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With jagged coastlines, soaring waterfalls, towering redwoods, and that all-around glamorous persona, there are more exotic places in California than you might think. When you consider the word “exotic,” your mind probably travels to somewhere like Bali, the Maldives, or a curvaceous Mediterranean coastline. Mine sure does!
The Golden State of California entered the nation in 1850 and features a long history of gold mining, Napa Valley winemaking, surf seeking, and movie making.
Then there’s the amusement park mecca of Orange County, which includes Disneyland Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood, and the ski resorts, mountain climbing, and outdoor adventures of the Santa Monica Mountains, Redwood National Park, and Glacier Point.
The landscape boasts impressive stats of 840 miles of shoreline, a distance of 1,040 miles from snow-capped mountains to sunny San Diego and Balboa Park in Southern California.
It is approximately 560 miles from areas such as Death Valley National Park to the Pacific Ocean, nine national park offerings (including Sequoia National Park and Death Valley National Park), and more than 25 million acres of desert.
Whether your definition of exotic is all about luxury accommodations, historic architecture, and gourmet dining or leans more toward unique landscapes, secluded islands, and natural formations of spherical boulders and purple sand beaches, vacation spots in California run a wide and varied scope.
This list of California vacation spots and cultural attractions dives into the exotic side of the Golden State as we explore a Pacific Coast and California landmarks map filled with colorful, fascinating, and glamorous destinations and places to visit.
Best Exotic Places in California
1. Lake Tahoe
The crystal clear lakes of Tahoe are 1,600 feet deep, one of the deepest in North America, and feature stunning scenery of mountain views whether there are peaks of snow or valleys of wildflowers.
One of the most famous places in California, millions of visitors enjoy hiking, skiing, snowboarding, boating, scuba diving, camping, fishing, and swimming at Sand Harbour Beach and Bliss State Park On a scale of 1-10 of relaxing places in California, it’s a high 10 in our opinion.
Things to do in Lake Tahoe
Emerald Bay State Park
Emerald Bay State Park, on the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe, is a National Natural Landmark due to its stunning mountains.
Visit the 1929 Scandinavian-style Vickingsholm mansion, a national and California landmark, which is open for tours in the summer.
It’s high on our list of favorite places to visit in California. Hike the Rubicon Trail or the Tahoe Rim Trail, journey to the spectacular Eagle Falls waterfall, or dive into the Maritime Heritage Underwater Trail of boats and barges in Emerald Bay.
Lake Tahoe has a wide array of boat launches, slips, and boat tours, along with gas docks and mooring balls. Tahoe Keys Marina is the largest on the lake, and Timber Cove Marina has jet ski, boat, and kayak rentals as well as parasailing, boat moorings, and fuel docks.
Places to Stay in Lake Tahoe
Eagle Point Campground, in Emerald Bay State Park, makes a fun place to pitch a tent if you’re the outdoor type. Black Bear Lodge is a charmingly rustic mountain cabin located near the Gondola at Heavenly Ski Resort.
See Related: Day Trips from San Francisco, California
2. Yosemite National Park
Known for stunning waterfalls and giant sequoias, Yosemite National Park is the best vacation spot in California for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts.
Its Sierra Nevada Mountain location is filled with stunning forests, granite boulders, and sweeping views of El Capitan and Half Dome. The area offers 1,200 square miles of valleys, wilderness, and wildflower meadows for camping, hiking, and sightseeing.
Things to do in Yosemite National Park
The Yosemite Museum
The Yosemite Museum, founded in 1926 and open year-round, is in Yosemite Valley. Visit displays on the heritage of the Ahwahnechee people of the valley and artifacts like Native American baskets and more.
Ansel Adams Gallery
Explore original works of art or purchase photography at the Ansel Adams Gallery.
Places to Stay near Yosemite National Park
The Upper Pines Campground, near the Merced River in Yosemite Valley, is within hiking and biking distance of trails. It’s one of the best places to vacation in California for RV and tent campers.
See Related: Things to Do in Calabasas, California
3. Bowling Ball Beach
Named for the unique spherical “concretions” that lie about on the beach, Bowling Ball Beach is part of Schooner Gulch State Beach.
The “bowling balls” were created from the weathering of the rocks around them. Located in Mendocino in northern California, the area is perfect for picnicking, surfing, fishing, and sunset watching along the Pacific Coast Highway. Just don’t try to pick up those bowling balls rock formations!
Things to do near Bowling Ball Beach
Mendocino Headlands State Park
Mendocino Headlands State Park is a stunning place to visit in California. It has 347 acres of bluffs, beaches, and islets to explore. Hike along trails, the coastline, and the town of Mendocino, or take a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
Point Cabrillo Light Station is a scenic and historic nautical beacon in a stunning natural setting. There’s also a museum and restored buildings on site.
Glass Beach is about 20 minutes north of Mendocino. It’s one of those fun tourist attractions you can visit in California.
Temple of Kwan Tai
The Temple of Kwan Tai is an ornate Chinese temple constructed from local redwood trees in the mid-19th century. Originally home to a population of Chinese lumber workers, it’s now used as a house of worship and an education center.
Places to Stay near Bowling Ball Beach
Chanticleer is an open and inviting rustic cabin setting with an outdoor deck and floor-to-ceiling windows for unobstructed views.
See Related: Things to Do in Guerneville, California
4. Capitola Beach
If you’re dreaming of visiting a quaint Italian village without leaving the mainland, Capitola Beach is one of those hidden gems that will make you feel like you’re stepping into a snapshot of the Italian coastline.
The stunning beach is located at the north end of Monterey Bay and offers trendy shops, art galleries, and cafés as well as outdoor adventures such as stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and, of course, swimming.
Things to do near Capitola Beach
Monterey Bay Aquarium
For fun places to visit, take a road trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, located at Cannery Row. It’s well-known for its marine wildlife and conservation work. Visit habitats with African penguins, sea otters, sharks, sea lions, and more.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf
For shopping and dining, pay a visit to the popular Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
Natural Bridges State Park
The 65-acre Natural Bridges State Park is a fun California park when it comes to places to visit. It has a unique natural rock formation (a bridge, if you will) across part of the beach.
Places to Stay near Capitola Beach
Portola Hotel and Spa, near Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row, has an on-site restaurant, swimming pool, and inviting public spaces in a convenient location.
Find affordable rental cars at Kayak to enjoy a scenic drive across California.
See Related: Things to Do in Blythe, California
5. Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore, in Marin County in Northern California, is about 60 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s a protected coastline of stunning landscapes filled with crashing ocean waves, wide sandy beaches, grasslands, and forests. Go fishing, hike the jagged cliffs of Chimney Rock, or check out the local plants, tide pools, and wildlife such as elephant seals, salmon, and elk.
Things to do in Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes Lighthouse
Phillip Burton Wilderness
Explore hiking trails through grasslands, pines, and fir forests or traverse Mount Wittenberg
Places to Stay near Point Reyes National Seashore
If you’re of the outdoorsy type, you can give camping a try at Point Reyes. Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore, in nearby Inverness, have grilling facilities, an outdoor pool, and a garden. Some rooms have a kitchenette, which makes meal prep convenient after a day of exploring.
For a vacation home that feels like your own, Highland House Inverness is located within Point Reyes National Park. It has three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a patio with views of the lake. Bring along the whole crew.
See Related: Things to Do in San Jose, California
6. Big Sur
Bermuda’s pink sand and Hawaii’s black and green sand are all well and nice. But if you want to get really exotic, it’s all about the purple sand in California.
Big Sur, one of the top destinations in California, is home to the purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach. The unique color comes from the erosion of manganese garnet in the hills that are washed down to the beach. Don’t miss Keyhole Rock, a rock formation with a unique, well, “keyhole,” cutout.
Big Sur is located between the towns of Carmel and San Simeon and the natural formations of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The rugged coastline features winding curves, cliffs, and seaside views of the Pacific Coast Highway. And, of course, that amazing purple sand.
Things to do in Big Sur
Andrew Molera State Park
Bixby Creek Bridge
Leave your fear of heights at home as you take a road trip across the 280-foot-tall Bixby Creek Bridge. As seen in the opening credits of the television series Big Little Lies (starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and many more), the bridge towers over the California coast and the Pacific Ocean.
Places to Stay in Big Sur
Big Sur River Inn sits along the Big Sur River and has an on-site restaurant and a swimming pool in a scenic and secluded natural setting.
See Related: Things to Do in Visalia, California
7. Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach, between San Francisco and Los Angeles (and south of San Simeon and Hearst Castle), is a classic small coastal city beach town. Channel your inner surfer among the waves and sand dunes of this central coastal location. It’s known as the Clam Capital of the World, so be sure to pack your clam-digging duds with your board shorts.
Things to do in Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterfly Grove
Tens of thousands of monarch butterflies migrate annually. From October to February, they can be seen in the eucalyptus and cypress trees all around the area.
Pismo State Beach
Pismo State Beach has 17 miles of dunes and beaches for surfing, swimming, fishing, bird watching, and of course, clam digging.
Places to Stay in Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach Hotel is conveniently located in downtown Pismo Beach about a block from the Pismo Beach Pier, making it one of the most convenient places to visit.
See more great hotels close to Pismo Beach with Booking.com and get the best deals.
See Related: Things to Do in Santa Ana, California
8. Joshua Tree National Park
With 800,000 acres, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most famous places in California for nature lovers. Not just an exotic location, it’s almost otherworldly with its uniquely shaped twisted-limb Joshua trees, as well as cactus plants and tropical palm trees.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
Lost Horse Mine
Visit Lost Horse Mine to learn about gold mining history and the California Gold Rush of 1849.
Ryan Mountain, at 5,461 feet, is the tallest in Joshua Tree National Park and the place to go for the most amazing views and golden-hour sunsets.
Fan Palm Oases
After you’ve gawked at the Joshua trees a while, go tropical in the middle of the desert at Fan Palm Oases, a grove of shady desert fan palm trees (they can get up to 75 feet tall).
Explore skull-like rock formations at the appropriately named Skull Rock.
Places to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park
Visitors at Joshua Tree National Park can go camping by reservation at Black Rock, Cottonwood, and Jumbo Rocks as well as on a first-come-first-served basis at campsites at Hidden Valley, Belle Campgrounds, or White Tank.
Nearby Palm Springs, in the Sonoran Desert, offers a variety of accommodations, some with the added benefits of hot mineral springs and spas.
Mineral Springs Resort and Spa, backed by dusky desert hues, has a restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining, eight natural mineral water pools, and a full-service European spa. If you’re looking for travel insurance, World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance.
See Related: Things to Do in Los Angeles, California
9. Avalon on Santa Catalina Island
Channel your inner Grace Kelly among Avalon’s palm trees and Mediterranean-inspired ambiance. Part of an eight-island archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, Santa Catalina Island offers California fun in a secluded island location.
It’s only accessible by boat, which really ups the exotic factor and makes it one of our favorite places to visit. At 75 square miles in size, Santa Catalina Island is known for diving, wildlife, and Mt. Orizaba.
Things to do in Avalon
Zip Line Eco Tour
Fly high over Descanso Canyon and 600 feet over Descanso Beach Club on a Zip Line Eco Tour. You’ll soar over eucalyptus trees and learn about flowers and wildlife only found on Catalina Island. The zip line ends at the Descanso Beach Club. Descanso Beach Club has cabanas, a casino, a private beach, and a restaurant.
Places to Stay in Avalon
The 1920s Hotel Atwater, near the Descanso Beach Club (to which guests get free access), has contemporary rooms in a historic setting.
See Related: Things to do in Vista, California
The Solvang Danish village is in the Santa Ynez Valley between the San Rafael Mountains and the Santa Ynez Mountains and is about 40 minutes from Santa Barbara. Founded in 1911 by Dutch teachers, the town honors Danish culture and literary author Hans Christian Andersen.
Known as the “Danish Capital of America” (it’s sometimes called Little Denmark), there are windmills, Danish bakeries, a Little Mermaid fountain, a Hans Christian Andersen statue, art galleries, and decorative storks on rooftops (meant for good luck).
For the diverse culture alone, this is a wonderful place to visit in California.
Things to do in Solvang
Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum
The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum has classic American, European, and Japanese motorcycles.
Hans Christian Andersen Museum
Though quite small, the Hans Christian Andersen Museum is essential for literary fans. It holds highlights of his life and work.
Old Mission Santa Ines Church
Enjoy historic architecture and views of the Santa Ynez River Valley, and mountain ranges at the Old Mission Santa Ines Church.
Places to Stay in Solvang
King Frederik Inn is within close proximity to everything in the area, including golf courses and boating and fishing at Lake Cachuma. Hotel Corque is a boutique hotel with a restaurant, a pool, and a hot tub. It’s near Santa Barbara wine country and Chumash Casino.
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Sandy is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her specialties range from hotels, dining, beaches, and yacht charters to theme parks, urban settings, mountain getaways, and other fun spots. She loves Nashville, Las Vegas, and Williamsburg, Virginia – but you’re most likely to find her on the beach. In addition to ViaTravelers, her work appears at AFAR, PierShare, Cozymeal, and more.