I never realized how lucky I was to call California home until I moved away. As a teenager, I was anxious to get out of that state, but as an adult, I can’t wait to visit home. Now, I see the state for what it really is: paradise.
The state has almost any kind of landscape imaginable. There are sandy bluffs overlooking sparkling beaches, deserts sprinkled with tumbleweeds, cities tucked beneath snow-peaked mountains and fairytale-like forests with ancient trees.
California has more National and State Parks than other US states. But the Golden State is also home to vibrant cities, with lively art scenes, great nightlife and all kinds of entertainment. And don’t even get me started on the state’s mouth-watering Mexican food. Because we all deserve a weekend away, here is our roundup of the 13 best California weekend getaways.
1. Redwood National and State Parks
Coming in at number one are the Redwood National and State Parks, a sanctuary for the world’s tallest trees. Wander through the redwood forests, among trees more than 1,500 years old and 350 feet tall.
Located on California’s rugged northern coast in Humboldt County, the Redwood National and State Parks include four different parks, the largest being Redwood National Park. These parks boast more than 200 miles of trails, suitable for both hiking and horseback riding. Visitors can also explore the park by taking a scenic drive down the 31-mile Avenue of the Giants, or kayaking along the picturesque Smith River.
Sleep among the trees and reserve a couple nights at one of the many campgrounds scattered throughout the park. These campgrounds are suitable for tent camping as well as RV camping.
Highway 1 beckons with its miles of rugged coastline, ancient redwoods and blooming wildflowers. And, about 3 hours north of San Francisco, you’ll come to the beautiful Mendocino Coast. There, you will find the artsy town of Mendocino. Settled by New Englanders around 1850 as a logging town, today this quaint village has a Bohemian vibe, gorgeous inns and notable farm-to-table restaurants. Don’t miss the colorful Temple of Kwan Tai, just a couple of blocks off Main Street. It commemorates the history of the Chinese residents in Mendocino County.
3. Palm Springs
Spend some time in the Southern California desert while visiting Palm Springs. This desert oasis is known for its luxury hotels, golf courses, spas and relaxing hot springs. When not relaxing at an all-inclusive resort, take a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and see some amazing views of the Chino Canyon. If you’re a fan of art, visit the popular Palm Springs Art Museum or explore the art galleries along Palm Canyon Drive.
Surrounded by beautiful landscapes, visitors can take a variety of day trips or camping excursions in the desert. Visit the beautiful Tahquitz Waterfall or drive to Joshua Tree National Park, only about an hour away. Plan a day trip or a camping excursion to the park and hike among impressive rock formations.
4. Santa Barbara
Mediterranean-style buildings, sun-kissed beaches and world-class wineries can be found in beautiful Santa Barbara. Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, this dreamy beach town is actually a Spanish colonial city, and there are plenty of historic sites where visitors can learn about the town’s rich history.
Tour the Old Mission Santa Barbara, which was founded in 1786, or visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, which has a clock tower boasting panoramic views. If a day of sightseeing sounds too exhausting, lounge on one of Santa Barbara’s many beautiful beaches or watch the sunset from Stearns Wharf.
Those looking to learn more about the natural world can visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center. Round out your trip by staying in a charming boutique hotel in downtown Santa Barbara.
5. San Diego
Unlike my teenage self, my adult self is obsessed with San Diego, my hometown. This sprawling Southern California city has a laid-back vibe and is blessed with year-round sun, stunning beaches and tons of family-friendly attractions.
The San Diego Zoo is the best zoo in the US. Okay, maybe I’m a bit biased, but it is the most visited zoo in North America. You could spend all day exploring this 1,800-acre zoo, but if you budget your time right, you can also check out neighboring Balboa Park, with its many museums, gardens and picnic spots.
Venture to downtown San Diego and visit the historic USS Midway Museum, a naval aircraft carrier and museum. Enjoy the area’s nightlife at the Gaslamp Quarter. To enjoy San Diego’s beautiful nature, take a scenic hike in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve or head to the beach in La Jolla or Pacific Beach. To sample Southern California Mexican food we recommend visiting Old Town, a neighborhood that preserves San Diego’s history and rich Mexican culture.
6. Los Angeles
It’s impossible to be bored in Los Angeles. With iconic attractions, luxury shopping, beaches and year-round sun, LA always makes for an eventful trip. Movie-buffs will be enchanted by the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, Universal Studios Hollywood and the TCL Chinese Theatre. Various studios, including Warner Bros. Studio and Paramount Pictures, also offer tours to the public.
Of course Los Angeles is also known for its stunning beaches. Pack your beach bags and visit Venice Beach, Malibu Beach or Santa Monica. Also budget some time to explore the Santa Monica pier, which is a great place to take pictures, grab a bite to eat or ride an iconic ferris wheel.
Art lovers will enjoy visiting the Getty Center, which exhibits a vast collection of art in an architecturally unique structure. And lastly, be sure to visit Griffith Observatory, where you can explore a variety of exhibits for free or watch a planetarium show for a cost. Located on Mount Hollywood, the observatory also provides panoramic views of LA.
7. Napa Valley
Home to more than 400 wineries, Napa Valley is the dream getaway destination for wine-lovers. Start your visit by going wine-tasting at one of these picturesque vineyards. Be sure to sample some Cabernet Sauvignon, which Napa Valley is most known for. Fill up before or after the tasting with a picnic in the vineyard.
Napa Valley also makes for an incredible romantic getaway. Lean into the romance by taking your significant other on a hot air balloon ride. This popular attraction offers breathtaking panoramic views of Napa Valley wine country. Visitors will also enjoy simply strolling through the charming downtown area, dotted with boutiques, art galleries and restaurants.
8. Lake Tahoe
Calling all outdoor adventurers! Lake Tahoe has it all: hiking, biking, boating, camping, skiing, snowboarding and more. Nestled into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long, straddling the California-Nevada border.
In the warmer months, explore some of the area’s state parks, including Emerald Bay State Park, Sand Harbor State Park and D.L. Bliss State Park. There are also great hiking trails near South Lake Tahoe. To enjoy the lake, take advantage of the water sports rentals and spend the day kayaking or paddleboarding. The winter months turn the area into a winter wonderland. Stay at cozy European-style ski resorts and go skiing or snowboarding.
Visitors can also explore the charming small towns that dot the shoreline. South Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular towns, with lots of shops, hotels and restaurants. History lovers will enjoy visiting Truckee, which has several historic sites and museums just waiting to be explored.
9. Big Sur
Dramatic cliffs, pristine beaches and lush forests await visitors in Big Sur. This rugged stretch of the Central Coast offers the ultimate road trip experience. Big Sur stretches about 90 miles between nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Simeon. Visitors can witness breathtaking ocean vistas while driving along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway.
Explore the enchanting Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home to the picturesque McWay Falls and the awe-inspiring redwood groves. Other popular state parks include Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Limekiln State Park. There are also beaches and natural hot springs waiting to be visited.
There are plenty of accommodation options in Big Sur, ranging from luxurious resorts to modest hotels. To really soak up the area’s natural beauty, stay at one of many campgrounds. Just be aware that the cell service across Big Sur can be spotty.
10. Catalina Island
Escape to Catalina Island. This island is located off the Southern California coast and can be reached by taking a ferry that departs from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach or Dana Point. The island is known for its crystal-clear clear waters, white sand, rich marine life and cute coastal towns.
Avalon is the main town on the island. It is located on the southeastern end of the island and has a beautiful waterfront. Walk along Crescent Ave. and explore the town’s restaurants, shops and beaches. While visiting Avalon, be sure to stop by at the Catalina Casino, which houses a movie theater, a ballroom and a museum. There are also lots of wildlife tours that depart from Avalon. For some panoramic views of Catalina Island, hike up to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden.
Visitors may also stay in Two Harbors, a small village on the northern part of the island. It is a resort town with lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation, including hiking, swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.
With its rugged coastlines, beaches, abundant wildlife and tasty seafood, Monterey is a Northern California town with a strong nautical feel. Explore the iconic Cannery Row, a vibrant waterfront street lined with seafood restaurants, charming shops and art galleries. Located on Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the city’s most popular attractions. Here, visitors will learn about the local marine life and get close to lots of different animals, including penguins, sea otters, sharks, jellyfish and sea turtles.
Monterey is also a great place to go whale-watching. There are lots of tours that leave from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. History-lovers in Monterey will enjoy visiting historic Monterey Old Town, the Custom House and Monterey State Historic Park.
Also known as the “The Danish Capital of America,” Solvang is a charming village with rich Danish heritage. It is located in southern California’s Santa Ynez Valley, a 45-minute drive from Santa Barbara. With its Danish-style architecture, Scandinavian souvenir shops, tasty bakeries and family-owned wineries, this town has a strong Northern European feel.
Explore the downtown area and shop for handmade goods at local boutiques. The town is also known for its traditional Danish pastries, including aebleskivers, flodebollers and stroopwafels. These are available at bakeries across the city.
With more than 20 tasting rooms, downtown Solvang is also a popular destination for wine-tasting. To learn more about Solvang’s history, take a walking tour, visit the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art or tour the Old Mission Santa Ines.
Our list would be incomplete without Yosemite. This national park features awe-inspiring granite cliffs, towering waterfalls and pristine wilderness. A weekend in Yosemite can include camping, rock climbing, hiking, fishing, and wildlife spotting.
Hike to Yosemite’s most iconic landmarks, such as Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. Visitors can also stroll through Tuolumne Meadows or see amazing panoramic views from Glacier Point. Be sure to bring a camera to capture the area’s amazing wildlife.
Stay in Mariposa, a small town located just outside of Yosemite. It is a history center, steeped in California gold rush and gold-mining history; Main Street looks like a movie set for old westerns. Savvy business owners and chefs move there to open cool shops, wineries, breweries and museums so there is plenty to do and eat.
14. San Francisco
Everyone needs one good photo in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Make that happen and plan a weekend trip to San Francisco. This popular Northern California city is full of eclectic neighborhoods, interesting museums, tasty restaurants, trendy breweries and beautiful ocean views.
Experience the city’s hippie side while exploring Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood known for its colorful Victorian houses, funky shops, cute cafés and tasty eateries. For some authentic Chinese food, visit Chinatown.
Alcatraz Island, formerly a maximum-security prison, is another must-see San Francisco attraction. The ferry to the island leaves from Fisherman’s Wharf. Also in the area, Pier 39 is worth a visit. Explore the pier’s shops and restaurants and check out the sea lions.
Adina Keeling is a freelance travel writer from San Diego, CA. She worked in local news for a year until her wanderlust dragged her to Costa Rica, where she is now based while freelancing and traveling the world. Adina has traveled to 27 countries where she hiked active volcanoes, explored lava tubes and ziplined in the jungle. An avid solo traveler, Adina wants to empower other women to safely travel alone.