Outdoor Adventure

Car-Free Through California's National Parks and Monuments

California encompasses the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney at 14,500 feet, and the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, which is 282 feet below sea level. And between those two extremes exists a world of outdoor adventure that can’t be topped by any other destination on earth.

It’s a state of natural superlatives: The world’s biggest hunk of granite (El Capitan in Yosemite, with its sheer face that rises more than 3,000 feet from the valley floor); the largest alpine lake in North America (Lake Tahoe); earth’s most skyscraping tree (Hyperion in Redwood National Park, a towering 380 feet, substantially higher than the Statue of Liberty); the biggest tree by volume (the General Sherman in Sequoia National Park, taller than a 26-story building with a circumference of more than 100 feet); the planet’s oldest living single organisms (the gnarled trees in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, some of which are estimated to be more than 5,000 years old); North America’s biggest collection of lava-tube caves at Lava Beds National Monument (there are more than 700); one of the oldest lakes on the continent (Mono Lake, 1 million years and counting); and North America’s tallest waterfall (Yosemite Falls, comprised of three separate falls which combine for a height of 2,425 feet). These are just a sampling of the jaw-dropping attractions Mother Nature has bestowed on California.

Of course, with more than 800 miles of coastline, surfing is deeply ingrained in California’s consciousness. Legendary surf spots can be found all along the coast, from novice-friendly La Jolla Shores to awe-inspiring Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, where the epic big-wave contest is held. And even those who won’t be shredding a monster wave anytime soon can still soak up the endless summer vibe at lively surf towns like Encinitas, Santa Cruz, and Huntington Beach, which claims the title of “Surf City, USA.”

Skiers and snowboarders can catch the winter wave at world-class mountain resorts like Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and Mammoth Mountain, the state’s tallest ski area with an elevation of more than 11,000 feet. With a ski and boarding season that can last until summer, there are boundless opportunities for some snow play, including nighttime snowshoe tours through Yosemite, cross-country skiing and snowkiting at Royal Gorge in Soda Springs, fat-tire biking on the trails of Northstar-at-Tahoe, and old-school tubing at Snow Summit at Big Bear Lake. And yes, the rumors are true — you can actually ski and surf in the same day in California.

For hikers and trekkers, California possesses one of the world’s peak experiences: The storied Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (made famous by the book and film Wild), which begins just north of Mexico near Campo and ends 2,600 miles later at the Canadian border. And as long as you’re in good physical shape and well prepared, you don’t need any special skills to summit Mount Shasta, Mount Whitney or Half Dome in Yosemite.

Even those sticking close to California’s urban centers will have easy access to the great outdoors. There are view-enhanced trails at spots like Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego and Griffith Park in Los Angeles, which is so large and wild it even has its own resident mountain lion. Up north, San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area features nearly 60 miles of prime Bay Area real estate.

Divers can get their Cousteau on and go deep to explore the nautical graveyard known as Wreck Alley off San Diego’s Mission Beach, home to a 366-foot scuttled destroyer. And even those who aren’t certified divers can — if they dare — join a shark-diving expedition out of San Diego. You’ll climb into a shark cage and get uncomfortably close to the great whites that frequent the waters off Isla Guadalupe.

For those who prefer less of an adrenaline rush with their wildlife viewing, there are plenty of other opportunities like whale-watching cruises found up and down the coast, and the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas in Central California. Snorkelers can commune with harmless leopard sharks and California’s state marine fish, the electric orange garibaldi, in the crystal clear waters of the San Diego–La Jolla Underwater Park. Also of note are the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove and bird watching at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, a migratory stopover for some 2 million birds of 300 different species. The otherworldly tufa formations that rise from the lake are worth a visit alone.

Snowmelt from the High Sierra in spring and summer launches the whitewater rafting season in rivers throughout Gold Country, like the South Fork of the American River. Kayaking, too, is a must-do activity, particularly in places like Channel Islands National Park, part of an archipelago that has been dubbed America’s Galapagos. The largest of the islands, Santa Cruz, has one of the biggest and deepest sea caves in the world.

Ready to gear-up? Here are even more options to get outdoors in California:

  • Fishing, from trout streams to deep sea
  • Mountain biking, notably at ski resorts like Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley that transition to summer bike havens
  • Sky diving and paragliding, no previous experience necessary
  • Wind and kite surfing, like in the reliably breezy and scenic Bay Area
  • Standup paddle-boarding … from Lake Tahoe to Monterrey Bay to Balboa Island, there’s a SUP site right for everyone
  • Kayaking … perhaps a moonlit paddle on Tomales Bay along the Point Reyes National Seashore
  • Hot-air ballooning in Napa and Temecula wine country
  • Houseboating on Lake Shasta
  • Spring wildflower season in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
  • Golfing at spectacular courses like Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines
  • Horseback riding … try galloping through the surf in Santa Barbara
  • Sailing, whether on a lake or in the ocean, chartered with a crew or bareboat
  • Riding ATVs at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area
  • Wildlife photography at locations rich with flora and fauna, such as Lassen Volcanic National Park


When it comes to outdoor recreation—from archery to zorbing—California has it all.

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