Editor’s note: As communities re-open after their COVID-19-related closures, keep in mind that some parks, businesses, and attractions may still be closed or have new protocols in place. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you visit and check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub.
California is famous for iconic cities, popular beaches, and must-see amusement parks. But with 164,000 square miles of real estate, the Golden State also has plenty of smaller-scale destinations too. In these little villages, “traffic” means a brief wait at one of the few stop lights in town and “busy” is a foreign concept.
A reminder that good things come in small packages, each of these towns is filled with sweet surprises. Think unique architecture, cozy farm-to-table restaurants, shockingly good potables, and shops selling “where did you get that” gifts. Visit one or more of these tiny towns on your next road trip, listed north to south.
In the shadow of majestic Mount Shasta on the upper Sacramento River sits the alpine town of Dunsmuir. Dubbed “home of the best water on earth,” Dunsmuir is known for its proximity to picture-perfect waterfalls like Hedge Creek, where a large cave allows you to explore behind the falling water. Balance your chakras at The Sacred Well, a family-owned crystal shop, and explore work from local artisans at Siskiyou Arts Museum. Once home to a bustling roadhouse, Dunsmuir retains its iron horse history: See for yourself at the Dunsmuir Railroad Depot and spend the night in a boxcar at Railroad Park Resort.
A 90-minute drive from the Oregon border, this Humboldt County fishing village is marked by seaside cliffs and redwood groves. Book a stay at one of the maritime-themed bed-and-breakfasts like Lost Whale or Trinidad Inn and you may end up spotting marine life from your balcony. Spend your mornings hiking around Patrick’s Point State Park or strolling along Trinidad Pier. Stop by Seascape Restaurant for a charbroiled cod sandwich while you watch the boats come in hauling the daily catch. Take home a taste of the ocean with some kippered salmon at Katy’s Smokehouse and browse the shelves at Windansea to add to your shell collection.
Where the forest meets the sea🏄♂️🌲 @jamesadamtaylor absolutely sending it with this capture🤙📷 #humboldtcounty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . #lostwhale #lostwhaleinn #humboldt #humbledbyhumboldt #oceanview #cliffside #wander #wanderlust #getoutside #exploretocreate #findyourpark #exploremore #pnw #pnwonderland #forest #surf #winterspecials #comevisit #bedandbreakfast #inn #bandb #california #norcal #redwoodcoast
Tucked up in the Northern Sierras sits the sleepy town of Graeagle. A onetime logging community, Graeagle (pronounced “gray eagle”) has plenty of historic charm. The downtown is lined with distinctive little red buildings featuring pitched green roofs. The former company houses for workers at the town sawmill are now home to unique shops and eateries like Mille’s Ice Cream & Coffee Co. Play a round at one of the town’s half-dozen golf courses with stunning mountain backdrops. Visit Red House Art to purchase a unique print or head to The Brewing Lair to enjoy a taster among the pines. Explore mining history at Plumas-Eureka State Park and take a brisk dip at Lakes Basin.
A gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, Three Rivers is nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The town is known for its unparalleled access to outdoor adventures like redwood gazing, whitewater rafting, cave exploration, and waterfall hikes. Downtown also offers plenty of civilized delights: Saddle up to the bar at Three Rivers Brewing to taste the honey wheat–style suds, stock up on old-timey sweets at Reimers Candies, buy a dreamcatcher (and a pulled-pork sandwich) at Totem Market & Gift, and shop for handmade soap and leathercraft at Gathered in Three Rivers. While you’re there, send your family a postcard from Kaweah Post Office—at 12' x 15', it’s the smallest such outlet operating in the country.
The Kaweah Post Office is one of the USA's smallest and oldest still-operating post offices, now staffed by volunteers. Visitors can peer inside at any time of day to see the original details and ornate mail boxes. The charming, picturesque post office building was constructed by local ranchers and residents in 1910 to give a permanent home to the mail service established in 1890 for the Kaweah Colony. The building, which measures only 12 by 15 feet in size, was constructed of local cedar and redwood. I love the worn steps and floors. You wonder how many people have climbed those steps and tred those floors to see what was in their P.O. Box., maybe happy news, perhaps sad news, and most likely what we all find in our mail...bills. #kaweahpostoffice #kaweah #threerivers #vintagepostoffice #sierranevada #sierranevadafoothills #californiaisbeautiful #californiathroughmylens #visitcalifornia #california_igers #viewsfromcalifornia #explorecalifornia #californiacaptures #visitcalifornia #gocalifornia #discovercalifornia #myhomeiscalifornia #loves_california #californiaexplored #explorecalifornia #californiabackroads #photo_hitchhiker #backroad_visions #ipulledoverforthis #rustlord_unity #hey_ihadtosnapthat #picturetokeep_rural #Renegade_rural #enjoylifeoutside #everything_home_front
The northern entry point to the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos is surrounded by vineyards and fruitfulness. Along the seven-block-long downtown stretch, you can enjoy the valley’s bounty with an Old West backdrop. Stop in one of the half-dozen tasting rooms like Lo-Fi where you can choose a record to spin as you sip. Fill up on freshly baked toast topped with house-made ricotta at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery or try creative seasonal dishes crafted by two Per Se alums at Bell’s. Browse well-curated antiques at Sisters Gift and Home and do some vino-fueled hunting at Los Alamos Depot Mall Antiques & Pub.
Find laid-back island living just 22 miles off the coast of Long Beach. One of two towns on Catalina Island, the little town of Two Harbors is less buzzy than its sister Avalon. Get there via high-speed boat or take ground transport from Avalon. Bring hiking shoes to explore the seaside bluffs and watch the local bison that roam free. Rent gear from Two Harbors Dive Shop to kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or scuba dive. Take a trip through time at Two Harbors General Store and dig into a cheeseburger at Doug’s Harbor Reef Restaurant. Spend the night at the rustic Banning House Lodge or camp in the cute-as-button Catalina Cabins.
Pioneertown was established by old-Hollywood actor Dick Curtis, who dreamed of building a “living, breathing movie set” near Joshua Tree National Park. In the 1940s and 1950s, dozens of Old West movies and television shows were filmed amidst the “downtown” area’s faux-1880s facades. Visitors today can still experience the Western splendor. Stay at Pioneertown Motel, originally built by Roy Rogers; shop at MazAmar Art Pottery and the surprisingly chic Pioneertown General Store, and drink in the local culture at the renowned music venue Pappy & Harriet’s.
One hour east of downtown San Diego sits a historic mining town with one very sweet claim to fame. The town of Julian is famous for its apple pie, stuffed high with fruit picked fresh from surrounding orchards. Find your favorite slice at Julian Pie Company or Mom’s Pie House, then wash it down with some golden elixir from Julian Cider Mill and grab a jug to take home. Get a sense of underground history at Eagle Mining Co. For a one-of-a-kind experience, head to the California Wolf Center where you can meet grey wolves and learn about conservation efforts to protect this species.