“Some say we’re a little spoiled in California,” says actress and model Yaya DaCosta in the opening of Visit California’s latest commercial. She’s right—it’s easy to feel spoiled when you're surrounded by California’s natural settings and iconic destinations, from the towering Golden Gate Bridge to the starry skies above Lake Tahoe. You can visit all of the incredible Golden State settings highlighted in the TV spot—and we’ll help tell you how below. Hike to the lush Fern Canyon in Redwood National Park, splurge at The Ritz-Carlton Santa Barbara Bacara Resort, go taste at Fleury Estate Winery in Napa Valley, and much more. Put these locations and experiences on your California must-do list.
Located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, it takes a bit of work to get to the North Coast gem known as Fern Canyon, but it’s worth it. From Highway 101 at Orick, drive unpaved Davison Road 10 miles to this spectacular canyon, a hidden paradise of ferns lining a narrow gorge carved out by Home Creek. Some of the seven different types of ferns clinging to the steep cliffs are ancient species, with ancestry tracing back 325 million years. Living underneath their leafy shade are some eye-catching amphibians, including Pacific giant salamanders, which can measure nearly a foot in length, and northern red-legged frogs.
The trail follows a series of small footbridges (installed in summer) deep into the canyon. Lush, drooping ferns create hanging gardens, miniature waterfalls pour down rock faces, and moss wallpapers every surface. The walls grow taller and squeeze tighter as you travel.
Are you experiencing déjà vu? Steven Spielberg filmed a Jurassic Park II scene within this canyon. Every curve and turn leads to another Instagram-it-now (if there were reception) view. Far too soon, the trail curves left and ascends out of the canyon, then loops back to the parking lot. More than a few Fern Canyon hikers opt to retrace their steps instead of continuing on the loop—it’s just too hard to leave this special place.
Insider tips: It’s wet here. River sandals or waterproof boots come in handy. The fee to enter the park is $8 per car, and it’s best to have it in cash, because it’s not always possible to use a credit card.
Think Napa Valley, and most wine lovers think Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Indeed, the Napa Valley is a single appellation, or AVA (American Viticultural Area). Yet within its borders reside 16 sub-appellations, each with its own distinctive microclimate, and often, its own signature grapes.
The St. Helena AVA, for example, home to the Rutherford Wine Company and many others on the celebrated Silverado Trail, is a warm area with less fog or wind than many more southern areas, making it perfect for a rainbow of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. Another estate that capitalizes on the variations of Napa Valley terroir is the Fleury Estate Winery, which has three vineyards in three appellations at three elevations.
Napa Valley is home to 16 sub-appellations, each with its own distinctive microclimate and often its own signature grapes, like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, and Zinfandel.
Many wineries here have deep roots as pioneer vineyards, showcasing Napa Valley’s longstanding commitment to premium grapes. Just a few examples: Mayacamas Vineyards is comprised of a stone building, which in 1889 was carved into the side of a dormant volcano crater on Mount Veeder (happily, that historic building survived the 2017 wine country wildfires). Sinegal Estate was once a St. Helena Pony Express stop, then the historic Inglewood Estate, before being bought and completely renovated by new owners in 2015. Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900 and housed in a building that dates to 1885, managed to flourish during Prohibition, when so many Napa vineyards were forced to shutter, due to their contract to provide sacramental wines to the Catholic Church. And some wineries have brought their own sense of history: Calistoga’s Castello di Amorosa, owned by Dario Sattui, makes Italian-inspired reds in a sprawling, 13th-century-style castle.
A new generation of wine growers is planting newer-to-the-area varieties as well. Summers Estate Wines in the Calistoga AVA bottles Charbono, a rare Italian grape found on less than 100 acres in all of California, plus a Greek Muscat Canelli known in Europe as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Plush, plummy Merlot is back in the spotlight too, such as Duckhorn Vineyard’s prized bottling from the Atlas Peak AVA.
Lake Tahoe has a split personality: half California, half Nevada. The two meet along the lake’s southern shore, where high-casino hotels (in Nevada) bump up against the base village for Heavenly (in California). Millions of dollars have been spent on upping the experience along this part of the lake. Relax at fire pits year-round at The Shops at Heavenly Village, with boutiques, eateries, and a multi-screen movie theater in a handsome stone and timber complex. Craft beer enthusiasts can sample local brews at Stateline Brewery & Restaurant. Outdoor concerts draw serious big names—think Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars—during summer. After all that party atmosphere, consider retreating to the zen-like calm of local day spas, such as Serenity Spa in the Heavenly Village.
In the adjacent South Lake Tahoe community, daytime diversions are easy to find as well. During the warmer months, Ski Run and Tahoe Keys Marinas offer watercraft rentals, as well as standup paddleboards for rent—with instruction or on your own—at expansive Lakeview Commons at El Dorado Beach. Afterward, dine with locals at favorites like The Naked Fish (excellent sushi), Himmel Haus, an expansive temple to all things delicious and German (plus some choice Belgian brews), and Base Camp Pizza Co. You don’t have to look far on this side of the lake to find some nighttime fun either—Whiskey Dick’s Saloon is a classic hipster dive bar with live music, Rojo’s Tavern offers a lively dance scene with DJs, and South Lake Brewing Company and Tahoe AleWorx, where you can draw your own pints, are two great spots to sample some of the area’s tastiest craft brews.
With towers soaring 746 feet/227 meters into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted bright red-orange, the Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.
It’s pretty easy (and free) to walk across the bridge itself, or to explore the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, which offers a colorful look at the bridge’s history, as well as the original 12-foot stainless-steel “test tower” used in 1933.
You’ll learn, for starters, why a bridge called “Golden Gate” is in fact orange. It’s generally accepted that the mouth of San Francisco Bay—the narrow strait that the bridge spans, was named Chrysopylae (Greek for “Golden Gate”) by early explorer John C. Fremont. (Captain Fremont thought the strait looked like a strait in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, or “Golden Horn.”) So it makes sense that the bridge is named after the expanse of water that it crosses. But what about that crimson color? Call it an unexpected surprise. When the steel for the bridge was first installed in place, it was only covered with red primer. A consulting engineer liked it, suggested the color be kept, and helped develop the bridge’s final paint color.
"The Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing."
Technically, that color is “International Orange,” but whatever it is, it’s an eye-grabber, whether you’re driving, walking, or pedaling across the 1.7-mile/2.7-kilometer span. Note that it can be a bit nippy and windy on the span, especially when the fog slips in (especially common in summer), so dress in layers, and bring a hat or flip up a hood to keep your head warm. Bike rental companies abound (two favorites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come equipped with detailed route maps showing you where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to idyllic towns, such as Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighboring Marin County. (For extra fun, catch a local ferry to get back to the city.)
There’s a nice gift shop and a café at the south (city) end, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost to protect the gate before there was a bridge. Look up for a remarkable view of the bridge’s underbelly, a spectacular network of massive girders, enormous columns, and impressive cables.
Along the spectacular Big Sur coast, you'll find a unique glamping experience: Treebones Resort, with 16 yurts perched on redwood platforms, each with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Step inside for some surprisingly swanky touches such as queen-size beds and cushy couches, plus sinks, heaters and electric lights. Outside, deck chairs provide the perfect vantage point for jaw-dropping sunsets.
Other accommodations—truly unique ones—are available as well. Designed by a local artist, Human Nest and Twig Hut are “wood-art” installations that up to two adventurous people can sleep in, making for a Big Sur sojourn unlike any other. And at the other end of the luxury spectrum is the solar-powered 500-square-foot “autonomous tent,“ a cocoon-like structure that includes a private deck, claw-foot shower, king-size bed, gas fireplace, and outdoor fire pit. Traditional bring-your-own-tent campsites with restroom and shower facilities are available as well.
In addition to simply reveling in the peaceful beauty of it all, there's no shortage of things to do nearby. Book a private guided daylong hike—your guide with drive you between trailheads—and visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park, or enjoy sea kayaking with a local guide in San Simeon Cove, a natural harbor 15 miles to the south. Treebones also sports a full restaurant, a sushi bar, a spa, a heated pool and hot tub (available to all stays) and an outdoor bar with that same ocean view, where you can kick back with a glass of wine or a local beer after a day of hiking, kayaking, or simply hanging out at the resort.
If the idea of ocean waves and a majestic sunset outside your window sounds good, this compound of glistening white villas on a bluff west of Santa Barbara might be your piece of vacation heaven. Situated on 78 acres along the Gaviota Coast, The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara takes advantage of its oceanfront setting to deliver “we’ll take care of everything” indulgence—ranging from cushy banquettes around fire pits to bespoke treatments offered at the onsite spa.
Bacara has all the amenities you’d expect at a five-star resort. Wake up in your guest room and have coffee on your private balcony. Stay in one of Bacara’s Signature Suites and shake or stir a martini at your own wet bar, then sink into a plush chair on your private terrace to watch dolphins swim by.
If there’s anything that will tempt you out of your room, it’s great food and wine in a beautiful setting. Options range from flip-flops-are-fine cafés to Angel Oak, a traditional steakhouse with ocean views. The menu, overseen by Chef Alexander Bollinger, features delicious filets as well as elaborate seafood appetizers, like the Market Seafood Tower—an indulgent collection of Maine lobster, oysters, crab legs, shrimp, and caviar.
Bacara has an outstanding—and enormous—wine cellar, with more than 12,000 bottles representing 1,200 labels from 75 international appellations and 13 countries. Local wines get big play here, plus there’s an onsite tasting room (open to day-trippers as well as resort guests) for Foley Family Wines, featuring vintages from Kuleto, Lancaster, Sebastiani, and Chalk Hill Estate.
After all this decadence, consider booking a private tennis lesson, painting class, or sailing excursion. Or consider taking a yoga or spin class at the 24-hour fitness center. Sandpiper Golf Club is next door, and of course there’s the beach, where you can take a surfing lesson or just grab a boogie board and jump in (be forewarned—ocean temps are chilly here, even in summer).
To round out your stay, why not end with a massage on the rooftop terrace, followed by a Bacara Bar Lemonade (cucumber vodka, lemonade, and soda). It is vacation, after all.
Feel like a movie star yourself when you book the VIP Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood. First there’s that valet parking—not bad. Then there’s that private entrance leading you to an exclusive lounge, where you relax with snacks and refreshments, in your own A-lister’s inner sanctum. Next, you meet your expert guide for the day, who will go out of his or her way to find out what kind of insider tips and movie facts you’d like to know more about as you tour the back lot and soundstages. They’re also very helpful when the urge to take a group photo in front of your favorite movie set strikes.
Unlike the standard back-lot tour, this tour lets you get out of your group’s private trolley and walk around. You’ll be able to wander around and get up-close looks at sets, learn about lighting and camera angles, and see where current TV shows and movies are being shot. Pose for a selfie at the steps of Norman Bates’ house from Psycho, or wander through the Bravermans’ living room from the long-running TV series Parenthood. A favorite stop is the massive prop warehouse, which houses an impressive collection of movie paraphernalia, from vintage bowling bags to full suits of armor. The tour includes a gourmet lunch prepared by the studio’s executive chef and served in a private dining room, as well as front-of-the-line privileges for all rides throughout the day, prime seats secured by your guide at all shows, and meet-and-greets with featured performers.
Completed in 1935, the Griffith Observatory is almost as iconic as the Hollywood sign. It appeals to anyone who “loves space, science, the stunning view of L.A., and the building’s Art Deco architecture,” says Bonnie Winings, a director for Friends Of The Observatory.
But for movie fans, the observatory in Griffith Park may be recognized most recently as the feature spot in 2016’s magical La La Land dance scene in which actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone waltzed through the air under a star-filled ceiling. Prior to the award-winning film, the Observatory served as the signature location for 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s new-kid-in-town character tries to impress his classmates inside the planetarium, only to get caught up in a knife fight in the parking lot.
In an interesting real-life plot twist, Dean commissioned a bust of himself shortly before his death at age 24. That bust is now on prominent display near the front lawn of the Observatory. A lot of fan photos still get taken by that statue, says Winings, “since the backdrop is also the Hollywood sign.”
While some simply go to the Observatory for the view (arguably the best in L.A.), there’s much more to see. The Griffith Observatory presents mind-expanding planetarium shows throughout the year, plus films and special events in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, and hosted telescope parties (check the calendar for details). A nice perk: Admission to the Observatory is free.
If you’re eager for a snack before or after your visit—say, a slice of quiche, a crumbly scone, or just a good cup of joe—it’s worth a stop at the nearby Trails Café, a walk-up eatery nestled amongst the trees. There is parking along the road, but intrepid visitors might make the 2-mile hike from the Observatory.
If summer memories have an address, it’s at Lake Siskiyou in the Shasta Cascade region. Nestled at the foot of the Trinity Divide and fed by five mountain streams, the crystalline lake has all the perfect ingredients for a summer vacation—warm water for swimming, miles of sandy shoreline, and plentiful rainbow and brown trout—and it’s only an hour’s drive from Redding. Nonstop blue-water action is interspersed with quiet, lingering moments—an osprey diving into a ripple-less cove, a stand-up paddleboarder plying her craft across the lake, or the morning sun rising over fir-clad hills.
Families flock to Lake Siskiyou Resort, where they can rent a cabin or pitch a tent and take advantage of watersport rentals, from kayaks and paddleboards to 15-person party barges. The younger set can spend all day clambering up and zooming down water slides and splashing around in warm, shallow water—with refueling stops at the resort’s ice-cream stand.
Landlubbers can bike or hike the 7-mile Lake Siskiyou Trail circling the lake. The scenic north shore features a single-arch suspension bridge over Wagon Creek—an ideal spot for selfies. Steel cables hang from a massive arch, suspending a sturdy wood-and-steel deck. The forested path offers fantastic vantage points for viewing and photographing Mount Shasta, the largest stratovolcano in the Cascade Range. Shasta’s hulking volcanic cone soars to 14,179 feet high, its loftiest reaches capped with glistening ice and snow long into summer.
If camping isn’t your bag, book a stay in a lake-view chalet at Mount Shasta Resort on Lake Siskiyou’s east side. Play a round of golf on the resort’s challenging greens or sign up for a little pampering at Sacred Mountain Spa. Drive 10 minutes into Mount Shasta City for lunch under the patio umbrellas at Lilys, then shop for outdoor gear at The Fifth Season. In neighboring McCloud, spend the night at the historic McCloud River Mercantile Hotel, built in 1897 as the lumber mill’s company store. Tastefully appointed rooms feature 12-foot ceilings, claw-foot tubs, and feather comforters. Browse the first-floor of the Mercantile for overalls and aprons, old-timey salves and apothecary goods, and gourmet food and wine.
About 10 miles away, you can hike to two smaller alpine lakes within Shasta-Trinity National Forest—Castle Lake and Heart Lake—which both offer views of Mount Shasta in the distance. Take the out-and-back trail from the Castle Lake trailhead and climb the steep one-mile route to reach the small but scenic Heart Lake. This is also a perfect trail for the off-season—bring snowshoes and hike it while it's covered in snow.
Just a 90-minute drive from the Golden Gate Bridge, woodsy Guerneville in Sonoma County exudes a summer-camp vibe at its fun-seeking zone on the Russian River. Long a magnet for the Bay Area’s LGBTQ community and fringe-seeking renegades, Guerneville today has morphed into the mainstream, attracting outdoor adventurers, foodies, and vacationers of every ilk.
Nature lovers must visit Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, where magnificent redwoods were saved from the saw by an 1870s lumber magnate. Colonel James Armstrong came to realize that the redwood forest was not an inexhaustible supply of timber, and he set aside this atmospheric grove for public enjoyment. Wind your way through 30-story-high redwoods and pay your respects to the Colonel, a 1,400-year-old behemoth tree. Crane your neck to glimpse the top of the 310-foot-tall Parson Jones Tree, the grove’s tallest redwood.
Once you catch redwood fever, you’ll want to spend the night under the trees. At AutoCamp Russian River, sleep in a custom Airstream trailer or a fancy canvas tent, and meet your neighbors in the mid-century modern clubhouse. Catch a ride into town to sample Guerneville’s carefree, anything-goes nightlife. Dress down, not up, for rowdy fun at the honky-tonk Rainbow Cattle Company, a beloved Main Street institution where the party has been raging since 1979. The more refined El Barrio showcases handcrafted artisanal tequilas, mescal, and bourbons served with small-plate Mexican cuisine. For a memorable dinner, book a table at Boon eat + drink, a much-lauded bistro that serves up seasonal Sonoma ingredients in a sleek setting. And since breakfast matters, start your day at Big Bottom Market, where the sweet and savory biscuits are dependably flakey, granting them raves from Oprah and legions of fans.
Do as San Franciscan urbanites have done for more than 150 years and dip into the river at Johnson’s Beach. The resort has roped-off areas for kids, deeper water for more adventurous swimmers, and there’s beer and wine at the Boathouse. Sun too hot? Rent a chair and a beach umbrella and plop down with a book, or float down the placid river in a kayak, canoe, or inner tube.
Many visitors never leave downtown, but it’s worth the 10-minute drive to tour Korbel Champagne Cellars. North America’s oldest continually operating champagne house was founded in 1882 by the Korbel brothers, who created effervescent wines using the traditional méthode champenoise. A 50-minute tour gives you the chance to taste dry-to-sweet champagnes and see fabulous flower gardens.
If you’ve ever wanted to fly like an eagle, you can live that dream in San Diego. At Torrey Pines Gliderport in La Jolla, you’ll soar effortlessly above the Pacific’s wind-ruffled waves, suspended in a colorful paraglider while securely strapped to a qualified pilot. Your only task is to sit comfortably in your harness and keep your eyes on the megawatt view—a wide-angle perspective on the endless ocean and the brayed-tan sands of Black’s Beach. First-timers, take heart: The scariest part is before you take off. Once you’re gliding through the air, anxiety vanishes. Most flights last about 20 minutes, which is just enough time to amp up your endorphins and leave you grinning from ear to ear.
Beginners of any age, from toddlers to centenarians, can go for a tandem flight. Torrey Pines Gliderport has a stellar safety record—having flown nearly 150,000 accident-free tandem flights in the last 20 years. You can fly in either a hang glider or a paraglider (a hang glider has a kite-shaped metal frame; a paraglider has an inflated wing with no frame), but paragliding is more common because it’s better suited to a wider range of wind conditions. You don’t even need to plan ahead—tandem flights are offered on a first-come, first-served basis whenever the wind is favorable.
Even if you have no intention of leaving the ground, you can have almost as much fun as the fliers. Torrey Pines Gliderport enjoys one of San Diego’s best coastal viewpoints from its perch atop a 350-foot-high bluff. Lookie-loos are welcome—order a sandwich or salad at the Cliffhanger Café, then watch the gliders take off and float through the air. On weekends, live music adds to the party atmosphere.
There’s plenty more to do in La Jolla, from kayaking in sea caves to taking an architectural tour of the Salk Institute. Golfers can swing over to Torrey Pines Golf Course for a round of golf and lunch overlooking the 18th hole at A. R. Valentien. At nearby Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, admire the world’s rarest pine tree, the Torrey pine, as you hike through dramatically eroded coastal badlands to the beach. Look up to the sky as you walk, and you’ll probably see smiling gliders drifting gently overhead.