When it comes to landscape and nature photography, California is one of the most diverse states in the U.S. In California you can photograph rocky coasts and cliffs, majestic mountain peaks, canyons, waterfalls, desert wilderness, magnificent redwood trees, and some of the most picturesque lakes in the U.S.
While there is no shortage of photographic opportunities in the state, this page will point out many of the most noteworthy. Be prepared, this is a long list of great locations and by the end of the article you will have a very long list of places you want to visit. The interactive map below shows the location of each spot mentioned on this page.
This page will continue to be a work in progress, so please feel free to leave a comment with your own suggestions of great places to photograph.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is well known as an iconic destination for landscape photographers, and with good reason. Located in the Sierra Nevada, the 1,200 square miles of the park include often-photographed sights like Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and many others. Most of the park’s visitors spend their time only in Yosemite Valley, but there is an abundance of amazing scenes throughout the park, and plenty of trails that will take you there. If you are planning a visit you may want to check out this article on the best photography spots in Yosemite by Laurence Norah.
Mono Lake is located in the eastern Sierra Nevada, just outside of Yosemite National Park. It is a truly spectacular and unique place that attracts many photographers. The tufa towers in and around the land make it a very special lake. It is also an important location for wildlife, especially birds. Currently Mono Lake is threatened by low water levels and increasingly high salt levels. The change in water level has somewhat changed the appearance of the lake and its surroundings.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is located in eastern California, with a small part extending in Nevada. It is one of the largest national parks and one of the hottest locations in the U.S. Although the conditions can be extreme, it is a popular location because of the amazing scenery. Photographers can capture desert, sand dunes, salt flats, canyons, and mountains. Some of the top attractions for photographers are Zabriskie Point, Racetrack Playa, and Dante’s View. Due to the extreme heat it is best to visit during winter months.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is located in southern California, about a 2+ hour drive from Los Angeles. The park is over 1,200 square miles and includes parts of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. The beautiful Joshua trees that are located in the park are a major draw for photographers. It is also a great place for night photography.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
In southern California, northeast of San Diego, is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This park provides excellent opportunities for experiencing and photographing the California desert. It is actually the 2nd largest state park in the contiguous 48 states and includes more than 500 miles of dirt roads, and more than 100 miles of hiking trails.
Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave National Preserve covers more than 1.5 million acres of the Mojave Desert in southern California between Los Angles and Las Vegas. The preserve features Joshua trees, sand dunes, volcanic formations, canyons, mountains, and wildflowers. The park includes paved roads that lead to many of the most noteworthy locations, as well as many 4-wheel drive routes.
Castle Mountains National Monument
Castle Mountains National Monument is located in the Mojave Desert of southern California. It is surrounded on 3 sides by the Mojave National Preserve. The 20,000+ acre monument includes Joshua trees, desert grasslands, and wildflowers. It is accessible only by dirt roads and a 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
Red Rock Canyon State Park
Red Rock Canyon State Park is located about 120 miles north of Los Angeles and features beautiful cliffs, buttes, and colorful rock formations. This 27,000 acre park includes plenty of trails that allow you to experience and photograph nature.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are located next to each other (Kings Canyon to the north, and Sequoia to the south) and managed together. They are also located south of Yosemite National Park. Sequoia National Park covers more than 600 square miles and includes some popular destinations like General Sherman and Mount Whitney. General Sherman is the largest (by volume) tree in the world, and Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states (you will need a permit to climb/hike Mount Whitney).
Kings Canyon National Park is more than 700 square miles and includes the large glacial Kings Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the U.S. The park also includes the General Grant Grove, which preserves several groves of sequoias.
Mobius Arch is located in the Alabama Hills, east of Mount Whitney. There is a trail that will lead you on about a 10 minute hike to reach Mobius Arch. Not only is the arch worthy of being photographed, but the surrounding landscape is beautiful and, depending on your angle, Mount Whitney can be framed within the arch.
John Muir Wilderness
The John Muir Wilderness includes more than 600,000 acres and is located north of Kings Canyon National Park. It features snow-capped mountains, canyons, and plenty of nature to photograph. It includes nearly 600 miles of trails, most notably the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, both running north and south.
Devils Postpile National Monument
Devils Postpile National Monument is located in eastern California, southeast of Yosemite National Park. It features a striking rock formation of columnar basalt, mostly with a hexagonal shape. The volcanic formation is a great option for interesting photos. This is also a common starting point for hikers in the area.
Rainbow Falls is a 100-foot waterfall located within Devils Postpile National Monument. To reach the falls you’ll need to take a 2.5 mile hike from the ranger station. You can find good hiking information for the area here.
Mammoth Lakes is a town located near Devils Postpile National Monument. Twin lakes (pictured below) is a set of two connected lakes at the base of Mammoth Mountain.
Convict Lake is in the Sierra Nevada, east of Devils Postpile National Monument. It is a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains, making it an excellent location for photographers.
The ghost town of Bodie is located in eastern California, near the Nevada state line and north of Mono Lake. The town once was home to as many as 10,000 people due to a gold rush. Now it is a National Historic Site and a State Historic Park. The town is a popular spot for photographers who want to capture the remnants of the town.
Lake Tahoe – Emerald Bay State Park
Lake Tahoe is a popular vacation destination that lies partly in California and partly in Nevada. The beautiful water and scenery of its surroundings make it a great destination for photographers as well. Emerald Bay State Park includes one of the best locations for photographing the lake (southwest part of the lake).
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is located in northeastern California. Lassen Peak is the largest plug dome volcano in the world. State Route 89 passes through the park going north and south, and goes by the base of Lassen Peak. Within the park you’ll find lakes, wildflowers and peaks.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
The Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is located about 80 miles south of Mount Shasta, centered on Whiskeytown Lake. The area includes mountain creeks, waterfalls, and more than 70 miles of trails.
MacArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
MacArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park is home to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in California, Burney Falls. It is located in northern California, about 50 miles southeast of Mount Shasta. You can catch a view of the falls from the parking lot, or hike to the bottom. There is a 1+ mile trail that circles the falls.
Mount Shasta is a volcano in northern California with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and the fifth highest peak in the state. It’s an excellent subject for photographs, partially because of how abruptly it rises from the surrounding landscape.
Lava Beds National Monument
Lava Beds National Monument is located in northeastern California. It is home to more than 25 lava tube caves with trails for access and exploration. There are many other trails through the Great Basin that will give you some great views of this rugged landscape.
Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks includes Redwood National Park, Del Norte Coast State Park, Jedediah Smith State Park, and Prairie Creek Woods State Park, all located in northern California. These parks are home to some of the largest trees in the world and the old growth forests present plenty of photographic opportunities. There are plenty of hiking trails to explore, and scenic drives that allow to easily get some great views.
Patrick’s Point State Park
Patrick’s Point State Park is located in northern California, just south of Redwoods National Park. This small park includes coastal redwoods, sandy beaches, tidepools, cliffs, and wildflowers. There are hiking trails that make it easy to explore the area.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Humboldt Redwoods State Park is located about 80 miles south of Redwood National Park. There is a 5-mile road that goes through the park, as well as more than 100 miles of hiking trails the lead you through the old growth forest that includes many of the tallest trees in the world.
Bowling Ball Beach
Bowling Ball Beach is located about 120 miles north of San Francisco and is part of Schooner Gulch State Beach. The round rocks and cliffs make it an excellent location for photography.
Sonoma Coast State Park
Sonoma Coast State Park is west of Santa Rosa and north of Point Reyes National Seashore. It includes 17 miles of beach along State Route 1, including Arched Rock Beach and Goat Rock Beach. The rocky shoreline is perfect for photography and there is easy access to the beach in many locations throughout the park.
Vineyards of Napa Valley
Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, is well known for its vineyards and wineries. Driving through the area will lead to plenty of photo opportunities. You can drive just about anywhere to get great views, but Silverado Trail is a popular choice, and there are some other options as well.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Located north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is a great place to get amazing coastal photographs. The 70,000+ acre park includes several hiking trails, including the most popular Bear Valley Trail. The Earthquake Trail is a short 0.6 mile loop that runs directly over the San Andreas Fault. The park is also home to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.
Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument is located near the Pacific Coast just north of San Francisco. In protects more than 200 acres of old growth redwoods. There are 6 miles of trails for enjoying the nature. Be aware that parking is very limited. The NPS offers some recommendations for getting to the park without driving your own vehicle in order to avoid trouble with parking.
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is iconic and one of the most commonly photographed locations in the U.S. There are many different vantage points from which you can photograph the bridge. Fort Point sits at the south end of the Golden Gate. Golden Gate National Recreation Area provides several different vantage points from the north. Marshall Beach allows you to include rocks in the foreground. Crissy Park provides a nice view from east of the bridge.
Just northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge and within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Rodeo Beach is an excellent option for beautiful coastal photographs. The red and green pebbles that make up the beach contribute to the uniqueness of Rodeo Beach.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Located about 30 miles southwest of San Jose, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is an excellent place to photograph redwoods if you are in the San Francisco or San Jose area. The park includes more than 10,000 acres of old growth forest. You’ll also find waterfalls and abundant wildlife.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Pigeon Point Lighthouse is located southwest of San Jose, very close to the western edge of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The area is part of a state historic park and open to visitors. The 100+ foot tower set on top of a cliff is an excellent photo opportunity.
Shark Fin Cove
Just south of Davenport, Shark Fin Cove presents a beautiful coastal scene for photographers. The fin-shaped rock formation, steep cliffs, and cove are well worth the attention they attract. You can photograph from the trails atop the cliffs, or go down to the beach. There is also a sea cave that is accessible at times, but be careful when exploring the area due to the potentially dangerous tides and currents.
Natural Bridges State Beach
South of Shark Fin Cove is Natural Bridges State Beach. The natural bridge formation is the main attraction of the park for photographers, and one well worth visiting. The park is also home to a monarch butterfly preserve that includes more than 100,000 butterflies from October through February. Hiking trails allow you to access the beach, an estuary, and butterfly preserve.
The Walton Lighthouse, also known as the Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse, is located just east of Natural Bridges State Park. The current lighthouse was built in 2001 and is very picturesque along the Pacific coast.
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is located west of Fresno and south of San Jose. The park is home to pinnacles that are leftovers of an extinct volcano. The park is divided in two sections, east and west (the east side is more developed). The rock formations divide the two sections and no roads connect them, although there are hiking trails that lead from one section to the other. Spring usually brings wildflowers to the area, and the park also offers caves, trails, and great views.
Big Sur / Pacific Coast Highway
Big Sur is a roughly 90-mile stretch of rugged coastline where mountains quickly rise from the coast. The Pacific Coast Highway in this area provides one of the most scenic drives in the U.S., and there is plenty to photograph along the way.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Point Lobos State Reserve is located at the north end of Big Sur. It is well-known for beautiful coastal scenery, and the headlands and coves are perfect for photography. There are several hiking trails, some along the shoreline, that allow you to explore the area.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Located on the Big Sur coast, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is home to a unique and beautiful waterfall, McWay Falls, that falls onto the beach. The 80-foot waterfall is visible from the top of the cliffs along the coast. The park is also home to 300-foot redwoods.
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is located about 70 miles north of Los Angeles and is an excellent place to photograph fields filled with flowers. There are also other wildflowers within the preserve, although poppies are the most prominent. Blooming season is typically February through May, and 7 miles of trails allow you to take in the amazing sight.
Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is not as well known as some of the other national parks in California, making it a great spot to get some unique photos. The park consists of 5 islands off the coast of southern California. The undeveloped islands are home to more than 2,000 different species of plants and animals. You’ll need to take a boat to reach the islands, and only about 30,000 people do so each year. Photographic opportunities include sea caves, seals and sea lions, spring wildflowers, and great island views.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Located northwest of Los Angeles, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area provides amazing access to nature that is very close to a major metropolitan area. Much of the land is jointly managed by state parks and state beaches within the national recreation area. You can learn more details about the specific parks here. More than 500 miles of trails allow you to explore this beautiful landscape.
Sunset Cliffs in San Diego offers beautiful coastal scenes. Cliffside trails offer views from above, and Sunset Cliffs Park manages the land between Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and the Pacific Ocean.
La Jolla Shores
About 12 miles north of Sunset Cliffs is La Jolla Shores, another great location for coastal photography.
Scripps Pier is a large pier in San Diego, located at La Jolla Shores.