California could easily be its own country. And that’s no hyperbole. A wealth of topographic and ecological diversity bless Golden State residents and visitors alike with a bottomless bank vault overflowing with an invaluable resource: adventure.
In between Oregon and Mexico, over 700 miles of winding coastline attracts outdoor lovers by the thousands. In places, that coastline is crowded, built-up, vibrant, metropolitan (Los Angeles and San Francisco), and in others, like NorCal’s infamous Lost Coast, it’s as desolate and wild place. National Parks like Yosemite, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley showcase elements of a landscape worth conserving.
After years of living in and exploring this Pacific paradise, we put together this little guide with four awesome activities to experience in California, ranging from camping in the Mojave to surfing the frigid waters off the northern California coast. Whether or not these trips are up your alley, they should at least serve as a solid jumping off point to help you plan an epic California adventure.
Camping in the Desert
When people think of California, desert isn’t often the first type of terrain that comes to mind. That said, California’s deserts are extensive in scope and breathtaking in beauty.
National Park Camping in Death Valley: Death Valley’s the largest national park in the lower 48, clocking in at 3.3 million acres. Within that enormous area, extreme temperatures and lack of rainfall are to be expected. The best time to visit is in March through May, when heat is on the menu but you won’t necessarily be overwhelmed by 120-degree days. Reservable car camping is available at Furnace Creek, but those willing to wing it can try some of the cheaper or free first-come, first served options. Check out the NPS camping guide here.
Roadside Camping in the Mojave: The Mojave National Preserve is a fantastic option for road trippers, as its one of few easily accessible spots in California that’s open to free roadside camping. That said, if you do decide to check out the Mojave, make sure to read up on the NPS roadside camping policies so that you preserve and protect this wild space for future generations.
Surfing the Nor Cal Coast
Surfing is synonymous with California, but it should come as no surprise that most of the paddling pressure occurs in the southern reaches of the state, where warmer waters, more consistent breaks, and a more pervasive surf scene mean that lineups can rival Hawaiian levels of congestion. If you’re opting for a California surf trip but are hoping to explore off the beaten path, your best bets fall north of San Francisco.
In between the mellow, crowded left of Bolinas (a stone’s throw north from SF) and the sweeping beach break of South Beach in Crescent City (a quick drive from the Oregon border), there are miles and miles of surfable coastline. But difficult access, icy waters, rough currents, and omnipresent great white sharks mean that most surfers choose to avoid the unknown. If you’re willing to get adventurous, though, California’s cove-ridden coast hides a lifetime of surprises.
Hiking in Lake Tahoe
The deep cobalt expanse of Lake Tahoe is one of California’s most iconic vistas, and it makes for an awesome destination for a number of outdoor activities. Kayakers and stand-up paddlers can take to the water, while campers, climbers, backpackers, and hikers will enjoy exploring the surrounding mountains while gazing over the blue behemoth at every turn.
Day Hiking the Mt. Tallac Trail: A favorite hike of those in the know, Eldorado National Forest’s Mt. Tallac Trail gains 3323 feet over a 9.6 mile out and back route, topping out at 9735 feet above sea level and offering spectacular views along the way. Not an easy hike by any means, but definitely doable in a day.
Backpacking the Tahoe Rim Trail: If you have a decent stretch of time to dedicate to trekking in Lake Tahoe, the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail is worth considering. The trail actually overlaps with the famed Pacific Crest Trail for a solid 50 miles, dipping into Nevada as it circumnavigates the lake and covers some of the most beautiful terrain the Sierras have to offer.
Mountain Biking in the Foothills
California (specifically Marin County) is credited as being one of the primary birthplaces of the sport of mountain biking. While the coastal paradise of Marin is still home to a strong mountain bike scene, and the intermediate Camp Tamarancho singletrack is a top pick among riders in the state, some of the best riding is found further inland.
Singletracks’ hardcore community of mountain bikers ranks Downieville’s Downieville Downhill (say that three times fast) as the top ride in the state. It’s an experts only shuttle run, so you essentially pay an outfitter to drive you to the top, and then drop in on a 16-mile ride of a lifetime replete with technical rock gardens and splash-requisite creek crossings. The best part of the ride? Thanks to the shuttle service, you score 5.5K of vertical drop for just over a grand of climbing.
These four adventures—while undeniably awesome—represent just a taste of the options available in California. Looking for additional ideas? We recommend stopping by Visit California to get the cogs cranking.