Yosemite National Park
You can see the Yosemite Valley an infinite number of photographs and films, but none of them can capture its stillness on a foggy morning, the thunderous roar of spring waterfalls, the resounding crack of frozen-solid Yosemite Falls thawing on a winter morning, or how small you'll feel next to its soaring granite walls.
It's as if Mother Nature put all her most spectacular elements in one spot so she could admire them all at once: the tallest waterfall in the United States (Yosemite Falls), the world's largest granite monolith (El Capitan), the Mariposa River and Half Dome.
Yosemite National Park, America's second national park, is justifiably popular, and even a short visit to the famed valley is worth your time. Stay longer, and you can enjoy more, photographing the Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, peering down on it from Glacier Point and venturing outside it to visit the Mariposa Grove of giant redwood trees, Tuolumne Meadows or Tenaya Lake.
Napa Valley Wineries
These top California attractions are the short list of things that everyone should think about doing when visiting the Golden State.
Our first "must-do" is a visit to the Napa Valley in northern California. Other parts of California might make wine that's just as good, but none have the draw of the Napa Valley.
In 1976, the wine-tasting event commonly called the Judgment of Paris (depicted in the film Bottle Shock) thrust California wines onto the world wine stage. But wine-making in Napa started long before that. Napa winemakers have been perfecting their vintages for a century and a half, starting in the mid-1800s when early settlers planted grapevines and dug wine caves into the valley's hillsides.
The "valley" in Napa Valley is narrow and scenic, barely five miles wide and running for about 30 miles between the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains, its two main thoroughfares lined with vineyards and winery tasting rooms.
Napa wineries offer many ways to taste wine from walk-up tastings to paired wine dinners. Choose any of the wineries featured in the Guide to the best Napa Valley wineries and you will enjoy your experience.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
This iconic red-orange bridge has been featured in the movies and is a long-standing symbol of San Francisco. The perfect marriage of geography and design makes it appealing to the eyes.
Golden Gate views are so varied that you could spend an entire day just driving around admiring it. One of the draws is the landmark engineering achievement it represents. Its feet rest in some of the world's most tumultuous water, its cables drape across the first bridge support ever constructed in the open ocean and it boasts a construction safety record that was extraordinary for its day. The Golden Gate Bridge officially opened on May 27, 1937, the longest bridge span in the world at the time.
To get a sense of the size of the Golden Gate Bridge, take a walk across it. There is a pedestrian walkway and distance is 1.7 miles (one way). You'll be standing 220 feet above the water at mid-span. The boats passing under the bridge will look very small. On foggy days you may find that on the San Francisco side things are socked in, but as you walk toward the Marin County side, the sun may magically appear.
Big Sur Coastline
Along the section of California's coastline between Hearst Castle and Carmel, the land plunges precipitously into the Pacific Ocean, with what seems to be a little bit of highway clinging to the cliffs. California Highway One takes you along a stretch of road with powerful scenery. There are turnouts where you can admire the ocean and the cliffs of Big Sur.
You can drive those 90 miles straight through in about three hours or linger a bit, have a meal overlooking the coast at Nepenthe restaurant, tour the Point Sur Lighthouse, or check out the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach. For an even more intensive experience, consider an overnight stop at Ventana Inn.
There are man-made structures to wow you as well. Thirteen miles south of Carmel you'll encounter one of the world's highest single-span concrete arch bridges, Bixby Bridge, constructed almost 90 years ago. Over 260 feet high and over 700 feet long, it is an engineering masterpiece, and probably the most photographed object along the route.
As you might expect in such a rugged part of the coast, slides can cause temporary closures so it is wise to check the road reports before making your plans to Highway One through Big Sur.
General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park
The world's largest tree is an impressive 275 feet tall and 36.5 feet wide (83.8 by 11.1 meters). It's an awe-inspiring experience to stand at the foot of the General Sherman Tree, craning your neck to see the top, looking at branches thicker than you are tall.
Nearby and only slightly smaller are eight of the 20 biggest trees on earth, some of them as old as 3,500 years.
This little strip of mountain terrain is the only place in the world where Sequoiadendron giganteum grow. Sequoia National Park encompasses the Kings River Canyon, a place John Muir called "a rival of Yosemite," yet, by comparison, it's nearly free from the crowds that flock to Yosemite.
Hearst Castle was the residence of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, and in 1954 it was turned into a California State Park. The main building at Hearst Castle is a massive, 56-bedroom, 61-bathroom mansion, built on a remote hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The castle is surrounded by three guest houses that are larger than most people's homes, 127 acres of gardens, an outdoor swimming pool named after the Roman god of the sea, tennis courts and, in Hearst's day, the world's largest private zoo.
Hearst Castle could justifiably be called a monument to eccentric excess, on a scale not possible in the twenty-first century. And that may be what makes it so fascinating.
The spot alone is worth a journey, just for the views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain from the top of Enchanted Hill. You can the castle, skillfully assembled by architect Julia Morgan incorporating Hearst's monumental collection of European antiquities. You can also get a glimpse into the life of the newspaper mogul who created it; his home movies are almost as much fun to watch as the house is to tour.
The Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood of the past with movie studios and homes of movie stars is more of a romantic dream than a reality in the 21st Century, but there's one attraction you can see that's iconic Hollywood for sure - the Hollywood Sign.
Sitting on a hillside facing the Los Angeles basin with 9 of the 13 original letters that once read Hollywoodland surviving, is the large but simple white sign. The sign was erected in 1923 by a developer who invested in the upscale real-estate development called Hollywoodland, capitalizing on the growing recognition of Hollywood as a romantic, movie industry mecca.
It's survived fires, vandals, the elements, attempted real estate development and attempts at imitation.
When you see the Hollywood sign, and you can from lots of places around town, you'll want to savor the memory of a bygone Hollywood. You can hike up for a closer view of the sign but no one can get very close anymore as its fenced off.
Disneyland holds an important place in American culture. The first theme park ever still sets the standards for all others, regularly raising the bar in innovative entertainment and family-oriented fun.
Disneyland was the first of two theme parks built at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, and opened on July 17, 1955. It is the only theme park designed and built to completion under the direct supervision of Walt Disney.
Where else could you watch a grand parade, see blazing fireworks, soar over London and take a ride through outer space all in one day?
Disneyland has grown from a theme park to a vacation destination. There are three hotels on the property, making visits convenient and keeping the magic alive when you leave the park. New rides, attractions, and shows are added and old favorites upgraded to keep things fresh.
Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park
It's hard to resist the appeal of extremes and Badwater Basin is not only the lowest spot in the United States at 282 ft (86 m) below sea level but also the site of the highest temperature ever recorded. It was 134 degrees F (56.7 C) there on July 10, 1913. It's only 85 miles away from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
All of Death Valley looks like it was designed by a minimalist, and Badwater could be the starkest spot in the entire national park, a wide, flat salt pan.
Death Valley is a fascinating place to visit. In the spring, the wildflowers are amazing. The landscape is changing, however, after massive flooding in 2015. Scotty's Castle, a dream home in the desert, providing a window into the life and times of the Roaring '20s and Depression '30s, is closed until 2020 at least but there are ranger tours that bring visitors to look at the reconstruction.
You can visit in summer but must be prepared for harsh conditions. Spring and fall are ideal. There are several entrances into this vast national park but the Furnace Creek Visitor Center is the ideal place to start your trip into Death Valley.
Iconic California Beaches
California's beaches are part of its mystique, embedded in pop culture since the Beach Boys crooned about them and Frankie Avalon kissed Annette Funicello on a beach towel in the movies.
Surfing is also an integral part of California beach culture, so important that cities go to court for the right to call themselves Surf City. And some of the world's biggest waves draw elite surfers to the Mavericks surfing competition near Half Moon Bay—but only when the waves are big enough.
If you're from a landlocked place, a visit to a California beach is an absolute must. Even if you live near the sea, you won't have to look far to find a California beach that's different than what you have at home. In California, you can find urban beaches lined with houses and sidewalks, rocky sea stacks bathed in mist, beaches covered in purple sand, or pebbly stretches full of sea glass.
One way to see the diversity of California beaches is to drive California Highway One. The drive begins in San Diego, at the southern end of the state, then travels north to beach towns, through elegant Santa Barbara, then north to Big Sur. Continue on to more beaches and attractions in Carmel, Monterey, and Santa Cruz. Highway One ends in scenic San Francisco.
California Farm to Table Agriculture
When visiting California, it's important to seek out the local farmers' markets. It's a great way to experience one of the great pleasures of living in California, where ninety percent of all the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States are grown.
Buy a single peach, a vine-ripe heirloom tomato or a basket of berries picked ripe that morning. On the coast, visit farm stands and buy fresh artichokes or Brussels sprouts.
Besides all the great produce, you'll find things at the farmer's market you can take home as a gift or edible souvenirs: dried fruits, jam, honey, herbs, handmade jewelry - and you'll always find a few eat-on-the-spot food stands as well.
Farmers markets happen somewhere almost any day of the week and in summer, a trip to an evening neighborhood market lets you feel like a local. You'll find markets in the San Francisco area, in the rich Central Valley and in towns all through California.
Finding California's Best: Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall
Our last must-see is actually four attractions, one for each season of the year.
Spring: California Poppies in Antelope Valley
Every few years, conditions align to bring out a wildflower display in California's Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve that could leave you nearly speechless. It's a magical experience to find yourself in a landscape ablaze with orange flowers as far as you can see in every direction.
You'll see California poppies on hillsides and along highways when the timing is right.
In general, the poppies bloom from mid-February through mid-May.
Summer: Lassen Volcanic Park
California summers can be extraordinarily hot inland and extraordinarily foggy at the coast. And finally, it thaws out enough in northern California for Lassen Volcanic Park to open. The southernmost volcano along the Pacific Coast last blew its top in 1915, 65 years before the Mt. St. Helens' eruption.
Lassen can be a spectacular stop. The park is centered on the lava dome, one of the most massive on earth, with bubbling mud pots and steaming fumaroles, and places with colorful names like Bumpass Hell.
Autumn: Fall Color East of the Sierras
Golden colored aspen trees seem to spill down the mountainsides like drips down the sides of an untidy painter's bucket. They reflect in clear mountain lakes while individual branches of gold, heart-shaped leaves arch delicately over mountain streams.
The best places to see golden aspen trees in California are on the eastern slope of the Sierras along US Highway 395. The eastern Sierras provide a perfect storm of conditions for the trees to grow. They don't tolerate shade and thrive best in the plentiful sunshine, which they get under the open skies of Eastern California.
The town of June Lake and June Lake Loop are the perfect locations to start your leaf peeping. Along a 15-mile loop drive that passes through the town, you'll pass four lakes that provide the perfect mirror for the colorful foliage.
Winter: Elephant Seal Rookery
Male Northern Elephant Seals stretch 14 to 16 feet long and weigh as much as 5,000 pounds, sporting a long, fleshy snout that inspired their name. They and their females spend ten months a year at sea, coming ashore along the California coast in December for a wild, two-month orgy of birthing, feeding, fighting, and mating.
Piedras Blancas, near Hearst Castle in central California, is a place you'll often see the elephant seals gather. It is a protected area.
If you can't make it to Piedras Blancas, you can also see the elephant seals on docent-led tours at Ano Nuevo State Park south of San Francisco, but you'll need reservations.