8 California hotels to help you connect with the great outdoors

May 26, 2022

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I’m standing in front of a rustic lodge that could have been airlifted straight from the Alps into a lush aspen-fringed mountain valley in California. Just inside the small lobby, rows of snowshoes of all sizes await my selection. A sled leans against the wall outside, waiting for an excited child (or youthful adult) to carry them across a nearby hill.

This is Wylder Hotel Hope Valley, a cozy cabin retreat that has been appreciated by many since it opened in 1926. As fellow guests gear up for their chosen wintertime pursuits and head out into the fresh drifts, I realize that this is what we’re all looking for: accommodations that provide a gateway into the great outdoors, with an atmosphere that echoes the beauty around us.

With spectacular and diverse landscapes of rugged mountains, panoramic coasts and golden deserts, California is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Many properties, like Wylder Hotel Hope Valley, cater to those seeking a blurred line between nature and accommodation.

If that’s you, read on for our list of the best California hotels for outdoor adventure.

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Wylder Hotel Hope Valley

Woodsy cabins at Wylder Hotel Hope Valley. (Photo by Ren Fuller/The Points Guy)

Formerly known as Sorensen’s Resort, Wylder Hotel Hope Valley reflects its Nordic heritage in its chalet aesthetic, warm and welcoming hospitality and the wood-fired sauna bookable by the hour. Since its purchase by the Wylder brand, the hotel has spiffed up its cabins to offer new kitchens and sleek blonde wood furnishings.

The resort’s restaurant, still called Sorensen’s, has also upped its game with delectable — and unusual — dishes, such as wild mushroom and truffle ricotta gnudi and roasted cauliflower and hemp soup.

Featuring wildflowers in spring, deep drifts in winter and beautiful foliage in fall, Hope Valley couldn’t be a better choice for nature lovers eager to play year-round in one of the least-traveled areas of the Sierras. The West Carson River rushes through the center of the valley, calling to swimmers and fishing enthusiasts alike. (Plentiful brown and rainbow trout were the original draw for early 20th-century vacationers). Additional all-season activity options are extensive, from mountain biking, hiking and kayaking in summer to cross-country skiing, sledding and the aforementioned snowshoeing in winter.

Kirkwood Resort, a home base for some of the Sierras’ best skiing and downhill biking, can be found 20 minutes away from the hotel on state Route 88. As you drive, you’ll pass azure Caples Lake and its swimming beaches and boat launch. Lake Tahoe, with its wealth of recreation opportunities, is 30 minutes in the other direction.

Wylder Hope Valley offers a wide variety of lodging options, from campsites to glamping yurts to cabins of varying sizes. Cozy bungalows, the smallest cabin option, start at $270 a night.

The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe

Ski-in, ski-out access is available at The Ritz Carlton, Lake Tahoe. (Photo courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe)

A mere 6 miles from Lake Tahoe and adjacent to Northstar California Resort, The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe is ideally located for both winter and summer fun. A luxurious ski-in, ski-out retreat, the property offers a long list of amenities, including ski valet service and a concierge on standby to set up outdoor experiences like tee times and whitewater rafting excursions, among other options.

The hotel itself is not right on the water. However, guests have beach access through the resort’s exclusive Lake Club, which features a private boat launch, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

Games on the expansive lawn, s’mores at the fire pit and barbecues on the terrace are just some of the activities that make the resort a favorite with families.

Every facility here takes advantage of the mountain views, from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Manzanita restaurant to the slope-side pool. Another standout amenity is the 17,000-square-foot Highlands Spa, which features a heated outdoor lap pool, a dry sauna and an herb-scented steam room.

And if you’re planning a multigenerational getaway, celebratory gathering or family retreat, you’re in luck: The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe offers 12 extremely spacious two- and three-bedroom residences with both plenty of privacy and access to all resort facilities.

Like other Ritz-Carlton outposts, the Lake Tahoe location is part of the Marriott Bonvoy program. Room rates start at $587 or 88,000 points per night. Guests using their Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card may earn perks like free nights and property credits.

Related: 15 of our favorite ski-friendly resort hotels you can book on points

Alila Ventana Big Sur

Views to dine for at Alila Ventana Big Sur. (Photo courtesy of Alila Ventana Big Sur)

There’s no dreamier stay on California’s rugged northern coast than at Alila Ventana Big Sur. A day at this Hyatt outpost may start with a guided nature hike or clifftop yoga set to the tune of the surf below and finish with one of the most picture-perfect sunsets California has to offer.

During the rest of the day, choose from two pools with incredible views, numerous hot tubs (including an authentic bathhouse) and the resort’s renowned Alila Spa. The menu from this healing refuge includes a Javanese coffee scrub and cranial sacral therapy. Enjoy treatments inside the spa or in outdoor cabanas under the redwoods.

Want to get even closer to nature? Bed down in one of the resort’s safari-style platform tent cabins tucked deep in the redwoods. You’ll find a surprisingly luxurious bathhouse nearby.

Alila Ventana Big Sur’s all-inclusive model means your stay comes with three farm-fresh meals daily. Take them either poolside or at The Sur House, an unforgettable dining experience with its clifftop terrace and unparalleled sunset views.

Tear yourself away from the resort’s 160 acres of oak-studded meadows and sheltering redwood groves to drive Big Sur’s famously winding state Route 1. Stop for photographs at Keyhole Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach and watch McWay Falls plunge into the cove below.

On your way out of town, stop for a superlatively smoky Southern barbecue at the Big Sur Smokehouse, situated on a restored 1867 farmstead.

As a World of Hyatt property, Alila Ventana Big Sur is bookable starting at $2,125 per night (including all meals and snacks) or 45,000 points per night. World of Hyatt Credit Card members can earn free nights and bonus points when using their card to pay for their stay.

Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach, Autograph Collection

Sunset serenity at Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach. (Photo courtesy of Vespera on Pismo Beach)

One of those delightful old-school beach towns that seem to be vanishing into trendiness day by day, Pismo Beach feels straight out of a surf movie, and the Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach is right in the middle of the action.

A member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, Vespera Resort sits directly above the sand. Guests are just steps from Pismo Beach’s classic fishing pier, a favorite spot for a sunset stroll that juts 1,200 feet into the Pacific.

Also nearby, the Pismo Beach Surf Shop rents surfboards, paddleboards and wetsuits. Additionally, it offers kayak tours to area sea caves.

If you prefer biking, you can rent anything on two wheels — from a beach cruiser to an electric bike — and cycle down to Dinosaur Caves Park.

Pismo Beach’s location off state Route 1 provides convenient access to nearly limitless outdoor adventures, including horseback riding on the beach, wine tasting in Edna Valley and soaking in the hot springs of nearby Avila Beach.

In the evenings, take in the night skies. Each of the hotel’s 124 guest rooms and suites features a hand-held telescope and a stargazing map.

The hotel bustles on Saturday afternoons with live music, wine tastings and wine tours. Plus, it takes dog-friendliness to new levels with its Pismo Pup Club, which is stocked with frisbees, balls and other toys. With the memory of miles of sand to run on, your four-legged friend may be the one begging for a return stay.

Rooms at Vespera Resort start at 57,000 points or $267 per night, and long-term rates are available. Sign up for the Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card to earn automatic Silver Elite status (with 15 elite night credits annually), as well as 3 points per dollar spent on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program.

Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa, Indian Wells

The mountains meet the desert at Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa. (Photo courtesy of Esmeralda Resort & Spa)

Once the secret hangout of Hollywood stars like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa has returned to its former glory thanks to a million-dollar redesign that has elevated the 23-acre desert gardens, lobby, restaurant and bar to true destination status.

Palm trees shade the largest pool in the Coachella Valley, which features oversize cabanas to keep out the desert sun and a sandy “beach entry” that’s perfect for kids to wade into the water.

At the 36-hole golf course, the only downside may be the distracting views of the San Jacinto Mountains rising to the sky.

The younger set will love the hands-on entertainment zone, which comes complete with an escape room and ax throwing.

There’s no overlooking the drama of the desert here — the watercolor splash of the spring wildflowers and the unexpected coolness of a fan palm oasis, such as the one at the Coachella Valley Preserve, sit just 20 minutes away.

Rooms at the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa, a Marriott property, start at 40,000 points or $264 per night. Keep in mind, there is a $36 daily resort fee. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can transfer their Chase Ultimate Rewards points instantly at a 1:1 ratio to Marriott Bonvoy to help cover their stay.

Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite

Wildflowers wow in Yosemite and Mariposa County. (Photo courtesy of Mariposa County)

Winter wonderland or summer playground? Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite offers the best of both seasons (and more) from its enviable perch 3 miles outside the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. In winter, you may find yourself snowshoeing at Crane Flat or cross-country skiing Badger Pass. But that’s only if you’re not ice skating on the resort’s own rink. Come spring, wildflowers riot across Mariposa County — redbuds line the Merced River, and California poppies blanket the hills. Summer may find you waking at dawn to hike Wawona Meadow or seeking out the best swimming holes on the Merced River.

No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll want to head into Yosemite to marvel at the ancient sequoias of Mariposa Grove, the craggy granite faces of Half Dome and El Capitan and the waterfalls tumbling into the valley below. When you’re ready to escape the crowds, the Stanislaus and Sierra national forests beckon with hundreds of miles of trails that traverse alpine meadows and climb peaks that reach as high as 13,986 feet.

There’s plenty to do back at the resort, too, especially for families who love the guided nature walks and poolside “dive-in movies.” Soak away muscles sore from peak climbing with a treatment at the resort’s Ascent Spa.

Rooms at Tenaya Lodge start at $185 per night during the offseason.

Timber Cove Resort

Pacific views and privacy at Timber Cove Resort. (Photo courtesy of Timber Cove)

Few hotels on the Northern California coast boast a setting as guaranteed to induce tranquility as Timber Cove Resort. The property is situated on 23 acres of isolated Sonoma County coastline where the Russian River empties into the Pacific. Watch for the telltale spouts of migrating whales while staying warm by a crackling fire, then fall asleep to the sound of crashing surf and wake rested and ready to explore the redwood forests in the hills above.

Timber Cove Resort was built in the 1960s in the outdoors-in style inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. Today, it’s luxe rustic at its finest, with sleek furniture and modern amenities subtly integrated into its original beam-and-glass aesthetic.

Open to visitors as well as guests, the resort’s Coast Kitchen bases its menu on what’s on offer from Sonoma County’s bountiful farms and ranches. Select from plenty of artisanal cheeses, grass-fed local beef, tender greens and seafood straight from the harbor.

The 46 rooms, including eight expansive suites, are designed to inspire, with retro turntables and a selection of vinyl records to set the mood.

Nearby Goat Rock Beach at the mouth of the harbor is a favorite nursery for Pacific harbor seals. You’ll see them all summer long raising their playful pups. The calm waters of the harbor mouth are a favorite spot for kayaking, too.

You’ll find rooms at Timber Cove Resort for as little as $343 per night.

The Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort & Spa

The mountains beckon from The Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort & Spa. (Photo courtesy of The Westin Rancho Mirage Palm Springs)

The fact that The Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort & Spa occupies 360 acres of prime Palm Springs real estate should indicate just how much nature awaits guests in this spacious slice of the Coachella Valley.

A recent $15 million makeover encompassed all 512 guest rooms, meeting spaces and the resort’s recreational areas. The upgrade included the addition of The Backyard, a modern event venue for live music.

Kids won’t want to leave the family-friendly Las Brisas Pool and its two waterslides, one of which is a brand-new 30-foot barrel slide.

Golfers will be seduced to stay on property by the 18-hole course designed by Pete Dye. Tear yourself away, though, as Tahquitz Canyon trails await.

Don’t miss the Palm Springs aerial tramway, with its rotating cabins, stunning views of Chino Canyon and observation area atop 8,516-foot Mount San Jacinto. Hikers use the tram to access high-altitude hiking trails like the Long Valley Discovery Loop.

Another must-do is a tour through the surrounding landscape. Outfitter Desert Adventures, bookable through the hotel concierge, runs open-air Jeep tours through the rugged desert canyons.

Marriott Bonvoy members can book this Westin outpost for 40,000 points per night or a minimum of $206 per night. Get a free night (on standard rates) when you use the 50,000-point free night certificate you earn with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card.

Featured image of Wylder Hotel Hope Valley courtesy of Ren Fuller.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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