Everyone knows about California’s most popular places to visit including: San Francisco, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Napa and LA, good reason. But, there are so many fantastic parks and small towns in California, from Northern to Southern that are fantastic to visit. Here are a list of 10 California locations that are a great alternative to some of the more popular destinations.
Napa Valley is incredible, but also can be crowded and expensive. Consider Healdsburg if you want the authentic Sonoma County experience but in a smaller, more quaint environment. I’ve been to Healdsburg both in the summer and winter and have loved it both times. My favorite restaurant is Barn Diva, but for beer lovers Bear Republic is great for a casual meal and some stellar beer. We did an amazing self-guided bike tour of the valley from winery to winery using bikes from Wine Country Bikes it was so much fun.
Bodega Bay is gorgeous, with its rugged beauty and chilly water that are a far cry from Southern California’s crowded beaches. Its the perfect spot for a hike and a picnic. Driving up the coast to get there is also beautiful. For ideas on activities and check out this day trip guide from This Is My Happiness.
Tahoe gets the majority of the press (and rightly so) but Donner Lake just west of Lake Tahoe is a charming, small sierra lake with somewhat of a morbid history (you can read about the Donner Party by clicking on the photo which will take you to the Wikipedia page). Donner Lake has some fantastic hiking in both summer and winter – see this post from Escape Reno about hiking in the winter at the Donner Train Tunnels. Its also close to ski resorts and for people coming from the Bay Area its closer than trekking all the way to Lake Tahoe.
Mendocino is on the coast of California, 150 miles north of San Francisco. With rugged coastline and lush redwood forest, this part of California gets a lot of rain. There are many things to do such as visiting some of the areas beaches including Glass Beach, which is famous for its sea glass. Check out nearby wineries, redwood forests and hiking and much more. This is Happiness did a great post on 30 things to do in the Mendocino area that I recommend checking out. Also check out this post on Glass Beach.
Paso Robles which is about three hours south of San Francisco on the central coast is another town that has become more famous for its incredible wines, but the area also boasts nearby hiking, Morro Bay, breweries, and more. For an entire post on Paso Robles that I did recently click here.
Cambria is a central California coastal town at the gateway to Big Sur (the southern part). Recently, we stayed in Cambria at the El Colibri Hotel and Spa and had fun walking on the wood plank walkway that goes all the way to the beach. Cambria is quaint and fairly quiet, especially in the off season and during the week, and it has wine tasting rooms, restaurants and a wind-swept beach. Its also a short drive to the famous Hearst Castle and its a fantastic place to stay before exploring Big Sur.
Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks
Yosemite gets a lot of the press, but it also get the crowds. Last year Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park combined received 1.7 Million visitors to Yosemite’s over Five Million. These two parks are side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley. These parks are home to huge mountains, rugged foothills, vast canyons and caverns and the world’s largest trees. Here’s a great site with tips on hiking the national parks.
Solvang is about 45 minutes northeast of Santa Barbara off the 101. Its a great location to use as a launching point for visiting some of Santa Ynez’ amazing wineries. Solvang was founded in 1911 by a group of Danes who traveled west from the midwest to establish a Danish colony. The city is home to a number of bakeries, restaurants, and businesses and the architecture of the buildings reflects traditional Danish style. There is a copy of the famous Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen. Solvang is filled with lots of great Winery Tasting Rooms. You could literally do an entire day of tasting just walking around the town (score, no DD needed!). As an added bonus, I’ve noticed that most of the hotels provide free tasting coupons for some of the local tasting rooms. There are a lot of great boutique hotel options, check out the modern Scandinavian designed Landsby Hotel.
San Juan Capistrano
Located in Orange County, San Juan Capistrano is a beautiful town with a lot of history. The Mission San Juan Capistrano founded in 1776 is known as the “crown jewel” of the missions. In addition to visiting the Mission, check out the Los Rios District that has historical buildings with restaurants, coffee shops and more. The city has a great Facebook page with lots of information on sights, where to eat and more.
Encinitas in North San Diego County has it all — incredible beaches, a vibrant downtown area with coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars and beer tap rooms. It also has a state beach camping spot called San Elijo that I did a full post on – check out this post for more information. Encinitas is also known for its more laid back vibe, and while it gets lots of summer visitors, it pales in comparison to some of the beach towns in San Diego like La Jolla, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. Its also just 10 minutes to Legoland.