The Ultimate Guide for Eloping in California
Planning Your Adventure Elopement in the Golden State
Whether you want to gather just a few of your closest family and friends under a cactus archway or want to venture hand-in-hand under sky-high redwoods with your loved one, California has you covered. With plenty of airports and hubs across the state, it’s easy to arrive, and once you get there, adventure and solitude in nature are just a short drive away.
California may be known for its palm trees and movie stars, but it’s got a lot more to offer for nature lovers and adventurous hearts! If you’re planning an outdoor elopement to tie the knot, the Golden State is home to nearly every kind of climate and environment, from ocean cliffs to golden desserts to snowy mountaintops.
Whatever scenery you’re envisioning for your California elopement, you’re sure to find it in one of the states parks!
Here are a few of my favorites:
Here are a few of my favorites:
Redwood National & State Parks
Big Sur—the stretch of land that runs along the recognizable curves and cliffs of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel—is known for its ocean views; the twisting road and crashing ocean waves are the stuff of Bond movies and car commercials. And while it’s breathtakingly beautiful enough to warrant this attention, this part of California has even more to offer eloping couples.
There are a number of state parks in Big Sur, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home to redwoods and waterfalls; Garrapata State Park, with coastal cliffs and fields of wildflowers in spring and summer; and Limekiln State Park, which is more secluded and densely forested. Just keep in mind, if you do decide on one of these state parks—or even most of the coast, which falls within these parks—for your elopement, you’ll need to choose a day that falls on a Monday through Thursday; that’s because these state parks only issue special events permits (which you’ll need for an elopement) on these days.
While it’s the ocean that gives Big Sug its reputation, there are actually only a few beaches accessible to the public. But there are plenty of jaw-dropping ocean views to make up for it.
Near the northernmost corner of California are the Redwood National & State Parks. Here you’ll find countless redwoods, as the name suggests, but you’ll also find wild prairies, dense woods, ferns upon ferns, rivers and streams, and almost 40 miles of coastline in its 139,000 acres of land.
The Redwoods National Park actually includes three state parks: The Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the Del Norte Redwoods State Park, and the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, all of which offer different advantages, depending on what you’re looking for in an elopement. The Old Growth Groves, for example, have some of the oldest, and therefore biggest, redwoods, whereas the Dolason Prairie Trail has open stretches of prairie with wooded mountains in the distance. While the national park is spectacularly beautiful in so many ways, it’s actually one of the least visited national parks, making it perfect for your intimate elopement!
Because it’s near the Oregon border, this area of California feels very much like the Pacific Northwest—both in scenery and in weather. That means you’re more likely to encounter rain, fog, and cloudy days than you are in other sunny parts of the state, but that’s not a bad thing!
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
sEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
Yosemite’s neighbor, Sequoia National Park, is where you’ll find the biggest trees on the planet. All 12 of the world's largest trees are giant sequoias, and they’re all right here. Standing beneath the larger-than-life trees, it’s actually difficult to comprehend their size—in part because they’re surrounded by other massive trees, in part because they’re just too beautiful! While you can’t actually elope under a sequoia (they keep them very protected!), you can elope between them, and they’ll provide intimate shade and quiet from several feet away.
While the sequoias are the stars of the show at this national park, the landscape is as diverse, rugged, and large-scale as in Yosemite: rocky mountains, deep canyons and caverns, and vibrant green meadows. If you’re looking for an easy trek with big nature, think about the boardwalk of the Big Trees Trail. If views are your priority, check out the aptly named Panoramic Point. Wherever you decide to elope inside Sequoia, be sure to apply for a special events permit ($175) and be prepared to appreciate the grandness of nature and love in the shade of these gentle giants.
Outside of the Hollywood sign, there’s probably no landmark as iconically Californian as the sheer face of Yosemite’s half dome. At 8,839 feet, the granite dome peaks around other cliffs like El Capitan, separated by the deep green valley below, making for a heck of a greeting committee when you enter the national park from the east.
While these names probably ring a bell, there’s a ton of lesser known hikes and sights in Yosemite to explore. Some four million people visit Yosemite every year, and most of them spend the majority of their time in the seven square miles of the Yosemite valley. Venture off the beaten path and you’ll find quieter trails with fewer tourists and old-growth forests, crystal-clear lakes, and meandering rivers, plus the most breathtaking long-range views in the state.
Yosemite is open year-round, but you’ll have trouble exploring most of the park in the winter months, so travel is recommended May–September. Of course, that’s when everyone else will be there, too, hence why you might want to check out some less popular paths if you’re hoping for a more private experience. To elope in Yosemite, you’ll need to apply for a permit between 21 days and one year before your event (there’s a $150 application fee). If your group will be 11 people or less, there are plenty of ceremony locations throughout the park you can choose from.
If you’re looking for moody beaches and cliffs, the area of coastal northern California around Mendocino is for you. Mendocino Headlands State Park runs along the coast and prevents the condo and hotel development you might expect around other beach towns. With easy trails, sweeping fields, sea arches, and ocean cliffs, it’s easy to appreciate the quiet, simple nature of this state park. The temps stay cool year-round with wildflowers in spring and an opportunity to see the migration of grey whales in the winter.
Another popular state park around the Mendocino coast is Russian Gulch State Park. You might recognize the park’s famous bridge and waterfall (because they’re famous, they’re also likely to be pretty packed with tourists), but what you might be surprised by the park’s steep canyons covered in ferns and dotted with redwoods.
If you’re looking for beachy vibes, check out Big River Beach, which sits on the estuary with white sand beaches; Glass Beach, whose shores sparkle with sea glass; or the sunsets at Seaside Beach.
The wintergreen blue waters, evergreen forests, and jagged, snow-peaked mountains of Lake Tahoe make for one of the dreamiest elopement locations in the state! The lake itself, which is nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is almost 200 square miles and straddles both California and Nevada (so make sure you apply for your marriage license in the state where you’ll actually elope!). The lake is surrounded by lots of state parks, including Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park to the north and Emerald Bay State Park to the south.
With such a large expanse of water, it’s not surprising that different sides of the lake will provide you with different experiences. The south side of the lake is popular with visitors because of its casinos and tourism industry, so it might not be ideal for an intimate elopement. The north and west, on the other hand, are beautiful and less industrialized. But whichever side you decide on, you’ll still be able to find secluded wooded coves with views of the blue-green lake below. And don’t limit yourself to just looking at the lake; think about taking your wedding on the water. Rent a boat big enough for you two, witnesses, and a photographer, or just explore the lake via a canoe for some sweet one-on-one time post-ceremony.
As one of the most remote, dry, and hottest places in the country, you’re sure to get some quality one-on-one time if you choose this park for your elopement. Located in Central California near the Nevada border, you’ll actually want to fly into Las Vegas and make the trek out to Death Valley. Permits for elopements in Death Valley will run you $210, and there are limited ceremony sites like Breakfast Canyon throughout the park (but you can certainly explore other areas on your big day!).
This park sits squarely between two mountain ranges—the Amargosa Range to the east and the Panamint Range to the west—and is home to sweeping sand dunes, striped canyons, and a sky so wide it’s hard to believe. While it’s one of the hottest places in the state (I do not recommend planning your visit for the summer months!), some of it’s surrounding peaks, like Telescope Peak, the park’s highest point at 11,049 feet, have snow year-round. The 14-mile round-trip hike to the peak is strenuous but would make for some epic photos!
Looking for something a little easier but equally beautiful? Consider the one-mile hike to the arch of Natural Bridge or one of the hikes around the orangey Ubehebe Crater, which was created by a volcano hundreds of years ago.
Southern California’s Joshua Tree is super popular, and it’s easy to see why: It’s easy to get to from hubs like L.A., San Diego, and Palm Springs, and its landscape is wrapped in sagey, dusty colors with jagged mountains and cactuses and trees that look like they’re from a Dr. Seuss book. While this park is popular, there are still ways to escape the crowds and have a private elopement.
Like other parks in California, you’re limited to a few areas for your actual ceremony (and don’t forget to apply for your permit, which is $120), but the ceremony areas all offer the long desert views you’re looking for. Porcupine Wash, for example, is a long eight-mile trail spotted with diverse rock formations, so you’re less likely to encounter crowds than on, say, the easier one-mile Cap Rock (which does have some stunning panoramic views).
While I always encourage having a leave-no-trace attitude when eloping in (or actually enjoying in any way) our natural parks, Joshua Tree—and most national parks—are really strict about what you can bring into the park, and some of the items on the “no” list are common wedding decorations. You can’t have drones, dried flowers, regular candles, bubbles, any live animals, confetti, rice, birdseed, balloons, or smoke bombs, so if you’re planning on incorporating any of these into your elopement, you’ll need to leave them at home.
When Is The Best Time to Elope in California?
As with most areas across the country, spring is one of the prettiest and most celebrated seasons in California. In Northern California, it arrives a little late and brings with it fields of wildflowers and cool breezes. In Southern California and the deserts of Central California, spring swings into the state by March and brings with it bright yellow wildflowers, warmer temps, and fewer tourists than in other busy seasons.
From its southernmost to northernmost points, California is 800 miles long (only Alaska and Texas are longer), and its seasons and environments are as diverse as you might expect! The best season to elope depends entirely on which area of the state you’re eloping in, and even then it’s open to interpretation!
may - September
You might imagine summer in California as sunny, but along the coast you’ll probably encounter seasonal fog and cloudy skies—”June Gloom”—in the early summer months. The clouds and fog usually clear up by mid-day, leaving you with the balmy temperatures and sunny skies for which the state is known! Summer is the most popular season for visitors in the state, especially at popular national parks like Yosemite, so you might want to consider a different season if you’re looking for a more private elopement.
october - november
While the beaches may be packed in summertime, fall brings way fewer crowds but plenty of sunny beach days to California! The temperatures in fall, especially in Southern California, remain pretty warm. It’s also a season with less rain and cloud cover in Northern California. If you’re looking for fall colors, head north to parks like Yosemite and Sequoia, where deciduous trees are mixed in with their evergreen cousins.
december - february
If you’re planning on a desert elopement, you should definitely consider the winter months! The stifling heat of summer—and even spring and fall—are easier to avoid in the winter months (December–February) with average daytime temperatures around 60. Some areas of Northern California’s national parks may be closed in winter, and while the beaches to the west may be very chilly, they’ll offer their signature PNW gloom with fewer visitors.
Your first question when picking your elopement day, regardless of where you decide to do it, should be “What day works best with our schedules?” You should be able to fully relax and enjoy your wedding day, so try to pick an “off” season in your career fields or a time when you know you won’t be too stressed.
Next, do a little research on the area of California you’re choosing to elope in and when its busy seasons are—then plan around them. Summertime is going to be prime vacation time for families regardless of the area, but spring might be best in Northern California and winter in the deserts.
Tips for picking your elopement day in CALIFORNIA
Also take holidays into account. While it might be easy to plan your work schedule around holidays, everyone else feels the same, too, so I generally suggest you avoid holidays and the weekends around them.
And finally, consider what you’re looking for on your wedding day and when your location is most likely to deliver it. If you’re looking for moody skies, you’ll probably get them in early summer; sunshine and cooler temps might be best in the fall. Make sure the location you’ve chosen will be open (some spots in Northern California might be closed in the winter) and check on permitting, too.
What to Do During Your CALIFORNIA Elopement
As you start to plan your epic Californian elopement, especially if you’re visiting from out of state, remember this isn’t just about your ceremony—it’s about making the most of the trip of a lifetime. The options are truly limitless for nature based fun and more. I hope you make plenty of time to explore this beautiful state, both on your wedding day and the days around it; here are some of my favorite ideas:
Skiing & Snowboarding
Canoeing or kayaking
Read letters from family & friends
Ceremony with loved ones
Video chat with family
Obtaining a marriage license & park permits in CALIFORNIA
The most important thing to know about eloping in California is that you must get your marriage license in person. In some counties, you can apply for your license online, but even if you do, you’ll still have to go to the County Clerk’s office to pick up your marriage license.
Whether you decide to apply online or complete the whole process at the County Clerk’s office, you’ll need to make sure you have the following on hand:
-The full name, address, birthplace, and date of birth for both you and your partner
-The name and places of birth for each of your parents, including both your mother’s maiden names
-A valid, government-issued photo ID for each of you, like a valid driver’s license, passport, military ID, or state issued ID
-About $100 in cash for the application fee (the amount varies by county)
-If you’ve been divorced, you’ll need to know the date your marriage was dissolved (and if it was less than six months ago, you’ll need to bring a copy of your divorce decree)
-Depending on the county, you might also need copies of your birth certificates
Once you’ve gotten your marriage license, you’re ready to wed! California is one of the few states where it’s legal to “self-solemnize,” or wed without a judge, celebrant, or third-party officiant, meaning you can pretty much marry yourselves! (Cool, right?) But there’s still red tape: Once you’ve eloped, you’ll need to have your witnesses sign off on your marriage license and take it back to the County Clerk.
The rules around getting a marriage license vary from county to county, so I highly suggest you do your research early on as you begin planning your elopement (just Google the county in which you’re marrying and “Clerk’s office”).
Now, as for park permits:
Most national and state parks in California do require you apply for a special events permit before your ceremony with fees in the $100–$200 range. Again, I’d highly suggest researching the rules around permitting in the park you choose well in advance to make sure you’re prepared. The details around these permits can change at any time (after all, who expected a global pandemic would disrupt wedding permits in 2020!), so be sure to check with the proper park or land management entities leading up to your elopement to make sure you’re prepared.
Some national parks, like Joshua Tree and Yosemite, require you stick to their location list for your ceremony, and you’ll need to have that picked out when you apply for your permit. Applying for these locations doesn’t guarantee you’ll be alone (you can’t tell visitors not to visit that area of the park during your ceremony), but there are still plenty of remote locations to choose from, and you can definitely explore outside those areas before or after your ceremony.
How to Get Around California
California is a huge state, but luckily there are plenty of airports that make getting there pretty convenient. Once you’ve arrived, you’ll probably want to rent a car. If you’re planning an adventurous elopement, you’ll want to be able to explore the national park (or parks!) you choose; some of these are remote and/or huge, and the best way to get to various locations is often by car. Plus, having a car on hand allows you to pivot quickly if your plans are foiled by weather or other forces outside of your control. If you’re thinking of venturing off-road in the desert or woods, be sure to pick a rental with four-wheel-drive to get you to your next adventure!
Where to Stay in California
Whether you’re looking for the hot sunshine of the desert or the cool shade of the redwoods, you’ll be able to find cute and comfy accommodations nearby to make your elopement truly special!
Depending on how far in advance you’re planning and which park you’re considering, you might be able to find lodging within the park. Yosemite, for example, has plenty of campsites with varying degrees of amenities—from barebones sites to canvas-sided cabins—but they book out a year in advance. Most of the state and national parks have some kind of camping available, just looking into the NPS or state park site to see what they have that might work for you and your partner. Outside of the parks, there are some really lovely glamping areas and regular campgrounds.
For parks closer to small towns or cities—like the Mendocino Coast or Lake Tahoe—you’ll have your pick of cute, old-school bed and breakfasts or Airbnb-style houses. Maybe you want to stay in old Victorian house by the sea with breakfast made for you, or maybe you’re looking for a little forest cabin to while away the night sipping whiskey with your partner—there’s a house for that! When it comes to more remote parks, like the Redwoods, which are surrounded by wilderness or tiny towns, you’re less likely to find ready accommodations; just plan in advance because what is available will probably book quickly. And as always, there’s plenty of car or tent camping options to consider!
What to wear for your CALIFORNIA elopement
If you’re planning on wearing the dress of your dreams (you go!), just be sure it’s one in which you can move freely. That means a dress that’s loose around the hips and thighs so you have plenty of room to stretch, climb, and maybe even run. I’d also suggest packing extra layers because the weather can shift pretty drastically in California once the sun goes down. And don’t be afraid to get that thing dirty!
Shirts & Pants
The same rules apply to pants as to dresses: Make sure you’re wearing something that’s roomy enough around your legs to allow for all kinds of adventuring. And again, be sure to pack some additional layers in case the fog clears or the sun sets and changes the temps.
Obviously what to wear depends a lot on where and when you’re getting married—the desert in spring is going to feel a whole lot different from the Northern California coast in winter!—but in general, my number one rule is this: Wear what makes you feel good! If that’s a dress, go for it; if it’s a badass suit, that’s cool, too. Here are some general guidelines if you’re planning on adventuring during your elopement:
If you’re planning on hiking at all on your elopement day, I’d suggest wearing hiking boots, especially if you’re climbing mountains or hills in Northern California. Even if you’re heading to the beach or the desert, think about wearing sandals made for the outdoors like Texas. You can always slip on nicer shoes for the ceremony.
What about photography & videography to help you re-live your California elopement?
that's where I come in:
Hi! I'm Kathryn!
I am a deep rooted mountain girl at heart from being born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, but traveling all over the world has consistently made me fall in love with the beauty of each special place. California is no exception. My first time there was a big adventure full of so many different and unique landscapes. I love nothing more than being in nature with couples like you on such a special day as your elopement day, making sure I can do whatever I can to make things joyful and carefree.
I know what it feels like to stand on a mountaintop and feel the breeze on your face.
I know what it feels like to feel shaded, comforted, protected by the dense forest around you.
I know what it feels like to be brave enough to jump in the depths of a blue, chilly swimming hole and laying on a rock in the sun to get dry.
That is all I want for you and your elopement day.
I want you feel deeply connected to each other and connected to this
beautiful planet we get to call home.
I’m here to help make that come to life for you!
Lots of elopement companies offer short and small packages, covering 1 or 2 hours of time, and thats all.
You might even think that’s really all you need for an elopement, because what else is there to do?
The secret is - There is SO MUCH you can do.
The best part about eloping is that you get to choose things that are tailored just for you.
You aren’t going through the motions of traditions and timelines that are meaningless.
You aren’t eloping because you value your experience less, but because you just want something DIFFERENT.
Something that is more about you as a couple than everyone else.
Something that is stress free and private.
Something that truly represents what you love and value in life.
I help my couples have an elopement day that is filled to the brim with memories, ranging from 4 hours to 2 days of coverage!