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California Vacation Bucket List

Updated on September 13, 2014

7 Essential California Travel Experiences

Hopefully you're not really ready to kick the bucket, but you get the idea of what this article is about. I'm a California native, and I was recently asked by a visitor from New Zealand, who was on vacation in my neck of the woods, "What would you do if you were me? What do I absolutely have to do before I go back home, something that's uniquely California?"

His question kind of caught me off-guard. Having lived in the Golden State all my life, I realized that there must be a lot of "insider" travel knowledge I have that I take for granted. I decided to put some thought into it, and consequently a website (and later this lens) were born...

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobowen/6237308448/ / CC BY 2.0

7 Things You Must Do in California

(...in no particular order)

So first let me disclose that this article will be a mix of both new material and existing information borrowed from my new website California Vacations, particularly an article I wrote called 10 (Alternative) Things to Do in California which I highly recommend for anyone who doesn't want to do the usual (Disneyland, Hollywood, etc...) sight-seeing trip. This lens however will be a mix of both mainstream and "alternative" travel activities.

1. Consume an In N Out Burger

We'll start with an easy one. These are all over the place in California - especially Southern California. "What's that? A cheeseburger?!", you say, skeptically? No, it only appears to be a cheeseburger. In reality, it is a quintessential California experience in disguise. Its crossed palm trees, its ultra fresh - never frozen ingredients, its secret menu, and of course its amazing taste, mark this as a travel experience to remember. It may also be the beginning of an addiction. My brother moved to Arizona several years ago and used to frequently drive 2 hours to the state-line just to get a Double Double (animal style). Thank God In N Out expanded into Arizona not too long ago - he saved a fortune in gas money. So have an In N Out Burger. Have one immediately upon arrival if possible. It will put you in a California state of mind for the rest of your stay. Unless you don't eat beef... then you might want to stick to the fries.

Photo Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/papalars/ / CC BY-ND 2.0

2. Gaze in Wonder at Yosemite

This one's a bit more of a challenge. Five hours from San Francisco, or six from Los Angeles, Yosemite National Park is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island, though most visitors focus on a 7 square mile area called Yosemite Valley, full of high, sheer cliffs and gorgeous waterfalls. Legend has it that a park ranger was once asked what he would do if he only had 1 day to see Yosemite. His answer? "I would weep." Whether that's true or not, this is definitely an experience not to be found anywhere else. If you are an adventure traveler, what are you waiting for? You should be here already - I strongly suspect God made Yosemite just for you. If you're not an adventure traveler you still need to visit. Yosemite has well over 200 miles of road, so you can experience much of this scenic grandeur without ever leaving your car. Or just take some time to relax at the amazing Ahwahnee Hotel.

Photo Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trodel/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

3. Drive PCH (in a convertible if possible)

Yes... Pacific. Coast. Highway. You, a friend, a car (or maybe a motorcycle), and a road winding through some of the most beautiful scenery in America. I'm talking thick forests, cliffs overlooking crashing waves, a historic Spanish mission or two, and a smorgasbord of outdoor activities. What could be better? The only challenge here is trying to figure out where to begin, since a lot of people don't agree on where Pacific Coast Highway actually begins and ends. According to the California state legislature it's the 130 mile stretch of Highway 1 that connects Dana Point to Oxnard. But since it's the California legislature who says so, we can safely disregard this. Far wiser individuals will tell you that it begins at San Juan Capistrano (South of Los Angeles), and ends where Route 1 merges with Highway 101 south of Eureka, California. In any case you could drive this road from Mexico to Canada and you probably won't be disappointed. Be sure to check out Big Sur.

Photo Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/charliecowins/ / CC BY 2.0

4. Do the Disneyland Thing

I almost feel bad putting this one of the list, but it's really inescapable. If you are visiting California and have never been, you simply must go to Disneyland (especially if you have kids). It's a rule. If for no other reason, just so you can say you've been there. And you know what? Even if you're a jaded and cynical person, you'll probably still have a good time... provided you follow a few simple rules found in my Disneyland Guide, like when not to go. Seriously, if you go when its too crowded, you're better off not going at all. And don't overlook Disney's California Adventure. This next door neighbor doesn't attract anywhere near the number of visitors that Disneyland does, which means less crowds and more value. And any way, I would consider many of this park's attractions to be quite underrated. Just something to keep in mind.

Photo Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/angryjuliemonday/ / CC BY 2.0

5. Take a Tour of Hearst Castle

Known to its previous owner, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, as La Cuesta Encantada ("the Enchanted Hill"), Hearst Castle is arguably the most elaborate private residence ever built. Built over 28 years and never really completed, it is 90,080 square feet of art, antiquities, history and sheer opulence distributed among 56 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 2 amazing swimming pools, a movie theater, all manner of gardens and terraces, and a private zoo! Its guests included movie stars, captains of industry, and politicians. If you have visited the luxurious Vanderbilt mansion "The Breakers" in Rhode Island and thought it was impressive, then you will be completely blown away by Hearst Castle.

6. Relax "Old School" in Palm Springs

Retro is in. Just look at television shows like Mad Men. And Palm Springs is the mecca of early 60s' California retro cool. Cruising through Palm Springs and taking in the architecture, and you're almost surprised when you don't see well-tailored suits, skinny ties, dark shades and cigarettes everywhere. But even if you're not into this unique combination of kitsch and chic, Palm Springs still has something for everyone: swimming, sunbathing, golfing, and tennis, and... a really cool aerial tramway. Yep, a rotating tram car can take you 8,500 feet up Mount San Jacinto. Depending upon the time of year, you can start on the baking desert floor at the bottom, and play in the snow when you reach the top. Oh, and Palm Springs sometimes gets an undeserved bad rap. People still sometimes think of it as a student Spring Break destination. That's changed quite a bit. They don't even allow billboards in the city limits these days, much less out-of-control college students.

Photo Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/donabelandewen/ / CC BY 2.0

7. Spend a day in L.A.

Lots of possibilities here. You could do the whole Hollywood thing: stroll the Walk of Fame, match your hands and feet to those of the stars in the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, or spend the day at Universal Studios (the only working movie studio of all Universal's locations - sorry, Orlando). You could do the LA thing: lunch at Farmer's Market, see the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, visit the La Brea Tar Pits, or take in a Dodger game. Or you could do the whole cultural thing: Check out one or both Getty Centers and one the best art collections in the country. Whatever you decide, it will certainly be a uniquely California experience!

Bonus attraction!

(if you have time during your visit.)

Alcatraz Island

A visit to "The Rock" is not something you're likely to forget anytime soon. It is equal parts history, notoriety, and natural beauty, with a bit of creepiness thrown in for good measure. Though this San Francisco landmark is best known as a federal prison, it is also home to the oldest functioning lighthouse on the West Coast, a Civil War-era fortress, an historic military prison, and a bird sanctuary ("alcatraz" translates as "pelican" in Spanish). And the creepiness? Well, more than a few Park Service employees are reported to have seen or heard ghostly apparitions during the course of their work. Cell 14-D in particular is supposed to be something of a paranormal hot spot. For an extra memorable experience, the Alcatraz Night Tour (voted "Best Tour of the Bay Area") is not to be missed.

Satellite View of Disneyland - It's fun to zoom in....

A marker1313 S. Harbor Boulevard, Anaheim, CA -
1313 S. Harbor Boulevard, Anaheim, CA
get directions

Califiornia Has it All

Whether it's snow, surf, stars, sun, or sheer scenic beauty, you really don't have to go anywhere else!

What are you looking forward to most? If you've been here, what did you like best? Least? Got any advice for would-be visitors? Or maybe you just have some feedback about this lens... In any case, I'd love to hear from you!

Coming to California? - Or maybe you've already been to California?

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    • Bazaar Compass profile image

      Mary Ellen Block 2 years ago from Southern California

      This is a very well rounded list! I live in SoCal and used to live up north so I appreciate that you covered the entire state. The one thing I would add though is to eat a California Burrito in San Diego!

    • LoriBeninger profile image

      LoriBeninger 3 years ago

      Well, it's hard to believe that In 'n Out Burger trumped Yosemite and all of the other amazing activities in California, but it got my attention! I hope your New Zealand friend did all of this and more. It is a wonderful place that I am proud to call my native home. Thank you for this lens.

    • catravel profile image

      Zoka 3 years ago

      I like all places in California.Most of them I have visited but some of them not yet :( Hearst Castle look so nice I would like to visit it some day.

    • Merlinx profile image
      Author

      Merlinx 3 years ago from Southern California

      @Ann Hinds: Thanks for your kind words! There is really no substitute for Yosemite. And I'm taking a break from Disneyland these days myself - it's getting too expensive! (Though it still is a must-see for people who have never been there.)

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 3 years ago from So Cal

      Great job on a first lens! I had my first In n Out in 1953. I am the Squidoo California Dreamin' Contributor and this is a great list of places to visit. Yosemite is my favorite and I avoid Disneyland.

    • Merlinx profile image
      Author

      Merlinx 4 years ago from Southern California

      @krior76: Thanks for the great compliment! I'm glad the lens is helpful.

    • Merlinx profile image
      Author

      Merlinx 4 years ago from Southern California

      @TheKitchenGeek LM: Sounds like a good time! Yosemite's beauty speaks for itself, but I must also say that California really has some incredible wineries. Napa is great, but you should also consider a visit to Paso Robles along the central coast. Great wines, less people - kind of like how Napa used to be 20 or 30 years ago.

    • Merlinx profile image
      Author

      Merlinx 4 years ago from Southern California

      @rainykua: That's great! Glad so see the lens is getting some use!

    • krior76 profile image

      krior76 4 years ago

      What a very helpful lens. Packed with information. Good work sir. keep your lens coming...

    • TheKitchenGeek LM profile image

      TheKitchenGeek LM 4 years ago

      Hello, I have been to California years back. Probably the next time I come back will be the Yosemite National Park and visit the wineries. Great lens and stunning pictures.

    • rainykua profile image

      rainykua 4 years ago

      My friend is going to the States a couple of months from now. I'm going to show this lens to him if he's visiting California.:)

    • Merlinx profile image
      Author

      Merlinx 4 years ago from Southern California

      @Coffee-Break: It really depends what you're into. I tend to prefer relaxing vacations these day (as opposed to adventure travel). And for that, California's Central coast is perfect. In particular, Pismo Beach and Cambria are just great.

    • JackieM293 profile image

      JackieM293 4 years ago

      Great lens. PCH and Yosemite are definitely on my wish list for next summer. Love the fact that you've included the google earth zoom on Disneyland, my kids spend hours doing that in excitement for our coming trip! And I promise we'll try an In and Out Burger.... J

    • Coffee-Break profile image

      Dorian Bodnariuc 4 years ago from Ottawa, Ontario Canada

      I'd love to do the Yosemite and have the burgers. A few days at a beach would be great also, while I am there. What would you recommend?

    • Merlinx profile image
      Author

      Merlinx 4 years ago from Southern California

      @JackieM293: Thanks! I do the same thing with Google Earth! Still a kid at heart I guess. I keep waiting for them to update the satellite view of Disney California Adventure though - it still shows the park under construction.

    • WindyWintersHubs profile image

      WindyWintersHubs 4 years ago from Vancouver Island, BC

      Road trips are a great way to see California. Our last few trips were just layovers but we did enjoy a bit of sightseeing. I have seen Alcatraz Island in the distance and have driven around Yosemite but will put those two on my trip wish list. Thanks for featuring these great places to visit. :)

    • Merlinx profile image
      Author

      Merlinx 4 years ago from Southern California

      @WriterJanis2: Thanks for the comment! It's great that you've been to most of these locations.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      You've picked some great places. I've been to most of them. Thumbs up!

    • cc4 profile image

      cc4 4 years ago

      Thanks for the tips on what to do in California!

    • profile image

      TheDisneyVacation 7 years ago

      Wow, great places in California. Would love to go over at Yosemite! I love the pictures!

    • Kiwisoutback profile image

      Kiwisoutback 7 years ago from Massachusetts

      I've been to all of these places, you've picked some of my favorites. We head back to Palm Springs almost every year to escape the New England weather. Nice work!

    • profile image

      joseph7384 7 years ago

      Nice Job, very interesting lens! it is not boring and has plenty of graphics.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Cool Lens, I like it!

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 7 years ago

      very nice lens, well done 5*

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 7 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      Very cool lens! I like it.

    • InkedEmma profile image

      InkedEmma 7 years ago

      Great lens! Never been to Cali but would love to go & know several natives from there... great pictures, lens and everything.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 7 years ago from New Zealand

      We were in the states in Feb and March. Came in through SF and out through LA. Had our first in and out burger and loved it. We only had 2 days in California, and did a 2 things from your list. Girls loved Disneyland.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Great Lens. Thanks for sharing.

    • cgoddess profile image

      Tina Hesskew 7 years ago

      This is WAY COOL! WTG! Great job.

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 7 years ago from Royalton

      Wonderful guide and incredible first lens. I can hardly wait to visit more of your lenses.

      I might add going to see a ghost town in Death Valley or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and one of my favorites, the Garlic Festival in Gilroy.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      wow! wonderful guide to the beautiful place in California ^_^ Wonderful lens too! love it! ^_^ 5*