The Best Roller Coasters In California (And What Ones To Skip)

For thrill-seeking coaster enthusiasts, the best roller coasters combine speed, solid drops, and exciting twists and turns to deliver massive G forces, and the best roller coasters in the U.S. feature potent track designs to provide these elements. These popular rides are also primary draws for their respective theme parks. In California, thrill seekers are truly spoiled for choice. There are plenty of great theme parks sprinkled about the state, with Disney, Six Flags, and SeaWorld San Diego looming large in the collective consciousness, in particular. The rich collection of rides affords Californians and those on vacation in the state a plethora of options when searching for a great day out at a wonderful theme park. 

However, there are some rides you may want to skip if you're visiting these amusement parks. While California is home to some true champions of track design, there are more than a few stinkers thrown into the mix as well. Whether these rides lost their luster over the years (or weren't that exciting to begin with), we'll save you some line-standing time by listing a few coasters to avoid. 

Goliath, Six Flags Magic Mountain

The 255-foot drop of Six Flags Magic Mountain's Goliath is a phenomenal place to begin. Riders are quickly whisked up the lift hill, only to come over the top, drop to ground level, and then immediately flash into a tunnel, adding even more vertical distance and a dramatic change of lighting and scenery into the initial descent. 

The coaster's drop is one of the biggest to be found nearly anywhere, and it's augmented by a top speed of 85 mph, a blistering pace that's sure to exhilarate even the most stone-faced coaster lover. Goliath was actually the fastest complete-circuit roller coaster in the world when it opened in 2000. The gigantic hill is complemented by an intense set of drops, twists, and a double helix element before returning to the station, maxing out at 4.5 Gs. 

[Featured image by Jeff Turner via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY 2.0]

X2, Six Flags Magic Mountain

Also located in Six Flags Magic Mountain, X2 is a thrilling roller coaster with a unique, scream-inducing feature. The cars exit the station backward, with the batwing cars exhibiting an ever so slight tilt as the movement engages. Combined with an exhilarating soundtrack, the climb up the hill (still backward) eventually ends with what can only be described as a disorienting launch down the hill. It's at this moment that the special quality of the roller coaster becomes clear: The cars spin vertically along a 360-degree axis, leaving you and your fellow riders to rotate as the cars rapidly traverse the coaster's track. 

The main drop is a monstrous 215-footer, and the coaster tops out at a max speed of 76 mph. In addition to the staggering velocity, X2 includes two raven turns, which are half-loops that end in a straight drop. The rolling of the cars follows naturally along with the curvature of the track, which means you'll either be facing forward but upside down or riding right-side up but backward. This is a supremely intense ride that offers a uniquely disorienting experience. 

Medusa, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

A floorless coaster, Medusa was installed at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in 2000 and immediately became a sensation among riders. The roller coaster offers a top speed of 65 mph and drops riders from a height of 150 feet to kick things off. Medusa pulls 4.5 Gs and provides a pretty lengthy, 3:15-minute ride duration for a solid overall experience. Medusa also features seven inversions along the track, keeping riders twisting and flipping for an enormous portion of the adventure.

The track is the longest in Northern California (as well as the tallest), and includes a truly unique "sea serpent roll," the first of its kind. Similar to a cobra loop, the double inversion element unwinds as you enter the second loop and doubles back on itself. Medusa also features one of the tallest vertical loops anywhere in the world, with a 128-foot rise. This one's a beast of a coaster and a prime candidate for repeat rides throughout a day at the Vallejo-area park, located just north of San Francisco and Oakland. 

Flight Deck, California's Great America

Flight Deck is one of the older coasters on this list. Opened in 1993 and originally called Top Gun (with themes from the movie), Flight Deck is a floorless coaster that sets its first drop (91 feet) aimed directly at Levi's Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers. While the drop might not seem too impressive when stacked against others on this list, a ride on Flight Deck is marked by high-speed turns and a buzz of the lake surface below on the final approach back into the station.

The inverted track design means riders are suspended below the steel construction, making for an exciting ride — especially in the front row — as the coaster traverses multiple loops and corkscrew elements. With a top speed of 50 mph, Flight Deck doesn't stand as a towering menace in the way that some others do. Yet, the roller coaster brings intense elements into the fold and offers up a few gut-wrenching twists that firmly plant this one among California's best thrill rides.

[Featured image by Jeremy Thompson via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY 2.0]

Giant Dipper, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Giant Dipper isn't the type of roller coaster you'd typically find among the best of the best. However, the historic woodie was built in 1924 on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and over 66 million visitors have ridden the coaster since its opening. Giant Dipper is now a National Historic Landmark and stands as a unique piece of living history that recounts early American amusement park DNA in vivid color.

That said, the roller coaster isn't just a testament to nearly 100 years of American thrill rides. The coaster is a pretty great ride, perhaps illuminating one important reason for its continued existence alongside Santa Cruz's sandy coastline. The Giant Dipper reaches a surprisingly respectable top speed of 55 mph, a velocity that not all woodies built in the modern era can match. The coaster also offers a 65-foot drop, with a ride duration running just under two minutes.

Xcellerator, Knott's Berry Farm

Xcellerator is arguably the best roller coaster at Knott's Berry Farm, a theme park in Anaheim near Disneyland. Unlike its neighbor, which offers rides like Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway, Knott's Berry Farm showcases some true thrillers. Xcellerator is chief among them. A launch coaster that brings riders up a gigantic hill that ends with a 200-foot return to the Earth, Xcellerator was opened in 2002 to such acclaim that it served as the blueprint for some of the world's most gargantuan roller coasters. For example, the ride inspired the design of Kingda Ka, which towers over its New Jersey Six Flags home at 456 feet and is the tallest roller coaster in the world.

Xcellerator has experienced more closure time than riders would certainly like, however. Most recently, a part delay caused the ride to remain shuttered for more than a year. But testing started up in August 2023, and the ride is set to make its return soon. The cars are launched up the hill, reaching a top speed of 82 mph before hitting two twists (one headed up the hill and another on the way down). The track then runs quickly through two twisting corners before slowing back down for reentry. As with all launchers, Xcellerator sometimes fails to break past its peak, sending riders backward down the lift for a second slingshot!

[Featured image by Jeremy Thompson via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY 2.0]

Emperor, SeaWorld San Diego

Emperor kicks off its 60-mph rush with a 90-degree dive down the initial 143-foot first drop. The roller coaster is a very new addition to California's skyline of thrills, opening only in March 2022. However, its rapid pace and gut-wrenching track layout immediately impressed coaster aficionados, becoming an instant classic among the most elite of California roller coasters. The cars stretch wide across the track itself, giving those sitting in the edge seats an enhanced free-floating experience beyond the standard dangle of a floorless coaster. In fact, Emperor is the only floorless diver in the state, giving it an air of uniqueness that no other ride in the neighborhood can match.

The ride enters an Immelman loop and includes inversions at two other points as the trains enter a barrel roll and flat spin. Emperor is not only elegantly designed; it's the longest, tallest, and fastest dive coaster in California, making it a truly must-ride coaster for anyone visiting SeaWorld San Diego. 

[Featured image by Jeremy Thompson via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY 2.0]

HangTime, Knott's Berry Farm

HangTime was the first dive coaster in California, occupying a special place in the state's collection of fantastic thrill rides. It helps, of course, that HangTime is an immensely fun roller coaster to strap into. Riders sit in elevated seats that aren't hindered by bulky designs. This gives you the ability to take in the coaster's height and speed with full effect.

The ride offers a 96-degree dive, which is the steepest drop across California, and a top speed of 57 mph. Riding the coaster at night is another unique draw, as the track is illuminated in a spectacular fashion that showcases the twists of the steel bars. The HangTime experience also includes solid airtime with five zero-G inversions (including a negative-G stall loop) and an exhilaratingly agonizing five-second stall before entering the initial 122-foot drop.

[Featured image by METRO96 via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 4.0]

Ninja, Six Flags Magic Mountain

While the previous roller coasters are fantastic additions to the landscape of California theme parks, you may want to skip the following roller coasters. Some of these coasters have aged poorly, while others just suffer from poor design. Ninja is the first among these coasters that don't provide an enriching ride experience. Although the cars are hung beneath the track, offering a potentially thrilling feature, this can't overcome the coaster's slow speed and average twists. Overall, Ninja's cars are bulky and take away from the rider's experience. 

Ninja offers a drop of 85 feet and a 55-mph top speed with no inversions. To top it off, the ride only lasts a minute and a half, providing passengers with an experience that's both boring and short. Visitors to Six Flags Magic Mountain have a number of alternatives available to them, though. The park features a vast collection of great coasters, including another hanging track on the Scream! coaster. This track offers a floorless design and a much more appealing ride that includes a 63-mph top speed and seven inversions.

[Featured image by Jeremy Thompson via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY 2.0]

Matterhorn Bobsleds, Disneyland

The Matterhorn Bobsleds is a classic at Disneyland Park. The ride was opened in 1959, making it a pretty old roller coaster. The Matterhorn is an ACE Coaster Landmark due to its construction: The ride was the first to use a tubular steel track. The ride also utilizes skid breaks, a breakthrough in coaster design at the time but rarely used today. While this ride has seen some modernizations and improvements throughout the years, it remains an insanely slow option that doesn't include inversions or anything remotely considered thrilling. The coaster's top speed is just 27 mph, and the bumpy ride is known to leave riders sore. 

Matterhorn Bobsleds is a cultural phenomenon, though. It persists through time and limited excitement due to its status as a historic classic. The Matterhorn replica also dominates this part of the park. It's one of Disneyland's most iconic visual elements and continues to beckon parkgoers. So, while you might not want to ride it for anything beyond historic value, it's well worth appreciating the Matterhorn Bobsleds from afar.

Jaguar!, Knott's Berry Farm

Jaguar! is a lackluster coaster that remains in Knott's Berry Farm to this day. It was the fourth coaster built at the theme park, opening in 1995. The ride isn't particularly exciting, seemingly tailored toward children rather than adults. However, the coaster has a minimum height requirement of 48 inches, making it a standard coaster that sits in limbo between riders who might enjoy the track but can't and those who can ride but probably shouldn't. 

The drop is just 45 feet with a 25-degree drop angle, and the coaster reaches a top speed of 35 mph along its descent. A snail's pace, minimal vertical movement, and boring turn elements combine to leave Jaguar! as a must-miss roller coaster at an otherwise wonderful theme park. With so many great options at Knott's Berry Farm theme park, there's no reason to waste your time. 

[Featured image by The Phoenix Enforcer via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 3.0]

Demon, California's Great America

Demon is a missed opportunity. Riders often note the great theme of the ride but complain relentlessly about the jerkiness of the cars, particularly as they enter the corkscrew elements. Demon was built in 1976 by Arrow Dynamics, a roller coaster builder known more for its blunders than triumphs. The ride offers a 90-foot drop that rolls down the track at a respectable 54-degree angle and reaches 50 mph. There are also four inversions and even a quality "head chopper" element entering a tunnel toward the end of the track.

However, the throbbing headaches that riders typically report far outweigh the good elements of the coaster. When the coaster first opened, it featured two airtime hills instead of the current vertical loops. This design quickly changed along with its name, when it swapped out Turn of the Century for its current moniker, Demon. This change may have contributed to the herky-jerky experience, so while the elements of the ride are promising, the coaster is too choppy to really enjoy. 

[Featured image by Jonrev via Wikimedia Commons |Cropped and scaled | Public Domain]

Grizzly, California's Great America

Grizzly is another uncomfortable ride that's worth skipping. Operating since 1986, Grizzly is a woodie that tops out at 91 feet with a top speed of 55 mph. Although these figures aren't terrible for a wooden roller coaster, the ride simply rolls around the track without any really exciting elements. After the first hill, the car turns a wide corner with little speed —  a velocity that it then loses completely while climbing back up to height for the next drop. Once you do take another dive, the cars have lost all the momentum necessary to really get the heart pumping. Instead, riders are left wanting more.

Since this is a wooden coaster, you're also likely to walk off the platform with a low-grade headache from all the rumbling. There are some great wooden coasters scattered around the U.S. worth riding, but this one just doesn't make that list. It's not exciting and doesn't offer any historical iconography that roller coaster enthusiasts appreciate. 

[Featured image by Fastily via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 3.0]