Santa Barbara, California. Photo by Photopippo.
Best: September-October for the north coast, anytime of the year for the mountains as a whole.
June-September for the south, except the deserts which are best visited in the spring for coolness and flowery bloom.
Worst: June-August intense heat in the deserts, Nov-March mountains, esp. north get chilly or impassable.
This massive state offers over-extended geographic possibilities, so either pick the top spots and be prepared for lengthy and/or expensive transport in between destinations or stick to one zone and explore it thoroughly.
From south California to north
Mission Bay in San Diego. Photo by Phil Konstantin.
San Diego: choose this southern Cal city over Los Angeles if you want to feel more welcome and don’t mind about missing iconic sights, though avoid the wetter winter months and – unusually – May and June when a heavy sea fog tends to block sunshine.
Head Downtown for traditional buildings and for evening meals; the atmosphere in the Gaslamp Quarter is delightful.
Surfing is good along the nearby beaches, the Embarcadero waterfront has a Maritime Museum and nearby Balboa Park is a landscaped botanical delight of near centennial age with Spanish style buildings, theaters, and worthwhile museums.
Mission Bay, a reclaimed marshland, has the original Sea World and a fine beach, Ocean beach is perhaps the most popular stretch of sand and pier is while out on Coronado island Coronado beach is big, with good sand and plenty of facilities.
Los Angeles’ famously wacky Venice Beach. Photo by Theory23.
Los Angeles: 88 cities within this monster City of Angels, so take your pick of the best bits, but make sure you visit spacious and slightly unhinged Venice beach and tour the houses of the rich and famous as well as taking a trip Downtown. More Los Angeles
Ventura to Channel Islands: just north of LA and directly off Ventura the Channel Islands National Park is essentially a wildlife refuge, with an abundance of seals, seal lions and the like. You can get to the islands from Ventura and Santa Barbara by ferry or take a plane.
Santa Barbara: an affluent, tranquil resort town with endless palm trees and gorgeous old Spanish style architecture, but kept down to earth by a mass of students. Splendid architecture everywhere, but everywhere, is a big attraction: there’s the Town Hall, El Presidio rebuilt Spanish fort, the old Mission, the Museum of Natural History and many more; or stroll the seafront, the upmarket shops or head 12 miles south to big, friendly and wildlife-visited Carpinteria State Beach.
Big Sur and the Pacific Coast Highway. Photo by Diliff.
Big Sur: the biggest attraction apart from the cities is this stunning area. Coastal beauty is protected here with virtually no street lights and few amenities but there are several parks and attractions – the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park will show you a waterfall into the sea; the Andrew Molera and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or Venata Wilderness will get you hiking.
Big Sur is about 120 miles (193 km) south of San Francisco and 245 miles (394 km) north) of Los Angeles.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Schwen.
San Francisco has a compact layout with a real community feel, an interestingly hilly layout serviced by quirky trams, a world famous bridge, a smart alternative culture, good outdoor recreational opportunities nearby, and seals like it. All-in-all one of the most tourist-friendly cities in America. More San Francisco
A Napa Valley château with vineyard. Photo by Almonroth.
Napa and Sonoma Valleys: these valleys cut through the Coast Range from the Sacramento Valley and are the top wine growing regions in the state. Calistoga, St Helena and Sonoma are worthwhile stops while touring the many wineries for freebies in Sonoma and not-so-freebies in Napa; also try a spa or mudbaths in the area.
Sacramentothe state capital is mainly for historical tourists as Old Sacramento has an abundance of period buildings.
Sutter’s Fort is how it all began; an old steamboat sits on the river, plus there are several good museums: the California State Railroad, Indian Museum and the Discovery Museum.
Main Festivals and Parades
1st January, Tournament of Roses, Pasadena, Los Angeles, an immense flowery spectacle and games.
May, Cinco de Mayo, City Hall, Los Angeles, colourful stateside representation of Mexico’s biggest celebration.
May, Chinese New Year, Chinatown, San Francisco, mythical beasties and other oriental stuff.
October, Halloween Costume Parade, The Castro, San Francisco, where deranged and morbid costumes abound.
December, Christmas Parade, Hollywood, Los Angeles, celebrities kick the season off.
Sierra Nevada Mountains: These high alpine mountains run parallel to the ocean for half the length of the state and contain some of Cailfornia’s most dramatic hiking and biking trails, superb mountain climbs, and stunning scenic drives. But beware the cold, even in mid-summer (at night) and prowling bears.
Some of the best National Parks in the Sierra Nevada are Yosemite (see below), Kings Canyon, Sequoia and the John Muir Wilderness.
Yosemite Valley seen from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park. Photo by Tuxyso.
Yosemite National Park: One of the most popular parks in the country; massive trees, big waterfalls (tho’ not if it’s a dry summer), monstrous monolithic rocks and huge crowds can be found in Yosemite Valley, but head up to the hundreds of miles of trails around beautiful, alpine Tuolumne Meadows and similar areas to escape from the masses. Yosemite Pictures and information.
Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks are right next to each other so treat them as one experience.
See the world’s largest tree, the General Sherman in the Giant Forest, and the General Grant in its namesake Grove, climb Moro Rock for the views and enter the massive Crystal Cave.
John Muir Wilderness
Ridge view of basin above Purple Lake, John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada. Photo by Dcrjsr.
Gold Rush Sierra Nevada foothills: at the bottom of the north west slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range are the hills and rivers that created the great 19th century gold rush.
There’s plenty to explore just like the prospectors before you, try the Empire Mine State Historic Park for the old mines and North Star Mining Museum for the tools used to mine them; Jackson has the Kennedy Mine and related museum; Cave City 9 and Murphy’s have further tourable mining caverns; Sutter Creek still has good architectural references to it’s 19th C mining days.
Lake Tahoe: cut by both California and Nevada borders is this grand lake embraced by forests and mountains. Head for Lake Tahoe – Nevada State Park and DL Bliss State Park for hiking and beaches but avoid the charmless southern shores.
Cascade Range: This fiery volcanic mountain range extends all the way from northern California through Oregon, Washington and into British Columbia, Canada.
Mt Shasta for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, golf, skiing in the winter and other activities; McCloud town at Shasta’s base is pleasant and convenient.
Lassen Volcanic National Park offers miles of lava flows and craters. It could save a trip to Iceland except it lacks stinking fish.
Lava Beds National Monument: geothermal hot spots, sulphorous vents and caves, as well as Lassen Peak, the biggest plugged volcano in the world.