If you’re planning on staking out to see more of the United States, planning a trip to California is a no-brainer. The Golden State is home to beautiful scenery, rich history, and some of the most exciting attractions in the country. California is also the third-largest state in the country, making it difficult to explore without a clear gameplan.
Today, we’re going to help you take the guesswork out of how to plan a trip to California. In our detailed guide, we’ll cover the basics of getting to California, what you should see and do once you’re there, and some great tips for how you can get the most out of your trip.
California is located on the western coast of the United States, and it’s one of the largest states in the country. California occupies an area of over 160,000 square miles, and it’s behind only Alaska and Texas in terms of size.
California is also the most populous state in the union, with one in eight Americans calling California their home. California also has some of the largest cities in America, with Los Angeles behind only New York in terms of residency. The Bay Area is the 5th largest city in the country.
California also helps to drive the national economy forward, contributing three trillion dollars to the nation’s economy. In fact, California would be the world’s fifth-largest economy if it was its own country.
The state is known as a trendsetter in the United States and globally, and it possesses an incredibly diverse culture. California is at the precipice of technology, communication, environmentalism, the economy, politics, food, and entertainment.
The movie business, fast food, hippies, computers, technology, and car culture are all uniquely Californian things that have made their way into our cultural lexicon. In other words, without California, the culture in America would be quite different.
Long before California was a thriving member of the United States, it was initially settled by indigenous people. European imperialism changed all this during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the area of Alta California was under Spanish rule by 1804. This territory later became part of Mexico after a war for independence, and in 1848, the area was ceded to the United States.
In an incredible stroke of luck, gold was discovered just days after the United States had taken control over the area that would become modern-day California. Scores of Americans and Europeans began migrating to the area in hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families.
Two years later, the western area of Alta California was organized, and they were ratified as the 31st state of the union in September 1850. While California was now recognized as a state in the union, its location presented some significant obstacles to the growth of the state, which was thousands of miles away from the American populous.
After the Civil War, the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad made travel far more manageable. During this time, settlers were learning about California’s incredibly fertile soil, which gave birth to the thriving agricultural economy of the state, which continues on today.
Modern Day California
The early 1900s saw the completion of Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, which made it even easier for settlers and travelers to reach California. By the mid-1960s, California was the most populous state in the union. With this influx of new residents, California required significant infrastructure upgrades.
Feats of engineering like the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Oroville and Shasta Dams, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge were quickly erected, and they’re still some of the most excellent examples of American infrastructure.
During the 20th century, California became home to several booming businesses. Farming continued to develop as a significant economic growth factor, filmmakers flocked to California and established studios in the Hollywood area, defense contractors began producing armaments for World War II and beyond, and the aerospace industry also took hold in the area.
When the size of the defense and aerospace industries shrank following the Cold War, Stanford University was instrumental in encouraging students and graduates to put down roots in California and begin developing new technologies. Today, we know that area as Silicon Valley.
Today, California is an abundant land that’s home to a diversity of people, animals, and environments. There is no shortage of things to see and do in the area, and it’s almost impossible to enjoy everything California has to offer without spending over a week exploring the state.
California by Region
Given California’s enormous size, it can be helpful to break the state down into different regions so you can more easily group various attractions together. Everyone has a different definition of which areas fit within each region, but this is a solid framework of how the state breaks down as a whole.
The Central Valley
The Central Valley occupies most of the interior region of California, and it occupies a space that ranges from 40-60 miles wide, ranging about 450 miles from Redding in the North and Bakersfield in the south.
The Central Valley is encased by the coastal mountain ranges to its west side and the Sierra Nevada to its east side. This area is home to what is perhaps the most fertile farmland in all of America. This region of California is responsible for much of the produce that we enjoy each day.
In fact, virtually all of the almonds, artichokes, pomegranates (and so much more) that we enjoy come from California. There’s much more to the Central Valley than fertile farmland, though. The Central Valley is also home to several major cities, including Sacramento and Fresno.
While there are some great museums and state parks in the Central Valley, many of the most popular attractions in the state are along the coast, or even further inland.
The Central Coast
Immediately to the west of the Central Valley lies the Central Coast, which is home to some of California’s most beautiful coastal scenery. The Central Coast is mostly agricultural, but it’s also a major tourist destination as well. Beyond the beautiful beaches and picture-perfect sunsets, the coast is known for producing wine grapes, lettuce, and strawberries.
Other attractions in the area include the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Pebble Beach Golf Course. The area is also known for its academics, as there are multiple California State University and University of California campuses in the region.
Northern California is known for its seemingly endless beauty, and an abundance of national parks, lakes, and gorgeous coastline.
Northern California is also home to the enormous redwood trees, which grow freely in the area. Here, you’ll find Yosemite National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redwood National Park, and the Marin Headlands.
The east side of Northern California is also home to the Gold Rush, and you can visit the area today and pan for gold, just like a real miner from the 1850s.
Perhaps most notably, Northern California is home to Lake Tahoe, and you’ll find some of the finest skiing and snowboarding in the country, with several world-class ski resorts on the California side of the lake.
Just north of wine country lies Humboldt County, which is home to many beautiful national and state parks, as well as much of the state’s cannabis crops. Humboldt County has long been a landmark for the counterculture, and it’s known for producing some of the world’s best marijuana.
Eastern Sierra and the Desert Region
The Eastern Sierra region is located on the eastern side of the central portion of the state. This area is comprised of Alpine, Mono, and Inyo counties, and it’s a sparsely populated region that’s known for incredible scenery. This region is also home to part of Yosemite and Death Valley State Parks.
Mono Lake and Mammoth Lakes are both points of interest. But, this region of California doesn’t see much tourism. A bit further south, the desert region of California receives most of the tourism in the area. While deserts are generally places you’d like to avoid, the desert region of California is home to boundless natural beauty, and some of the most famous national parks in the country.
Death Valley State Park, Red Rock Canyon State Park, and Joshua Tree National Park are just a few of the many beautiful attractions in the area.
Just above California’s Bay Area lies the wine country, an area that’s been famed as one of the premier wine growing regions in the world since the 1800s. This region is comprised of five counties: Napa, Mendocino, Sonoma, Lake, and Solano.
Beyond the vineyards, the wine country is also home to many Michelin-starred restaurants, architecture, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels. In other words, it’s probably the finest place to eat and stay in all of California.
Today, there are over 800 wineries in the area. Besides wine tasting, the area is perfect for bike riding, hiking, hot-air balloon rides, and practically any outdoor activity imaginable.
The Bay Area
The San Francisco Bay Area, sometimes referred to simply as “The Bay” is one of California’s most populous regions, and it’s home to some of the state’s coolest attractions.
Depending on who you’re talking to, “Bay Area” can be a nebulous term with fluid geographic boundaries. The area is most commonly understood to include the nine counties which border the San Francisco Bayt. This also includes the five counties north of the bay, which make up wine country.
The Bay Area is home to some of California’s most beautiful destinations, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Haight Street, Castro Theater, and so much more.
Like many of California’s regions, the definition is applied relatively loosely. We understand Southern California to encompass the ten southernmost counties of the state. The area starts with San Luis Obispo, Kern, and San Bernardino counties and extends southward from there, covering Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, and Imperial counties.
This area of California is a major cultural hub, and it’s also home to the second-most populous city in America, Los Angeles. Southern California is unique in the sense that it features nearly all of the geographic characteristics of the state as a whole. If you drove an hour across southern California, you’d encounter everything from pristine coastline to hills, mountains, and arid deserts.
Southern California is home to some of California’s finest destinations and theme parks, and it’s one of the most popular destinations in the country for tourists. Major landmarks in the area include Hollywood, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Seaworld, the San Diego Zoo, and Universal Studios Hollywood.
While southern California isn’t nearly as popular for the northern Bay Area when it comes to wine, it still features a rich and fertile landscape that’s ideal for making fine wine.
Planning Your Trip
Hopefully, now you have a clearer idea of where you’d like to visit, and what you’d like to see when you’re there. Before you begin mapping out your itinerary, you’ll need to ask yourself some questions. Depending on your answers, you’ll have a better idea of how you can make the most of your trip.
- How long will your trip be?
- How much money have you budgeted for your trip?
- How much driving are you comfortable doing?
These three questions will help you greatly as you create your itinerary. The most critical element in the equation is time. If you are only in town for a week, it will be impossible for you to see the entire state, or spend any meaningful time at each destination. In this case, you’ll want to try and restrict your trip to a particular area or two so you can maximize your time there.
From there, your budget will also play a significant factor. California isn’t known for being affordable, especially in major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you’re working with a tight budget, you can still have a fantastic time in California. But, you may want to alter your itinerary, so you’re not shelling out tons of money for food and lodging in the major cities.
Finally, since the state is so big, how much you’re willing to drive each day will impact where you go. Many destinations in California are two, three, or four hours apart. But, with some careful planning, you can dramatically reduce the amount of driving you need to do each day. If you aren’t comfortable driving in new places, this is an area to pay close attention to.
Once you have answers to the questions above, it’s time to start mapping out an itinerary. One helpful tip that can make planning easier is to take a blank map of the state of California and fill in the points on the map that you’re interested in seeing on your trip. From there, you can map the best route for your travels, and the best places to stay.
Once you’ve mapped out an itinerary, you can begin booking your trip, and get ready to enjoy an amazing vacation!
Getting to California
The first thing you’ll need to do as you learn how to plan a trip to California is arrange for transportation. Essentially, there are two ways you can get to California: car and airplane. While major metropolitan areas offer bus and rail service, it’s virtually impossible to get around the great state of California without a car, so you’ll need to rent a vehicle if you choose to fly in.
Los Angeles International, San Francisco International, and Fresno-Yosemite International are the three most popular airports in the state, but there are countless other options available if you’d prefer to fly to a specific region of the state. Depending on your itinerary, you’ll be able to narrow down the list to find the best airport for you to fly into.
What to See When You Arrive
There are so many incredible things to see and do in California, and it’s virtually impossible to see it all in one trip. Thankfully, you can easily pick and choose the most important destinations for you to ensure you have the best trip possible. Here are a handful of the most iconic destinations in California.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Just east of Redding in the northern part of California, Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to a treasure trove of different volcanic features. There are hydrothermal features throughout the park, including mud pots, boiling pools, fumaroles, and steaming ground.
When rain and snow fall in the park’s highlands, the precipitation feeds the hydrothermal system. The molten rock beneath the surface heats the water, resulting in the incredible hydrothermal activity.
The park boasts over 150 miles of trails that wind throughout the park, showcasing all of the incredible hydrothermal features. But, make sure you’re extra careful when hiking through the park, and be sure to stay on the approved path, as you could easily injure yourself if you stray from the beaten trail.
Visit Lake Tahoe
One of the most beautiful and iconic lakes in the world, Lake Tahoe, is home to America’s premier tourist destinations. Each year, over 2.7 million people head to the lake to enjoy the incredible scenery, fishing, hiking, skiing, and so much more.
The lake itself is perfect for any outdoor activity imaginable, and the roads around the perimeter of the lake are some of the most scenic driving in America. Of course, there are also tons of historical sights, resorts, hotels, and restaurants in the area for you to enjoy as well.
Explore Wine Country
With over 800 incredible vineyards in the immediate area, California’s wine country is a veritable paradise for wine drinkers.
Throughout the five-county region that makes up the wine country, you’ll find vineyards of all shapes and sizes that cater to practically everyone’s taste in wine. The vineyards range from small, quint operations in converted barns to absolutely massive operations that produce tens of thousands of cases of wine each year.
Napa and Sonoma Counties are the most revered for wine production, but you can find hidden gems throughout the other counties as well. Mendocino is an especially attractive option, as you can enjoy a glass of wine surrounded by redwoods in a quiet and tranquil setting.
Visit the Golden Gate Bridge
For nearly 100 years, the Golden Gate Bridge has connected the northern tip of San Francisco to Marin County. The bridge spans over a mile across the Golden Gate, which is the strait that connects San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
So much more than a simple bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge is chock full of history, and either end of the bridge connects with the Golden Gate Recreation Area, which features incredible hiking, vista points, and historical information.
See Alcatraz Island
Immortalized in movies like The Rock and Escape From Alcatraz, this iconic location in San Francisco Bay needs no introduction. This famous prison held some of the country’s most notorious criminals until it was closed in the 1960s due to skyrocketing maintenance costs.
Today, you can take a ferry out to Alcatraz Island from Pier 33 to explore the island and soak up some of the incredible scenery and history. Pier 33 is in the heart of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, so there’s plenty to do and explore in that area as well.
Spend a Day at Monterey Bay Aquarium
Before you head out of the San Francisco area, you need to take a trip to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The aquarium is full of fun and exciting exhibits, and adorable animals like sea otters, penguins, rays, and so much more. The aquarium also has a focus on all the regional animals found in Monterey Bay, so it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture.
Universal Studios Hollywood
In addition to being the filming location for hundreds of blockbuster movies, Universal Studios Hollywood is also an incredible amusement park with tons of fun for kids and adults alike. The park features rollercoasters, simulators, rides, and tons of other entertainment options.
But, perhaps the coolest thing you can do in the park is take tours of actual movie studios from some of your favorite films. The park is busy year-round, so you may want to avoid going during the height of tourist season because it’s hard to appreciate the full studio experience with such massive crowds.
Hike to the Hollywood Sign
Initially created in the 1920s as a real estate advertisement, the Hollywood sign is one of the most iconic sights in all of California. The sign originally said “Hollywood Land,” but during the Great Depression, the marquee fell into disrepair, and the “land” was removed when the sign was finally refurbished.
There are several ways to get a great view of the Hollywood sign, but hiking is usually the best method. There are three routes to see the sign, and each route offers its own unique terrain and features. Visit the sign’s website and decide on the best route for your travels.
The three routes below ranked from easy to difficult, the Mt Hollywood Trail, the Brush Canyon Trail, and the Cahuenga Peak Trail offer choices for intrepid seekers, stragglers, dreamers, beginners, children, and the moderately well-conditioned.
Take a Stroll Down the Walk of Fame
No trip to Hollywood is complete without a trip down the iconic Walk of Fame, which has immortalized America’s most iconic actors, musicians, producers, and pop culture figures. Altogether, there are over 2,600 stars throughout Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.
Over ten million people a year flock to the Walk of Fame to pay their respects to these icons of entertainment and pop culture, and it’s a practical requirement for anyone heading to Los Angeles as part of their California vacation.
Go Beach Hopping
Few things are more abundant in Southern California than the beaches, and each one seems to be more amazing than the last. From the Los Angeles area down to San Diego, there are dozens of incredible beaches deserving of your attention.
Some of the most popular beaches in the area include Laguna Beach, Venice Beach, La Jolla Beach, and Newport Beach. There are a dozen more iconic beaches we haven’t mentioned by name, too. When you’re in the area, be sure to stop by the Santa Monica Pier for hours of fun and games.
California is one of the largest and most fun places to visit in the world. From the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to the beautiful scenery of Big Sur to Lake Tahoe and beyond, there’s never a shortage of incredible things to do in California.
When it comes to how to plan a trip to California, it’s important to remember just how expansive the state is. You’ll want to carefully plan your itinerary to ensure that you aren’t spending half your trip driving between attractions. By the same token, taking in the scenery as you drive through California is a vacation in itself.