Vacationers frolicking in the Yuba River in Nevada City, California. Image credit Pascalipatou via

7 Most Charming River Towns in California to Visit in 2024

When it comes to planning a day on the water in California, you probably envision a visit to the glorious coast. And while this Golden State is definitely famous for its sandy shores and ocean views, it is also home to some of the prettiest rivers in the country. Straddling these waterways, charming river towns entice visitors hoping to see a different side of the state–a more peaceful and relaxing one. From riverside gardens and vineyards to historic downtowns and Victorian hotels, any of these river communities would be perfect for a spontaneous day trip or a blissful weekend away this 2024.


The historic 1898 Courthouse in downtown Auburn, California.
The historic 1898 Courthouse in downtown Auburn, California.

Springtime in Auburn, California, is when this charming river town’s main attraction starts to pick up speed. Auburn State Recreation Area, home to the North and Middle forks of the great American River, was once a gold miner’s dream. And while gold panning can still be experienced here, most of the 900,000 annual visitors come for nature. Whether rafting the racing white river waters, hiking or horseback riding the 100+ miles of trails, or setting up camp for a night under the stars, this park takes outdoor recreation to a whole new level.

South fork of the American River near Auburn, California.
South fork of the American River near Auburn, California.

Springtime is also a great time to visit with kids since 2024 has a ton of family-friendly park events in store. March 13th is when they will host their educational Native Plants Uses and History Hike, and March 23rd will be the riverside Easter Egg Orienteering event. For some adult-focused fun outside the park this 2024, Auburn is also one of the towns participating in Sip into Spring, a 2-day wine tasting extravaganza on the Placer Wine Trail in early April.


Johnson's Beach, Guerneville, California, on the Russian River
Johnson's Beach, Guerneville, California, on the Russian River

Along the mighty Russian River, the “charmingly rustic” Guerneville is a quintessential destination for wine enthusiasts. With lush vineyards surrounding the town and over 50 wineries within a short driving distance, the greatest dilemma is which to visit during your stay. For a bubbly sip, Korbel Champagne Cellars is the best spot in town for sparkling wines and dazzling champagnes, along with guided tours of the 19th-century wine cellars. Crisp chardonnays and bright pino noirs can be sampled elsewhere, such as at hotspots like Porter-Bass Vineyard & Winery, whose proximity to the Russian River creates a cool climate and perfect grape growing conditions. 

Guerneville, however, is not a 1-trick pony, offering plenty else beyond its wineries. Head to Main Street to rent a kayak or canoe with local companies like R2T2 or King's Sport & Tackle, and begin your river journey near downtown Guerneville at Guerneville River Park. For an adventure on foot, the 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is a glorious way to experience the towering California redwoods. And for a more daring trip through the trees, you can book a zipline experience with Sonoma Zipline Adventures.


Sonoma Coast State Beach near Jenner, California.
Sonoma Coast State Beach near Jenner, California.

Around 20 minutes from Guerneville, Jenner is both a river and coastal town, settled on a bluff overlooking where the Russian River spills into the Pacific. The views, you can guess, are the main selling point of this California town, and the Jenner Headlands Preserve has some of the best vantage points. The 5,630 acre preserve has 15 miles of trails and a diverse blend of landscapes, from thick redwood forests to soft coastal prairie. The most popular path by far is the Sea to Sky Trail, famous for its gorgeous scenery and ocean views high above the sea.

For views below the town, Goat Rock Beach is another dazzling feature of Jenner near the mouth of the Russian River. The sandy shores and seaside views can be enjoyed from picnic tables or on a coastal stroll, but just make sure to keep a safe distance from the harbor seals, however cute they may be. It is worth noting, that the beach is part of Sonoma Coast State Park, another pleasure of Jenner. The park broadens your adventures with countless additional beaches along its 17 miles of Pacific coastline, and the bluff trails are each more beautiful than the last, like Bodega Head, a beloved whale-watching spot.

Nevada City

Broad Street in Nevada City, California.
Broad Street in Nevada City, California. Image credit: Frank Schulenburg, via Wikimedia Commons.

When you hear a name like “Nevada City” you may picture a bustling metropolis in the western Silver State. But with just over 3,000 residents, this California community is actually one of the best spots in the state to experience small town bliss. Located in the Sierra Nevada foothills on “The Wild & Scenic South Yuba River,” Nevada City promises outdoor charms and historic treasures. South Yuba River State Park is just a short drive away, with several canyon and riverside trailheads near town, like the Edwards and Purdon Crossings. Alternatively, a more colorful slice of nature can be found right in town at Crystal Hermitage Gardens. Although it is currently open as of February, it is highly suggested to plan your visit for April 13th, 2024, as this is when the garden “opens” for spring, welcoming visitors to witness their breathtaking collection of 20,000 tulips.

In downtown Nevada City, the Historic District pays a quaint homage to the town’s mining past. Best explored by foot, you will want to start your stroll on Broad Street to see some of the town’s best historic preservations. The National Exchange Hotel is just one example, built in 1856. Grab a drink at their historic bar or a bite in their in-house restaurant, Lola Dining, before exploring the area’s other quirks. For instance, just 3 minutes up the road you can grab a show at California’s oldest surviving theater venue, the Nevada Theatre, originally established back in 1865.


Sunset over the Gualala River in northern California
Sunset over the Gualala River in northern California. Image credit Blaine Mason via Shutterstock

Close to the mouth of the Gualala River, lies an underrated town with the same name. Often overshadowed by its neighbor, San Francisco, this river town has plenty to make it worth a visit or detour. Despite lacking the grandeur of a big city, Gualala is appreciated by many San Franciscans and other out-of-towners who value its natural beauty and authenticity. The town’s main star, Gualala Point Regional Park, is popular with hikers and beachgoers. Here you can access gorgeous views of where the Gualala River meets the ocean, along with 2.9 miles of trail along towering coastal bluffs. Unpaved paths are equally gorgeous, rewarding confident hikers with stops like Whale Watch Point, a scenic overlook known for whale watching and sunset views. Whether you camp here in the park or spend a night or two at Gualala River Redwoods Park, the nature in this river town will respark anyone’s love of California’s great outdoors.


Mossbrae Falls in the Shasta Cascade in Dunsmuir, California
Mossbrae Falls in the Shasta Cascade in Dunsmuir, California. Image credit JoeRoe via Shutterstock

With Interstate 5 passing right through Dunsmuir, this Sacramento River town is a spirited tourist hub year-round. Perched in the Trinity Mountains, the town has a reputation for being “Home of the Best Water on Earth.” Not only is their drinking water filtered through Mt. Shasta’s volcanic slopes, but there are also endless lakes, streams, and waterfalls gracing Dunsmuir with their splendor, luring photographers, anglers, and outdoorsmen alike. Cascades like Hedge Creek Falls or Sweetbriar Falls can be photographed and admired after a quick hike from town, while anglers prefer keeping to the river’s edge since the Upper Sacramento is famous for its abundant rainbow trout. Also along the Upper Sacramento, nature lovers can savor a more contained view of the region’s beauty at Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens. And for the adventurous souls craving a wilder escape, a mere 11 minute drive from Dunsmuir leads to Castle Crags State Park, whose 170-million-year-old, 6,500 foot granite cliffs are bucket list worthy.

Red Bluff

Street view in Red Bluff, California
Street view in Red Bluff, California, via DreamArt123 /

For those seeking an easygoing day trip in 2024, consider Red Bluff, another delightful Sacramento River town with a more laid-back vibe. Its well-preserved history adds an extra layer of charm to its scenic river views, and strolling through Historic Downtown Red Bluff feels like a journey back in time. The picturesque, tree-lined roads and Victorian architecture invites visitors to slow down and embrace an unhurried pace to take it all in. While downtown, you can also take the opportunity to catch a show at the Historic State Theatre, followed by a drink at the Round Up Saloon, whose welcoming locals will have you feeling right at home. But if outdoor adventures are more your style, you will want to explore the Sacramento River Bend Area or William B. Ide Adobe State Historic Park for views of the river’s racing waters. The latter showcases an 1850’s homestead, making this a great educational addition for families with kids of all ages.

Final Thoughts

With around 1,000 miles of serene shoreline, it is unsurprising so many flock to California for its beaches. But as the weather warms and spring crowds begin to thicken, you may prefer to avoid Santa Monica or Malibu beach crowds, making these charming river towns your ticket to a quieter paradise in 2024. From guided waterway hikes in Auburn to Nevada City’s iconic 20,000-tulip garden, there are endless outdoor attractions to reinspire your love of nature, and plenty of darling downtowns to unwind in afterward. 

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