10 Amazing Hidden Gems in California
Famous cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are the first places that people think of when thinking about California, and stereotypes come to mind about beach blondes or surfer guys, images reinforced by Hollywood movies time and again. However, as wonderful as the cities are, there is so much more to California waiting to be discovered.
Rent your own car and get ready to veer off the beaten path to discover forests and beaches so far removed from civilization that you will feel like they were made just for you! Spend some time getting to know the real California, rich in history and natural resources and breathtakingly beautiful.
It will give you an entirely new appreciation for the state aside from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood or the artsy quirks of San Francisco. So buckle up, bring your camera and get ready to discover a few places perhaps not in your guidebooks, but very much worth the time.
Check out our recommendations for the best hidden gems in California!
1. Fort Bragg
Tucked away along the spectacular Mendocino Coast, Fort Bragg is about three hours north of San Francisco off of Highway 1. A former army garrison built during the American Civil War, it boasts a spectacular Northern California coastline with views of the Pacific Ocean. Fort Bragg has a pleasant, mild climate all year and is perfect for a few days getaway.
While there, be sure to take a walk along Glass Beach, a former glass dump site that is now a fascinating state beach. It might not sound like much, but over time, the ocean has refined the glass to create beautiful sea glass that now sparkles on the shore. Don’t take any with you, though, because it is a state beach. You should also stroll along the coast at MacKerricher State Park – keep your eyes peeled for tide pools and seals! You can also take a ride on the historic Skunk Train or ride a horse along the beach. It’s a perfect, out of the way Northern California seaside getaway.
2. Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach is located on the Central Californian Coast, an area often overlooked by those touring the state who focus on either the San Francisco Bay Area or the LA Basin but that is not without its own hidden gems. The area was named after the Chumash word for tar, “Pismu”, which was gathered in a nearby canyon. The Spanish were the first Europeans to travel through the area, at the time called “Alta California”, which has been inhabited by westerners since then.
This long, wide beach is beautifully surrounded by cliffs and the expansive Pacific Ocean. Digging for clams was once a popular activity that is still permitted, and you’ll occasionally see both people and sea otters off searching for a meal. Try skim boarding in the ocean, but remember to wear a wetsuit as the water is a little cold. Or, check out Dinosaur Caves Park and browse the local Pismo Beach Farmers market for a snack. Let the ocean breeze refresh you and the waves relax you.
3. Redwoods in Arcata
Located in Humboldt County, Arcata is adjacent to Arcata Bay and home to Humboldt State University. A former logging town, Arcata survived the flux of the industry to resist becoming a ghost town and the university has kept it busy. Except for the townspeople and students, very few people stop in to visit this charming town, even though they pass right by when visiting the iconic Californian redwoods.
One of the big attractions of Arcata is its proximity to the Redwoods National Forest. With the bay to one side, with spectacular Pacific Ocean views, and the majestic redwoods to the other, the town is surrounded both ocean and forest. Explore the coastline or hike through the trails winding among the redwoods. Once back in town, have a coffee in the Plaza, the heart of Arcata. In the past, it was where goods were shipped out on mule trains. Now, enjoy the green grass and restored historic buildings, like the Pythian Castle, or hit the beach!
4. Point Reyes
Point Reyes is a cape off the Pacific coast in Marin County, just 30 miles north of San Francisco on the Point Reyes Peninsula. A beautiful stretch of seashore and coastline, the cape protects Drakes Bay on the southern side and was first named Punto de los Reyes (King’s Point) by the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino when he anchored in Drakes Bay, a name which has survived to this day.
Head up to Point Reyes to hit the trails – there are many popular hiking routs along the cliffs offering great exercise and perfect views. You can also take a kayak out at Tomales Bay! Enjoy the vistas from the Point Reyes Lighthouse lookout point, and bring binoculars if you’re into birdwatching; the seashore boasts some of the best birdwatching in the United States. You should also keep an eye out for elephant seals if you’re here in the winter. Grab a bite or put your feet up at Inverness, a small picturesque community lucky enough to be located in this stunning environment.
5. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
More commonly known as Point Lobos, this beautiful stretch of coast is located just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, along the north end of Big Sur. A local engineer, Alexander Allen, purchased a large part of the land in 1933 to prevent its development, which has allowed the longstanding wildlife protection and seascape to remain well-preserved and open today for your visit.
Bring your hiking shoes and explore the trails that follow the ocean and remember to enjoy the fresh, salty, pine scented air. There are also a few beaches that are simply peaceful and relaxing, as well ideal for scuba diving! Visit the whaling museum and see the historic building once used by local fisherman, or go kayaking or swimming to get more acquainted with the marine life – sometimes you’ll see sea otters floating on their backs as you pass them by!
6. Mammoth Lakes Hot Springs
Mammoth Lakes is a beautiful tourist destination today, but thousands of years ago, a volcano exploded, creating the terrain that we enjoy now, and leaving behind a network of hot springs. Several of these have been developed for safe use, mostly located between Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes and awaiting your visit.
Stop in at the almost-ghost town of Benton to find nine hot springs awaiting your soaking pleasure, all filled with pure spring water. Use the taps to control the temperate and spend a day or two relaxing here at the Old House and Inn! You can also enjoy views of the Sierra Nevada while you relax in a hot spring at Travertine Hot Springs, off U.S. 395. You can camp nearby for the ultimate outdoor experience. Relax in any of these natural Jacuzzis and enjoy the relaxation while surrounded by beautiful nature at this true gem of a California nature getaway!
7. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is located in the White Mountains in a protected area of Inyo County. Home to the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, these trees grow in the Inyo National Forest between 9,800 – 11,000 feet above sea level, along with Foxtail Pines, and are far older than most other things found in California.
Visit this impressive, distant wilderness and follow the Methuselah Grove trail along its 4.5 mile loop to explore the grove where the tree “Methuselah” stands. Scientists have determined that it is 4,848 years old! It has not been marked to avoid vandalism, but the trail keeps you close by. Open from mid-May to end of November, this ancient forest is well worth the visit.
8. Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Preserve
Located on the Central Californian Coast, Piedras Blancas has become a curious attraction over the past few decades. In the fall of 1990, over 20 northern elephant seals were seen in the cove near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. Since then, they’ve returned each year, and always with more elephant seals to enjoy this beautiful beach!
Visit any time during the year, but the best times are in late January, late April or late October to see over 15,000 elephant seals resting on this secluded beach. Docents will provide you with any information about these curious creatures, and you can see them up close and personal! Don’t forget to bring your camera and enjoy the ocean background and these popular seasonal visitors at Piedras Blancas!
9. Franceschi Park
Located at the heart of Santa Barbara’s Riviera, Franceschi Park is named after a noted Italian horticulturalist, Francesco Franceschi. He imported plants from around the world and planted them in Santa Barbara to his garden and building the house in which he resided that is now at the center of these gardens.
While the house is a bit run down, the 15 acre park is crisscrossed by trails, and boasts many high vistas from which to observe the town below. The views extend out to the ocean, and are beautiful even if the streets below are shrouded in fog. Bring a book or a camera to enjoy the peace and quiet of this out of the way park, filled with interesting plans and a curious old house. Getting off the beaten path can be rewarding sometimes, and this Santa Barbara gem is no exception.
10. Badwater Basin in Death Valley
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, about 282 feet below sea level. Located in Death Valley, this sinkhole is consisted of a small spring-fed pool that is tainted with salts from the surrounding basins, making it undrinkable and adding to the unique physical appearance of the basin. Many people feel they have been transported to another planet when they see the basin stretching out before them, covered by the salt crust cut into hexagonal honeycomb shapes from the constantly evaporating water.
Come visit this curious corner of the world and bring your camera – there is animal and plant life existing in the pool, such as pickleweed and the Badwater snail. Check out the sign marking “sea level” on the cliffs overlooking the Badwater Basin, and take care if you decide to cross the salt flats as it can be just a thin white crust over mud. Enjoy the biodiversity present and unique salt flats of the Badwater Basin – bring your own camera and bottle of water!