Pacific Ocean coast, in Carmel-by-the-sea, Monterey Peninsula, California.

6 Best Small Towns in California for Outdoor Enthusiasts

With 280 state parks preserving California's natural diversity and attracting millions of visitors each year, it's clear that the Golden State is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. From the parks' 340 miles of stunning coastline to the state's many towering mountains, there's something for every nature lover. Whether you're seeking a relaxed lake day, a tranquil beach vacation, or an active hiking weekend, you'll find a small town in California whose natural backdrop will reignite your passion for the outdoors in ways you never imagined. Here are 6 of its towns where locals live and breathe the outdoors, welcoming others to share in their enthusiasm.

Mount Shasta

Bunny Flat Trailhead, Mount Shasta, Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Bunny Flat Trailhead, Mount Shasta, Shasta-Trinity National Forest

Nestled in the foothills of the majestic Mount Shasta, the town of the same name beckons visitors with its scenic beauty and gateway to adventure. Catering to thrill-seekers and leisurely hikers alike, this double-peaked volcanic mountain offers trails for all abilities throughout the year. With its highest peak reaching 14,179 feet, Mount Shasta is a magnet for skiers and snowboarders nationwide. A mere 20-minute drive from Mount Shasta town lies Mt. Shasta Ski Park, where winter sports enthusiasts can enjoy the slopes. Spanning 2,038 vertical feet, the park features 38 trails ranging from beginner-friendly to expert-level challenges, alongside areas designated for sledding, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. Before setting out for a day in the snow, visitors can gear up at the local Sportsmen's Den.

As the snow melts, summer transforms Mount Shasta into a haven of wildflowers, and the town offers some of the most picturesque alpine trails. The Gateway Trail, a recent addition, was designed to maximize scenic views and offers a more gentle terrain compared to other mountain trails with steeper elevations. Just a few minutes from downtown Mount Shasta, hikers can embark on wooded paths leading to the mountain's lower slopes. Over 30 miles of trails have been developed (with more in progress), offering various loop lengths for those eager to delve deeper into the mountains. The trail system is thoughtfully divided into three zones: the Community Zone for trails near the town, the Learning Zone featuring family-friendly paths, and the Big Mountain Zone, which includes moderate to challenging hikes and mountain biking trails.


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

Just 13 minutes from Mount Shasta, the small town of Dunsmuir is proof that sometimes the greatest attractions can be found in the smallest towns. Known for its spectacular waters, Dunsmuir sits on the Sacramento River, which is just the start of its aquatic allure. Alpine lakes, streams, and waterfalls can be found in the surrounding areas, earning the town its slogan: “Home of the Best Water on Earth.” Dunsmuir's drinking water is notably pure, being filtered snowmelt from Mt. Shasta’s volcanic slopes.

For a short but rewarding hike, take the 0.7-mile Hedge Creek Falls Trail, which offers views of a tranquil canyon and a picturesque 30 to 35-foot waterfall. You can walk behind the waterfall through a large, naturally carved cave for some truly magical views. As you continue down the canyon, a variety of smaller cascades lead to an observation deck with a scenic view of the Sacramento River.

Back in town, the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens provide another opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the Sacramento River and its surrounding flora. Wander through the 10-acre nature area's various paths to see a blend of forests, wildflower meadows, and sculpted gardens. Just 9 minutes from Dunsmuir, Castle Crags State Park is a must-visit natural attraction, with its granite spire ridges soaring 6,500 feet above the town. The park offers 30 miles of trails for a day of exploration and adventure.


A busy street in downtown Carmel, California
A busy street in downtown Carmel, California, via Sundry Photography /

Grounded by its beautiful beaches, Carmel-By-The-Sea offers experiences as delightful as its name suggests. A popular starting point is Carmel Beach, located at the end of Ocean Avenue. This sandy coastal park is a favorite spot for surfing, beach bonfires, or strolling along the cypress-lined Scenic Pathway that overlooks the shoreline. It's also extremely dog-friendly, welcoming the entire family, including four-legged members.

For a quieter beach experience, head to the southern end of Carmel-By-The-Sea, where Carmel River State Beach offers a more secluded setting. This area includes the Carmel River Lagoon and a bird sanctuary, bringing vibrant wildlife to the area. Monastery Beach, part of the park, is a haven for scuba divers. Its underwater features, such as kelp forests and rocky pinnacles, lie within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, showcasing why this "national undersea treasure" is federally protected.

Fort Bragg

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, California
Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, California

Fort Bragg, a California beach town, attracts beachgoers from across the country with its scenic shores. Visit MacKerricher State Park for its nine miles of scenic coastline, where a variety of landscapes await. The southern half features rocky headlands and tidepools, while the northern side offers a classic sandy beach, popular among sunbathers and swimmers. However, it's the three areas known as Glass Beach, each a former dump site in Fort Bragg from the early 1900s, that have long drawn people to the park. The Pacific has transformed the broken bottles that once littered these shores into a kaleidoscope of shimmering sea glass. Though over-collecting by tourists has reduced the once abundant glass, the remaining smooth shards are still strikingly beautiful. Collecting is now prohibited to preserve these colorful beaches for future enjoyment.

The park's attractions extend beyond its vibrant shores to include woods, wetlands, lakes, and sand dunes beautifully spread across the area. The serene 1.3-mile Lake Cleone loop trail circles a charming freshwater reservoir. It connects to the Laguna Point Boardwalk and Seal Watching Station, offering an easy 0.6-mile round-trip hike with stunning ocean views. From late December through April, keep an eye out for migrating gray whales in addition to seals.

Borrego Springs

View of the Grange Hall and the Livery room at the Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort at Borrego Springs, California
View of the Grange Hall and the Livery room at the Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort at Borrego Springs, California, via Rosamar /

Situated within the Colorado Desert, part of the Sonoran Desert, is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California's largest state park and the largest desert state park in the United States. At its heart lies Borrego Springs, the only town in California completely surrounded by a state park. This desert town and its expansive park offer myriad opportunities for outdoor adventure, from rugged canyons to palm oases.

The park's wildflowers bloom from March through May, drawing many visitors during this period. The Borrego Palm Canyon hike leads through a fan palm oasis fed by underground springs, showcasing bright flowers and colorful cactus blooms. Keep your camera ready for frequent bighorn sheep sightings. The 0.7-mile Cactus Loop trail is another popular spring hike, featuring a diverse range of desert flora, including pink-flowered beavertails and barrel cactuses with flowers atop their domes.

Beyond the peak floral season, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park still offers wonders. A sunrise hike through the Borrego Badlands reveals striking shadows across the sandy ridges. The Wind Caves trail, less than a mile long, takes you through the Carrizo Badlands to the wind-sculpted sandstone caves, known for their dramatic and whimsical curves.

Bass Lake

Morning view of the Bass Lake in California
Morning view of the Bass Lake in California, via Kit Leong /

For those who find a desert getaway too hot, Bass Lake offers a cooler alternative. Located in the Sierra Nevada region, this village caters to both relaxed lake days and active water sports enthusiasts. The 5-mile-long lake provides ample space for various activities. You can rent pontoons, jet skis, or kayaks from local rental services, or find a secluded cove for swimming. If you prefer dry land, the surrounding Sierra National Forest features hiking trails that allow you to enjoy the fresh mountain air. The leisurely Way of the Mono trail, less than a mile long, offers scenic lake views, while the more challenging 3-mile Willow Creek trail leads to the picturesque Angel Falls. Additionally, Bass Lake is less than thirty minutes from Yosemite National Park, offering easy access to its ancient sequoias and towering granite cliffs.

Final Thoughts

Whether it's skiing on Mount Shasta’s slopes, seeking cactus blooms in Borrego Springs, or swimming in a secluded cove at Bass Lake, California welcomes outdoor enthusiasts in every season. The state is rich with parks, gardens, resorts, and beaches dedicated to preserving natural beauty for future enjoyment. Like the protective measures at Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach, conservation is key to ensuring these natural wonders endure. By exploring these towns and their natural attractions, outdoor enthusiasts play a role in this preservation, respecting their surroundings and inspiring others to cherish the wonders of the natural world.

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