Southern California is riddled with exciting destinations! Known for its generally pleasant weather throughout the year and diverse natural landscapes, it is a highly visited region of the Golden State. While most tourists include cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and perhaps the beaches of Santa Monica or Disneyland in Anaheim in their travel plans, many small, often overlooked localities offer a delightful alternative to the crowded bigger cities.
These smaller locations are shielded from popular, jam-packed vacation spots, presenting a serene setting with a slow pace of life, perfect for a rural getaway. You can never run out of fun attractions, from overlooked state parks and unique historical landmarks to endless outdoor adventures. These underrated towns in Southern California will redefine your idea of a West Coast vacation.
Big Bear Lake
A year-round destination in the scenic resort town of Big Bear Lake, this area delights with an eclectic mix of outdoor attractions. During the snow season, skiers, snowboarders, and snow tubers gather at venues like Bear Mountain and Big Bear Snow Play to enjoy a thrilling ride down powdery white slopes. In summer, the lush surroundings of the San Bernardino National Forest attract the most attention, with several wild trails to explore. Taking the scenic Pine Knot Trail is an excellent way of discovering the great outdoors, culminating in Grand View Point, where sweeping views of the San Bernardino peaks await.
Being in Big Bear Lake offers the rare opportunity of visiting one of the few Alpine zoos in the United States, where you can learn about the 80 different species at the center. You will be intrigued by up-close encounters with animals like grizzlies, bald eagles, and snow leopards. The trip would not be complete without getting onto the water, and the Big Bear Queen Lake Cruise is the perfect way to discover the town from the water.
If you have a thing for off-the-beaten-path adventures, this tiny community in San Bernardino County places you in the heart of the Mojave Desert. It is famous for being the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, distinguished by the iconic Joshua trees dotting its expanse. In addition to its breathtaking desert landscape with dramatic rock formations, the park is a prime spot for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts, offering rock climbing, hiking, bird-watching, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Joshua Tree also boasts a unique artistic atmosphere with specific art venues in its rural downtown. Exploring the area, you will encounter gems like the Joshua Tree Art Gallery and the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, showcasing an impressive collection of Assemblage Art. Another popular spot for visitors is the quirky “Meet the Turtle Sculpture,” dubbed the world’s largest tortoise replica. This larger-than-life creation offers an excellent backdrop for photos.
With a population of less than 1,000 residents, beautiful Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley offers a peaceful respite from busy city life. It is renowned for its sprawling vineyards and multiple wineries, where enthusiasts have unique opportunities for wine tasting. Establishments like Stolpman Vineyards and Saarloos and Sons are perfect for sampling the local wine scene. Beyond wine tasting, Los Olivos has much more to offer.
Outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the expansive Fess Parker Winery and Inn, spanning over 700 acres. Here, Fess Parker Ranch Horseback Adventures offers a thrilling way to explore the outdoors, with rides presenting breathtaking views of the valley and wildlife viewing opportunities. For those seeking an active adventure, the 4.1-mile Lovers Loop Trail provides scenic vistas of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Palm Springs is a vibrant desert city in the Coachella Valley that delights travelers with its thermal springs, golf courses, and outdoor adventures. Adventurers can explore the beautiful desert landscapes of the Indian Canyons. This lovely mass of canyons presents the perfect trails for horseback riding and hiking. You can enjoy more hiking excursions at Tahquitz Canyon, with the main highlight being a dramatic 60-foot waterfall. The area is also home to numerous wildflowers that create a magical scene when in bloom.
One of the best places to appreciate Palm Springs’ beauty is in the air, which you can experience with the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The thrilling two-and-a-half-mile ride along the scenic Chino Canyon culminates in breathtaking views of the town's landscapes. For those who prefer indoor pursuits, you can tour the Palm Springs Air Museum to admire old war planes or the Palm Springs Art Museum for an immersive cultural experience.
Brea, often overlooked in favor of more famous Orange County towns like Irvine, is a quaint community of about 48,000 that boasts its own unique tourist attractions. Carbon Canyon Regional Park features a scenic 1-mile hiking trail through giant redwoods, multiple playgrounds, and opportunities for angling in its lake. For a more family-friendly setting, Arovista Park is an excellent alternative.
Downtown Brea is a lively neighborhood with a mix of businesses, including museums, art galleries, shopping boutiques, and restaurants. History buffs can visit the Brea Museum & Historical Society to delve into the city’s past. Elsewhere, shopaholics will gravitate towards Brea Mall, which houses over 170 specialty stores and boutiques for a fantastic retail therapy session.
Santa Paula is among the best towns in Southern California to visit for a small-town getaway from Los Angeles. Known as the “Citrus Capital of the World,” it sits in the fertile Santa Clara River Valley, surrounded by rolling hills and sprawling lemon, orange, and avocado groves. Steckel Park is one of the best nature spots in Santa Paula, featuring scenic trails, shady picnic areas, barbecue spaces, and 50 campsites along Santa Paula Creek. Exploring the quaint downtown, you will find several sites worth visiting, such as the Santa Paula Art Museum, which features rotating exhibitions of art by regional artists. For airplane enthusiasts, the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula is a must-see, home to the West Coast’s largest collection of antique aircraft. Don't miss the Floating Granite Ball, one of the most photographed sights in Santa Paula.
For a quiet beachside retreat, consider Laguna Beach, a premier weekend getaway spot in the SoCal region. Its picturesque beaches with golden sands have made this small Orange County town famous. Among the several beaches, Table Rock Beach stands out for its serene atmosphere, dramatic cliffs, and stunning sunset views. Crystal Cove State Park, covering over 2,400 acres, offers beautiful trails along the Pacific shores. But Laguna Beach isn’t just about beaches; it boasts a vibrant art scene with over 100 galleries and studios. A tour of the Laguna Art Museum is a great way to experience this, and the famous Sawdust Art Festival is an excellent opportunity to enjoy art, food, and music with locals and tourists alike.
Visiting Solvang, a lovely small community in the Santa Ynez Valley, may remind you of Denmark if you have been there. Established in the early 1900s by Danish settlers, Solvang stands out for its unique old-world European architecture. Its Danish roots are evident in several points of interest, such as the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art. Motorcycle enthusiasts will love the displays at the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, featuring antique bikes from Europe, America, and Japan. Outdoors enthusiasts can enjoy Sunny Fields Park, offering a serene setting with picnic tables and BBQ pits. Alternatively, Hans Christian Andersen Park, named after the iconic Danish author, is another great spot. Be sure to try the Danish pancakes at Paula’s Pancake House before leaving.
With a population of about 10,000, Lake Arrowhead offers a variety of tourist attractions, appealing to all preferences and suitable for every season. Summers are best spent outdoors, with activities such as a relaxed tour of the lake on the Arrowhead Queen Tour Boat. Astronomy enthusiasts can visit the Mountain Skies Astronomical Society & Observatory on clear nights to admire meteor showers. Wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy visiting Wildhaven, where they can learn about and observe species native to the San Bernardino Mountains, including black bears and bald eagles. In winter, the local ski resorts, including Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa, are popular for fun in the snow.
Southern California offers endless possibilities for travelers looking to explore the lower half of the Golden State. With picturesque natural landscapes, impressive historical landmarks, and unique cultural experiences,