Wide-open spaces abound in California—but you don’t have to be physically here to enjoy them these days.
Lots of national and state parks, botanical gardens, and outdoor attractions are posting live cams and virtual tours that let you experience the hikes, sights, and scenery that await when you visit these locations later—from fields of orange poppies in L.A. County to the gurgling water of Channels Islands National Park to the street art of San Francisco.
In the meantime, these virtual experiences are both educational—perhaps narrated by park rangers who identify a chirping bird or a flowering bush—and just flat-out relaxing to watch. Here are 18 ways to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature in California, listed north to south:
Follow along on these quick walks with the parks’ Ranger Greg, who takes you through different areas and habitats to learn about these fascinating—and ginormous—trees. One video takes you inside a “chimney” redwood, while another offers a quick tour of an old-growth redwood forest, noting how healthy redwoods tend to maintain their own version of social distance from each other. If you have a VR headset, use it to boost the wow factor.
Spring is popping at this 700-acre retreat and garden planted with 17,000 tulips and other flowers, located in Gold Country’s Nevada City. A few times a week, two of the staffers give a quick tour of the flowers’ progress, from the classic tulips to forget-me-nots and cherry blossoms.
Capitol Park, Sacramento
The California State Capitol Museum offers a variety of pictorial tours, showcasing several features at the 40-acre park. Learn a little about the World Peace Rose Garden, home to 153 different varieties, and the Camellia Grove, which blooms in spring with the pretty flower that first arrived in California during the Gold Rush.
Check out the live-cam view of Point Reyes Beach taken from the Point Reyes Lighthouse, which refreshes every 15 minutes. Year round, the north-northeast view from this isolated seaside promontory offers a placid panorama of water lapping up on along the lovely Sonoma Coast. Through April, you also have a chance of seeing migrating whales in the water at this coastal preserve, located about an hour north of San Francisco.
Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia
Explore one of the most historic places California has to offer in this Gold Rush-era time-capsule village located in Tuolumne County. See the exterior streets, as well as interiors of the general store, the tiny courtroom, and a seriously old-school bowling alley. Click on the “i” icons to reveal fun facts—say, that the 1856 saloon did triple duty as a bakery, oyster bar, and coffee spot.
Wild SF Tours, San Francisco
Starting April 20, you can join free virtual walking tours of San Francisco led by this tour company’s colorful team of guides, including drag queens, musicians, and improv comics. Choose from four 60-minute options such as the “Ghosts of San Francisco” and “Street Art and Graffiti.” Online participants can ask questions, and even help decide the route.
Take a peek at this super-salty, million-year-old lake, dotted with the other-worldly-looking calcium-carbonate spires known as tufa towers, which were formed by the interaction of alkaline lake water and freshwater springs. You might also see a few birds, since upwards of 2 million spend some time here in any given year. The live cams also keep tabs on nearby Mill Creek and the little town of Lee Vining.
Check out the national park’s Facebook page to see video updates of coyotes, squirrels, and just-out-of-hibernation bears, all going about their business. Then watch the Yosemite Conservancy’s webcam of epic sights such as Yosemite Falls, or explore the park’s podcast and trip-planning videos. Virtual Yosemite, meanwhile, offers panoramic views from all over the park, from Half Dome’s summit to the Great Lounge of The Ahwahnee.
Start figuring out your strategies to play some key holes at the world-class Pebble Beach Golf Links, near Monterey. The live cams include the 1st tee and the very scenic 17th and 18th greens; the par-5 18th include a nice view of the waves coming in at Stillwater Cove, and one of the area’s beloved Cypress trees. The course’s website invites duffers to start planning trips, too, for whenever it reopens.
Go to the Hearst San Simeon State Park Facebook page to see the northern elephant seals who live near Hearst Castle—including pups learning to swim in a “weaner pod.” The seals are also on display in California State Parks’ PORTS Distance Learning program on Facebook, which offers videos and activities from a wide range of state parks.
Outdoor yoga, hiking, skateboarding, and more: this outdoorsy virtual reality video shows you how pretty, and pretty darn relaxing, this Central Coast college town is.
Go to Facebook or Instagram to virtually wander the scenic trails at this garden, home to more than 1,000 California plant species. In one video, a staffer shows off the spring flowers, along with the chattering birds, within the Island View Garden. In another, watch a closeup of a bumblebee pollinating a White Lantern manzanita.
Spot California’s state fish, the bright-orange garibaldi, and other marine critters swimming among kelp forests on this below-the-surface webcam from Channel Islands National Park. Then check out the above-ground cams, including Mount Diablo (the park’s highest peak), Anacapa Island, and a bald eagle nest. Start planning a trip by getting acquainted with the typical starting point—Ventura Harbor, which has its own live cam.
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Lancaster
April is peak season for the state flower, which abounds at this state natural reserve in L.A. County. Keep tabs on the blossoming orange flowers using the park’s live cam.
The Huntington Botanical Gardens, Pasadena
Explore this 120-acre gem in L.A. County through eight different virtual tours. Learn about the species that would’ve fed prehistoric herbivores on the Dinosaur Plants tour, or scroll through the Rose Collection and learn about breeds such as the Rosa “Neil Diamond,” a large pink blossom with splashy wild stripes named for the pop icon.
Get the lay of the land, quite literally, with this fun use of Google Earth. The 360-view options within the desert park include Oasis of Mara, the famous Arch Rock, and a cholla cacti garden (you’ll see why it’s called the “teddy bear” cactus—its super-sharp spines look fuzzy). The Google Earth national park options in California also include Death Valley, Channel Islands, Yosemite, and Sequoia National Park.
San Elijo Lagoon, San Diego County
Take a virtual, ranger-led stroll to watch for shorebirds at this ecological reserve and nature center, not far from the beach in Encinitas. Add in a virtual hike through the quirky and extremely narrow Annie’s Canyon, which ends with a lagoon and ocean view.
Mission Bay Aquatic Park, San Diego
Enjoy a room with a view, as it were, with the webcams from the Catamaran Resort and Bahia Hotel. You might spot kayakers, SUP paddlers, and sailboats, or just enjoy the placid waters of Mission Bay, with the San Diego skyline in the background.