A photo of the original brick gate entrance to U.C. Davis in California's Sierra Nevada.

Best College Towns In California's Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada mountain region in California is home to wonderful sights and scholarly foundations. With many Californians habitually present in towns and cities across the range, college towns have been quite a unique element lending to the cultural, academic, and social growth of the state, which has also garnered interest from outsiders traveling around and visiting these areas as well. Here are seven of the best college towns worth considering for one's outdoor needs.


The California State University Chico, also known as Chico State, sign.
The California State University Chico, also known as Chico State, sign.

Located in Sacramento Valley, Chico offers a vibrant tourist platform with roots in Hispanic culture. This college town, known to frequent visitors as Chico State, is a perfect sight for those who wish to take in the allure of not only the bustling campus of California State University but also the well-known extravaganza regarding hiking, cuisine, breweries, and diversity. A sense of inclusion is expected when students and tourists alike are browsing through dozens of libraries and institutional shops, each with their sense of craft and cultural contribution passed down from colonial history going back as far as 1860. Beyond the literature and academia, young adults and older individuals may find themselves loving the casual, yet non-traditional, breweries, where Sierra Nevada's downtown nightlife occurs most often. Chico is a true highlight of both education and cultural upbringing in Northern California.


Historic downtown Truckee, California
Historic downtown Truckee. Image credit Matt Gush via Shutterstock.

The town of Truckee is popular among nature enthusiasts. Those who visit this town in the Sierra Nevada mountains know far too well that Truckee boasts some of the most beautiful logging and skiing excursions for viewing pleasure. With many shopping, dining, and entertainment venues throughout the town, Truckee is home to a lot despite being geographically small on the map. For students and studies, Sierra College's Tahoe-Truckee campus, which borders the Lake Tahoe Basin, offers beauty and grace for anyone who wishes to see scenery unfold while taking part in academic activities. With millions of visitors annually, the campus has enough to captivate visitors with its fine stone and wood architecture, alongside classrooms and interiors that provide a taste of Truckee. For adrenaline-driven athletes and large family vacations, ski resorts like Northstar California or Tahoe Donner may be quite the appeal, offering thrills and fun simultaneously.

Nevada City

Downtown area of Nevada City, California, in summer.
Downtown area of Nevada City, California, in summer. Image credit Chris Allan via Shutterstock.

Nevada City, which sits northeast of Sacramento and southwest of Reno, is a historic landmark town due to its rich history about the days of California's Gold Rush. Visitors far and wide visit this town not just because it provides lush history, but also because of its concentrated efforts to provide a sense of realism for patrons of an era long in the past. With bountiful restaurants, shops, galleries, museums, and a host of lodgings for tourists of all age groups, Nevada City has something for everyone's enjoyment. Combining old-fashioned and modernized trends, Victorian culture has never been greater in this town, not to mention the educational benefits of studying at Sierra College's Nevada County campus, which first opened in 1996. One can also sightsee across Lake Tahoe while still reveling in the joys of snowboarding and lakeside adventure. There is no parallel when it comes to a premier college town experience in Nevada City.


Hikers resting in Yosemite National park enjoying view of beautiful waterfall, Vernal Fall.
Hikers resting in Yosemite National Park enjoying the view of a beautiful waterfall, Vernal Fall.

Another important landmark in California's Gold Rush history, Sonora is home to commercial and private excursion activities. From mining districts and plazas that explore America's cultural and financial success in Sonora town since 1848, to hiking trails along the Dragoon Gulch trail and neighboring vicinities like Yosemite National Park, there are enough ways to participate in adventure. For the academically inclined, Columbia College is a public community college that prides itself on forestlands and a cozy atmosphere. All of these elements are essential to Sonora, as they allow tourists and students of all backgrounds to enjoy convenience and luxury in multiple ways. Whether it is a drive downtown or a walk amongst nature, Sonora promotes vivid sights and a breath of fresh air.

Mammoth Lakes

A girl and her dog stand above a beautiful high alpine lake on a sunny summer day in Mammoth, California.
Hiking in Mammoth Lakes. 

Buried within Sierra Nevada's mountain range is Mammoth Lakes, a prominent college town notable for its chilly landscapes, hot springs, and skiing tourism. Although many towns offer luxury ski resort options, Mammoth Lakes stands out from the rest by acting as a focal point for summertime and winter meshing. Finding students engaged in classrooms at Cerro Coso Community College is not an uncommon sight, and those who choose biking and hiking over skiing are also likely to enjoy this geologically active town. There is never a lack of affordable housing and residential living, as residents and students can find fixed-routing comfort and still be within commuting distance of college campuses and popular stops. With plenty of river basins and panoramic trails, visitors may find themselves in the presence of natural wonder.


University of California, Los Angeles, campus.
University of California, Los Angeles, campus. 

West of Sacramento, Davis is a city full of residents and visitors who admire famous cyclists and sports antiquities. As a well-established biking town, Davis is frequented for its riding lanes that cyclists can ride on and provide an exquisite view of nature as visitors can journey around the city. The University of California, Davis, an Ivy-recognized university, is a significant reason many students and visitors are in this college town, as it demonstrates a mixture of a strong academic curriculum and a wealth of cultural opportunities to be involved in the arts and crafts. The university is also the largest within the University of California campus umbrella. With a cross-disciplinary research foundation and dozens of high-quality restaurants to choose from, Davis is not only a fancy college town but also a distinguished place of success for individuals of all disciplines who wish to make tourist dreams a reality.


Jessup University sign on a Silicon Valley campus of a a private Christian William Jessup University - San Jose, California
Jessup University signs on campus in Rocklin. Image credit Michael Vi via Shutterstock.

Within the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and seen as the heart of the Loomis Basin for its volcanic activity, Rocklin is a city thriving thanks to its passionate school campus life and ripe green habitats. One of the most distinguished features of the city is its urbanized way of living, alongside moderate rainfall and dry seasons. Rocklin is a mainstay for Jessup University, a campus that vicariously echoes Christian faith through its students. Jessup University is popular for its privatized studies related to personal confidence and career development, while also embracing yellow and blue-colored architecture across its dormitories. The university, once featured in Sacramento Business Journal, is a community-oriented example of success that lends credibility to its student learning environments and spiritual enrichment. Besides academia, the city also boasts recreational activities for young and elderly individuals. A robust economy in Rocklin continues to bring tourists back for more, as it is a popular living and retirement destination for guests from other cities and states.

Sierra City

San Francisco State University Campus.
San Francisco State University Campus. Image credit Eric Glenn via Shutterstock.

On the northern slopes of the Sierra Nevada and northwest of Truckee, Sierra City is distinguished for its Gold Rush-era remembrances first recognized in 1850 as a mining town. With its suburban commonalities similarly found in Lake Tahoe, the city is notable for the Sierra Nevada Field Campus (SNFC), a direct contributor to San Francisco State University. SNFC is a core institution in the mountain range due to its educational foundations and workshops driven by an appreciation for biological diversity, geosciences, hydrology, astronomy, air artworks, and written languages. Students and tourists can opt to stay on campus and enjoy delicious meals provided by the campus, or choose to stay off campus and enjoy the natural surroundings through peaceful plant and animal ecosystems. Both pleasure and peace are guaranteed, as visitors can take a short drive across the SNFC to witness the environment at its finest across the Sierra Buttes and Lakes Basin. The North Yuba River flows right through the university campus, allowing for a pristine birdwatching treat worth seeing from any part of the college town.

South Lake Tahoe

Students on the beach playing Volleyball in South Lake Tahoe.
Students on the beach playing Volleyball in South Lake Tahoe. Image credit Cassiohabib via Shutterstock.

South Lake Tahoe offers a special perspective within the Sierra Nevada region that other locales may not. With beautiful backdrops of Lake Tahoe and mountainous suburbs, there is nothing more natural than seeing the calm and pristine waterfalls surrounding popular college campuses, including Lake Tahoe Community College, as well as the University of Nevada, Reno. Both campuses blend a gorgeous delight of colorful architecture with breezy weather and beach cabins. The most illustrious aspects of South Lake Tahoe derive from its visibly snowy terrains and winding meadow trails, for hikers and joggers who love the sound of wilderness. For history lovers, there is always a European cultural significance to be found in Scandinavian mansions, which provide a resemblance to fjords most commonly found in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. Many of these mansions also provide in-house restaurants and casino suites with a beachfront view. During the summer, boat excursions are a common choice for viewing fjords that stretch out across Lake Tahoe, making every moment in Tahoe worth the experience.


With many ways to experience college towns in the Sierra Nevada, there is no substitute for visualizing a large mountain range full of liveliness and spectacular views. For individuals seeking to make a trip to any college town in California, the mountains are geographically important and beneficial for visitors and tourists wishing to explore what is out there on the West Coast. Providing both historical and tourism value in one package, the Sierra Nevada is no stranger to backcountry college town spectacles.

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