When people travel to the West Coast for a vacation, chances are they are heading to California. As one of the country's largest and most geographically diverse states, it is home to exciting destinations with gorgeous sunny weather and sandy beaches. San Francisco and Los Angeles are, without a doubt, the most popular cities in the Golden State, but there is more to California than these bustling metropolises.
What about the lesser-known towns? Although generally overlooked, the small towns in California offer unique experiences sure to impress all types of travelers. They have a charming, slow pace of life without the big crowds, beautiful natural landscapes surrounding them, unique historical heritage, and friendly, culture-rich communities. From scenic coastal localities and quaint lakefront communities to charming alpine villages, these are California's most underrated places to visit.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, despite being an absolute gem, does not receive the tourist attention it deserves. This beautiful town on California’s Central Coast is home to about 48,000 people and offers an eclectic mix of historic landmarks, rolling hills, and charming vineyards. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is a popular stop for history buffs in the town. Built in 1772, it was the first mission established in the territory traditionally inhabited by the Chumash Native Americans and portrays ancient Spanish architecture.
For the outdoorsy inclined, a hike to the summit of Bishop Peak presents the perfect way to explore the open spaces. Although not the easiest hike, the stunning views at the top make it worthwhile. With several wineries in San Luis Obispo, Wolff Vineyards allows you to sample some of the best local wine offerings, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In the vibrant downtown, you will encounter several exciting spots, highlighted by the Performing Arts Center San Luis Obispo. This renowned venue stages a variety of exciting live performances, bringing locals and visitors together.
Despite its proximity to the City of Angels, Avalon remains largely unknown, which is absurd considering what it has to offer. This idyllic town on Santa Catalina Island boasts a rich history dating back to the early 1900s. You can explore its heritage at the Catalina Museum for Art & History, which houses diverse cultural and historical artifacts that provide insight into the long history of human habitation on the island.
Another historical venue to check out is the Wrigley Memorial, a tribute to William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum tycoon and former island owner. Surrounding the memorial is a 38-acre garden with a gorgeous setting for nature lovers. But if you want the ultimate outdoor experience in Avalon, you can book a site at Hermit Gulch Campground, the only campground in the region. Several nature trails and a nearby nature center make it an exciting escape from the urban center.
This small city in Ventura County is home to about 8,000 residents and lies in a lush valley in the Topatopa Mountains. What makes Ojai special is its beautiful natural surroundings with picturesque mountain views. Libbey Park is a worthy first stop, housing walking trails, tennis courts, and a kids’ play area.
If you are curious about Ojai’s beginnings and culture, you can plan a tour of the Ojai Valley Museum. This former Catholic Church hosts a quaint museum with several exhibits showcasing the history and culture of the town. Meanwhile, walking through downtown exposes you to a mix of businesses, including wineries like the Majestic Oak Vineyard and Wine Tasting, perfect for those looking to sample local wines.
If you are planning a coastal getaway, it doesn't get better than Carmel-by-the-Sea. The stunning beachside location on the Monterey Peninsula delights with a charming natural setting and laidback vibe. The town’s main attraction is its pristine white-sand beach, which is popular for its scenic beauty and offers opportunities for refreshing dips in its cool waters. Carmel River State Beach also offers surfing opportunities and attracts different species of migratory birds.
One of the most popular outdoor sites in the town is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Besides its spectacular coastal setting, the reserve houses scenic hiking trails, diving spots, marine wildlife, and a whaling museum. Alternatively, you can visit Garrapata State Park for just as satisfying an experience, comprising treks along the coast and a 50-foot climb to a vantage point with sweeping views of the Pacific. To look into the town’s history, you can check out the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum, built in the 18th century.
Morro Bay rarely gets mentioned in conversations about California destinations, but this does not detract from its potential as a tourist spot. This alluring coastal city is famous for housing Morro Rock, a dramatic volcanic mound that offers a spectacular backdrop for photos. The mound sits within Morro Bay State Park, a recreational hotspot with camping, hiking, swimming, and bird-watching opportunities. For a more satisfying hiking adventure, the Black Hill Trail spans approximately 2.5 miles, offering a moderately challenging hike.
Those with a penchant for indoor pursuits will find the perfect pastime at the Museum of Natural History. The facility hosts various interactive ecological exhibits, providing a fun learning experience for all ages. Meanwhile, the Morro Bay Maritime Museum paints a picture of the local nautical heritage through historic vessels and artifacts.
Long known as “Cream City,” Ferndale has a thriving dairy industry, characterized by sprawling pastureland and numerous dairies. But there is more to this town than its dairy industry, including its picturesque surroundings of redwood forests. Ferndale offers an excellent escape for outdoor enthusiasts, with scenic trails available in the over 100 acres of Russ Park. There, hikers can spot almost 60 bird species and enjoy the densely forested environment for unwinding. Meanwhile, Firemen’s Park offers more family-friendly facilities, such as a basketball court, a baseball field, and a playground.
Historians will be drawn to the Ferndale Museum, which houses artifacts, documents, and memorabilia preserving local history, including the town’s role during the California Gold Rush era. Another notable sight is Fernbridge, a beautiful arch bridge stretching 1,320 feet across the Eel River, providing a perfect photo opportunity for tourists.
Los Gatos has something for everyone, making it an appealing holiday destination. This quaint town in Santa Clara County offers outdoor enthusiasts endless adventures at Castle Rock State Park. Spanning over 5,000 acres, the park features diverse landscapes along nearly 35 miles of trails, with epic vistas of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Other parks, such as Vasona Lake County Park and Oak Meadow Park, also offer serene environments for relaxation, unwinding, and people-watching.
History buffs will find no shortage of interest in Los Gatos. The New Museum Los Gatos offers fascinating insights into local history and culture. Los Gatos is also famous for its multiple wineries, providing excellent opportunities to sample tasty local wines. Among the top tour options is Regale Vineyards & Winery, known for its stunning location and beautiful mountain views.
Popularly known as the “Endurance Capital of the World,” Auburn is an underrated tourist destination among California's small towns. This small community in Placer County boasts a rich California Gold Rush history that has earned it the status of a California Historical Landmark. You can explore this history at the Gold Rush Museum, which hosts a variety of interactive exhibits and an indoor panning stream. For a broader perspective of Auburn’s past, the Bernhard Museum, the town’s oldest structure, offers a glimpse into 19th-century life with its interesting artifacts.
Auburn is surrounded by an exciting outdoor landscape ideal for adventurers. One of the best sites is the Auburn State Recreation Area, which spans 42,000 acres. This vast natural space is perfect for backcountry adventures, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, and camping. Finally, no visit to Auburn is complete without stopping at its craft breweries, with Moonraker Brewing Co. offering a wide selection of refreshing craft beers.
Carpinteria, located on California's scenic Central Coast, offers unmatched beachfront experiences. This small town delights visitors with its beachside adventures, starting at Carpinteria State Beach, where locals and tourists enjoy swimming, surfing, fishing, camping, and strolling along the pristine shore. The Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve is another coastal gem, featuring picturesque overlooks with vistas of harbor seals. Adventurers can put on their hiking shoes or ride a bike to explore the various trails at the preserve.
For those seeking more outdoor activities, the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve allows visitors to explore diverse natural habitats, from rocky reefs and sandy beaches to expansive wetlands. For a change of pace, the Carpinteria Valley Museum offers an intimate look into the region’s history. Additionally, Canzelle Alpacas provides a unique experience with up-close encounters and petting sessions with alpacas.
For those with a penchant for coastal getaways, this charming beach town in San Diego County captivates visitors with its suburban feel and scenic surroundings. Countless trails allow you to explore Solana Beach at a leisurely pace, with a couple of these trails found within Fletcher Cove Beach Park. This beautiful park boasts charming public amenities, including a playground, basketball court, picnic areas, and a viewing deck. Lifeguards are always on hand to ensure safety for swimmers, making it an excellent option for a family day out.
The town’s walkable streets host a vibrant arts scene, with several spots to catch a thrilling live performance. For theater enthusiasts, the North Coast Repertory Theater showcases local artistic talent. Lastly, one of the best experiences in Solana Beach is at the Belly Up Tavern, a unique music venue hosting an exciting rotation of live performances by renowned musical acts.
This quaint alpine community in Riverside County is an idyllic escape for nature lovers. It is home to numerous outdoor attractions, offering a full slate of adventures. Mount San Jacinto State Park encompasses over 13,000 acres of pristine wilderness with at least 50 miles of trails. Here, you can explore subalpine forests, spectacular granite peaks, and diverse landscapes, making it an ideal playground for hikers, campers, rock climbers, and explorers. The Idyllwild Nature Center is another noteworthy site, featuring a nature museum that showcases the local ecology and the indigenous community's culture. More hiking opportunities await along the Deer Springs Trailhead, a scenic 6.7-mile route winding through dramatic rock formations and forested areas, suitable for both beginner and experienced hikers. For a historical perspective, the Idyllwild Area Historical Society offers insights into the town’s past.
Whether you're planning a weekend getaway by the sea or seeking an alpine escape, these towns in California offer diverse options for your vacation duration. Each town has a unique personality and provides distinct attractions, guaranteeing a fresh and exciting experience wherever you choose to visit.