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Lifeguard cabin at sunset on Santa Monica beach

7 new experiences in California

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Outdoor activities

California is the USA’s most-visited state, a land of vast national parks, major cities, and a coastline rich in marine life. Whether you’re interested in Hollywood glamour or sea kelp, wish to explore by kayak or electric bicycle, or want to compare the size of skyscrapers to the height of sequoia trees, the Golden State has something to match most interests.

We’ve recently tried and tested a range of new experiences that will enhance your trip —everything from kayaking among seals and dolphins to walking through giant sequoia groves.

Walk among giant sequoias with a forest
guide by Beth

California contains some of the world’s tallest and oldest trees. Just south of Yosemite National Park, you can explore a grove of giant sequoias over 61 m (200 ft) high. They’ve stood in the same spot for millennia.

I was picked up from my lodge by my guide, Chase, and driven for around 40 minutes in an open 4x4 to Nelder Grove. The road was bumpy and the vehicle dusty, but this added to the thrill of the experience as we headed deeper into forest. 

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park

Though far less-visited than Mariposa Grove, Nelder’s giant sequoias are just as impressive. Chase waxed lyrical about the forests’ ecosystem and its inhabitants, which include mule deer, squirrels and chipmunks.

Following a loop trail, we strolled for around 40 minutes between red trunks up to 4 m (13 ft) in diameter. They were spongey to the touch. I was so awed by the trees’ size, I found myself reaching for my camera every few steps. Meanwhile, Chase told me about everything we encountered as we walked, such as the large cones shed by sugar pines. Then he identified bear droppings, indicating that black bears had trodden the same path not long before.

Hike the Hollywood Hills by Alex

While you can join this 6.4 km (4 mile) guided hike at sunset, I headed out in the morning, before the heat rose. In the hills, you quickly forget that you’re in the heart of one of the USA’s biggest metropolises, such is the sense of escape from the city’s traffic and noise.

I met my guide at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, just northeast of Hollywood, and we set off to ascend Mount Hollywood. It’s fairly strenuous as you gain 282 m (925 ft) in elevation. En route, you learn about Hollywood’s history, and the reasons film companies first came here. The landscape was one draw, as it formed backdrops for early films. And on reaching the summit, I could see why. 

The Griffith Observatory and Los Angeles city skyline

The Griffith Observatory and Los Angeles city skyline

The surrounding hills stretched out before me, downtown LA glittered in a haze below, and the deep blue of the Pacific met the horizon in the distance. As we gazed at the city, our guide showed us photographs of the same view taken in Hollywood’s infancy. Another nearby viewpoint looks onto the Hollywood sign, which sits on a nearby hill.

You can then head to the Griffith Observatory on Mount Hollywood’s south slope to explore its astronomy exhibits and visit the planetarium, which starred in the film La La Land.

Explore Yosemite’s waterfalls and viewpoints by minibus by George

Yosemite’s size can seem daunting, especially if you’re short on time. Joining a minibus tour is a good way to cover the park’s main highlights in one day. While seeing the park from a vehicle doesn’t compare to being out on foot, on this eight-hour trip I found that there was plenty of time to get out and see the park for myself.

Throughout the journey, my guide, Grant, shared his knowledge of the park. He told us about its history, including its European-American discovery in the early 19th century; its varied wildlife and its striking geological features.

After winding up the steep sides of Yosemite Valley, passing pine trees still glistening from snowmelt, we arrived at our first stop: Glacier Point. A high arrêt, it offers panoramic views over the entire valley. Yosemite Falls froths over a distant sheer rock face, while the distinctive curve of Half Dome is directly opposite. My camera couldn’t do it justice, so I decided to simply enjoy the moment.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

After the twisty descent back into the valley, we stopped at the park’s most popular spot for photographs: Tunnel View. Here you can gaze across an entire valley cross-section, framed by granite cliffs rising either side.

We then followed the one-way system around Yosemite Valley floor to Bridalveil Fall, named after its fine plume of spray. I found a spot by the river to enjoy my packed lunch (included in the tour), before cooling down in the waterfall’s mist.

Next we visited Yosemite Falls — the tallest waterfall in North America. What impressed me most was not only the sight of the falls, but the thunderous noise of water tumbling and crashing over rocks.

Finally, we drove to El Capitan, a 900 m (300 ft) granite monolith, and tried to make out the tiny specks of climbers scaling its colossal wall.

See Santa Monica and Venice Beach from an electric bicycle by Alex

Santa Monica and Venice Beach offer a more laid-back side to LA, and they’re ripe for exploring by electric bicycle.

I’d never ridden one before, but soon saw the benefits. With its 500-watt motor and the option to use six gears, I could pedal as much or as little as I wanted. It doesn’t matter how fit you are as the bicycle can power itself and the route is mostly flat.

Santa Monica beach

Santa Monica Beach

Along with my local guide, Barb, we headed to Santa Monica, an affluent community where plush beachside hotels sit near manicured parks and ocean-facing seafood restaurants. Barb explained it was once a stomping ground for Hollywood royalty, even pointing out a house where The Beatles stayed. Ahead, I could see the illuminated outline of Santa Monica Pier’s Ferris wheel and rollercoaster.

After passing by Muscle Beach, where bodybuilders congregate, we cycled on to Venice Beach. This resort town was founded in 1905 by Abbot Kinney, a tobacco millionaire aiming to recreate Italy’s La Serenissima. After visiting some of the canals Kinney commissioned, we reached the beach itself. A popular haunt for artists, surfers and skateboarders, it has a bohemian atmosphere. Streets are lined with tattoo shops and market stalls selling local art, while buildings and skate parks are covered in kaleidoscopic graffiti.

Lifeguard tower at Venice beach, Los Angeles, California

Lifeguard tower, Venice Beach, Los Angeles

Take a guided walk along San Francisco’s coastline by Amy

One of San Francisco’s biggest attractions is its coastal location, but this is surprisingly easy to overlook. I joined local guide, Greg, and a small group of other visitors for a four-hour walk along the coast, stopping at quiet beaches and lesser-known viewpoints.

Departing in the morning from the Warming Hut cafe close to the Golden Gate Bridge, we began by climbing up to its official overlook. From here, I took in views of the bridge’s hallowed rust-red frame, with the Marin Headlands in the distance. We were exceptionally lucky to spot a humpback whale offshore.

Golden gate bridge, San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Continuing along a coastal track, we eventually arrived at Marshall Beach, an empty stretch of sand littered with driftwood and rocks, a result of shoreline erosion. Greg explained that as the trail only opened a few years ago, it’s not even well known yet among locals. We paused to paddle in the waves, looking out for sea otters and sea lions.

Baker Beach was our final stop before looping back to the city along a road with elevated views. Its golden sands lie at the foot of wave-battered cliffs, and we picnicked on snacks Greg had brought.

Observe marine life from a kayak off Refugio State Park Beach By Olivia

A short drive outside Santa Barbara, Refugio State Park Beach has palm-lined sands lapped by ecologically pristine waters rife with marine animals and aquatic plants. You can explore them by joining a four-hour guided kayak ride along the coastline, covering a total distance of 4.8 km (3 miles) there and back.

The waters here are fairly calm — though if, like me, you have only ever kayaked on lakes, the change in intensity is noticeable. Double kayaks are available for families, and a safety briefing is given on the beach, as well as a lesson on paddle techniques. 

 Gaviota State Park, California

Gaviota State Park, California

Setting off in a small group, we headed west along the undeveloped Gaviota Coast. Our guides were at the front and back to ensure that we took the least strenuous route, and that no one was left behind. Along the way, they pointed out underwater kelp patches and explained their medicinal uses.

My highlight? Spotting a seal pup, its fin raised in the air. They do this, I learned, to help regulate their body temperature. Then, at another point, there were gasps of excitement as a pod of dolphins swam past, porpoising as they chased shoals of fish.

We continued watching the dolphins’ progress from a sandy beach, where we stopped for a picnic lunch before heading back.  

Experience Hollywood behind the scenes by Alex

Hollywood Boulevard is notoriously busy. To make the most of your time here, I recommend joining a one-hour guided walking tour.

I met my group outside Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, the first venue in Hollywood to host a film première (1922’s Robin Hood). My guide, an aspiring actor himself, took us inside (it’s normally closed to the public) to sit in the auditorium’s seats, exactly where many of Hollywood’s great and good once sat. He then pointed out the building’s little-known features, including an area reserved for opera singers who would perform during film showings.  

Then we broached the main boulevard, using audio headsets to hear the guide’s commentary over the street cacophony. Look for distant views of the Hollywood sign up in the surrounding hills.

After taking in both El Capitan Theatre, where many films are premiered, and the Dolby, which hosts the Academy Awards annually, we arrived at our final stop — Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The walkway outside is adorned with messages, signatures and imprints left by stars. My guide showed us some of the more unusual ones, including the traces left by Clint Eastwood’s gun.

Hollywood Boulevard, California

Hollywood Boulevard, California

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