California Dreaming: 21 Incredible Moments Beyond The Big Cities

Words by Cam Hassard

By Cam Hassard, 26/7/2019
Brought to you by Qantas

From essential experiences to can't-miss destinations, we've partnered with Qantas to bring you an incredible travel tale each month.

Safe and warm in Los Angeles? Can’t get out of the Bay? San Fran and the City of Angels might be the gateway to adventure in California, but don’t get too cosy amongst the city action – there’s a whole lot you need to experience in the great Golden State beyond the big hubs alone.

From the land of the Redwoods, Catalina Island to Pismo Beach, and right along the Pacific Coast Highway, California is the state that keeps giving. Here are 21 places you need to see.

Humboldt Redwoods National Park


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When a road gets a name like Avenue of the Giants it’s a fair bet that it’s worth a look. This scenic artery through California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park is nothing short of spectacular: the finest way to experience the region’s 17,000 acres of ancient old-growth coastal redwoods.

You’ll find the biggest – the Rockefeller Tree, all a 110 metres of it – in the Rockefeller Forest. So too, the most striking (and drivable), at the Shrine Drive Thru Tree. Fishing, camping, hiking, horseback riding, you name it, Humboldt’s got it.

Big Sur

“And when the fog’s over and the stars and the moon come out at night it’ll be a beautiful sight.” So said Jack Kerouac in Big Sur, his treatise to this majestic nook along California’s dramatic Pacific Coast. Kerouac is one of countless artists, authors and mystics who’ve been captivated by this stretch of raging coast between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon. Day or night, the sight of the Santa Lucia Mountains rising from the Pacific here is nothing short of heaven on earth.

Take in stunning Pfeiffer Beach, the glorious McWay Falls, and the iconic Bixby Canyon Bridge.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite: a 3027km² primordial wonder, where the giant, ancient sequoia trees, spectacular waterfalls, and deep granite canyons can’t help but strike awe into the human soul. An area of exceptional geological and historical significance, Yosemite is a breathtaking experience, underscored by the 190m-high Bridalveil Fall, the views of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks at El Capital Meadow, and Glacier Point, one of the most stunning lookout points on the planet.

Highway 1 / Pacific Coast Highway

As one of the few bitumen stretches on earth that gives Victoria’s Great Ocean Road a run for its money, Cali’s Pacific Coast Highway covers serious ground: from San Diego, to LA’s Orange and Ventura Counties, the Central Coast, up through Big Sur, Monterey and San Francisco Bay Areas, and Mendocino County in the north (technically, the ‘Highway 1’ is just the San Diego to San Fran stretch).

Our prescription? A top-down Cadillac and a full tank of gas. Expect glorious landscapes, life changing vistas, and a slice of coastal America that’ll stay with you forever.

Joshua Tree

Whether you’re up for a mystic pilgrimage or simply love the desert heat, Joshua Tree National Park never fails to mesmerise. This ethereal spot is home to the unique yucca palm, the dagger spores of which seem to be straight out of a Dr Seuss book.

With more than nine campgrounds and stunning hiking trails – all just a couple of hours drive from Los Angeles – Joshua Tree makes for a legendary day trip, overnighter or extended weekender. Be sure to put Keys Views, Skull and Jumbo Rocks and Cholla Cactus Garden on the itinerary.

Santa Cruz

As the biggest city on the California Central Coast, Santa Cruz often gets overlooked for other hotspots along the Pacific Coast, but it remains a worthy hub in its own right. With a distinct historically Spanish flavour and breezy, liberal vibe, the vintage roller coaster and rides along its main beach boardwalk were prominent in ‘80s cult vamp flick The Lost Boys (and are well worth a trip for that reason alone).

Muir Woods


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Located in Mill Valley a few clicks north of San Fran’s Golden Gate Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument yields another splendid in which spot to feel totally dwarfed by the power of nature. The Redwoods and fairy ring trees of Cathedral Grove in this old growth forest rival Humboldt’s for stature and age: another spectacular refuge to soak up nature’s peace.

Napa Valley

Vino anyone? North of San Fran, the Napa Valley is the United States‘ most enduring and prominent wine region, with hundreds of vineyards peppered across Napa County’s hills. World-class wine, brilliant food and stunning landscapes make Napa a feast for the tastebuds and soul.

Mendocino Coast


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Swing three hours north of San Francisco and you’ll find the Mendocino Coast mighty lovely stretch featuring all the trimmings of a lush Western Pacific experience. Cue: 145 kilometres of gorgeous coastline, superb beaches (notably Glass Beach at Fort Bragg), incredible hiking moments, and a delectable variety boutique wineries and breweries.


While Big Little Lies might have put this dreamy surf town on the map in recent years, Monterey has always been a revered Californian drawcard. Set on the rugged central coast, this old fishing town offers a range of excellent boutiques, hotels and restaurants. Boho Carmel, south of Monterey, should also factor on your itinerary, home of the Carmel Mission: one of California’s most glorious hiking trails.

San Diego


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As “America’s Finest City”, San Diego always dishes up the goods: a sweet hub replete with ample beach action, recreation spots and a climate that satisfies year-round. Check out Balboa Park, home to the famous San Diego Zoo, take a summer traipse along the vessel-lined Harbourside, and stay classy in a “yazz” club or two in your best Ron Burgundy getup. Surfheads will get their fill at Black’s Beach, Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach, while the nightlife is tops in and around Hillcrest and the Gaslamp Quarter). All in all, a super-laid back counterpoint to Cali’s more bustling urban hubs.

Lake Tahoe

What do you know about Lake Tahoe? That the sunsets are breathtaking? That its cobalt blue waters are some of the most dazzling on the American seaboard? That you can laze on beaches, hike the epic Sierra Nevada mountains and Rubicon Trail, carve fresh powder through Squaw Valley, or simply live the good life in Tahoe City? Well, yeah: it’s all possible here on the Nevada border, a holiday sweet spot with a little something for everyone.

Hearst Castle


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Mansion lovers will truly get their rocks off at Hearst Castle, the iconic former residence of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Today a National Historic Landmark, the Castle, aka La Cuesta Encantada, or ‘The Enchanted Hill’, was a raging hotspot of upper society back in the Roaring Twenties. As well as Hearst Castle‘s incredible Spanish-inspired architecture, featuring iconic showpiece swimming pool, the grounds lay claim to 127 acres of terraced gardens and fountains, all dramatically perched on a hill overlooking the town San Simeon.

Mount Shasta

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Located by the Oregon border, the white peaks of mythic Mount Shasta is an incredible sight, one that you can catch from over 160 kilometres away. An active volcano, Shasta holds immense geological and cosmological significance, particularly site for North-western Native American tribes, who regard it as one of earth’s primary energetic portals.

Death Valley


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Menacing name, stunning experience. Those fortunate enough to have barrelled through California’s Death Valley will appreciate how immensely spectacular this sub-sea-level nook of the Mojave Desert really is. Death-cold after dark, it’s also one of the most scorching spots on earth during the height of summer, so make sure you’ve got air con as you chart its remarkable expanse.

Angel Island

Lurking off the coast of San Francisco, Angel Island was the Bay Area’s answer to New York’s Ellis Island: the port where new immigrants were processed before beginning their new life in the USA. Between 1910 and 1940. During WWII, prisoners of war were housed here – you can visit all the old buildings, and take in amazing views of the Bay, via private boat, or ferry from San Fran, Tiburon or Vallejo.

Ghost Town of Bodie


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Everyone loves a good ghost town, and there’s no shortage of them across America. One of the best can be experienced in Bodie, widely considered the most well preserved in the American West. In the late 19th century, Bodie was home to a population of 10,000, with over 30 gold mines and a slew of saloons, gambling dens and tawdry nightspots. With a reputation for crime and disorder, Bodie was a rough place.

Abandoned as early as 1915, you’ll be taken aback at how just how in tact it is – a brilliant insight into the Old West.

Pismo Beach

For wineries, stunning coastline, and epic Monarch Butterfly groves, Pismo Beach is your go to. Located on Cali’s Central Coast, Pismo is effortlessly accessible just a three-hour drive north of LA. Abandon the Cadillac here, and hire an ATV dune buggy, as you hit up Oceano Dunes for a sweet, sandy ride. Camp on the beach (Pismo is one of the few places in the country where you can do this), and take in a sunset from Pismo’s pier.

Salvation Mountain


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You might have seen Salvation Mountain in the film Into the Wild: a mad-made mountain coated in half a million gallons of latex paint. Located in Slab City, in the lower desert of Southern California, this ramshackle monument was built by artist Leonard Knight 28 years ago as a tribute to the Almighty. Probably the most eccentric and unique spots on the Cali list.

Santa Catalina Island

Out there off the coast of LA, you’ll find Santa Catalina Island, a unique, wildlife-laden getaway, home to excellent seaside accommodation, great eating, and a heap of activities, from zip lining to submarine touring. Home to the rich and famous, Marilyn Monroe called Catalina home back in the day. For a short, or long, stint, you can too.

Giant Rock, Landers


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At seven stories high, covering an area of over 560 square metres, the giant rock at Landers – deep in the Mojave Desert – is considered the largest freestanding boulder in the world. Consider the life of German immigrant Frank Critzer, who burrowed a 37-square-metre home beneath this spot in the late 30s, and quite literally lived “under a rock” (a mammoth one at that).

A revered site for Native American Hopi shamans as well as UFO enthusiasts, this rock lives up to its name – it’s freakishly big – and well worth the drive out.

Turn your California dream into reality. Check out Qantas flights to California, where your food, entertainment and baggage are all included.