Carmel-by-the-Sea, California- Image Credit oliverdelahaye via Shutterstock

11 Unforgettable Small Towns to Visit in Northern California

Northern California, the expansive upper portion of the state, has an incredible blend of urban destinations and natural wonders.

Dynamic cities like San Francisco and the state capital, Sacramento, sit alongside the state’s natural landscapes, like the ancient redwood forests and the dramatic peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

In this part of the state, you can discover wineries, vintage Gold Rush districts, and the roaring Pacific Ocean along the shoreline.

These locations are some of the most unforgettable places to visit in Northern California.


The Old Town of Truckee, on Donner Pass Road
The Old Town of Truckee, on Donner Pass Road, via David A Litman /

Only 30 miles from the glitz and glamour of Reno, Truckee serves as a quieter, more outdoorsy option comparatively.

Truckee was an important central point during the California Gold Rush and was a vital stop along the First Transcontinental Railroad. This heritage is reflected in the town's downtown.

The downtown area has a collection of buildings with Old West architecture, and visitors can check out structures with rustic wooden facades, giving a glimpse into the town's past.

Commercial Row has nostalgic structures housing various shops and restaurants, and you can feel the distinct Old West ambiance.

The Truckee Railroad Depot, built in 1900, is a reminder of the importance the town had as rail spread across the country. Inside the depot is the Truckee-Donner Historical Society Museum, with exhibits and artifacts teaching the story of the region.

The infamous story of the Donner Party happened not far from here. The Donner Memorial State Park, near Truckee, includes a museum and monument commemorating the Donner Party and their ill-fated journey.

Half Moon Bay

Street view in Half Moon Bay, California
Street view in Half Moon Bay, California

Surfing buffs might already know about Half Moon Bay. The town has gained international fame for its annual Mavericks surf competition, acclaimed for its massive waves, which can reach up to 60 feet high.

If surfing is not your thing, you can still enjoy the breathtaking coastal views by taking a stroll along the beach.

The nearby Half Moon Bay State Beach is a good place for a nice day of relaxation and recreation. Even on a day when a heavy fog comes in, there is a calming and dreamy quality to the area.

It also hosts the annual Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, celebrating the town’s agricultural heritage. It includes a pumpkin weigh-off, and a parade, and is perfect for the whole family.

Highway 35 gives drivers a stunning drive through the Santa Cruz Mountains. You can pass by historic sites and bear witness to ancient trees like redwood trees and the timeless Methuselah Tree.


Aerial view of Auburn, California.
Aerial view of Auburn, California.

Like many California towns, Auburn traces its past to the Gold Rush, which brought settlers and miners seeking their fortune.

That past is not forgotten in Auburn. Brown brick buildings line the streets of Auburn's Old Town, a well-preserved heritage district with charming buildings with shops and restaurants.

History buffs will not leave disappointed since Auburn has some great museums.

The Placer County Museum in Auburn teaches the region's history, spanning from early Nisenan inhabitants to the latter half of the 20th century.

It lies inside the iconic courthouse, with bold white columns and its rounded cupola beaming proudly against the Californian sky.

There is beauty and adventure to be had outside. The nearby American River Canyon offers is a wonderful spot for hiking or biking and it only takes 30 minutes to get there from Auburn.

A popular trail to try is the Western States Trail, part of the famous Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.


Antique stores, restaurants, historic buildings, steps from the beach, in Cayucos, California.
Antique stores, restaurants, historic buildings, steps from the beach, in Cayucos, California. Image credit HannaTor via Shutterstock

Take a scenic drive along Highway 1 to Cayucos, where you will discover gorgeous beaches, a relaxed atmosphere, and the ocean behind you.

Beaches stretch out around Cayucos, and visitors can relax and do some sunbathing or some tidepooling. Cayucos State Beach is a good option, with its wide sandy shores.

If you like surfing, Cayucos is a bit less busy compared to some other locations along the shore and has some surf-friendly waves

For a terrific vantage point of the ocean, the Cayucos Pier is an iconic landmark in the town and will give you a perfect location to take a photo of the ocean scenery.

There are also some great festivals year-round, like the Cayucos Sea Glass Festival, where you can explore and purchase beautiful sea glass creations.

Everyone love sweet treats, and Cayucos has some of the best cookies around. The Brown Butter Cookie Company crafts delectable treats, capturing the essence of the coastal town in each bite.


Carmel-by-the-sea, is a town on the Pacific coast known for its enchanting architecture with fairytale houses
Carmel-by-the-sea, is a town on the Pacific coast known for its enchanting architecture with fairytale houses - Naeblys /

For years, nature lovers and artists have come to Carmel-by-the-Sea to experience its raw beauty.

The town lies along the rugged California coastline and gives gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean alongside long, sandy beaches.

Explore the nearby Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, renowned for its diverse marine life and scenic trails. Additionally, Garrapata State Park has fantastic hiking opportunities. These options are great choices for anybody looking at tackling the outdoors.

Commonly known as the Carmel Mission, this cultural Spanish mission is one of the city's most well-known landmarks. Built-in 1770, Carmel Mission stands out with its adobe architecture and beautiful bell tower, reflecting Spanish colonial style

The town has been home to some famous artists. Actor and director Clint Eastwood was elected mayor of Carmel in the late 80s. 

Photographer Ansel Adams and writer Sinclair Lewis also spent time here. The town continues to foster a thriving artistic community, with a large collection of galleries to explore.

St. Helena

Historic buildings in St. Helena, California.
Historic buildings in St. Helena, California.

If you love wine, welcome to your perfect vacation spot. St. Helena is right in the heart of Napa Valley, a name even non-enthusiasts know.

The area produces a variety of wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Prestigious wineries and vineyards are scattered throughout, so remember to aside enough time to explore.

In St. Helena, besides wine, there is also the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. It is a famous cooking school with learning programs and a restaurant where students showcase their cooking skills.

The town is home to several historic landmarks, like the Cameo Cinema on Main Street since 1913. It is one of the oldest continuously operating single-screen theaters in the country.

The Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park is not far from town and has an old water-powered grist mill. It originates from the mid-1800s and is one of the few water-powered mills still around.


Morning view of the famous St. James Episcopal Church at Sonora, California.
Morning view of the famous St. James Episcopal Church at Sonora, California.

Sonora, known as ‘the Queen of the Southern Mines,’ still keeps the legacy of its Gold Rush days alive.

The town retains a lot of historical landmarks, and walking tours will take you to see over 20 of them along a one-mile route on the town's Washington Street.

You can see and learn about the Sonora Chinatown Memorial, honoring the Chinese community, or see the Courthouse Square, with its Spanish Revival style resembling the old missions of California.

Housed in a gorgeous brick building, the Veterans Memorial Military Museum tells the story of the sacrifices of local veterans. Also, the Sonora Fire Museum shows off vintage equipment and teaches about the ongoing struggle to deal with wildfires in the area.

Just 10 minutes north you can check out the Columbia State Historic Park, in neighbouring Columbia. Inside this park, 30 Gold Rush-era buildings remain in exceptional condition, and the state park is listed as a National Historic Landmark District.


The Amtrak station in Dunsmuir, California
The Amtrak station in Dunsmuir, California

The town was named after Alexander Dunsmuir, a prominent Canadian coal magnate, who was involved in the railroad industry.

This Northern California town proudly declares itself as the ‘Home of the Best Water on Earth’ and it is not an empty claim.

Dunsmuir lies in the northmost part of California in the Trinity Mountains and gets its drinking water from the natural filtration of snowmelt on Mt. Shasta. The water is so clean it does not require further treatment.

The town is also a neighbor to some beautiful waterfalls. A simple hike will take you to Hedge Creek Falls, where you can look out at the forest while standing behind a falling water veil.

Another option is the glory of Sweetbriar Falls, which you can get to from a quick hike off Interstate 5.

Also nearby is the Castle Crags State Park, which gets its name from its 170-million-year-old formations, boasting dramatic granite spires and over 30 miles of hiking trails with stunning views.


Street in Ferndale, California
Street in Ferndale, California. Image credit mikluha_maklai via Shutterstock

Visitors flock to Ferndale for its redwoods, Victorian architecture, and the vibrant, close-knit, artistic community atmosphere.

Ferndale is often a filming location for movies and TV shows because of how well-preserved the town has kept its structures.

The city has gorgeous Victorian architecture, with some buildings in downtown dating back to the late 19th century. Main Street in Ferndale is lined with colorful Victorian-era storefronts and homes, making it a fantastic stop for visitors interested in classic architecture.

When you walk around town, the feeling of nature is never far away. The nearby forest wraps around the edges of the town, blending natural and urban environments.

The Ferndale Museum is a great place to learn more about the town's history. It even includes a unique working seismograph and antique farming equipment.

If you want to get out of town and see the area, Centerville Beach County Park, located nearby, provides access to the Pacific Ocean and is known for its raw, scenic beauty.


Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga, Napa Valley, California.
Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga, Napa Valley, California. Image credit Dragan Jovanovic via

Even though Calistoga is right in the middle of wine country in Napa Valley, it offers so much more.

Calistoga has famous hot springs, which have attracted visitors seeking therapeutic benefits for centuries. Many hotels and resorts in the area provide hot spring experiences, like Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs, which has been operating for over 60 years.

In addition to hot springs, Calistoga is also renowned for its mud baths, and many spas supply mud baths and various wellness treatments.

Calistoga is home to the Old Faithful Geyser of California, a natural geyser erupting regularly. While it is not as large or predictable as its more famous Yellowstone counterpart, it is still a beautiful thing to behold.

One of the more curious wineries close to Calistoga is the Castello di Amorosa, a winery built to resemble a medieval Tuscan castle.

The castle was meticulously designed and constructed to replicate the architecture of a 13th-century medieval keep. It includes things like a drawbridge, defensive towers, and a courtyard.

Nevada City

Downtown Nevada City, California.
Downtown Nevada City, California. Editorial credit: Chris Allan /

Despite the name, this town is very much located in California.

Up in Nevada County amongst the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Nevada City was born from the Gold Rush, before transforming into a mining town.

The town is home to vintage and historical buildings. The Nevada Theatre is a significant cultural landmark and holds the distinction of being one of the oldest theaters in California, continuously operated since opening in 1865.

The National Hotel is another notable landmark in Nevada City, dating back to 1856. It is one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in California and has roots tied to the Gold Rush era.

Originally constructed to accommodate the influx of gold prospectors and travelers, the National Hotel has kept its Victorian-era charm.

If you want to hit the outdoors, the nearby Tahoe National Forest provides great hiking, camping, and fishing. If you want to hit the water, nearby Yuba River is a popular spot for locals and visitors for some swimming or rafting.

In Conclusion

Northern California features a diverse mix of urban and natural wonders. From historic districts to coastal retreats, these towns will make you want to keep coming back for more.

If you are into outdoor adventures, or simply seeking relaxation, the region has something to lend.

So, pack your bags, bring some sunscreen, and get ready to explore the vast beauty that Northern California offers.

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