How to Plan an Elopement in California [2024]

Eloping is all about simplicity, ease, and personalization. It’s a day to celebrate in a way that truly reflects your relationship. Often couples tell me how liberating it feels to escape the frenzy of a traditional wedding. There are no regrets in beginning a journey on your terms. When figuring out how to plan an elopement in California, remember it’s all about keeping it fun and enjoying your day. This is your chance to celebrate in a way that feels right to you, free from complications and stress.

The photo captures the silhouette of two people against a backdrop of smooth, rounded desert rocks during dusk. A clear sky with the moon visible in the background adds a serene atmosphere to the scene.

Why Elope in California?

California isn’t just a state; it’s really a state of mind! It’s where adventure meets romance. Imagine exchanging vows with the powerful Yosemite Falls as your backdrop or saying “I do” with your toes in the sands of Big Sur. You can find your ideal temperature in just about any season of the year. If you’re looking for a snowy wonderland in the winter- head to Yosemite, Sequioa, Mammoth, and more. Not into the snow, still want to elope in the winter? Go for our deserts- Joshua Tree, Anza-Borrego, Death Valley. The diversity of landscapes here means there’s something for every couple, not matter the time of year.

Key Considerations to Plan an Elopement in California

Personalizing Your Elopement

There are no rules when it comes to planning an elopement wedding (except permits and legal requirements) and the only thing that truly matters is what is important to you. These are some important questions to consider when you start to plan an elopement in California: 

  • What do you two enjoy doing together and where are your best memories together?
  • What have you always dreamed of doing? 
  • Would you like to have your hair and makeup done for you or would you prefer to do it yourself? 
  • Would you like to make a meal together, go out to a restaurant, or how about an outdoor picnic? 
  • Do you want some family and friends or will it just be you two in private?

Shared Interests

Think about what activities you love doing together. Your elopement can include anything from a favorite backpacking trip to a luxury Airbnb in the mountains or a vow exchange overlooking an epic view.

Dream Activities

What have you always dreamed of doing on your special day? Whether it’s an adventurous outing or a quiet moment together, your elopement can accommodate everything.

A wooden sign for Yosemite National Park, featuring the National Park Service logo, mounted on a stone pillar at the park's entrance. A road passes by the sign, leading into the park with a car visible in the background and a mountainous landscape in the distance.

Choosing the Perfect Location for Your California Elopement

Finding the ideal spot for your elopement in California comes with a surplus of options. Each location offers its unique charm, ensuring your wedding day is just as magical as you envision it. Here’s a closer look at some of our top areas, covering the mountains, coast, desert, and redwoods:

Yosemite National Park

Picture this: Granite cliffs, towering waterfalls, grassy meadows, and the most epic views. Yosemite is an elopement favorite for so many reasons. Glacier Point offers a panoramic vista of the valley, while Taft Point provides a more secluded spot with crazy views of El Capitan. It’s one of our most visited national parks for good reason. Nothing compares to the beauty of Yosemite.

Big Sur

Big Sur’s rugged coastal cliffs, lush, green mountains, and beaches make it a dreamy elopement location. Pfeiffer Beach and Garrapata State Park are just two of the many options for couples looking for breathtaking scenery.

Joshua Tree National Park

For those who are curious for a desert backdrop, Joshua Tree’s unique landscape of twisted trees and massive boulders is unbeatable. The minimalistic beauty creates the most intimate setting for your elopement. My favorite location in Joshua Tree is Jumbo Rocks!

Redwood National and State Parks

There’s something magical about being surrounded by the ancient giants of Redwood National and State Parks. These towering trees add a mystical atmosphere for your wedding ceremony. Locations like Fern Canyon and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park are perfect for a quiet, whimsical setting.


Pro Tips from an Elopement Photographer

I asked a group of photographers their top tips for couples when choosing a location for their elopement and these are their expert suggestions:

Summit & Co. Photo
  • “If you were an eloping couple, I would tell you to close your eyes. Picture yourself holding hands with the person you love. Feel the connection, the safe love, and the excitement of holding their hands as you’re about to say your vows to them. Picture yourself taking a deep breath before allowing yourself to be totally vulnerable in committing yourself to that person. When you breathe in, what do you want to smell? What do you want the air to feel like on your skin? When you look beyond your partner, what do you want to see? What do you want to hear? Maybe you want the air to smell like alpine air, or maybe you want it to smell like saltwater. Maybe you want to feel snowflakes on your skin, or maybe you want to feel the mist of a waterfall. Once you have decided on the experience you want, take that to your photographer and ask for locations to help that experience come to life!”
Wild Soul United // MaLove Photography:
  • “My first tip is for sure – trust your planner/photographer to advice the best options for you. Apart from that – 1 Think about the timing of the year what weather it can be etc. 2. trust your gut instinkt and pick one that feels good for both of you. 3 Look att accessibility and what it takes to get there 4. Consider how private this spot can be at what time of day/year.”
Brandi Vanderwolf Photography:
  • “The location of your elopement shouldn’t just be any random spot! When choosing a location, a couple should find a place that speaks to both of them, whether it is somewhere they have been before, or just has elements that they both enjoy. I also recommend picking somewhere off the beaten path if possible, as it helps to ensure that it is more intimate and you won’t as likely have passersby interrupting your special ceremony.”
Escape and Adventure Couples
  • “When choosing an elopement location, don’t just think of the location as a random spot to get married. Think of it as an adventure..The location you and your partner can re-visit every year for your anniversary, the place you take your future family to on vacation. Look for a location you either have always wanted to go to or a place that resembles your relationship. Do you enjoy camping in the forest? Do you have a connection with the beach? Do you enjoy hiking? Do you love feeling small when staring at the mountains that are 10x bigger than you? Or is the location you’re wanting to choose for your elopement a place you’ve always wanted to go to? Long story short, what matters most about where you get married is your happiness and how the location can help enhance your relationship and love story.”

Deciding on the Duration

Elopement Timeline

An elopement doesn’t have to be short. Plan a day that allows you to savor each moment together. Skip over to the major events of a timeline structure here.

Avoiding Over-Scheduling

It’s tempting to pack your day with activities but remember, less is often more. Avoid cramming your day with too many events—plan for moments that allow you to be present and enjoy each other’s company. I recommend no more than1-3 major activities. Quality over quantity ensures a memorable and relaxed experience.

Transition Times

Don’t underestimate the time it takes to get from one place to another, especially in unfamiliar or rugged terrain. Factor in these transition times to keep your day flowing smoothly. A good rule of thumb is to allow at least 30 minutes, even if Google Maps says it’s 15 minutes away.

Incorporating Cushion Time

When we plan an elopement in California, we can create an amazing timeline that flows perfectly and seems rock solid. But sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. It could be that you can’t find your other shoe, the entrance to the park was long, someone got a flat tire- it could be anything out of our control. Schedule extra time between activities to ensure a smooth and relaxed day. This way, you won’t feel rushed if there’s any unexpected delays. And in my experience, the cushion time is always helpful!

A couple reclines closely on a large, smooth boulder, bathed in the warm, golden light of the setting sun amidst a rugged landscape of similar boulders.

Optimal Ceremony Lighting and Timing

Sunrise and Sunset Ceremonies

For stunning photos, consider a sunrise or sunset ceremony. Both have dreamy lighting and compliment landscapes so beautifully. There’s a thing called “golden hour” where the sun casts a warm and soft light over everything. Sunrise golden hour happens the hour after the sun rises, and sunset golden hour is the hour before the sun sets.

Sunrise Considerations

Most tourists and hikers begin their own adventures between 8:00 am – 9:30 am. To create more intimate moments for private vow exchanges, first looks, or ceremonies, I like to hike up to a viewpoint right before sunrise. 

Sunset Considerations

Sunset often lasts longer than sunrise and tends to be more colorful on a clear day. It’s also a busier time of day, especially at a well-known and easy to access location. If you want to plan an elopement in California with privacy, I recommend a longer hike or more remote location.

Regardles of whether it’s at dawn, under the stars, or somewhere in between, select a time that feels magical to you both.

Late Mornings and Afternoons

Mid-day is notorious for being the worst lighting and weather. In the summer it might be best to plan an elopement with a break. Take a break at mid-day helps to avoid overheating or having the sun beat down on you. However, if the temperatures are mild – let’s keep the party going! Find an elopement photographer that understands how to work in any lighting condition. Those harsh rays don’t scare me, and they can even be fun in allowing us to get creative with shadows.

Weather

California’s pretty awesome year-round, but each season offers something special. Spring brings wildflowers, summer is all about sunny beach days, fall offers stunning foliage, and winter in the mountains can be quite snowy, or you can have a winter in the lower elevations that’s nice and crisp. Here’s the best weather for eloping in California’s most iconic geographic locations:

Yosemite National Park

Spring (April to June) in Yosemite is arguably the most magical time to elope here. The waterfalls are at their peak, roaring to life with the meltwater from the winter snows. The meadows are lush and green, dotted with wildflowers, creating a vibrant backdrop for your ceremony. The weather is pleasantly mild, though evenings can still be cool.

Fall (September to early November) is my favorite time for elopements. The summer crowds have thinned and the valley floor is quiet. The changing colors of the foliage create a stunning display of oranges, reds, and yellows. The weather is cooler, offering comfortable conditions without the intense heat of the summer.

Big Sur

Late Spring (May and June) in Big Sur, and mostly all of California’s coast, offers clear, mild days with the marine layer often rolling in during the evenings and mornings. It’s definitely less crowded than the summertime, but it won’t offer complete isolation. Big Sur is so large though that you can find a secluded spot for your ceremony pretty easily.

Late Summer to Early Fall (August to October) is considered the best time to elopement in Big Sur due to the dry, clear weather. The fog that characterizes the summer mornings typically dissipates by August, leaving behind clear skies and spectacular sunsets. The temperature is warm but not too warm. This time also avoids the winter rains that can make some areas less accessible. In recent years, Big Sur has endured severe flooding during winter storms that close down the highway and major tourist spots.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is a desert paradise that is best visited during the cooler months. Late Fall (October to November) and Early Spring (March to April) are ideal for elopements. During these months, the daytime temperatures are comfortable to explore outside and the nights are cool but not yet cold.

Summer in Joshua Tree is extremely hot, with daytime temperatures often exceeding 100°F. It’s dangerous to visit the desert during this time and it’s not odd to hear a story of someone needing to be rescued inside the park. On the other end of the spectrum, winter brings cooler days and cold nights, which might not be ideal for everyone. However, if you’re bundled up and are prepared for freezing nights, this might not even be a deterrent!

Redwood National and State Parks

The best times for an elopement in the redwoods are Late Spring (May and June). The weather is mild, and the frequent mist that envelops the trees adds a magical quality to the light. You can literally see the sun rays passing through the trees allowing you to pretend you’re in a Twilight movie (if you’re into that).

Summer (July to August) in the Redwoods is also another great time for comfortable weather conditions. The weather is dry, the temperatures are pleasant, and it rarely gets too hot. Just a note, however, that summer is the most popular and busiest time in the redwoods.

A couple is seated on a bench in a serene redwood forest, sharing a moment of intimacy. Sunlight filters through the tall trees, casting a soft glow and creating a peaceful, enchanting atmosphere around them.

Crafting a Memorable Elopement Timeline

Getting Ready Rituals

Getting ready is more than just dressing up; it’s about preparing mentally and emotionally for the day ahead. Start your day with personal rituals, whether it’s a leisurely breakfast, getting dressed in your wedding attire, or writing your vows. You can choose to get ready together, or separately for a traditional reveal. Each option has its charm and significance.

Suggested Time Commitment: 1.5 hours

The First Look

A ‘first look’ provides a private and intimate moment to see each other in your wedding attire for the first time, heightening the excitement and emotion. If you decide on a first look there’s so many options to choose from on how to do it. The most popular are back-to-back or a surprise tap on the shoulder.

Suggested Time Commitment: 30 minutes

The Ceremony

Your ceremony can be whatever you want it to be. It’s the heart of your elopement day and a reflection of your relationship. Choose from a quick exchange of vows to a more elaborate affair, with or without guests. Feel free to include any traditions or rituals that are meaningful to you.

Suggested Time Commitment: 30 minutes

Guest Photos

If you have guests, plan for group photos. Allow 2-3 minutes per group to ensure everyone gets their moment with you.

Suggested Time Commitment: Depending on your guest count, this could be 15 to 45 minutes.

Wedding Portraits

Reserve time for your wedding portraits to capture the emotions and essence of your elopement. This time is for you to pause, relax, and fully sink into these moments. Your wedding portraits can also be built in while you’re doing your activities.

Suggested Time Commitment: 1.5 hours or tie it in with your fun activities and make it 2 or 3 hours. This will highly depend on the activities chosen.

Vow Exchange

Consider a private vow exchange separate from your ceremony, especially if you have guests. This moment is about expressing your love and commitment in your own words. Your vows are the heart of your ceremony. Make them personal, heartfelt, and reflective of your journey together.

Suggested Time Commitment: 30 minutes

Selecting Activities

Choose activities that resonate with you both. Whether it’s a chill hike or a thrilling zip line adventure, make it yours. Your elopement should reflect what you love doing together.  

  • Here’s a list of ideas:
    • Make a meal together
    • Private letter readings
    • Yoga session
    • Picnic
    • Campfire
    • Go swimming
    • Smudge ceremony
    • Culture or religious traditions
    • Horseback riding
    • Brunch
    • Exchange gifts

Suggested Time Commitment: 2 hours. The suggested time will vary depending on what we have planned. If hiking, allow one hour per mile.

Canoes and kayaks are neatly stacked on a rack by a tranquil lake, with a backdrop of RVs and dense forest. The still water reflects the overcast sky and the treeline, suggesting a quiet, leisurely atmosphere at the lakeside.

California Legal Marriage Requirements

These are the legal requirements to get married in California:

  • Marriage License: Couples must obtain a marriage license from a County Clerk’s office. No residency requirement exists for obtaining a marriage license in California, meaning non-residents can also get married there. Your marriage license is then valid for 90 days.
  • Identification: Valid identification such as a driver’s license, passport, state/federal I.D., or military I.D. is required for both parties. Both persons must be present and able to show their identification in person at the County Clerk’s office.
  • Witnesses: You need at least one witness at your ceremony, and the license must be signed by the officiant and witness(es).
  • Officiant: A marriage must be solemnized by an authorized person such as a priest, minister, rabbi, or a judge, among others. I’m ordained and able to officiate on your elopement day!

Your Perfect Elopement Awaits

Now that you have the tools, it’s time to plan an elopement in California. Remember, it’s all about creating a day that’s uniquely yours. Planning may feel like a daunting task at first, but trust me – it doesn’t need to be. As your elopement photographer, with firsthand experience planning my own elopement wedding, I’m with you every step of the planning process. I’m here for any and all questions; to guide you through finding the perfect location; submit your permit application or help you complete it; find unique activities you’ll enjoy; and capture some badass photos. 

Ready to tie it all together? Schedule a call with me to begin planning your dream elopement.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes an elopement different from a traditional wedding?

  • Elopements are more intimate, customizable, and focused on the couple’s unique preferences.

Can we include family and friends in our elopement?

How do we choose the best location for our elopement?

  • There’s two routes I like to offer here. You can choose a place that holds special meaning to you or opt for a bucketlist location you’ve never been to together. I have a few guides on some of my favorite places. You can find them here.

What should we consider for elopement photography?

  • Look for a photographer who understands your vision and is passionate about prioritizing your experience. Wedding photos are important, but I argue your experience comes before all else. It’s also important to hire a native to the state that can give you expert guidance on how to plan an elopement in California.

How can we make our elopement ceremony special?

How do we handle permits and legal requirements?

  • I’ll help you handle permit applications we may need from national or state parks and BLM lands to have your elopement ceremony. Every park will have different requirements and fees, but they’re typically less than $350. 

Any tips for staying stress-free on our elopement day?

  • Keep it meaningful; don’t overload your schedule; stay flexible; and create a backup plan. But my most important tip: Remember your elopement day is about celebrating you (not making sure everyone else is having a better time).

Here's to co-creating an unforgettable elopement experience.

I’m Karen, a Southern California Elopement Photographer who empowers couples to create memories that will last a lifetime. I am dedicated to providing the tools you need to create an unforgettable experience. 

I help couples by providing personalized location lists, planning resources, vendor recommendations, permits, timeline-curation, and much more to curate elopement days that will be cherished forever.

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