Things to do in California

Must-see California sights

Few regions of the world have been as idealised and mythologised as California – and yet it seldom fails to live up to the hype.

  1. Drive Route 66
  2. Walk among Yosemite’s geological giants
  3. Venture into the Joshua Tree desert
  4. Take on the rapids of the Kern River
  5. Catch a wave at Malibu’s surfing scene
  6. Witness the great grey whale migration
  7. Experience Lake Tahoe’s winter sports
  8. Taste your way through Napa Valley’s winelands

The Golden State has it all. A place of movie heritage, music legends and beautiful people on beautiful beaches, its glamorous culture is broadcast all over the world. Beyond the boardwalks, there’s an outdoor realm of extremes, from ski resorts to white-water rafting, soaring Yosemite to the deserts of Joshua Tree.

In collaboration with
Rough Guides

1. Drive Route 66

Has any other road in the United States been immortalised in pop culture more than Route 66? California takes in the stretch of America’s most celebrated highway from LA to Las Vegas, as it cuts across the Mojave Desert. One essential stop is Amboy, a place that seems instantly familiar from dozens of road-trip movies and car commercials principally because of the Googie “retro-future” sign for Roy’s Motel & Café, a 1938 landmark. Take time out to explore Barstow too, with its coloured rocks of Rainbow Basin cast in myriad shades, from vivid greens to deep reds. The winding four-mile loop road around the canyon is best tackled around dawn or dusk.

Tip: Dip into the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, which has relics from old roadside attractions

2. Walk among Yosemite’s geological giants

California has no shortage of awe-inspiring geology, but nothing surpasses Yosemite Valley, where the monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome await. Considered by many as the most dramatic geology in the world, a trip to Yosemite Valley is one of the best things to do in California. It’s walled by nearly vertical, three-thousand-foot cliffs whose sides are streaked by cascading waterfalls and whose tops, a variety of domes and pinnacles, form a jagged silhouette against the sky. Sights at ground level are just as staggering: grassy meadows are framed by oak, cedar, maple and fir trees, along with wildflowers and scores of deer and black bears.

Tip: A popular day-hike in the valley is the Trail to Glacier Point (10 miles; 5–6hr; 3200ft ascent).

3. Venture into the Joshua Tree desert

Freakish trees, sensual boulders and the nightly howl of coyotes make camping in this popular desert national park a real treat. Covering a vast area where the high Mojave meets the lower Colorado Desert, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most magical and intriguing things to do in California. Those spiny namesake plants are only found in the northwestern quarter of the park, where they form a perfect counterpoint to surreal clusters of monzogranite boulders, pushed up from the earth by the movements of the Pinto Mountain Fault below.

Tip: This is superb rock climbing territory – in spring and autumn, rock climbers sometimes base themselves here for weeks.

4. Take on the rapids of the Kern River

The Kern River churns up some of the most exhilarating whitewater-rafting opportunities in the USA, dropping over 12,000ft in 150 miles. The tougher stuff is generally left to the experts, but during the season, which usually runs from May until early August (longer after heavy winters), commercial rafting operators vie for custom. By far the most popular section of the river is the Upper Kern, the site for the Lickety-Split rafting trip – one for families and first-timers, with some long, bouncy rapids.

Tip: Sierra South Mountain Sports offers Lickety-Split raft trips ($39–44).

5. Catch a wave at Malibu’s surfing scene

From the gargantuan waves at Mavericks to the hot-dogging longboard heaven of Malibu, California’s consummate pastime can be enjoyed year-round all along its coast. LA beaches and nearby Malibu is where modern surf culture went mainstream in the late 1950s, and it’s still a major surfing nexus today. South of San Fran, pros flock to take on the mighty breaks at Mavericks Beach, which has the biggest waves in the USA (captured in all its raging glory in the surfing documentary Riding Giants). Just watching them can be an exhilarating way to spend an hour or so and hundreds of people do just that each day.

Tip: Work your way up to the big swells with a week at Malibu Makos Surf Camp.

6. Witness the great grey whale migration

Marine life abounds in the balmy waters of California – especially in springtime, when grey whales make their annual migration Some 23,000 whales make the 13,000-mile round-trip, from their summer feeding grounds near Alaska to its winter breeding grounds off Baja California and back again. You can spot them swimming just a half-mile from the shoreline in small groups. Point reyes is a favourite watching spot, as are the beaches along Hwy-1 south to Santa Cruz.

Tip: March brings the Mendocino Whale Festival, a celebration of food and headland views of whales returning to the Arctic.

7. Experience Lake Tahoe’s winter sports

Winter sports might not immediately spring to mind when you’re planning what to do in California. But this state has its share of celebrated slopes; especially at Lake Tahoe, home to some of the best downhill skiing in North America. Snowboarding is equally popular and most resorts have massive snow parks with radical halfpipes and jumps. The slopes are usually open from mid-November to April or later, with peak season being January to March.

Tip: The most popular resort is Heavenly, a top location and big on scale with 27 lifts running up 3,500 vertical feet.

8. Taste your way through Napa Valley’s winelands

Plenty of California holiday packages take in the gorgeous Napa Valley wine route. Heading into the golden, arid and balmy wineland, barely an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, can feel like entering another country. Along this 30-mile strip of gently landscaped corridors and lush hillsides, wildflowers mellow into fall shades by grape-harvest time. There seems to be a B&B or spa for every grape on the vine, Almost all of the region’s many wineries offer tours and tastings, usually for a variable charge (typically $20–50).

Tip: Visit Beringer Vineyard in St Helena for its Gothic “Rhine House”, modelled on the Rhine Valley home of Jacob Beringer.

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