Away from the busy beaches in San Diego and out of the hustling Los Angeles streets are scenic escapes and awaiting adventures unlike anything else in Southern California. These 11 quaint small towns range from gateways to National Parks to museums examining artistic and historical artifacts of the rich culture unique to each area. From the hilly hideout of Ojai to the open valley El Centro thrives in, there are attractions for everyone. Traverse the mountains in Big Bear and Tehachapi. Or discover the diverse deserts in towns like Barstow, Joshua Tree, and Palm Springs.
Big Bear Lake
With just over 5,000 residents, Big Bear Lake is the quintessential mountain town along the south shore of a lake with the same name. Over 100,000 people fill the streets, trails, and 22 miles of shoreline many weekends of the year. In the surrounding San Bernardino National Forest, the fall champions change in the tree's colors; a guided segway tour surveys the vivid transformation.
East of the Stanfield Cutoff, more outdoor activities become available as winter fades. Nearby Baldwin Lake has an ecological reserve promoting environmental elements unique to Big Bear Lake, fostering the endangered and exquisite Pepple Plains flowers. Hikers have the chance to explore the iconic 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail. Come nightfall, be sure to turn off any unused lights to enhance the Star Party events hosted by the Bear Valley Astronomical Society at Big Bear Discovery Center.
Part of the Santa Barbara wine country, the adorable town of Solvang, is in the Santa Ynez Valley. Solvang is uncharacteristic compared to the general vibe of Southern California, proudly boasting the title "Danish capital of America." Offering more than quality vineyards and tasting rooms, Mission Drive and the surrounding historic district have ghost-hunting adventures among authentic Danish architecture. Solvang Festival Theater hosts performances of art in an intimate theater capped by the stars.
Waiting for the clear night sky to set the stage, many tourists visit the Wildling Museum of Art and Nature, featuring gifts and products from local artists. During Solvang Danish Days in September, you can peruse more items at the Old World artisan marketplace, view a Viking reenactment, or stroll through the beer and wine garden and see why this quaint town is named after the Danish word for "sunny field."
Joshua Tree is another town centered on recreation. The main attraction, Joshua Tree National Park, collected more than three million visitors in 2022. Mojave and Colorado Desert converge in the park, creating a moving landscape of natural desert colors contrasted by surreal sunsets and the luminous night sky. The National Park Service welcomes vehicles anytime. A majority of camping sites require a reservation on a first-come, first-served basis and are especially busy during weekends, holidays, and the blooming spring.
The small California town, which shares the name with the park and the tantalizing bristled tree, is the proud base on the northwestern edge of the desert preserve. Park Boulevard is the main road for the Mojave region of the park, leading out into town and 29 Palms Highway. Travelers can enjoy a home-style meal at JT Country Kitchen or classic diner dishes and vegan options at Crossroads Cafe.
About two hours from Los Angeles, between Santa Barbara and Santa Clarita, the charming town of Ojai adds luxury to the quaint towns across Southern California. Grandiose Spanish Colonial buildings are abundant, inspired by the Spanish mission period. The Ojai Valley Museum explores this heritage and details the history of Ojai's surreal healing powers. This tradition continues at Krotona Institute of Theosophy, with a library including thousands of books on divinity. Tourists should not miss Libbey Park, the scene of the Ojai Storytelling Festival and the Ojai Valley Lavender Festival.
Libbey Bowl allows performers to connect with the audience and the crisp California air during the Ojai Music Festival and concerts all year long. Nearby attraction, Lake Casitas is a 2,760-acre reservoir spawning dozens of coves and lookouts with stunning views. Apart from boating, camping, and hiking, Lake Casitas allows night fishing until 11 pm.
Tehachapi sits in the valley surrounded by the rigid Tehachapi Mountains. The name loosely translates from the Kawaiisu word for "hard climb." Trips back in time are offered at Tehachapi Heritage League Museum, spanning the arrival of the Kawaiisu people to the introduction of the Southern Pacific Railroad. If you can not get enough train history, the Tehachapi Depot Museum collects rail signals and has a platform to watch active locomotives breeze by.
About 10 minutes northwest on Highway 58, a bewildering site for train and engineering enthusiasts alike, the Tehachapi Loop is a section of railroad nearly 4,000 feet long that spirals around a hill, easing the grade of the Tehachapi pass. Close to 40 trains average through the pass each day, but no passenger cars are permitted around the bend, making a roadside viewpoint the best chance to see the feature.
Coronado is a beach town but unlike any other place along the Pacific Coast. San Diego Bay separates the town from Downtown San Diego. The towering bridge on Highway 75 or ferry is the only way to reach the luxurious town. Centennial, Harbor View, and Bayview Park are perfect for panoramic views of the San Diego skyline. Moving west toward Coronado beach, rows of elegant Victorian buildings lead past a cinematic downtown to one of Southern California's prime beaches. Stopping in the heart of town, every first and third Sunday, Spreckels Park holds Art in the Park.
Barstow is a quaint town in the center of the Mojave Desert, halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A lot of effort has gone towards modernizing the area, though Barstow preserves its broad history through its many museums. Mojave River Valley Museum archives local photos and covers the region's cultural changes from Spanish explorers to the rise in mining and railroads. The Route 66 Museum displays the colorful communities along the historic highway, shown in authentic photographs and artifacts hosted in the Harvey House.
A spectacular building blending the Spanish Renaissance and classic Revival architecture, Harvey House also hosts the Western American Railroad Museum and the NASA Goldstone Visitor Center, with artifacts and history of the respective engineering trades. With unique beginnings as a trail junction for pioneers, stop on the way to LA or Vegas, or settle in for a weekend and feel like a western settler.
San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano is named after the French saint Saint John of Capistrano. Today, the small town is centered around the namesake mission. After skillful restoration, Father O'Sullivan rejuvenated the original structure, transforming San Juan Capistrano into a popular tourist destination. Visitors will find Native American art and rare mission history. Another curation of classic religious artwork is held at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano.
Consistently nice temperatures in the mid-60s and 70s make strolling the Spanish Renaissance scenes a romantic getaway. Less than five miles from the palatial beach, Dana Point, modern development is kept to a minimum to manage the lure cultivated from the Spanish mission period. Do not miss the migration of cliff swallows. Every March 19, patrons visit the Mission San Juan Capistrano to witness the return of the divine brown and amber feathered birds, a tradition started by Father O'Sullivan.
El Centro is a tight community that continues to grow. Approaching a population of 44,000, it is the largest North American town below sea level. Historically a farming hub, El Centro has much to offer in the wide Imperial Valley. Overseeing Imperial Irrigation District's historic engineering and agricultural lifeline, the All-American Canal. Dippy Duck, their water safety mascot, is a cost-efficient alternative to an incredibly extensive fence that would have to stretch the length from San Diego to New York and back again. El Centro is a gateway to the Mexico border, only 10 miles North of the vibrant city, of Mexicali.
The ultimate oasis in the desert is Palm Springs, famous for being an escape for the stars of Hollywood. A hub for anyone who does not like the cold, Palm Springs is the premier place to recreate, retire, or both. It gained popularity in the early 1900s as a destination for patients with long-term illnesses who benefit from the arid temperatures.
Returning winter residents triple the population after fall. With activities for locals and tourists, Palm Springs's unique history is littered throughout the Colorado Desert's Coachella Valley. Escape the grandiose buildings in town and connect with nature at Sunnylands with a 200-acre garden full of cacti and desert vegetation, and learn about the wildlife inhabitants at Living Desert Zoo and Gardens with a few exotic guests.
Another town near San Diego, Poway, is an eclectic community inland near Del Mar and La Jolla Beach. Poway's motto is "the city in the country," and with just under 50,000 residents, it is an ideal place to find ranch homes in the beautiful Southern California weather.
With a scenic backdrop and trail at Twin Peaks Summit and the friendly community, many athletes from the San Diego Padres and Chargers find residence in the peaceful Poway boundaries, like baseball icon Tony Gwynn, who is memorialized with a statue and plaza at Lake Poway. About 30 minutes from San Diego, Poway is perfect for those seeking a quiet life with great access to the densely populated attractions in the big city.
These quaint small towns in Southern California gain more popularity each year. Whether you are a desert lover, a beach enthusiast, or a wanderlust looking to try new things, there are plenty of opportunities worth exploring. Engage with the corners of Southern California's rich railroad history that helped develop these quaint small towns. From early Spanish missions and nature preserves to modern engineering and architectural marvels, you won't find these towns anywhere else in California.