22 Popular California Bucket List Activities and Food

Updated

California is a treasure trove of natural wonders, man-made activities, year-round events, and is home to one of the hottest food scenes you’ll find anywhere on earth. With all it has going for it, it’s no wonder California consistently makes it onto travel bucket lists

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Are you planning to visit this incredible state and travel from NorCal to SoCal, and everywhere in between? Let me tell you, as someone born and raised in California who has done nearly everything on this list, it may take you a few trips to get it all in!

Spring and Summer California Bucket List Items

Spring is glorious, and summer is perfect for warm-weather activities. You can’t go wrong visiting any part of California during these seasons.

1. Take a drive along the PCH from Malibu

There are many spots in California beloved for the natural beauty it offers travelers and locals alike. The Pacific Coast Highway is one such route. Start from Malibu and take the PCH as far as you want to go. You’ll be treated to stunning ocean vistas, glorious Redwood forests, and more natural beauty than you know what to do with.

2. Spend some time exploring Catalina Island

Catalina Island is a little gem just off the coast of California. You can take a ferry over and spend the day shopping, dining, hiking, and kayaking, or extend your stay and lodge for several days to get in all the island has to offer.

3. Hike Half Dome or climb its face

Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the world with opportunities to hike, climb, explore, and camp all over its 750,000 acres. One of the most popular activities is hiking the Bridal Veil Falls trail all the way up the backside of Half Dome. The view from the top is second to none. Rock climbers are also drawn to Half Dome and the technically challenging climb up its sheer granite face.

Pro tip: The Bridal Veil Falls hike is strenuous and challenging. Wear proper shoes, take plenty of water, and be prepared for the final leg where you have to haul yourself up to the top with the assistance of a rope.

4. Visit the 8th Wonder of the World

Okay, it may not be official, but Teddy Roosevelt called McArthur-Burney Falls the 8th Wonder of the World when he visited this breathtaking waterfall. The best thing about this stunning spot is that it’s right in the middle of the McArthur Burney Falls State Park and there is plenty more to do if you plan on staying a while.

Pro tip: The falls can be viewed right from the parking area! Or an easy walk will take you right to it. 

5. Visit wine country and go for a tasting in Napa Valley

Napa Valley is wine country, and there are plenty of wineries around the region that offer tours and tastings. Castello de Amorosa, Stag’s Leap Winery, and the Robert Mondavi Winery are just a few of many award-winning spots to visit.

Pro tip: If you’re not a drinker, many wineries offer tours without a tasting and some offer grape juice tastings instead of alcoholic options.

Fall and Winter California Bucket List Items

Fall and winter are gorgeous in California, and the weather ranges from warm to frigid depending on where you go. It’s a perfect time for checking out the Sunshine State because, even if it’s cold, the sun is sure to shine.

Pro tip: Separating activities by season is a great way to make a travel bucket list.

6. Stay at Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is a mountain resort area that boasts year-round activities including hiking, boating, and skiing. Whether you go in the fall or the middle of winter, you’re bound to find plenty to do. There are numerous lodging options including hotels, bed and breakfasts, and cozy lakeside cabins.

Pro tip: Lodging in Tahoe sells out fast. There is no real “off” season for this area since it’s a hotspot for tourists all year long. Book well in advance of your trip to get your preferred lodging.

7. Go surfing and skiing in one day

California is one of the only places in the world where you can go skiing and surfing in one day. Several ski destinations are only an hour or two away from top-rated surfing spots. Spend some time surfing the waves at Santa Monica Beach, then get your ski gear and head up the mountain to ski areas like Big Bear, Snow Summit, or Mountain High.

8. Hike the Sierra Nevadas

The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is home to ski resorts, national parks, hiking trails, camping spots, pristine lakes, and an abundance of wildlife. Fall is ideal for strenuous hikes, as the weather will have cooled off. Go in the winter if you want to ice climb or hike with snow on the ground.

California Bucket List Ideas for Kids and Families

There are tons of things to do, places to see, and adventures to have if you’re traveling with kids. Here are some of my favorites!

9. Explore Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco

If you’re in San Francisco, spend some time down at Fisherman’s Wharf where kids of all ages can play arcade games, check out unique museums, eat fantastic food, and watch sea lions sun on the beach.

10. Hug a tree in the Redwood National Forest

The General Sherman tree is a favorite of every visitor of every age who goes to the Redwoods. Just try to wrap your arms around this gigantic behemoth of a redwood tree whose dimensions measures a whopping 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter.

11. Walk or drive across the Golden Gate Bridge

This iconic San Francisco landmark has been featured on TV shows and movies, in calendars and books, and is one of the most recognizable sights around the world. Take the opportunity to walk or drive across it and take plenty of pictures when you do.

Pro tip: The San Francisco Bay area is often clouded over with ocean fog. You might get lucky and experience a cloudless sunshiny day, but don’t be discouraged if you encounter fog instead. 

12. Explore a ghost town or two

During the California gold rush, towns popped up wherever gold was a possibility. Today, these old mining towns are fairly well preserved and you can see what life would have looked like back in the 1800s. General stores often have canned and boxed goods still on their shelves. One-room schoolhouses look as if their last student walked out the door yesterday. And when you walk down the main street, you might just feel like a gunfight is about to break out. 

Pro tip: Bodie Ghost Town in Bodie and Calico Ghost Town in Yermo are two of the best.

13. Visit amusement parks

California is home to fan-favorite amusement parks including world-famous Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Medieval Times, Legoland, Sea World, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and the list goes on. Pick one or two and plan to spend a full day exploring the park, riding rides, and wearing yourself out.

Unique California Bucket List Ideas

Some things can only be found in California. Here are several of the best.

14. Visit the lowest point in America

Badwater Basin is home to the lowest point in America. It sits 282 feet below sea level, to be exact. You can drive to this spot by heading to Death Valley National Park and following the signs.

Pro tip: Summer temperatures can be extreme. If you go during the summer, get to the spot as early in the day as possible and take a case of drinking water if you plan on getting out of your car to explore.

15. Hike the highest point in the Lower 48

Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states and draws hikers from all over the world. The hike isn’t for beginners and should be prepared for, but the view at the top is well worth the blood, sweat, and tears.

16. View the annual Monarch Butterfly migration

Pismo Beach is home to white sandy shorelines, stunning scenery, and a stop-off for Monarch butterflies during their annual migration. Head to the Pismo Beach State Butterfly Grove from November to February to see thousands of Monarchs rest before continuing their journey.

17. Be a studio audience member

Have you ever wanted to be in the studio audience of a live show like The Ellen Show or The Price Is Right? Southern California is home to numerous studios where you can sit in on live tapings.

California Food and Restaurant Bucket List Ideas

California, food, and wine are practically synonymous. From wine country in NorCal to international cuisine in SoCal, you’re in for a treat if you plan to eat your way through California.

Note: As a native Californian, I can tell you that this small food bucket list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all California has to offer. Use this to get started, then add to it when you discover other recommendations and must-try spots.

18. Enjoy fine dining at The French Laundry 

The French Laundry in Napa Valley is one of a few restaurants in the US to have a three Michelin star rating, and Thomas Keller has earned all three stars. His dishes are unique, crafted with the finest ingredients available, and constantly changing. The drink options are also outstanding. 

Pro tip: Keller’s restaurant is fine dining at its best. As such, you can expect a price tag of $350 per person to start, payable when making reservations, and reservations are required. 

19. Chow down on a cheeseburger at In N’ Out

It’s hard to explain In N’ Out to an out-of-stater, but the California restaurant chain is a cult favorite for Californians. The burgers are juicy, fresh, made to order, and downright delicious. The menu boasts a total of five items – burgers, cheeseburgers, fries, shakes, and drinks. 

Pro tip: Those in the know order their burgers and fries “animal-style.” Animal style means the onions are grilled to perfection, burgers are smothered in extra secret sauce, and fries are topped with onions, sauce, and cheese.

20. Slurp up fresh clam chowder at Splash Cafe

You can get clam chowder up and down California’s coast, but one of the most iconic places to order it is at Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach. This little hole-in-the-wall has been serving the delicious chowder since 1989 and they go through over 40,000 gallons each year. The restaurant is often packed with a line wrapped around the building.

Pro tip: There is limited seating inside. Plan on taking your bowl down to the beach and enjoying it picnic-style if there are no seats available.

21. Enjoy a steaming bowl of cioppino at Phil’s Fish Market

Phil’s Fish Market is a favorite of Moss Landing locals, Californians, Food Network, and anyone who has ever enjoyed a bowl or plate of their fresh seafood. Cioppino is a classic, but you won’t go wrong no matter what you choose off the menu.

22. Have a hotdog at Pink’s

Pink’s hotdogs are one of a kind. Each dog on their menu is named after a celebrity or piece of pop culture and loaded with the most extravagant toppings you’ve ever seen. Will you try the Martha Stewart Dog with its sauteed onions, mushrooms, and bacon? Or will you choose the Lord of the Rings Dog with onion rings and BBQ sauce? Perhaps you’re more of a Philly Cheesesteak Dog kinda person. Just go. You’ll be glad you did.

Soak Up Your Time in California

There are a lot of things on our California bucket list! No matter how much time you have to spend in the Sunshine State, you’re sure to fill up your itinerary. If you have a limited amount of time, start by choosing the items that get you the most excited and go from there. You don’t have to do it all; just hit the things that would bring you the most joy and make the best memories.

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