The diversity of California’s landscape and climate makes it an adventurer’s paradise. In the north, you have the mighty redwood and sequoia trees, plus more national forests than you can count on one hand. The central part of the state is home to big-name destinations like Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe, plus the skier’s haven of Mammoth. The central Pacific Coast also has Big Sur, which is popular with both bikers and drivers. Further south, you have Death Valley National Park and the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Pacific Ocean surfing destinations between Los Angeles and San Diego. California even contains the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney!
In other words, you will be hard-pressed to find any other single state where you can do pretty much every kind of outdoor activity. Here we offer up just a small sampling of the adventure destinations in California. Have a look and start exploring!
Surfing in San Diego
With its 70 miles of ocean coastline, San Diego is a surfer’s paradise. It’s perfect for beginners, although there are also challenging surf spots that draw those with more experience. If you come at the right time, you might even see one of the many surf competitions held here each year, like the World Surfing League event held at Trestles, a beach in northern San Diego. If you are a beginner, check out La Jolla Shores or you can go down the coast from Trestles to Old Man’s, which has more forgiving waves. There are also multiple surf schools in San Diego if you need some pointers before you try your hand at surfing!
Hiking the John Muir Trail
Hike through Sierra Nevada mountain passes on this iconic trail that passes through three national parks. The John Muir Trail runs north to south through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia national parks and covers more than 200 miles. If you hike the whole thing, you will encounter an elevation of nearly 46,000 feet, and you should plan on the hike taking roughly three weeks. This is a difficult trail, and not for complete beginners to hiking. Also keep in mind that you will need a wilderness permit from the National Park Service to hike the trail, and getting one is competitive. If you are ambitious enough to backpack and do the entire trail, you will end at the next adventure destination on our list: Mount Whitney.
Climbing Mt. Whitney
Located in the Inyo National Forest, and part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Mt. Whitney is a top destination for adventurers because it is the highest peak in the US, outside of Alaska. Be prepared for a long day of hiking if you choose to do the Mt. Whitney Trail, which covers 22 miles and will take 12 to 14 hours to complete. While it is not a technical hike, it is a tough one that has more than 6,200 feet of elevation gains. Be sure to do research for the best time of year to go if you don’t want to deal with snow and ice on the hike (usually between July and September), for which you would need mountaineering equipment.
Located in northern California, a bit more than an hour northeast of Redding, is Burney Falls. Located amid the evergreen forest of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, the falls are a popular hiking destination, and there are also campgrounds nearby so you can fully enjoy this scenic area. There are more than five miles of hiking trails within the park itself, or the Burney Falls Trailhead of the Pacific Coast Trail will take you to the falls and then continue on into the Shasta Trinity National Forest.
Camping at The Pots
Drive about one hour south of Lake Tahoe and you will find Silver Lake (not to be confused with the trendy neighborhood of the same name in L.A.). If you are using GPS, enter Kit Carson Lodge, just off Highway 88, as your destination, as it sits at the northern end of Silver Lake. From there you can follow signs to the trail that runs parallel to the river running west from the lake, and you will find pools (aka, the Pots) amid the granite to swim in, and some camping spots.
Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island lies about 30 miles southwest of Los Angeles and can be reached in just over an hour by high-speed ferry. If you are even more adventurous, you can sail there and rent a mooring. Although many people come to the island to stay in a posh hotel in the small towns of Avalon and Two Harbors and to enjoy the beach, there are many more outdoor activities to partake in. The island is mountainous and offers opportunities for ziplining, hiking and mountain biking. You can even go on a wildlife tour to spot bison! As this is an island, there are also many activities centered on the ocean. You can rent a kayak, go snorkeling, try stand-up paddleboards, and even go on an undersea adventure in a submarine.
Biking Big Sur
As one of the most scenic stretches of the Pacific Coast in California, biking Big Sur on Highway 1 is something many cyclists dream of. The route stretches from San Simeon in the south up to Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterrey in the north, and if you do the full route it will cover roughly 90 miles and take more than eight hours, without any stops. The terrain and fact that you have to share the coastal highway with cars and motorcycles mean that the full Big Sur route is not for beginners. If you are in good shape but want some guidance and support on your ride, there are several bike tours you can join.
Hiking in Fern Canyon
The hike through Fern Canyon in northern California’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is Instagram-ready. You will walk through a narrow canyon with ferns and moss covering the canyon walls on either side. There are several hiking options available, including a one-mile walk through the canyon, or a five-mile hike on the James Irvine Trail that is moderately difficult. Just keep in mind that the trail through the canyon is also a creekbed, and depending on what time of year it is will have varying levels of water.
Exploring Death Valley
If you want something different than the ocean and forests of California, then perhaps Death Valley National Park is your kind of adventure destination. Located in the northern Mojave Desert, this is the hottest and driest national park in the US, and it contains the lowest point in North America. Badwater Basin lies 282 feet below sea level. Activities available in Death Valley include hiking, camping, mountain biking, and trail running. You can even do some epic stargazing here! Keep in mind that doing any of these activities in Death Valley in the summer is not a good idea, as the temperatures can reach up to 200 degrees F in some areas, and heatstroke and dehydration are real threats.
Exploring the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
This nature reserve in Inyo National Forest in central California contains trees that are more than 4,000 years old. You can visit Schulman Grove and Patriarch Grove to see some of the oldest trees in the world. Schulman Grove has a visitor center that is open in the summer, and you should know that getting to Patriarch Grove requires driving on a rough dirt road. But the drive is worth it to see the largest bristlecone pine in the world, the Patriarch Tree.