Climbing in Yosemite - photo Myles McGuinness

California is an adventurer’s mecca. Whether you’re seeking thrills on land, sea, or sky, this state has an activity that will get your heart pumping. 

California is home to more than 800 miles of Pacific coastline, not counting myriad bays and inlets. It is a paradise for ocean sports and activities. Still, travelers ought to note that the Pacific Ocean can be chilly, and wetsuits are the norm when in the water for any length of time.
In addition to its coast, California has 270 state parks, 19 national forests, more than a dozen major mountain ranges, 14 million acres of federal wilderness area, 32 million acres of forest, and 21 million acres of desert. Whether you’re hiking and backpacking, cycling, rock climbing, camping, or caving, California has plenty of space in which to do it.
And come winter, California’s mountains turn into winter playgrounds. Millions of skiers, snowboarders, and snow-lovers flock to alpine resort towns to have fun in all that winter white.

National & State Parks - North

Lassen Volcanic National Park - photo Kodiak Greenwood

The northern part of California is chock-full of parks, with 22 state and two national parks.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the most popular, where the Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Modoc Plateau, and Great Basin meet. Within the forest, explore the lava tubes or drive four-wheelers deep into granite country.
Redwood National and State Parks are home to some of the world’s tallest trees. These redwoods can live to be 2,000 years old and can grow to more than 350 feet tall. The park’s different habitats include prairie/oak woodlands, rivers, and streams, as well as 37 miles of Pacific coastline.
Castle Crags State Park is a 4,350-acre park with 28 miles of hiking trails, including a 2.7-mile access trail to Castle Crags Wilderness, part of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Within the park travelers can find swimming and fishing in the Sacramento River, hiking in the backcountry, and breathtaking views of Mount Shasta. There are also 76 developed campsites and six environmental ones.
Explore California’s largest freshwater lake at Clear Lake State Park. The area is renowned for water sports like swimming, fishing, boating, and water skiing.
Manchester State Park has 18,000 feet of frontage, as well as sand dunes and grasslands. One of the main attractions of this park is the steelhead and salmon fishing in the park’s streams, Brush Creek and Alder Creek.
Russian Gulch State Park is known for Russian Gulch Creek Canyon, which features the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a large collapsed sea cave. There is also a beach in this park that offers swimming, tide pool exploring, skin diving, and rock fishing.

Click the YouTube link for a glimpse at California's national parks.

National Parks - Central

Yosemite National Park

California’s Central Coast and Central Valley provide abundant wildlife options. With three national parks, travelers staying in the central part of the state will have plenty to explore.
Sequoia & King’s Canyon National Parks are home to natural wonders, from massive mountains to deep canyons and huge trees. Elevations, which range from 1,500 to 14,491 feet, provide immensely diverse habitats. Follow the Generals Highway up more than 5,000 feet through the alpine wilderness. Underneath the earth are more than 200 fascinating caverns waiting to be explored. Within the borders of the parks is Mount Whitney, the highest point in the U.S. outside of Alaska, and the Kings River Canyon, one of the deepest in North America.
Yosemite National Park is famous for its plunging waterfalls and massive granite faces. This park, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracts 4 million visitors each year. The park itself is nearly the size of Rhode Island, covering more than 1,100 square miles, and it features stark natural beauty from the Yosemite Valley to the Tuolumne Mountains.

National Parks - Southern

Full moon over Death Valley National Park - photo Christian Heeb

Southern California is home to three national parks, each vastly different in landscape and topography, giving travelers something completely unique to explore.
Joshua Tree National Park is a lunar landscape, packed with boulders, rugged mountains, gold-mining ruins, and desert plains. Nicknamed “J-Tree” by locals, the park lies at an ecological crossroads, where the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado Desert. The result is a kaleidoscope of desert flora, including those bizarre-looking namesake trees.
Death Valley National Park is the nation’s largest park outside of Alaska. Its 3.3 million acres are made up of mountain-size sand dunes, below-sea-level salt flats, bizarre singing rocks, and colorful sandstone canyons. It is a land of extremes. Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in America, where summer temperatures peak around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Off the coast of Southern California is Channel Islands National Park, a string of five islands that are both remote and magical. Visitors arrive by boat, departing regularly from Ventura and Oxnard, or by small plane. The islands, nicknamed the “Galapagos of North America,” are known for their plants and wildlife. There are no lodgings, stores, or restaurants, and travelers get around best in hiking boots or kayaks.

Volcanoes, Geysers, and Hot Springs

Bumpass Hell Trail, Shasta Cascade - photo Kodiak Greenwood

From the northern heights of Mount Shasta to Amboy Crater in the Mojave, California is bubbling with signs of a volcanic past and a still-turbulent present. These geological features helped shape the state into what it is today, with lava tubes, craters, geysers, and natural hot springs.


Among the most alluring parks is Lassen Volcanic National Park, where steaming sulfur vents and boiling springs reign.

Mount Shasta itself is actually a magnificent volcano that rises from the flatlands, making it a bucket-list mountain for serious climbers. Its last eruption was in 1786. But those who don’t wish to climb to the summit can meander along paths through wildflower-filled meadows and into the forests. One of the best trails is a two-mile path along the McCloud River.


Near Mammoth Lakes travelers will find excellent hot springs. Some 760,000 years ago a massive volcano exploded in this region, leaving the flat basin that holds Mammoth Lakes. A byproduct of this fiery past is the region’s network of natural hot springs. Three springs in the region to know are Benton Hot Springs, Travertine Hot Springs, and Keough Hot Springs.


At Grover Hot Springs State Park, about an hour southeast of Lake Tahoe, mineral springs bubble up from the earth. The park’s pools are fed from six springs containing low amounts of sulfur. The pools are open most of the year, and the park also has a 76-site campground.


The Amboy Crater, designated a National Natural Landmark in 1973 and just off Route 66, is an example of an almost perfectly symmetrical volcanic cinder cone. A trail climbs around the cone’s western half and leads into the breach, where lava has created lava lakes, collapsed lava tubes, and spatter cones.

Ski California

While California has built its reputation on that famous California sun and surf, wintertime gives way to a whole new menu of outdoor options. 

When the snow flies, California’s mountains turn into veritable winter playgrounds, drawing millions of skiers, snowboarders, and snow-lovers to quaint alpine resort towns.
Skiing and snowboarding are two of California’s most popular pastimes. Skiers and riders load up their gear and escape to the state’s diverse alpine resort regions. Improved snowmaking at larger resorts keeps the season going even in years with lower-than-average snowfall.
Cross-country skiers and snowshoers will also have a blast in California, enjoying both well-groomed tracks and silent trails through snowy wilderness.
Ski resorts and snow parks also offer lift-assisted snow tubing all over California’s mountainous regions. Ice rinks are popular attractions at top resorts as well, including the villages at Heavenly, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley and Northstar California.

Click here for more on skiing California.

Surf Northern, Central, and Southern California

photo Myles McGuinness

With all those hundreds of miles of glittering coast, it’s no wonder California is the biggest surfer destination in America. California surfers live and breathe the sport, from the top of the state to the bottom.
Orange County is perhaps the most famous spot in California for hanging ten. The surf tradition dates back more than 100 years. Here Huntington Beach is known as “Surf City, USA.” 

  • Visit Jack’s Surfboards, the Surfing Walk of Fame, and Huntington Surf and Sport, which celebrate local surf legends.
  • The beaches of San Clemente and San Onofre State Beach are where top surfers ride the legendary waves, as well.
  • For newbies looking to learn, consider Corky Carroll’s Surf School or San Clemente Surf School.
Just outside L.A., Malibu is a beach town like no other, where Hollywood stars and athletes flock to escape the city grind. Malibu’s Surfrider Beach was named the first World Surfing Reserve, while nearby Zuma Beach is a magnet for locals and families.
Further south in San Diego, surfing is a way of life, where fabled breaks like Bird Rock, Oceanside Pier, and Windansea call surfers to the waves year-round. The California Surf Museum in Oceanside celebrates the county’s surfing tradition. Throughout the county, especially in beach towns like Leucadia and Encinitas, there are tons of board shops, including Hansen Surfboards, which has been open since 1961.
Even Northern California can’t resist the call of the ocean. Legend has it that three Hawaiian princes brought surfing to Santa Cruz in 1885. Locals now take to the easy waves at Cowell’s Beach, and right-handed point breaks at Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point. Novices will love Cowell’s, as well as nearby Capitola. Club Ed Surf School offers lessons for surfers of all abilities.

For more on California surfing, click here.

Staying Under the Stars

Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs - photo Myles McGuinness

With so much pristine nature and the variety of landscapes, public campgrounds abound in national and state parklands. Reservations are strongly recommended, and fees vary depending on site and length of stay.

  • Contact ReserveCalifornia for state parks and individual websites for national parks.


  • National forests also provide free campgrounds, without the need for reservations, though services might be limited.

  • Private campgrounds, including the widespread KOA chain, are other great options. Check with sporting goods stores to see which ones offer rental equipment for your clients’ hobbies. If you’re camping in an RV, check campgrounds in advance for size restrictions.


In fact, touring by RV is another great way to see California. Companies such as Cruise America and El Monte offer a number of rental locations throughout the state, with one-way rentals available. Vehicles range from compact “cab-over” styles sleeping three people to luxury models that are as big as city buses with living rooms, full kitchens and bathrooms, and sleeping space for six or more.


A number of state parks do have restrictions on the length of RVs and trailers. Some at Lake Tahoe limit RVs to 18 feet, while Big Basin Redwoods State Park can accommodate those up to 27 feet. The state park near Hearst Castle, Hearst San Simeon State Park, goes even further, with a 35-foot limit. For details, visit parks.ca.gov.

For more on camping in California, click here.



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