A river town in California.

9 Most Charming River Towns In Southern California To Visit In 2024

Towns that sit right on the water, or where shimmering lakes and rivers are within the precincts, are often among the most photogenic. In a sense, that is why Chicago is known for its unusual beauty, as well as other cities such as Paris (because of the Seine River), Venice, and Memphis. Fortunately, Southern California is not without its fair share of charming river towns. From Needles, which lies on the scenic Colorado River, to Rancho Mirage, known as the "Playground of the Presidents," discover below the nine most charming river towns in Southern California to visit in 2024.


Welcome to Needles California
Welcome to Needles, California sculpture.

Home to less than 5,000 residents, Needles lies on the scenic Colorado River near the Arizona border — about 256 miles east of Los Angeles. It was founded in 1883 as a railroad way station and named for outlying peaks in the area that looked like needles. While reputed to be among the hottest in the nation, with temperatures that frequently exceed 100 °F, Needles plays host to several attractions. The landscape here, for starters, is suntanned in a way that makes it appear uniquely surreal. Visitors love spending hours, sometimes days, at the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, a birders' paradise that features more than 300 bird species. Nearby, the Chemehuevi Mountains Wilderness offers a taste of seclusion and unusual desert beauty. If the heat proves too much, you will enjoy a refreshing dip at the Colorado River, especially at the Needles Marina Park, a beautiful RV campground located right on the water.

Santa Paula

The Santa Clara River flows near Santa Paula, California
The Santa Clara River flowing near Santa Paula, California. Image credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region via Flickr.com

While a first-time visitor will be struck by the orchards that encircle this lovely Southern Califonia charmer, the flow of the  will particularly pique one's interest. This scenic river meanders at the edge of town and imbues the town with a deliciously rustic look. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy hiking the picturesque Santa at the Paula Punch Bowls and getting some much-needed splashes at the on-site waterfall, swimming holes, and water slides. Also, while strewn with rocks and boulders, the views here are awesome and make the trip worth it. Alternatively, the free-to-visit Museum of Ventura County's Agriculture preserves the area's agricultural heritage through insightful displays and exhibits — and is often worth checking out. On the flip side, to learn about the history of oil, including how it is produced, the California Oil Museum, the birthplace of Union Oil Company, will also be worth checking out, especially when it reopens for public visits. 


Fillmore City Hall
The City Hall in Fillmore, California. Editorial credit: Angel DiBilio / Shutterstock.com

Charming historical buildings, mostly known for the Fillmore and Western Railway Company, are known to hold the gaze of first-time visitors to this California secret. The train rides are famous for their numerous on-screen appearances and have been used in hundreds of movies and TV shots. One of the best ways to experience this beautiful river town in the Santa Clara River Valley, therefore, is to embark on an evening train ride where one relishes a delicious three-course dinner as actors commit mirth and murder. The truth is, you will not want to miss the only Murder Mystery Dinner Train in Southern California. But downtown Fillmore is just as charming and is perfect for strolls and window shopping — and that includes antiques — for which Vintage Pleasures on Central Avenue is among the most sought-after stores. If you crave some fine grapes, however, Giessinger Winery & Cidery, located on Santa Clara Street next to City Hall, will awaken all your tastebuds. That said, Sespe Creek is known to offer awesome fishing and wading opportunities and must never be missed.


Barstow Sign on Route 66 on entrance of the city's Main Street.
Barstow Sign on Route 66 at the entrance of the city's Main Street. Editorial credit: Benny Marty / Shutterstock.com

Barstow is not the kind of river town many expect, and its entry here may elicit some curved eyebrows. This is because, while the Mojave River flows through Barstow, it is among the most unique rivers in the world because it often runs underground. So, while Barstow is a river town, you may not need to come with a paddle or rent a boat. Still, this desert river has recently flowed above the ground — and through the city — an occurrence that caused quite a bit of excitement. That said, Barstow boasts several other attractions that make it worth visiting. For starters, iconic Route 66, which John Steinbeck called "the Mother Road," runs right through Barstow Main Street. The Route 66 "Mother Road" Museum, located beside the one-of-a-kind Mojave River, tells the story of this historic highway. The Museum is in Harvey House, which, for being the finest remaining depot hotel in the state, is also a stand-alone attraction. Other attractions include Rainbow Basin Natural Area, whose surreal, moon-like landscape is quite a sight to behold.


The beautiful San Gorgonio River area in California.
The beautiful San Gorgonio River area in California.

Once known for its "Stagecoach Town USA" moniker, Banning is another Southern California river town that should be on a 2024 travel bucket list. Once a significant stagecoach stop and train route connecting Los Angeles to Yuma, this historic town features numerous attractions. The first is the San Gorgonio River, which flows through the awe-inspiring Banning Canyon right through the town. But Banning is also unique in the fact it sits close to the San Gorgonio Pass that separates the coastal Mediterranean climate from the desert of the Coachella Valley. On one side, the San Jacinto Mountains loom large. On the other, the craggy peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains graze the skies. For perspective, these are the two tallest peaks in Southern California. Finally, of interest will be the Malki Museum, which is reputed to be the oldest non-profit museum founded by Native Americans on an Indian reservation in California.


Vineyards near Buellton, California.
Vineyards near Buellton, California.

This Santa Barbara County jewel, often nicknamed "Home of Split Pea Soup," might also warm the hearts of 2024 Southern California adventurers. While the landmark restaurant, which gifted the town its moniker and which wowed taste buds for nearly a century, is closed, Blueton has other things going in its favor. First, grab some kick-ass Calamari Steak at the dog-friendly A J Spurs Saloon & Dining Hall before starting your fun-filled adventure. The scenic Santa Ynez River flows through the town, and the Santa Ynez Valley Horseback Rides, which takes adventurers into the woods and the rustic riverfront along the Santa Ynez River — is often quite a thrilling experience. Ostrich Land, located just steps from downtown Buellton, is home to more than 100 ostriches and emus. The experience of feeding "Buellton's favorite pets" often draws crowds from every corner of the state. Finally, to uncock a bottle of Champagne (or enjoy a glass of red wine), and toast to better days, Brick Barn Wine Estate often exceeds expectations.


The charming town of Solvang, California.
The charming town of Solvang, California.

Thanks to the heart-melting presence of the Santa Ynez River, which passes through the town, Solvang may just be the highlight of your 2024 adventure calendar. A small town of just about 6,100 residents, this California treasure is famous for its rich Danish heritage. Danish Days, California's number-one Danish heritage festival, celebrates the town's history and culture with fun-filled parades, authentic Danish fare, and live music. The Danish Capital of America has previously been ranked among the most beautiful small towns in the country — and, with its traditional windmills, thatched roofs, and old-world European architecture, will not fail to warm the heart of a first-time visitor. To sip an evening away amid some incredible ambiance and delicious views, Rideau Vineyard effortlessly checks the box. If you want to learn more about this town, Elverhoj Museum of History & Art is entirely free of charge.


Welcome sign at the entrance to the city of Norco.
Welcome sign at the entrance to the city of Norco. Editorial credit: The Image Party / Shutterstock.com

Known as "Horsetown USA," because it boasts one of the largest networks of horse trails in the United States, a 2024 visit to Norco will be highly rewarding. Santa Ana River, the largest watershed drainage south of the Sierra, runs through the town. You will want to enjoy a rodeo at the George Ingalls Equestrian Event Center — amid gorgeous views and an air of excitement. Also, while the hike to Pumpkin Rock can be steep, especially right before one gets to the top, the views from the top are fantastic and more than rewarding. However, if you enjoy fishing — and have a fishing license — head straight to the Santa Ana River, where you should expect to catch some rainbow trout or largemouth bass.

Rancho Mirage

The River shopping mall in Rancho Mirage, California.
The River shopping mall in Rancho Mirage, California. Image credit: Ranchomirageca via Wikimedia Commons..

Rounding off this list is the charming town of Rancho Mirage, known to many as the "Playground of the Presidents." Gerald Ford was a resident here for several years. Richard Nixon wrote his final State of the Union speech at Sunnylands. While President Harry Truman was a regular visitor to the exclusive Tamarisk Country Club. Whitewater River flows through Rancho Mirage in a southeasterly direction and is among the town's natural landmarks. Home to just about 18,200 residents, this town is home to the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert, which is set to reopen in March 2024. The River at Rancho Mirage is an outdoor shopping mall along an artificial river where one can find almost anything on any day of the week. Also located at at Frank Sinatra Drive is a small, serene park dedicated to cancer survivors.

The Takeaway

While Northern California gets a disproportionate share of rivers and, hence, river towns, Southern California, contrary to a widely-held misconception, also plays host to numerous picturesque rivers and river towns. Some river towns, such as Needles, are tucked away at the eastern periphery of the town. Others, such as Buellton, are on the western edge. Other Southern California river towns often considered among the most charming in the state include Santa Paula, Fillmore, Barstow (which is unusual in several ways), and Banning, once known as "Stagecoach Town USA."

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