California is not the promised land, but it sure has fooled a lot of people into thinking that it is. Gold-rush prospectors, dust-bowl refugees, Midwesterners brainwashed by surf songs, aspiring actors trying to make it big in Hollywood—they've all looked on the state as a paradise where their dreams would come true.

Most of them didn't find the Garden of Eden when they crossed the state line, but California certainly does look the part: Fertile valleys are nestled beneath rugged mountains, grapevines cover the hillsides and the tallest trees in the world stand high above a rocky ocean shore. A land of geographic superlatives, the Golden State is blessed with more physical variety than any other state in the U.S.—from desert to snow-capped peaks—while its cities are each as distinct as a thumbprint.

Travelers may be the ones who come closest to finding a utopia in the state. There are so many wonderful things to see and do that it's hard to pick what not to see and do. At the end of every trip to the region, travelers lay out plans for the next time around.

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