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12 Must-See Wonders

Explore California’s natural beauty at these dozen standout destinations

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California’s culture, abundance, and enviable weather help make it one of the most desirable destinations in the world. But don’t overlook the obvious: It’s breathtakingly beautiful. These natural treasures all belong on your Golden State must-see list.

1. Yosemite Valley

Yosemite National Park

Cast your gaze from any viewpoint in Yosemite Valley, and you’ll see more iconic landmarks in 10 seconds than you would in 10 hours almost anywhere else. There’s Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America at 2,425 feet high. El Capitan, the earth’s largest single piece of granite. Half Dome’s sheared-off face and bald pate, carved by glaciers. The crystal-clear Merced River, bounded by grassy meadows. Bridalveil Fall’s mesmerizing plunge. Plus an overflowing banquet of spires, domes, and pinnacles adorning the Valley’s soaring granite walls. As the conservationist John Muir put it, “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.” (more)

Zabriskie Point

2. Zabriskie Point

Death Valley National Park

A panoramic overlook of the surrounding mountains, dunes, canyons, and valleys, this 360-degree vista is an ideal place to get your bearings in a national park defined by extremes, home to the lowest point and hottest temperatures in North America. Sunrise visitors are treated to a natural light show as shadows recede from the badlands below and are replaced by a golden glow, while the Panamint Mountain Range across the valley is brushed in pinks and purples. From here, trails wind down into the badlands, and exploration of the park’s treasures—from hidden oases to petroglyphs—begins. (more)

3. Borrego Springs’ Night Sky

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Surrounded by mountains and the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs has pitch-black night skies illuminated by millions of stars. Astronomer Dennis Mammana of Borrego Night Sky Tours says every season brings a new perspective on Borrego's dazzling nocturnal display. “You can see the Milky Way all year long, but only in the summer months is it visible in the early evening. Springtime is best for seeing galaxies that are far beyond our own Milky Way, and winter is particularly good because the stars are so incredibly bright, like diamonds.” (more)

4. Bumpass Hell

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Mount Lassen hasn't erupted for more than a century, but this volcanic landscape is not sleeping. Take a walk among feisty hydrothermal features—16 acres of boiling springs, hissing steam vents, noisy fumaroles, and bubbling mud pots. A raised boardwalk leads you safely through this fantastically colorful landscape, its soil stained orange and yellow by minerals. A trip here is a multi-sensory experience—the earth releases pent-up energy in loud belches, and hydrogen sulfide tickles your nose with a rotten-egg scent. (more)

Fern Canyon

5. Fern Canyon

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Explore a crack in the earth covered in moss and dripping with ferns at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, one hour north of Eureka in Humboldt County. Over thousands of years, a small stream leading to the sea carved a narrow canyon with 80-foot-tall walls hanging with gardens of greenery. Access the canyon on the five-mile John Irvine Trail through the redwood-filled forest, which was featured in a famous scene from Jurassic Park 2. (more)

6. Bowling Ball Beach

Mendocino County

A geological wonder veiled by nature’s rhythms, the feature that gave this stunning stretch of sand its name is visible only when conditions are right. Head to the northern end of Schooner Gulch State Beach at very low or minus tide and you will find a congregation of spherical rocks that, when wading in morning mist, resemble an army of sea turtles. The round stones are concretions, sedimentary rock bound together by mineral cements. Over millions of years, waves and wind have eroded outer layers of rock, leaving behind the signature “bowling ball” boulders.

7. McArthur-Burney Falls

Head to the foothills of the Cascade Range in Shasta County to see what Teddy Roosevelt dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The namesake of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park is perhaps California’s most stunning cascade. The 129-foot fern-covered falls can be viewed from an easily accessed parking area. Or hike the 1.3-mile trail down to the base to experience the deafening roar and ice-cold mist of white water crashing into a crystal pool. The water flows year-round, so visit in spring or fall (or mid-week) to experience the falls without peak summer crowds. (more)

8. Tufa Towers

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

Thirteen miles east of Yosemite National Park and just off scenic U.S. Highway 395 lies an ancient alkaline lake marked by ivory-colored towers. Mono Lake formed more than 750,000 years ago, and when its salty waters came in contact with natural springs, limestone spires calcified underneath the surface. Today, the water has receded, leaving the tufa towers to jut dramatically out of the lake creating an otherworldly scene. Launch a kayak off Navy Beach, try a buoyant back float, or simply take in the towers, which turn golden as the sun comes down. (more)

9. Catalina Island

On this sun-kissed isle an hour-long ferry ride away from Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point, nearly 90 percent of the land is blissfully undeveloped. Explore Catalina's natural wonders by sea or shore: Snorkelers and scuba divers glide through kelp forests to gaze at garibaldis, bat rays, octopuses, and sea bass. Hikers roam 165 miles of trails, trekking across untrammeled ridges and canyons where bald eagles soar and American bison graze. Campers pitch their tents on crescent-shaped coves, then rise early to bike, kayak, beachcomb, or swim in turquoise waters. (more)

Mount Shasta, California

10. Mount Shasta

Seekers of all kinds are drawn to 14,179-foot Mt. Shasta in Siskiyou County. Spiritual explorers come for meditation and visioning sessions that tap into what they describe as the unique energy of this volcanic peak. Outdoor adventurers are equally enthusiastic about the hiking and biking options in the area, from the mellow ride to jewel-like Castle Lake to the demanding trek to the snow-covered summit. You’ll find both groups enjoying steaming mugs at Yaks Mt. Shasta Koffee and Eatery in the charming town of Mt. Shasta before setting out upward to experience this true wonder of California. (more)

11. Big Sur

The classic drive along twisting Highway 1 may be the most beautiful road trip on the planet. The 90-mile stretch through Big Sur has a magic allure: Stop to spot migrating whales in the distance, scan the craggy coastline for endangered California condors, or pull over to see canyons where giant redwoods thrive. Before visiting, take the Big Sur Pledge, a local initiative that helps protect and nurture the beautiful—yet fragile—coastal ecosystem. (more)

12. Devils Postpile National Monument

Near Mammoth Lakes

Forged by fire and ice nearly 100,000 years ago, this straight wall of 60-foot basalt columns known as Devils Postpile formed when hot lava flowed into the valley. As it cooled, the lava cracked into perfect hexagonal columns, later broken by the freeze and thaw of glacial ice. Walk a half-mile to reach the column’s base or climb an extra 15 minutes to its apex. And don’t miss the park’s second wonder: Rainbow Falls. It’s worth the 2.5-mile amble to see this towering 101-foot gem. On misty summer days, lucky visitors will see the fall’s namesake rainbow appear. Open seasonally, mid-June to mid-October. (more)

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