California is one of the most visited states in America and for no lost cause. It is bustling with big cities, massive forests, and ample beaches. They have everything from mountains to oceans- but I’ve come across a problem.
As a California native that has traveled all over America, I’ve talked to hundreds of people who have visited the state. The only places I hear about every single time are Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Don’t get me wrong- these are two amazing, vibrant cities with a ton to offer, but they are not the only places in California that deserve recognition. This state is chocked full of adventure and beauty from the tip-top to the very bottom.
I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 places you must see on your next trip to California. As a Californian, I’ve been to all of them. I have an insider’s perspective- meaning I can tell you exactly what to expect, all the information you’ll need for your visit, and the must-see spots.
The best part about this list is that most of the places are completely free. On that note, let’s jump right in- it’s time to give all of California some love!
This spot deserves way more credit, especially if you’re someone who loves taking photos. Every inch of this place is picturesque. It’s hard to explain, but it’s basically a giant man-made mountain covered in artwork. It was created by a nearby resident and is completely free to check out.
Salvation Mountain has a very religious theme, hence the name. The main portion has a giant cross on the top with “God is Love,” painted underneath. Below that is a heart with the passage, “Say Jesus I’m a sinner please come upon my body, and into my heart.” Although the theme can seem to constrain, it’s enamored by people of all religions and backgrounds.
This mountain also deserves a place on the most instagrammable destinations in not only California but America. There are a ton of different designs, colors, and messages strewn about the cement.
It’s a location that is hard to explain but easy to fall in love with. I would highly recommend taking a detour here whenever you find yourself in the area.
Sequoia National Park
This spot holds a special place in my heart as I grew up less than an hour away. There are a ton of things to do, not only at the National Park itself but also the surrounding areas and towns. No matter what you’re into you’ll find something to love about Sequoia National Park.
As far as the cost, it’s $35 to enter. I would highly recommend purchasing a national park pass if you plan on visiting more than three in a year- the pass is only $80 and you can get not only yourself but everyone else in your vehicle.
The National Park is home to the General Sherman Tree, which is the parks main attraction. By volume, it is the biggest tree in the world. It stands at a whopping 275 feet tall. The entire forest is filled to the brim with the biggest trees you will ever see- literally. People pile in from all over the planet every year to gaze upon them.
This park is also home to Crystal Cave. This is an immaculate cave with crystals dripping out of every crevice. It truly makes for a sight you’ve never seen before.
If amazing, earth-made creations interest you, you’ll marvel when you see Moro Rock. It’s a giant, lone rock that you can climb all the way up- and the view from the top is incredible. From this vantage point, you can see nearly the entire National Park; you’re instantly engulfed in a wonderland of nature.
That’s not at all. This park also holds a wonder called the Tunnel Tree- the name is pretty self-explanatory. In 1937, one of the giant sequoias fell into the road. Instead of clearing it away, they decided to cut a giant tunnel into it big enough for a car to pass through. Underneath its grand arch is the perfect spot for an insta-worthy picture.
This still isn’t everything you can do there- just the top spots worth checking out when you visit. You can spend a whole week in this park and never run out of activities. You can even choose to visit in the winter when the park is covered in snow- or you can stick to the sunnier months. The possibilities here are endless.
Hearst Castle is the closest thing America has to the Palace of Versailles. It was built by William Randolph Hearst starting in 1919 and finally finishing in 1947. Hearst gained his fortune as a businessman. He is credited with developing America’s largest newspaper and media company. In 2016, the mega-mansion went on sale for 195 million dollars.
Every single aspect of the castle could be its own entity based on the grandeur, so when you put it all in one location, it’s an absolute spectacle.
The bedroom looks like something Marie Antoinette herself would’ve designed. WIth decorated ceilings, curtained walls, and a plethora of patterned furniture, it’s a room fit for a king. Keep in mind this is only one or 42 bedrooms.
Of course, a castle wouldn’t be complete without an accompanying movie theater, airfield, zoo, tennis courts, gardens, and an indoor and outdoor swimming pool.
There are multiple different tours you can take on a visit to Hearst Castle and the prices range from $25-$36. They even offer special holiday tours, so if you’re a big fan of Christmas that would be the perfect time to go. The rooms are decked with hundreds of feet of garland, and an uncountable amount of decorated Christmas trees.
If you want a peek into one of the world’s most lavish lifestyles this is the destination for you.
This pink palace is straight out of a Barbie movie. On the outside, it looks rather quaint, but once you take a single step inside you’re instantly transported into some kind of dream world.
The main dining area is littered with pink booths, pink tablecloths, pink roses- well pink everything really. The only exceptions are the ever-present gold trim and cascade of chandeliers. The restaurant guests are dazzled with live music accompanied by a first-class menu. They deliver entrees and desserts that will instantly make your mouth water.
Visiting the inn is free, but you can upgrade your visit by dining at the aforementioned steakhouse.
If you really want the full experience you can book a room and stay the night. The rooms are absolutely eclectic. There is one that is completely laden in blue from wall, to wall, to ceiling. The same can be found with an all green room or, of course, an all pink room.
The rooms have special themes that correlate to their decor and ambiance. Some of the options include Safari, Bridal Falls, Old Fashion Honeymoon, Indian, Fabulous Fifties, and 105 others! It’s truly remarkable how much effort and thought was put into every single inch of this place. This hard work alone warrants it a visit.
Thousand Steps Beach
California is known for its beaches- and for good reason. The entire coast is bustling with beautiful options, but of all the beaches I’ve experienced, 1000 Steps in Laguna Beach wins the number one spot.
Ironically, there actually aren’t 1000 steps to get down to the beach- there are only 220. The reason behind the name is that it feels like a thousand. After a trip here, you’ll definitely be sore the next day.
In my opinion, this is the closest you can get to a tropical destination in California. Instead of the usual walk-into-the-ocean-nevermind-it’s-freezing act that many of us have experienced, the water here is usually warm enough to fully soak in.
When you swim far enough out into the ocean, you can look back upon the shore and gape at the incredible shoreline and the million dollar homes it’s loaded with. It’s truly a sight that can make you escape reality, no matter how fleeting. Whether you’re swimming in the Pacific, or tanning on the sands, there’s nothing not to love about Thousand Steps beach.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is similar to Sequoia National Park in that it’s a National park, and it has heaps to do in the surrounding areas. Other than those features- everything else is different.
It’s located about thirty minutes east of Indio which is famous for hosting the music festival Coachella. It costs $25 to get in in a car, but I’ll remind you about the National Park Annual Pass I mentioned earlier.
It’s known for its namesake- the Joshua Tree. It’s widely thought that Mormons passing through the area named it after a biblical man because they thought the tree looked to be bowed in prayer.
One of the neatest places to visit inside the park is Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, located in an actual pueblo! You can learn all about early desert living, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives. If you’re a history buff, this will be the spot for you.
A rock shaped like a skull is another one of the phenomena that can be found along with a cactus garden, and a dam, and a massive archway of rocks. There are immense hiking and even rock climbing opportunities with outstanding views of the entire park.
If you love the outdoors- particularly geology- you’ll find no problem making memories here.
This roadside attraction is home to- you guessed it- dinosaurs. They showcase a 150-foot long Brontosaurus, and a 65-foot tall T-rex made of steel and concrete. You may recognize them from the movie “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”
They’re completely free to look at, and you can even climb inside the tyrannosaurus for free. If you want access to the museum and more dinosaurs you can pay the small fee of $13 ($11 if you’re between the ages of 3 and 12.) These dinosaurs may seem like a perfect spot to bring little kids who are obsessed with the monstrous creatures, but even as an adult it’s a sideshow you won’t want to miss.
The Flower Fields
The only thing better than a flower is millions of them. The Flower Fields in Carlsbad are exactly as they sound- a field overflowing with flowers. Fifty acres of flowers make it the prime photo location. They’re planted in different patterns making it an absolute work of art. You have to see it to believe it.
This stop involves a bit more planning as they’re only open from March 1st through May 10th. It costs $14 a ticket for adults, and $7 for children ages 3-10 with free parking. This wonder is worth every penny.
If you find yourself in Northern California, Big Sur is a must-do. If you’re a fan of beach views you won’t be disappointed. The ocean is completed by seaside cliffs and a usually chilly climate.
This is also a great place to spot some wildlife if you’re an animal lover. California condors fly above you while sea otters scurry around the water- even seals will often make an appearance. If I was an animal I would probably choose to live in Big Sur as well.
Admission into the state park is $10 per car. There are also tons of options for hiking, camping, and swimming. You can swim during the day and then cozy up to a campfire at night.
Another plus is the beautiful towns along the stretch like Carmel and Monterey. The Northern California coast is often overlooked, but Big Sur is giving Malibu a run for its money.
Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch
This ranch is like no other you’ve seen before, and none you’ll ever see again. Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch is exactly how it sounds- but hard to imagine. It’s something that has truly never been done before. Long would place a large pole into the ground and then put bottles in rows around the entire thing. This made them look like “trees.” You can even find Elmer Long himself there from time to time! This attraction is completely free to visit so there is no reason not to!
This concludes my list for the top 10 places to visit in California that aren’t in Los Angeles or San Francisco. I hope this opened your eyes to the wonders California holds outside the big cities. The state has everything you could ever want from castles to dinosaurs and national parks to beaches.
Now it’s time to get out there and see them for yourself!