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California is one of the most beautiful places in America. It’s a spectacular and diverse state with tons of regional differences and many incredible things to do. Given its huge size, many travelers end up making some mistakes on their California trip, whether it comes to planning their adventure or visiting popular landmarks in the state.
If you are wondering about what not to do in California, this article is for you. After traveling around the state, I made a list of the worst pitfalls that I’ve seen tourists fall into.
So if you want to visit the Golden State and have the best time of your life without wasting time and money, this guide is for you.
1. Think you can see California in a few days
California is the third largest state in the United States. It covers a huge distance from Oregon to Mexico. To see California, it takes about 15 hours to drive from north to south. To explore California you need months, so don’t think you can swing through the state in just a week.
If you have limited time in California, it makes sense to spend your vacation in just one region, rather than try to hit spots in different parts of the city.
If you are visiting San Francisco, you can visit Yosemite National Park on a guided tour or rent a car and explore the Bay Area and check out places like Santa Cruz or Napa Valley.
2. Visiting only LA and San Francisco
Los Angeles and San Francisco are two major cities in Northern and Southern California that are visited by millions of tourists every year.
But aside from these two places, California has plenty to offer: it boasts nine national parks – the most of any state in America, with diverse geographic landscapes that range from mountains to deserts and sequoia trees, and some of the most spectacular coastal drives in the country.
My favorite road trip in California is Highway 395, also known as the Eastern Sierras Highway that passes through small towns surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
3. Not renting a car
California is for adventure! Even if you plan on visiting a city, you should rent a car. California has many scenic areas, national parks, and hiking areas that are worth visiting. Renting a car is a good idea to get familiar with the area and see the diverse California landscapes, go hiking, and enjoy the state.
When I visited LA for the first time, I didn’t have a car, which was super incovenient, since the city is not very walkable.
4. Not taking advantage of the outdoors
Whether you are visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego, California provides many great opportunities to exercise, and spend time outside, and you will miss out on a lot of cool places if you spend your vacation in cities.
5. Not trying California food
You probably heard a lot about the famous In-N-Out Burger, but there’s so much more to California cuisine than a popular burger joint that always has a line.
California is a huge state that has many different regional differences that are well reflected in its cuisine. From sampling classic clam chowder in bread bowls in San Francisco to fish tacos and other things in Southern California, you can’t miss out on California’s delicacies during your trip.
6. Staying in LA for just a few days
I get it, if your time is short, you might not have enough time for LA. But if you can, you should spend more time in this city! LA boasts some of the best beaches in California like El Matador, Malibu, and many others, and it’s also one of the best cities for culture and entertainment.
If you are visiting LA for the first time, I recommend no less than 5 days for your stay in the city.
Also, when visiting LA, be aware of the traffic because it can be really bad! To minimize your time on the road, you should plan your activities around a specific area.
For example, you could plan to spend a day in Santa Monica exploring its downtown area, spending time at the beach and checking out restaurants, before heading to the Getty Museum the next day or going to Universal Studios.
That’s how I planned my stay in LA, and I was able to avoid being stuck in traffic for the most part.
7. Visiting popular places on weekends
California cities are known for their incredible cultural and historical attractions, and you should plan your trip accordingly. I suggest avoiding weekends and popular holidays because crowds can be really bad during this time.
This especially applies to national parks and popular theme parks like Universal and Disney.
8. Thinking California is all beaches and palm trees
Thanks to movies and pop culture, California is often associated with sunshine, palm trees, and beaches. While you can find these things in Southern California, it’s not like the whole state is this way.
Central California has a more temperate climate, and Northern California is home to the Sierra Nevada mountains which often see snowstorms during winter and it can be chilly even in summer if you visit places like Mammoth Lakes or South Lake Tahoe. If you plan to travel around the state, you should pack some layers, as it’s not going to be balmy weather everywhere you go.
9. Not budgeting
California is an expensive state, there’s just no way around it. From high gas prices to food and accommodations, be prepared to spend extra when traveling around the state.
If you visit California during the peak season in summer, be prepared for higher than normal prices, as it’s a busy time when many travelers come to the state to enjoy the perfect weather do scenic drivers, and spend time outside.
Come up with an approximate budget for your trip to California, so you can better manage your money.
10. Not booking your accommodations ahead of time
One of the worst mistakes that you can make when planning your trip to California is not booking your accommodations ahead of time. When you book your hotels last minute you are likely to pay the highest rate, whereas booking them at least a few months ahead will save you money.
11. Flying into the wrong airport
Flying into the correct airport is the key to a successful trip, and one of the worst mistakes to avoid in California is to fly into the wrong airport.
LA and San Francisco are big transportation hubs did you know that there are also many smaller airports in California that you can use for starting your trip, like San Diego, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, and Orange County?
Something to keep in mind is that flights to regional airports often tend to cost more than flights to major airports, so you should always plan your trip ahead of time.
12. Trying to do Big Sur in a day
Big Sur is an iconic stretch of the highway and one of the most famous road trips in America that stretches from San Simeon in Central California to Carmel by the Sea in Northern California.
Big Sur is home to amazing state parks, scenic overlooks, and incredible hiking trails. It’s a place that requires time and effort, but some travelers try to make the drive just in a day.
Don’t be one of them!
While you definitely can drive the Big Sur in just a day, you should spend at least one night in this magical place. You will have a chance to see more things and have a much better experience than when you just zip by and stop at a couple of scenic overlooks like Bixby Bridge.
13. Skipping California’s scenic drives
California has so many cool scenic drives, and my biggest advice is to do at least one of them. From the scenic coastal drive from Orange County to San Diego to the Eastern Sierra’s Highway 365 and the drive from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe, there’s so much to see in California.
Where can I rent a car for my California road trip?
You check car rental prices online at DiscoverCars, my go-to platform for renting cars in popular travel destinations.
DiscoverCars allows you to choose from dozens of cars at affordable rates. They have no hidden fees or surcharges, and you can also buy your insurance at the same time when you book your car online.
14. Not booking campsites in advance
So, you decided to visit some national parks, rented a car, and are not trying to create your itinerary.
Once you decide what national parks and scenic areas you want to visit, you need to make reservations for available camp spots.
California’s national parks get extremely crowded in summer (which is the prime camping time), especially popular ones like Yosemite and Sequoia, which are often booked up for months.
Check their websites to see available options and required documents. While you can always get a hotel on the spot, you could end up paying hundreds of dollars if you visit a popular area in the middle of the high season, so your best choice is to check all available options ahead of your trip.
15. Forgetting about Northern California
Northern California is arguably the most beautiful part of the state boasts misty coastal drives, snow-capped mountains, and stunning alpine lakes. If you love the outdoors, you simply can’t miss this part of the state.
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While most tourists head to LA and San Francisco, this part of the state offers a different feel of California where you can enjoy a more tranquil atmosphere and spend time in nature without being surrounded by thousands of people.
Here you can hike the Lassen Volcanic National Park – home to stunning geysers and thermal activity that’s similar to what you can see in Yellowstone, but without the crowds, climb Mount Shasta and enjoy coastal towns like Mendocino, Eureka, and Fort Bragg.
16. Not visiting California’s national parks
California national parks boast incredible scenery with shifting dunes, craggy coasts, alpine hiking trails, and granite walls. There are nine national parks in California, more than in any other state in the country, and each of these national parks boasts unique flora and fauna and strikingly different scenery.
Some of the most popular national parks in California are Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree which see millions of visitors per year, while the least visited ones are Channel Islands, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Pinnacles.
Visiting California’s national parks requires time and effort, as many of them are located hundreds of miles apart and some sit in remote corners of the state, which is why renting a car is a must.
It’s also possible to visit several national parks if you plan to visit a specific region of California. For example, many travelers visit Death Valley and Yosemite National Parks on their way to San Francisco.
17. Visiting national parks on major holidays
Don’t get me wrong, California national parks are beautiful during any time of the year, but they can be too crowded during big holidays when many people try to take advantage of their time off and go camping and hiking.
For the best experience, I plan your trips for weekdays. Another good tip is to visit popular national parks during shoulder seasons when crowds tend to be smaller.
For example, Death Valley has gorgeous weather from February to March while Yosemite has smaller crowds in September when the weather cools off and summer vacations are over.
18. Not getting off the beaten track
California has tons of famous places where most tourists end up going. While they are still cool, you don’t want to miss out on less popular spots, because they are just as beautiful but a lot less crowded.
19. Not changing your eating habits
High food prices in California will make you think twice about how you spend your money, including food. Take advantage of the state’s farmer’s markets, healthy restaurants, and farm-to-table options where you can buy local produce and support local farmers.
Mistakes in California: Final word
One of the things you should not do while in California is to cram tons of places on your trip. California is a huge state and unless you plan to stay here for at least a few weeks, you should stick to just one area. You could do Southern California and visit places like Los Angeles, Joshua Tree, and Palm Springs or explore national parks like Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon if you are visiting during summer and want to camp and enjoy spectacular scenery.
Regardless of how much time you have available, planning is key to having a successful trip to California.
If you have any questions or need someone to help you out, contact me.