When you think of California, what comes to mind? The Pacific Coast, the sunny beaches, and bustling cities?
Well, while all these are iconic destinations that should be on everyone’s travel bucket list, plenty of lesser-known gems and secret spots are scattered throughout the Golden State.
From majestic mountain peaks to picturesque riverside villages, here are ten incredible hidden gems in California!
1. Redwoods in Arcata
The Redwoods of Arcata is a must-see for anyone who wants to experience one of the oldest living ecosystems on earth. These magnificent trees are some of the tallest and oldest living organisms in the world, with some dating back more than 2,000 years.
The redwood forest provides a stunning backdrop for hikes, picnics, and wildlife watching. Several tree species exist, including the Coast Redwood, Douglas fir, and Western Hemlock.
The History of the Redwoods
The redwoods have a long and fascinating history. They were once part of a vast forest that stretched from California to Alaska. However, the rise of human civilization and the demand for timber led to widespread logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This reduced the forest to less than 10% of its original size. Fortunately, recent conservation efforts have helped protect these magnificent trees and allow them to thrive again.
The Importance of the Redwoods
The redwoods are an essential part of our planet’s ecosystem. They help to regulate the global climate and are home to a wide variety of plant and animal life. The trees also play an important role in soil stabilization and water filtration. In short, they are essential to life on Earth as we know it.
Solvang is a small town located in Santa Barbara County. The town has a rich Danish history and culture, which is evident in the architecture and food. There are plenty of things to see and do in Solvang, making it the perfect place for a weekend getaway!
One of the most iconic things about Solvang is the historic windmills. These windmills were once used to power the town, but now they are just a tourist attraction. There are four windmills, two of which you can go inside and learn about their history.
The Elverhøj Museum
To learn more about Solvang’s Danish heritage, you must visit the Elverhøj Museum. This museum has exhibits on Danish culture, art, and history. There is also a beautiful garden on the property that is definitely worth checking out!
Sample the Local Food
Since Solvang is known for its Danish food, you need to sample some of the local cuisines while in town! Some of the most popular dishes include æbleskiver (a type of pancake), frikadeller (Danish meatballs), and kringle (a type of pastry). Yum!
Atascadero, CA is a charming small town on California’s central coast. This hidden gem surprises visitors, from its world-class wineries to its expansive state parks. Downtown Atascadero is full of local shops, restaurants, and craft breweries worth exploring.
Visit a winery or two (or three…)
Atascadero has many family-owned wineries that offer visitors a unique tasting experience. For a comprehensive list of Atascadero’s wineries, click here. Many of these wineries offer stunning views of the surrounding countryside, so be sure to bring your camera!
Explore one of Atascadero’s state parks.
Atascadero is fortunate to have several state parks within its city limits. Morro Bay State Park offers visitors plenty of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, with hiking trails (bring good hiking boots!), a golf course, a kayak, and paddleboard rentals. El Chorro Regional Park is perfect for picnics and features a popular dog park. And don’t forget about Atascadero Lake Park – besides its scenic walking trails, the park also offers fishing, biking, and birdwatching opportunities.
Stroll through downtown Atascadero.
Downtown Atascadero is filled with local shops and restaurants worth exploring. Stop by The Goat House for some farm-fresh ice cream, browse the art galleries on Colony Street, or grab a bite to eat at one of downtown’s many eateries. And if you’re looking for local craft beer, look no further than The Hive Taproom & Brewery. Trust us – you won’t be disappointed!
4. San Juan Bautista
San Juan Bautista is a small town located in the hills of central California. It is best known for its Spanish mission, one of California’s best-preserved missions. The town has a population of just over 2,000 people and is a great place to visit if you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
San Juan Bautista Mission
The San Juan Bautista Mission was founded in 1797 by Father Fermin Lasuen. It is the 15th Spanish mission in California and is located just off Highway 101. The mission is open to the public and offers tours seven days a week. Visitors can also explore the surrounding grounds, which include a cemetery, gardens, and a small museum.
Plaza Park & Old Town Hall
Located in the center of town, Plaza Park is a great place to take a break from sightseeing. The park features a fountain, benches, and several historic buildings, including the Old Town Hall. Built in 1856, the Old Town Hall served as the town’s government center until 1975. Today, it houses a museum with exhibits on the history of San Juan Bautista.
Gilroy Premium Outlets
For shoppers looking for a bargain, the Gilroy Premium Outlets are located just a short drive from San Juan Bautista. The outlets feature over 130 stores, including Nike, Forever 21, and Coach. There are also several restaurants on-site, making it the perfect place to spend a day if you’re looking for some retail therapy.
5. Mono Lake
When most people think of California, they think of the beaches, Hollywood, and wine country. But there is so much more to this incredible state! Mono Lake is a great choice if you’re looking for an adventure off the beaten path.
This extraordinary lake is located in the eastern Sierra Nevada and is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery in California. Mono Lake is a nature lover’s paradise with its incredible wildlife, unique geological features, and incredible moonrises.
One of the best things to do in Mono Lake is to watch wildlife. The lake is home to an abundance of migratory birds, including gulls, ospreys, and eagles. You might even spot a rare California Gull! In addition to its feathered residents, the lake is also home to several fish species, including Lahontan cutthroat trout and tui chub. Keep your eyes peeled, and you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of these amazing creatures!
Unique Geological Features
Another reason to visit Mono Lake is to see its unique geological features. The most notable feature is undoubtedly the tufa towers. Tufa towers are formed when freshwater springs mix with the salty water of the lake, creating limestone deposits that eventually rise out of the water. These strange and beautiful formations are definitely worth seeing in person!
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting Mono Lake during a full moon, make sure to stay up late to see the Incredible moonrise! The lake is located in a high desert area, meaning there is very little light pollution. This makes for some of the most spectacular stargazing you’ll ever experience. Make sure to bring your camera so you can capture this once-in-a-lifetime event!
Nestled on the northern coast of California, Mendocino is a beautiful village that offers visitors plenty of activities and sights to enjoy. From its stunning coastline to its historic buildings, Mendocino is the perfect place to get away and relax.
History and Architecture
Mendocino was founded in 1850 and has a rich history. Many of the buildings in the village date back to the 19th century and are beautifully preserved. Visitors can stroll through the streets and admire the architecture of Mendocino’s historic buildings. The Mendocino Headlands State Park is also worth a visit. The park offers stunning views of the ocean, coastline, and hiking trails.
Mendocino is blessed with natural beauty. In addition to its gorgeous coastline, the village is surrounded by tall redwood trees. Visitors can hike through the Redwood Forest or go for a drive along Highway 1 to admire the scenery. There are also plenty of opportunities for whale watching, birdwatching, and fishing in Mendocino.
Mendocino is also known for its delicious local cuisine. The village has several restaurants serving fresh seafood and other locally sourced ingredients. Visitors can also sample some of Mendocino’s award-winning wines and craft beers. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the area’s culinary delights!
Tucked away in the Cuyamaca Mountains is the charming town of Julian, known for its apple pies, stunning mountain views, and unique gold-rush history. This quaint town is the perfect getaway for relaxing and enjoying old-fashioned charm.
One of the best things about Julian is its small-town feel. You won’t find any chain restaurants or stores here—just mom-and-pop shops and local businesses. Be sure to stop by Julian Pies for a slice of their famous apple pie (it’s even worth the drive from San Diego!).
Other local favorites include Mom’s Country Kitchen, Candied Apple Pastry Company, and Mr. Manitas Breads. For something different, try the mineral springs at Julian Mineral Company—they’re said to have healing properties!
Gold Rush History
Julian was founded during the height of the California Gold Rush in 1869. What started as a small mining camp quickly grew into a thriving town with over 2,000 residents. These days, you can learn all about Julian’s gold-rush history at the Julian Mining Company and Eagle & High Peak Mine.
You can even pan for gold at Eagle & High Peak Mine! It’s a fun activity for kids and adults alike. And be sure to check out The Legend of Julian—a musical melodrama that tells the story of two star-crossed lovers during the gold rush. It’s performed every Saturday night at the Town Hall Theater.
In addition to its charming shops and rich history, Julian is also known for its breathtaking mountain views. Make sure to take a drive up Volcan Mountain or Cuyamaca Peak for some of the best views in San Diego County. Or go for a hike on one of Julian’s many trails—the William Heise County Park is a great option if you’re looking for an easy hike with incredible views.
8. Point Reyes National Seashore
Located just north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is home to some of the most beautiful beaches and lagoons in California.
This stunning coastline is definitely worth a visit for its breathtaking views, excellent wildlife, and many other reasons. Here are the eight best reasons to put Point Reyes National Seashore on your travel list.
The Breathtaking Views
Point Reyes offers some of the most breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean that you’ll find anywhere in California. Take in the fresh sea air and magnificent scenery as you hike along the coast or relax on one of the beaches. Whether you’re looking for a place to watch the sunrise or sunset, this is definitely the spot.
Point Reyes is an excellent place to see some of California’s amazing wildlife. The area is home to a variety of animals, including deer, coyotes, turtles, and many different kinds of birds. There are also several whale-watching tour operators located nearby, so you might even be able to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures while you’re here.
Whether you’re looking for a place to sunbathe, swim, surf, or just take a leisurely stroll, Point Reyes has a beautiful beach for you. Some of the more popular beaches include Limantour Beach, Kehoe Beach, and Drakes Beach. Just be sure to come prepared with sunscreen and plenty of water, as it can get pretty warm during summer.
In addition to its beautiful beaches, Point Reyes is also home to several stunning lagoons. These idyllic spots are perfect for picnicking, birdwatching, or just relaxing and taking in the scenery. Some of the most popular lagoons include Tomales Bay State Park and Bolinas Lagoon Preserve.
The Hiking Trails
There are dozens of hiking trails throughout Point Reyes National Seashore, so there’s sure to be one perfect for your fitness level and interests.
Whether you want an easy hike with stunning ocean views or a more challenging trek through dense forest vegetation, you’ll find it here.
9. Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs
If you’re looking for a place to relax and rejuvenate after a long day of exploring, Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs is the perfect spot. Located in the eastern Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs is fed by a natural spring that produces mineral-rich water perfect for soaking. The hot springs are open year-round and offer a variety of activities for visitors to enjoy.
What makes Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs so special?
Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs is unique because of its location and geology. The hot springs are located in Long Valley Caldera, a volcanic crater that was formed approximately 760,000 years ago.
The crater is now filled with crystal-clear water from rain and snowmelt, which makes for a perfect soaking experience. In addition, the hot springs sit at an elevation of 7,500 feet above sea level, offering stunning views of the Sierra Nevada mountain – a hidden gem in California!
The Sunset Pool is a large, heated pool located at the Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs. It features an infinity edge that overlooks picturesque views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, making it a great spot to relax and watch the sunset. The pool also features underwater seating, so you can stay cool while soaking in the warm water.
The Moonlit Pool is a smaller, warmer pool located at the Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs. It’s perfect for a romantic evening, as it’s lit up with LED lights that reflect off the water and create an ethereal atmosphere. Oh, and don’t forget the night sky! The pool also features seating beneath the surface of the warm water, so you can stay cool while still enjoying its calming effects.
What You Should Bring
When visiting the hot springs, be sure to bring your swimsuit, towel, and water shoes. You will also need to bring your own food and drink as there are no concessions at the hot springs. Finally, remember to pack your camera so you can capture stunning views!
10. Bodie Ghost Town
Bodie Ghost Town is a living reminder of the California Gold Rush. Located in Eastern Sierra Nevada, the town was once home to 10,000 people and was said to be one of the most lawless places in the country during its heyday.
Today, Bodie Ghost Town is a preserved state park that offers visitors an interesting glimpse into the past. The park is open year-round, with plenty to do and see while visiting.
What to Expect When You Visit Bodie Ghost Town
When you visit Bodie Ghost Town, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The town is well preserved, and it’s easy to imagine what it would have been like to live there during the gold rush days.
There are plenty of things to do while you’re visiting, including taking a tour of the town, visiting the museum, panning for gold, and shopping in the stores. You can also just wander around and explore on your own. Keep in mind that some buildings are off-limits to visitors, but there’s still plenty to see.
Visiting During Winter Months
If you’re visiting during the winter months, keep in mind that Bodie ghost town is located at a high elevation and can be snowed in. It’s always a good idea to check the weather forecast before you travel. Also, be sure to bring warm clothes and comfortable shoes since you’ll be doing a lot of walking while you’re there.
Overall, Bodie Ghost Town is a great place to visit if you want an exciting and educational experience. Whether you’re curious about the history of the Gold Rush or just want to explore a unique destination, this place is definitely worth checking out! You won’t regret visiting this incredible piece of history.
The Golden State is full of incredible places to explore and visit, from the Pacific Coast Highway and the Redwoods in Arcata to Bodie Ghost Town. With its stunning landscapes, sandy beaches, diverse wildlife, and rich culture, there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for adventure or relaxation, you’ll find plenty of amazing things to do in this beautiful state. So be sure to add some of the places mentioned above to your list of must-see destinations in California!