City of Avalon, the most visited tourist destination on Catalina Island, California is a perfect place to take a weekend escape. Image credit HannaTor via Shutterstock

Southern California's Best Small Towns for a Weekend Escape

Southern California is unmistakable from its northern counterpart in several different ways. Most notably, the landscapes and climate of the southern portion of the Golden State are much drier, and hotter, and feature deserts, unlike the more lush forests to the north. This is not to say that there aren't any pretty forests in the south. The towering trees of Sequoia National Park are located here. But you also get gems like Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley, and the Mojave Desert, making it an ideal escape to spend a weekend for anyone looking to soak up the sun. You will need somewhere to stay during your trip, so check out nine of the best towns to stop at in Southern California.


Downtown Ojai, California, after winter snow in the mountains.
Downtown Ojai, California, after winter snow in the mountains.

Located in Ventura County just north of Los Angeles, Ojai makes an ideal weekend escape for anyone looking to get out of the city for a quick trip. Surrounded by the Topatopa Mountains, the Ojai Valley as a whole is renowned for its inspiring landscapes, perfect for hiking, biking, and even horseback riding, with tour services available in and around town.

The downtown area is filled with Spanish-style architecture, a testament to this region's past. Ojai's historic and cultural sites also include the Ojai Valley Museum and the Ojai Art Center, which is the oldest multi-purpose, non-profit art center in California, and a popular visit for artists coming from some of California's bigger cities who are looking for a quieter environment.

Each Sunday, the Ojai Certified Farmers' Market showcases local produce, artisan foods, and crafts, allowing you to pick up fresh produce from the excellent agricultural lands surrounding town. Additionally, the nearby Ojai Olive Oil Company offers tours and tastings.

There are many hotels and motels located in the downtown core, ranging from the more luxurious Ojai Valley Inn to the smaller Chantico Inn & Suites.


Historic old town of Julian, California.
The historic old town of Julian, California. Image credit Little Vignettes Photo via Shutterstock

Located in the Cuyamaca Mountains of San Diego County, Julian is a historic gold mining town with a fascinating heritage and a multitude of outdoor activities. Established during the California Gold Rush, Julian stays close to its 19th-century roots, with many of its original buildings now housing shops, restaurants, and museums. The Julian Pioneer Museum, for example, gives you a look into the town's history with exhibits showcasing Native American artifacts, mining equipment, and pioneer life.

Be sure to check out the nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which contains walking trails, camping sites, and opportunities for birdwatching. Camping here is a popular option to stay the night in this area. Lake Cuyamaca, located within the park, is a popular spot for fishing and boating. With consistent favorable weather and proximity to the beautiful outdoor locations nearby, definitely consider this as an accommodation during your stop near Julian.

Julian is also famous for its apple orchards, and visitors can enjoy fresh apple pies, cider, and other apple-related products grown and made on-site. The Julian Pie Company and Mom's Pie House are must-visit spots.


Main Street in Solvang, California.
Main Street in Solvang, California. Image credit HannaTor via Shutterstock

Solvang offers a Danish-inspired experience that distinguishes it from other small towns in Southern California. Founded by Danish settlers in 1911, Solvang features an array of detailed architecture reminiscent of a Danish village, complete with windmills and half-timbered houses. This Danish heritage is further visible in landmarks like the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, which showcase both Danish culture and the history of Solvang.

The downtown area is a hub for shopping, dining, and other amenities, with numerous establishments offering Danish imports and crafts, both locally made and from abroad. Authentic bakeries, such as Olsen's Danish Village Bakery, serve traditional pastries like aebleskivers (like little donuts) and kringles. Wine enthusiasts will find a variety of tasting rooms featuring wines from Santa Ynez Valley, a world-renowned grape-growing region.

Golf and other outdoor activities abound at the nearby Alisal River Course for golf and hiking trails in the surrounding hills. This golf course also contains a guest ranch and resort for visitors to stay for the night.


A lovely souvenir store in Idyllwild, California.
A lovely souvenir store in Idyllwild, California.

Known for its scenic beauty and tranquil environment, in the mountains outside of Palm Springs, Idyllwild offers numerous opportunities for those looking to go hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and sightseeing.

This small town is surrounded by the San Bernardino National Forest, providing ample trails for all skill levels, including the popular Devils Slide Trail leading to the Pacific Crest Trail. A trip to any of the peaks in this park will give you stunning views of the Mojave Desert to the east, and the more verdant valleys and coastal plains to the west.

For your stay, accommodation options are plentiful. Whether you want to stay at a lodge at the Idyllwild Inn, a more regular hotel at The Creekstone, or if you are feeling adventurous, backcountry camping at Strawberry Junction Campground, all choices are either in town or a short drive away.


Aerial view of Avalon, California.
Overlooking Avalon, California. Image credit Rob Crandall via Shutterstock

Looking to really get out of the city? How about an island escape? Avalon, the main town on Santa Catalina Island, may just be the place for you. Accessible by ferry from the mainland, Avalon is known for its picturesque harbor, walkable downtown waterfront, and amazing Mediterranean-like weather. The Catalina Casino, a striking Art Deco landmark, houses a grand ballroom and a historic theater, reflecting the town's rich cultural past.

Activities are plentiful here, with options like snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking. The Trans-Catalina Trail will give you perhaps the best views of the island's diverse landscapes. For a touch of nature in the downtown core, the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden showcases native plants and provides insight into the island's ecology and conservation efforts. The Catalina Island Museum has exhibits that will teach you more about this island's history, including its Hollywood connections, with many celebrities owning property here.

Luxurious hotel options are widely available. with several options like Hotel Atwater, Omeo Hotel Catalina, and many more being reachable on foot from the harbor.


A store front sign for the barbecue restaurant known as Gus's BBQ, located at the Claremont Packing House.
Gus's BBQ, located at the Claremont Packing House in Claremont, California. Image credit The Image Party via Shutterstock

Home to the Claremont Colleges, Claremont is an intellectual town as well as a nice place to stay for a weekend. Do you have a son or daughter going to college soon? Maybe convince them to go to Claremont; your weekend visits can double off as short vacations in this idyllic region of southern California.

The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is a key attraction, showcasing native Californian plants across 86 acres and offering walking trails and educational programs. Nearby, the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park provides hiking and biking trails with panoramic views of the Los Angeles Basin.

Cultural venues like the Claremont Museum of Art and the Folk Music Center add to the town's artistic appeal. Claremont hosts various annual events too, including the Claremont Village Venture Arts & Crafts Fair, which brings together local artists and craftsmen.

Being on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the options for accommodation both in town and nearby are seemingly endless. The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Claremont is smack dab in the center of Claremont if ease of movement around town is important to you.

San Juan Capistrano

The lovely mission at San Juan Capistrano, California.
The lovely mission at San Juan Capistrano, California.

The town is possibly best known for the Mission San Juan Capistrano, a historic landmark founded in 1776. The mission's meticulously preserved buildings and beautiful gardens open a window to the past, particularly the rich Spanish influence that was once ( and still is) prevalent here. For more historical fun, the Los Rios Historic District in San Juan Capistrano, the oldest neighborhood in California, offers a unique experience with its adobe homes, shops, and authentic Spanish/Mexican restaurants. Make sure to also pay a visit to the O'Neill Museum and the Montanez Adobe.

For an adventure outdoors, the San Juan Capistrano Trail System, which has hiking, biking, and equestrian trails through scenic landscapes, is a popular choice nearby. The Doheny State Beach or the San Clemente State Beach are better options for a more relaxing outing.

There are several great hotels with views of the harbor and the Pacific Ocean beyond, including the Blue Lantern Inn, which sits right on the water.


Rods and Roses classic holiday car show in Carpinteria, California.
Rods and Roses classic holiday car show in Carpinteria, California. Image credit L Paul Mann via Shutterstock

Carpinteria, located just south of Santa Barbara, is often visited for its selection of beaches and oceanside resorts, which give their patrons an all-inclusive experience on top of a place to stay for the weekend. With its extensive and pristine coastline, closeby destinations like Carpinteria State Beach are prime spots for swimming, surfing, and simply laying down a towel and basking in the sun. The nearby Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve provides you with an active outing on land with its trails leading to high-up viewpoints over the ocean and spots to see seals and other wildlife. Carpinteria is also home to natural attractions like the world's largest Torrey Pine tree.

In town, definitely try out the Carpinteria Valley Museum of History, which holds exhibits on the Chumash people (the inhabitants of this area before Europeans arrived), early settlers, and the agricultural heritage of the area. Around the corner, Linden Avenue, the main street in downtown Carpinteria, will have the amenities you need while here, like eateries, outfitters, and hotels, with quaint options like the Prufrock's Garden Inn by the Beach.

Yucca Valley

Yucca Valley welcome sign among the green trees
Yucca Valley welcome sign.

Yucca Valley, located in the heart of the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree National Park, is an ideal destination for those seeking a mix of natural wonders and unique local culture. The town serves as a gateway to the well-known desert park, known for its striking Joshua trees, rock formations, and extensive hiking and climbing opportunities. Make sure to check out trails like the Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Barker Dam, both offering glimpses of the area's diverse flora and fauna.

Beyond the national park, Yucca Valley is home to the Hi-Desert Nature Museum, which features exhibits on the region's natural history, native cultures, and pioneer heritage. The museum also provides educational programs and interactive displays, making it a family-friendly attraction.

There is a definite eclectic and artistic spirit in this community. The nearby Joshua Tree Music Festival and the annual Highway 62 Art Tours highlight the area's arts scene, attracting visitors to experience live music, various art installations, and local crafts. Permanent galleries like the Compound Yucca Valley and the nearby La Matadora Gallery are also well worth a visit.

Being near a national park, camping options are abundant. Spots like the Black Rock Canyon Campground are friendly for both tenters and RV campers.

Spend Your Weekend in Southern California

Whether you are looking to camp, stay at a lodge, or spend the night in a hotel, your options for a weekend getaway in southern California are nearly endless. Why stay in a big crowded city, when the list of small and charming towns to rest your head in is almost as long?

Spice up your weekend escape at any of these smaller, and perhaps lesser known, locales and make your trip something special.

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