An Adventure Photographer’s Top California Elopement Locations
This is your must-have guide if you’re looking for the scoop on the bests places to elope in California. If you and your loved one have made the choice to throw out the rule-book and elope, well congratulations, you’re my favorite kind of people. There are a few things you’ll need to know in order to prepare for your elopement, such as marriage license requirements, permits, and planning. You kind find all of that here in my “How To Elope” guide.
North or South California?
It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to stunning views both North and South- it’s what Cali is known for. Whether you’re looking for rocky cliffs, crashing waves, giant redwoods, or desert sands, California exudes luxury in its landscapes. But when it comes to when and where exactly to tie the knot, it all boils down to personality.
Which location fits the bill for both of you, and leaves you with amazing memories to look aback on? As an adventure elopement photographer, I’ve been to my fair share of destinations, each with its own voice. I find that when a couple finally selects their spot, it helps resolve most of the decision making that goes into planning a wedding- even an elopement! Which location will you and your loved one choose to let your love run wild?
Table of Contents
What is there not to rave about Souther California? It’s a surfer’s heaven, a hiker’s dream, a foodie’s home, and a camper’s paradise. But there’s one thing about Southern California that makes for prime elopement real estate for just about everyone, any time of the year, and that’s THE WEATHER! Unlike most wedding and elopement planning, when you choose So Cal, you hardly need a plan B. Please have one just in case!
BUT, you really only need one, and you’ll almost never have to use it. The weather is just so dependable, and we love South Cali for that. Of course, you could always be the 1% that manage to book your elopement in So Cal when it rains, so never say never. But in general, on top of the guaranteed gorgeous views that Southern California has to offer, you’re almost sure to be comfortable too.
I’ve photographed so many elopements at Joshua Tree- so many in fact that we decided to create a guide so that couples have all the info needed to plan the perfect elopement here. I love shooting here because almost all of my couples incorporate camping into the weekend. There’s a romantic quiet in the air as partners sit around the fire and tuck themselves into their tents, and the surroundings almost insists on keeping a calm energy. It’s one of the best locations for hiking, and a must-visit location if you love desert foliage.
If you’re looking for some top notch star-gazing, you’ve found it here. And on top of all of that, out of all the locations I’ve shot, I have to say that Joshua Tree is one of the only places that has equally beautiful sunrises and sunsets. It’s great because it gives you twice the opportunity for unforgettable photos!
It’s all about the beach when it comes to Sunset Cliffs in San Diego. This 2 1/2 mile hike is well worth the journey for the absolutely stunning views you find yourself surrounded by once you get there. If you need to bring two pairs of shoes, who cares? This spot is amazing for those that love the ocean. When you’re having a small ceremony here, the sea feels like your officiant. It’s everywhere you look, and it nurtures the entire experience. I highly recommend planning your ceremony close to sunset so that you and your spouse-to-be can take in the breathtaking view of the pacific ocean at sun down as a newly married couple. I promise you won’t regret it.
Red Rock Canyon
Want a gorgeous and quiet elopement, followed by nothing but party time in the city? Look not further than Red Rock Canyon. The mountains here will make you think you’re in a remake of The Land Before Time– it’s absolutely mind blowing how expansive and historic it feels. But then just 17 miles away sit the bright lights and busy night life of good ol’ Las Vegas. You truly get the best of both worlds here. If one partner craves nature, hikes, and quiet, while another wants the nightlife baby, Red Rock Canyon is the perfect solution to having it all.
It goes without saying that Santa Barbara is the perfect destination for beach loving couples, but it also offers so many other attractions. If you want to tour a winery, or take in an art museum, or even a zoo, Santa Barbara is a great spot for taking in a lot of activities in one weekend. It’s an excellent place to indulge in some luxury too. It has some of the best resorts and spas, and even offers one of the most beautiful Botanical Gardens I’ve ever seen. And if you’re looking for a quiet and intimate stay, I highly recommend checking out the local airbnbs. Hosts really do it up in this area and it can make for an incredibly romantic stay for the two of you.
The landscape at Vasquez Rocks is like no other. The entire landscape stretches nearly a thousand acres, and all of it screams of desert. You’ll see the sky stretching for miles upon miles, and enormous rocks making unique pieces of sculpture art against the backdrop of blue. This is an excellent location for horseback riding, as well as hiking. If you’re wondering what kind of aesthetic you’d be getting into here, just look to any famous western show for reference. Half of them were shot right here!
Glamis Sand Dunes
Oh do I always get soooo excited when someone books an elopement here! It is sand, sand, sand! Sand for seemingly forever, and I think it’s absolutely gorgeous. And yes, you can ride the dunes in ATVs if you so desire, just make sure to go through the proper channels. You’ll need a permit to do things like ride or camp, so do your research first. The winds can get extreme here too, so I recommend coming in the Spring or Fall when the elements are less harsh.
I will say though, the wind is one of my favorite things about the dunes- it makes for an ever changing location. When you choose to elope here, you know that you’re the only people in the world with that view since the dunes are always changing in shape. Some of the dunes get as high as the Empire State Building times three! It’s a must see for sure.
Idyllwild or Big Bear
I get asked all the time what my preference is between Idyllwild and Big Bear. They are two wildly different locations on many levels, but so close to one another, I know it’s often hard for people to chose between them. Big Bear has some of the best snowboarding slopes around, and with Big Bear Lake there’s also great water sports. It’s a much loved destination for winter, so if you’re looking to elope this time of year, make sure to book your lodging well in advance because things do book up fast!
If you don’t mind being around tourists, Big Bear can be a total blast. But if you’re looking for something more low-key, I would definitely stick to Idyllwild. One thing you may not know, is that Idyllwild is actually very famous for it’s unbelievable food! Some boast that it’s the absolute best in all of California. If dining out is one of your favorite activities as a couple, I would definitely choose Idyllwild. The mountains are just as gorgeous as at Big Bear, but it does have a more intimate feel.
When you think of Palm Springs, it’s hard not to picture the early days of Hollywood, and all the stars lounging by the pools with a martini in hand. Well, rather than picture it, I say just do it! As Kai Oliver-Kurtin so perfectly states in his Time Out article about Palm Springs, this is a location built around leisure. I mean, it’s a desert with waterfalls! How much more “extra” can you get? Some of the best (and funnest) resorts reside in Palm Springs, and if you love to lounge around in the sun, this is the place for you. Make sure you pack sunscreen, and don’t forget to set aside time for the gondola ride up to the mountaintop of San Jacinto Mountain.
Northern California is the epitome of majestic. I would classify its landscapes as royalty itself, and I’m not just saying that because of it’s history that’s literally steeped in gold (boy that gold rush was no joke). From the breathtaking shorelines, to the jaw-dropping redwoods, No Cal is the place to be if you and your future-spouse want to be cradled by nature. When shooting in these locations, not only are you sure to have stunning photography to look back on for years to come, but you’re likely to create memories where nature itself feels involved in your nuptials.
Yosemite National Park
Let’s be honest; if you think any place in the entire country has better views than Yosemite National Park, you might just be crazy. It’s a landmark so rich in beauty, it would take weeks to capture even half of its magic on camera. You could find the perfect spot to conduct your ceremony, and then turn 90 degrees and say “Oh wait! But look at this spot!” You just can’t go wrong with Yosemite National Park, especially if you and your fiancé love to hike. And if you’ve found yourself at any point during your planning process saying “Go big or go home,” well then look no further. Yosemite is just about as big as them come. Need help planning your elopement here? Check out our Yosemite Guide made specifically to help eloping couples navigate all the details of Yosemite including lodging, travel, and permits.
I absolutely love shooting at Big Sur. I’ve helped at least a dozen couples elope here, and it’s always an unforgettable event. It’s hard to argue with a location that has both crashing waves (running on the beach encouraged) and sky-scrapping redwoods. Oh, and did I mention, waterfalls? Whether you love camping or hiking, or you’re more a “I’ll be at the hotel” type of person, Big Sur offers the best of both worlds. There’s an earth-inspired sense of romance in Big Sur that I haven’t quite seen anywhere else. It’s bar far one of my favorite locations, which is why myself and my team have put together a Big Sur elopement guide for couples looking to elope here.
San Fransisco/Bay Area
Do you love the ocean, but always want to be near to the bustling sounds and energy of a big city? San Fransisco and the rest of the Bay Area are home to incredible fine dining, classy stays, and of course, gorgeous scenery. Attractions like The Golden Gate Bridge, and the Cable Cars always make for fun and unique photographs, and the colorful street art is worth some time set aside for shots too. Of course, if keeping things quiet and more secluded are your priority, then you can always stick to the beach. Whatever special accommodations you’re looking for on your special day, you’re almost guaranteed to find vendors in close range that offers what you’re looking for.
Point Reyes National Seashore
I like to call Point Reyes National Seashore a “secret gem” for an elopement location. It isn’t always the first place that comes to people’s minds when they think about eloping, but it’s well worth the consideration. It’s got such a cool vibe, and a wide array of natural offerings. It exudes that pacific ocean magic, with crashing waves that you can hear from a mile away. But in-between your campground, air-bib, or hotel and that expansive ocean lies forests, grasslands, and rocky headlands. And if you love animals, Point Reyes takes special care to preserve the wildlife in the area. You may see elephant seals, whales, or elk on your adventure, and you’re almost certain to find a unique a hiking spot unlike any you’ve seen before. I highly recommend a visit to the Point Reyes Lighthouse for a special moment with just the two of you.
It’s hard to imagine Lake Tahoe without seeing skis and boats in your mind. Lovers or luxury would be wise to put this spot on the top of their list. You can find some of the best resorts here if that’s your thing, and I think there’s an ease that comes from choosing a lake for your elopement location. You don’t have to look up when low-tide is, or wonder if you’re maybe just a little to close to that incoming wave. But you still get to enjoy the serene and calming effects that water has on you. If you’re planning to elope in winter, Lake Tahoe offers some great snowy activities like ice skating, or cross country skiing. But no matter the time of year, visiting Cave Rock is a must.
Sequoia National Park
It’s all about the trees and trails at Sequoia National Park. The gigantic sequoia trees are a show stopping site, and the deep green sherman trees make you feel like you’re in a fairy tail. If you and your loved one are big time hikers, this park offers some awesome trails, and a variety of sites. This Park is absolutely stunning, and I think it gets put on the back burner by most people because of Yosemite, but it is truly not to be overlooked. One thing that’s so nice about it is that if you’re coming from Los Angeles, it’s a short four hour drive. But be warned: if you’re coming specifically to get a moment at The Tunnel Tree, most of these sites have been closed, or are in fact over a hundred miles away despite what you may have heard.
When people think of Mammoth Lakes, they immediately think of skiing and snowboarding, and while they’re right about the amazing spots to cut the ice here, there’s so much more to offer, and at any time of the year! Mammoth didn’t get its name from nowhere. The mountains are truly gigantic! And the valleys are just as expansive. On top of these gorgeous views, you also have enormous flat lakes all around. One of my favorite things about this area is the foliage. If you’re flexible on the season for your elopement, I highly recommend coming to Mammoth Lakes in the Fall; I swear, you never even knew leaves could be that bright of yellow and red!
All of our couples shown here have their own stories. Check them out on the Heather Anderson Photography Blog. I’d love to talk with you more about the best elopement location for you and your fiancé.
Book a call with me while you’re there. I can’t wait to meet you!