Main Street on Bishop, California, via lucentius /

6 Underappreciated Towns to Visit in California's Sierra Nevada

California's Sierra Nevada is a mountain range that ranges north to south in the central and eastern portions of the state. It is famous for its parks, with notable attractions including Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Forest, Lake Tahoe, the volcanic Mount Shasta, and quite literally hundreds of other renowned locations. Within this vast area, there are many towns, big and small (although nowhere near as big as the coastal cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco) and we would like to highlight 6 of these smaller towns that are perhaps a touch underrated. Take a look at the historical, cultural, and natural landmarks these places have to offer, and see if you can visit them on your next road trip in California.


Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, California.
Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, California. Image credit EWY Media via ShutterstockCaption:

Murphys is a small town of about 2,100 residents that is just outside the Stanislaus National Forest. Established during the Gold Rush era in the 1840s, Murphys retains much of its 19th-century charm, with well-preserved buildings and historical markers that recount its past. Explore the Murphys Historic Hotel, which dates back to 1856 and hosted notable figures like Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant. You can still stay at this hotel, and it is one of the oldest in continuous operation in all of California.

Murphys is also a gateway to many natural attractions. Just outside the town, pay a visit to the Mercer Caverns. Discovered in 1885, this cave system now has guided tours through its stunning limestone formations. The nearby Calaveras Big Trees State Park features giant sequoias, providing excellent hiking trails and picnicking spots.

Murphys is also known for its thriving wine industry, with numerous vineyards and tasting rooms throughout this ideal grape-growing area. Ironstone Vineyards, one of the largest wineries in the region, includes a museum, amphitheater, and beautifully landscaped grounds where you can sit back and sip on a nice glass.


Main street in Quincy, Plumas County, California
Main street in Quincy, Plumas County, California. Image credit Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Quincy sits at the northern end of the Sierra Nevada and is known for its beautiful Victorian-era building, among other historic and natural landmarks. Start with a tour at the Plumas County Museum, which contains artifacts and exhibits related to the area's history, including its Native American heritage and the Gold Rush period.

Surrounded by the Plumas National Forest, Quincy has ample way for you to get out and engage in outdoor activity. Bucks Lake, a short drive from the town, is a popular spot for fishing, boating, and hiking. The scenic Feather River nearby offers additional recreational options, including white-water rafting and kayaking, with guided excursions available to book in town.

Quincy's Main Street features many great amenities, including locally-owned shops, cafes, and restaurants. The historic Town Hall Theatre is a focal point for fun events, including plays, films, and concerts hosted all year. Quincy also hosts the annual High Sierra Music Festival, perfect for any music fans out there.


Mule Day Parade in Bishop, California
Mule Day Parade in Bishop, California. Image credit MarieKaz via

On the eastern side of the mountains, Bishop gives all a unique view of the Sierra Nevadas and an easy way to get to the Owens Valley.

Nature enthusiasts will find plenty to do in and around Bishop, with many notable natural attractions within reach. The nearby Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to some of the oldest trees on Earth, is a stark and fascinating landscape for hikers and photographers alike. Rock climbers are drawn from around the country to the Buttermilk Boulders and the Owens River Gorge, which provide challenging routes and unforgettable views of the arid and rugged views once you reach the top. Grab a cold one after a day outdoors at the Mountain Rambler Brewery, a popular spot for both food and drinks.

Bishop's history is well-documented at the Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site, where you can walk amongst restored buildings and a vast collection of artifacts from the region's early days of American settlement.

Grass Valley

Main Street in Grass Valley, California
Main Street in Grass Valley, California. Editorial credit: EWY Media /

Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada foothills, Grass Valley, a city of around 14,000 residents, is packed with numerous ways to have some fun outdoors. The South Yuba River State Park. for one, is loaded with hiking trails and swimming holes. Maybe even strike it rich at this park's many gold panning sites.

The historical significance of Grass Valley can be learned about at the Empire Mine State Historic Park, one of California’s oldest and most productive gold mines. Tour the mine’s grounds, buildings, and gardens, gaining insights into the gold mining era that originally shaped the town.

The town's downtown area is a hub featuring many stores, restaurants, hotels, and historic buildings like the North Star Museum, a former ore processing mill turned museum. Grass Valley also celebrates its heritage with events like the annual Cornish Christmas, which features traditional Christmas music, crafts, and cuisine around the holiday season.


The Yuba River in Downieville, California.
The Yuba River in Downieville, California.

The Downieville Downhill, one of the most famous mountain biking trails in the United States, attracts riders from around the world with its challenging terrain and breathtaking views. Besides this well-known trail, there are many other gems that make this town worth visiting. Located in Sierra County, this former mining town abounds with outside activity, sightseeing, and cultural attractions.

Yet another West Coast town established during the Gold Rush in 1849, Downieville has preserved its past with numerous historical buildings and sites. The Downieville Museum, housed in a former store, displays artifacts and exhibits that tell the story of the town's history.

For more bike-related events, the annual Downieville Classic is a mountain biking festival held in the foothills surrounding town which are filled with world-class mountain biking trails of varying difficulties. For a more relaxed sightseeing excursion, go see the North Yuba River, which conveniently runs through the town. This is a popular place to go fishing, swimming, and even gold-panning.


Downtown Markleeville
Downtown Markleeville, via Jasperdo on Flickr

Markleeville is an excellent base for exploring the parks in the central region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Grover Hot Springs State Park is a notable destination, featuring natural hot springs where you can relax in the warm waters; a perfect way to rest your body after a day hiking or climbing. This park also contains hiking trails, picnic areas, and camping facilities, providing a less expensive and perhaps more fun way to spend the night in this relatively remote area. The nearby Carson River is ideal for fishing, kayaking, and rafting, for those of you looking for more water-based activities.

In town, landmarks like the Alpine County Courthouse and the Alpine County Museum are great places to learn more about the area. Downtown Markleeville is also home to a small, yet excellent, selection of shops and restaurants. The Stone Fly serves a variety of tasty dishes, many made with locally sourced ingredients, that are primarily cooked in a wood-fired oven.

Discover More in the Sierra Nevadas

The Sierra Nevada Mountain range is full of fun and adventure. It is easy to miss much of what makes it special, however, especially if you are exploring the area for the first time, or are focusing on only the most famous landmarks and destinations. Now that you are aware of these 6 fantastic and underrated towns, hopefully, you can gain a deeper appreciation for this enchanting region of California. How many of these places can you add to your road trip itinerary this summer?

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