California Elopement Guide - How to Elope in California
Mountains, deserts, beaches, forests, glaciers… name a landscape, and California’s bound to have it! Whether it’s the year round sunshine of SoCal or the towering Redwoods up north that draw you in, it’s no wonder why so many couples travel to California to tie the knot! If you’re planning your own California elopement, there are a few things you’ll need to know - but don’t worry, I’ve got all the important stuff right here.
Choose a California Elopement Location
While I usually say setting the date is the first step to planning an elopement, because California has so many different climates, I recommend deciding where you want to elope first! For example, if you’re hoping for mountains, summer is best. But, if you want to explore the desert, summer is the last season you’ll want to choose (unless you like 100 degree weather). Here are a few of my favorite California elopement locations - check out this post if you want more great places!
Yosemite National Park
How could I ever give elopement location recommendations without mentioning Yosemite? With its iconic vistas and dramatic overlooks, there are countless easily accessible places for an elopement ceremony. For those who want more adventure and less crowds, Yosemite’s hiking trails offer some awe inspiring backdrops for an elopement ceremony.
The clear blue water of Lake Tahoe draws visitors from all over the world, and it’s no wonder why it’s such a popular elopement destination! Whether you hike and view the lake from above, explore the shores, or take a boat ride onto the lake, you’ll be rewarded with incredible scenery.
Death Valley National Park
Despite the ominous name, Death Valley is an incredible, unique national park perfect for any couple whose California elopement plans include being in the desert! The colorful sand dunes, vast desert landscape, and jaw dropping sunsets provide the perfect backdrop.
Alabama Hills is a natural area right outside the small town of Lone Pine. It has been the set of many old western films, so if you elope here you might recognize some of the scenery! The unique rock formations and surrounding mountains make this a picturesque location, and a rock climber’s dream.
On the coast of northern California is Del Norte, which holds several Redwoods parks that feature trails going through majestic forests, and ending on the rocky coast. For woodsy elopement photos that will make you feel like you stepped into a storybook, elope amongst the towering Redwoods of Del Norte.
Big Sur is one of California’s most iconic sites. The winding highway goes along the cliffs, with jaw dropping views of the ocean below. If you keep your eyes peeled, you can often spot sea lions sunbathing on the beaches! Big Sur contains 10 state parks, so you’ll have never ending options for hikes to explore and backdrops for your ceremony.
In the winter, Mammoth Lakes is perfect for skiing, and in the summer, it’s the perfect place to find hot springs! Just imagine relaxing in a natural pool in the middle of the forest - and when you’re done, you can end your elopement day by visiting one of the town’s local restaurants for dinner and local brews!
The lost coast is perfect for hikers and backpackers, and several trails lead to remote beaches. Black Sand Beach is a unique spot, named after the dark sand on its shores. This elopement location is one of a kind, and the fog, waves, and black sand coming together is a magical sight.
Pinnacles National Park
This area is full of unique rock formations that tower high above the desert. Perfect for rock climbers, or lovers of the desert boho vibe, this national park is less popular than California’s other parks, making it the perfect, private location for an elopement ceremony.
Joshua Tree National Park
Named after the twisted, bristled Joshua trees, this park is a desert oasis on the outskirts of the small towns surrounding it, where you can find quirky local thrift stores and artisan shops. Joshua Tree’s flat landscape means that even the most remote hiking trails are easily accessible, and you can choose from cactus gardens, rock formations, and desert flora for your elopement backdrop.
This little rainforest oasis tucked away in Northern California right next to a beautiful beach with endless driftwood. This park has all those lushest greens that you could ask for and is very easily accessible with little hiking involved to get to some beautiful spots. At times you can even see some elk herds here on the trails and in the spring there are some awesome waterfalls locations as well.
Decide on an Elopement Date
After you’ve decided where you want to elope (or at least what kind of scenery you’d like to see), it’s time to set a date!
Weather varies dramatically in California, and there’s not one “best time” to elope here! It all depends on where you want to go.
Winter in California
Winter is a popular season in southern California, as people rush to flee the cold of their home states. If you want to elope in the desert, winter is the perfect time! Temperatures are mild (though it may be chilly in the mornings and evenings), and if you’re traveling from a colder climate, the sunshine is a great escape. Beaches near San Diego and Los Angeles are sunny and warm as well, but as you go north to the more remote, less populated coastal areas, temperatures drop and rain falls for much of the season.
If you hope to go skiing on your elopement, the mountainous regions of the state are ideal in the winter. Visit higher elevation areas Yosemite or Big Bear to elope in a winter wonderland!
As temperatures warm and snow melts away, many of California’s parks and natural areas are perfect for an elopement. Because it is not yet peak season, you’re very likely to get the more popular places, like Big Sur and Yosemite more to yourselves! If you catch the tail end of Spring it is one of the most beautiful times of year in California where everything is green and the flowers are blooming and the temperature is perfect! Sometimes in the higher elevations, snow will still be sticking around in the Spring.
For most places (with the desert being the exception, as temperatures can rise into the hundreds), summer is the most popular season in California. The weather is typically in the 70s and 80s in mountainous and coastal regions, and snow melts away from hiking trails. If you want to hike on your elopement day, July and August are your best bet to ensure that all trails are open and snow free! If you are planning on being in the valley, plan for much higher temps, sometimes going into the 100's, so I always recommend elevated locations or coastal locations in the Summer.
I absolutely love fall for California elopements. In the parks, crowds thin out significantly by the end of September, and the leaves start to change colors. Snow can fall as early as October at higher elevations, but coastal regions typically remain snow free, with moderate temperatures in the 50s and 60s.
Especially in popular areas like Yosemite or Tahoe, crowds of people can be a bit of a drag when you’re trying to enjoy nature, and that’s especially true on your elopement day! My favorite way to avoid crowds and ensure that you don’t have an audience during your ceremony is to find off the beaten path locations - and don’t worry, we can always head to the more popular spots for photos!
One tip I give to every couple is to elope on a weekday, especially Monday through Thursday. Weekends draw out way more crowds, so just by eloping while most people are at work you’ll be much more likely to get some space to yourself!
Another way to ensure some privacy is to plan your elopement ceremony for sunrise. Even if mornings aren’t your favorite, there’s something amazing about getting to a location before anyone else does and watch it transform as the sun comes up. Plus, you’ll get some amazing sunrise lighting for your photos!
Make it Legal
For your California elopement, you’ll need to make sure to get some paperwork handled - it may not be glamorous, but if you want your marriage to be legal, it’s important!
You don’t need to be from California to elope here - but you do need a California marriage license! Both of you will need to be present, and visit any county clerk’s office in the state (if you’re eloping in Lake Tahoe, double check that you aren’t crossing into Nevada, as marriage licenses are only valid in the state you get them in), so if you're traveling make sure to arrive early enough to do this! There is no waiting period, which means you can get married as soon as you get your license, but it does expire after 90 days.
To get married in California, you must be over 18 (unless you have parental consent), and unmarried. Same sex marriages are allowed! If you’ve previously been divorced, you will need to know the date of your divorce, and if it happened less than 90 days ago, be sure to bring in your divorce decree. If you were previously registered in a domestic partnership with someone other than your future spouse, this will need to be dissolved before you can legally get married.
You will need to bring a government issued photo ID (like a driver’s license or passport) and some cash - fees vary by county, but are usually around $80. Some offices accept checks, and debit or credit cards, but many don’t, so check in advance!
One thing that is unique to the state of California is that you both need to know what your married name will be at the time that you apply for your marriage license. Discuss this beforehand so that you aren’t caught off guard at the county clerk’s office!
Make sure to do some research when finding an office - some are appointment only while others allow walk-ins, and all of them are only open on weekdays! I recommend going in the middle of the week to avoid crowds, and scheduling an appointment is the best way to ensure you’ll be seen quickly. Office hours vary, but many offices close briefly during lunch time, so it’s always best to check ahead of time.
You will need an ordained officiant to sign your marriage license - but don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! As a photographer who specializes in elopements, my goal is to make sure you never have to work too hard to have a great elopement day - so with all inclusive elopement packages, my husband serves as an officiant (and musician, and picnic basket carrier, and a few other things).
If you have a friend or family member who doesn’t have stage fright and is good with words, you can also have them get ordained to officiate your ceremony! Getting ordained is quick and easy on ULC.org, and can add a personal touch to your elopement.
California requires one witness to sign your marriage license - but if you were planning to have a guest-less elopement, don’t freak out! I’ve got my camera in one hand and a pen in the other, ready to sign the official documents.
Depending on where your California elopement takes place, you may need to get a permit for your ceremony. Make sure to do some research so that you don’t have any run-ins with the park rangers!
Cost of Eloping in California
Elopement costs can vary a ton, as eloping is all about making decisions that work for you! Here is a breakdown of the average costs of eloping in California.
5 nights in an Airbnb: 1,000
5 days rental car: $230
Photographer, officiant, and live musician (included in all inclusive packages): $3000
Marriage License: $80
Wedding Dress: $1500
Wedding Suit: $300
Remember, these are averages! There is no one way to elope, so whether you’re local and want to elope at your favorite campground, or traveling to stay in a luxury resort, you’ll find something perfect for your elopement in California.
Hire Your Elopement Vendors
A lot of wedding vendors love elopements too - but there’s a huge advantage to hiring vendors who not only do elopements, but actually specialize in adventures and unique experiences. We photograph elopements - but our job is so much more. From giving you a customized list of less traveled locations, to finding the perfect place to stay, to creating a timeline for your day, E guide you through all of it. So, ready to have the best day of your life? Let’s start planning your California elopement!