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6 California trips for every type of traveler

May 30, 2020
9 min read
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If you're dreaming of a trip to California, you have tough choices to make. Stretching for nearly 900 miles along the Pacific, the Golden State is massive — home to theme parks, national parks, sprawling cities and tiny rural towns. Whether you're traveling with the entire family or looking for a quiet, private retreat, there's more than one way to vacation in California.

To help you plan the perfect California getaway, we spoke to a variety of travel experts, including points-and-miles gurus and budget-conscious backpackers. The result? Six awesome ways to experience this diverse and beautiful state.

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The best trip for adventure

(Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)

The arduous 16-mile, round-trip hike up Half Dome is the pinnacle of a visit to Yosemite National Park. The trek rises more than a vertical mile, including a summit ascent so steep you need cables to pull yourself to the top. Climbers are rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley. Permits are only issued for summer dates through a lottery that opens in March. Demand is extremely high, so apply for up to seven dates (midweek days have a higher acceptance rate). The application fee is $10, plus an additional $10 per permit if you're selected. An additional permit lottery is held two days in advance of the hiking day.

If you'd like to get a head start to beat the bottleneck at the cables, apply for a wilderness permit to camp in Little Yosemite Valley. The lottery for those permits opens 24 weeks in advance but has to be entered via fax (seriously). A handful of last-minute permits are also available from the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center on a first-come, first-served basis the day before the hike. Confirmed reservations cost $5, plus $5 per person, and entrance to Yosemite National Park is $35 per vehicle — not a bad value for a trip to California.

The best trip for families

(Photo by Mark Downey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Downey/Getty Images)

Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is a quintessential family vacation destination. Travelers with tots in tow can stay right across the street at the Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance, from 50,000 points per night on off-peak dates. The property is just a five-minute walk from Disneyland and, if the famous theme park just isn't enough, travelers can take advantage of the hotel's on-site waterpark. Ideal for families with young children, the Courtyard rooms even feature bunk beds. Continue the adventure by taking your little flyers (aspiring pilots as young as 11) to the nearby Flightdeck Flight Simulation Center, where they can jump in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 or a fighter jet.

Bonvoy members also can redeem points at the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort when it opens. It is a Category 7 property and is about a 10-minute drive from Disneyland. Amenities at this luxury 466-room hotel include an outdoor swimming pool and a rooftop lounge that gives you a perfect view of the nightly Happily Ever After fireworks show up the street.

The best trip for luxury

(Photo by Don White/Getty Images)
(Photo by Don White/Getty Images)

Just south of San Francisco (SFO), The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay is one of the most picturesque (and most expensive) properties in the Ritz portfolio. It has a beautiful oceanside location (there are a number of scenic trails you can pick up right from the property) and the on-site amenities include two championship golf courses and an open-air terrace where you can roast marshmallows for s’mores. Award nights start at 50,000 points on off-peak dates — an especially great deal when you consider that the hotel's cash rates typically range from $700 to $1,000 per night. Getting to SFO with points and miles is easy, too. All the major carriers fly there, and American and United economy awards start at just 12,500 miles one-way. Southwest is another great option for travelers with a Companion Pass. Just know you'll want to rent a car at the airport for this itinerary.

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Travelers may also want to consider Ventana Big Sur, an Alila resort that became bookable with World of Hyatt points when Hyatt acquired Two Roads Hospitality group in 2018. This aspirational points hotel will set you back at least 30,000 points per night (or between $500 and $1,000), but the payoff is incredible. You get views of one of the most iconic swaths of Pacific Coast; rooms with private balconies or patios plus fireplaces and deep soaking tubs; incredible and discreet service; and an infinity-edge hot tub overlooking the towering redwoods and mountain landscape beyond. Splurge on a treatment in one of the property's new outdoor spa cabanas (consider an aromatherapy bath in a large copper soaking tub).

Related: Getting to Los Angeles on points and miles

The best trip for aesthetes

(Photo by Westend61/Getty Images)
(Photo by Westend61/Getty Images)

Palm Springs, California, has long been a trendy spot for Southern California-bound travelers, and there's even been a $400 million downtown revitalization project designed to keep it that way.

It's an attractive desert destination filled with striking examples of midcentury modern architecture like the flying saucer-esque Bob Hope House and sharp-edged Palm Springs Tramway. Even the airport, Palm Springs International (PSP) is a testament to the modern design movement. There are also quirky sculptures scattered around town, including the Volkswagen VW Bug Spider and a grinning bronze statue of Salvatore "Sonny" Bono (former Palm Springs mayor and Cher's husband and duet partner on songs like "I Got You, Babe").

The so-called Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway at Ladera Circle — originally known as the House of Tomorrow — offers daily guided tours. Bed down at the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs Hotel, where rates start at 60,000 IHG points or less than $200 per night. Guests will enjoy spaces filled with mid-century furnishings, though the rooftop pool is the property's crown jewel.

The best trip for oenophiles

Napa Valley. (Photo by Andrew Gunners/Getty Images)
Napa Valley. (Photo by Andrew Gunners/Getty Images)

Approximately 1,000 vineyards dot the valleys of Napa and Sonoma, making California's foremost wine-making region an obvious choice for oenophiles. But you don't have to stick to the standard route. In Napa, avoid the crowds and visit Far Niente, a 19th-century winery set on 13 acres with sprawling wine caves, or drop by Robert Mondavi, a winery from one of Napa's oldest wine-making families. Other popular estates include Raymond Vineyards (book a tasting in the Red Room, an over-the-top space draped with red velvet and filled with oxblood leather and fleur-de-lis wall coverings) and The Prisoner Wine Company, a relative newcomer in St. Helena that does away with any trappings of a traditional European wine estate.

Explore more of the valley aboard the popular Napa Valley Wine Train, a 36-mile round-trip that connects smaller hamlets and villages including St. Helena, Oakville and Yountville. The train is almost as stunning as the bucolic scenery, with gleaming Honduran mahogany, stained and etched glass and brass fixtures.

Stay in the Napa Valley's first Four Seasons Resort and Residences when it begins accepting reservations later this year. (Carve out a wellness day at the eight-room spa with steam pods where hammocks swing above geothermal pools.) Or, head to Sonoma and check into the Montage Healdsburg, a striking 258-acre resort that's also expected to open before the end of 2020.

The best trip for skiing

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

North-facing slopes and the highest elevation of any ski area in the state make Mammoth Mountain one of the most sought-after destinations for skiers. With nearly 500 inches of snow last ski season, the mountain often remains open for skiing and boarding well into the summer. From its roost high in the Sierra Mountains, Mammoth isn't just a playground for powder hounds; it's also a gateway to Yosemite and the region's other natural attractions.

Because a trip to Mammoth requires completing at least a few turns, pick up a ski pass (Mammoth Mountain belongs to both Ikon and the Mountain Collective) and check into the Category 7 Westin Monache Resort Mammoth, a popular place for travelers to hang their skis after a full day on the slopes. The hotel costs between 50,000 and 70,000 Marriott points per night for a standard room, depending on the dates. You can find some rooms for 50,000 points per night during the off-season, which means you can use an annual certificate (worth up to 50,000 points) from the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card on those dates. Don't forget to save time for an après-ski sundowner on the slopeside sundeck at the on-mountain Lincoln Bar.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.