California is known for it’s beautiful cities, San Francisco, LA, and San Diego. It’s also known for it’s theme parks – Disney, Universal, Sea World, Six Flags – where you can get your thrills on adventure rides. However, I don’t like my adventures manufactured, I want the real thing. So I went in search of real California adventures outside of those big cities. I discovered 8 authentic California adventures in regions that few tourists travel to. Some of these are soft adventure and some a bit more adrenaline focused, but all are do-able by anyone. So forget those theme park tickets and try these California adventures!
Table of Contents
1. Transform into Spiderman and Climb a Slab in the High Sierras
If you dream of being a super hero, Horseshoe slabs in the High Sierras Region may be your chance to live your dream! I was familiar with beginning rock climbing, but I learned slab climbing is a bit different. “Slabs climbing is delicate, and it’s a lot of footwork. You have to rely on your feet. There are not many handholds – it’s all about your feet and the ‘magic shoes’. Most of what you are grabbing onto is friction; sticking your hands on the wall and hoping. The harder it gets, the fewer holds you have – so at a point you are just stepping your feet up…like spider man,” my guide Ferris explained to me.
I listened with mouth agape wondering how in the world I was going to do this. I’m not a climber and I’m afraid of heights. So why was I doing this you ask? Well, I like a challenge, and I think you should try everything once. Plus, there were those magic shoes…
And of course after this experience, I felt on top of the world having conquered my fear of heights and trying out what I thought was impossible – becoming Spider Man.
Where: Horseshoe Lake. Hike around the lake on the trail and you’ll go by the horseshoe slabs on the south side. There you’ll find a range of beginner to intermediate single-pitch bolted sport climbing routes; great for teaching and learning!
Details: Sierra Mountain Center offers beginner classes
2. Hiking on Unstable Ground in Shasta Cascade
The Shasta Cascade region is home to Lassen Volcanic National Park with towering volcanoes, steaming clouds of volcanic gases, and alpine ranges that you’ll find no where else in California. Lassen is one of the national parks often overshadowed by the more popular Yosemite National Park, which is also nearby. But I wanted a real adventure that took me away from all the people and got me connected to the landscape so I headed to Lassen. Lassen Volcanic National Park is the largest hydrothermal system west of Yellowstone National Park.
There are a number of hikes you can do in the area that take you to the top of active volcanoes but I started with the hike to Bumpass Hell. The trail leads me to geothermal pools where I watched the earth literally boil beneath me. And the story behind the name is just as exciting, and a big tragic. Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, a prospector, hiked to the area and he actually broke through the crust and burned his leg so badly that it had to be amputated! He was said to have remarked that “The descent to Hell is easy”, referring to how easy it was to break through this landscape. But it’s no longer easy because the Park Service has created boardwalks where you can walk on top of steaming, bubbling, and boiling pools and fumaroles that reach temperatures as high as 322F!
Where: Lassen Volcanoes National Park
Details: You obviously have to pay a fee to get in the park. On average, it opens by Fourth of July weekend each summer, however actual opening dates vary with each year’s snow pack. For more information about Bumpass Hell trail status and conditions, contact the visitor center. The out-and-back hike is 2.6 miles and is relatively easy taking you through pine forests and eventually down to the fumaroles.
Looking for more Unique Places to Visit in California?
3. Do Donuts in a Dune Buggy on the Central Coast
We veered just a few miles off of California Highway 1 at Pismo Beach and kept driving west. We didn’t stop until we got all the way to the breaking waves, because Oceano Dunes is the only California State Park where vehicles may be driven on the beach! But we didn’t stop there, we went deep into the sand and rented our own dune buggies to take on the 1,500 acres of dunes at this one of a kind beach playground!
We met our guide, watched a safety video and then proceeded to the beach rental area at the start of the dunes. There we got acquainted with the buggies and suited up in our helmets and goggles; this was serious stuff. I did my best Dukes of Hazzard entry into the dune buggy and took off as if I were in the General Lee. We followed a guide, but normally you are on your own and go anywhere you want. I personally loved having the guide at first as it took a while to get used to navigating the hills with no real points of reference but sand everywhere! The buggies are close to the ground and very stable, no matter what you do you really won’t tip – and trust me – I tried! It’s rare that you can just go out and play in the sand dunes like this, which is why it’s such a unique adventure!
Where: Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area at Pismo Beach
Details: Sun Buggy Fun Rentals – Our guide told us that mornings are best as the winds tend to pick up a lot in the afternoons. You can rent 1 seat to 8 seat buggies for 2 to 4 hours at a time.
4. Get a White Water Soaking While Rafting in Gold Country
When it hits me for the first time it was shocking; my chest tightened and my first reaction was to scream, but that’s why I went white water rafting, to have a wet, wild adventure. The historic American River in Gold Country is not only where prospectors first found gold, but it’s also home to some of the best rapids in California!
It was a short drive from Sacramento through rolling hills and we were in the heart of Gold Country. We arrived at OARS on a cloudy day and they got us suited up with some extra warm gear. Our bubbly guides drove us and the rafts to a put-in point, gave us our paddling instructions, and soon we were floating down river following the instructions of our guide. The chorus of screams came quickly as we started through the Class III rapids, and soon we were all drenched and full of smiles. We did the half-day trip finishing in the cute, historic gold town of Coloma. However, OARS offers full day and 2 days trips on the South Fork of the American River including camping and other outdoor activities. You might even want to try your hand at gold panning.
Where: South Fork of the American River near Coloma California
Details: OARS River Rafting is one of the best rafting operators around. They run trips on the South Fork from April – September
5. Paddle into the Sunset in the Central Valley
There was complete quiet; I had paddled away from the rest of the group. The sky was turning pink and I stared into the wispy clouds. A flock of birds flew through my field of view soaring and turning together perfectly orchestrated as if they were one. Amidst all of this peaceful meditation it’s hard to believe that just an hour’s drive away was San Francisco. The Central Valley region skirts the main metropolitan areas of San Francisco and Sacramento; however, it doesn’t take long to suddenly be out in the middle the Delta that is the beginning of the famous San Francisco Bay. This area is known for water; five rivers flow into the Delta, accounting for nearly half of the snowmelt and runoff of the entire state.
The paddling was pretty chill, thanks to little wind that evening. We paddled back into the Dow Wetland Preserve, a 472-acre tidal wetlands conservation area, a fun area to explore and see wildlife. The little inlets bordered by reeds kept getting smaller and smaller until eventually we had to turn around and head back. As we paddled out of the inlets the whole sky turned pink and gold and the sun dipped below the reeds. The paddling options are endless in this region and there’s a different colorful sunset every night!
Where: Antioch in the California Delta – however they often launch from various locations throughout the Delta region to take advantage of the best tides for optimal paddling conditions.
Details: Delta Kayak Adventures – talk to Kathy about her various paddling options including the sunset paddle. Kathy also offers stand up paddle boarding options.
6. Soar Above Tree Tops in the Inland Empire
You know an adventure is great when you are reducing to giggling so hard you cry. I’ve been ziplining before in various countries, and quite frankly it’s never been a favorite adventure activity of mine. So when we arrived at Wrightwood, and suited up at Pacific Crest Ziplines I was mildly excited. It didn’t take long though to figure out why this Inland Empire Region’s zipline course was different than all the rest I had done – we were at 7000 feet in elevation, soaring 300 feet above the trees, zip lengths of over 1,500 feet, and reaching speeds of 55 mph. It was a thrill!
It wasn’t simply ziplining, it also included 2 repels and 2 skybridges. We learned about the region, environment, how to survive and eat white fir needles, and how to do self rescues on the zipline! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much while hanging out hundreds of feet above the ground in trees! Partially because it was a phenomenal course full of speed – and also because of the great people I was with, including our fun-loving guides that made the experience one of the best one day adventures I’ve ever had.
Where: Wrightwood, CA in the heart of the San Gabriel Mountains
Details: Ziplines at Pacific Crest – we did the ½ day canopy tour, however there are multiple options. They offer the tours year around…imagine zipping above the snow covered trees!
7. Be Encircled by Stars in the High Desert
I was most excited to visit this geologic wonder in the middle of California’s High Desert Region, Trona Pinnacles is an adventure to get to and experience. The 500 tufa spires of rock rise from the bed of the Searles Dry Lake basin. Formed underwater between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago, some of these spires reach to more than 140 feet. The Pinnacles are set off the main road; it’s a 5 mile dirt road that can be a bit treacherous to navigate, but it’s worth it!
Before the sun went down, we arrived at the Trona Pinnacles in time to hike around some of the spires. We watched as the whole landscape turned pink and the sun descended behind the spires. Immediately we started to put on layers as when the sun goes down in the desert the temperatures drop drastically. We prepared for the big Milky Way ‘light show’ to appear and set up tripods and cameras because the star gazing here is phenomenal. The wind picked up, but we braved the elements to be surrounded by millions of stars in this unique landscape. For the truly adventurous, bring camping gear and camp out among the pinnacles for a unique experience.
Where: Trona Pinnacles 20 miles outside or Ridgecrest in California’s Desert Region
Details: Anyone can visit/camp at Trona Pinnacles, but be sure to be prepared for the temperatures and bring lots of water. More information about camping regulations can be found at the BLM Website
8. Go Forest Bathing on the North Coast
I swear the Redwoods speak. At least I feel that they speak to me as I walk among them. They say, “Slow down, listen, breath, and hug me.” Yes I’ve turned hippy adventurer on you, but that’s what those big beautiful trees do to me on the North Coast, the get me in touch with calm – something I rarely have in my life.
Hiking among these giants is an environment adventure. Some people call it forest bathing, I simply like to call it a hike among the trees – it doesn’t matter what you call it, you will be in awe of the size and age of the redwoods. There are a number of trails to hike in Redwoods National Park – we started at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center and hiked the Revelation Trail. As we hiked along the trail we touched the rough bark of a redwood and then compared it to the soft feel of a moss-covered fir or spruce. Rippling creeks run throughout which provided a soft murmur in the background. My favorite part was taking in a big breath and just enjoying the smell of the forest. I loved it so much I couldn’t help but hug these big, old trees and whisper a “thank you” to them for taking me on a sensory adventure.
Where: Redwoods National Park Prairie Creek Visitor Center or Founders’ Grove in Humboldt County along Avenue of the Giants
Details: Hiking trail information in Redwoods National Park or another super option for a Redwoods adventure is to hike around Founders’ Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Here you’ll see a different landscape of trees and a number of them that have fallen down. It’s fascinating to see how they crash land.
I was a guest of Visit California for a #CaliforniaWild project during my time in California.