Main street in Solvang, California. Editorial credit: HannaTor /

8 Picturesque Small Towns In Southern California For A Weekend Retreat

You probably know Southern California for its large cities like Los Angeles and smaller but similarly dynamic communities like Malibu. But there are even smaller SoCal haunts worthy of a visit. These little havens from big city blues boast all kinds of colorful attractions, including skiable mountains, Dutch windmills, improbable apple trees, zebras, and a mayor who is a dog. Best of all, they are compact and accessible enough to be explored over a weekend. Here are eight of the most picturesque places for a sojourn in SoCal.

Idyllwild-Pine Cove

The Elephant Walk store in Idyllwild, California.
The Elephant Walk store in Idyllwild, California. Editorial credit: Rosamar /

Idyllwild-Pine Cove is a census-designated place comprising three unincorporated communities: Idyllwild, Pine Cove, and Fern Valley. Just over 4,000 people call this area home, while thousands more call it a weekend vacation hotspot. A sub-two-hour drive from Los Angeles lands travelers in this hub of the San Jacinto Mountains, which offers hiking, rock climbing, and sightseeing, especially at Tahquitz Peak and Suicide Rock. But you do not have to scale a mountain to find spectacular sights in Idyllwild-Pine Cove. The community contains Idyllwild Nature Center, The Rustic Theatre and Entertainment Center, and Grand Idyllwild Lodge.

If you thought this place could not get any better, its mayor is a golden retriever named Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller III, the third in a line of pawiticians following Mayor Max II and Mayor Max I. You can pet Max III at community events like Fourth of July parades and Christmas tree-lighting festivities. Being unincorporated, Idyllwild-Pine Cove cannot have an official mayor, so its doggocracy is a cute, lucrative, and now long-running stunt.


Topanga Canyon area.
Topanga Canyon area.

If you are looking for a low-key LA, meet Topanga. This 8,500ish-person community is contained in a canyon in Los Angeles County. Though just a quick drive from the big city, Topanga's lush mountainous surroundings protect it from hubbub. In fact, there is only one road in and out. Once you are in, you can explore Topanga State Park, Red Rock Canyon Park, and Tuna Canyon Park, all of which are in the Santa Monica Mountains, plus oceanside Topanga Beach. After winding back to town, you can catch a show at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, an open-air theater founded by a blacklisted Hollywood actor, before crashing at Topanga Canyon Inn Bed and Breakfast, a Mediterranean-style building with Mediterranean-style views.


The harbor at Avalon, California.
The harbor at Avalon, California.

Avalon, also in Los Angeles County, is even more isolated than Topanga. You can get there only by boat, plane, helicopter, or a marathon swim since Avalon is on Santa Catalina Island. But just because it is isolated does not mean it is quiet. Each year over one million people visit Avalon, which has a resident population of roughly 3,500. Tourists and residents alike patronize the Avalon Theatre, Catalina Island Museum, and Catalina Island Conservancy. With a few exceptions, full-sized vehicles are banned on Santa Catalina, so golf carts are a popular alternative. If the golf cart traffic gets a little wild, you can take refuge deeper in the island, such as in Two Harbors, a tiny village containing Harbor Reef Restaurant & Bar and Banning House Lodge, or at one of several scenic seaside campsites.

San Simeon

The Hearst Castle garden in San Simeon, California
The Hearst Castle garden in San Simeon, California.

If you like beaches, wine, history, elephant seals, and zebras, you are bound to love San Simeon. This 450ish-person village straddles the Pacific coast at the remote halfway point between LA and San Francisco, covering rustic beaches primed for swimming, surfing, kayaking, kiteboarding, boating, fishing, and elephant seal viewing. The Piedras Blancas Rookery is, according to San Simeon's website, the "only elephant seal rookery in the world that is easily accessible, free, and open to the public every day of the year."

You can go from rookery to winery at Hearst Ranch Winery, which originates from newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who made San Simeon his kingdom in the early 1900s. Along with the winery, his legacy spans William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, Hearst Castle, and the 120-plus zebras that roam his former ranchlands. Descendants of zebras from Hearst's defunct private zoo, they live without human intervention, meaning, aside from a fence around their 83,000-acre home, they are completely wild. You can stay at another Hearst haunt, Hearst Hacienda Lodge, while earning your stripes in San Simeon.


Downtown Ojai, California.
Downtown Ojai, California. Image credit: Derek V. Schmalenberger via Wikimedia Commons.

Venture to the quaint and quirky Ventura County community of Ojai. Attractions include Ojai Certified Farmers Market, a Sunday staple of flowers, produce, gourmet food, and artisan goods; Yume Japanese Burger Cafe, a dreamy Japanese restaurant specializing in wagyu hamburgers; and Bart's Books, the world's largest outdoor bookstore. Weekenders can choose from a number of Spanish villa-style inns, among which are the Hummingbird Inn, Su Nido Inn, Blue Iguana Inn, and Chantico Inn And Suites. Like much of SoCal, Ojai is surrounded by mountains, so Meher Mount and Hines Peak are a mere hike away.


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

Julian is a scenic, historical community just over an hour's drive from San Diego. This former gold rush town contains the Julian Pioneer Museum, which displays everything from Indigenous artifacts to mining equipment, and the Julian Gold Rush Hotel, which was built around the turn of the century by pioneering African Americans and is considered the oldest continuously operating hotel in Southern California. Julian's history as an unlikely high-elevation apple producer can be viewed at numerous orchards, whose decades-old trees bear apples that are used in such stores as Julian Pie Company and Apple Alley Bakery. After munching Julian's legendary apple pie, you can see legendary lobos munch at California Wolf Center, which is dedicated to saving the Mexican gray wolf.

Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake, California.
Big Bear Lake, California. Editorial credit: Arson Sefi /

Big Bear Lake is for people who dream of skiing in semi-arid SoCal. This San Bernardino County community is home to Big Bear Mountain Resort, which offers skiing, snowboarding, and extraordinary views of the San Bernardino Mountains. For non-skiers or skiers taking a rare break, Big Bear Lake has an Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain, Big Bear Pirate Ship, Mineshaft Coaster, Bear Mountain Golf Course, Big Bear Alpine Zoo, The Bone Yard Bar & Grill, and aquatic activities at the titular lake. Hotels are abundant and range from extravagant, like The Club at Big Bear Village, to rustic, like Eagle's Nest Lodge Bed and Breakfast.


The charming town of Solvang, California.
The charming town of Solvang, California. Editorial credit: HannaTor /

Solvang is commonly called the best small community in SoCal. It is celebrated for its architecture, which stems from its roots as a Danish-American colony. Beginning in the 1940s, Danish American residents decided to construct or remodel buildings in traditional style. Thus, modern Solvang contains the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, Hans Christian Andersen Park, Svendsgaard's Danish Lodge, and several windmills. "The Danish Capital of America" is not lacking for home-country hospitality, either, since it offers treats from Olsen's Danish Village Bakery and tours from Solvang Trolley & Carriage Company. Danish Days, a festival of all things Denmark, happens in Solvang each September.

From marvelous mountains in Idyllwild-Pine Cove to Danish desserts in Solvang, Southern California's small communities have picturesque attractions ready to be explored. Their compact size and proximity to Los Angeles, San Diego, and other large cities make them well-suited for a weekend trip. One can drive in on Friday and drive out on Sunday, creating a lifetime of memories in three days. There is nothing so-so about small-town SoCal.

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