Catching that first glimpse of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is bound to take your breath away. Completed in 1937, the art deco suspension bridge has become the internationally recognized symbol of San Francisco. While often swathed in an otherworldly fog, on a clear day the city and bay views from the bridge are spectacular.
Deep, clear, and intensely blue, this forest-rimmed body of water straddling the California–Nevada border is one of the continent’s prettiest alpine lakes. That environmental controls can keep it that way is something of a miracle, given Tahoe’s popularity. Throngs of outdoor adventurers flock to the California side to ski, hike, bike, and boat. On the Nevada side, where casinos are king, gambling often wins out over fresh-air activities—but natural wonders are never far away.
This aquarium is one of the nation’s most spectacular and most respected. A multistory kelp forest, the million-plus-gallon tank in the Open Seas exhibit, and a dramatically lit jellyfish experience are just some of the highlights. The aquarium also impresses behind the scenes with its extensive marine research programs and conservation efforts.
Despite impressive wines being produced throughout the state, the Napa Valley remains California’s original and most famous destination for wine. Although the vineyard-blanketed hills are undeniably scenic, the wine itself remains the big draw here. From household names to producers with a cult following, budding oenophiles can educate their palettes on scores of tours and tasting sessions.
Aside from the namesake seashore, this Marin County preserve encompasses ecosystems that range from woodlands and marshlands to heathlike grasslands. The range of wildlife here is equally diverse—depending on when you visit, expect to see gray whales, rare Tule elk, and almost 500 species of birds. December through March you can also see male elephant seals compete for mates.
A United Nations World Heritage Site, this park along California’s north coast is one of the most serene spots on earth. It holds groves of towering ancient redwood trees, including the world’s tallest tree at nearly 380 feet. Drive along the Redwood Highway to experience the majesty of the trees.
Pricey and touristy for sure, but a chance to ride on one of San Francisco’s classic cable cars should not be passed up. Clutching a handrail while riding downhill on one of the exterior running boards can be exhilarating or downright frightening, depending on whom you ask. Sitting inside offers a tamer ride, yet you can watch the gripman at work, listen to the clanging of the bell, and take in the sights as you roll by.
Nature looms large here, both literally and figuratively. In addition to hulking Half Dome, the park is home to El Capitan (the world’s largest exposed granite monolith, rising 3,593 feet above the glacier-carved valley floor) and Yosemite Falls (North America’s tallest cascade). In Yosemite’s signature stand of giant sequoias—the Mariposa Grove—even the trees are Bunyanesque.
California’s gold rush was one of the most significant events in U.S. history. It saved the Union and helped open the western frontier, when Argonauts flooded a 300-mile-long stretch of the Sierra foothills. Remnants of the gold rush remain to this day in the towns, diggings, trains, museums, and culture that you’ll encounter along historic Highway 49; it runs north to south from Loyalton near the Nevada border to Oakhurst, just south of Yosemite. Towns along the way, mostly updated and renovated, allow you to dig into the past and discover what the excitement was all about.