Who needs the miles-long lines, steep park fees, and overcrowded trails of Yosemite? Grab your trail mix and hiking boots and high-tail it to these 15 Californian natural wonders instead.
Yosemite National Park is an unreal, one-of-a-kind nature destination that attracts people worldwide. With at least four million visitors each year, reservations can be hard to come by, and crowds are nearly guaranteed. Thankfully there are plenty of California destinations that are less-touristy alternatives to Yosemite but still offer up stunning, unforgettable experiences you’ll remember long after you leave. Here, we share 15 off-the-beaten-path destinations with no selfie sticks in sight.
Starting from the north and heading down south, you can even group a few of these destinations together to create an epic California road trip.
Top Picks for You
Redwood National Park & Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
This coastal forest feels like it’s out of a fairytale with morning ocean fog, mist, ancient redwoods, and rich greenery that serves as a moist sanctuary for wildlife. In Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, visit Fern Canyon for walks completely surrounded by emerald ferns that cling off 50-foot shadowy cliffs with trickling waterfalls.
INSIDER TIPThis greenery served as a set for “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”.
Also, drive through Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway for a 10-mile scenic route along the northern coast and witness old-growth redwood forest among the ocean cliffside. If you are craving waterfalls, head south to Elk Meadow for Trillium Falls coming in at 10-feet. While small, their majestic beauty flows over rocks covered in deep-green moss. Further down into Redwood National Park, you’ll find the world’s tallest tree. Named Hyperion, this Sequoia semperviren in Tall Trees Grove comes in at an enormous 379-feet!
King Range National Conservation Area
This coastal mystery, also known as the Lost Coast, is California’s most extensive remaining stretch of undeveloped shoreline. Known for its isolation, rough roads, an array of wildlife, and raw coast, it’s a bit of a trek to get here. Take the Lost Coast Scenic Drive for an approximately four-hour round trip through Ferndale, winding through forests, small towns, and ocean views to connect back to US 101. You can make stops at black sand beaches, Shelter Cove, lush viewpoints, or hiking trails throughout this drive. Not as well-known or trafficked, this road can get a bit rugged and uneven, but the seemingly untouched coastline makes it worth a trip.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Inland of King Range National Conservation Area, Humboldt Redwoods State Park deserves national park recognition for its impressive 50,000-acres along the Eel River. First, drive the Avenue of the Giants for a 32-mile stretch of towering trees that are some of the tallest in the world plus the most significant remaining old-growth redwood forest in the world (17,000 acres worth). For an even better experience, pull into a parking lot to experience the mystical beauty in Founders Grove, Rockefeller Loop, and Drury-Chaney.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
From a volcanic mountain peak to hydrothermal areas, Lassen Volcanic National Park is full of otherworldly nature and variety from lakes, steam mud pots, waterfalls, lush meadows, and volcanic sands. The landscape here is diverse, from the nearly 3,000 eruptions of Lassen Peak in 1914 to 1917. One of their most famous trails takes you to Lassen Peak to witness up-close one of the largest dome volcanoes in the world. Experience genuine amazement and curiosity of nature at some other must-sees like Sulfur Works, Bumpass Hell, Devil’s Kitchen, and Cinder Cone. Or for less treacherous hikes but still excellent sites, check out Summit Lake Loop or Kings Creek to a waterfall!
INSIDER TIPDixie Fire impacted Lassen Volcanic National Park, and it is closed at this time. Check their website before visiting.
Shasta Trinity National Forest
This moss-covered ribbon-like stream waterfall is the must-see gem of Shasta Trinity National Forest: McArthur-Burney Falls. It is entirely different from any falls in Yosemite; it is lush, bountiful smaller streams stretch wide to make one beautiful, serene fall. Being a uniquely luscious waterfall, Burney Falls gets crowded, so be prepared to go early if you want to avoid others. For other spectacular falls not quite as bountiful as Burney, visit Middle Falls in McCloud River with a similar layout and only about a half-mile mile hike to get there. Or you can also explore Upper and Lower Falls to see all three falls in the same river-bend.
Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais
Right outside San Francisco, Muir Woods is a nature escape for Bay-area residents and nestled at the foot of Mount Tamalpais (2,604 feet tall). Visit Muir Beach Overlook to be greeted by an iconic staircase that leads down to a windy point with sweeping views of the Pacific Coast. Then, to get into the redwood trees, seek trails in Muir Woods to Cathedral Grove and Bohemian Grove along Redwood Creek. Or go a little north to drive or hike to the top of Mount Tamalpais for stunning views over Marin county and into San Francisco. Funnily enough, Muir Woods recognizes John Muir, a 19th-century naturalist who turned Yosemite into a national park. Also worth an honorable mention, go up the coast to visit Point Reyes National Seashore for epic views of the San Francisco coastline.
Tahoe National Forest
Next to the South Yuba River Bridge, the trail will take you to the Emerald Pools in Tahoe National Forest. While this can get crowded during the summer, it’s a local favorite to visit because of its easy access to iconic Tahoe crystal-blue water. If you hike past the pool and cross the river, you can access a beautiful mini gorge among the stripped tan-brown granite. And if you keep exploring, you can find other smaller pools and get some privacy. Finally, for a Yosemite-like waterfall, take a 15-minute walk to Grouse Falls or at least to a viewing deck. When this waterfall gets flowing, you will swear you are in Yosemite.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Home to giant sequoia trees, this grove includes the “Discovery Tree,” the first discovered Sierra redwood to be noted in 1852! For an easy, family-friendly, yet scenic hike, visit the North Grove Trail for a 1.5-mile loop near the park entrance with a well-maintained wood and dirt trail. Or, for more of a challenge, visit the more remote South Grove Trail for a 5-mile hike to get to the park’s most giant Agassiz Tree.
Stanislaus National Forest
Just north of Yosemite, this has a similar terrain of mountain wilderness full of trails, rivers, rafting, swimming holes, and hidden waterfalls. Visit Cleo’s Bath, for a 7.5-mile hike to loop Pinecrest Lake, a popular family camping destination, on your way. Beware, on the last half-mile to Cleo’s Bath, it’s a bit of a scramble up granite rocks, but afterward, you will be rewarded with a flowing waterfall and bath to soak in until your hike back. Next, venture up the 108 for Donnel Vista, a quarter-mile walk to grand views while you experience different vantage points along the path. Bordering Stanislaus National Forest and almost into Yosemite territory is Carlon Falls, a year-round flowing waterfall with a three-mile round trip hike along the Tuolumne River. You can’t get much closer to Yosemite than this (and without the park entrance fee, reservations, or long lines.)
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
Mono Lake is one of the strangest looking nature-creations, as it’s nestled between two volcanic islands filled with limestone carbonate mineral formations. For a closer look, take the accessible South Tufa Loop Trail for an under-a-mile walk to see the uncommon nature design and feel its calming effect. Promise, you most likely haven’t seen anything like it before.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Like Yosemite, the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park site leaves you speechless, searching for words to match the beauty you are witnessing. For your waterfall fix, visit both Pfeiffer Falls and Mcway Falls for easy hikes. McWay Falls is a California waterfall with similar hype as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite National Park. If you haven’t visited this waterfall spill into the ocean yet, it is a must-see. For a crystal-clear swimming hole, visit Big Sur River Gorge for a 1.2-mile trail round trip; somehow, this beauty stays uncrowded compared to other Big Sur sites, with rope swings, large granite rocks, and forest surrounding you, just don’t forget your water shoes. Finally, check out the overlooked coastal Andrew Molera State Park, north of Big Sur and south of Bixby Bridge; the grassy meadows overlook peaceful beaches meeting rivers and even the historical Copper Cabin.
Kings Canyon National Park
Since Kings Canyon National Park is just southeast of Yosemite, it is similar to Yosemite with granite ridges and mountain peaks. Check out Mist Falls, hidden through a lush forest wilderness, Bailey Bridge, and a slight incline. It is similar to the iconic Mist Trail in Yosemite with the granite rock steps leading up to it that are wet from all the waterfall mist, just on a smaller scale. For one of the highest views of untamed landscapes, take the 300-yard walk from the parking area up to Panoramic Point for a view that spans Kings Canyon National Park for a stunning overlook.
Sequoia National Park
Simply driving through Sequoia National Park and pulling over at the many roadside spots is a special look into the park’s natural beauty. But, if you are looking for more adventure, hike Moro Rock for a less dangerous version of Yosemite’s Half Dome. You won’t need a permit or reservation to climb up the steep 350-stair staircase built into the pointy 6,725-foot granite dome with steep drops on both sides. The views are unmatched and completely worth getting over a fear of heights. Speaking of heights, Sequoia is also home to one of the highest mountains in the United States, Mount Whitney which reaches a dramatic14,505-feet. While a chain of mountains blocks views from the park roads, you can take Highway 395 and stop at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center to see it.
Inyo National Forest
Inyo National Forest encompasses what is more well-known as Mammoth. A must-see in this area is Rainbow Falls, a 101-foot fall. Trek four miles through pristine nature and witness a waterfall similar to Mist Falls in Yosemite with an iconic rainbow that shines in the afternoon. Close to the falls, do not miss the stunning rock formation, Devil’s Postpile, that developed from an eruption of basalt lava less than 100,000 years ago! What’s truly special, though, is Inyo National Forest holds the world’s oldest tree, Methuselah, in White Mountains, CA, at 4,852 years old! While its specific location is secret, you can take the Methuselah Trail, 4.2 miles, to see the ancient bristlecone pine forest. You won’t know exactly which one it is, but you will still get to experience all the structures of the grandfather of trees.
Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is a small trek that few take, but those who do will experience an array of land-and-sea wilderness. In less than an hour, a high-speed boat can take you from shore to the closest island, Anacapa Island. After arriving, you will immediately see 154 metal steps that cling to the cliffs. Next, you can take the East Anacapa Island Loop Trail for a two-mile hike, with Inspiration Point being a highlight and arguably the best viewpoint to see the other two islets. Santa Cruz Island is another must, as it contains the largest and deepest sea cave, the Painting Cave. It is along the northwest coast of Santa Cruz Island, named for the colorful algae that cover the walls. If you go during springtime, there’s usually a waterfall that flows down the entrance.