Spectators aren’t invited to Tokyo this summer, but that’s no reason to let your Olympic dreams falter. In fact, it’s pretty easy to live out your imaginary Olympic triumphs in California. Three of the four debut events (surfing, skateboarding, and sport climbing) have serious Golden State street cred, and the whole state is built for world-class sports.
Plan a trip around these 10 Olympic events to try out a new sport, hone your skills, or to simply enjoy the backdrop of gold-medal-worthy scenery.
Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian who helped popularize surfing in America, was a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming who trained in Southern California during the early 20th century. No doubt, he would be stoked that his beloved sport is now an Olympic event—though with shortboards rather than old-school longboards.
To learn the basics yourself, start with lessons—or just watch experts from the sand—in one of the great surfing hubs, such as Huntington Beach or Santa Cruz. Most California beach towns offer excellent surf lessons—like Santa Monica’s Aqua Surf School, Orange County’s Girl in the Curl Surf Shop, or San Diego’s Surf Diva. If you’d rather soak up the scene than catch a wave, stroll through Dana Point’s Surfing Heritage and Culture Center (SHACC), home to surfing artifacts, surfboards, memorabilia, video, and even scholarly works.
Yosemite National Park has provided the terrain for some of the most incredible climbing feats, such as Alex Honnold’s no-ropes ascent of El Capitan in 2017. At the Olympics, the new Sport Climbing event will include three categories: speed climbing, lead climbing, and bouldering. Yosemite is a great place to try your hand(s) at climbing, even if you’re not ready to conquer El Capitan yourself.
About an hour away, Tuolumne County’s Columbia State Historic Park is an excellent place to try bouldering, a ropeless event that relies on strategy and creativity. Rent gear and crash pads at Jamestown’s Golden Chain Climbing Gear. Closer to Lake Tahoe, El Dorado County is also rich with year-round climbing options, from Sugar Loaf to Lovers Leap. Further south, Joshua Tree National Park is another wonderland for climbers, with more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 routes.
The Vans headquarters is located in the Orange County town of Costa Mesa, making it an appropriate place to learn how to do an “ollie” (a pop-up jump). Check out Costa Mesa Skate Park (also known as Volcom Park) where you can skate on your own or take lessons through Shreducate Academy. Or, head to nearby Lake Forest, where you’ll find Etnies Skate Park, the largest public skate park in California. About two hours northeast of Los Angeles in Tehachapi, multi-sport facility Woodward West offers weekend-or-longer camps for skateboarding, with guidance from visiting pros.
Canoeing and Kayaking
Want to practice your sprints or slaloms like an Olympian? It may be far from any cheering fans, but you can’t beat the thrills of paddling around the sea caves in Channel Islands National Park. Day trips from Santa Barbara Adventure Company—the main outfitter for activities on the Channel Islands—include gear, a guide, and the ferry ride from Ventura.
To combine your paddling mojo with other diversions, take your pick of settings. On the North Coast, for instance, Kayak Mendocino rents everything you need to explore Van Damme State Park, dotted with caves and populated by seals and seabirds. In the Shasta Cascade region northeast of Redding, Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park feels blissfully remote—in part because the only way to get here is to paddle into it. On Lake Tahoe, rent gear or take tours from Tahoe Adventure Company, Kayak Tahoe, or the High Sierra Waterski School, which has marina locations in Sunnyside and Homewood.
Cycling, Mountain Biking, and BMX
You can practice all three of the Olympics’ two-wheel events around the Golden State. Both expert and novice mountain bikers will find terrain right for them at Mammoth Lakes’ lift-served Mammoth Bike Park, which offers a beginner-friendly Discovery Zone as well as pavers, berms, jumps, and drops along more than 80 miles of singletrack. In the Inland Empire, Big Bear Mountain Resort’s Downhill Bike Park features a wide range of mountain biking trails for both newbies and experts, and you can rent protective gear like helmets and elbow guards when you rent a bike.
Around Lake Tahoe, area bike shops offer easy rentals and local ride advice for either road riding or mountain biking. Or, combine cycling with wine tasting: Plenty of Napa Valley hotels offer rentals, or you can use the self-serve kiosk by Spinway NorCal to explore the car-free Vine Trail bike path along the Napa River. For more of a challenge, head to Napa’s Skyline Wilderness Park to explore 25 miles of multi-use fire roads and singletrack trails.
If you want to hone your BMX skills, Fresno has a classic BMX course at Woodward Park, and in San Diego, the new Sweetwater Bike Park has four jump lines, a skills zone, and a scaled-down “pump track” for little kids to safely build their skills.
Not quite traditional surfing, this event has been part of the Olympic sailing competitions since 1984. You can give it a try at San Simeon on the Central Coast, where Pico Creek gets strong afternoon winds. Or, head to the Shasta Cascade, where Whiskeytown Lake, west of Redding, has more than 36 miles of shoreline and the ruins of a Gold Rush mining town buried beneath its waters. Sign up for a lesson and gear at Oak Bottom Marina. Since you’re under no pressure to finish first, take your time and keep an eye out for bald eagles, osprey, and herons.
Get a peek at the world of Olympic equestrian events at the Central Coast’s Pebble Beach Resort, which hosted the U.S. Team Trials ahead of the 1960 Olympics. Today the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center hosts both resident and visiting horses, and visiting humans can take guided rides along the 27 miles of trails, with sweeping views of the dune-dotted beaches, 17-Mile Drive, and the Spyglass Hill Golf Course.
Work on your bow-and-arrow technique at California resorts that excel at family activities—from the plush, oceanfront Terranea Resort in Los Angeles County to the kitschy Hicksville Trailer Palace in the desert or Yosemite’s Tenaya Lodge. For a summer camp–style experience, stay at Monterey County’s all-inclusive The Camp at Carmel Valley, which offers unplugged cabins, guided hikes, and archery lessons (along with pickleball, which some may hope is a future Olympic sport).
Its nickname is Surf City USA, but the Orange County town of Huntington Beach has more than a dozen first-come, first-served beach volleyball courts next to the pier, and more courts at Huntington State Beach and Bolsa Chica State Beach. Watch the experts any day or see them compete at the annual AVP Huntington Beach Open. There are lots of options in Los Angeles County, too—like the low-key Torrance Beach, tucked between Redondo Beach and Malaga Cove on the Santa Monica Bay.
Most hotels don’t have lap-style pools anymore, but the retro Lafayette Hotel in San Diego’s North Park offers both lap lanes and Olympic history. It was designed in 1946 by five-time gold medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who enhanced his fame by playing Tarzan on the silver screen. Do your own freestyle race, or just lounge in one of the swim club’s cabanas (plenty of Hollywood types used to sun here, including Ava Gardner). Even if you’re not staying overnight, you can often get a $10 day pass to enjoy the pool scene.