You could travel the globe to witness dramatic scenery, exotic wildlife, and fascinating history—but you can also see a whole world’s worth of wonders right in California. Scroll through the gallery below to see the abundance and diversity of adventures you can have in the Golden State.
The World: Giraffes in Kenya
California: Giraffes at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido has done a remarkable job of replicating the experience of going on an African safari, without any of the high-maintenance travel preparations. See its thriving community of Uganda giraffes (more than 100 have been born here) at the park’s Kijamii Overlook—as well as dozens of other species. Visit the giraffes up close on a VIP-style Wildlife Safari, where you can join them in the field. (These guys can eat a lot—up to 75 pounds of food a day.)
The World: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
California: Salt Flats, Death Valley National Park
Talk about getting away from it all: the salt lake Badwater Basin at Death Valley National Park is downright otherworldly. This former site of prehistoric lakes may be smaller than its look-alike in Bolivia, but at 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in North America—and still huge, at 200 square miles. After beholding the eerie expanse, take the nine-mile Artist’s Drive, where the sedimentary hills of the Amargosa Range can look pink, gold, green, or lavender, especially in the afternoon sun.
The World: Sand Dunes, Sahara Desert (Algeria)
California: Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park
The sand dunes of Africa’s Sahara Desert may be iconic, but the sand dunes of Death Valley National Park have earned intergalactic fame. Yes, the 100-foot-high, rippled Mesquite Flat provided the location for Tatooine in Star Wars: A New Hope. Look for the three kinds of dunes here—crescent, linear, and star shaped—then enjoy some shade under the namesake mesquite trees.
The World: Egmont National Park, North Island, New Zealand
California: Rim of the World Scenic Byway, San Bernardino County
New Zealand’s rugged terrain is blissfully remote, but you can get pretty similar scenery not far from Los Angeles: the 110-mile Rim of the World Scenic Byway affords sweeping views of the verdant San Bernardino Mountains and plenty of outdoor diversions. Take some of the fun detours along the beautiful road trip, like paddling on Lake Arrowhead, hiking a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, or looking for bald eagles along the Castle Rock Trail near Big Bear Lake.
The World: Clevedon Pier, Somerset, United Kingdom
California: Huntington Beach
California is without peer when it comes to its wealth and variety of piers. Consider the small romantic piers in Northern California to the amusement park–lined piers of Santa Cruz and Santa Monica, along with the 1,800-foot stunner in Huntington Beach. The Orange County pier bears a striking resemblance to the UK pier once called “the prettiest in the world,” but along Huntington Beach’s 1,800-foot length, you can buy (and fly) a kite, go fishing, or raise a glass at Jan & Dean’s Tiki Lounge, named for the pair who sang “Surf City.”
The World: Amalfi Coast, Italy
California: Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island feels as far-flung as Italy’s Amalfi Coast—but it’s just a 60-minute ferry ride from L.A. or 90 minutes from Orange County. Catalina looks a bit like Amalfi too, thanks to the Mediterranean-style resorts and homes tucked into the hillside of Avalon Bay. Soak up the quaint ambience by strolling Avalon, going kayaking or snorkeling in the calm bay waters, or taking a jaunt around the Catalina Island Conservancy, home to the roaming bison who have lived here since an old movie shoot.
The World: Canals of Venice, Italy
California: Canals of Venice Beach
In 1905, an eccentric developer named Abbot Kinney built the Los Angeles County beach town of Venice Beach as an homage to his favorite Italian city—complete with canals, bridges, and a colonnaded business district. While much of that original town plan has disappeared, a few blocks’ worth of canals, lined with homes, still remain. Take a walking tour of the picturesque area, then enjoy an Italian dinner with California farm-to-table street cred at Felix on Abbot Kinney Blvd.
The World: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
California: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Downtown Los Angeles
Architect Frank Gehry’s acclaimed design for Spain’s Guggenheim Museum may have debuted six years before the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but architecture enthusiasts appreciate that Gehry, a longtime Los Angeles resident, had actually drawn up the undulating design for the L.A. Philharmonic’s new home first. And while The Bilbao put the little Spanish town on the map for art and architecture, the Disney merely enhanced L.A.’s already-great cultural standing. The structure’s world-class neighbors in downtown include The Broad, a contemporary-art museum whose “veil-and-vault” exterior is another work of art in itself.
The World: Underwater life near the SS Yongala in Queensland, Australia
California: Underwater life in Channel Islands National Park
The underwater world that swirls around Channel Islands National Park is so rich with life that you might think you’re actually at the Great Barrier Reef. The eight-island archipelago, a ferry ride away from Ventura or Oxnard, is a wonderland of kelp forests, sea caves, and countless fish, including bright orange garibaldi. See it up close by kayak, on a whale watching cruise, or on a diving trip led by operators such as Island Packers and Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
The World: Cherry blossoms in Nagahama, Japan
California: Apple blossoms in Bakersfield
Spring’s cherry blossom season, including Japan’s famous bloom, typically lasts only a few weeks in April. Head to the California Central Valley, starting in February, however, and you can see apple, cherry, peach, apricot, and almond blossoms for several weeks, often extending well into April. Start with spots like Bakersfield’s Murray Family Farms, which pops with color all season. Or make it a road trip along the 62-mile Fresno Blossom Trail, lined with orchards from Fresno to towns such as Sanger, Orange Cove, and Reedley. Come back in summer to taste the harvest along the Fresno County Fruit Trail.
The World: Mountain biking in Chamonix, France
California: Mountain biking in Mammoth Lakes
Summer offers a wide range of outdoor fun options around Mammoth Lakes, including elite-level mountain biking. And while other mountain resorts, such as those in the French Alps, may be daunting for anyone but the experts, Mammoth Mountain offers more than 80 miles of single-track trails that can accommodate every skill level. You’ll find plenty of jumps, drops, pavers, and berms on both the public access trails and at Mammoth Bike Park, home of the kid-friendly Discovery Zone. New to the sport? Rentals and lessons are easy to come by at the Mono County bike park, too.
The World: Tara River Canyon, Montenegro
California: Rafting the South Fork of the American River
Montenegro’s Tara River Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the South Fork of the American River more than holds its own for world-class river rafting. Plus, you get some classic American history as you’ll pass by Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, where the Gold Rush began. Prime time for Class II-III rapids is April through September, though first-timers might prefer the mellower fall. Lots of operators—such as OARS or American Whitewater Expeditions— offer single- or multi-day trips down the river.
The World: 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon, Portugal
California: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Portugal’s cosmopolitan city of Lisbon features hilly terrain, an acclaimed food scene, and a very famous bridge that is painted “International Orange.” Sound like any other city you know? Built in 1966, Lisbon’s 25th of April Bridge is indeed impressive… but it doesn’t hold a candle to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which predates it by 29 years. You can explore Joseph Strauss’ masterpiece by going to the Golden Gate Bridge’s Welcome Center, then either walking the 1.7-mile expanse or renting a bicycle from Golden Gate Bridge Bike Rentals, Blazing Saddles, or Wheel Fun Rentals.
The World: Piedmont, Italy
California: Sonoma County
When Italian settlers first experienced California’s rolling hills and Mediterranean-like climate, they realized they had found a land with excellent grape-growing potential, just like their native country. That experiment has worked out well all over the state, from Napa to Lodi to Temecula. Today, taste Sonoma County wines that salute Italy’s hilly Piedmont region, such as the Nebbiolo and Cortese at downtown Healdsburg’s Idlewild Wines, or the Sangiovese at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, which was launched by a more contemporary Italian-American.
The World: The Twelve Apostles in Victoria, Australia
California: The Lost Coast
Northern California’s rocky coastline offers drama and a feeling of solitude for miles, with much of it easily seen from the legendary Highway 1. The giant boulders standing guard over blissful ocean views in Mendocino County may remind you a little of Australia’s sea stacks known as the 12 Apostles, but the scenery just keeps unfolding. You can explore the 25-mile Lost Coast Trail by foot, too, especially on the most easily accessible trails between Shelter Cove and the Mattole River, north of Fort Bragg.
The World: Mt. Fuji, Japan
California: Mt. Shasta
Japan’s tallest mountain (elevation: 12,380 feet) is rich with both climbing opportunities and spiritual meaning for locals and visitors alike. Same goes for Mount Shasta (which, if you’re keeping score, stands at over 14,100 feet high) in Siskiyou County. It has inspired Native American legends and was named “Shasta” by settlers, after the Russian word for eternal happiness. It still attracts those looking for nature-rich reflection: Take a hike among the summer wildflowers, or even book a meditative Mt. Shasta retreat.