Avalon is a resort community with the waterfront dominated by tourism-oriented businesses on Santa Catalina Island, in the Channel Islands, via Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock.com

9 Must-Visit Small Towns in California

The name California was taken from a 16th-century Spanish novel that featured an island paradise called California. And what a fitting name it is. From snowy regions to wine country and every beach town in between, California is a diverse state with plenty to offer visitors. And with an abundance of small towns to choose from, there is a day trip destination for everyone here in the Golden State. 


Street view in Sausalito, California
Street view in Sausalito, California, via f11photo / Shutterstock.com

Those who enjoy spending time by the water and exploring the outdoors will find exactly what they are looking for in Sausalito, California. The town is surrounded by beautiful bays of water, which travelers can admire as they stroll along one of three boardwalks in town.  During a visit here, remember to block out a few hours to trek through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Here, visitors can discover unique places such as The Marin Headlands–a foggy prairie with unbeatable views of towering cliffs and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The Point Bonita Lighthouse can also be found in the recreation area and is worth a visit for anyone who doesn’t mind taking the steep half-mile hike leading to the still-active lighthouse. Animal lovers will enjoy an afternoon at The Marine Mammal Center–a spot that has seen over 24,000 rescued mammals to date. Spend some time here meeting sea lions, harbor seals, and fur seals that are sure to warm the hearts of everyone they meet. Those hoping to pop over to San Francisco during their visit can take the Golden Gate Bridge or hop on a quick ferry ride to enjoy the wonders of the city.


Famous and historic Sebastiani Theater and Building in downtown Sonoma, California
Famous and historic Sebastiani Theater and Building in downtown Sonoma, California. via Lynn Watson / Shutterstock.com

Historic wineries may be Sonoma, California’s claim to fame, but there is far more than just vino to enjoy in this inland town. While not on the coast, the rugged, 55-mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean along the Sonoma County coastline is perfect for lazy afternoon road trips and is within driving distance. Those who prefer to explore on foot will find various natural attractions, including Sonoma Coast State Park, which, though not in Sonoma itself, offers stunning natural scenery. In the park, keep an eye out for sights like arched rocks that create waves of mist as the ocean crashes against them, as well as stretches of sand dunes and scenic lookouts. The park offers opportunities for hiking, swimming, and camping as well. After a few hours of outdoor exploration, a visit to Sonoma’s TrainTown Railway, located on the outskirts of town, is a must. This train-themed amusement park has been open for over 60 years and remains a top destination for families and railway enthusiasts. The train ride, on a quarter-scale railroad, takes roughly 20 minutes, during which riders will see waterfalls, towering trees, a miniature town, and a petting zoo.

St. Helena

Historic buildings in St. Helena, California.
Historic buildings in St. Helena, California.

Another classic wine town in the heart of California’s Napa Valley is St. Helena. Much like Sonoma, travelers will find a wide array of activities here that don’t involve wine tastings. While St. Helena doesn't have a heart-shaped waterfall, there are plenty of scenic spots and outdoor activities in the surrounding Napa Valley area to explore. After enjoying the local scenery, head over to Lyman Park for some rest and a picnic. In the summer, Lyman Park hosts weekly live concerts on Wednesday nights, offering a perfect opportunity to relax and enjoy the community vibe. Finally, those looking to tantalize their taste buds can book one of many food and wine tours in St. Helena, where everything from wine to olive oil tastings is on the menu, showcasing the rich culinary heritage of Napa Valley.


Street view of Post Office in Ojai, California
Street view of Post Office in Ojai, California

Hidden amongst the valley of the Topatopa Mountains,  Ojai, California is a beautiful place to visit complete with outdoor adventures and distinctly pink sunsets. Although it is home to nearly 8,000 people, Ojai feels more like a secluded village than the city it technically is. Here, visitors will find no big-box chain stores and despite the town's proximity to Los Angeles, the hustle and bustle of city life has been ditched for calmer, slower vibes. During a visit here, head over to the Valley View Preserve for a few hours of hiking. The preserve sprawls across 195 acres of valley, trails, plants, and covered rocks. While hiking, expect to see plenty of local wildlife and wildflowers in the spring. Those looking for a place to stay overnight and indulge in luxury self-care will want to check into the Ojai Valley Inn. For a more low-key relaxing activity, pay a visit to Bart’s Books–the largest outdoor bookstore in the world.


People walking around in Avalon, California
People walking around in Avalon, California, via Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock.com

Between the gorgeous island location and the potential for celebrity sightings, Avalon, California is one of the most exciting day trip destinations in the state. Getting to the island may require a little extra effort, but if 100 years' worth of active tourism is any indication, the payoff is worth it. Spend some time here wandering through the Catalina Museum for Art & History where curious visitors can dive deeper into the stories and exhibits that make Avalon and Catalina Island so intriguing. The museum frequently hosts events including outdoor movie nights as well. Next, head over to the Green Pleasure Pier–a hub for sports fishermen and leisure guests alike. The Pier, which has a long history dating back to the early 1900s, offers everything from fish and chip restaurants to sandy beach areas and sparkling bay views. The pier also serves as a launching point for several local tour companies including the sought-after Glass Bottom Boat Voyage.


The Old Town of Truckee, on Donner Pass Road
The Old Town of Truckee, on Donner Pass Road, via David A Litman / Shutterstock.com

While most think of California as the sunshine state, certain regions do get snow during the colder months. And when it comes to Truckee, California, the town’s history with snow is a little darker than most. In the winter of 1846/47, a group of pioneers called The Donner Party became trapped beneath the snow for months. Not all of the group survived this harrowing journey and the ones that did had to resort to extreme measures to stay alive. Today, Truckee is a popular tourist destination with access to beautiful hiking trails and plenty of historical sights to explore. History buffs looking to dive deeper into the Donner Party story will want to visit the Donner Memorial State Park museum. Here, guests will find historic monuments as well as 8+ miles of trails and towering trees that reflect perfectly in the clear waters. Those traveling with younger kids will enjoy a visit to KidZone museum where kids are encouraged to learn history through play.                                                             

Solana Beach

Beachside homes in Solana Beach, California.
Beachside homes in Solana Beach, California.

Anyone who prefers palm trees and blue skies to snowy historic towns will adore Solana Beach, California. Known for its walkability and abundance of outdoor recreation, Solana Beach is an ideal destination for beach lovers and hiking enthusiasts. Between the town's four main beaches, there is a total of 1.7 miles worth of sandy shores for visitors to choose from. Spend a day here visiting each one or venture off for a hike at Annie’s Canyon Trail. Hikers looking for more of a challenge can also visit the nearby Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Here, visitors will discover rugged cliffs that have survived years of crashing waves–as well as some protected natural features including the nation's rarest pine tree and one of the last salt marshes in Southern California.  Another must-stop location in town is the Solana Beach Farmers Market. Open on Sundays, the market is a bustling community gathering spot filled with tasty treats, fresh produce, and artisan crafts.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Del Mar

Aerial shot of Powerhouse Park in Del Mar, California.
Aerial shot of Powerhouse Park in Del Mar, California.

Del Mar, California is a charming beach town in San Diego County that sits along the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean. The town is located only 2.4 miles away from Solana Beach and offers easy access to many similar places including Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. In the past, Del Mar was a popular spot for Hollywood movie stars seeking rest and rejuvenation. Today, visitors can enjoy a range of activities from a day with furry friends at Dog Beach to thrilling horse races at Del Mar Racing. Anyone looking to enjoy a quiet beach day will appreciate the semi-secluded beaches at Seagrove Park. Animal lovers will also enjoy a visit to Free Flight–a local exotic bird sanctuary where people can meet (and even adopt) colorful rescue birds. 


Stores along the sidewalk in Carmel, California.
Stores along the sidewalk in Carmel, California. Image credit Robert Mullan via Shutterstock

Encompassing one square mile of land, Carmel-by-the-Sea truly puts the “small” in “small town.” However, despite its size, Carmel-by-the-Sea has no shortage of things to see and do. Spend an hour or so admiring the fairytale cottages that have been a distinct aspect of the town's architecture since the 1920s. After taking in the sights, head to Tuck Box–one of the most charming fairytale buildings–for a quick bite to eat. Next, it is time to explore the town’s pristine beaches. Spend an afternoon catching rays and splashing around the surf line at Carmel Beach–one of the most highly regarded areas on the central coast. Art lovers will find their community here and can tour a number of local galleries including the Carmel Art Association. Additionally, the town hosts an art walk on the second Saturday of each month.

In Conclusion…

History buffs, adventure-seekers, foodies, and art-lovers–California’s small towns cater to a vast audience. Throughout the years, the Golden State has seen gold rushes, the rise of old Hollywood glamor, and a tourism boom unlike any other. Today, the state remains a highly sought-after destination for people around the globe. And it’s easy to see why. 

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