Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California
Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Explore the Majestic Redwood Forests
With some of the tallest and oldest trees on Earth, California's iconic redwood forests are nothing short of majestic. Venturing into one of these lush groves feels like stepping back in time, the soaring trunks transporting you to a primordial world. Among the famous redwood forests are the Avenue of the Giants along Highway 101 and Muir Woods just north of San Francisco.
Meandering along the Avenue of the Giants, visitors are enveloped by a cathedral of ancient giants. The 31-mile scenic drive features numerous pullovers where you can take a moment to marvel at the sheer scale of these ancient beings, some topping out at over 300 feet. There are also hiking trails winding through groves where you can experience the hushed tranquility of these forests up close. Soaking in the clean pine-scented air and gazing up at the impossibly tall trunks, it's easy to feel small and insignificant next to these ancient titans.
For an equally awe-inspiring experience, make your way to Muir Woods to wander among some of the tallest trees on Earth. Cross the wooden footbridge over Redwood Creek into a world of emerald ferns, lofty Douglass firs and the iconic coast redwoods. Amble along the main path, stopping frequently to take in the dizzying height of the trees, some stretching higher than the Statue of Liberty. You can almost feel the history resonating within these giants. The cool, dim forest exudes a certain magic, the sunlight filtering through the canopy above. Muir Woods invites quiet contemplation and connection with nature.
What else is in this post?
- Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Explore the Majestic Redwood Forests
- Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Take in Dramatic Coastal Views Along Highway 1
- Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Go Wine Tasting Through Napa and Sonoma
- Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Soak Up the Sun on Santa Monica Pier
- Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Marvel at Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park
- Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Tour Iconic Movie Studios in Hollywood
- Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Hang Ten at World-Famous Surf Spots
- Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Escape into the Tranquil Scenery of Big Sur
Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Take in Dramatic Coastal Views Along Highway 1
With over 650 miles of stunning coastline, California State Route 1 offers some of the most spectacular ocean vistas in the world. As the two-lane blacktop winds along clifftops and skirts beaches, you’ll be awestruck by the dramatic meeting of land and sea. Rugged headlands, crashing waves, and quaint seaside towns unfold in an unforgettable road trip experience.
Starting in Orange County and ending north of San Francisco, Highway 1 is an odyssey of discovery. Cruising with the windows down, you’ll breathe in the refreshing ocean air as the glittering Pacific extends as far as the eye can see. Notice how the light changes throughout the day, painting the cliffs and breaking waves in different hues. Early risers can catch pastel pinks and oranges on the horizon at dawn. At sunset, deep orange and purple tones create an enchanting glow. If you’re lucky, you might even spot migrating whales or dolphins frolicking offshore.
The route features plenty of places to stop and take in the scenery. Some of the most famous vista points include Bixby Creek Bridge near Big Sur with its graceful arch over a steep canyon and McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where water cascades 80 feet onto a secluded beach. Further south, watch hang gliders sailing on ocean thermals at Dume Cove near Malibu. Or pull over at Elephant Seal Vista Point north of San Simeon for a front-row view as these massive marine mammals lounge on the beach and spar in the surf.
Wherever you go, have your camera ready. The ever-changing landscape presents boundless opportunities for dramatic photos. Long exposures at sunset turn crashing waves into silky abstractions. Pull off at roadside wildflower displays to capture colorful California poppies with the sea behind. Or frame classic coastal cypress trees in your shot for a quintessential Big Sur image.
Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Go Wine Tasting Through Napa and Sonoma
With over 500 wineries between Napa and Sonoma, oenophiles are spoiled for choice when visiting Northern California’s famous wine region. Meandering along peaceful country lanes lined with vineyards, you’ll soon discover that wine tasting offers so much more than just sampling flights. It’s a doorway into appreciating terroir, meeting passionate winemakers, and understanding the art and science behind crafting exceptional vintages.
Start your wine adventure with smaller boutique wineries to discover rising stars and enjoy a more intimate experience. At places like Artesa Vineyards in Napa or Muscardini Cellars in Sonoma, you may find yourself chatting with the owner or winemaker as they pour selections at the rustic wooden bar. The cozy tasting rooms make you feel like you’re being welcomed into someone’s home. Friendly staff share stories behind each pour and you can nerd out on details like oak barrel aging.
For a blend of natural beauty and wine tasting, places like Hall Winery in St. Helena or B Wise Vineyards in Sonoma Valley feature expansive grounds dotted with sculptures and gardens. Stroll through the vines as you make your way to flight tastings alfresco-style on vine-shaded patios. The relaxing scenery enhances the overall experience. At B Wise, sample award-winning Cabernets on a terrace overlooking a tranquil pond.
Some larger wineries like Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga have crafted elaborate experiences styled after European castles. Walk the parapets and hand-carved tunnels before sampling Italian-style reds within the stone barrel room. Or head to Sterling Vineyards near Calistoga and ascend to their Aerial Tram for swoon-worthy valley views as you sip.
Along the way, chat with winemakers and staff to get personalized recommendations. Some exclusive small-lot wines may not be available to taste but can be purchased in the winery shop. This is the best way to discover hidden gems and take home something truly special. Also, don’t be shy about asking questions. Winemakers are passionate about sharing their creations with genuine wine lovers.
Of course, indulging in wine pairings adds to the whole experience. Many wineries offer artisanal cheese platters, gourmet chocolates, or fine dining to complement their vintages. Sonoma’s Kendall-Jackson Winery has a full-service restaurant with a seasonal farm-to-table menu designed by a Michelin-starred chef.
Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Soak Up the Sun on Santa Monica Pier
Standing tall against the glittering Pacific, the historic Santa Monica Pier has been a beloved seaside attraction for over a century. This iconic landmark offers endless opportunities for fun and relaxation under the California sun.
With its unfettered ocean views, the pier naturally lends itself to sunbathing and people watching. Claim a spot on the wooden deck and stretch out with a book or just gaze at the swaying Ferris wheel overhead. Let the soothing sounds of the surf and cries of wheeling seagulls relax you into vacation mode. Early risers can catch a front-row seat for unforgettable sunrises where the emerging sun ignites the ocean in dazzling diamonds.
Of course, no trip to the pier is complete without taking a spin on the solar-powered Ferris wheel. As you crest the top, panoramic views open up, sweeping from the Santa Monica Mountains to Palos Verdes. Peer straight down through the pier's wooden slats for a fun bit of vertigo. Time your ride for sunset when the fiery sun sinks into the Pacific, setting the sky ablaze in brilliant oranges and pinks.
The pier also boasts a quirky mix of shops, restaurants, street performers, and small amusement park rides. Grab nachos or a soft serve cone and meander past fortune tellers, musicians, and artists. Let the kids burn off energy on the trapeze swings, carousel, or 1920s Looff Hippodrome with its hand-carved horses.
Anglers can try their luck fishing off the pier—no license required. There's even free gear available for loan. Over 500 fish species swim these waters, so you never know what you might hook. Clean your catch at the fillet stations and throw what you don't keep to the eager pelicans gathered below.
If you prefer riding waves to fishing, the pier perches above Surfrider Beach, famous for its perfect breaks. Watch in awe as surfers carve and cutback on curling waves in a mesmerizing ballet. The mellow waves at the north end of the beach are beginner-friendly. Sign up for a lesson and you'll be hanging ten in no time.
Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Marvel at Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park
With some of the most massive trees on the planet, Yosemite's old-growth giant sequoia groves will make you feel pint-sized. Getting up close to these towering giants is a humbling yet exhilarating experience. Their enormous size and great age seem to resonate with an earthy sort of wisdom and patience.
There are three main giant sequoia groves in Yosemite that are accessible by car - the Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove, and Merced Grove. Of these, the Mariposa Grove is the largest and most popular. But don't let the crowds deter you. This treasure trove of titans is well worth exploring.
As you stroll along the Big Trees Trail, look up in wonder at the colossal trunks all around you. Notice their spongy, fibrous bark and how the auburn-toned columns seem to stretch endlessly skyward. The largest tree here is the Grizzly Giant, with a volume of over 34,000 cubic feet and estimated to be 1,800-2,400 years old. Gazing at its weathered bark, it's amazing to imagine everything this tree has witnessed over the centuries.
Venturing further into the grove, continue to be awestruck by more record-breaking behemoths like the California Tunnel Tree you can walk through and the massive Fallen Monarch that measures over 270 feet long. But it's not just the celebrity trees that will amaze you. Wandering off the main trail through dimly lit groves of younger trees, you'll feel immersed in a cathedral of giants.
Their soaring trunks make you acutely aware of nature's grandeur and the impermanence of our human lifespans. These wise elders have seen generations of people come and go. Spending time amidst the ancient sequoias can be a profound and introspective experience. Their patient endurance and quiet strength seem to rub off on visitors.
Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Tour Iconic Movie Studios in Hollywood
As the epicenter of the world's entertainment industry, Hollywood holds a special place in popular culture. Generations have grown up watching movies and TV shows filmed right in the heart of Los Angeles. For any fan, touring the iconic studios offers a thrilling glimpse behind the scenes of this captivating world.
Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures offer daily tours of their lots, bringing visitors into the action of an actual working studio. Guides drive through outdoor sets used in countless productions while sharing fun facts and trivia. You’ll recognize the suburban street where the Golden Girls lived next door to the Munsters, along with the NYPD precinct from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The tours also swing by expansive sound stages, letting you peek inside active sets under construction.
Though you can’t tour live sets, visitors say seeing dressing rooms, costumes, props, and production offices still feels incredibly surreal. At Warner Bros., highlights include the Picture Car Vault housing legendary vehicles from Batman to Harry Potter. Paramount’s tour lets you explore their meticulous backlot set detailing a vintage New York City. Superfans advise booking the deluxe VIP tours at both studios for access to more areas and keepsake souvenirs.
While major studios are in the Valley, Sony Pictures in Culver City places you right in the historic heart of Hollywood. Their shorter walking tour brings you inside original Art Deco buildings of what was once MGM Studios. You’ll recognize their famous rainbow hall from Singin’ in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz. Though Sony has a smaller footprint, visitors say their guides share the best insider stories.
Fantasy becomes reality at Universal Studios Hollywood. Beyond a working studio, it’s a full-blown theme park letting you immerse yourself in the world of movies. Ride broomsticks through Hogwarts, battle dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and get drenched on the Studio Tour. Fans especially love the Special Effects Show demonstrating movie magic secrets up-close. While pricey, Universal offers an unforgettable interactive experience.
Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Hang Ten at World-Famous Surf Spots
With miles of spectacular coastline, California serves up some of the most iconic surf breaks on the planet. From mellow longboard waves to fearsome big wave beasts, the Golden State offers endless opportunities to hang ten at world-class surf spots. Whether you're a pro ripper or just looking to catch your first wave, you'll find awesome surfing up and down the coast.
In affluent Orange County, Huntington Beach lives up to its nickname "Surf City USA." The consistent waves and chilled-out vibe here make it a great place for beginners to learn. Paddle out at the south side of the pier for gentler surf. As you improve, venture north towards the pier for hollower waves. Just stay clear of the intense localism at the HB Cliffs break frequented by territorial local shredders.
Down in San Diego, Ocean Beach is another top newbie spot with its mushy, crumbling waves. Here you can rent foam boards and get the hang of popping up before graduating to the premier breaks. Once you've got your surf legs, hit Swami's Beach up in Encinitas where perfectly peeling waves churn out tubes and allow for radical maneuvers.
No surf trip is complete without paying homage to the legendary waves of Malibu. Point Dume near Zuma Beach offers a ripping right point break, while Surfrider Beach next to the Malibu Pier has a great beginner-friendly wave at the north end. As an added bonus, you might catch a glimpse of celebs like Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron shredding the waves.
For experts only, Mavericks near Half Moon Bay boasts massive, throaty waves that can reach 60 feet on big swell days. This treacherous break has claimed lives, so leave it to the seasoned pros. Similarly, the Wedge at the tip of the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach is an experts-only shore break with 15-foot hurling beasts prized by bodyboarders.
Up north of San Francisco, Santa Cruz offers legendary surf spots like Steamer Lane, Pleasure Point and Cowell's Beach. These challenging breaks churn out steep, powerful waves great for carving. Meanwhile, Bolinas and Stinson Beach feature radical barrels for experts along the wild Marin Coast.
Golden Opportunities: 101 Bucket-List Activities Across California - Escape into the Tranquil Scenery of Big Sur
With its rugged cliffs plunging into the Pacific, Big Sur beckons as a magical escape into raw natural beauty. Meandering along Highway 1, you’ll enter a timeless world of ancient redwoods, waterfalls, and panoramic sea vistas. Big Sur’s peaceful isolation offers the perfect antidote to our frantic modern existence.
I’ve visited Big Sur countless times over the decades and it never fails to fill me with wonder and tranquility. Gazing out at the limitless ocean horizon from clifftop pullouts, you can’t help but feel insignificant in the face of such epic beauty. Your problems suddenly seem very small measured against the timeless power of the elements.
Big Sur invites you to surrender to the present moment. With limited cell service, you’re forced to unplug from digital distractions. The absence of chain hotels and restaurants maintains an unspoiled remoteness. The only sounds are crickets, rustling trees, and the ever-present surf. At night, stargazing reveals dazzling celestial displays free of light pollution.
One of my favorite ways to experience Big Sur’s magic is camping at the state parks. Fall asleep to the crash of waves at Kirk Creek Campground, perched dramatically on a bluff right above the ocean. Or stay in a cabin at the majestic Pfeiffer Big Sur Lodge nestled among towering redwoods. Early morning hikes through mist-shrouded forests feel properly enchanted.
No visit to Big Sur is complete without stopping at McWay Falls. This postcard-perfect waterfall plunges directly onto a secluded sandy cove—arguably one of the most beautiful spots on the California coast. During long road trips, I like to refuel at Nepenthe Restaurant where the Ambrosia Burger and views are legendary.
While the main road through Big Sur never fails to amaze, some truly transcendent experiences come by taking detours onto lesser-known trails. Cone Peak Trail showcases insane vistas atop rugged ridges high above the Pacific. The steep trek up is worth it for jaw-dropping 360 views. For the best secret beaches, follow the unmarked trail to Notley’s Landing or drive the bumpy dirt road to Bottcher’s Gap.