Travel

The Most Beautiful Places in California You Never Knew Existed

In case you need a break from the couch.

California may have its issues, but when it comes to beauty, we can confidently say there’s nowhere else like it in the United States. And you know what makes up for high housing costs and a constant change of drought, fire, and earthquakes? Living within driving distance of majestic mountains, scenic beaches, and everything in between. From Yosemite to Big Sur to Joshua Tree, the Golden State offers more natural wonder than one can possibly experience in a lifetime, but if you make it to every spot on this list, you'll have at least experienced the best of the best.

Please note that due to COVID-19, a bunch of these places have modified operations to keep people safe. That means that, for the near future, facilities and services may be limited -- including the closure of roads, parking lots, campgrounds, picnic areas, ranger stations, visitor centers, and more. Please check before you go anywhere to see what modifications may be in place.

Alamere Falls
Alamere Falls | Flickr/albedo20

Alamere Falls

Point Reyes
There are only two of the very rare “tidefalls” in all of California, and Alamere Falls is one of them. What’s a tidefall you ask, and why are they so rare? They’re waterfalls that flow directly into the ocean, and the answer to the first part of the question definitely also answers the second. Like so many of the best waterfalls, if you want to see this one, you’re going to have to earn it in the form of a nearly 14-mile round-trip hike. Totally worth it though to see cascades of water plunging 30 feet down a shale cliff and onto the beach below. 

In normal times, if you want to stop at Bass Lake to take a turn on the rope swing, you need to start at the Palomarin Trailhead. Unfortunately, the road leading to that trailhead is closed to vehicles right now, so you’ll have to enter at either the Bear Valley Trailhead (7.3 miles each way) or the Five Brooks Trailhead (7.1 miles each way) and add another four miles round-trip from Wildcat Beach where Alamere Falls is to the lake.

Bowling ball beach
Bowling Ball Beach | Flickr/Daniela

Bowling Ball Beach

Point Arena
If you go to Schooner Gulch State Beach at low tide and walk to the north, you’ll see a beach that looks like it’s covered in oversized bowling balls, which are actually the result of millions of years of a geological phenomenon known as “concretion.” It doesn’t sound as strange as it looks, so this is definitely one of those places you need to visit in order to understand how cool it is. Also, fun fact: Schooner Gulch got its name because, as the story goes, a schooner was seen stranded on the beach in the mouth of the gulch one night … but by morning it was gone.

The Glory Hole

Lake Berryessa 
The Glory Hole at Lake Berryessa (officially named the “Morning Glory Spillway”) is a sight to behold after a rainy winter when a spillway for the lake and Monticello Dam pulls water spiraling 200 feet down into a narrowing pipe to prevent overflow. It doesn’t happen every year and definitely doesn’t happen during a drought, but if it’s been a wet winter, there’s a good chance that it will go for a couple of months as winter moves into spring. Camping is only open to “self-contained RVs” right now, but hopefully by the time the Glory Hole swirls back to life, tent camping and lodging will be back open. Just don’t even think about getting close to it, as you likely won’t have the same fate as this lucky duck.

La Tour

Laguna Beach
The locals call this strange 60-foot concrete castle-esque structure on Victoria Beach the “Pirate Tower,” but it wasn’t built as a place for pillagers to take refuge or lock up damsels in distress; rather, it was built in 1926 to house a wooden spiral staircase that connected a state senator’s home on the top of the bluff to the beach. The nickname came because a retired Naval officer who bought the house in the 1940s would dress up as a pirate and fill the tower with coins for kids to find. Go at low tide if you want to avoid climbing over rocks. Pirate costumes not required.

Painted Canyon

Mecca
About 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs is one of the most unique hikes you’ll ever go on since it doesn’t involve just putting one foot in front of the other over and over again, but also climbing up (somewhat rickety) ladders to ascend a magnificent (and narrow) slot canyon named for colorful mineral deposits that cover the rock that were pushed up hundreds of millions of years ago by the San Andreas Fault system.

Pfeiffer Beach Keyhole Rock
Pfeiffer Beach | Flickr/Gordon

Pfeiffer Beach

Big Sur
This stunning beach is a must-visit for anyone with an Instagram account for two reasons: purple sand and Keyhole Rock. Due to the erosion of the cliffs above the beach that contain Manganese garnet rocks, the sand is filled with a marbling of deep plum that has to be seen to be believed. And as if purple sand weren’t enough, Pfeiffer Beach also has a huge rock with a natural arch at the base. Get there before golden hour and position yourself in front of it to capture the last rays of sunlight as they disappear behind the horizon, as well as so many Instagram likes when you post your pic. And since you’re in Big Sur already, be sure to also check out Bixby Bridge (made famous by tons of car commercials and Big Little Lies) as well as McWay Falls, California’s second (and only other) tidefall.

Fern Canyon

Gold Bluffs Beach
The towering walls of this narrow canyon are draped with an ancient species of verdant ferns with ancestry dating back 325 million years and an otherworldly effect that has to be experienced in person. Every curve of the corridor brings another stunning view of vertical wetland, lush vegetation, miniature waterfalls, and a feeling like you’ve seen this somewhere before, which, oh right, you have if you’ve seen The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It was the backdrop in a couple of scenes, including the one where (spoiler alert) one of the characters becomes lunch for a flock of tiny Compsognathus.

The Seven Teacups 

Johnsondale
Hidden in the Sequoia National Forest is one of California’s most stunning (and secret) natural wonders: the Seven Teacups, a succession of seven circular pools linked by waterfalls. It’s a very popular canyoneering site, but you can get to the upper pools with a moderate hike that doesn’t require any gear. Just, please, don’t even think about jumping in any of them unless you know what you’re doing.

glass beach
Glass Beach in Fort Bragg | Aneta Waberska/Shutterstock

Glass Beach

Fort Bragg
While we would never advocate for an entire town to dump its garbage along the coastline, that’s exactly what Fort Bragg did in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which certainly did a lot of environmental damage, but also happened to create Glass Beach, a stretch of shoreline that is covered with smooth and colorful sea glass. (While we’re pretty sure this is the cause, there is folklore that sea glass is actually created by the tears of mermaids. Sadly, it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out the truth.) Also sadly, because sometimes people can’t just appreciate beauty in the moment and insist on taking home a souvenir, the amount of glass is dwindling, so look and touch, but then leave it there. 

Zabriskie Point

Death Valley
Death Valley is probably best known for being home to the lowest point of elevation in North America (and one of the hottest places on the planet), but though we recommend you visit Badwater Basin, a sinkhole located 282 feet below sea level, at some point in your life. You’re really going there to check out this stunning rock formation that was featured on the cover of U2’s The Joshua Tree.

Kelso Dunes

Mojave Desert
There are lots of beaches on this list, but this one is special because it’s the only one that lacks an ocean. That’s because this set of dunes were formed by a combination of the eroding granitics of the San Bernardino Mountains that was blown around for 25,000 years and then locked in place (as much as sand can be; they definitely still migrate) by vegetation. Science! The dune field covers 45 square miles with the tallest dune towering 650 feet above its surroundings. A three-mile hike will allow you to take it all in and make the sand sing with your feet. Seriously.

Burney Falls

Burney
Burney Falls isn’t going to win any technical competitions in California: it isn’t the highest, or the largest, and it definitely doesn’t fall directly into the ocean. But what it lacks in stats, it makes up for in beauty. Flowing at 100 million gallons every day, the 129-foot waterfall was dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” by Teddy Roosevelt, and is definitely worth a visit. You don’t have to walk far to see it as it’s right off of the main parking lot, but there are five miles of hiking trails to explore if you want to feel like you earned your reward. Our rec: Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it on the shores of Lake Britton (which you’ll need to access via the Rim Trail, as, currently, part of the Burney Creek Trail is closed due to storm damage/erosion).

Tahquitz Canyons 

Palm Springs
This natural desert oasis is probably even better than what you imagine when you imagine a tranquil spot featuring water surrounded by sand. And that’s because not only is it located on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, which means you’ll get to see rock art and ancient irrigation systems, but because there’s also an abundance of native wildlife and plants, and, best of all: a 60-foot waterfall. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, right now visiting times at the waterfall may be limited, so that everyone can get a turn, and there won’t be Ranger talks or Ranger-led hikes, so you’ll have to educate yourself.

Black Sands Beach

Sausalito
Just a few miles north of San Francisco, at the bottom of a steep hillside, is a secluded beach that stretches four miles along the shoreline and is covered with literal black sand (hence, the name) and offers views of the Point Bonita Lighthouse and possibly a lot more, since this beach is considered to be a clothing-optional beach by some. The beach is pretty sheltered from the wind, and even though you’ll want to dress for typical NorCal weather (so, at the very least a hoodie), wear layers since you might find it’s warm enough to strip down to a T-shirt. Or, if you dare… your birthday suit. Also, avoid going at high tide when the beach can be quite narrow.

Cap Rock

Joshua Tree
A trip to the Mojave Desert to see the Joshua trees that only grow there should be on everyone’s bucket list. But while most tourists stick to the edges of the national park, we suggest you go further in to see Cap Rock, a formation of boulders that seemingly defy gravity, and is also the final resting place of Gram Parsons (The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers), whose friends stole his body from LAX and cremated it there to honor a pact they’d made a few months earlier. As friends do.

rainbow falls
Rainbow Falls | Flickr/John Loo

Rainbow Falls

Mammoth Lakes
If the sun is shining, you’re basically guaranteed to see a rainbow at this 101-foot waterfall inside of Devils Postpile National Park. Go at midday when the three-mile hike will be the worst (there’s barely any shade), but, like the sun, your chances of getting good rainbow pics are at its highest. Note: the shuttle busses aren’t running during the summer of 2020, so you’ll have to drive your car into the valley, which is narrow and steep, and offers limited parking. Get there early.

Alta Peak Trail

Sequoia National Park
Obviously if you’re visiting the Land of Giants, you’re going to check out the giant sequoias, which are not only among the oldest living organisms on earth, but are also the most massive trees on earth. But what you should also check out, if you’re up for it, is the strenuous 14-mile Alta Peak Trail, which gains 4000 feet of elevation and offers breathtaking panoramic views from the summit, as well as a chance to see a bunch of other super old trees, the gnarled and twisted foxtail pines. You’ll have to (cautiously) scramble up some steep rocks at the very end to truly make it to the 11, 200’ summit and earn views of half of the park, but if you made it this far, you’re not going to let a little fear of heights hold you back, right?

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who plans to happily spend the rest of her life exploring California. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf to see where her next adventure takes her.