California might just be one of the best-known destinations in the United States, perhaps just after New York City. Attractions like Disneyland, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the beautiful city of San Francisco bring in visitors from around the world. California is also host to some amazing road trip highways, and an almost endless supply of beaches and national parks to explore. We are going to be breaking this Guide to California down by three regions, based on what we’ve explored thoroughly and written about.

Type: State of the United States
Region: North America
Official Languages: English
Population: 39 million (2018)
Capital: Sacramento
Currency: US dollar

Southern California

Southern California might just be the most famous part of this very large state. It is home to Hollywood and Los Angeles, where there are plenty of buildings and landscapes that will be familiar to any lover of US movies. With beaches, deserts, and mountain forests, there are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in Southern California. The region also has a vibrant history for visitors to discover. If you are building an itinerary for this area, this part of our Guide to California will help you discover what will fit your preferences.

Nature

guide to California

Joshua Tree (c) ABR 2018

The natural landscapes of the southern-most part of California are characterized by a varied and unique desert, the rolling hills of the coastal areas, and mountain forests. The National Park system does a wonderful job of highlighting some of the most amazing places to hike, camp, and explore. Joshua Tree National Park is so named for the otherworldly plants that thrive in the valleys near Palm Springs. Death Valley National Park is home to the lowest point in the United States and a landscape so dry and apparently lifeless that it shocked me, a Sonoran desert local.

guide to California

Death Valley (c) ABR 2018

The forests that crown some of the peaks in this region remind me of the Sky Island region in Arizona. In both cases, higher altitudes make the upper reaches of the mountains wetter and greener than the deserts and grasslands below. Closer to home for most people are the rolling, grassy hills of the coastal areas that surround Los Angeles and San Diego. These stretch out to one of my favorite places in the entire world, the California Channel Islands.

In any case, nature lovers from all parts of the world will find things to explore in this fascinating part of the world. My suggestions for most people using this Guide to California would be to explore via the national parks, but California also has a great system of state parks to hike and camp in.

guide to California

(c) ABR 2018

Our Posts on Nature in Southern California:

Escape the City in 5 LA National Parks: Learn more about all of the amazing national park units are relatively close the Los Angeles.

The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip for Hikers and National Park Lovers: The name says it all. This itinerary is for anyone that loves high intensity trips with a mix of nature and history.

Our comprehensive guide to the California Channel Islands can be found here. We have in-depth coverage of the islands of Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and San Nicolas.

NPS Websites:

Channel Islands National Park: One of my favorite places in the whole world! Islands off of the coast of LA where you can hike, kayak, camp, and more. We have a guide devoted to them!

Death Valley National Park: Probably the most stark and otherworldly desert you can visit in the US. Avoid during the summer.

Joshua Tree National Park: You go here to see Joshua Trees, what else? Actually, you can also see lots of neat stone formations and go climbing there too!

Mojave National Preserve: Experience a piece of the Mojave Desert full of unique landscapes.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area: Hiking the wild side of the Los Angeles Area, where the peaks offer you views of the ocean and the city.

For Information on California’s State Parks

History and Culture

guide to California

Balboa Park (c) ABR 2015

California was originally home to an array of indigenous people, who built a vibrant cultural landscape that stretched throughout the varied ecosystems of the state and included many different societies, languages and cultures. Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to explore California, coming up from their colonial home-based in Mexico. They brought Christianity, disease, and began the tragic process that took the land from its original inhabitants. While California doesn’t have quite the Native presence as Arizona, there are still places for visitors to respectfully engage in learning more about indigenous Californians and supporting their people. One good place to do this is Palm Springs, which wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for some forward thinking Native women.

guide to California

Cabrillo National Monument (c) ABR 2013

The Spanish, colonial influence is resounding throughout southern California. In my opinion, one of the best places to experience this is San Diego, in particular, the area surrounding Balboa Park. Of course, to experience the American cultural heartbeat of Southern California, Los Angeles is the place to be. Hollywood, a city full of “Instagrammable” spots, and Disneyland are all attractions that draw in visitors from across the globe.

Our Posts On Culture in Southern California:

Tips for a Unique LA Itinerary: Our insight into some of the famous and not so famous places that you need to visit, and those that we would stay away from.

National Parks for History and Culture:

Cabrillo National Monument: Location where the first European came to US West Coast. This is also a great place to view grey whales from the shore at certain times of the year.

Itineraries

The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip for Hikers and National Park Lovers

Where We’ve Been

guide to california

More Information From Around the Web

Looking for more hikes in the Pasadena area? The Indoorsy Camper has you covered with 6 Delightful Pasadena Hikes to Get You Outdoors.

Planning your first trip to San Fran? Be sure to check out Jen on a Jet Plane’s Fun Things to Do in San Francisco, California for First Time Visitors.

If you are a photographer, Sidecar Photo has a comprehensive, and amazing guide to San Diego that will point you to all the best photography spots.

See our Discover California Pinterest board for tons of travel information on California.

guide to california

guide to california