The gorgeous town of Bishop, California. Editorial credit: 4kclips /

10 Must-Visit Small Towns in California's Sierra Nevada

Stretching more than 250 miles from the suntanned Mojave Desert to the snow-clad peaks of the Cascade Range, California's Sierra Nevada is a magical tapestry of heart-melting landscapes, magnificent skyline, and movie-like backdrops. Often considered the Crown Jewel of the Golden State, the Sierra Nevada region is also home to the largest trees in the world—the giant sequoias. Dotting this wondrous expanse, a region that makes up about 25% of the state's total land area, are numerous small towns that provide access to one of North America's most splendid sights. The following are ten must-visit small towns in California's Sierra Nevada. To explore these towns is to enter into the realms of the surreal. 

Lone Pine

The town of Lone Pine with snow-capped Sierra Nevada peaks in the background.
The town of Lone Pine with snow-capped Sierra Nevada peaks in the background.

In the interior American West, around where the Great Basin Desert begins and along U.S. Highway 395, which is often referred to as California's backbone, hides Lone Pine, a beautiful small town of just about 1,500 residents. Lone Pine is smack in the middle of Owens Valley, which is reputed to be one of the deepest valleys in the United States and the base for fishing adventures in the area, partly because of its proximity to the Golden Trout Wilderness Area. Golden trout is the State Freshwater Fish of California and is among the most beautiful trout on Earth. Before exploring the Alabama Hills, the setting for several award-winning movies, or the fierce glory of Mount Whitney, you may want to drop in for chicken fried steak — or some fluffy and flavorful biscuits — at Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery, located at 111 W Post Street.


historic downtown of Sonora, California.
Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California. Editorial credit: StephanieFarrell /

Filled with character and exuding a distinct goldrush flavor is the historic town of Sonora (not to be confused with the Mexican state — though named after it), one of the oldest cities in the Golden State. Once called the "Queen of the Southern mines," Sonora was once among the most notable towns, if a lawless one, in the southern part of the great Sierra gold belt. Gambling, prostitution, gun-slingin' cowboys, and all the scandals expected in such a setting soon got a foothold in the town. Today, Sonora brims with more historic places of interest — perhaps than any other town in the region. First-time visitors will want to learn about the California Gold Rush at the Tuolumne County Museum and History Research Center, visit Mark Twain Cabin in the scrub oak foothills where one of the world's greatest writers experienced California, or traipse through the downtown area — reputed to have been chosen as one of the first "Main Street" cities in California.


A historic building in Jamestown, California.
A historic building in Jamestown, California. Editorial credit: travelview /

California's Gold Country comes alive in the photogenic town of Jamestown, where locally-owned shops in brightly colored buildings, quaint historic inns, and numerous antique stores line the town's Main Street. These buildings give Jamestown a sumptuous appearance, sure to leave a first-time visitor completely blown away. If coming for the first time, you may want to set base at the National Hotel & Restaurant, a feature of Jamestown since 1859 and, hence, one of the oldest hotels in California. After staying in a property that will transport you back to the Gold Rush era, you will want to explore Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Not only do visitors enjoy the park's train rides in old locomotives pulled by a real steam engine — but also the historical facts about the area. To drown down the day, perhaps with the Imperial Stout, Bear Tent Brewing Company is just what your trip planner will recommend.  


Columbia State Historic Park in Columbia, California.
Columbia State Historic Park in Columbia, California. Editorial credit: Kit Leong /

For a rural feel, small-town atmosphere, and laid-back ambiance, Columbia, a California treasure located along State Route 49 about 4 miles north of Sonora, could just be what you have in mind. Yet what sets Columbia apart — is the fact it is not just a town — but a park. Columbia State Historic Park is not your typical park, complete with perhaps a lake, camping sites, benches, and trees. Instead, the town itself is the park. The reason is that Columbia, with its well-preserved 19th-century structures and artifacts, seems to run exactly as it did more than a century ago. For instance, Hidden Treasure Gold Mine, the only privately owned structure in the park, features a real working mine still producing gold. For a taste of what travel was like in the 19th Century, Quartz Mountain Stage Line provides authentic stagecoach rides, and the shotgun seat is where you will want to be. There is also a working blacksmith shop (Parrott's Blacksmith Shop) as well as the largest single collection of existing gold rush-era structures in California.


The scenic town of Murphys in winter.
The scenic town of Murphys in winter. Image credit: Jakobemerson via Wikimedia Commons.

Murphys is a criminally neglected town situated about midway between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. You can, therefore, split your time between exploring a park that is roughly the size of Rhode Island — and getting wet at the largest alpine lake in North America — while enjoying Murphy's delightful menu of offerings. The family-owned Tanner Vineyards will set your taste buds on fire and is known to provide an excellent outdoor tasting experience. To kickstart your day, however, with some excellently brewed espresso and freshly baked bread, Aria Bakery will be worth checking out. If you want to sip some wine while learning fascinating stuff about the area — as cheery tulips and daffodils smile at you — Ironstone Vineyards is what your doctor will recommend.


Historic buildings in Placerville, California.

If you have seen Hometown Morning, a stunning painting by celebrated artist Thomas Kinkade, you should have an idea about Placeville's heart-warming beauty. Fondly referred to as the Painter of Light, Thomas Kinkade once called Placerville home —and, as the painting proves, was once enchanted by its incredible beauty. Secreted at the base of the Sierra Mountains, Placerville features a lot of history regarding the Gold Rush era. Besides, the American River provides a delightful variety of floating opportunities, including white water rafting. On the flip side, Apple Hills is a world of stunning vineyards and culinary adventure and is an oasis worth experiencing. Still, if you want to step back in time, Hangtown's Gold Bug Park, with its gold mine shaft, is a real mining site from the Gold Rush days and will be worth every penny spent.

Sutter Creek

Main Street in Sutter Creek, California.
Main Street in Sutter Creek, California. Editorial credit: Michael Vi /

The "Jewel of the Motherlode," as Sutter Creek is known, is the quintessential portrait of a classic Gold Country town. This eye candy is in California's Amador County and less than an hour's drive east of Sacramento. Sutter Creek's Main Street, where balconies of 19th-century buildings extend out to the sidewalks, is often regarded as among the prettiest in the United States. Attractions within the town include the Knight Foundry, the last water-powered foundry and machine shop in the United States. Knight Foundry, established 150 years ago to supply heavy equipment to the mines in the area, is a must-visit for those remotely interested in history, metal works, or big equipment. Not far away, Miners' Bend Park features some old mining equipment once used in the area, complete with signs describing what they did, and how they were used. Needless to add, Sutter Creek is in the Amador Wine Country and provides access to numerous wine-tasting adventures.

Mammoth Lakes

A shopping area in Mammoth Lakes, California.
A shopping area in Mammoth Lakes, California. Editorial credit: melissamn /

For its size (Mammoth Lake is home to about 7,300 residents), this California gem, tucked to the east of Mammoth Mountains, is enticingly vivacious at all times of the year, partly because of the numerous all-season outdoor adventure options it offers. A nature lover's playground, Mammoth Lakes hosts up to 5 lakes within near precincts of the town, including the Horseshoe Lake, whose bike trails offer heart-melting 360-degree views. You can explore the Inyo National Forest and fill your lungs with its crisp, playful air, stay in a rustic cabin at Convict Lake Campground — amid alluring serenity and delicious views, or sweat it out to the Devils Postpile National Monument, whose unique basalt rock formations will set your heart aglow.

Tahoe City

Marina in Tahoe City, California
Marina in Tahoe City, California.

Once named Tahoe House, Tahoe City is a town of about 1,500 residents situated on the western side of Lake Tahoe. Beautiful evergreens — combined with heart-ravishing views of the lake —imbue the town with a peaceful and rustic appearance, making it one of the most beautiful in the Sierra Nevada. To kickstart your adventure, and get some food right on the lake, you may want to drop in at Christy Hill, whose sizzling delicacies and water-looking views are hard to beat. For avid shoppers, however, Cobblestone Center is the go-to place. It offers an old-school, small-town shopping experience, complete with quirky shops and unique gifts. For some outdoor adventure, on the other hand, Burton Creek State Park is minutes away from town — and provides enjoyable hiking and biking opportunities.


Mule Days Parade in Bishop, California.
Mule Days Parade in Bishop, California. Editorial credit: MarieKaz /

Sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada mountains to the West and the White Mountains to the East — in the northern realms of Owens Valley, Bishop's picture-perfect setting is straight out of a storybook. The town is beautifully laid back and slow-paced, yet hums with a rhythm more in tune with nature and leisure. The town boasts an expansive backyard so that every type of outdoor lover will find his own brand of fun. Before setting out to see what Bishop offers, you may want to stop by Black Sheep Coffee Roasters, and fuel up before venturing out. Better still, spend the early morning hours strolling through downtown Bishop while inhaling the Old West facades and beautiful murals. If you are an adrenaline junky, the scary Buttermilk Boulders is otherwordly and will be worth experiencing. Alternatively, the top of Happy and Sad Boulders provides a gasp-inducing view of the desert and mountains.

The Takehome

To many people, the Golden State is all about white-sand beaches, pine trees, a curvaceous coastline, and Los Angeles. The truth, however, is that California is huge and features attractions and towns many miles from the ocean. California's Sierra Nevada, for instance, on the eastern side of the state, is a surreal expanse of spellbinding beauty. Dotting this magical stretch, like twinkling stars in the night sky, are numerous small towns that provide access points to some of America's most unexplored beauty. Topping this list of must-visit small towns are photogenic gems such as Tahoe City, Lone Pine, Mammoth Lakes, and Jamestown.

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