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Must See & Famous Landmarks in California: Bucket list

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Need inspiration to start your California bucket list? You are at the right spot! From the Golden Gate Bridge to Disneyland, these are the top attractions and famous landmarks in California that are worthy of adding to your itinerary! We have included both man-made and nature highlights in this guide.

Whether you’re looking for a place to take a family vacation or simply want to admire some of America’s greatest landmarks, California has something for everyone. 

Top attractions & famous landmarks in California: Bucket list guide

Famous landmarks in California: Bucket list guide

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There are many famous California landmarks –  if you enjoy the outdoors, some of the best places to visit are Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Kings Canyon National Park. And picturesque beach towns and coastal cities in California!

If you’re interested in history, then the missions of San Diego and Santa Barbara or the Gold Rush towns of Grass Valley and Auburn are perfect for you. 

Good to know: California is home to over 140 national historic landmarks in the USA

And of course, no trip to California would be complete without a visit to Hollywood and Disneyland.

If you’re planning a trip to California, be sure to add these items to your bucket list. From iconic landmarks to natural wonders, there’s something for everyone on this list.

Golden Gate Bridge

Arguably one of the most iconic bridges in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is a must-see while you’re in San Francisco. This was the first thing I did when I arrived in San Francisco and ticked off my California bucket list. 

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco California bucket list

The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate strait, the one-mile-wide (1.6 km), one-point-seven-mile-long (2.7 km) channel between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. 

The bridge is one of the most internationally recognized symbols of San Francisco, California, and the United States. It has been declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The Frommer’s travel guide describes the Golden Gate Bridge as “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world”. 

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge

At nearly 2 miles long, the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was built in 1937.

You can walk or bike across the bridge (on a path that is shared with pedestrians), or drive across it to get to Marin County. There are also tour buses that will take you across and give you a narrated history of the bridge.

Read: One day in San Francisco itinerary | 4 day San Francisco itinerary | Road trips and weekend getaways from San Francisco

Golden Gate National Recreation Park

The Golden Gate National Recreation Park is made up of over 80,000 acres of land including forests, meadows, tide pools, and miles of coastline. This park is actually made up of several San Francisco California landmarks like the Conservatory of Flowers, and they are all connected, so there’s a lot to explore!

Conservatory of Flowers
One of famous landmarks in California – the Conservatory of Flowers at the recreation park

The park was established in 1972. 

Cavallo Point is one of the most stunning points inside the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The park offers stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline from its various vantage viewpoints.

Alcatraz Island

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Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island, famous landmarks in California

There are so many fun things to do in San Francisco, but the best attraction in town is Alcatraz Island. Located a little over a mile off the coast in the San Francisco bay, Alcatraz island was originally used as a military fort and prison. 

But in1934 they turned it into a federal prison where they eventually held some of the most dangerous and notorius robbers and murderers.

Alcatraz is arguably the most well known prison in the country, and is now a popular attraction managed by the National Park Service. 

Alcatraz Island, a must add to your California bucket list

While you’re in town, plan to spend about half a day here. You’ll ride a ferry from downtown San Francisco out to the island, which is about a 15 minute ride. 

Once you arrive, you’ll walk around the island visiting the various buildings and reading the history of each place. The real gem is the cell house where you are given an audio tour to listen as you wander through the building.  

The men who narrate the tour were all either correctional officers or prisoners on the island. It’s educational, interesting, and honestly, very emotional to learn about the stories of their time here. Be sure to stop in the gift shop for a National Park Service official patch! 

End the experience by walking the agave trail around the south side of the island to get a stunning view out over the water with the city skyline as your backdrop.

The whole experience is included in the base ticket and will run you $41 per adult or $25 per child. For a unique experience, book the night tour or “Behind the Scenes” tour instead.

Griffith Observatory

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Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory: California bucket list

One of the most iconic spots in Los Angeles is Griffith Observatory. Located in the hills near Hollywood, Griffith Observatory is known for many reasons. 

Aside from its incredible contribution to astronomy and education, many visitors recognize Griffith Observatory from its role in major films such as Terminator, Charlie’s Angels, Transformers, and La La Land. 

If that’s not enough, the views from Griffith are unparalleled as you can see downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood Sign from its perch on the hill.

Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory, one of the famous landmarks in California

As for the science side, Griffith has a number of fantastic exhibits including those on the history of astronomy, the importance of the moon, and a closer look at the planets in our solar system.

The museum is free although planetarium shows are ticketed and cost $10 for adults, $8 for students, teachers, and seniors, and $6 for children. While it may be tempting to opt for the free experience, the planetarium show is incredible and worth the price.

There are a few tips for visiting Griffith Observatory that will make your time there more pleasant and smooth.

First, parking at Griffith Observatory can be tricky as there is no designated lot. Instead take the cheap DASH bus from the base of the hill up to the top.

Another tip is to go early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid school crowds as Griffith is a popular field trip spot for summer camps and schools in the area on weekdays.

Lastly, you can easily spend a few hours at Griffith, but rather than eat a meal at their small café, head back down the hill to Little Dom’s, a local favorite Italian and brunch spot with the best blueberry ricotta pancakes!

Santa Monica Pier

The Santa Monica Pier is a historic landmark located in the city of Santa Monica, California. The pier is located at the end of Colorado Avenue and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Los Angeles area. 

Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier on a bright sunny summer day: California bucket list

The pier features a number of attractions, including a ferris wheel, a carousel, an aquarium, and a variety of shops and restaurants. The pier is also home to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, which is a popular destination for families with children. 

The Santa Monica Pier is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Los Angeles and is a must-see for anyone visiting the city.

Hollywood Sign in LA

The Hollywood Sign is one of the most iconic landmarks in California – Los Angeles. 

View of Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California
View of Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California

The sign, which originally read “Hollywoodland,” was erected in 1923 to promote a new housing development in the Hollywood Hills. The sign became an instant symbol of Hollywood and the burgeoning film industry. 

Over the years, the sign has become synonymous with Tinseltown and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

Today, the Hollywood Sign is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles. Visitors can hike to the top of Mount Lee for a stunning view of the city below. 

The sign is also a popular spot for photographers, who come to capture its beauty against the backdrop of the Hollywood Hills.

If you’re looking for a taste of Hollywood history, be sure to visit the Hollywood Sign. It’s an unforgettable experience that will leave you starstruck.

TCL Chinese Theatre

TCL Chinese Theatre is a movie palace on the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California. Originally known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it was renamed after the company TCL Corporation purchased the facility in 2013. 

Grauman's Chinese Theatre
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, California landmarks

The theatre has been home to many premieres and hosted the Academy Awards Ceremony eleven times. It first opened its doors in May of 1927, with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s film The King of Kings. 

The TCL Chinese Theatre is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hollywood, with over 3 million visitors each year. Its distinct Chinese architecture is a reflection of the city’s historic Chinatown district, which was located just a few blocks away from the theatre until it was demolished in 1933. 

And oh yay, the world’s largest IMAX auditorium is here, as well as the only movie palace in California with a state-of-the-art IMAX Laser projection experience!

Walt Disney Concert Hall 

Recommended by Kenny from Knycx Journeying 

Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the famous attractions to add to your California bucket list

Walt Disney Concert Hall is an iconic and modern architectural landmark in the city center of Los Angeles – and it is a must-see attraction for a Los Angeles city walking tour

The building is located within the key streets among Grand Avenue, Hope Street, and First and Second Streets. It has a striking, metallic exterior and the concert hall looks stunning with the Los Angeles city skyline right behind its dramatic curves and shiny wall. 

Starting in 1987, the Walt Disney Concert Hall was commissioned by Lilian Disney, with an objective to offer the locals a world-class performance venue, and to pay tribute to Walt Disney, for his contribution to Los Angeles. 

Frank Gehry, a renowned architect, designed this concert hall with his signature geometric lines and metallic materials, and eventually, the concert hall opened in 2003.  

Not only the concert hall hosts various music shows, but it is also predominantly featured in many TV Shows, movies, and even video games – like Iron Man (2008), Get Smart (2008), Furious 7 (2015), and more.   

With a capacity of 2,265 people, Walt Disney Concert Hall is the fourth hall of the Los Angeles Music Center. 

A great way for visitors to explore the site is by signing up for a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour to learn all about the fun facts of this building; catch a show on its roster from concerts, live performances, to the orchestra, and more. 

If time is limited, have a stroll around the gardens and admire the architectural design.

Disneyland California

Recommended by Victoria from Disney Trippers

Disneyland, a must add to your California bucket list

One of the most popular attractions in all of California is Disneyland. 

After all, this iconic theme park in anaheim was first opened in 1955 and continues to “wow” guests with its amazing collection of parks and incredible rides. 

So, if you’re looking for some adrenaline fueled fun, try hopping on  Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, the Indiana Jones Adventure, Space Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, “It’s a Small World”, and more. 

However, before you check out all the best things to do in Disneyland California, be sure to consult the park’s monthly crowd calendar to see when is the best time of year to visit.. 

Next, try a bit of character dining and meet your fave Disney icons at Goofy’s Kitchen. It’s a great option since character dining is available here all day long. 

If you want, you can even do a bit of park hopping and check out some of the more intense rides at nearby California Adventure. 

You can also time your visit for special seasonal events like the Oogie Boogie Bash at Halloween.

Whatever you do though, don’t leave without visiting the House of Blues. It can be found near the Garden Walk and is an incredible themed restaurant that showcases four distinct rooms. 

All have a unique New Orleans theme to them and play live music that you’ll love listening to while digging into a special Gospel Brunch on Sunday mornings.

Santa Ynez Valley

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Santa Ynez Valley: California bucket list

One of the most popular things to do in California has to be wine tasting. While many think of Napa or Sonoma for that, there is another fantastic place to go visit with tastings far cheaper than those destinations: Santa Ynez Valley

The Santa Ynez Valley is located in Santa Barbara County, where the adorable Danish town of Solvang can be found. On the other side of the mountains from the Pacific, you’ll find rolling hills and beautiful farmlands dotted with vineyards. 

This area makes some incredible wines including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc. 

Tastings in the area are significantly cheaper than many popular wineries in Napa or Sonoma, with many costing between $15-25. 

Some great wineries to visit in the area include Carhartt Family Wines for its Wayward Son Pinot Noir, Sunstone Vineyards & Winery for its Grenache Rose, and Sanger Family of Wines for its Consilience La Presa Petite Syrah. 

If you’re planning to enjoy some tasting in the area, it is a good idea to either have a sober driver, hire a driver, or you can even take a day trip to the vineyards from Santa Barbara. 

If you want to stay in the area, Solvang is a great place to base yourself, as it has plenty to do and there are quite a few great Danish-inspired hotels in this charming town like Royal Copenhagen Inn or The Landsby.

Malibu wineries: Cornell Winery & Tasting Room, Cielo Winery, and Rosenthal

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Rosenthal wineries: California bucket list
Rosenthal wineries: California bucket list

You’ll find plenty of fantastic places to visit in California, but one of the popular attractions especially among the locals is to explore the wineries in Malibu. 

When you think about Malibu, you may think of laidback, upscale LA with surfers and celebrities. But here is also a perfect destination for wine lovers too. 

Malibu is home to more than 50 wineries and 6 tasting rooms, located in the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains, and producing some pretty tasty (and affordable) wines. Some famous wineries are Cornell Winery & Tasting Room, Cielo Winery, and Rosenthal.

During your Los Angeles itinerary, make sure to add a visit to Rosenthal. It is the only wine bar and tasting room on the Pacific Coast Highway, located across the street from Topanga Beach, with breathtaking views, between the ocean and the mountains. 

Behind the tasting room is a large, grassy mountainside patio that hosts live music on the weekends, occasional comedy shows and movie nights, and great live music. 

On the weekends, they have food trucks selling delicious pizza, or you can order a cheese plate to enjoy with your wine.

You can visit the wineries on your own by taking a taxi or Uber – especially if you are drinking wine, and you don’t want to drive your own car. 

Or you have the option to join a local group tour, where you will visit 3 wineries on a private vehicle and with a local expert guide, that will share all about wine, the region, and the history of the area.

Balboa Park

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Balboa Park
Balboa Park, one of the famous landmarks in California

Balboa Park is not only one of the most popular attractions in San Diego, but also in all of California. It is a national historic landmark. 

Balboa Park is a massive urban cultural park that has more than 16 museums, beautiful gardens, trails, many performing arts venues and the world famous San Diego Zoo.

There is something here for everyone; so definitely put Balboa Park on your must-see list.

While in Balboa Park, enjoy walking around and admiring the beautiful gardens and the stunning architecture.  Stroll the Spanish Village Art Center and enjoy the colorful courtyard and unique art.

Depending on your interests you’ll find a museum here that suits you. Popular museums here include The San Diego Museum of Art,  Fleet Science Center, San Diego Natural History Museum and San Diego Air & Space Museum.

If you’re in Southern California with kids, visiting the San Diego Zoo is a must.  It’s consistently ranked year after year as one of the top zoos in America.  This amazing zoo offers fun ways to view the animals including the double decker Guided Bus Tour, Kangaroo Express Bus and Skyfari Aerial Tram.

Other fun places for kids here in Balboa Park are the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, Balboa Park Miniature Train, Balboa Park Carousel and Pepper Grove Playground.

Since Balboa Park is so large and has so much to offer, make sure to plan ahead on where you want to go. 

Start your day off early because it can get crowded.  Go by the visitors center and pick up a map and get yourself acquainted with this fabulous park before you start off exploring.

Balboa Park in San Diego is a must add to any southern California bucket list!

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

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Santa Cruz Boardwalk
Santa Cruz Boardwalk: California bucket list

This well-known boardwalk can be found in the beachfront town of Santa Cruz and features delicious food, numerous games, and exciting rides. It is unquestionably a must-see location when in Northern California. 

The Giant Dipper roller coaster and a vintage carousel can both be found at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, one of the most well-known seaside amusement parks in California. There are more than 40 rides at the park, suitable for visitors of all ages.

From late May through late August, the boardwalk is open every day, in addition to most weekends and holidays. 

If you don’t like rides, there are tons of games spread around the park and a carnival-like ambiance on the Boardwalk that you may play for prizes. Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a great place for a romantic stroll at night. 

You can wander around the Santa Cruz boardwalk even when it’s not open for business because admission is free. The arcades, laser tag, and miniature golf courses are still operational in the off-season.

You can sit down and eat outside the shops at the tables and chairs that are available. There are many restaurants where meals can be purchased. 

There isn’t much you can go wrong with, whether you want to have a smoked turkey leg, a fried Oreo, or some local beer. This is a great sight to check out when in the area because of the bright weather and vibrant colors. 

Although Santa Cruz is dog-friendly and has plenty of dog-friendly hiking trails and beaches, unfortunately, dogs are not permitted on the boardwalk.

Parking is accessible directly across the boardwalk. On weekdays as opposed to weekends, the prices are also considerably lower.

La Jolla Cove 

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seals in la jolla cove
La Jolla Cove is a must add California bucket list item

La Jolla Cove is one of the coolest places to visit in San Diego, California!

Located in the heart of La Jolla, the La Jolla Cove is extremely popular for those who want the opportunity to see wildlife. One of the most famous visitors you have an opportunity to see is sea lions. 

Dozens of sea lions line the cliffs and hang out right on the beach! It is one of the most spectacular things to witness. When you go and visit these San Diego locals, just make sure to keep a safe distance to protect both the sea lions and yourself. 

La Jolla Cove is also very popular for snorkelers and divers. This is because this area is protected by the marine reserve, giving the opportunity to see fantastic marine life. You may even get to swim near a sea lion! Many also kayak and do stand-up paddle boarding around the cove. 

Even if you don’t care to see the sea lions, a sunset at La Jolla should certainly be on your San Diego itinerary. West Coast sunsets are beyond incredible and the cliffs make for a beautiful spot to watch them. La Jolla Cove has lawns, the cliffs, or the beach below to experience the sunset.

When visiting La Jolla Cove, a tip to keep in mind is that finding parking can be a little difficult. Therefore, plan some extra time around finding a place to park. 

If you happen to be parked up or down a hill, also make sure to turn the tires towards or away from the curb depending if you are parked uphill or down. 

If you plan on getting in the water, make sure to use coral-safe sunscreen to help protect marine life, and again, remember to keep a safe distance from all wildlife no matter how friendly or cute they look.

Big Sur

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Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, near Carmel California USA
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur California bucket list

Big Sur is one of the world’s most spectacular road trips and most beautiful US coastal scenic drives, and, in fact, no west coast highway road trip itinerary is complete without it! 

Stretching 90 miles from the Carmel River Bridge in Carmel Highlands on the north end to the Hearst Castle entrance in San Simeon in the south, the Big Sur portion of the Pacific Coast Highway (also known as Highway 1 and Cabrillo Highway) is the setting for countless movies, TV shows, music videos, and commercials.

There are only seven coastal All-American roads in the entire US and Big Sur is so iconic and important that it has two of them. The 72-mile Big Sur Coast Highway (in Monterey County) is one, followed by (when heading south) the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway.

Big Sur offers stunning coastal cliff scenic views, twisty hilly roads that invite you to take your time and savor the experience, phenomenal sunsets, and incredible bridges and scenery. Bixby Bridge, Rocky Point and Nepenthe (restaurants), McWay Falls, and Hearst Castle are probably the five most popular Big Sur stops. 

But you should explore Big Sur many times, and pick your own favorite.

My personal favorite Big Sur spot is Pfeiffer Beach, at the end of a rough two mile drive on Sycamore Canyon Road. The hairpin turn onto this road is about 14 miles south of Bixby Bridge and no large vehicles are permitted. 

Pfeiffer Beach itself is fantastic but two features here are astonishing. One is the prominent Keyhole Arch rock formation, especially at sunset. 

The other is a purple sand beach on the north end. And in the winter, I have seen migrating whales (carefully climb the rocks for better views).

McWay Waterfalls

Recommended by Noel from Visit California and Beyond

McWay Falls Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, near Carmel California USA
McWay Falls Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, near Carmel California USA

One of the most scenic and popular attractions in California is McWay Waterfalls in Big Sur

A striking landscape along Monterey County’s magnificent coastline, McWay Waterfalls is famous for emptying out into a purely empty beach and then into the ocean. 

Visitors are not allowed to hike into the beach area but can only hike from above to a high observation overlook.

This helps to preserve the fragile beach area below including the cliffs that surround the beach areas that are sheer and inaccessible for visitors to hike down. This ends up being a plus because the beach area is always clear so photos are easy to take with no people on them. 

The hike itself to the observation area is flat and easy with nice views approaching the look out point to McWay Waterfalls.

An easy to get to waterfall with good parking areas or street parking, this is an attraction that you don’t want to miss when you visit the Big Sur area.

Lake Tahoe

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Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is one of these California destinations that is great all year around. The drive to the famous lake about 200 miles from San Francisco takes from 3 hours in summer to as twice as that on weekends during a winter storm. 

The natural landscape makes Lake Tahoe a favorite summer destination, with numerous hiking and biking trails for all fitness levels, like the Emerald Bay Trail. Challenging hikes include Mt. Tallack for incredible views of Lake Tahoe or even overnight trips along the popular John Muir Trail. 

Watersports are also highly popular, especially kayaking. Lake Tahoe offers plenty of kayaking options, from leisurely explorations of Emerald Bay’s turquoise waters or the challenging 13-mile trip from Sand Harbor to Cave Rock. 

Also, go sailing and even scuba-diving. 

Lake Tahoe in winter is a downhill ski and snowboarding paradise. The area is home to over a dozen ski resorts, offering incredible winter experiences up to Olympic level! Indeed, Palisades Tahoe Resort (formerly called Squaw Valley) hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics! 

Other winter adventures include snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice skating, and dog mushing. Less adventurous activities are also available, from gondola and sleigh rides or attending one of the winter festivals like the annual bluegrass WinterWonderGrass Tahoe Festival.

Besides outdoor activities, several historical landmarks around Lake Tahoe should be high on any travel list. Learn about the tragic history of the Donner Party at the Donner Summit Bridge. Step back in time to the 1890s Tallac Historic Site. 

Check 19th-central Truckee historic hotel, a stop along the stagecoach road in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Admire the Scandinavian architecture of the 38-room Vikingsholm castle. 

Read: Things to do in Lake Tahoe in the summer

Glass Beach, Mendocino County

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Glass Beach, must see in California: bucket list

Glass Beach is an iconic destination to visit in Fort Bragg, California. There are many things to do in Mendocino and camping or glamping is one of the best ways to take in the magical beauty of the coast here. 

Located in the beautiful Mendocino County along the Pacific Coast Highway, Glass beach is filled with colorful glass that is sure to mesmerize visitors. The beach is small, flanked by rocks on either side and a few logs to sit on. The glass shines magnificently in the sun hypnotizing you to the spot.

Broken car parts like headlights and taillights, soda bottles and such trash was dumped here in the early 90s. The transparent glass on this beach was formed by the ocean which turned discarded trash into these colorful rocks.

Glass Beach, famous landmarks in California

After parking in the lot, do not take the path towards the right or go straight ahead. There is no glass on those beaches. Take the left side path and walk a couple of minutes till you see benches and a display board mentioning how the glass on the beach was formed. 

There is a steep mud path down to the beach. Please do not collect any glass from this beach and let future visitors enjoy the beauty too. It is also illegal to collect anything from a state park. 

Wear sturdy shoes to climb down safely. Keep in mind that your clothes might get dirty too because of the dry mud in the path. At the beginning of the parking lot, there is a tap to wash off your feet after getting back. 

Step Beach, Catalina Island

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Catalina Island attractions, a must add to your California bucket list

There are many places to visit on Catalina Island, California, but Step Beach is one of the most iconic places visited on the island. You can enjoy a walk and get some fresh air while contemplating some amazing sightseeing.

And there is also a charming view of the Avalon Harbor and the Green Pleasure Pier from a distance. Don’t forget to get your camera ready to capture it.

Many prefer to unwind and relax at the shoreline. Perhaps have a sunbath, but if you are an

adrenaline junkie, it is also a hot spot for you. 

There are many activities that you can enjoy at the beach, such as swimming, snorkeling, boogie boarding, and scuba dividing. However, my favorite activity is parasailing. It is where you can enjoy the breeze of the ocean while ruminating on the best view of Avalon town.

Since Step Beach is on an island you can only get there from the air or the sea. There is a helicopter rental at Long Beach, mainland Port and also a passenger ferry ride. You can decide which one you want.

On the plus side the ferry harbor drops you off at Crescent road. It is a walking distance from Step Beach.

The best places to stay are the Pavilion Hotel and Hotel Atwater. You can have luxurious dining at either of the hotels and walk around Avalon. They are close to the beach, restaurants, shopping areas, and many attractions. You do not need a car. You can choose to walk or rent a golf cart.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of the famous California landmarks when it comes to nature! Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the national park is best known for its waterfalls, but also includes deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and a vast wilderness area. 

Vernal Fall is a 317 feet waterfall on the Merced River just downstream of Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park, California. 
Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park

The park covers an area of 1,169 square miles (3,029 km2) and reaches across the western edge of the Sierra Nevada into northeastern California. 

John Muir led a successful movement to establish a larger national park encompassing not just the Yosemite valley, but surrounding mountains and forests as well – an idea that was finally realized with the creation of Sequoia National Park in 1890 and Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

Yosemite is one of the largest and most visited national parks in the United States; more than four million people visit the park each year. The Ahwahnee Hotel located on the floor of Yosemite Valley was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. 

Visiting Yosemite National Park is an amazing experience. The scenery is beautiful, the air is fresh and clean, and there are so many things to see and do.

There are several different ways to get to Yosemite. You can drive, take the bus, or even hike in.  There are plenty of hikes to take, waterfalls to see, and cliffs to climb. 

You can also go kayaking, fishing, or swimming in the river. And, of course, don’t forget to take plenty of pictures!

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument is located in eastern California. 

Hexagon basaltic columns seen from the top of Devils Postpile National Monument
Hexagon basaltic columns seen from the top of Devils Postpile National Monument: California bucket list

The monument protects Devils Postpile, a rock formation of columnar basalt which is the largest collection of columnar basalt in North America.

The monument was created after a Presidential Proclamation in 1911. 

This is one of the most unique attractions in Mammoth Lakes. That along with its natural history and gorgeous setting in the midst of the Sierra Nevada mountains makes this spot absolutely a must add to your California bucket list! 

Zabriskie Point

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Zabriskie Point, a must add to your California bucket list

Zabriskie Point is one of the best things to do in Death Valley National Park

The viewpoint is easily accessible to everyone as it’s just a few minutes’ walk from the parking lot to the large viewing platform. Here you can admire a stunning view of the badlands, shaped into bumpy ridges by the force of water and rippled yellow and brown. 

Manly Beacon peak and the rugged cliffs of Red Cathedral are also visible and beyond you can see the salt flats and Panamint Mountains, snow-capped in winter. 

The best time to visit Zabriskie Point is sunrise or sunset when the colors are at their most vivid. Sunrise is a popular time with some visitors bringing chairs, blankets, and hot drinks so they can watch the show in comfort. 

After watching the sunrise you can escape the crowds by walking down into the valley. The hike from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon and back up via Gower Gulch is one of the best experiences in Death Valley. The scenery is spectacular and most of the trail is uncrowded. 

The full loop is 6.2 miles and takes about 2.5 hours, but shorter options are available (such as the Badlands Loop). You can also make it longer by adding a side trip to Red Cathedral but this involves some rock scrambling. 

If you decide to hike, shoes with good traction are essential and bring a hat and plenty of water. It’s best to dress in layers as it’s cold at dawn but soon heats up, even in winter. 

Jack London State Historic Park 

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Jack London State Park
Jack London State Park, must see in California

Jack London State Historic Park is a popular attraction due to its beauty and historical significance and deserves a spot on your California travel itinerary. 

Located in Glen Ellen, smack in the middle of the Sonoma Valley wine country, this State Park was home to the author and social activist for several years.

Known best for his literary works such as White Fang and The Call of the Wild, London was also a pioneer in the ways of farming and implemented methods still used by organic farmers today. 

Among the redwoods and vineyards, visitors will find delight in touring his property, including miles of hiking trails, his home and ranch, museum, and picnic grounds.

Jack London State Park
Jack London State Park California bucket list

Stone remains of the Wolf House, Jack London’s dream home which burned in a fire before he could move in, can be explored via the easy one mile hiking trail. 

The House of Happy Walls Museum was built by London’s wife after his death and now features exhibits which present their life of adventure and personal artifacts. 

The Londons’ cottage is also available for tour to view photographs and artwork. The stone barn and silos still hold farming equipment used in London’s time.

A fee is required for entering the State Park unless one holds a California state park pass. 

The Londons’ cottage tour requires an additional fee. Restroom facilities as well as picnic tables are available, but lunches should be picked up in advance in the sweet town of Glen Ellen.

If one finds themself lucky enough to be visiting in the summer, Broadway Under the Stars is a definite bucket list activity. Featuring musicals outdoors on the property, guests will be enchanted by the talent on stage and being surrounded by the land that Jack London once called home.

Joshua Tree National Park

Recommended by Megan from Bobo and Chichi

Cholla Cactus Gardens in Joshua Tree
Cholla Cactus Gardens in Joshua Tree

One of the most popular attractions in California is one of its nine national parks! 

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most popular natural areas to visit in Southern California, not to mention beyond the national park famous for it’s desert landscape full of Joshua trees, there’s the town of Joshua Tree too.

Joshua Tree National Park looks as if it’s the landscape that inspired the trippy illustrations behind Dr. Seuss books. The trees are a type of Yucca tree found throughout the Mojave Desert in the states of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

You need at least a day to explore the national park, if not more. A few must-see spots include Hidden Valley, Cholla Cactus Garden, and walking through the Hall of Horrors! Don’t worry, it’s not scary but beautiful!

Be sure to also take in the opportunity to see the town of Joshua Tree too which has one of the most famous music venues in Southern California, Pappy and Harriets.

There are also other fun stops including a beauty museum, fun boutiques, and even places where you can have a spiritual or healing experience like a Sound Bath retreat.

Read: One day in Joshua tree itinerary

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Recommended by Anwar from Beyond My Door

Lassen Volcanic National Park California bucket list

One of the most unique places in California, Lassen Volcanic National Park hosts incredible geothermal features. The Park actually is one of the few places in the world to see all types of volcanoes in the same area. These include cinder cones, stratovolcanoes, shields, and lava domes.

One of the most interesting places among these spots, is Bumpass hell, the largest geothermal area in the park. 

Named Bumpass hell after an early settler Kendall Bumpass lost his leg to a scalding mudpot. So, while the mud posts and various geothermal features are interesting, it’s important to travel with caution. 

The Bumpass hell hike takes you along trails and boardwalks along a 3 mile round trip hike.

Beyond Bumpass hell, visitors can climb up several dormant volcanoes from Brokeoff mountains, to cinder cone. Cinder Cone is a perfect spot to catch the sunset on the volcanic ash of the mountain. 

There are also plenty of other great geothermal spots from devil’s kitchen (second largest geothermal area), to Sulphur works, which started as an area for mining ochre (used in paint).

The park is open year round, however some areas such as bumpass hell are only accessible in summer and fall. Lassen Volcanic NP is a fee area, $30 per vehicle in the spring and summer and $10 in the winter. 

There are 7 campsites in the park or visitors can find hotels in nearby Mineral, CA. 

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

These national parks are located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, and are a must add to your California bucket list. It is home to some of the world’s largest trees, including the giant sequoia. 

The park also contains many canyons, rivers, and mountains.

The park was first established in 1890 as a national forest Reserve. It was expanded and renamed to Sequoia National Park in 1907. Kings Canyon National Park was created in 1940 and the two parks were combined in 1965.

The parks offer many activities for visitors, including hiking, camping, fishing, and backpacking. There are also several scenic drives that allow visitors to see the parks’ many features.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon are a great place to visit if you’re looking to enjoy the outdoors and learn about America’s natural history.

Redwoods State and National Parks

Recommended by Jessica from Uprooted Traveler

Couple at Redwoods State Park
Redwoods State and National Parks: Famous California landmarks

One of the most iconic natural landmarks in California are the redwoods, found in the forests lining the northern coastline. Not only are these awe-inspiring trees ancient, but they’re also absolutely massive, actually holding title to the tallest living species on the planet!  

The majority of the world’s remaining redwoods, which can grow over 350 feet, are found in the Redwoods State and National Parks, four protected areas that are spread along the coastline from Crescent City through Trinidad. 

The best way to experience these incredible trees is to explore any of the number of incredible hikes in the redwoods. For example, Fern Canyon, in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park,  takes you under a canopy of towering redwoods and through enormous primeval ferns to a canyon, whose walls are dripping with lush ferns. 

It looks so prehistoric here, in fact, that it was used as a shooting location for Jurassic Park: A Lost World. Alternatively, along Prairie Creek’s Karl Knapp Trail, you’ll get to hike through an impossibly dense forest and through two tunnels carved out of gargantuan trees that have toppled over. 

For a lower impact activity, drive the famed Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the largest redwood park in California. 

Along this windy road, you’ll cruise 31 miles along Route 101, passing through the largest remaining grove of old-growth redwoods in the world. Along the way, you’ll pass tiny towns filled with kitschy souvenir shops and roadside attractions – there’s even a tree you can drive your car through!

Fern Canyon

Recommended by CS from CS Ginger

Fern Canyon
Fern Canyon, California bucket list

Fern Canyon is one of the best things to see in the national parks in California. It is located in the Redwoods National and State Parks. The canyon is about a one-mile trail that follows Home Creek. 

The creek has carved out a beautiful canyon with walls filled with luscious ferns. This is one of the best hikes in the area because of the natural beauty.

Because you are walking through a creek, expect to get your feet wet. It is a good idea to wear water sandals or bring another pair you can change into after you’re done exploring Fern Canyon.

There are two ways to get to Fern Canyon. The first way is to hike on the James Irvine Trail, which starts at the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Visitor Center. The hike is about nine miles and no permit is required for this trail.

The second option, which requires much less hiking, is to start at the Gold Bluffs Beach Day-Use Area or Fern Canyon Parking area. Because of the popularity, you now have to get a permit if you are visiting between May 1st and September 30th

Outside of that time frame, you do not need a permit. You can get your permit up to the day before your visit, but it is recommended to get your permit much sooner than that.

Also, keep in mind that there are two stream crossings on Davidson Road that you do have to drive through. If you do not have a high clearance, 4×4 vehicle, you may not be able to drive down the road. The streams are especially high during the early summer.

Anza-Borrego State Park

Recommended by Andi from Misadventures with Andi

Anza-Borrego State Park
Anza-Borrego State Park, California bucket list

Anza-Borrego State Park, located in southern California, is the largest state park in the contiguous United States. 

The park covers more than 800,000 acres and includes 600 miles of hiking trails. It is home to many different species of plants and animals, as well as a variety of geological features. 

Anza Borrego has beautiful desert landscapes, interesting wildlife (it is also home to the largest desert bighorn sheep herd in the world), and a variety of recreational activities. There is so much to do!

Visitors can enjoy hiking, camping, and stargazing in the park. 

In the early spring (when there isn’t a drought) there is a wildflower super bloom, with millions of flowers popping up everywhere! In fact, it is one of the few deserts in the world that experience this phenomenon. 

Borrego Springs in the middle of the park is the only certified Dark Sky Community in California so it is excellent for viewing the Milky Way and really fun to see behind some of the art installations (such as the Galleta Meadow Statues) sprinkled in the desert around the town.

If you have an offroad vehicle you can visit the backcountry on some really challenging trails with exceptional views of badlands, and rock features like the pumpkin patch with piles and piles of round rocks that look like bowling balls! 

The sunsets at places like Font’s Point are breathtaking. People with 4×4’s gather every night and watch the sun go to sleep amongst orange and pink clouds!

Anza-Borrego State Park is also a convenient destination for city dwellers looking to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life as it is only 90-minutes from San Diego and 2.5 hours from LA. 

There are campgrounds and several RV parks (plus boondocking off road) as well as a couple of hotels and vacation homes. 

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Recommended by Nikki from Inspired Routes

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, must add to your California bucket list

One of the most popular attractions in California is located just south of Monterey and Carmel. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a true gem along the coast, and is one of the best things to do in Big Sur.

It’s no surprise the Big Sur area in California is a popular one. But the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve offers some of the most interesting coastline in all of California! The reserve has done an excellent job of creating trails for visitors to see that coast, too! 

Walk the Cypress Grove Trail to see the iconic Cypress Trees that grow naturally in this area. Watch for the orange algae that’s facing the ocean – it’s crazy cool to see!

Enjoy more views as you walk the South Shore Trail, a paved path along the ocean. Be sure to walk to the end of the trail and see Bird Island, where an impressive amount of birds call this rock home. 

A marine sanctuary and wildlife haven, visitors will often see seals, sea otters, whales, pelicans and many more species of wildlife. Listen for the seals making noise in the distance as you explore the area! It’s truly a must-see along the California coast for wildlife.

While you could spend a week or more in the Carmel and Big Sur area, you’ll only need a day to explore this state park. Just be sure to get there early in the morning – by 9:00am during peak travel season and winter. 

The park has extremely limited parking and you’ll end up adding a few miles to your stay if you have to park outside the entrance.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is one of the most popular parks in California. 

Pinnacles National Park, one of the must add to your California bucket list

The park is known for unique activities such as rock climbing and cave exploration. Plus there are pretty wildflowers and miles of hiking trails, which are perfect for exploring the different ecosystems within the park. 

Hikes are a great way to explore the national park, as you cannot drive through it. There are 2 entrances to the park which you can access by driving – the east entrance (near the town of Hollister), and the west entrance (near the town of Soledad). 

Pinnacles National Park is a great place to visit for a day or a weekend and is sure to provide you with an enjoyable experience.

Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands National Park is located off the coast of Southern California and consists of five remarkable islands. Although they are relatively small in size, these islands offer an incredible array of plant and animal life, as well as stunning scenery.

Inspiration Point in Channel Islands National Park in California landmarks and more

Visitors to the park can enjoy activities such as hiking, camping, fishing, kayaking, and whale watching. There are also a variety of educational programs available, making the Channel Islands National Park a great place to learn about the natural world.

Plan for a visit in the fall for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and swimming. 

When limited on time, head over to Santa Cruz Island or Anacapa Island for exploration. 

You can drive or take public transportation to get to the mainland visitor centre and then hop on a boat to get to the islands. Whether you’re looking for an exciting adventure or a relaxing retreat, the Channel Islands National Park is sure to offer something for everyone. 

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is one of the top tourist attractions in Southern California. It takes passengers on a ten-minute ride from the valley floor to the summit of San Jacinto Peak, at an elevation of 8,516 feet (2,596 meters). 

View of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram
View of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

The Tramway is the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world, and has been in operation since 1963.

The Tramway is a great way to experience the stunning landscape of the Palm Springs area, and to get some exercise! The summit of San Jacinto Peak offers panoramic views of the Coachella Valley, as well as hiking trails and a café. In the winter, the Tramway is a popular destination for skiers and snowboarders.

If you’re visiting Palm Springs, be sure to check out the Aerial Tramway! It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

Pacific Surfliner

Recommended by Rachel

Amtrak Surfliner

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner is a scenic train route that zigzags along the California coast, showcasing the best landscapes the state has to offer. On some parts of the 351-mile ride, ocean spray even splashes against the train’s windows. 

It’s the perfect combination of beauty and practicality- if you want to travel across California, there’s no better way than the Surfliner!

The start of the train route is in San Luis Obispo, and the Surfliner makes multiple stops in cities like Los Angeles and Santa Barbara before hitting the last stop in sunny San Diego. 

While the breathtaking views of beaches, rolling wine countries, and impressive mountains are priceless, the ticket to see them is surprisingly affordable. Upgrade to a business-class seat for a taste of luxury or just enjoy the scenery from one city to another. 

Since the view is the main attraction, you’ll want to try to snag a seat on the upper seating platform if you can carry your bags up the stairs. The windows on the lower level still have gorgeous views, but it’s nice to be able to peer over bushes and greenery on some parts of the route. 

If you plan on riding the whole route, there’s also complimentary WiFi available, restrooms on board, and a snack bar with drinks, food, and alcohol available for purchase. There’s nothing better than reclining in a leather seat, watching the beach race by as you sip on a Californian ride!

So, that’s a wrap! These are some of the famous landmarks in California that are worth adding to your bucket list!

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