Sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, vast deserts, snow-capped peaks. California has it all. Adventure opportunities are endless here. We’ve been making our way through our bucket-list California destinations, and while we feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface, we hope our experiences will inspire you to discover this adventure-lover’s paradise for yourself.
Top Things to Do in California
- Climb (or just watch others climb) the famous Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
- Kick off your shoes on the sand dunes of Death Valley.
- Take in the stunning views where desert meets mountains in the Alabama Hills.
- See General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, at Sequoia National Park.
- Go on an epic backpacking trip in King’s Canyon.
- Drive North to South along the pacific coast highway.
- Stroll through a dreamlike landscape among a forest of Joshua Trees.
- Tackle Mount Whitney to stand at the tallest point in the contiguous United States.
California National Parks
California is home to 9 unique national parks, covering every range of climate from the scorching heat of Death Valley to the snow-capped peaks of Yosemite:
- Death Valley National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Sequoia National Park
- King’s Canyon National Park
- Channel Island National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Pinnacles National Park
- Redwood National Park
We spent one month living in Ridgecrest, located in the center of Southern California, just about an hour from Death Valley National Park, 2 hours from Los Angeles, and 3 hours from Joshua Tree National Park. The vast array of unique landscapes you will find in this area are otherworldly and are sure to blow your mind.
Below are a few of our favorite places in Southern California:
- Death Valley National Park: the largest national park in the United States, spanning 3.3 million acres. From salt flats and sand dunes to craters and rugged, red-toned mountains, the geological formation in Death Valley are unique, outlandish, and starkly contrasting.
- Joshua Tree National Park: a dream destination for rock climbers, Joshua Tree is whimsical and dreamlike – you’ll feel like a kid again playing around on it’s distinctive piles of massive boulders tucked away among a forest of trees that look like they were pulled out of a Dr. Seuss book.
- Trona Pinnacles: while the town of Trona has long since deteriorated, these extraterrestrial columns have withheld the test of time, formed thousands of years ago from the basin of a long-since dried up late.
- Alabama Hills: the snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Sierras provide a sharp contrast against the orange piles of boulders of the Alabama Hills, making for one of the most spectacular natural landscapes we’ve ever seen.
- Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains: Most notably home to Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the contiguous United States, these beautiful snow-capped peaks are a hiker’s dream. Alpine lakes and sweeping vistas await those willing to put in a little effort.
I’ll be honest: we had low expectations coming to Death Valley. The main reason we chose to visit was because we were looking for a place that would be warm in March. From all I had heard about Death Valley before visiting, I expected to find a vast, barren desert wasteland and some patches of crackling salt flats. But wow, was I wrong! Death Valley is home to an assortment of diverse landscapes – enormous sand dunes, rugged reg mountains, snow-capped peaks, and yes, an expanse of desert with very little sign of life. Every experience we had in Death Valley left me completely awestruck by it’s beauty.
To help you plan your trip to Death Valley, including the best hikes, things to do and where to camp, we’ve put together a complete guide packed full of everything we wish we’d known before visiting. We recommend starting here to plan the logistics for your trip.
Hikes in Death Valley
- Panamint Sand Dunes: one of the smaller, lesser known and more remote, but absolutely beautiful, sand dunes located on the western edge of the park.
- Corkscrew Peak: challenging and steep 7 mile hike leading to panoramic views of the beautiful red-toned Grapevine Mountains.
- Telescope Peak: 14 – 18 mile round trip hike to the tallest point in the park, with views all the way down to Badwater Basin to the snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Sierras.
- Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, and Badlands Loop: a moderate 7 mile loop showing off some of the most classic Death Valley landscapes.
The Alabama Hills
A hidden gem, the Alabama Hills is one of our favorite places in Southern California. The unique landscape is absolutely stunning. Piles of red rock contrast sharply with the snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in the background.
With just a quick drive, you can reach several awesome hikes into the Sierra Nevadas, including:
- Lone Pine Lake: a 6.5 mile hike to a beautiful alpine lake, that shares the trailhead for Mount Whitney.
- Tuttle Creek Ashram: a moderate 4.3 mile hike to an old spiritual ashram with awesome views of the surrounding mountains and desert valley below.
Located in the high desert of southern California, Joshua Tree, or “JTree” as it is commonly known, is 800,000 acres of martian rock formations, burnt-orange sand, and of course, the funky-looking Joshua Trees, with their arms twisting like contortionists. Joshua Tree National Park is about two hours from Los Angeles and three hours from San Diego, making it a perfect weekend get-away for those seeking some time with nature.
The landscape in Joshua Tree National Park is covered with thousands of crazy rock formations, making it one of the premier rock climbing destinations in the world. Many of the world’s best climbers will spend their winters in Joshua Tree before heading north to Yosemite for the summer. Besides rock climbing, Joshua Tree has plenty of other recreational options such as hiking, backpacking, camping, and horse-back riding.
We loved exploring the different areas of the park to find the many unique and popular rock formations. We’ve compiled all our favorite activities into the perfect one day Joshua Tree Itinerary here.