If you’ve spent any time in California, you’ve likely focused your attention on the big cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — or else well-known beach towns and wine country. California is the most populous U.S. state, so if you’re seeking to escape the crowds and experience the underrated side of this gorgeous state, we’ve found 10 towns well worth a visit. From the far northern coast to the desert, to the far southern mountains, you’ll find a plethora of activities and sights that showcase all California has to offer.
About 300 miles north of San Francisco, in the far northern part of the state in Humboldt County, aka the Lost Coast, lies the charming university town of Arcata. The Humboldt State University campus fosters a progressive yet laid-back vibe here. Tucked between towering redwood forests and majestic, rolling coastal dunes, Arcata is a nature enthusiasts' paradise. Arcata has fantastic hiking through the Arcata Marsh, the Community Forest, and the Hammond Trail, part of the California Coastal Trail. Its coastal dunes offer a unique habitat to explore, with coastal forests, seasonal wetlands, shifting dunes, and the vast Pacific Ocean. Catch a minor league baseball game with the Humboldt Crabs, bike scenic trails, or attend one of the town’s many seasonal events.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, you’ll have no problem satiating your hunger at the variety of restaurants, many of which cater to vegan and other dietary choices. The town caps the number of chain restaurants, so take your pick from a number of locally owned eateries. Quench your thirst at one of the local wineries or microbreweries. Accommodations range from historic hotels to elegant bed & breakfasts to vacation rentals. You can also find accommodations in local yurts, bungalows, and farmhouses.
About 30 miles south of Arcata lies Ferndale, another hidden Lost Coast gem nestled between the ocean and two redwoods-laden state parks. Ferndale is an artists’ haven where you can escape the hustle and bustle in what was previously a dairy town. You’ll see some of the U.S.’ most ornate and fantastically preserved Victorian homes and buildings as you stroll along Ferndale’s streets. Stay in one of the historic hotels or B&Bs, or in a vacation rental. Check out the luxurious 11-room Gingerbread Mansion bed-and-breakfast or the cozy, pet-friendly Shaw House Inn, Ferndale’s first home. Explore art galleries, the Ferndale Museum, and the town’s many historic landmarks, including a cemetery, the Fern Cottage, and the Ferndale Library, which is the last public Carnegie Library in northwestern California.
Now we head inland to artsy and historic Nevada City, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The entire 16-acre downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Surrounded by pretty pine-covered hills, Nevada City is one of the most interesting Gold Rush towns, dating back to 1850. Former U.S. President Herbert Hoover lived and worked in the gold mines here shortly after college graduation in 1895. You can still pan for gold today in one of the many creeks and rivers.
Nevada City is loaded with recreational activities, including world-class kayaking, mountain and road biking, fishing, hiking, and off-road winter and summer adventures. Art and film enthusiasts will enjoy browsing galleries and attending two film festivals, the Nevada City Film Festival in late August and the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in January. Like many of its sister communities in northern California, Nevada City fights hard to hang on to its historical environs — you won’t find any chain restaurants here. Instead, pick from an excellent selection of 20-plus independent restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, wine-tasting rooms, and lively bars. Lodging options include B&Bs, historic hotels, campgrounds, and vacation rentals.
Another interesting fact is the architecture, with the so many Victorian houses:
Which give the city such a romantic feeling.
Now we head back to the coast, about 120 miles south of San Francisco, to romantic, charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. Actor Clint Eastwood not only calls this seaside community home but also served as its mayor from 1986 to 1988, and he owns the restored Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant. Carmel-by-the-Sea has some quirky characteristics, including no street addresses and a ban on shoes with a heel height greater than 2 inches. Don’t worry if you forget and wear your Jimmy Choo heels — reportedly, police don’t enforce the ban. City leaders authorized the ban in 1963 to protect the city from lawsuits due to people tripping over the uneven pavement while wearing heels.
Again, you’ll find no chain restaurants or mega-resorts here, just plenty of quaint restaurants, wine bars, cafes, hotels, and picturesque inns. Carmel is dripping with magnificent scenery and feels more like a European village than a California beach town. Be sure to visit the gorgeous Carmel Beach, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and Carmel Mission Basilica. For a jaw-droppingly beautiful adventure, drive or bike the 17-Mile Drive, which meanders through Pebble Beach golf resorts, splendid forests, and dramatic cliffs along the coast. Shopaholics will love browsing Carmel’s mix of high-end boutiques and gourmet food and wine shops.
A visit to a wine-country town is a must on any California visit, but instead of heading to the wildly popular towns in Napa and Sonoma counties, try Paso Robles. This Central Coast town is almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 30 miles inland and surrounded by more than 250 wineries, olive orchards, ranches, and farms. Meander through boutiques and antique shops and sip your way through the 20-plus winery tasting rooms in Paso Robles’ historic downtown. If visiting a winery is on your list, check out Justin Wine, where you can tour the winery, eat in the on-site restaurant, and stay in one of their suites, villas, or the 12,000-square-foot mansion.
One fun way to explore the town is through Urban Adventure Quest’s downtown scavenger hunt game. And no visit to this part of the state is complete without a trip to nearby Hearst Castle, a National Historic Landmark that was once the opulent home of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
Just a short hop over is another Central Coast, Instagram-worthy seaside and harbor town: Morro Bay. The harbor, which is anchored by a 576-foot-high monolithic volcanic rock, is a natural refuge for marine life such as harbor seals, otters, sea lions, and seabirds. Unlike in many coastal California towns, where crashing waves hammer beaches, you can standup paddleboard, sail, and kayak within the calm estuary and protected harbor. Drift around on a shared or private dinner cruise, or take a guided boat tour of the bay and out to sea to view whales, sea lions, otters, and more. If you prefer to stay on land, pack a picnic lunch and stroll along the broad three-mile Morro Strand State Beach.
Morro Bay is also home to the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum, where you can learn about skateboarding’s history from the 1920s to the present day. Morro Bay offers more affordable accommodations than many California coastal towns, with several overlooking the water, such as the delightful Back Bay Inn. When you’re ready to be wined and dined, Windows on the Water, the Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, or the new Port House offer fantastic bay views and fresh seafood.