Solvant, California. Editorial credit: HannaTor /

6 Most Scenic Small Towns In Southern California

Often referred to as "SoCal," Southern California is home to some of the best travel destinations in "The Golden State." Yet while famous names like Beverly Hills, Long Beach, and Los Angeles get much of the tourist attention, the state's many smaller communities often outdo their larger neighbors regarding scenery.

From the beautiful beaches of Del Mar to the quaint Danish-inspired streets of Solvang, the best of these towns offer a rich blend of cultural heritage and natural beauty that makes them perfect places to visit for an authentic SoCal vacation. Find out more with the help of this list of six of Southern California's most scenic small towns.

Oak Glen

Aerial view of the charming mountain town of Oak Glen, California.
Aerial view of the charming mountain town of Oak Glen, California.

Oak Glen is located just a 30-minute drive east of San Bernardino and is a popular SoCal travel destination for its unique blend of natural beauty and quaint rural charm. It's especially popular (and pretty!) in the fall when visitors flock here to participate in its bountiful apple-picking season. Snow-Line Orchard is a favorite among visitors at any time of year for its delicious mini-cider donuts and apple ciders.

This quaint town is also famous for the Oak Glen Preserve, a year-round attraction featuring trails that offer excellent views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, and for the Oak Glen School Museum, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1927 (admission is via a donation). Riley's Farm is another popular Oak Glen attraction. This living history farmstead shares a glimpse into America's colonial and pioneer days through historical re-enactments, hands-on activities, and period-appropriate dining experiences.

Idyllwild-Pine Cove

A lovely souvenir store in Idyllwild, California.
A lovely souvenir store in Idyllwild, California.

Although less a town and more a collection of three small communities - Pine Cove, Fern Valley, and, of course, Idyllwild - this attractive SoCal destination serves as an excellent base from which to explore the spectacular San Jacinto Mountains. One of the most scenic sightseeing opportunities here is Tahquitz Rock. Also known as Lily Rock, climbers from around the globe flock here to tackle a range of climbing routes, while hiking enthusiasts can trek the trails leading to Tahquitz Peak.

A more leisurely outdoor experience can be enjoyed at the Idyllwild Nature Center. In addition to its five miles of paths and trails suitable for all levels, it's a popular spot to get acquainted with local flora and fauna through its interactive exhibits and nature walks. The Idyllwild-Pine Cove area also serves as a gateway to the San Bernardino National Forest with even greater outdoor outdoor options, including camping, mountain biking, and fishing on Lake Hemet.


The Danish-style town of Solvang, California
The Danish-style town of Solvang, California. Editorial credit: Benny Marty /

The pretty town of Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley is a great spot to visit for those longing for a small taste of old Europe. Settled by immigrants from Denmark in 1911 and nicknamed the "Danish Capital of America," this unique town boasts a variety of authentic Danish architecture and traditional events worth experiencing. Highlights include the Solvang Festival Theater, an outdoor venue that hosts plays, concerts, and Danish folk dancers; the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, which pays homage to Denmark's most famous author through exhibits on his life and his beloved fairy tales; and no less than six windmills.

Walking through downtown Solvang is a must-do, especially for visitors searching for authentic Danish foods and souvenirs. Numerous bakeries here sell tasty delicacies like æbleskiver (pancake balls) and flødeboller (chocolate-covered marshmallows), while the Solvang Shoe Store sells authentic wooden clogs.


Aerial view of Avalon, California.
Aerial view of Avalon, California.

While not as easy to get to as the other scenic small towns on this list, Avalon is well worth a visit if you can get there. Accessible by boat or ferry (regular services run to and from Long Beach), this enchanting seaside town on Catalina Island is a hub for tourists looking to explore this beautiful region. In addition to strolling its picturesque and distinctly Mediterranean-like harbor and downtown area, it's worth checking out the magnificent Catalina Casino. Built in 1929, this Art Deco landmark is not a casino but a cultural center boasting a movie theater, ballroom, and museum.

Outdoor adventures await at the Catalina Island Conservancy, a vast park that protects 90 percent of the island and its relatively unspoiled landscape. Highlights include countless trails for hiking and biking, including the Trans-Catalina Trail, a nearly 40-mile-long route that takes a few days to complete. The Avalon Underwater Dive Park is a popular spot for exploring vibrant marine life and underwater structures, and scenic boat tours around the island are readily available and offer opportunities to spot dolphins, sea lions, and, during certain seasons, whales.

Del Mar

The coastal town of Del Mar, California.
The coastal town of Del Mar, California.

Visitors traveling 20 miles north of downtown San Diego will find themselves in Del Mar, a picturesque coastal town well-known for its stunning beaches. Del Mar City Beach is the best and is equally popular among surfers, sunbathers, and families looking for somewhere safe for the kids to play in the sand. Are you traveling with a fur baby? Make a beeline for the beach's northern section, Dog Beach, to let them off-leash.

Equestrian fans will want to include this scenic town's Del Mar Racetrack on their itinerary (it's home to the annual Del Mar Thoroughbred Club race season), while the adjacent San Diego County Fair - one of the country's largest - is held here from mid-June to early July and is fun to visit for its entertainment, culinary delights, and carnival rides.


Downtown Julian, California.
Downtown Julian, California. Editorial credit: littlenySTOCK /

Last but by no means least, the quaint small town of Julian is set in the pretty Cuyamaca Mountain region of SoCal and is a treasure trove of natural beauty and fascinating history. Established in 1870 at the height of the California Gold Rush, it's a delightful spot to visit in fall not just for the changing foliage colors but also for its abundant apple harvest. A visit during the Julian Apple Days Festival in early October is highly recommended for the town's famed apple pies and ciders.

To learn more about the town's history, a visit to the Julian Pioneer Museum provides a fascinating glimpse into the town's gold rush era with its collection of vintage clothing, photographs, and mining equipment. Enjoy the outdoors? Cuyamaca Rancho State Park features plenty of trails for hiking and horseback riding and is also popular for bird watching. And let's not forget downtown Julian, which has its historic buildings and excellent shopping experiences.

The Final Word

For those unfamiliar with SoCal, these picturesque small towns present a superb introduction to the region's history, cultures, and spectacular scenery. From the coastal charm of Del Mar and the Danish influences of Solvang and Julian's orchard-filled hills to the island paradise that is Avalon, these communities offer a glimpse into Southern California that will leave readers wanting to learn more.

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