With nine national parks, 840 miles of coastline, expansive deserts, and towering mountains, California is a world unto itself for lovers of the outdoors. These 15 excursions will have you heading out on the water, tackling varied terrain, and even launching into the air—what are you waiting for?
1. Kayak the Channel Islands Sea Caves
These five rugged, undeveloped islands off the Southern California coast are an outdoor-lover’s dreamscape, teeming with wildlife. With no shops, restaurants, lodging, or driving, the to-do list starts and ends with exploring the breathtaking biodiversity. To get to this national park, book the ferry out of Ventura or Santa Barbara with Island Packers, or a flight from Channel Islands Aviation. One of the best ways to see all the islands have to offer is by kayak, and Santa Barbara Adventure Company covers the details. Tours focus on areas like the Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island, where paddlers are often joined by barking sea lions.
2. Go Whitewater Rafting
California’s got it all when it comes to rafting, from gentle floats to adrenaline-pumping rapids. Rafting the South Fork of the American River is ideal for first-timers, yet still fun for repeaters, with Class II–III rapids providing a thrill. The Trinity River ranges from flat canoe-friendly pools to extreme, technical rapids at Burnt Ranch Gorge. Paddle through a sequoia-lined canyon on the Kern, a mighty river an hour from Bakersfield. For more experienced paddlers, check out the Class IV rapids in the Tuolumne River near Yosemite. Let a guide company like OARS help you find the perfect adventure—they offer trips on six different rivers, ranging from Class II–IV+ rapids. (more)
3. Crawl Through Lava Tube Caves
Lava Beds National Monument in Siskiyou County features an otherworldly landscape dotted with sagebrush and cinder cones—but the true adventure lies underground. Thousands of years ago, molten lava from the Medicine Lake volcano created more than 700 caves when it stopped flowing. Pack a pair of kneepads and test your flashlight before descending into the subterranean systems to explore. Get your bearings in the paved Mushpot Cave before stopping in Golden Dome to see hydrophobic bacteria that sparkle like gold leaf. For the ultimate Lava Beds experience, head to the Catacombs, a 6,903-foot-long cave with clearings so low you’ll need to squat, crawl, and shimmy. (more)
4. Catch a Golden Trout
California’s prized state freshwater fish is also one of its most elusive. Known for its eye-catching coloring that fades from olive green on its back to gold on its belly, the golden trout is found in high-alpine lakes—that often require a hike to reach—in the southern and eastern Sierras. It is native to Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River, and the lakes in the Inyo National Forest are ideal spots to cast. Ambitious anglers can take it a step further to earn the coveted “Sierra Grand Slam” honor, bestowed to fisherman who catch a brown, brook, rainbow, and golden trout in one day. (Though this region is a rodman’s standout, there’s great fishing throughout the state.)
5. Paraglide at Torrey Pines
Torrey Pines Gliderport in La Jolla has been taking visitors skyward for nearly 100 years and helped pioneer paragliding as a sport in the 1980s, so even novices can feel secure on their first journey off solid ground. The area’s unique topography—cliffs falling away sharply into the Pacific—angles the ocean breeze upward to keep paragliders aloft and offers stunning vistas to enjoy while you float on the wind. (Also: Sunsets here are unforgettable.) Complete the experience with refreshments at the Gliderport’s Cliffhanger Café when you land. (more)
6. Snorkel at Catalina Island
Although it’s only 22 miles off the Southern California coast, this island—most of which is managed as a nature preserve by the Catalina Island Conservancy—feels a world away. As befits an island paradise, unique flora and fauna abound in the clear, warm waters. Snorkelers flock to Lover’s Cove near Avalon to see bright orange garibaldi (California’s official marine fish), waving kelp forests, and moray eels. Scuba divers favor Casino Point to take trippy underwater photographs of several shipwrecks. Whatever your underwater pleasure, Catalina Divers Supply on the Avalon pier will outfit and guide you. (more)
7. Climb Sand Dunes at Mojave National Preserve
Two hours northeast from Palm Springs lies 1.5 million acres of geological wonders, from limestone caverns to prehistoric lava flows to gigantic sand dunes. A perfect setting for a Lawrence of Arabia remake, the Kelso Dunes are the largest dune system in the national preserve, carpeting 45 square miles with peak heights reaching 600 feet. Spring rains spark wildflower blooms that speckle the dunes with bright bursts of periwinkle and canary yellow, and at sunrise or sunset hikers are treated to a kaleidoscope of color. (more)
8. Mountain Bike in Big Bear
At 6,700 feet above sea level and less than 100 miles from downtown Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake is a year-round, easy-to-reach outdoor playground. In summer, the sunny San Bernardino Mountains become a mecca for mountain biking. Among the extensive trail opportunities around the lake, the Skyline Trail’s 15 miles of flowing single-track through ponderosa pines and granite boulders stand out. Prefer your descents uninterrupted by those pesky climbs? Buy a lift ticket for Big Bear Mountain Resort’s Summit Bike Park, where the trails, berms, jumps, and chutes range from beginner mellow to black diamond. If you’re not a cyclist, there are plenty of other ways to revel in the great outdoors at this mountain wonderland.
9. Cycle Monterey’s 17-Mile Drive
All visitors to Monterey County’s 17-Mile Drive get to see the iconic cypress groves, manicured golf courses, and waves pummeling the peninsula’s rocky headlands. But only by bike will you get to feel the sea breeze in your face and earn the sweeping descents after some challenging climbs. You’ll also get the insider’s thrill of a friendly wave from the toll collectors at the entrances: This private road is free of charge for bicyclists. Bring your own bike or stop by Adventures by the Sea’s locations in downtown Monterey and Cannery Row to rent a traditional or electric bike for the trip.
10. Backpack the Lost Coast
North of Fort Bragg, the jagged shoreline bends west, but Highway 1 takes an easier route north. That bypass created the Lost Coast, the lower 48's largest roadless coastal region, a landscape of wind-whipped waves and stone-strewn beaches. See it via a three-day, 24-mile hike across coastal prairies and rocky coves hugged by the King Range's burly peaks. For a half-day jaunt, head to the abandoned Punta Gorda Lighthouse from Mattole River Beach, or follow Peter Douglas Trail from Usal Beach to an enchanted forest of bizarrely shaped redwoods. (more)
11. Paddle a Canoe in Mendocino
Bracketed by old-growth redwoods, Mendocino’s serene Big River Estuary boasts abundant wildlife, including harbor seals, river otters, great blue herons, and double-crested cormorants. Rent a locally crafted redwood outrigger canoe from Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too where the river meets Mendocino Bay. Both experienced paddlers and wobbly landlubbers will love the ultra-stable outriggers that are nearly impossible to tip. The largest canoes hold up to eight people, and others are equipped with raised, padded middle seats so that adventurous canines can join the outing. (more)
12. Glide Across Lake Tahoe
Turquoise waters, glacier-carved granite shores, white-sand beaches, and stellar sunsets make Emerald Bay Lake Tahoe’s most picturesque paddleboarding destination. But you’ll have to earn your visit: It’s a mile-long hike down Vikingsholm Trail to the bay and historic Vikingsholm Scandinavian-inspired castle. Instead of lugging your paddleboard, rent onsite from Kayak Tahoe. A one-hour rental affords time to paddle the calm waters out to Fannette—Tahoe’s only island—to explore its ruined stone teahouse. Paddle west to see a sunken pine forest preserved beneath the azure water.
13. Ride the Waves
Watch a surfer catch a ride at breaks such as Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz or Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, and you’ll be tempted to hit the waves yourself. So just do it. Because surfing is all about the connections—to the ocean and a California tradition that began with the obsession of a few free-spirited rebels camping on the sands of San Onofre in Orange County or at Rincon Point near Santa Barbara. Surfing grew into a sport that’s now synonymous with the Golden State—in 2018, the state assembly voted to enshrine surfing as California’s official sport. (more)
14. Hike in Red Rock Canyon
Soaring towers of white, red, and pink sandstone are unexpected in the Golden State, making this state park—just 120 miles north of Los Angeles—a Mojave Desert gem. The formations were carved by wind and water and are treasured by desert lovers looking to escape national park crowds. Climb the multi-colored cliffs, caves, and red rock towers in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve or amble past bizarre rock formations on the mile-long Hagen Canyon Trail, just outside the park. (more)
15. Go Rock Climbing
East of Los Angeles, Tahquitz Rock towers above Idyllwild’s pine-covered slopes. In the 1950s and 1960s, legendary climbers like Royal Robbins and Bob Kamps pushed the sport's boundaries here. “It's California's Matterhorn,” says Erik Kramer-Webb, owner of California Climbing School. “It’s 900 vertical feet of hard, perfect granite with dozens of long, multi-pitch routes.”
Kramer also guides climbers on the high-desert buttresses and boulders at Joshua Tree National Park, where more than 8,000 routes are flanked by a captivating desert landscape. “Joshua Tree is a total mind-body-spirit experience,” Kramer says. “It’s so gorgeous; it’s like a movie set. There’s a crazy amount of climbing—you can belay off your bumper or hike into the wilderness.”
In Northern California, Lake Tahoe serves up its own smooth granite. Statuesque Lover's Leap towers over the American River Canyon, offering sheer vertical lines and multi-pitch crack climbing. Near Truckee, 400-plus routes await in Donner Pass, each offering breathtaking Donner Lake views. Sean Kristl of Alpenglow Expeditions says the 7,057-foot pass has “easy drive-up access and extremely hard, dense granite that's littered with cracks.” If you're new to the sport, Kristl recommends the Tahoe Via Ferrata at Squaw Valley, a protected climbing course. “It’s a rock-climbing experience anyone can do,” he says. To aid your ascent, ladder rungs and footholds are installed in the rock. A guide accompanies you and teaches basic techniques. In no time, you’ll be scrambling up 800-foot-high Tram Face like a rock star.
The safety of both visitors and residents is a top priority in the Golden State. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you plan to visit. We also encourage everyone to check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub as well as the latest Travel Updates.