by Dan Ketchum
California isn’t just the worldwide capital of filmmaking or the homeland of plastic surgeons — the Golden State is 770 miles of ecological diversity that can seem downright otherworldly at times. And that diversity isn’t just for cinematographers; these spirit-lifting, local-approved views of the most beautiful places in California are just begging to be seen through your own two eyes (or the four camera lenses of your new phone).
Time to lace up your hiking boots, grab your Mistifi Pen and meditate on these mountaintops. And beaches. And dunes. And vineyards. You get the idea.
1. Bixby Bridge (Big Sur)
No Top 10 list of the most beautiful places in California is complete without Big Sur, which is so wholly photogenic that your camera won’t know what hit it. The centerpiece of Big Sur’s stunning views has to be Bixby Bridge, which Visit California dubs “probably the most Instagrammed feature along the Highway 1 coastline.” Just about any turnout along the way offers mind-blowing views of the waves dramatically crashing against the cliff sides of the California coast. Pro Tip: While you’re there, check out Pfeiffer Beach. It is a little bit off the beaten path, but is well worth the extra stop.
The Shot: Point your eyes toward the south end of the bridge at sunset for the real good stuff.
2. Zabriskie Point (Death Valley)
All those sandy beaches and snowy mountains may tempt you to skip out on California’s deserts, but Zabriskie Point in Death Valley is not to be missed. Found along the easterly part of the Amargosa Range in Death Valley National Park, millions of years of erosion has crafted a striped, swirling, intensely layered stretch of mountains that can only be described as not-of-this-Earth. Just be sure to hydrate while you’re there.
The Shot: Literally anywhere. If you’ve found Zabriskie Point, you’ve already found the ultimate backdrop.
3. Livermore Valley Wine Country (Livermore Valley)
You can’t do California without wine, and this under-the-radar town roughly 45 minutes northeast of San Jose hits the spot. Apart from the many tasting rooms, you’ll find views of rolling hills, green fields and vineyards with a pictorial, pastoral vibe that’s somewhere between the English countryside and Hobbiton.
The Shot: Eat up the very best views of Livermore at the Brushy Peak Regional Preserve.
4. Tioga Pass (Yosemite)
This one’s for the road-trippers. We all know Yosemite is teeming with mountainous, pine-speckled views, and there’s no better way to take them in than by popping off of Highway 395 to the seasonal Highway 120, dubbed “Tioga Pass” by Californians. Be prepared for a Sunday drive, as you’ll be pulling over on countless shoulders to take in north Yosemite’s snow-capped High Sierras, which are the only thing taller than its awesome pines.
The Shot: Pull over at Tioga Lake to get that glassy water with Mt. Dana in the background.
5. The Three Waterfalls at McCloud River (McCloud)
There’s no shortage of waterfalls throughout California, but the trio at McCloud River somehow manages to be supremely picturesque while being low-key. Follow this beautifully maintained trail through a basalt lava rock canyon to witness the lower, middle and upper falls along the way. While it’s an all-seasons trip, the autumn colors just can’t be beat.
The Shot: Stop at the Middle Falls Overlook and Upper Falls Overlook for the best views.
6. Abbotts Lagoon (Point Reyes)
Not every worthwhile view in California is going to resemble the scenes in an Ansel Adams photograph, and Abbotts Lagoon proves it. Take the breezy hike from the lagoon to Piece Point Road to be greeted with the Technicolor combo of green clover fields, aquamarine water and peachy dunes. If that’s a little too mellow for you, you can still get those Ansel Adams vibes just beyond the lagoon at the 10-Mile Beach, complete with intense waves and wild rock formations.
The Shot: Abbotts Lagoon Trailhead makes for the perfect photo op and the perfect picnic backdrop, too.
7. Emerald Bay (Lake Tahoe)
When you think of California, there’s a pretty good chance you think of seaside coastlines, but the state’s lakes are absolute stunners, too. And perhaps no lake view is more stunning than that of Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, which Mark Twain once called “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Found in Emerald Bay State Park, this pine-rimmed inlet shines in a shade of dazzling blue you never even knew existed.
The Shot: Take your pick from Emerald Bay Overlook, Eagle Falls Trail or Inspiration Point to suit your mood.
8. Burney Falls (Burney)
Speaking of unbelievably deep topaz hues and weighty historical quotes, Teddy Roosevelt famously called Burney’s 129-foot waterfalls “the eighth wonder of the world” (and that guy definitely knew a thing or two about natural views). Though not the biggest falls in California, the Burney Falls still pump out a staggering 100 million gallons of fresh water every day.
The Shot: You can’t miss the falls right off the main parking lot at the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.
9. Palm Canyon (Palm Springs)
Some of the most beautiful places in California are its spectacular canyons, and the system of Andreas Canyon, Murray Canyon and Palm Canyon are among the most unique in the state. Head to the south end of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation to find the requisite regal rocks pointing toward painted skies, but it’s the palm groves peppering the canyons (currently regrowing after a January 2020 fire) that give this one a truly unique flavor.
The Shot: You’ll be surrounded by canyon views on all sides, but definitely capture those photogenic pines at the bottom of the Borrego Palm Canyon trail.
10. Rim of the World (Inland Empire)
Heading east from LA, Orange County or San Diego, there’s a 110-mile-long stretch of roadway known as the Rim of the World Scenic Byway, where the cliffs of the San Bernardino Mountains make for an unforgettable drive all the way to Big Bear Lake.
The Shot: Get portrait mode ready to go for the shoulder just off State Highway 138 — the Silverwood Lake Overlook will fill your life with more sparkles than 100 bathtubs full of glitter.
Dan Ketchum is an LA-based freelance lifestyle, fashion and food writer with a decade of experience. A former mixologist, he’s been fortunate enough to collaborate and publish with companies such as FOCL, Vitagenne, Reign Together, Out East Rose, SFGate, The Seattle Times and more.
Visit California – 10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips
Visit San Jose California – 15 Places to See in Northern California
Visit California – Road Trip: Inland Empire’s Rim of the World
Visit California – Bixby Bridge
Mount Shasta Trail Association – McCloud River’s Three Waterfalls
Indian Canyons Palm Springs – Home
The San Diego Tribune – Loss of Borrego Palm Canyon Grove a Temporary Setback
California State Parks – Emerald Bay State Park (Map)