If you only had a year in California, what are the top five sights you need to see with your family before you move away?
My criteria? Mostly that it needs to be signature California. Something you can’t experience anywhere else. I’m also pretending that you will NEVER be back in California. You have one chance to see it all – so what should you see?
#1 – Yosemite National Park absolutely tops my list!
How can you squeeze all the goodness of this state into one pretty package? Go to Yosemite! The Sierra Nevada Mountains, highs and lows, ups and downs, the granite rock walls, waterfalls, wildlife, and beauty of a national park. In fact, it’s a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wow!
“I have seen persons of emotional temperament stand with tearful eyes, spellbound and dumb with awe, as they got their first view of the Valley from Inspiration Point, overwhelmed in the sudden presence of the unspeakable, stupendous grandeur.” – Galen Clark, guardian of the Yosemite Grant (quote from Yosemite’s official site)
What to do and where to stay:
- Here’s my post about how you can see Yosemite in ONE weekend, although I’d recommend staying much longer. It includes links on where to stay.
#2 - Santa Cruz Island for Hiking (Part of Channel Islands National Monument)
One of the most unique geographic details of California is the Channel Islands off our coast. Sure, you can visit Catalina. But I think a more memorable experience is heading out to the less inhabited Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Ventura. Start your trip visiting the National Park Headquarters in Ventura Harbor and then take an Island Packers boat out to the island. You can get the BEST clam chowder anywhere in Ventura Harbor at Andria’s Seafood Restaurant and Market. There is a Holiday Inn Express right on Ventura Harbor with shops and restaurants within walking distance.
I wrote a list on Trekaroo.com about Harbor Hopping in Ventura and Channel Islands.
#3 – Take the Coast to San Francisco
From Dana Point to Seal Beach — Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is fantastic! After leaving Orange County, take Interstate 405 north — but take the turn off to Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu to Ventura where you can drive through the farmland to meet up with the 101. Check out the surf spots, stop at a restaurant and just enjoy the view! Once back on the 101, you’ll drive through the amazing Santa Barbara where the mountains meet the ocean. Then you’ll wind along the coast seeing the Channel Islands. If you want, you can stop in Pismo Beach or Morro Bay. Visit Hearst Castle? Then continue on the long and windy drive up to Big Sur and Monterey where you can rejoin the 101. Whole books have been written about visiting San Francisco! Try this fun retro book for kids to guide you: This is San Francisco [A Children's Classic].
#4 – Lake Tahoe
We spent 5 summer days here in 2010 with Family Nature Summits and it wasn’t enough! It’s just breathtaking with so much to do and see. We stayed at the Granlibakken Resort and I’d go back there again for its location although there are other options on the scenic west and north shore. The official visitor site is VisitingLakeTahoe.com. Learn all about what makes Tahoe unique and about the importance of wetlands in keeping the lake clear.
#5 – California’s Redwoods
You get a taste of this in Yosemite with the Mariposa Grove Sequoias, but if you get a chance head north of San Francisco to the Mendocino Coast and through the Redwood Parks. There are a number of Visitor Centers to guide you through visiting this area. The Save the Redwoods League has a comprehensive guide to visiting!
- You’ll notice that theme parks didn’t make my list. Everybody knows them and knows how to get there. You can make your own list or use this one with the 7 Best Theme Parks in California.