Downtown Mariposa, California.

California's Sierra Nevada's Best Small Towns for a Weekend Escape

Home to the largest alpine lake in North America and featuring a landscape that is wild and wondrous in equal measure, the Sierra Nevada is an incredible venue for a weekend escape. A first-time visitor will marvel at the swathes of giant sequoia groves, a delightful range of sparkling cascades, and up to five national parks and monuments. The best approach is to take in this beauty via a charming small town — including stand-outs such as Lone Pine, Groveland, and Sonora. Read on to discover California’s Sierra Nevada's best small towns for a weekend escape.

Lone Pine

A church in Lone Pine, California with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the backdrop.
A church in Lone Pine, California with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the backdrop.

Trust Lone Pine to make a weekend escape short, fun, and sweet. Owens Valley serves as the town’s setting while the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains serve as iconic frames on either side. Movie directors know something about Lone Pine’s striking beauty, and they have shot several blockbusters here, including the 1960s How the West Was Won, an Academy Award-winning epic that follows the hardships of three generations of a frontier family as they set about taming the Wild West. Be sure to visit the Museum of Western Film History, especially to explore the awesome memorabilia from the last century of Western films in the Alabama Hills. Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S., is accessible via the Whitney Portal Road, which provides some of the most scenic cycling in the United States. To kickstart an adventure, some blackberry peach pie at the highly-rated Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery will do the trick. After a day out exploring Lone Pine’s downtown area and numerous outdoor venues, a first-time visitor will want a nice and soft bed for the night. The Best Western Frontier Motel would be an excellent choice. Each room here is named after the 1940s and 1950s western stars of Hollywood and will fill your heart with beautiful memories of days gone by.


Downtown Groveland, California
Downtown Groveland, California. Image credit Sundry Photography via

Once a dusty Gold Rush town, Groveland is today best known as the gateway to Yosemite National Park. The Iron Door Saloon, founded in 1852, is arguably California’s oldest continuously operating saloon. Besides being a cool piece of history, the Iron Door is a fun place for a yummy burger, local beer, and an incredible atmosphere. Nearby, Groveland Hotel, once a scandalous gambling house, today offers 18 beautifully appointed guest rooms and comes with an early California ranch-style ambiance that is enchanting and nostalgic. For a look at the not-so-distant past, the Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum, with its collection of newspaper clippings from various eras, can effortlessly steal a couple of hours. That said, the first port of call should be the Mountain Sage Nursery, where mesmerized patrons learn about drought-tolerant California plants or how to start a garden after a meal of tongue-tingling bagels served with butter or cream.


Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California.
Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California. Editorial credit: StephanieFarrell /

Known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines,” this town was founded by Mexican miners in the middle of the 19th century. A first-time visitor can start by getting some maps and brochures at the Visitors Center, located along the buzzy but charming Washington Street, a striking stretch lined with eye-catching historic buildings, inviting restaurants, and locally owned shops. Sonora Inn, once patronized by celebrities like Grace Kelly and Drew Barrymore, is conveniently located along this stretch — as is the famous Diamondback Grill, where one can wash down a hearty burger with a cold glass of delicious wine. Pass the time at The Tuolumne County Museum & History Center, Sonora Fire Museum & Senior Lounge, or the Veterans Memorial Hall & Military Museum, especially to appreciate the truth of the popular maxim — freedom is never free. Sierra Repertory Theatre is known for bringing top-tier musicals, shows, and talent to the area and is likely to wow a seasoned theatergoer. Additionally, several gorgeous buildings in the downtown area date back more than a century, including the City Hotel, described as “a rare surviving example of stone building construction from the early days of the California Gold Rush.”

Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes in California.
Mammoth Lakes in California. Editorial credit: melissamn /

Known to draw visitors in the millions every year, Mammoth Lakes has numerous shimmering waterbodies — one will easily lose count. First-time visitors should expect to enjoy tasty waterfront vistas, especially around spots such as Lake Mary, the small but beautiful Convict Lake (check out the adjacent resort), Lake Mamie, and Lake George, situated at the base of Crystal Crag, whose rocky form tops out at a neck-straining 10,364 feet. A skiing and snowboarding paradise, this town provides access to Mammoth Mountain, the official training mountain for the U.S. Olympic Team. For a bird’s eye view of the town, a gondola ride will be hard to beat. The Mammoth Museum at the Hayden Cabin, with its whispering stream towards the back, is as rustic and picturesque as it can get. For a place to rest for the night, The Village Lodge Mammoth, located steps from the must-do gondola, provides a hard-to-beat accommodation experience.


Historic buildings in Jamestown, California.
Historic buildings in Jamestown, California. Image credit: travelview -

Once the site of the first discovery of gold in the area, Jamestown is today dotted with quaint historic inns and hotels, including the 1859 Historic National Hotel & Restaurant, located just a mile from Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, which preserves the historic core of the original Sierra Railway — and is one of the town’s defining attractions. Traipse through the aptly named “Walk of Fame,” a stretch lined with medallions featuring numerous blockbusters and television shows. Do not miss Rocca Park, where the Jamestown Museum stands, especially if you are seeking a quiet spot to relax. Avid hikers will find lovely trails at the nearby Red Hills Recreation Management Area. Alternatively, the trail-laden Table Mountain, which is often overlaid with beautiful wildflowers, provides heart-melting views of New Melones Lake and can be an excellent alternative. The nice thing is that the 1859 Historic National Hotel, where you will probably be staying, is less than 7 miles from Columbia State Park, another attraction that must feature in any Sierra Nevada itinerary.


The beautiful town of Mariposa near Yosemite Valley
The beautiful town of Mariposa near Yosemite Valley. Editorial credit: Jon Chica /

Historic Mariposa, founded in 1850, exudes a whiff of the Old West and is a great spot for a Sierra Nevada weekend escape. Guided tours to the iconic Yosemite National Park include other interesting venues such as Bridalveil Fall, made famous by Ansel Adams’s shot of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, one of Yosemite’s most well-known rocks, and Yosemite Falls, a magnificent series of snow-fed waterfalls reputed to be the highest in North America. This California region is known for its wine, and visitors can sip their way around the area, particularly at spots such as the aptly named Butterfly Creek Winery, which sits on a beautiful piece of land tucked away from the main roads and is delightfully peaceful and pristine. Additionally, there is the chance to sample the town's Gold Rush history at the Mariposa Museum and History Center, known for its impressive collection of artifacts and exhibits. Similarly, the California State Mining and Mineral Museum, located at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds, displays a lovely collection of mining artifacts, gems, and minerals, including the Fricot Nugget, a unique piece of crystalline gold discovered in the 1860s. If staying for the night, Miners Inn offers delicious on-site dining and is just an 8-minute walk from the Mariposa Museum & History Center.

Nevada City

Broad Street in Nevada City, California.
Broad Street in Nevada City, California. Editorial credit: Chris Allan /

Nevada City was once a bustling gold mining town, and a first-time visitor would immediately notice this through the town's array of attractions. For example, the Miners Foundry Cultural Center on Spring Street was once a metal forging factory. Today, it has morphed into an entertainment and community venue hosting everything from concerts to weddings. It is hard to miss Broad Street's Nevada Theatre, also built during the Gold Rush days. Today, it is the oldest continuously operating theater on America's West Coast. For a cozy stay that also comes with memories of the romanticized past, Broad Street's National Exchange Hotel, which opened its doors in the years before the Civil War, is among the oldest continuously operating hotels west of the Rockies. Other attractions close to town include the Empire Mine State Historic Park, a great trip back into the foggy past that a first-time visitor should not miss.


Murphys Historic Hotel in Murphys, California.
Murphys Historic Hotel in Murphys, California. Image credit JRJfin via Shutterstock

Known for its lush vineyards and delicious wineries — Main Street alone is lined with around 25 tasting rooms — Murphys easily earns a spot among the best towns in the Sierra Nevada to visit for a weekend retreat. Sample the red Bordeaux blends at the Lavender Ridge Vineyard Tasting, a cute little tasting station smack in the middle of town along the main drag. The town is a jumping-off point to Mercer Caverns, a subterranean wonderland that features crystalline walls and surreal shapes. On arrival or soon after, grab some filling veggie burgers or Brussels sprouts at the V Restaurant, enjoy riverside hiking at the Natural Bridges Trailhead, and then crown the day with a peaceful rest at the Murphys Historic Hotel, one of the longest-operating hotels in California.


The Amtrak station in Dunsmuir, California.
The Amtrak station in Dunsmuir, California.

Dunsmuir features the austere grandeur of Mount Shasta, a tall stratovolcano that has spawned myth and legend in equal measure. There is a lot to love about this town, which styles itself as the “Home of the Best Water on Earth.” Dunsmuir sits along the Upper Sacramento River in the Trinity Mountains and provides a water-themed outdoor adventure experience like no other. Try your fishing skills in the wild waters of the Upper Sacramento, one of California’s most well-known fly fishing venues. Alternatively, the McCloud River is filled with brown trout, while Castle Lake is famous for ice fishing. A first-time visitor will also want to explore Dunsmuir’s cache of waterfalls, including Mossbrae Falls, which cascade down in multiple tiers creating an enchanting display of natural beauty. Spend the night at Mossbrae Hotel in the heart of Dunsmuir's historic district or in a rustic cabin at the Railroad Park Resort, especially if you are looking for a quiet, nature-themed accommodation experience.

The Takeaway

Save some cash, make some time, and explore California’s Sierra Nevada region. This will be an adventure-filled weekend that will reveal a side of California many believe exists only in movies and novels. Besides, a trip out of town is sometimes worth it, if for nothing else but the heart-warming scenery. Change, as is often mentioned, is as good as rest. Moreover, a week-long trip once a year is not something to deny yourself. But where exactly should you go, especially since California’s Sierra Nevada region is more than twice the size of Belgium? California's Sierra Nevada's best small towns for a weekend escape include Lone Pine, Groveland, Sonora, and Mammoth Lakes.

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