If you’ve spent any time in California, you’ve likely focused your attention on the big cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—or else well-known beach towns and wine country. California is the most populous U.S. state, so if you’re seeking to escape the crowds and experience the underrated side of this gorgeous state, we’ve found 10 towns well worth a visit. From the far northern coast and the desert to the far southern mountains, you’ll find a plethora of activities and sights that showcase all California has to offer.
About 300 miles north of San Francisco, in the far northern part of the state in Humboldt County, aka the Lost Coast, lies the charming university town of Arcata. The Humboldt State University campus fosters a progressive yet laid-back vibe here, and its location between towering redwood forests and majestic, rolling coastal dunes makes Arcata a nature enthusiasts' paradise. This area has fantastic hiking through the Arcata Marsh, the Community Forest, and the Hammond Trail, part of the California Coastal Trail. Its coastal dunes offer a unique habitat to explore, with coastal forests, seasonal wetlands, shifting dunes, and the vast Pacific Ocean. Catch a minor league baseball game with the Humboldt Crabs, bike scenic trails, or attend one of the town’s many seasonal events.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, you’ll have no problem grabbing a bite at any of the town's locally-owned restaurants–Arcata caps the number of chains that can open here–many of which cater to vegan and other dietary restrictions. Conversely, you an also quench your thirst at one of the nearby wineries or microbreweries. Accommodations range from historic hotels and elegant B&Bs to yurts, bungalows, and rentable farmhouses.
About 30 miles south of Arcata lies Ferndale, another hidden Lost Coast town situated between the ocean and two redwoods-laden state parks. Ferndale is an artists’ haven where you can escape the hustle in what was previously a dairy town. You’ll see some of the U.S.’ most ornate and fantastically preserved Victorian homes and buildings as you stroll along Ferndale’s streets. Stay in one of the historic hotels or B&Bs, or in a vacation rental. Check out the luxurious 11-room Gingerbread Mansion bed-and-breakfast or the cozy, pet-friendly Shaw House Inn, Ferndale’s first home. Explore art galleries, the Ferndale Museum, and the town’s many historic landmarks, including a cemetery, the Fern Cottage, and the Ferndale Library, which is the last public Carnegie Library in northwestern California.
Now we head inland to Nevada City, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The entire 16-acre downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Surrounded by pretty pine-covered hills, Nevada City is one of the most interesting Gold Rush towns, dating back to 1850. Former U.S. President Herbert Hoover lived and worked in the gold mines here shortly after college graduation in 1895, and you can still pan for gold today in one of the many creeks and rivers.
Nevada City is loaded with recreational activities, including world-class kayaking, mountain and road biking, fishing, and hiking. Art and film enthusiasts will enjoy browsing galleries and attending two film festivals, the Nevada City Film Festival in late August and the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in January. Like many of its sister communities in northern California, Nevada City fights hard to hang on to its historical environs–you won’t find any chain restaurants here. Instead, pick from an excellent selection of 20-plus independent restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, wine-tasting rooms, and lively bars. Lodging options include B&Bs, historic hotels, campgrounds, and vacation rentals.
Now we head back to the coast, about 120 miles south of San Francisco, to charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. Actor Clint Eastwood not only calls this seaside community home, but also served as its mayor from 1986 to 1988, and he owns the restored Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant. Carmel-by-the-Sea has some quirky characteristics, including no street addresses and a ban on shoes with a heel height greater than two inches. City leaders authorized the ban in 1963 to protect the city from lawsuits due to people tripping over the uneven pavement while wearing heels.
Again, you’ll find no chain restaurants or mega-resorts here, just plenty of chill restaurants, wine bars, cafes, hotels, and picturesque inns. Carmel is dripping with magnificent scenery and feels more like a European village than a California beach town. Be sure to visit the gorgeous Carmel Beach, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and Carmel Mission Basilica. For an especially beautiful adventure, drive or bike the 17-Mile Drive, which meanders through Pebble Beach golf resorts, splendid forests, and dramatic cliffs along the coast. Carmel’s also home to a mix of high-end boutiques and gourmet food and wine shops if you'd prefer a slightly more low-key way to spend your day.
A visit to a wine-country town is a must on any California visit, but instead of heading to the wildly popular destinations in Napa and Sonoma, try Paso Robles. This Central Coast town is almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 30 miles inland and surrounded by more than 250 wineries, olive orchards, ranches, and farms. Wander through boutiques and antique shops and sip your way through the 20-plus winery tasting rooms in the historic downtown. If visiting a winery is on your list, check out Justin Wine, where you can take a tour, eat in the on-site restaurant, and stay in one of their suites, villas, or the 12,000-square-foot mansion.
One fun way to explore the town is through Urban Adventure Quest’s downtown scavenger hunt game. And no visit to this part of the state is complete without a trip to nearby Hearst Castle, a National Historic Landmark that was once the opulent home of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
Just a short hop over is another Central Coast harbor town, Morro Bay. The harbor, which is anchored by a 576-foot-high monolithic volcanic rock, is a natural refuge for marine life such as harbor seals, otters, sea lions, and seabirds. Unlike in many coastal California towns, where crashing waves hammer beaches, you can standup paddleboard, sail, and kayak within the calm estuary and protected harbor. Drift around on a shared or private dinner cruise, or take a guided boat tour of the bay and out to sea to view whales, sea lions, otters, and more. If you prefer to stay on land, pack a picnic lunch and stroll along the broad three-mile Morro Strand State Beach.
Morro Bay offers more affordable accommodations than many California coastal towns, with several overlooking the water, such as the delightful Back Bay Inn. When you’re ready to be wined and dined, Windows on the Water, the Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, or Port House offer fantastic bay views and fresh seafood.
Head about 80 miles south to Solvang, and you might think you took some freak-of-nature detour that landed you in a Danish village filled with gingerbread architecture, spinning windmills, and fresh flowers. Danish immigrants left the chilly Midwest in the early 1900s and settled here in 1911. And as with many other towns on this list, you won’t be far from California wineries in Solvang. The Santa Ynez Valley boasts 120-plus wineries, which you can tour via bike with I Bike Santa Barbara Wine Tours.
You can opt to stay in one of Solvang’s many hotels and inns, but for a different experience, consider booking into the 10,000-acre Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, where you can ride horses, golf, play tennis, and fly fish on the ranch’s 100-acre lake. Make sure to also take a horse-drawn ride with the Solvang Trolley & Carriage company and learn about the town’s history.
About 30 miles east of Santa Barbara in a scenic valley lies Ojai, where you’ll find a lush blend of citrus, oak, olive, and palm trees mixed with cacti and succulents. Ojai is known for its spiritual retreats, a native “Pixie” tangerine, art galleries, a year-round farmers market, stellar golf, and boutique shopping. Just beyond town, you’ll find the ruggedly beautiful Los Padres National Forest, one of the U.S.’ most botanically diverse forests, with a wide range of ecosystems ready to be explored. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, and enjoying a spa treatment (or three) are what Ojai is all about.
If you happen to visit in April, you’ll be rewarded with a plethora of events and activities celebrating Ojai Pixie Month, which coincides with the native tangerine’s harvest time. If wine is more your thing, you'll have no shortage of wines to try in Ojai’s numerous wine-tasting rooms, and craft-beer fans can get their fix at the Ojai Beverage Company. Unlike many of our other California towns, Ojai offers a five-star luxury accommodation, the Ojai Valley Inn, situated on 220 acres where you can golf, swim in one of its multiple pools, play tennis, dine in its seven restaurants, and visit the 31,000-square-foot spa.
Now we head far south to the spectacular tiny desert town of Borrego Springs, which is entirely surrounded by the most stunning desert park, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. At more than 600,000 acres, it's California’s largest state park and the state’s only official International Dark Sky Community. It should come as no surprise that dazzling stargazing is what attracts many visitors here.
The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers plenty of things to do during daylight, too—the park is filled with dramatic badlands, twisting slot canyons, cool palm oases, lovely desert flora, and fauna. You can hike the parks’ many trails or take a Jeep tour with California Overland. Anza-Borrego also often experiences a marvelous “super-bloom” of desert flowers between late February and April. As breathtaking as the super-bloom season is, though, it draws huge crowds, so if you’re seeking a quieter experience, skip the spring. Another fascinating feature you’ll find sprinkled around this desert town are the enormous, full-size metal sculptures of serpents, dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, wild horses, and more. You can find accommodations ranging from simple hotels to four-star resorts such as La Casa Del Zorro.
Poised between the coast and the desert, this little mountain town sits at an elevation of about 4,200 feet in the Cuyamaca Mountains, about 60 miles east of San Diego. Julian is another historic Gold Rush town that saw a surge of residents beginning in the late 1800s. Nowadays, it's famous for its apple orchards, so if you visit during fall, you can pick and sample local varieties not available elsewhere. Savor apple pie and other apple-based dishes year-round at places like the Julian Pie Company and the Apple Alley Bakery.
Some of Julian’s unique attractions include tours of two of Julian’s original gold mines, visits to the Oasis Camel Dairy, and seeing wolves at the California Wolf Center. You won’t find five-star resorts here, but you can catch up on your rest at any of the hotels, lodges, B&Bs, upscale cottages, and vacation rentals. And as with many other delightful California towns, you’ll have your pick of wineries, craft breweries, and restaurants too.
A not-as-visited village in Sonoma County, Glen Ellen is a delightful little wine-country town full of dense rolling green hills, top-of-the-class vineyards, and inviting restaurants. An ideal place to eat or drink your way through, check out Les Pascals, a French bakery with pre-made baguette sandwiches to fill up before a wine tasting, Glen Ellen Star, a splurge-worthy restaurant focused on wood-fired cooking, and Glen Ellen Village Market & Deli for delicious picnic supplies like wine, cheese, meats, pre-made salads, and other essential snacks on-the-go.
Sip popular, award-winning, and eco-friendly wines at Benziger Family Winery while enjoying their farm animals and gardens. Or go the Bordeaux- and Rhône-inspired route at Lasseter Family Winery with its dark, monochromatic, and modern building surrounded by green, lush grounds (founded by Pixar film director John Lasseter). Or you can discover your own favorite while driving through the winding hills with roadside signs signaling ”walk-ins welcome.”
Visit the Sonoma Botanical Garden for picturesque views of Sonoma Valley with rare, endangered Asian trees, waterfalls, and ponds or hike through Jack London Historic Park to see rich forests and redwood hills among historic buildings. Take a free guided tour of Wolf House ruins or Beauty Ranch to learn more about the life of writer and farmer Jack London.
Part of the St. Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara, Los Olivos is a historic wine country town established in 1887, noted for over 20 wineries in a few-block radius. Its calm downtown is filled with art galleries, restaurants that work closely with local farms, boutique shops, breweries, and seemingly anything you want within walking distance. It’s the perfect destination for a day trip to Santa Barbara wine country or your home-base to explore other neighboring towns such as Los Alamos, St. Ynez, and Solvang.
For a convenient, luxury stay in the heart of downtown, consider Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, with a pool, first-class spa, and complimentary bike rental for easy downtown access. Or, for a more budget-friendly but stylish stay, go to Hotel Ynez with its communal fire pits, private patios complete with their own hammocks, and outdoor pavilion with ample seating to unwind with a bottle under the stars.
As far as dining goes, Nella Kitchen & Bar features things like Roman flatbreads, seafood, lamb chops, and pasta. But before you drive home, stop into Bob’s Well Bread Bakery (locations in Los Alamos and Ballard) for brunch food like the unique egg in a jar and avocado toast, along with plenty of other baked goods to take home.
Located on the Central Coast between more popular Big Sur and San Luis Obisbo is the laid-back, coastal-cottage town of Cambria. Take a stroll along the wooden Moonstone boardwalk and keep an eye above for breaching whales and another look below for the tadpoles. For easy access to Moonstone Beach, stay at the newly renovated White Water Cambria, or opt for Cambria Pines Lodge, which transforms into a winter wonderland, Cambria Christmas Market, with over two million lights on display each year.
Just a 15-minute drive away in San Simeon is where you’ll find Hearst Castle with 165 rooms and a vast art collection on 123 acres. If visiting a giant castle in the hills isn’t for you, take a hike at the Fiscalini Ranch Reserve, go horseback riding, or see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. To fuel up, make a stop at Robin's restaurant for a burger or some salmon bisque in their vibrant garden. There’s also the classic Sea Chest Oyster Bar for ocean views and plenty of fresh seafood, or Hidden Kitchen if you’re in the mood for blue corn waffles or a smoothie.
Idyllwild is a quirky town in the San Jacinto Mountains situated between Joshua Tree and Temecula wine country. While it’s home to a small artistic community, the town is surrounded by mountain views, flowing streams, and pine and cedar trees, and plays home to more than 50 mountain trails, along with plenty of mountain climbing, biking, fishing, and camping.
Head downtown for a selection of locally-owned shops and restaurants such as the -friendly Idyllwild Brewpub with a patio view full of pine trees, Ferro for Italian favorites like cacio e pepe and seasonal oysters, or The Funky Bazaar, an antique store full of unusual finds. Wander through Idyllwild Gardens nursery for a peaceful setting of plants and trees and a mobile boutique full of local, homemade goods. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the elected mayor, a golden retriever named Max, while you’re downtown (make sure to give him a pet).
Wildland Retreats has a yurt and a few cabin options throughout Idyllwild that are curated spaces for a zen retreat, featuring their Wildland Organics skincare and wellness products that you can enjoy during your visit, dedicated meditation spaces, and minimalistic designs.
This throwback 1880s western town was originally built as a movie set in 1946 by Dick Curtis and was meant to be a place where people could live and work comfortably while filming. These days, it’s a fully functional town and desert attraction located between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. To start, visit the film museum to see all the iconic cinematic moments from the hundreds of westerns filmed here, including classics like the Gene Autry Show and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
After taking in some sights, head to Red Dog Saloon for tacos and a drink, preferably at night when there’s live music. Or check out legendary barbecue spot and live music venue, Pappy + Harriets (musicians as famous as Paul McCartney and Lizzo have performed here). Plus, they have delicious food–try their blackened fish sandwich and a half rack of ribs. The only accommodation in town is the renovated Pioneertown Motel, or you can stay in the neighboring cities of Yucca Valley or Joshua Tree.
About the authors:
Lee Ridley is a freelance writer and editor who's written for a variety of industries, but areas of specialty include luxury travel, health and wellness.
Alexis B. Mills is a travel and lifestyle writer. She works with publications and brands to create articles that empower people to explore more, travel intentionally, connect with cultures and nature, and guide people on their next trip. In her spare time Alexis likes to explore the great outdoors, sift through quaint bookstores, and enjoy delicious food and drinks.