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California Dreaming - A Top Ten List

More from Outdoor Living Newsletter March Outdoor Living Newsletter

Think hard about the last time you visited California. Think about the sights you saw, the people you met, the foods you devoured, the music you heard, the fragrance wafting in the air around you. Was it sunny? Snowy? Warm? Relaxing? Inspiring? Seems like one of the most popular vacation destinations in America ought to boast all that and more, don't you think? Here's our top ten list of places to check out on your next camping road trip through the Golden State.

1.  Yosemite National Park

Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Yosemite National Park dazzles its visitors with natural splendor. The park boasts spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant Sequoia groves, and biological diversity, and has more than 300 species of vertebrate animals. It is visited by over 4 million people every year most of whom spend their time in Yosemite Valley a 7 mile long canyon cut by a river and then widened and deepened by glacial action. The park is a United Nations World Heritage Site.

What Not to Miss

  • Yosemite Valley - Catch views of one of the highest waterfalls in the world as well as meadows, cliffs, and unusual rock formations in the valley.
  • Sentinel Dome - 1 mile trail to the top of Sentinel Dome for spectacular views of Yosemite Valley.
  • Hike Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls - Moderately strenuous 7 mile round trip to see two amazing waterfalls up close.
  • Tuolumne Meadows - Take the Tioga Road Highway 120 East and you will be rewarded with a 39 mile scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows.

There are plenty of campgrounds in Yosemite National Park to choose from.

Half Dome at Yosemite National Park
Half Dome

2.  Pacific Coast Highway - Route 1

Arguably the most beautiful drive in the country. Pacific Coast Highway is a gorgeous highway that runs along most of the coast of California. Driving down the coast of California provides amazing views of the Pacific Ocean with green rolling hills, cliffs exceeding 100 ft., and a wide variety of California trees and plants. This makes for a great camping trip.

What Not to Miss

  • Hearst Castle - Built by publisher William Randolph Hearst on a hill overlooking the coast. A palatial estate with Mediterranean Revival Architecture and collection of art - antique furniture, sculptures, paintings, mosaics and tapestries.
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park - Take the Overlook Trail which follows the clifftops above the ocean and provides a breathtaking view of McWay Cove and a 80 foot waterfall.
  • Point Lobos State Reserve - Sea lions and sea otters abound around the small islands that you'll see from the coastal trails.
  • Muir Woods National Monument - Six miles of trails amongst some of the tallest trees in the world - the Redwoods.
  • Point Reyes National Seashore - This stretches 70 miles around the Point Reyes Peninsula and offers great hiking, biking and camping. Wildlife far outnumbers people, with bobcats, elk, mountain lions and deer. Gray whales or orcas can be spotted offshore. There are beaches, forests and hills to explore and wildflower and native flora galore.

Find campgrounds and RV Parks on the Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur.
Find campgrounds and RV Parks on the Pacific Coast Highway near Jenner.

Pacific Coast seen from the Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast

3.  Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Big trees and big canyons adeptly describe Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks that are jointly administered by the National Park Service. The World's largest tree, General Sherman Tree can be found in Sequoia National Park and sheer canyon walls and stunning mountain scenery can be seen in Kings Canyon National Park. The park is a wilderness paradise. A backpacker can hike to a spot that is further from a road than any other place in mainland United States.

What Not to Miss

  • Congress Trail and General Sherman Tree - Easy 2 mile trail that takes you amongst the Sequoia's and includes the largest of them all - the General Sherman Tree, about 2,100 years old, 275 feet tall and 103 feet in circumference. A 13-story building would fit beneath its first large branch.
  • Moro Rock - Huge granite monolith that offers stunning views of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the National Park.
  • Crystal Cave - The cave is formed of marble and has dazzling stalactites, stalagmites, columns and flowstone.
  • Kings Canyon Scenic Byway including River Trail and Zumwalt Meadow Trail - Follow the South Fork Kings River with waterfalls and sheer canyon walls. Take the short trails for views of the valley.

There are lots of campgrounds in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park to choose from.

Looking up to the top of some Sequoia trees
The crowns of Sequoia trees

4.  Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is the quintessential western desert - a must see for anyone interested in the outdoors. Pack your sunscreen and set out on your ideal adventure. There are opportunities to rock climb, bike, and hike.

What Not to Miss

  • Keys Ranch Guided Tour - a 90-minute tour of the Desert Queen Ranch, once run by the Keys family. The Desert Queen Ranch tour is a great way to see the landscape of Joshua Tree National Park as well as learn about a thriving community that once resided in the area.
  • Skull Rock - Located along the main park road, Skull rock is a popular destination for park visitors. Get a feel for the structure and layout of Joshua Tree National Park by hiking around here.
  • Ryan Mountain Trail - Short but moderately steep 1.5 mile trail to the top of Ryan Mountain that offers spectacular 360 degree views of Joshua Tree National Park.

You can camp in the park itself, or stay at a number of different campgrounds near Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Trees

5.  Death Valley National Park

Don't let the name deter you; Death Valley National Park is one of California's most amazing attractions, offering over 3 million acres of diverse landscapes. Located in the Mohave Desert, it features some of the lowest, driest, and hottest places in the world! To some this might not seem like the most ideal vacation spot but because of its unique environment Death Valley National Park has unparalleled scenery.

What Not to Miss

  • Zabriskie Point at sunrise - It provides amazing views of the valley and is surrounded by a labyrinth of eroded badlands.
  • Devils Golf Course - Incredible unique looking salt pan on the floor of Death Valley.
  • Badwater Basin - North America's lowest point offers a 360 degree view of vast salt flats that stretch all the way into the foothills of the surrounding mountains.
  • Dantes View at sunset - The most breathtaking viewpoint in the park. This viewpoint terrace towers 5,475 feet over Devils Golf course and Badwater Basin.

There are a number of campgrounds in Death Valley National Park.

Badwater Basin Death Valley National Park
Badwater Basin

6.  San Francisco

San Francisco is a cosmopolitan city boasts a thriving arts scene, world class food, a culturally diverse population, and countless tourist destinations. Miles of beaches and skyscraping redwoods provide a source of unparalleled natural beauty. Just ensure you park up your RV as the notorious hills and tight turns may get the better of the transmission and your skilled driving! Drive into San Francisco, or use the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system and buses to hop from district to district.

What Not to Miss

  • Fisherman's Wharf - Grab a bowl of clam chowder and sourdough bread.
  • Take an old-fashioned cable car ride - People watch to your heart's delight, and hang on tight as you .
  • Haight Street - Take a walk on the wild side and spend the afternoon tapping into the tofu loving psychedelic side of San Fran.
  • Alcatraz Island - Spend a morning or afternoon living the life of an inmate at the notorious Alcatraz Federal penitentiary.
  • Golden Gate Bridge - Walk or drive over and marvel as the engineering feat and enjoy the amazing views of the city and bay.
  • Marin Headlands - Great hiking, biking and views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay and City.

Find campgrounds and RV Parks near San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge

7.  Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is located in North Eastern California. The dominant feature is the Lassen Peak; the largest plug dome volcano in the world and the southern-most volcano in the Cascade Range. The park is especially interesting as it has four different types of volcanoes: 1) plug dome, largered stratovolcano, shield volcanoes and cinder cones. There are over 150 miles of hiking trails within the park which range in difficulty from a strenuous 5 mile round-trip hike up Lassen Peak to a gentle 1.85 mile stroll around Manzanita Lake. They are lots of hydrothermal areas to explore including fumaroles, sputtering mud pots and boiling pools. In the Winter you can also snowshoe across the Northern and Southern parts of the park.

What Not to Miss

  • Bumpass Hell - Sulphur fumes, hissing fumaroles and bubbling mud pots.
  • Lassen Peak Trail - Day hike up to Lassen Peak. The view from the top is stunning and you can see the different types of volcanoes within the park.
  • Manzanita Lake Trail - Follow the 1.5 mile trail around the picturesque mountain lake. The north end of the trail offers excellent views of Lassen Peak, Chaos Crags, and Eagle Peak. Go swimming or kayaking in the lake.
  • Kings Creek Falls - A fairly easy 1 mile hike will take you to this sparkling waterfall.
  • Cinder Cone Nature Trail - 3 mile round trip to climb a cinder cone volcano with spectacular views of the park including Lassen Peak, the Fantastic Lava Beds and the colorful Painted Dunes.

There are several campgrounds in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park
Manzanita Lake

8.  Redwood National and State Parks

Comprising Redwood National Park as well as California's Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks, California's Redwood National and State Parks span a whopping 39,000 acres. These parks hold 45% of all the remaining coast redwood and old-growth forests which are the tallest and one of the most massive tree species on Earth. A trip to California would not be complete without a visit to these natural wonders.

What Not to Miss

  • Lady Johnson Grove Trail - On the 1 mile trail you'll see the beauty of the redwoods up close and feel the cool, moist air they need and the smells of the many plants that live there.
  • Big Tree at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park - It's 304 feet tall, 21.6 feet in diameter, 66 feet in circumference and 1,500 years old. You'll be amazed at the sheer size and scale of the tree.
  • Klamath Overlook - On a clear day, you can see 65 miles down the coastline from the hilltop view.
  • Tall Trees Grove - Hard to get to grove that adds to it's mystique. Hike amongst the giant coast redwoods.

Find campgrounds and RV Parks in or near to Redwood National and State Parks.

Look up at two Coastal Redwood Trees
Tallest trees on Earth - The Coastal Redwoods

9.  Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe has it all. Skiing in the winter, golf and lake activities in the summer, majestic Sierras and incredible history.

What Not to Miss

  • Emerald Bay State Park - Breathtaking scenery and views. Strap on the boots and go for a hike, or even just relax on the many beaches.
  • Take a tour on the lake - Spend an evening on Lake Tahoe watching the sun go down and learning about the lake.
  • During the Summer take a balloon ride over the lake - Soar up in the sky for incredible views of the lake and surrounding area.
  • During the Winter go skiing at Heavenly and Squaw Valley - These ski resorts offer plenty of great runs for beginners to experts.

Find campgrounds and RV Parks around Lake Tahoe.

Emerald Bay at dawn in South Lake Tahoe
Emerald Bay at dawn

10.  Napa Valley

Napa Valley is Wine Country. Do you need more persuasion? We didn't think so. Book in for a wine tour of the region, which is one of the best ways to savor safely as well as tap into local knowledge of this wonderful wine growing area. Get into the mood the night before by grabbing a bottle opener, your favorite bottle of wine, pop in your copy of Sideways, and you'll be revved up for the party. Just make sure you have room in the RV to store the dozen bottles you pick up along the way!

What Not to Miss

  • Hendry Ranch Wines - Great tasting and a wine tour where you will learn more about wine and grape growing than you thought possible.
  • Pride Mountain Vineyards - The winery, the caves and the location are all just beautiful and a good variety of wines to taste.
  • Schweiger Vineyards - Located 2,000 feet above St. Helena, with great views of the valley. Sit out on the balcony overlooking the vineyards and taste the wine with a plate of appetizers for food paring.

Find campgrounds and RV Parks in the Napa Valley.

Field of Mustard in the Napa Valley
Field of Mustard

The Golden State truly is a vacationer's paradise, with no dearth of attractions and activities to choose from. Have fun driving off into the sunset.

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