Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Head Outdoors in California

California’s collection of scenic destinations is impressively varied.

It’s home to some of the most extreme environments on the planet, from otherworldly deserts to secluded, ethereal forests. The state’s scenery also includes the height of both leisure and adventure, providing opportunities to explore sun-soaked vineyards, iconic highways and awe-inspiring hikes.

With a multitude of destinations from which group leaders can choose, these scenic California destinations are a good place to start.

Death Valley National Park

Inyo County

With a name like Death Valley, some people might get the wrong idea about the 5,270-square-mile national park located on the California-Nevada border in California’s Inyo County. But if travelers take proper precautions, such as visiting in cool seasons and bringing plenty of water, this park is a perfectly safe and awe-inspiring destination.

Craters, dunes and breathtaking rock formations make Death Valley National Park’s scenery comparable to few places on Earth. The park also has the distinction of being the country’s largest national park outside of Alaska, the lowest point in the United States and the hottest place on Earth. This leads to some extreme conditions, with temperatures frequently reaching over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but it also yields some otherworldly landscapes.

Some of the most popular places within the park for sightseeing are Badwater Basin, salt flats that sit 282 feet below sea level; Zabriskie Point, a vista offering choice views of the park’s badlands and salt flats; and Artists Palette, which volcanic deposits have painted with unexpected colors. Visits to the park in spring bring the possibility of seeing wildflowers.

Trips through Death Valley National Park are often packaged with other natural wonders in Southern California. The park’s landscapes are particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset. A comfortable bus ride through some of the park’s most breathtaking areas may be the way to go for less adventurous travelers, while some may want to stand in Badwater Basin or watch the sunrise from its most challenging hikes.

Yosemite National Park

Mariposa County

Yosemite National Park consists of a gorgeous mosaic of wildflower-filled meadows, dramatic waterfalls, iconic rock formations and serene forests of giant sequoias. With a long list of bucket-list sights, the park and the surrounding Mariposa County offer a wonderful experience for groups looking to take in the stunning scenery.

“Mariposa county was established about 1850 during the gold rush,” said Jonathan Farrington, executive director of Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism. “Yosemite National Park was founded by explorers during the westward march, and Yosemite and Mariposa County have always been intertwined. Our No. 1 industry is tourism, and hiking is always the No. 1 activity for the region.”

The top sights in Yosemite National Park include Bridalveil Fall, a 620-foot-tall waterfall; the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, a grove with about 500 sequoias, including a 2,700-year-old tree; Yosemite Falls, the fifth-tallest waterfall in the world; rock formations such as Half Dome and El Capitan; and picturesque lakes, such as Mirror Lake and Tenaya Lake. Famous lookout spots include Glacier Point and Tunnel View. Hikes vary in intensity and length, and tours focusing on the park’s biodiversity and history are also a great way to explore. Other outdoor activities in the park include whitewater rafting, biking, horseback riding and rock climbing.

When they’re not trekking through the park, groups can visit museums throughout Mariposa County that explore the gold rush and the county’s history. They can also dine at park lodges while enjoying amazing views of the park.

17-Mile Drive

Monterey County

Between the cities of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, the 17-Mile Drive is a famously beautiful drive often taken by visitors to Monterey County. The route takes visitors in a loop around Pebble Beach, a community brimming with resorts, gorgeous coastline and many scenic photo-ops.

There are four points of entry to the 17-Mile Drive and many stops along the way where groups can stop and take in the scenery. The Lone Cypress, a picturesque tree that stands alone on a cliff with an ocean backdrop, is a particularly famous sight along the route. Several other vistas with gorgeous views of the coast include Shepherd’s Knoll, Huckleberry Hill and Cypress Point Lookout. Crocker Grove features a regal forest of Monterey Cypress trees, one of just two in the world. Another stop along the route lets visitors take in the Ghost Trees at Pescadero Point, the remains of sun-bleached cypresses near the water’s edge.

The 17-Mile Drive is also a prime option for wildlife viewing. Many species of marine birds and animals reside in the remote beaches in this community. Groups can spot sunbathing sea lions on Bird Rock, as well as birds and harbor seals. From November to March, they may be able to see migrating whales off the coast.

Groups driving the route can stop at one of the resorts along the way for a meal or an overnight stay, including at the Lodge at Pebble Beach or the Inn at Spanish Bay. They can also stop to play a round of golf at the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links course.

Sonoma Valley

Sonoma County

California is well known for its wine. One of its most notorious wine regions, the Sonoma Valley is as rich in scenic beauty as it is in wine. Verdant vineyards, rolling countryside, quaint towns and beautiful weather contribute to the valley’s Old World charm and make its lush landscape seem like something out of a storybook.

“There’s a diversity of things to do,” said Tim Zahner, executive director of Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. “People want to look at scenery, but they can have their time at leisure in Sonoma.”

Adjacent to Napa, the Sonoma Valley is between two mountain ranges north of San Francisco. It consists of several distinct areas, including the cities of Sonoma, Kenwood and Glen Ellen, as well as the Springs, a region with hot springs and resorts, and Carneros, a wine region shared with Napa. Each area offers plenty for groups to enjoy. Depending on a group’s taste for adventure, biking or e-biking trips are a popular way to explore the area’s breathtaking scenery.

When in wine country, wine tastings and vineyard tours are a must, and there’s no shortage of wineries, tasting rooms and vineyards for groups to visit throughout Sonoma Valley. However, additional wine-themed experiences can be arranged with some advanced notice, from a picnic in a vineyard to a catered meal in a wine cellar.

The city of Sonoma’s 8-acre plaza is another beautiful and popular destination for group travelers. The Sonoma Plaza Tasting Pass gives discounted rates for wine tastings at wineries or tasting rooms in the plaza. Groups can also take cooking or cheesemaking classes, browse shops, or enjoy a meal at one the many restaurants in the plaza.

Redwood National and State Parks

Del Norte County

Woody Guthrie’s powerful anthem “This Land Is Your Land” immortalizes redwood forests as one of the signature sights in the United States. It’s easy to see why — they’re the tallest trees on earth, and many ecosystems thrive in their massive branches, canopies and the shady forest floor beneath them.

When in northern California, a visit to one of the many redwood forests is a must. Thanks to an alliance between the federal government and the state of California, three excellent choices are the Redwood National Park, Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Del Norte County. This string of protected forests total over 130,000 acres and are known collectively as the Redwood National and State Parks.

“Our tag line is ‘where nature outnumbers people’ because it’s very true,” said Lynnette Braillard, a spokesperson for Visit Del Norte County. “You could be the only one on the beach or the only one on a hiking trail. We have a lot of raw, untouched, undeveloped nature.”

There are countless ways for groups to experience the remote beauty of the redwood forests, from guided group hikes to van tours through them. Thrill-seeking groups will love canopy tours, where they can walk on extension bridges high above the forest floor, and rafting or kayaking along the rivers that wind through the forests. Jetboat tours can offer large groups some of the thrill of the rushing rivers. Many of the tour companies in Del Norte County are Indigenous owned and offer the perspective of the land’s original inhabitants.

When they’re not exploring the vast, enchanting forests, groups can eat at local breweries in Crescent City, check out the wildlife on the beaches and the coast, and enjoy the area’s remote feel.