Running along the eastern edge of the Golden State, the Sierra Nevada is one of nature’s most dramatic spectacles. Filled with numerous sparkling waterfalls, shaded by giant sequoia groves, and home to five national parks and monuments, the Sierra Nevada region in California is a paradise for nature enthusiasts. Scattered throughout the foothills are several towns that strike first-time visitors with the excitement of a major discovery, akin to an unexpected archaeological find. For those seeking firsthand experiences, here are the 9 most underrated towns in California’s Sierra Nevada worth visiting.
Located against the backdrop of Mount Shasta, a steep-sided stratovolcano and one of the most prominent peaks in the Cascade Range, Dunsmuir is undoubtedly one of the most criminally overlooked towns in the Sierra Nevada region of California. Proudly calling itself “Home of the Best Water on Earth,” this hidden gem lies along the Upper Sacramento River in the Trinity Mountains — approximately 211 miles (about a three-hour drive) north of the state capital, Sacramento. The town offers access to numerous waterfalls, including Mossbrae Falls and Hedge Creek Falls. Mossbrae Falls is notable for its large cave hollowed out behind the waterfall, while Hedge Creek Falls is often considered one of the most picturesque waterfalls in California. With a rich railroad heritage, Dunsmuir's history is evident throughout the town. This includes the Railroad Park Resort, where rustic cabins and converted railroad cabooses offer a unique nature-themed lodging experience.
With a population of just under 2,000 residents, Murphys is situated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, nestled between one of the world's most stunning alpine lakes and Yosemite National Park, approximately 132 miles north of Fresno. This town is characterized by its gorgeous stone-walled buildings dating back to the 1800s, colorful flower gardens, and numerous wineries along Main Street. Ironstone Vineyards, a family-run establishment, is renowned for its exceptional wines and tranquil grounds. For accommodation, the Dunbar House Inn, a town feature since the presidency of James Garfield, offers convenient proximity to everything in town, yet provides a secluded retreat. Another unique attraction is Mercer Caverns, featuring a labyrinthine series of chambers with walkways and stairs, and is known as one of the oldest continuously operating show caves in the state.
Despite its small size with just about 1,100 residents, Walnut Grove is a quaint town nestled along the banks of the Sacramento River, only 32 miles from the state capital. An ideal getaway if you're in the Sacramento area, Walnut Grove is one of the oldest communities in the Sacramento River Delta, offering a peaceful, rural atmosphere with quiet neighborhoods and picturesque orchards. The town is notable for hosting the KVLY-TV mast, which was the tallest structure in the world at the time of its completion. Standing at 2,049 feet tall, the KVLY-TV mast remains the tallest structure in California. On the town’s outskirts, the Grand Island Mansion is renowned for its exquisite dining experience amidst captivating views. For some of the best steak in the area, Tony’s Place, a family-owned steakhouse in the heart of the town, is a must-visit.
Locke is known as the only town in the nation built exclusively by the Chinese for the Chinese. Although Walnut Grove was a major site for Chinese immigration and settlement in California, a devastating fire in 1915 destroyed 80 buildings in a three-block area, prompting the Chinese community to move north and establish Locke. The town proudly preserves its Chinese heritage. One significant site is Locke Memorial Park, located on the town’s Main Street (just a mile from Walnut Grove). The park was established to honor the Chinese immigrants who came to California and contributed to building the railroad. It offers a serene environment for relaxation or exploration. Visitors are also encouraged to stroll through the downtown area and admire the town's historic architecture. The Dai Loy Museum, once a gambling house for Chinese immigrants, is now an intriguing museum. For a unique dining experience, Al the Wop's combines Old West aesthetics with a Chinese theme.
Home to about 2,600 residents, Alturas is one of California’s best-kept secrets. Perfect for those seeking respite from the bustle of big cities, this Sierra Nevada haven offers clean, crisp air in the Modoc National Forest, excellent fishing opportunities, and a chance to reconnect with nature. Situated at the confluence of the South and North forks of the Pit River, about 302 miles north of Sacramento, Alturas embodies the spirit of the West. The Modoc National Wildlife Refuge is a prime location for bird and deer watching, and visitors might even spot a coyote, known for its speed and cunning. For those with a taste for Italian cuisine, Antonio's Cucina Italiana at 220 S Main Street serves delicious, tangy pizza, making it a great starting point for your adventure in Alturas.
A slow-moving air and country flavor pervades Isleton, a small town of approximately 800 residents, once dubbed “the Little Paris of the Delta.” Historically a major hub for Chinese and Japanese immigrants, the town is also referred to as the Asian American District. One of its notable distinctions is that it is the only Asian community built in the Delta during the 1920s. The streets of Isleton are adorned with beautiful red-brick buildings, many of which are distinctive for their pressed tin siding. Visitors can enjoy fishing along the Sacramento River, savor beautiful views from the pier, or relish delicacies like the pepperoni zombie or club croissant at The McBoodery, a quaint sandwich shop renowned for its hole-in-the-wall charm.
Markleeville, a hidden gem in California, offers an array of outdoor activities yet often remains under the radar. With its endearing small-town ambiance, it is home to fewer than 200 residents. This is not unexpected, given that Markleeville is in Alpine County, the state's least populated county. Located on Highway 89, the town is just 30 miles south of Lake Tahoe, making it an ideal base for exploring the surrounding area. Grover Hot Springs State Park, nearby, offers a chance to soak in hot springs pools and boasts some of the best trout fishing in the region. After a day of fishing or hiking, Cutthroat Markleeville is the go-to spot for delicious fish tacos. For those looking to shop, the Markleeville General Store is a must-visit, offering a variety of goods to lighten your wallet and enrich your shopping experience.
Auburn, while not a hidden gem, is often underappreciated. A 30-minute drive from the state capital, Sacramento, will bring you to this hiker’s paradise, also known as the Endurance Capital of the World. The town offers an abundance of trails, providing hikers with plenty of options. Among Auburn’s popular hiking destinations is Hidden Falls Regional Park, where visitors can enjoy hiking or horseback riding amid sparkling waterfalls and stunning vistas. Auburn Ravine Park is graced with shady trees and features a seasonal salmon stream. For wine enthusiasts, Vina Castellano Winery offers an unforgettable experience with tasting rooms set inside a cave. Additionally, Martin Mattox offers a unique vintage shopping experience that is refreshingly distinctive.
With its sparkling waterfalls, craggy mountains, and lush valleys, the Sierra Nevada in California is a natural playground that should be on the bucket list of every beauty enthusiast. Nestled in the foothills of these majestic mountains are several towns that offer gateways to some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes. While many of these towns are well-known and attract hordes of tourists, others are underappreciated and often unjustly overlooked. Some of the most underrated towns in California’s Sierra Nevada include Dunsmuir, Murphys, Walnut Grove, and Locke.