California is a land of superlatives — home to the world's largest tree, the tallest waterfall in North America, highest peak in the contiguous United States, biggest granite monolith in the world, and the list goes on. It's the third largest state in the U.S., behind Alaska and Texas, stretching across most of the West Coast and occupying more than 163,000 square miles of land. Because this enormous state expands almost from Canada to Mexico, it is one of the most geographically diverse regions in the country. Californians can wake up in a major city, go for a morning surf, an afternoon hike in the desert, and a night ski all in the same day — in fact, this trifecta is so achievable that the locals call it a "California Day."
It's no secret that the Golden State has some of the most spectacular nature displays, including mystic forests, majestic mountains, pristine coast, and empty deserts. It also has some you've never even heard of: geysers, glass beaches, tubular caves, and fossilized trees. This state truly has everything to suit your outdoor-loving needs. Here are 20 examples of stunning nature in California.
20 Lavender Fields at Mount Shasta
California's Mount Shasta is a site in itself. Towering above the grassy flatlands of Siskiyou County, near the Oregon border, its snowy peak is not the highest in the state, but it is one of the most dramatic and mysterious. This potentially active volcano is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Native American cultural and cosmological property. It is believed that humans inhabited this sacred spot for 11,000 years, one of the longest periods of residency in North American history. Aside from its historical significance, Mount Shasta is simply resplendent to look at, especially from the vibrantly colorful and intoxicatingly fragrant hillside Lavender Farms. Located thirty minutes north of Mt. Shasta, these purple fields create a flamboyant foreground for an unmatched view of Shasta's stately peak.
19 Badwater Basin
Just east of Los Angeles, in the Coachella Valley, California's largest lake, the Salton Sea, occupies 8,360 square miles of the desert. This endorheic lake, located right on the San Andreas Fault, is a natural wonder, but has lately gained some recent attention for releasing clouds of toxic dust. A similar, more under-the-radar scene is located in the vast desert plateau that is Death Valley. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the North America. Upon first glance, the salt that the lake's evaporated water has left behind looks almost like a massive patch of snow in the desert. Visitors can walk on these salt flats that span across five miles, but you'd probably find that a quick jaunt will suffice in the outrageously hot climate of Death Valley.
18 Glass Beach
Along the scenic Mendocino Coast of Northern California, there is a unique beach where particles of glass have taken the place of sand. Don't worry, though, these bits of glass won't puncture your precious feet because they've been smoothed over by the sea over time. During the early 20th century, this place was known by locals as "the dumps," because everyone would dump their household garbage over its cliffs. It's this old trash that makes Glass Beach the colorful treasure it is today. Technically, the glassy shore is manmade — by accident, of course — but it certainly enhances the already stunning aesthetic of the surrounding MacKerricher State Park.
17 Joshua Tree
The unique aesthetic of the Joshua Tree, ranging from 15 to 40 feet tall with distinctive spiky leaf clusters, is what gives the Mohave Desert a signature look. The Yucca brevifolia thrives in these dry soil plains, making for an ethereal scene as one looks out over California's Joshua Tree National Park. A desert oasis near Palm Springs, Joshua Tree is known for its vast quantities of Joshua Trees as well as its funky bolder formations, which together create a sort of otherworldly landscape in a seemingly abandoned land just a couple hours' drive from the bustling city of LA.
16 Yosemite Falls
California is home to the tallest waterfall in North America (and the fifth tallest in the world). At 2,450 feet, Yosemite Falls is the dramatic centerpiece of Yosemite National Park. A short, wheelchair-accessible path will even lead you into its clouds of mist. It's so big that it's actually made up of three separate falls, says Yosemite.com, which are Upper Yosemite Fall, the middle cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall. For an even more intimate experience, guests may opt to take the iconic (and high-trafficked) Yosemite Falls Trail to the top, a six-to-eight-hour round-trip hike from the Valley floor.
15 Lava Beds & Tube Caves Under Tulelake
The unique, tubular caves under Northern California's Tulelake were carved out by hot flowing lava about 30,000 years ago. More than 700 long and narrow caves were created by a volcanic eruption of two craters, Mammoth and Modoc, thousands of years ago, but they appear to be melting inside still today. The lava that dripped from the ceiling during its formation turned into permanent rock "lavacicles" that now decorate the walls alongside sparkling bacteria, Atlas Obscura says. The Lava Beds National Monument is a perfect place to observe diverse volcanic features as well as an abundance of Native American rock art, which can be found at Petroglyph Point.
14 Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
The sweeping fields of colorful, wild poppies in Antelope Valley are like something straight out of a Disney fairytale. On sunny mornings during springtime, a blanket of vibrant, orange flowers — thousands of them — all open up simultaneously, creating quite the cheerful spectacle for tourists. The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve covers more than 1,700 acres of desert grassland with California's state flower, only a short drive from Los Angeles. There are eight miles of hiking trails to keep you occupied in these fields of wildflowers all day long. Could California possibly get any dreamier?
13 Bowling Ball Beach
Low tide at Schooner Gulch State Beach in Mendocino County reveals a rather rare and spectacular phenomenon: a coastline dotted with large, near-perfectly spherical sandstone boulders. These concretions have been created by sedimentary rock (made of sand and stone) that's been bound together by a natural concrete made of minerals, according to Roadtrippers. It's the ocean's waves that have smoothed them into their spherical, bowling-ball like shape, hence the name "Bowling Ball Beach." It's as though someone has gathered up hundreds of identical rocks and placed them along the coast of this California beach.
12 Bumpass Hell
During the mid-19th century, explorer Kendall Vanhook Bumpass walked into a boiling pool in this region and lost his leg, according to Visit California. Thus, the steamy geothermal site in Lassen Volcanic National Park has been appropriately named Bumpass Hell. It includes 16 acres of hydrothermal features — mud pots, steam vents, fumaroles, and more — which can be explored via a convenient boardwalk trail. And while you're in Lassen Volcanic National Park, be sure to visit another California natural wonder: the Painted Dunes. Volcanic ash that once fell onto hot lava has become so oxidized that it now covers the dunes of Lassen Volcanic National Park with picturesque watercolor hues.
11 Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
There are too many extraordinary spots along the stretch of rugged California coastline known as Big Sur to call out only one. The iconic McWay Falls, though, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, is the area's real claim to fame. This 80-foot waterfall runs directly into the azure sea water below, making it the subject of umpteen Instagram posts and a major West Coast tourist attraction. It can be a quick stop along the famous Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) or a full day out exploring the surrounding terrain (like the neighboring Canyon Falls, too).
10 The Slot, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
In the hot, dry Colorado Desert of Southern California, there is a locals' secret slot canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. A slot canyon is a narrow — and often very deep — canyon that is sculpted by water flowing through rock. Anza-Borrego is full of these natural wonders, but the best of all is undoubtedly The Slot. The Slot is the deepest and narrowest of Anza-Borrego slot canyons. According to one blogger, it just keeps getting narrower and taller the further you descend. A short and easy hike, The Slot makes for an unforgettable experience in the desert.
9 Morro Rock
This peak off the coast of Morro Bay is so much more than just a rock surrounded by sea water; it serves as a plug for an underground volcano. There's actually several of them along this stretch of coast, which the iconic Highway 1 runs along, and they've been named the "Nine Sisters of San Luis Obispo County," Atlas Obscura says. Morro Rock is a result of hot lava that was pressurized when it reached the surface, ultimately creating a 576-foot-tall mound of rock that rises above the Pacific Ocean. Visitors can look but not touch, as climbing the landmark has been prohibited to protect it.
8 El Capitan
Yosemite National Park is not only home to the tallest waterfall in North America; it's also home to the largest granite monolith in the world, El Capitan. Rising 3,000 vertical feet above the Valley floor, "El Cap," as it's been nicknamed, has been a mecca for the rock climbing community for decades. Visitors can watch these adrenaline seekers through the binoculars that the park has stationed around the meadow below. You can also catch a sunset at Tunnel View to see it aside another iconic landmark, Half Dome, two of the most famous rock formations in the world.
7 Calistoga Petrified Forest
California isn't the only state with a petrified forest, but it isthe state with the world's largest petrified trees. The fossilized redwoods in Calistoga Petrified Forest are from the Pliocene. The forest here was once very alive until a volcano buried it in ash 3.5 million years ago and literally turned it to stone. The gray remains of these colossal redwoods were discovered during the mid-19th century and can now be viewed along a half-mile trail that snakes around the natural artifacts in Sonoma County.
6 California's Old Faithful
Just down the road from the Petrified Forest is the Old Faithful Geyser of California. Every 10 to 45 minutes, this hot spring shoots water between 20 and 80 feet into the sky. The same volcanic activity that turned the Petrified Forest to stone is to thank for this spectacular geothermal feature, because the volcano that erupted back then still simmers under the surface of Napa Valley today. Old Faithful is not just fun to watch, it also plays an important role in predicting earthquakes that often rock the West Coast. If Old Faithful is behind schedule, it's likely that a quake is coming, The Mercury News says.
5 General Sherman
Not only is California home to the world's biggest petrified tree; it's home to the world's biggest living tree, too. The giant General Sherman in Sequoia National Park is 103 feet in circumference and 275 feet tall, according to Visit California, and is still growing bigger every year. After a single trip around the sun, the General Sherman adds on the equivalent of a whole other 60-foot-tall tree to its dimensions. And when a tree is that big, you know it's got to be prehistoric. Estimated to be about 2,200 years old, this hulky sequoia has been alive since the first millennium BC.
4 Sierra Nevada
The Sierra Nevada is California's most celebrated mountain range and home to the highest peak in the coterminous United States, Mount Whitney. The Sierras are a hub for snow sports and mountaineering, extending more than 250 miles across the Central Valley of the state, conveniently. These snow-capped peaks range from 11,000 to 14,000 feet tall, and Mount Whitney — the mother of them all — towers above at 14,494 feet. Ancient glaciers and grand ice fields can be found in the High Sierra, while natural hot springs beckon tired muscles in the valleys below. The foothills are filled with wildflowers during spring and coated with thick snow during winter — a perfect getaway for outdoors enthusiasts year-round.
3 Tufa Towers
California has many features that make it look a bit like Mars — such as the vast deserts, gargantuan forests, and bowling ball beaches we've listed here — and among them are the Tufa Towers at Mono Lake. These peculiar rock formations look almost like stalagmites you might see inside of a cave. The Tufa Towers are made of limestone that has been formed by the reaction of calcium from underwater springs and carbohydrates from the saline- and salt-rich waters of Mono Lake. The eccentric limestone pylons used to be hidden under the surface of the lake, but when the water levels dropped (a result of the City of Los Angeles diverting streams away from Mono Lake), they became exposed.
2 Artist's Palette
Speaking of Mars, the au-naturale rainbow-hued mountains of Death Valley National Park are straight-up otherworldly. Pastel pinks, blues, greens, and yellows give these rugged desert mounts a pop of color, but the only artist behind this masterpiece is Mother Nature. According to Another Magazine, Artist's Palette was formed by mineral deposits from underground volcanic rock that mixed with hydrothermal systems. These different minerals, such as iron and magnesium, create the range of color displayed on these desert hillsides. These Instagram-worthy colorful hills can be seen via the scenic nine-mile Artist's Drive.
1 Redwood Trees
Redwoods are the world's tallest species of tree, and there are 31 state and national parks throughout the state of California that have been dedicated to protecting them. The best place to view these wildly tall, fiery-orange-stemmed trees is in Northern California, up near the border of Oregon. Here, in Redwood National Park, visitors can meander under the enchanted canopy of these ancient giants, along a 2.4-kilometer-long pathway that snakes through the forest, putting its best on display. They can also be seen around San Francisco at Big Basin State Park, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, and Humboldt Redwoods State Park.