The Most Beautiful Places in California You Never Knew Existed
The Yosemite “Firefall,” giant sequoia trees, hot springs, and more.
Wintertime in California is perhaps the Golden State’s most magical season. The weather cools down, everything becomes a little more quiet and still, but you can still enjoy the great outdoors in all of the best ways possible—and with fewer tourists! Make the most of these coming months by hopping in the car for a weekend getaway to discover hidden gems, beautiful beaches, snow-covered mountains, and unusual landmarks. From giant sequoia to a waterfall made of “fire,” here’s our list of natural wonders you should add to your California bucket list.
Skiers and snowboarders flock to Mammoth in the winter for the fresh plow and the versatile terrain, but the area also has a natural après ski (or anytime of year) relaxation remedy: a network of hot springs left behind from a volcano that exploded hundreds of thousands of years ago, many of which are safe for soaking and all of which have water temperatures ranging from 95 F to 105 F. During the winter, it’s a little harder to get to most of them, but Wild Willy’s (also known as Crowley’s) is a short walk from the parking lot (there’s a boardwalk, but in the winter it may be covered with snow, so make footwear decisions accordingly), which makes it accessible year-round. At the end of the boardwalk, you’ll find two hot springs—the first can hold 30+ people and second one is heart-shaped, hotter, and only has room for a couple of folks—but both have stunning views of the Eastern Sierras that, combined with the restorative powers of a soak in a natural hot spring, will quickly remind you why California is such a magical place while also making you forget whatever troubles are on your mind.
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Just a few miles down the hill from Bear Valley, a family-friendly ski resort in the Central Sierra Mountains, is Calaveras Big Tree State Park, a state park that’s home to two groves of giant sequoia trees. Even in the summer, this park is less crowded than some of the more popular spots to gaze at the largest trees in the world, but if you go in the winter, when only the North Grove is accessible, you may get the place all to yourself. Go on the weekends from November to March and you’ll find a fire pit by the main parking lot with complimentary hot chocolate, cider, and coffee, and on some Saturdays, you can even snowshoe (snowshoes and tour provided free of charge) with a guide around the grove. (Or just bring your own and do it whenever.) These majestic trees are always a sight to behold, but when contrasted with a blanket of fresh white snow and the peace and quiet that often accompanies it, the massive trunks and boughs are even that much more awe-inspiring.
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Yosemite National Park
The “Yosemite Firefall''—a natural firefall that occurs when the setting sun hits Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park at just the right angle, transforming the waterfall into a trail of orange and red “flames”—is a rare phenomenon that only a lucky few are able to experience. It usually occurs during mid- to late February, but only if the conditions are perfect. There has to be enough snowpack for the fall to flow (which there is in 2022). But also, the weather must be warm enough for the snowmelt to feed the fall (TBD). The sky also needs to be clear at sunset so that the clouds don’t block the sun’s rays. But if all of that happens at just the right time, the reward is a magical ten minutes of Horsetail Fall cascading like molten lava down the face of El Capitan and the feeling of “How did I get so lucky?” that comes with it.
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Most people think of Abbot Kinney, the Boardwalk, or Muscle Beach when they think of Venice Beach, but the quaint Venice Canals are a hidden gem tucked away from the tourist-trodden streets. Built by developer Abbot Kinney in 1905, the man-made canals were inspired by Venice, Italy, and have become one of the area’s most popular attractions. Set amongst a quiet residential area, walkways and bridges connect the picturesque canals. The best way to access them is to park on Pacific Street and look for the entrance between Venice Blvd and Washington Blvd. Take a stroll through the canals and admire the beach homes in this sought-after neighborhood. Just make sure to remember where you parked because all of the walkways start looking alike.
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The Cypress Tree Tunnel looks like something straight out of a fairytale book, but it does exist and it’s quite spectacular to see in person. A long row of cypress trees in the Point Reyes Peninsula form a natural tunnel with their lengthy branches. When you see the sign that says North District Operations Center off of Sir Francis Drake Blvd, you’ll know you’re in the right spot. Sunset hour is a popular time to visit with professional photographers and amateurs flocking to get the perfect shot, but sunrise is also a good time to visit and a bit less crowded. Park in the small designated lot and definitely don’t park anywhere on or close to the trees.
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Calavera Lake is a 400-acre reservoir surrounded by miles of hiking and biking trails, 17 native vegetation communities, and land that was once an old rock quarry. There are multiple trails to choose from that vary in difficulty but you will be rewarded with sprawling views at the top. And you don’t have to travel far to see a natural wonder like a dormant volcano. The small mountain on the preserve called Mount Calavera is actually a volcanic plug, a hardened bit of magma and one of the last remaining pieces of the inactive volcano. At the base, you will find a man-made labyrinth and peaceful rock garden that you can contribute to.
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Standing at 576 feet tall, Morro Rock, also referred to as the "Gibraltar of the Pacific,” is the focal point of a small coastal town called Morro Bay. The rock which is now recognized as a California Historic Landmark is part of the Nine Sisters which are nine volcanic peaks that stretch from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay. Throw back a few oysters (Morro Bay is famous for them) at one of their seafood markets on the embarcadero and enjoy views of the massive ancient formation while watching cute sea otters float in the water.
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California is home to many sea caves, but the Dana Point Sea Caves are a bit lesser known and easier to access. Sometimes referred to as Pirate’s Cove or Pirate’s Cave, according to local lore, the caves were once used by seafaring buccaneers in the early 20th century. For the best views, drive to the Ocean Institute, head towards the rock jetty, and take the concrete stairs to the right. Follow the signs as you hike to Pirate’s Cave and get your camera ready to snap photos of the caves and the waves crashing in the background. It’s about a 1.2-mile round trip hike but beware, it can get rocky so wear proper shoes. You’ll want to visit when the tide is low because it can get slippery in some areas and you’ll likely get drenched during high tide.
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Only one mile long, Carmel River State Beach features white, sandy beaches and a lagoon formed by the Carmel River that attracts song birds and waterfowl. The protected bird sanctuary draws bird enthusiasts and is also a popular spot for dog owners or anyone who wants to enjoy a romantic sunset picnic. While you’ll spot a number of local divers and kayakers, the waves are really powerful so swimming is not encouraged.
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At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which is now open, you’ll find the magnificent Mount San Jacinto State Park. The tramway takes passengers to an elevation of 8,516 feet where you can hike more than 50 miles of trails and enjoy breathtaking views of the second highest mountain range in Southern California. There are also two restaurants, an observation deck, a museum, and a gift shop. Most areas of the park are designated wilderness areas so you might spot a few animals during your visit.
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There are a lot of beautiful gems along Highway One and San Simeon Cove is one of them. It’s one of those viewpoints that most tourists don’t know about so you can enjoy stunning views without the busy crowds. Across from Hearst Castle you will find a parking lot adjacent to the beach and this is where you’ll want to start. When you get to the beach you’ll see an uphill hiking trail which you will follow along the bluff and continue on until you see spectacular views of the coastline. Enjoy the aromatic smells of eucalyptus and pines along the trail and make sure to pay attention for private property signs.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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. Find an amazing Airbnb near Pfeiffer Beach
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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