Top 10 places in California to visit in 2023

For every weekend you think there’s nothing to do, there’s a charming rural outpost, deserted beach or burgeoning new spot begging to be explored.

We Californians are pretty confident we know our state: the regional quirks, the intrastate rivalries, the drama in Sacramento.

But the Golden State’s bounty runneth over: 482 towns and cities, 1,150 beach access points, 8,008 named mountains, 3,000 lakes, 12,000 hiking trails and 280 state parks. We’ve got more people than Canada, more landmass than Italy, more coastline than Costa Rica.

The point is, for every weekend you think there’s nothing to do, there’s a charming rural outpost, deserted beach or craggy peak begging to be explored.

And, delightfully, California is ever changing. The city you wrote off 20 years ago is a creative hive now, the national park you’ve been visiting since childhood is undergoing more changes than at any time since the Hoover administration. Natural disasters strike and we rebuild. Times change and we adapt.

Here we’ve compiled a list of 10 places that are ripe for a look in 2023 — some changing for the better, others bouncing back from near-devastation, and a couple fresh spots to add to the state’s mountain of appeal.

Los Alamos

Matt Dayka / Visit the Santa Ynez Valley

Deep in the heart of Central California cow country, an hour south of San Luis Obispo, lies an unlikely culinary oasis.

It all started in 2003, when Full of Life Flatbread began slinging surprisingly good pizzas in Los Alamos, a nowhere town of 1,300 souls in northern Santa Barbara County. Los Alamos was not a destination in those days, just a nice stop along Highway 101, nestled in the rolling hills. But a few years after Full of Life opened, an artisan bakery showed up. Then a natural-wine-tasting room hung its shingle outside the flat-front buildings that line Los Alamos’ main drag and hark back to its days as a stagecoach stop. People started to notice .

In 2018, two chefs from Los Angeles opened Bell’s, a fine-dining destination that Esquire called one of the country’s best new restaurants and that holds a Michelin star to boot. And then, all at once, Los Alamos became “little L.A.” Overnight, it seemed like SoCal-ers began filling up the gussied-up roadside motels and slurping up the excellent wine from Santa Barbara County’s nearby AVAs.

Luckily, Los Alamos has taken its newfound fame in stride. The cozy coffee shop will have a seat for you, the shopping will entertain, and the food will be very, very good.

Dos Rios Ranch Preserve

Paul Kuroda / Special to The Chronicle

The San Joaquin Valley, a West Virginia-size agricultural region so bountiful it conjures images of cornucopias, is a park desert.

A map of state and national parks shows a preponderance of preserves along the coasts and foothills and mountains — all the places where Californians typically play. The valley, however, is nearly barren. For residents, this has meant long drives and limited opportunities for outdoor recreation.

But in 2023, California’s newest state park is slated to open along a newly revitalized stretch of river outside Modesto.

For the past decade, the nonprofit River Partners has been restoring a large floodplain at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers . The group turned Dos Rios Ranch, 2,000 acres of flood-prone ranchland, into a riverside habitat bursting with life. It’s a model for restoration projects in a time of drought and climate change. In 2022, the group agreed to transfer the land to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

When it opens, Dos Rios Ranch will be rough and wild — a unique riparian landscape in the parched valley. Over the next few years, River Partners expects the park system will add more trails, campsites and infrastructure to this floodplain.


Sierra Buttes

Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship

Tucked away in the Northern Sierra is this crumbling granite throne surrounded by unspoiled alpine lakes and snow-fed rivers. Hikers and mountain bikers have known about Sierra Buttes forever, but the angles of approach to this dramatic pile have been expanded.

There's the strenuous 5.1-mile out-and-back trail that leaves from a backroad off Highway 49 behind Sierra City and terminates at a lookout with long views into the Sacramento Valley.

Then a few years ago, a 6.5-mile segment of the Pacific Crest Trail nearby was rerouted , opening a more scenic pathway through the buttes area. This means relatively new camping, hiking, horseback riding and contact with Tamarack Lakes — none of which is accessible by car.

What’s more, a pair of world-class mountain bike races that bring riders to the Sierra Buttes returns this summer after two years of COVID cancellations. The Lost and Found (35, 60 or 100 miles) and Downieville Classic (26.5 miles) events run in June and July, respectively. Both support the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship nonprofit, which lays down new trails in the region and is working on an epic 600-mile network that would link 15 mountain towns between Truckee and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Even if you’re not into mountain bike races, the normally sleepy towns in the area become lively social hubs of outdoor lovers on summer weekends and make for fun hangs.

Shelter Cove

Max Whittaker / Special to The Chronicle

There’s barely enough habitable land where the mighty Pacific crashes at the feet of the towering King Range for this small town, but there it is, clinging to a remote protuberance on Humboldt County’s Lost Coast.

Most places on this list are undergoing some sort of transformation, but Shelter Cove bucks that trend: Very little happens here. Which is kind of the point. The distractions are few, cell service is spotty at best, and activity dies down each evening with the setting sun. There's no downtown, not even a stoplight. There’s a well-stocked general store on the way into town, but visitors are advised to pick up food and wares back in civilization before they arrive.

And yet, progress has seeped into town in ways visitors will appreciate.

Gyppo Ale Mill, named after old-time independent loggers who lived "a freewheeling & independent life," serves its excellent locally brewed beer out of a venue with a patio overlooking the town’s airstrip. There’s weekly live music there, with a firepit and cornhole out back too. Mi Mochima, one of the area’s few restaurants, offers surf-and-turf fine dining with a Venezuelan flair — think swordfish-stuffed empanadas and pork ribs.

What people come for is quiet and natural beauty: sweeping black sand beaches, rich tide pools, whale watching and hiking trails. Also, Shelter Cove is home base for backpackers taking on the glorious Lost Coast Trail to the north.

If there’s one notable development here, it’s that there are more Airbnbs available than ever before — a blessing or a curse, depending on where you come from.

Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

More of California’s native tribes are venturing into tourism — the state even launched a special marketing campaign in the fall to promote these new enterprises. At the vanguard is the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in the Sonoran Desert, which as we speak is building a fresh destination for culturally curious travelers.

Opening later this year in downtown Palm Springs is the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza , a huge development consisting mainly of a museum loaded with artifacts and a spa laden with natural spring-fed mineral pools.

The tribe has offered guided hiking and horseback riding on its lands for years — including a canyon excursion to a 60-foot waterfall. But the plaza represents a leap in how California tribes showcase themselves to visitors.

“We’re on the verge of becoming a major hub for Native American cultural tourism in Southern California,” Kate Anderson, the Agua Caliente tribe’s director of public relations, said recently .

The plaza is expected to open in the spring.

Long Beach

Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau

If your knowledge of Long Beach starts and stops with the early music of its most famous son — Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr., a.k.a. Snoop Dogg — then you’re in for a surprise.

First off, Long Beach is not L.A. Yes, this port town is part of Los Angeles County and, yes, it’s ensconced in the greater Southland, but the city is 30 miles and a personality transplant away from the Hollywood sign. Here are the laid-back vibes people are disappointed not to find in traffic-clogged L.A. Reasonable rents have kept neighborhoods livable, and interesting restaurants and shops thrive.

This year, the city’s favorite touristy yet beloved attraction, the Queen Mary, a 90-year-old ocean liner turned hotel and restaurant, will begin a phased reopening after years of COVID closure.

Long Beach is home to some of the best breweries in Southern California (Beachwood is a regular podium finisher at the Great American Beer Fest), one of the oldest bars in the Southland (Joe Jost's, with its bar lined with jars of pickled eggs) and the state’s biggest Cambodia Town (try Monorom for classic Khmer cookery). On Fourth Street’s Retro Row, you can munch exquisite pizzas and sip interesting wines at Little Coyote, pop into a number of vintage clothing and furniture shops and peruse vinyl at Third Eye Records. For a less hipster day, the Aquarium of the Pacific is SoCal’s largest.

Coming to L.A. and skipping Long Beach is like visiting San Francisco and never stepping foot in Oakland. Sure, plenty of people do it. But they’re missing out.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Nic Coury / Special to The Chronicle

California’s oldest state park is emerging from the ashes . A full 97% of this old Bay Area favorite, with its redwood-studded canyons, was torched by wildfire two years ago, and the park reopened last summer in a limited capacity.

Many of the trees survived the blaze, but there’s no way to sugarcoat it: The once glorious park is now a charred forest. Hazardous tree removal, trail rebuilding and other work is ongoing with the expectation that it’ll take decades for the environment to recover and park infrastructure to come back.

In its damaged state, Big Basin might seem like a strange candidate for this list. But that’s a lot of the California landscape these days: in recovery. The park now serves as a sobering view of the toll climate-fueled fires are exacting across the West. As park managers reimagine its future , they’re leaning into that tragic transformation and how to use it to educate visitors and design a more fire-resistant environment.

In the meantime, about 18 miles of fire roads as well as the famous Redwood Loop are open to visitors. But you’ll need a reservation to go .


Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Visit Redding

Another outdoor playground rebounding from fire is the Whiskeytown Lake area, near Redding, which burned four years ago and reopened most of its main attractions to hikers, campers, mountain bikers and horseback riders this past summer.

Here are 42,000 acres of rolling hills, streams and trails surrounding a massive lake with 36 miles of shoreline . The lake has long been a favorite body of water for boaters, fishers, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders, as well as sailors and windsurfers on windy summer afternoons. The backcountry trails lead hikers and mountain bikers to cascading waterfalls and scenic vistas.

Finally, just about all of the park’s roads, boat launches, picnic areas, trails, campgrounds and RV camps have reopened. That includes the lovely 2.2-mile out-and-back to Boulder Creek Falls, the primitive campgrounds at Sheep Camp and Brandy Creek and the beaches at Brandy Creek and Oak Bottom.

Check the park’s website for status updates on roads, trails and campgrounds.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

California is spoiled for ghost towns: Calico, off Route 66, and Bodie, the Eastern Sierra mining town, come to mind. But few of them possess the cultural history and significance of Locke, a former Chinese enclave on the Sacramento River.

This 10-acre delta hamlet, founded in 1915, was the only town in America built by Chinese laborers for Chinese people. It came about after completion of the levees that helped drain 80,000 acres of the valley and turn California into an agricultural powerhouse. Many of the Chinese immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and built the levees stayed to work the fields and eventually built a settlement for themselves.

To be fair, it isn’t quite a ghost town today — 100 people live there now, though most are not Chinese. These days, Locke is a national historic landmark, and residents and the state have preserved many of the original buildings as a testament to the way California immigrants lived at the start of the 20th century.

The street signs here are printed in Chinese, and the old business names — Wah Lee and Co. Boots and Dry Goods — are still visible. There are a few shops and restaurants, a small museum and a lovable diner/dive bar called Al’s Place . In May, the Asian Pacific Spring Festival parades down the street. On the weekends, bikers and classic car aficionados meet here.

Locke is still very much still alive.

Yosemite National Park

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

It’s not been an easy few seasons for the crown jewel of California’s parks.

The 4 or 5 million visitors who smooshed into Yosemite each year before the pandemic hit could make the valley feel like a mosh pit. Fires both inside and outside of the park blackened its skies and forced evacuations. Funding woes delayed necessary infrastructure repairs and improvements.

But thanks to an influx of cash from the Great American Outdoors Act, Yosemite is flush. The park is now in the midst of its most expansive infrastructure upgrade since the Civilian Conservation Corps busied idle hands during the Great Depression. Even the old Ahwahnee Hotel is getting a seismic upgrade and will reopen in March.

Perhaps most importantly, after instituting a COVID reservation system the past three summers to limit crowds, visitors will no longer have to book their dates in advance to enter the park this year. (Park Service officials say they’re working on a new plan to quell crowds, though details are sparse.)

A word of advice: Don’t limit your visit to summertime. Almost 60 percent of yearly visitors pile into the park between June and September. But Yosemite is magnificent in the offseason. Half as many people visit in October than in August; just 3% of visitors roll through the park in January and February. Snow on Half Dome is a sight you’ll remember forever; the annual “firefall” spectacle is an event to behold (however, you will need reservations to go see it this year ).

And, as always, don’t forget that the large majority of visitors stick to the tiny percentage of the park that is developed and maintained for tourism — the rest is the blissful, nearly pristine wilderness that John Muir enjoyed.


Reporting by Gregory Thomas and David Ferry . Editing by Deb Wandell . Visuals editing by Ash Adams , Alvin Jornada and Gregory Thomas . Design by Todd Trumbull . Copy Editing by Andrea Behr . Icons by Font Awesome / CC BY.