Climb on a via ferrata. Go cage diving with sharks. Escape to a dude ranch or hop on a sandbar in the desert. These and other unexpected adventures await in the Golden State.
1. Escape to a Dude Ranch
Dig out your Stetson hat and silver belt buckle and reconnect with California's laid-back cowboy culture. Amble on a gentle quarter horse though pines and cedars at Quincy’s Greenhorn Ranch. Learn how to rope like a wrangler at The Alisal Guest Ranch near Solvang. Ride in a thrilling cattle drive at Bridgeport’s Hunewill Ranch. Never been on a horse? City slickers can choose from unsaddled activities like fly-fishing, river rafting, swimming, or campfire s’mores under starry skies.
2. Slide Down a Dune
Snow melts and waves go flat, but coastal dunes are always ready for riding. Wax up your sandboard, strap in your feet, and slide down their silky, wind-rippled slopes. Coastal dunes occur wherever the ocean breeze piles up sand, like the towering sand hills at Marina State Beach, the steep walls of “The Crater” in Sand City, or the Oceano Dunes south of Pismo Beach. In the winter, try desert sandboarding at Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve or Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. And bring your kids—young ones are light enough to slide on plastic sleds or saucers.
3. Dive with Sharks
On a trip with Cage Diver San Francisco, feel your pulse pound as you scan for great whites. You’ll start with a three-hour boat ride to the Farallon Islands, then descend in a metal cage and wait for a 16-foot-long shark to drop by. To meet other predators, book with California Shark Diving in Los Angeles or San Diego. You have a good chance of spotting mako, blue, or hammerhead sharks from the safety of an underwater cage.
4. Ride Wind and Waves
Few sports are as visually compelling as kitesurfing. Daredevil athletes master wind and waves as they skim across the ocean at 30 miles per hour, propelled by a swooping kite. See the pros execute dazzling spins and loops at Jalama Beach near Lompoc, Arroyo Laguna in San Simeon, Crissy Field in San Francisco, or Waddell Creek in Davenport. Want to join their ranks? Take lessons at Belmont Shore in Long Beach, Mission Bay in San Diego, Coyote Point on the San Francisco Peninsula, or Sherman Island in Rio Vista.
5. Climb with Confidence
Itching for a challenge? Ditch your rise-and-grind routine for a rise-and-climb routine. You don’t need gear or special skills, just a strong desire to test yourself on vertical rock. Via ferratas are protected climbing courses—you climb under your own power while safely hooked into steel cables and anchors. Iron rungs and footholds aid your ascent, and an experienced guide accompanies you. Inch your way up 800-foot-high Tram Face at Palisades Tahoe Resort, or take your pick from six different routes at Mammoth Mountain.
6. Troll the Ocean’s Depths
There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of hooking into a hard-fighting, 200-pound tuna. All along the California coast, charter boats comb the deep offshore waters for rod-bending gamefish. From Fort Bragg, Bodega Bay, or Half Moon Bay, try your luck for salmon and rockfish. Reel in white sea bass off Ventura or Morro Bay, and hook into California halibut or calico bass near Santa Barbara. In the warmer waters between Newport Beach and San Diego, fish for bluefin tuna or yellowtail.
7. Ply the Waters on a Houseboat
Summer vacations pose a dilemma: So many water sports, so little time. A houseboat solves that problem—they’re large enough to hold kayaks, paddleboards, fishing gear, and water toys of all shapes and sizes, and you can swim off the back deck. These floating vacation rentals have enough beds to accommodate your whole gang, and they’re surprisingly easy to drive, even if you’ve never owned a boat. Rent one at Trinity Lake or Lake Shasta near Redding; Lake Don Pedro in the Sierra foothills; or Lake Berryessa in Napa County.
8. Trek Through the Treetops
On a redwood canopy tour, you’ll enter the amazing ecosystem that thrives more than 100 feet above the forest floor. Become a part of this seldom-seen world while trekking, swinging, and soaring from one platform to the next via suspension bridges, aerial swings, and ziplines. Combine your trek with an overnight stay in a treehouse yurt at Sonoma Zipline Adventures in Occidental, or gather your coworkers for team-building at Mount Hermon Adventures in Felton.