Lake Arrowhead main village area on a hot summer's day, via FiledIMAGE /

10 Must-Visit Small Towns in Southern California

California is among the most sought-after vacation destinations in the United States. From the year-round sunny weather and beautiful coastal scenery to scenic mountainous landscapes, the Golden State has all the ingredients for a fascinating travel experience. But there is something special about the lower half of the state that draws visitors to the region. 

While Los Angeles is the region's highlight, SoCal is dotted with tiny rural towns that showcase the allure of California’s backcountry. Home to underrated state parks, stunning natural surroundings, unique cultural heritage, and endless outdoor opportunities, tourists can look forward to an exciting holiday. 

Furthermore, the slow pace of life and the relaxed country atmosphere are far from the hustle and bustle of crowded cities. If you are thinking of a West Coast holiday anytime soon, these are the best small towns in Southern California to visit. 


The Elephant Walk Store in Idyllwild, California.
The Elephant Walk Store in Idyllwild, California. Editorial credit: Rosamar /

This scenic alpine town in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California places you in the heart of nature, presenting an adventurous escape for tourists. Several outdoor pursuits, including Mount San Jacinto State Park, ensure there's never a dull moment in this quaint town. With over 50 miles of trails in the park, you can explore magnificent landscapes, from subalpine forests to dramatic granite peaks and sweeping views of the Sonoran Desert. One of the highlights is hiking to the summit of Idyllwild’s highest peak, San Jacinto Peak, and soaking in 360-degree vistas of the gorgeous and diverse surroundings. 

The Idyllwild Nature Center, a popular local destination, offers visitors insights into the regional flora and fauna. This quaint museum houses informative exhibits on the area’s ecology and Native American culture. For history buffs, the Idyllwild Historical Society offers a fulfilling experience with its collection of artifacts that delve into the town's past.

San Juan Capistrano

Historic downtown of San Juan Capistrano, California
Historic downtown of San Juan Capistrano, California

Situated between Los Angeles and San Diego, San Juan Capistrano provides a relaxed getaway from the busyness of SoCal's urban centers. Tourists visit this small community of about 35,000 for its rich history, dating back to the 18th century with the establishment of its mission. Your tour can begin at Mission San Juan Capistrano, a historic landmark comprising a museum and chapel complex, founded over two centuries ago, offering a glimpse into the beginnings of Orange County. The historical journey is only complete with a stroll through the quiet streets of the Los Rios district. 

As the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood in California, you can explore ancient buildings and discover unique culture, enhanced by the area's various eating, drinking, and shopping venues. One of the best places to stop by for a meal is Ysidora Restaurant and Lounge, offering delicious cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere with a lovely ambiance and soothing music. 


Main Street and tourists in Solvang, California.
Main Street and tourists in Solvang, California. Editorial credit: HannaTor /

Solvang, a notable historical and cultural center in the Santa Ynez Valley, was founded by Danish Americans in the early 1900s. It is distinguished by its Danish architecture and European influences. Witness this exotic heritage at the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, where you can browse a collection of fine exhibits chronicling Solvang’s Danish history and culture. Another top tourist attraction is Old Mission Santa Ines. Established in 1804, it is among the oldest surviving buildings in the state and one of the original California Missions started by Franciscans.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Sunny Fields Park offers a delightful recreational area featuring a wooden playground, volleyball courts, and picnic spaces, perfect for a family day out. Lastly, in the spirit of embracing local Danish heritage, a visit to Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery is a must for those seeking to taste sweet European confectionaries. 


Street view in Avalon, California
Street view in Avalon, California

To reach Avalon, you will need an hour-long ferry ride from ports such as Long Beach or San Pedro on the Southern California coast, but the area's beauty will make you rethink the return trip. This tiny resort town on Catalina Island charms newcomers with unique landmarks and picturesque harbor views. You can soak in some of the best vistas along the Green Pleasure Pier. The pier bustles with activity, hosting Catalina Island’s Visitor Center, where you can stop by to find out the top local spots and draw your itinerary. 

In town, the Catalina Museum for Art & History is a must-visit. This magnificent facility houses exhibits chronicling the island's history, including its nearly eight millennia of human existence. Meanwhile, the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden offers 38 acres of lush natural scenery, perfect for relaxing and unwinding. At the Wrigley Memorial, you will learn about the chewing gum tycoon and former owner of the island, William Wrigley Jr. 


View of historic old town of Julian California
View of historic old town of Julian California

If you have a soft spot for apples and apple pies, a trip to the alpine town of Julian promises a satisfying experience. This tiny locality of just under 2,000 offers a relaxed escape into the mountains, allowing you to bask in the stunning outdoors. Fall is an excellent season to visit Julian, offering the opportunity to pick apples at the Calico Ranch Orchard and enjoy its serene atmosphere. The town is home to numerous bakeries where you can sample delicious apple pie, with one of the best being the Julian Pie Company. Julian’s mountain setting presents delightful hiking opportunities with at least 15 scenic trails. In Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, you can choose from various forested routes that pass through beautiful meadows. Alternatively, you can head to Volcan Mountain Wilderness Park for more quality time in the open spaces.


Chiefs Peak Mountain over Ojai, California.
Chiefs Peak Mountain over Ojai, California.

Known for its recreational opportunities, Ojai is one of Southern California's prime destinations for outdoorsy travelers. Sitting in the foothills of the Topatopa Mountains and surrounded by stunning natural scenery, it offers the Ojai Valley Trail, perfect for exploring on two wheels. This relatively easy, paved route stretches about 9 miles and offers scenic views. Wine tasting is a mainstay in Ojai, a notable smaller wine region in the state. Visitors can immerse themselves in this wine culture with a tour of Majestic Oak Vineyard, located right in the heart of downtown.

History enthusiasts can explore the Ojai Valley Museum, which features a series of exhibits preserving the town’s past. Meanwhile, the bustling Ojai Certified Farmers Market is a prime spot for mingling with locals, shopping for farm-fresh produce, and hunting for unique souvenirs from artisan products and handicrafts.


Evergreen Cafe and Racoon Saloon decorated in Christmas holiday lights in Wrightwood, California.
Evergreen Cafe and Racoon Saloon decorated in Christmas holiday lights in Wrightwood, California. Image credit Jon Osumi via

Wrightwood primarily attracts tourists seeking serenity and snow. Home to about 4,400 people, the town is situated at a 6,000-foot elevation in the San Gabriel Mountains. During the snow season, the sleepy town comes alive with activities on the powdery slopes of Mountain High Resort.

When it's not snowing, the setting is perfect for exploring the outdoors on a scenic hike. The Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada, passes through Wrightwood, drawing adventurers. For thrill-seekers, the Ziplines at Pacific Crest offer an adrenaline-pumping ride 300 feet above the forest floor. Alternatively, for a more relaxed experience, a visit to the Wrightwood Historical Society and Museum is an ideal option.

Lake Arrowhead

View of Lake arrowhead in California
View of Lake arrowhead in California

Serene, picturesque, and alluring are words that aptly describe Lake Arrowhead, a quiet community in the San Bernardino Mountains. Known locally as the Californian Alps, Lake Arrowhead is a popular winter destination renowned for its quality skiing. The town is encircled by the San Bernardino National Forest, offering delightful opportunities for outdoor explorers. One of the top hikes in the area is the Will Abell Memorial Trail at Arrowhead Ridge, which spans about 2 miles and features scenic overlooks of the surrounding landscapes. Animal lovers can discover exciting local species at Wildhaven, a sanctuary for rescued animals like bald eagles, black bears, and coyotes. Meanwhile, visitors can also venture onto the water for a unique perspective of Lake Arrowhead on the Arrowhead Queen Tour Boat, which provides a relaxed trip with interesting narrations about the town.


Historic downtown Kernville.
Historic downtown Kernville. Image credit Simone Hogan via Shutterstock

Kernville, a quintessential mountain town, offers a plethora of outdoor adventures, ranging from hiking and camping to whitewater rafting. With fewer than 1,000 residents, Kernville provides a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of busy cities. Riverside Park exemplifies an ideal natural setting, with ample shade, picnic areas, and BBQ tables. For further backcountry exploration, the Whiskey Flat Trail offers hiking and horseback riding excursions.

For those interested in whitewater rafting, Kernville features numerous outfitters, with Sierra South Mountain Sports being one of the best, offering unforgettable trips down the Kern River. Lastly, the Kern Valley Museum provides insights into the area’s history, focusing on the lives of ranchers and cowboys in the region.


Rods and Roses classic holiday car show in Carpinteria, California
Rods and Roses classic holiday car show in Carpinteria, California, via L Paul Mann /

For a quaint seaside escape in Southern California, consider the picturesque town of Carpinteria. Located in Santa Barbara County, this small community delights visitors with its endless coastal attractions, serene atmosphere, and breathtaking water views. Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve is a highlight, featuring secluded shoreline hiking trails offering scenic overlooks. Another excellent spot, Carpinteria State Beach, is ideal for swimming, surfing, fishing, and camping.

For those who prefer indoor activities, the Carpinteria Valley Museum is a wonderful alternative, offering a glimpse into the region's history. The museum houses an array of Native American artifacts and Victorian-era antiquities, each showcasing different aspects of the region's history. Finally, one of the best times to visit the town is during the Avocado Festival, where you can join the community in celebrating fabulous food, good music, and local attractions.

Final Thoughts

Southern California is a sprawling expanse of desert lands, varied landscapes, and beautiful beachfront. Nestled within these diverse landscapes are small villages and communities offering a quieter, more scenic side of the state. These small towns in Southern California are an enticing option for those seeking a break from the rigors of city life.

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