sands Beach
Black Sand Beach | Danita Delmont/Shutterstock
Just a few miles north of San Francisco, at the bottom of a steep hillside, is a secluded beach that stretches four miles along the shoreline and is covered with literal black sand (hence, the name) and offers views of the Point Bonita Lighthouse and possibly a lot more, since this beach is considered to be a clothing-optional beach by some. The beach is pretty sheltered from the wind, and even though you’ll want to dress for typical NorCal weather (so, at the very least a hoodie), wear layers since you might find it’s warm enough to strip down to a T-shirt. Or, if you dare… your birthday suit. Also, avoid going at high tide when the beach can be quite narrow.
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Leila Najafi has lived in California her entire life and is still discovering beautiful places for the first time. Follow Leila’s adventures around California on Instagram or check out her travel recs here.
Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who plans to happily spend the rest of her life exploring California. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf to see where her next adventure takes her.


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