California Bucket List: The Ultimate Guide Of Things To Do

If planning a trip out west, this California bucket list is packed with must do activities for your trip. There is a wide range of locations here from north to south and in between. Depending on where you are headed, you should find something that piques your interest. 

California is a stunning state, and a top USA bucket list destination, with about 840 miles of coastline and endless activities for everyone in the family. Whatever kind of trip you are planning – this list will come in handy. 

I asked some travel writers to help out in giving in their recommendations below. 

california bucket list

Lake Tahoe

California Bucket List Must Dos!

Death Valley National Park

On the border of Nevada and California and is about a 2-hour drive from Las Vegas.

It deserves to be on your California bucket list as the vistas here are unique to it. You’d not find them anywhere in the world. It feels and looks like another planet all together like Mars. Other-worldly in every sense!

With temperatures soaring to 134°F in summer, this is the hottest place on Earth. Even the temperatures in springtime get close to 90°F. Back in old times, when travelers passed through this region, they didn’t survive due to excessive heat and hence the name. The landscape is a vast expanse of desert, flat sand, and dry land all around, but a different experience in itself.

The Death Valley California spans over 3000 square miles. We recommend to traverse it in a planned way so, better have a map with you. The Badwater Basin in the national park, the lowest elevation point in the US are nothing but dry salt lands.

Not to miss is the nine-mile long Artist’s Drive leading through spectacular views of soil colored in multiple shades as if God just took out his brush and played with colors.

The best site to get a panoramic view of the Badlands is Dante’s peak at an elevation of 5000 ft. It is a sight to experience the Badlands and the wavy designs on the hard dunes. We were awed by Mother Nature’s creations.

Tip: Don’t forget the hats, sunblock, and water to keep yourself hydrated all the time. Also, carry a physical map of the park to help you explore.

california bucket list

Travel Melodies

Los Angeles 

Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis in Southern California that attracts more than 50-million visitors annually and a must see California bucket list destination. You’ll find world-class museums, Michelin-rated restaurants, beautiful beaches, and oh, the weather! It’s sunny and warm most days of the year.

Moreover, LA is the arguably the epicenter of the world’s entertainment industry, so be sure to embrace the “silver screen” when you visit. You’ll find the hop-on/hop-off buses are an easy way to get around. If you plan to visit multiple attractions, consider a Go Los Angeles card.

Start with a selfie at the famous “Hollywood” sign in Hollywood Hills. It takes 2-3 hours round-trip to hike, so dress accordingly and stay hydrated. You can only take photos behind the sign because the front is blocked off. (Don’t even think of climbing on the sign: it’s illegal.)

Alternatively, visit Griffith Observatory for a clear (but distant) take of the Hollywood sign across the canyon. This option also offers incredible views of the LA skyline.

You’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at the film industry by touring Warner Brothers Studios and Paramount Pictures. If you visit Universal Studios theme park, the studio tour included in the ticket price is a good take.

Next, check out the Hollywood Walk of Fame. More than 2,600 celebrity names (and counting) are framed in terrazzo and brass stars. It’s fun to search the sidewalk for your favorite stars within this iconic (but perhaps overrated) 18-block route.

Along the way, stop in at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, famous for its “red carpet” events. The forecourt of this renown movie palace features hundreds of famous stars’ handprints and footprints, including Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, and Sophia Lauren.

Finally, don’t forget to take a tour showcasing extraordinary homes of Hollywood Movie Stars. If you’re lucky, the tour guides will dish up some juicy Hollywood gossip!

california bucket list

Enjoy Travel Life

Carmel by the Sea

We have done a few road trips from San Francisco to the little towns in Northern California since our daughter goes to university there. During one such trip, we stumbled upon Carmel, a charming little town by the sea.  It has a sliver of softest white sand beach, some forests and natural park lands nearby, the best thing to see and a top California bucket list destination!

Book your accommodations early if you want to stay in Carmel since there are only a few Inns in town or check out these Monterey hotels on the beach

You will want to wake up early and walk to the beach. You will pass by many cute cottages with names like Hansel & Gretel and Ocean’s End.  Stroll around the quaint village, through flower-filled courtyards, gardens and narrow streets. 

The village is photogenic. Tuck box looks like it belongs in a fairy-tale book, where you can enjoy breakfast or afternoon tea. Make time for a couple of scenic drives. We love to drive up Highway 1 to Big Sur and have lunch with a view at one of our favorite restaurants – you can see the land meet the ocean from the terrace. The 17 mile drive is another scenic drive you don’t want to miss.  Make sure you are back in Carmel to catch a sunset by the Sea and for dinner in town. 

Outside Suburbia 

San Diego 

San Diego is always a great idea and should be on any California bucket list. It is the second largest city in California, it has so many different neighborhoods – each with a unique feel and atmosphere – which makes it very easy to explore and get around. 
 
San Diego has a lot to offer. Whether you are a foodie (hello best tacos in the world!), a craft beer connoisseur, a beach lover, or an outdoor adventurer, San Diego has it all. Especially animal lovers get their fill in San Diego.
 
You can go whale watching, snorkeling with leopard sharks, watch the Sea lions in La Jolla, or go to the world-famous zoo. The San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park are known as two of the best Zoos in the world. As a non-profit, they focus on animal conservation and are renown for keeping the animals in excellent conditions. Here are some great San Diego zoo tips by a former employee, who shares her tips on the best time to go, what not to miss and everything else you need to know about the San Diego Zoo. 
 
The Zoo is located inside of famous Balboa Park, right in the city center. It is easy to reach and there is plenty of free parking. I also recommend walking around the rest of Balboa Park and check out some of its 17 museums. My favorites are the Museum of Photography and the Museum of Man. On the weekends, there are some fun street performers and it is a fun spot to sit and people watch. 
 
I have called San Diego home for many years now and I love it. The weather is near perfect almost year round, the beaches are gorgeous, and there are new places to discovers all the time. Don’t miss it, when you visit California!
california bucket list
 
San Diego Explorer
 
San Francisco 
 
Obviously, there’s no shortage of things to do in San Francisco. This is such an amazing city that is also home to tons of popular tourist attractions. There are these remarkably steep hills that drop directly into the ocean, beautiful beaches, wonderful San Francisco boutique hotels, and of course, the man-made attractions. 
 
One thing not to miss is the “Painted Ladies” row of houses. This iconic shot is that of Full House. 
 
 
The city itself serves as a global center for high technology and innovation, but before that, it was a creative place that has drawn creatives from all over the world.

A number of famous names and high-profile personalities, ranging from novelists to musicians, spend much more time here — including the likes of Jerry Garcia, Jack London, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Tom Hanks who consider SF to be their home.

Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Alcatraz, delicious food – the iconic city on the West Coast is a cool city that has a vibrant urban life, which will please outdoorsy types, foodies and curious wanderers. Surrounded with spectacular nature – woods, mountains and the ocean, San Francisco is a great mix of touristy and local that makes it a literally unique city destination.

First up, no trip to San Francisco is complete without walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. It is one of the most popular parts of San Francisco, and it is just as impressive to see in person. You can walk on it, photograph it from one of the many viewpoints, or go to Battery Spencer and see the entire San Francisco Bay from the Vista Point at the northern side. You can easily reach it by car via northbound US 101 or by foot over the Golden Gate Bridge and a short hike up a hillside.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one place that you should definitely visit, while a day trips to Alcatraz Island to tour the former high-security prison should also be high on your list. One of the coolest things to do in San Francisco is roaming the halls of Alcatraz. The trip to the former federal prison starts with a pleasant boat ride that offers stunning views of San Francisco and the Bay. Once inside “The Rock,” as it’s known, you’ll experience Alcatraz’s history and its famous inmates — and maybe even encounter some spooky spirits.

Alcatraz is the biggest draw, of course, and there are audio guides available in different languages to help you make the most of your visit. You can also explore the first U. S. lighthouse on the West Coast or the military tunnel and fortifications beneath Alcatraz. The island is a paradise for nature lovers since Brandt’s cormorant, pelagic cormorants, Canada geese, and mallards can also be seen here. Don’t miss the chance to walk on the same grass as Al Capone, Henri Young, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly!

Mind The Travel

Imperial Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes aren’t often the first thought when someone mentions California, But surprise! Once again, California comes through with its diverse landscape, creating some of the biggest sand dunes in the United States.  Arguably, the best sand dunes in California are the Imperial Sand Dunes, which aren’t too far out of the way, but also provide a nice escape from the city.

The Imperial Sand Dunes are three hours from Los Angeles, 2.5 hours from San Diego, and two hours from Palm Springs. A trip out to the sand dunes can be a nice day trip from any destination in Southern California, but there are also camping and RV options at the park! 

Camping in the Imperial Sand Dunes offer some of the clearest night skies in Southern California, void of the light pollution from the bigger cities.

In general, avoid visiting in the summer unless you purposely want to roast. Temperatures at the Imperial Sand Dunes can easily reach the triple digits by noon! However, day passes are required October-April. The America the Beautiful National Park pass can be used in lieu of a day pass. ATV and off-road vehicle sports are the most popular activity at the Imperial Sand Dunes, but many just go to look at the dunes, spend time with friends and family, and enjoy the scenery!

The Sand Dunes are a must for your California bucket list!

california bucket list

The Awkward Traveller

Big Sur

You can’t visit California and not spend time in Big Sur.

The fabled coastline is one of the most loved vistas in the state – and it’s also one of the popular. Big Sur has always long been on the California bucket list for travelrs. Even more so since Bixby Bridge appeared in the opening credits to the hit HBO TV series, Big Little Lies.

Big Sur is not a town, rather it’s a region; a 90-mile-long stretch of dramatic coastline where redwoods soar to the heavens and the mountains plunge into the sea. Some of the highlights of the region include the many state parks such as Point Lobos Natural Reserve, one of the most beautiful in California, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

All of the parks offer some spectacular hiking opportunities and there are plenty of campsites to choose from if you want to stay longer. One of the best ways to see all that Big Sur has to offer is to drive along the Pacific Coast Highway stopping along the way to take in the views.

One of the best places to do this is Nepenthe Restaurant that sits perched high above the Pacific. Remember to look for California condors flying overhead or migrating whales and floating sea otters in the waters below.

Globetrotting

Disneyland 

Disneyland deserves a spot on your California bucket list. Disneyland is known as “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and for good reason.

Once you walk through the front gates, you enter a world of magic and adventure. A place where time is irrelevant and you suddenly find yourself wandering around with childlike wonderment. A magical destination where you can be a pirate. Careen through space.

Hurtle through a snow-capped mountain, narrowly avoiding the abominable snowman. 

Disneyland is special. While there are a handful of Disney Parks around the world, there is only ONE original. As a former Cast Member, here are my tips to help you make the most of your Disneyland experience:

Timing is everything. Disneyland gets crowded! The best times of the year to visit are February and late-September to avoid massive crowds. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the least crowded days to visit.

Take advantage of FastPass and MaxPass. The best way to get on as many rides as possible is to use Disney’s version of a line placeholder. There are 2 versions: FastPass (free) and MaxPass (paid). Each option saves you time and helps conserve your energy as you run from ride to ride. The benefit of using MaxPass is that you can access everything from your phone. Just download the Disneyland app!

Bring snacks and water bottles. Everything Disney is expensive. A few ways to help your wallet out is to bring snacks and empty water bottles into Disneyland. There are plenty of places to fill up with free water.

Take breaks. There are benches, a shaded island in Frontierland, and (if you have kids) a baby center where you can get out of the sun, put your feet up, and take a well-deserved break!

california bucket list

Adventure Is Never Far Away

Napa County 

A visit to Napa county in Northern California is a must not only if your a wine lover but also if you love to explore the fascinating towns and culture of the origins of wine development in California.
 
Many of the farmers and wine industry was started in Napa and created a strong region of historic wineries and towns that supported this industry. Now you can explore some really amazing places even if you are not a wine lover because of the rich culture, history and world class resorts that have sprung up to cater to this amazing county.
 
Each town you visit is very unique to its audience: Calistoga for all the spa culture, Yountville for the world class dining, St. Helena for galleries and unique shops and Napa itself for all the cool venues you can explore right next to the Napa river.
 
You can visit gorgeous gardens, art galleries and museums, take a wine train and even visit a real castle created by its owner who has grandiose ideas for his winery. 
 
Even adventure lovers can enjoy some back roads mountain biking or hiking, horse back riding, kayaking and so many other outdoor pursuits in some beautiful landscape that inspires. Check out my post here on what to do and see on a Napa Valley vacation getaway for more inspiration and images to visiting this area of Northern California soon.
 
 
Travel Photo Discovery 
 
Burney Falls
 
Burney Fall is quite possibly one of the most stunning waterfalls on the West Coast (or the country?). While this waterfall doesn’t cascade from an astonishing height, it’s quite unique.
 
The water tumbles down 129 feet and off a cliff into a blue pool. Burney Falls is wide and seemingly has water coming out of nowhere and flowing off it’s sides! The falls trickle down the moss adorned rocks and create quite the spectacle, so much so, that this place gets pretty busy, making it a top California bucket list destination.
 
To make the most of your visit to Burney Falls, particularly if you’re on a West Coast road trip and trying to make the most of your time, it is best to arrive during the week at an off time.
 
Either earlier in the day or closer to sunset is best to beat some of the crowds. Coming in off season (fall and winter) is a great choice too. The walk here is quite short at only a mile round trip and it’s possible to get right up the base of the rocks of the pool.
 
For photographers, bring those lens cloths because it get very misty down there trying to get a picture!
 
The waterfall is open and flowing year round so really, anytime is a good time to visit. However in winter, the path to walk down can close due to ice on the walkway. You can still see the falls from above. Make sure to bring $10 in cash to park and visit Burney Fall.
 
california bucket list
 
Where In The World Is Nina
 
Lake Tahoe
 
While Lake Tahoe is both in California and Nevada, it should still be on your list. The fresh water lake is crystal clear in the summer and the skiing is fantastic in the winter. Lake Tahoe summer is the most beautiful time of year to visit. Lake Tahoe is one of the best lakes in California!
 
The city offers incredible dining options, nightlife and mostly gorgeous landscapes. For the outdoor enthusiast, this is the most epic of the California bucket list destinations. 
 
california bucket list
 
Santa Cruz
 
One of the top California bucket list trips is to visit the beautiful beach town of Santa Cruz. Located in Northern California, Santa Cruz is considered to be the best beach towns in the north and should be on your bucket list.  It is about 1 ½ hours south of San Francisco (just “over the hill” from Silicon Valley.) 

Santa Cruz has a mix of upscale meets down to earth vibe.  It is full of restaurants for foodies, health-centric eateries, hip coffee shops, and food from every culture.

For hikers and mountain bikers, there are endless trails in the mountains. Walking along the ocean is another fun activity. There are paved sidewalks that go along the ocean, as well as beaches that you can walk on for miles during low tide.

Santa Cruz is known for its incredible beaches and surfing is one of the most popular sports. There are many surf spots in this bay that are great for beginners and advanced surfers. But, one of the most special things to do is to relax on the beach while gazing out to the glistening blue ocean.

A visit to Santa Cruz will not disappoint.  In the summer months, it’s an extremely popular destination. So, either try to visit another time of year (some of the best weather is in the spring and fall), or book your accommodations far in advance, and get out early in the morning before it gets crowded.

california bucket list

Natural Bridges State Park

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