View of the pier and beach in Capitola, California.

Northern California's Best Small Towns For A Weekend Escape

Visiting Northern California’s small towns is a memorable adventure for nature lovers and anyone looking for a homey, relaxing getaway in a beautiful setting. You’ll find yourself surrounded by towering redwoods, your lungs filled with crisp, fresh air. You’ll also have a chance to experience the rugged coastlines spattered with rolling dunes and jaw-dropping sights. The towns that call this region home are downright charming, all exuding their special brand of down-to-earth life and holding gems that await your discovery.

Whether you want your breath taken away on Mount Shasta or you want to lose yourself (hopefully not literally) in forests that dwarf and enchant you, Northern California has plenty of outdoor activities to keep you connected with nature. A smile will spread across your face as you experience the slower pace of life and tight-knit community vibes in towns like Mendicino, Sausalito, and Mt. Helena. Think eclectic and cute boutique shops, colorful farmers’ markets, and a culinary scene that can truly deliver on farm-to-table claims. If you’re looking for the perfect weekend escape in small-town Northern California, one of these ten towns might be the right fit.


The seacoast village of Mendocino, California
The seacoast village of Mendocino, California.

A charming little town along California's famous Highway 1, Mendocino overlooks a stunning portion of California's coastline. This town is a great home base for a weekend excursion, as a wide range of hiking, kayaking, and sightseeing options surrounds it. If you're planning a visit, take a look at the Nicholson House, one of the best hotels in the town. When putting together an itinerary of natural areas to visit, don't leave Mendocino Headlands State Park. Here, you'll find trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean, unbeatable picnicking spots, and plenty of opportunities to see wildlife in their natural habitat.

A short drive north of town lies the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which visitors have labeled a "must-see" in this area of California's coast. Stroll through immaculately maintained gardens that will leave you inspired and refreshed. To learn a little more about the town and surrounding areas, visit Kelley House Museum and experience a local, little-known historical dive. And if you're on the hunt for some good eats, you might try out The Brickery, a highly-rated pizza joint, or Fog Eater Cafe, a delightful vegan/vegetarian restaurant offering a fusion of Southern cooking and regional flavors. On a final note, be sure to try out some of the town's wineries, as Mendocino County is one of California's largest and most diverse wine-growing regions.


 Shops on Main Street in Guerneville, California
Shops on Main Street in Guerneville, California. Editorial credit: Matthew Ashmore /

Just northwest of Santa Rosa sits the quaint small town of Guerneville. Famous for being a riverside haunt, one of this woodland town's biggest perks is its intimate access to the Russian River. You'll be able to easily enjoy tubing, hanging out on one of the many beaches, and canoeing. Johnson’s Beach is a key beach that can't be missed. It's conveniently located in the heart of town by First Street. Only a couple minutes north of town lies the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a peaceful old-growth forest filled with meandering trails, where you can easily lose yourself for a few hours and snap some incredible nature photos. And if you find yourself in the mood for wine, the Porter-Bass winery just minutes south of town on the 116, is a no-frills, hometown winery that all are sure to enjoy. When considering options for your weekend accommodations, check out the Highlands Resort, a beautiful assortment of cabins surrounded by redwoods. Or, if you're looking for something fancy, you might think about trying The Stavrand, a boutique hotel with an expansive, manicured property.


Main Street in Murphys, California.
Main Street in Murphys, California.

If you're a wine lover, Murphys, California, might be the perfect weekend retreat for you. This small town, located about two and a half hours east of San Francisco, is aptly nicknamed the "Queen of the Sierra." Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, Murphys boasts an incredible 25 wineries within a 10-minute radius of the town. On Main Street alone, there are about 15 in less than 15 minutes walking distance from one another. Be sure to not miss Ironstone or Twisted Oak tasting rooms, two of the most popular local favorites. But let's not sell Murphys short, there are plenty of things to do besides hitting all the local wineries.

If you're looking for nature adventures to add to your itinerary, jot down Mercer Caverns, a cavern system near town that's filled with crystalline walls and surreal formations. Tours are inexpensive and offer fascinating insights into the natural splendor of Murphys. Be aware that hours of operation differ during winter and summer months, so be sure to check out their website. From late spring to early fall, you can visit the Murphys Farmers' Market on Sundays, located in Murphys Community Park. Enjoy a brisk Sunday morning, perusing a wide range of food, produce, crafts, and more, all grown and produced by local farmers and artisans.


Aerial view of Sausalito, California.
Aerial view of Sausalito, California.

Experience small-town life in Sausalito, located within a stone's throw of one of the United States's largest cities. Just minutes from the northern entrance of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito is a great choice if you want to mix together the thrill of San Francisco with small-town charm on your weekend excursion. This unique blend is facilitated by a 30-minute ride on the Golden Gate Ferry, an inexpensive and sight-filled way to travel between the two locations.

But even if you're not interested in adding Frisco to your itinerary, Sausalito is absolutely worth consideration as a weekend escape destination. The Marin Headlands are only a short drive from town and offer incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge and numerous trails that lead to unique spots like the Point Bonita Lighthouse and Rodeo Beach/Rodeo Lagoon. When you're hungry from hiking, you can find incredible seafood offerings at Scoma's of Sausalito, a Sicilian waterfront institution serving up fresh and creative plates. The sesame ahi tuna, cashew cod, and clam chowder are all must-try dishes. And of course, it's impossible to forget about Sausalito's famous houseboats! You can take an unusual and fun tour of the five major docs lined with colorful houseboats—just remember that people live here, so please be respectful!


The main street of the victorian village of Ferndale.
The Main Street of the Victorian village of Ferndale, California. Editorial credit: Bob Pool /

Almost three hours northwest of Mendocino, you'll find the little town of Ferndale. A little-known fact about this small town is that it's the birthplace of celebrity chef Guy Fieri! In fact, April 5 is known as "Guy Fieri Day" in Ferndale. If you choose to visit this spunky community, you'll be surprised to find the Victorian architecture lining Main Street. The ornate buildings in this area are referred to as the "Victorian Village" and make it a fun place to wander and take photos. Although it might sound a bit morose, you should consider a visit to the Ferndale Cemetery. It's almost 150 years old and is an incredibly beautiful resting place, filled with panoramic views and an enthralling layout.

The two best natural landscapes to explore near the town are Russ Park and the Lost Coast. The former is a 105-acre bird sanctuary filled with gorgeous trees and plants, winding trails, and picnic tables. The park is known as a great spot for dogs too! The Lost Coast is a famous stretch of undeveloped California coastline, part of which you can reach in a 40-minute drive south. Head down Mattole Road to the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse and Black Sand Beach. On your way, you'll experience a serene, unparalleled mountain drive with views of the gorgeous coast.


Amtrak train station in Dunsmuir, California. Editorial credit: davidrh /

If you're the super outdoorsy type, Dunsmuir might be the perfect weekend getaway for you. The area is filled with opportunities to immerse yourself in nature, including Hedge Creek Falls, Castle Crags State Park, the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens, and Tauhindauli Park. At Hedge Creek Falls, you'll find a short and easily accessible trail that leads to a beautiful waterfall. The waterfall flows over a cave, so you can actually walk an entire circle around it, making for a cool photo opportunity. At Castle Crags, you'll find amazing views from the top of Castle Dome Trail, a nice river, and great camping spots.

Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens sits in the center of the town, bordered on one side by Interstate 5, with the Sacramento River on the other. These gardens offer beautiful wild and cultivated flowers, picnic areas, a playground, and even a tennis court. Finally, Tauhindauli Park, located about a 10-minute walk south of the botanical gardens, is a great way to access the Sacramento River. The river flows through the center of the park, offering nice fishing opportunities, and there's plenty of shade and easy walking opportunities. Another big perk of visiting Dunsmuir is that it can be used as a basecamp for adventuring to Mount Shasta, where you can find tons of hiking opportunities and enjoy epic skiing at Mt. Shasta Ski Park.


Colorful residential neighborhood in Capitola, California.
Colorful residential neighborhood in Capitola, California.

Capitola is a small seaside community about 10 minutes east of Santa Cruz on Highway 1. An artsy town with plenty of wine-tasting opportunities, this is a nice spot for anyone wanting a getaway within arm's reach of Santa Cruz. For sleeping arrangements, you might want to look into the Inn At Depot Hill. It's a charming little inn that offers spacious rooms with plenty of privacy, all while being only steps from downtown. If you decide to visit in September, you get the added bonus of being able to attend the annual Capitola Art and Wine Festival. You can see a great selection of live music, have fun watching engaging street performances, and also sip on plenty of exceptional wines grown and fermented in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

If you're looking to catch some sun, you can head over to Captiola Beach and sunbathe, go swimming, and even try your hand at volleyball. Nearby you'll find the wharf, where you can relax and catch stunning views of the ocean or even do a little fishing. If you're hankering for some good wine (and miss the big festival), you can easily take a short trip up in the mountains to do tastings at Bargetto Winery or Soquel Vineyards. And of course, you can't miss out on the dining options. Shadowbrook Restaurant is a must-try that serves everything from wild boar ribs to bread pudding. This local institution has been operating since 1947 and is sure to wow you and your travel mates.

Nevada City

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

If you want the perfect blend of historical education, cultural opportunities, and immersive moments in nature, Nevada City might be the right choice. This quaint town is just over an hour northeast of Sacramento. Take a walk through downtown's charming Victorian architecture and discover a range of unique shops and inviting art galleries. While you're at it, don't skip the Elixart teahouse where you can enjoy a range of teas and herbal cocktails while possibly catching live music. This teahouse is a beloved community hang-out spot that promotes an alcohol-free experience of art, music, and creative medicinal drinks.

To scratch that historical itch, head over to the Empire Mine State Historic Park and dive into a bit of gold rush history. They have blacksmiths on site as well, who you can observe as they work. Several nice hiking trails lead away from the historic area, where you can explore the parklands' wooded scenery. If you're still looking for more outdoor adventures after your adventure at the historic park, South Yuba River State Park is a must-visit. The Point Defiance hike provides a scenic trail with many opportunities to enjoy the river, while the Buttermilk Bend wildflower trail offers beautiful wildflower blooms and a safe route above the swift river. If you're interested in dipping your toes into the local wine scene, you'll have plenty of chances to sample local wines at Nevada City Winery and Szabo Vineyards, which are a mere 2-minute walk from one another. You'll have the opportunity to relax and enjoy some of the Sierra Nevada foothills' tastiest offerings.

St. Helena

Aerial view of St. Helena, California.
Aerial view of St. Helena, California.

This might be the perfect place for the foodies and wine aficionados out there. St. Helena is an endearing town in the heart of the Napa Valley—which is, of course, known around the world as a big-league wine region. When deciding on where to stay during your St. Helena weekend escape, you might want to take a look at what Inn St. Helena and Southbridge Napa Valley have to offer. Southbridge's spacious rooms are filled with elegant decor and even feature wood-burning fireplaces. You may also appreciate their complimentary in-room breakfasts. The Inn St. Helena is located right downtown and is applauded by guests as an exceptionally cozy and charming bed and breakfast. The hosts also provide unique, pre-selected breakfasts each morning.

When planning your food and drink fiesta in St. Helena, two spots you need on your itinerary are Castello di Amorosa and Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. Be aware that both of these spots are quite popular and do require advanced reservations. Castello di Amorosa was built by Dario Sattui, a fourth-generation Italian winemaker who wanted to create a Tuscan-style castle and one experience to honor his heritage and share it with Napa. You'll be provided with an excellent tour and an unforgettable seated wine tasting. At Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, you'll experience some of the best farm-to-table cuisine available in Napa County. You can dine on everything from artisanal cheeses to beef tartare to Idaho trout.


Mount Shasta, as seen from McCloud, California
Mount Shasta, as seen from McCloud, California.

Not far northeast of Dunsmuir lies the tiny town of McCloud. This is another loveable little spot that sits in the shade of Mount Shasta. You can, of course, use McCloud as a basecamp for your adventures into Mount Shasta if you're interested in experiencing small-town life away from the touristy bustle of the famous mountain. But if you're looking for something a bit different, head over to McCloud River, where you experience an incredible four-mile trail that takes you through the breathtaking Lower, Middle, and Upper McCloud Falls. Towering woodlands surround these picturesque waterfalls and provide a unique experience for photography and camping.

If you are in the mood to discover more about this little country town's history, you can also find great experiences at the McCloud Heritage Junction Museum. The knowledgeable staff can walk you through McCloud's history while providing insight into the numerous neat objects on display. And if you want a historic stay in addition to your history lesson, be sure to book a room at the McCloud Mercantile, a beautiful, museum-like heritage hotel. It's a reasonably priced place filled with rustic charm that's conveniently located in the same building as many of McCloud's best shops.

Whether you're on the hunt for breathtaking hikes and vistas, curated wine tastings, or historical experiences, the small towns of Northern California will not disappoint. The sheer volume of options that cater to people of disparate interests makes this area of the United States one of the best places for perfectly crafted weekend retreats. Visit the must-see spots scattered along California's coastline while staying in Mendicino, explore outdoor experiences galore in Dunsmuir, or spend a cozy weekend of wine adventuring in St. Helena. Whatever you're looking for, one of these ten small Northern California towns can create a vibrant backdrop to a weekend of memories you'll cherish for years to come. So, go ahead, take those next steps, and start crafting that ideal itinerary for your unforgettable small-town getaway.

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