With an incomparable mix of desert, coastal, and mountain landscapes, California is home to some of the Earth’s most remarkable natural areas. In fact, from the United Nations to a group seeking to protect legendary surfing spots, international organizations have honored locations around the Golden State as among the world’s most special places. If you’re looking for an encounter with some of the best Mother Nature has to offer on Earth Day (April 22)—from the tallest trees to the biggest animals and the finest waves—they’re all right here.
Dana Point: A Whale of a Town
With dolphins, gray whales, and even the occasional blue whale (the largest animals to ever live on Earth), Dana Point has long been a major hub for watching marine life, both from land and on boat tours. Each year the community celebrates its offshore neighbors during the Dana Point Festival of Whales, and the Orange County town has dubbed itself the “Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World.” Add it all up, and the town’s commitment to sustainability, environmental education, and the protection of whales earned Dana Point honors as a Whale Heritage Site earlier this year—making it the first U.S. location with this distinction. As Donna Kalez of the Dana Point Whale Watching Company puts it, “Dana Point has historically been an incredible destination to watch and learn about whales and dolphins, and now we are happy to share this with the world.”
North Coast: The Tallest Trees on Earth
In 1980, the Redwood National and State Parks along the North Coast became the first locations in California to merit designation as a World Heritage Site from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Within the redwood groves—surviving remnants of forests that date back 160 million years—you’ll find trees that grow over 300 feet tall and have reached the grand old age of 2,000 years. For a great introduction to the glories of these parks, combine the Prairie Creek and Cathedral Tree trails for a 3.2-mile loop in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, about 50 miles north of Eureka.
Yosemite National Park: Granite Grandeur
Waterfalls plunging thousands of feet to the valley floor. Sheer cliff faces that draw top rock climbers from around the world to defy gravity on challenging ascents. Silent stands of giant sequoia trees and mountain meadows pixelated with wildflowers. Indeed, the glories of Yosemite National Park are many and varied, earning the iconic High Sierra destination its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Glacier-carved Yosemite Valley is the must-see attraction but only the beginning of this national park’s wonders. Open from late May into fall, Tioga Road leads to Tuolumne Meadows, a gorgeous high-country expanse with alpine lakes surrounded by granite domes.
Malibu: The Perfect Wave
Malibu’s Surfrider Beach proves that bigger isn’t always better. Instead, what helped Surfrider Beach earn Malibu designation as the first World Surfing Reserve from the Save the Waves Coalition was the sheer perfection of this point break’s waves, and its role in the emergence of California surf culture. As Paul Gross, the former editor of Surfer Magazine, put it, “Malibu is the exact spot on Earth where ancient surfing became modern surfing.” Along with the landmark Adamson House and historic Malibu Pier, Surfrider is part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach. The pier has a terrific perspective on Surfrider’s three breaks, which, under the right conditions, can be combined into epic 300-yard rides.
Santa Cruz: Where Surfing Began
In 1885, three Hawaiian princes visiting Santa Cruz crafted and rode redwood surfboards, becoming the U.S. mainland’s first surfers. The rest, as they say, is history. Santa Cruz, with 23 prime breaks along seven miles of coastline, has evolved into what the Save the Waves Coalition calls “the best all-around surf town in the continental United States.” Thanks to the quality of local waves and an active surfing community dedicated to protecting the coast, the coalition named Santa Cruz the fourth World Surfing Reserve in 2011. To catch the scene, check out the action at Steamer Lane, then walk over to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and see historic photographs and vintage boards.