If you are looking for thrilling experiences, love outdoor activities, then be ready for an exciting California Adventure! With a long coastline, snow-covered mountains, and ten national parks, the “Golden State” is the perfect playground for fantastic challenges. Pick your next trip among one of these adventurous things to do in California! We put together this guide of adventures and outdoor activities split between Southern and Northern California, covering from thrilling water sports to stunning mountain adventures, both in summer and winter.
With 15 years of calling California home, we wanted to share our experiences living in the State through our California blog posts, even Pacific Coast or US West Coast itinerary suggestions.
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Adventurous Things to Do In California
Whether you are in North or South California, the coastal State has plenty to offer. So regardless of where you want to start your California trip, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be fantastic decisions.
Seasons will impact the type of activities, but you are sure to have fun all year round. But the weather will, for sure, make some destinations more challenging. So check what you want to do and when, and come prepared.
California is such a vast state that we divided this post into two parts: Adventures in Northern California and Adventures in Southern California. There we list outdoor activities that be done in both summer and winter. Now, you need to read and start planning your next trip!
Top 10 Things to Do in California
So with so many options, we wanted to share our personal choices for top fun things to do in California:
- Trek in the Sierra Nevada mountains
- Kayak under the Golden Gate Bridge
- Bike in the Napa Valley
- Kitesurf in Sherman Island
- Drive along the Pacific Highway Coast from Santa Barbara to Monterey
- Watch the Elephant Seals in Ano Nuevo
- Surf in Malibu
- Camping in the Mojave Desert
- Snowboard around Lake Tahoe
- Go horseback riding in the Central Valley
But there are way more things to do and try, so we broke down outdoor activities between Northern and Southern California. Indeed, most people will most likely start a trip from either San Francisco or San Jose in the northern part of the State, or San Diego or Los Angeles for the southern area.
Best Things to Do in Northern California
Top Summer Activities in Northern California
While each of the activities below can be done in several locations, here is our list of the top summer activities in Northern California. But make sure to read further below as we list other areas that can let you experience them elsewhere.
- Surfing around San Francisco
- Biking in Napa Valley
- Trekking in the Sierra Nevada mountains range
- Kayaking in Lake Tahoe
- Kitesurfing in the Bay Area
- Diving in Monterey Bay
- Sailing in San Francisco Bay
- White-water rafting
Trekking in Northern California
The fact that California has more National Parks than any other US State says it all. With over 10 National Parks and Recreational Areas, and 14 National Forests, Northern California is a hiker’s paradise. From day hikes to multi-day trekking adventures, endless trails await, with a wide variety of levels and landscapes.
The most popular hiking area in the Sierra Nevada mountains, especially around Lake Tahoe. Among the top trails are the 195-miles (314-km) Sierra High Route, and John Muir Trail (JMT). There are trails for all fitness levels and duration as well.
Among our favorite hiking areas are the Shasta-Trinity and Whiskeytown regions with a fewer crowd than in the Sierra Nevada, Point Reyes and Muir Woods National Parks close to San Francisco, Yosemite National Park valley and Tuolumne Meadows, and Lassen National Park for its volcanic environment.
Kayaking in Northern California
Like Lake Tahoe and its famous Emerald Bay and Lake Almanor and Mono Lake, several lakes are fantastic for a relaxing kayak experience. Those looking for more exciting kayaking experiences can go sea kayaking along the Mendocino Coast searching for sea caves, at the Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing for birdwatching, or Point Reyes Tomales Bay for its night bio-luminescence kayak tours. Monterey Bay offers incredible yet challenging coastal kayaking.
Northern California Kiteboarding
Kiteboarding is another popular water sport in California. The San Francisco Bay Area offers several great kiteboarding spots, but areas further inland and along the coast are worth considering as well. San Mateo Third Avenue is one of the most popular spots, with San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge the most iconic. Sherman Island, which is one of our preferred kiteboarding spots in the Bay Area, has constant, strong winds in the summer. The Waddell ocean spot is a favorite for expert wave riders.
Scuba-Diving in Northern California
Several diving spots are available in NorthCal, especially around Monterey, where divers can explore the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and the Lover’s Point State Marine Reserve. Off the coast of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands are great sites for whales but also sharks.
Sailing in San Francisco Bay
One cannot visit San Francisco and not experience the thrill of a boat ride across the bay! Bay Area ferries are probably the easiest to board and can take you to Sausalito or Oakland, even with your bike. Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge is a memorable experience, and you can also learn to sail.
From the Elephant seals at the Año Nuevo State Park all year round, the migrations of the Blue and Humpback Whales, Black Bears in the Sierra Nevada mountains around Yosemite National Park, or even Bobcats (Lynx), Tule Elks at the Point Reyes National Seashore, or birdwatching at the Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, wildlife watching opportunities abound!
White-Water Rafting in Northern California
Thanks to the snowy conditions on the winters in the Sierra Nevadas and other California mountain ranges, the melting snow provides excellent white-water rafting opportunities come spring. The most popular rivers for rafting in Northern California are the Klamath, Merced, Sacramento, American, and Trinity Rivers.
Horseback Riding in Northern California
If you are not a fan of hiking but still want to explore the Sierra Nevada mountains, consider horseback riding.
Surfing in Northern California
The California coastline abounds with surfing spots, several of which an hour away from San Francisco. The Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay waves are infamous, while Pacifica and Ocean Beach are suitable for intermediate surfers. The water is usually much colder than in SouthCal, and there have been a couple of Great White shark attacks. Talk to local surfers and authorities for the latest update.
Biking in Northern California
Endless roads await, and it’s hard to narrow it down to a few selected options. But in our mind, a couple of top biking experiences in Northern California would include a Napa Valley bike ride combined with wine tasting, the 18-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, and the 32-mile American River Trail from Sacramento.
The Lake Tahoe area has bike trails with a choice of distance and difficulties.
One iconic bike ride takes you over the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, from Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito.
Fun Winter Activities in Northern California
The Sierra Nevada, especially around Lake Tahoe, features about ten ski resorts. So winter fun in Lake Tahoe includes prime downhill skiing. But you can also go snowshoeing, snow camping, and even snowkiting almost anywhere there is snow in winter (and wind!).
Fun Things to Do in Southern California
Unique Things to Do in Southern California
The weather is usually warmer in that part of the State, so these fun things to do in SoCal are more accessible throughout the year. Among all the various adventurous things to do in Southern California, we think these are unique activities. But make sure to check the other cool things you can do while visiting the region.
- La Jolla Kayaking
- Hike in Joshua Tree
- Surfing in San Diego
- Camp in the Mojave Desert
- Check the giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park
- Hike of one of the numerous amazing trails of Sequoia National Park or Kings Canyon National Park
- Drive along the Pacific Highway 1
- Hike the dunes of the Mojave Desert
Surfing in Southern California
The mecca of South California surfing is around San Diego. Still, you are sure to find other excellent surfing beaches like Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside, and Morro Bay north of San Diego, and of course, Malibu in Los Angeles.
Huntington Beach is probably one of the most iconic Southern California surfing spots!
- Santa Barbara Surfing Lesson
- Price: $102.70
- Private Surfing Lesson in Venice Beach
- Price: $89.00
Biking in Southern California
Choices go from an urban bike ride like the San Diego Bayshore Bikeride, add wine tasting in the Santa Barbara area, or go for more challenging trails like the 22-mile Los Angeles Strand, or Palomar Mountain by San Diego.
Joshua National Park offers nice bicycling options as well.
Hiking in Southern California
The Sierra Nevada range offers incredible hiking and trekking experiences. One of the most challenging would the climbing 14,494' (4418 meters) Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the "lower 48" states. But trails for all fitness levels and durations await in the many national parks and reserves in SouthCal. From Sequoia National Park and its giant redwood trees and alpine scenery, Joshua Tree's spiky Cholla Cactuses, Channel Islands National Park's rugged trails, and the dunes of the Mojave Desert. Close to Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Mountains are worth checking. While there, hike to the famous Hollywood Sign as one of the fun things to do in Los Angeles.
Kayaking in Southern California
With such a long coastline, the opportunity for sea kayaking, like around the Channel Islands National Park, to see the rock formations or go on a La Jolla kayaking trip to see the hidden caves is pretty awesome. If you prefer to avoid any tides, head to the mountains for kayaking any of the Mammoth Lakes (June Lake, Lake Mary, and Lake George).
Kiteboarding in Southern California
Another benefit of such a coastline is to kitesurf in places like Santa Barbara East Beach and San Diego Mission Bay. In Los Angeles, check Belmont Shores, Sunset Beach, and Long Beach. Other options are Manhattan Beach and Rat Beach in Torrance. Some spots are appropriate for beginners, while others should be reserved for advanced riders and even expert-only, like Cabrillo and Huntington Beach.
Scuba-Diving in Southern California
Search for leopard sharks around San Diego La Jolla Cove, octopuses in the Point Vicente State Marine Reserve by Laguna Beach, or go to San Diego Wreck Alley for wreck diving the Yukon, the most famous shipwreck in California. Other dive alternatives include Santa Cruz Island and Avalon Underwater Dive Park in the Channel Islands National Park.
Southern California White-Water Rafting
White-rather enthusiasts might want to consider Northern California as the region has several rivers to choose from. But the Kern River is still a good option when in Southern California.
Winter Sports in SoCal
An activity best done in Northern California, thanks to its ten ski resorts around Lake Tahoe, snowboarding and skiing, is still possible in Mammoth Lakes.
California Travel Tips for the Adventurous Travelers
- California is a huge state, so choose your activities and destinations carefully to avoid driving around unnecessarily
- The weather in California is not what you see on TV - it's not all swimsuits and flip-flops. Summers in San Francisco Bay Area can be cold and windy due to the Pacific Ocean fog that rolls in. One hour drive can mean a drastic change of temperatures. Always carry warm clothes with you, including a wind jacket and closed-toe shoes.
- There is no proper division line between Northern and Southern California. Depending on who you talk to, which map you look at, the line varies a lot. Even more so if you consider the area defined as Central California (sometimes referred to as the Central Valley), which stretches parallel to the Pacific Ocean coast and overlaps on both the north and south parts of the state. The Northern part of California starts from the Oregon borders, includes San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and down to the south of Sequoia National Park and Fresno. The Southern section starts from the border with Mexico and covers San Diego, Los Angels, up to San Luis Obispo. A rough line would be between Fresno and San Luis Obispo.
- Watch that many parks have wilderness areas, which are best reserved for experienced adventurous due to the lack of amenities and services, meaning you need to be properly equipped and know how to manage on your own.
- Water sports aficionados should check tides and weather conditions. Remember that the Pacific Ocean is usually cold, with temperatures ranging from around 52°F (11°C) in Northern California to 68°F (20°C) in the south in the summer months.
Which outdoor activity or cool adventure did we miss? Have you tried any of the activities we mentioned? We would love to hear from you so please don't forget to write a comment!
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