Pioneertown, California saloon and bath house. Mfield, Matthew Field,, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

8 Must-See Historic Towns in Southern California

Often known as the “Golden” State, California is home to some of the most advanced cities in the country such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. But what lies within the hidden valleys outside of city limits is what holds the true history of California. These small towns allow visitors to step into a realm where time seems to slow down, and echoes of the past whisper through the dusty streets. From the sun-kissed landscapes of Ramona to the star-studded skies of Joshua Tree, embark on a journey through some of southern California’s most historic towns where every town is a chapter, and every moment is a step back in time.


A group of five friends sit in a line on Potato Chip Rock, Ramona, California.
A group of five friends sit in a line on Potato Chip Rock, Ramona, California. Image credit Sarnia via Shutterstock

This town mimics the past settlements throughout the old west. Whether visitors want to explore the region’s history or escape to nature, Ramona has no limit on its options. Visitors can explore the scenic landscapes by hiking or horseback riding in the nearby Cleveland National Forest or Mount Woodson, home to the famous Potato Chip Rock. Celestial Farms offers a variety of horseback explorations throughout the scenic setting. The town also hosts the Ramona Rodeo, showcasing its Western heritage.

To continue to get in touch with the region’s heritage, visit Star B Buffalo Ranch. This is the perfect farm retreat for families who seek to explore and learn about life on the farm. Discover the historical aspects at the Guy B Woodward Museum, which houses artifacts from the region's past.  Situated in the heart of wine country, it goes without mentioning that Ramona is home to numerous vineyards and tasting rooms which allow those to taste many of the local flavors.


LADWP Mojave District Headquarters from southeast
LADWP Mojave District Headquarters, Mojave, California.

Formerly known as a town situated along the Pacific railway, this town has become a haven for those seeking sunshine, historical attractions, and exploration. To explore the history of Mojave, start at the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is a renowned aviation hub with a museum displaying various aerospace artifacts. Explore local landmarks such as the historic Randsburg General Store and the 20 Mule Team Museum which showcases the area's mining past.

The Tehachapi Loop is only a short drive away and showcases a railroad engineering marvel. To get out and explore the wild that surrounds Mojave, visit some of the national parks surrounding the town such as Red Rock Canyon State Park which features scenic desert cliffs and spectacular rock formations that make you feel as if you landed on a different planet.

Lone Pine

The town of Lone Pine with snow-capped Sierra Nevada peaks in the background.
The town of Lone Pine with snow-capped Sierra Nevada peaks in the background.

Gain a deeper understanding of Lone Pine's cultural and historical makeup through visiting the iconic sites sprinkled throughout the town. When exploring Lone Pine, start at the Lone Pine Museum of Western Film History which highlights the town's cinematic legacy with exhibits of classic Western films shot in the area. Go see a familiar landscape known as the Alabama Hills, which is a unique geological formation that has been featured in numerous movies.

Continue your journey to the past by visiting the nearby Eastern California Museum for a comprehensive display of local history, including Native American artifacts, pioneer exhibits, and mining relics. For a more somber excursion, explore the Manzanar National Historic Site, where you can learn about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Conclude your visit with a challenging summit to the peak of Mount Whitney which looms in the background of the town. The mountain is one of the more strenuous routes in the entire country and has long been attracting those who seek to endure a challenging task. Alternatively, an easier route for those seeking nature without hardship, the Lone Pine Lake trail offers family-friendly hikes without sacrificing the natural beauty.


Scenic close-up of two wooden buildings in the old town of Pioneertown, California.
Wooden buildings in the old town of Pioneertown, California. Image credit Flystock via

Originally established as the set for a blockbuster movie in 1946, Pioneertown has since outgrown its original purpose and become a haven for those who seek the enchantment of the Wild West. The town has been utilized in over 200 films since its creation and continues to provide an ideal setting for directors.

Start your day with a hearty breakfast at Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, a legendary desert diner. Enjoy the rustic ambiance and perhaps catch some live music if there is an event. Afterward, take a stroll along Main Street, lined with Old West-style buildings, and feel like a desperado as you walk down the dirt-covered streets. To learn more about the town, visit the Pioneertown Film Museum to learn about the town's history and its ties to the entertainment industry. In the evening, kick your feet up and enjoy a cocktail at the infamous Red Dog Saloon, situated in the heart of the town. It has long been the local watering hole for cowboys and actors alike.


View of historic old town of Julian, California
Historic old town of Julian, California.

This charming mountain town has long been known for its apple orchards, historic character, and opportunity to explore. Settled in the 1870s this retreat has long been one of the best-kept secrets in the Golden State. Visitors are encouraged to learn about the town's history at the Julian Pioneer Museum, displaying artifacts from Julian's past, including mining equipment and Native American exhibits. To continue exploring the town's mining history, take a tour of the Eagle and High Peak Mine to experience an authentic gold mine and learn about its impact on the town.

If visiting in spring, consider attending Julian Gold Rush Days which is an annual event featuring reenactments, gold panning, and other activities. Don’t forget to enjoy the natural beauty of the area by exploring nearby hiking trails like the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve or Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve. For one of life’s simplest pleasures, stay outdoors after sunset and witness the universal beauty of a starlit sky in this Dark Sky Community. Given its mountain location, Julian offers excellent stargazing opportunities.


Chiefs Peak Mountain over Ojai, California is covered in snow and low clouds while overlooking highway 33 traveled by cars
Chiefs Peak Mountain over Ojai, California.

This scenic escape is near Los Angeles but far enough way to make you feel as if you have traveled across the globe, often referred to as the "Anti LA" Ojai is a peaceful excursion where visitors can relax and enjoy the serenity of nature. To explore the history, visit the Ojai Valley Museum to dig into the region's history. Exhibits cover topics such as Chumash Native Americans, Ojai's early settlers, and the development of the town. Also, check local events in hopes of catching a show at the Libbey Bowl, an outdoor developed by glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey in the early 20th century.

To get some fresh air, trek the nearby Los Padres National Forest for hiking, camping, and outdoor activities amidst the stunning wilderness. Known for its vibrant artistic community, embrace Ojai's artistic vibe by visiting the Ojai Art Center which showcases local and regional artists through exhibitions, performances, and events. One of the more peculiar events in Ojai is the renowned "Pink Moment," a unique natural phenomenon where the surrounding mountains take on a pink hue during sunset.


Afternoon view of a historic church in downtown Monrovia, California
Historic church in downtown Monrovia, California.

As the long-standing heartbeat of Monrovia, a visit to this historic town hasn’t officially begun until you stroll through the Old Town Monrovia, featuring antique shops, eateries, and historic architecture. To learn more about Monrovia’s history, visit the Monrovia Historical Museum which displays the town’s first settlers and their trials and tribulations of creating a town in the heart of the wild west. Nature enthusiasts can explore the nearby Monrovia Canyon Park known for its hiking trails amidst scenic landscapes.

If the heat is too much, enjoy a leisurely day at Library Park, known for its rose garden and serene atmosphere. Discover the local arts scene by attending performances at the The Louise K Taylor Performing Arts Center or exploring art galleries.

Joshua Tree

Twentynine Palms Highway (State Route 62) in Joshua Tree, California
Twentynine Palms Highway (State Route 62) in Joshua Tree, California. Image credit Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Often overshadowed by the neighboring National Park, the town tends to be the lesser of the two attractions, but those who visit are often left astonished about the excitement that awaits in the town of Joshua Tree. Explore the unique attraction that is Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, the 10-acre museum features exhibits composed of various items found within the desert and displays some of the most creative pieces within the country. To continue exploring the town's creative vibe, visit the Simi Dabah Sculpture Garden, which is home to over 600 pieces of art, largely composed of industrial metals. A must-see during your visit to the town is the World-Famous Crochet Museum, this quirky attraction is home to elaborate items and makes a smile-inducing tour.

As the day concludes, savor the mesmerizing sunset at locations like Cap Rock or Skull Rock. Consider ending the day with stargazing, taking advantage of Joshua Tree's designation as a Dark Sky Park.

As the sun sets on your journey to the beautiful landscapes of Southern California's historic towns, you will have explored a variety of legacies, landscapes, and cultures. From the rugged charm of Ramona, where nature intertwines with Western heritage, to the sun-soaked Mojave, that takes you back in time with tales of aviation and mining. So, pack your sunscreen, fill up your water, and begin your adventure in the Golden State.

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