These remote and surprising spots fly under the radar for even the most well-versed California travellers. From scenic byways to wine country destinations to historic honky-tonks, these locations make great trips for those who like to explore a little off the beaten path. Discover these hidden gems of California on your next trip to the state.
A tranquil lake and an active volcano: Lake Almanor and Lassen Volcanic National Park
Where it is: 160 miles north of Sacramento, in California’s Shasta Cascade
Tucked away in California’s northeast Shasta Cascade region are many secret finds, especially for outdoors lovers. Lake Almanor offers classic lake bliss: water sports, family-friendly activities, and a tranquil ambience.
It also neighbours one of California’s coolest (and most surprising) spots: Lassen Volcanic National Park , with its bubbling mud pots and steaming vents. While the area is most popular during summer, fall brings incredible autumn leaves and winter offers its own version of serenity, with skiing and snowshoeing. Explore it up close on our scenic Volcanoes to the Sea road trip.
A rugged northern coastline perfect for whale-watching: Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands
Where it is: About 140 miles north of San Francisco
Head north to discover the untouched beauty of Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands, containing 1,700 acres filled with dramatic seascapes. The protected lands in Mendocino County are so special, in fact, that President Obama declared them part of the California Coastal National Monument in March 2014. View the rugged coastline from the top of Point Arena’s 115-foot historic lighthouse—the tallest of its kind on the Pacific Coast.
Depending on the time of year, you’ll catch glimpses of humpback, blue, or gray whales coming up for air as they migrate between Alaska and Mexico.
Under-the-radar wine-tasting: Murphys
Where it is: In California’s Gold Country, about 85 miles southeast of Sacramento
California has no shortage of amazing wine country destinations. But if you’re looking for a lesser-known locale for sipping, head to the quaint town of Murphys, where more than two dozen boutique wineries are open year-round for wine-tasting.
Plus, Gold Country has both deep history (thanks to the prospectors) and impressive natural features, like Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Moaning Cavern, the biggest cavern in the Golden State. For a unique place to stay, check out Querencia, a secret-hideaway-style inn overlooking vineyards and
the Sierra foothills.
An epic alpine byway worth a road trip: Sierra Vista Scenic Byway
Where it is: Starts at North Fork, 45 miles from Fresno, and in the geographic centre of California.
If you’re into granite domes, glaciated peaks, and twisty scenic roads with barely any people around, drive this 100-mile stretch of road between Yosemite National Park and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. You’ll immediately get a feel for what California looked like a century ago, and you can embrace the time-machine theme with stops at the Jesse Ross Cabin from the 1860s and Jones’ Store, which still doesn’t have electricity (but does have great pie). Take the drive when you go see the Sierra’s summer wildflowers, or to embark on a classic California rafting adventure.
The craziest trees you’ve ever seen: Gilroy Gardens
Where it is: Gilroy, 40 miles inland from Santa Cruz
The elaborately grafted trees at Gilroy Gardens theme park twist and contort in fanciful ways that you have to see for yourself. The park, in California’s Central Coast, combines a unique adventure in Mother Nature with amusement park rides. The family-friendly theme park features more than 40 rides, many with produce-inspired themes such as the Mushroom Swing, the Artichoke Dip, and (a no-brainer in the Garlic Capital of the World) the Garlic Twirl.
A honky-tonk venue where you can still dance to live country music: Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace
Where it is: Bakersfield, about 110 miles north of Los Angeles Country fans
Put on your boots and head to this Bakersfield venue for live music and dancing that celebrates the rock-meets-country musical style known as the Bakersfield Sound. Country star Buck Owens opened his namesake Crystal Palace in 1996, and today it still boasts a full calendar of music and events. The venue is also home to a museum filled with music memorabilia, much of it from the 1960s, when Owens put his stamp on the music scene.
The Crystal Palace is one of many historic music venues in California—including fellow honky-tonk spot Trout’s. While you’re in Bakersfield, experience the Central Valley city’s other cool features, like its Basque cuisine and the Kern River.
An alpine getaway that makes it possible to surf and ski in the same day: Big Bear Lake
Where it is: In the San Bernardino Mountains, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles
You may have heard the claim that in California, it’s feasible to surf and ski in the same day. Big Bear Lake is a place that makes that possible.
Only a couple hours from both San Diego and Los Angeles in the Inland Empire, Big Bear Lake sits at 6,700 feet/2,000 meters in the San Bernardino Mountains. In the winter, snowboarding and skiing abound at Big Bear
Mountain and Snow Summit; in the summer, it’s all about hiking, cycling, and off-road jeep adventures on the 60-plus miles of cross-country trails. And, of course, paddleboarding, kayaking, boating, or fishing on the shimmering lake.
One of the best spots for stargazing: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Where it is: Borrego Springs, 90 miles northeast of San Diego.
You haven’t seen a night sky until you’ve seen it in the remote Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Surrounded by mountains and with a local focus on eliminating light pollution, this is the first International Dark Sky Community in the Golden State, making it a prime spot for stargazing. During daylight hours, explore the town of Borrego Springs and keep an eye out for the cool statues of other-worldly creatures made by metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda. In late winter and early spring, you’ll see a gorgeous carpet of wildflowers covering the desert.