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California is always a top vacation destination, but largely because of its big cities and stunning national and state parks. But remember that California is also a huge state with so many diverse and interesting places to explore beyond the top tourist attractions and popular spots. Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten to know the lesser-known parts of California better and have loved exploring the state’s vastly different personalities. Here are eight of my favorite underrated vacation destinations in California that you might want to check out as well!
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San Luis Obispo
Located along the central coast of California, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo is a refreshing small city with a laid-back vibe and lots to see and do. The traffic and prices are much more manageable here than in the big California cities, and there are lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation too. Set up camp at El Chorro Regional Park, hike the trails there, and visit (or even volunteer) at the free botanical garden in the park. In town, you’ll find a rock climbing gym, several great breweries, open mic nights, and Central Coast Theater for improv shows that will make you laugh. It’s also fun to take a drive over to nearby Morro Rock and Oceano to spend some time on the beach. Also, don’t miss the SLO Farmers’ Market, which takes place downtown on Thursday nights and has everything from live music to food vendors, crafts, and games for the kids.
The California town of Mammoth Lakes is popular in the winter because of the world-class ski resort here, but the tiny nearby town of June Lake is also a lovely place to visit. With only a few hundred people, June Lake offers a welcome respite from crowds and stress so you can enjoy the natural beauty of Eastern Sierras. The high-altitude lakes here are stunning in all seasons, and the scenic hiking trails are seemingly endless. Take a kayak or canoe out on June Lake or one of the other nearby lakes here for a peaceful paddle, or hit the trails if you’re prepared for a challenging climb. There are a couple campgrounds to stay at in June Lake, and the whole town is very walkable so you’ll never have to drive. The leaves are colorful in the fall season, but bundle up because it’s often chilly here. Other fun things to do in June Lake are to attend a local festival in the park, visit June Lake Brewing and its food truck, and browse the local shops.
Clio and Graeagle
In a remote and underrated part of California known as the Lost Sierras, and tiny towns of Clio and Graeagle are located in the northwest corner of the state. This is a mountainous and outdoorsy region with tall trees, great hiking trails, and a very laid-back atmosphere. Clio’s River’s Edge RV Park is a great place to stay when you’re in the area to spend as much time outdoors as possible. The towns are very small but you can still find groceries and basic services if you need them. Compared to Clio, Graeagle has more shops to browse, live music at a local bar/restaurant, and the Knotty Pine Tavern to grab a drink. Overall, this region is a wonderful home base to explore alpine lakes and uncrowded high-altitude hiking trails. Make sure to stop by the Brewing Lair, a nearby brewery with an awesome outdoor space with games, trails, and live entertainment.
Many people stay in the California town of Lone Pine to climb to the summit of Mount Whitney, but there are many other reasons to add this place to your travel bucket list too. The Alabama Hills are nearby and one of the top film sites for Western movies that date back several decades. This region is remote and scenic, inviting you to hike for miles and take in the sunset at your own pace. The Alabama Hills are also a great place to set up camp for the night. In the town of Lone Pine, visit the souvenir shops and the Western Film Museum to learn about all of the great movies that were made here.
Located in Southern California, Banning is a nice home base for visiting Joshua Tree National Park and the surrounding areas. It’s also near the Pacific Crest Trail, which you can hike a portion of during your visit and maybe even see a natural display of wildflowers. It’s also fun to visit Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, the mysterious Salton Sea, and the encampment and art installations at Slab City while you’re in this part of the state. If you have time, you can also visit the nearby mountain town of Idyllwild and Palm Springs when you make this your home base.
If you’re looking for a coastal getaway that’s relaxing with a small-town vibe, check out Bodega Bay in Northern California. This town is less than 70 miles from San Francisco but has a much different look and feel. Come here for moody views of the rugged coastline, to go sailing on the water, and to eat delicious seafood. It’s also fun to visit the filming sites of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Birds, and bike along the roads to see the coastal views and stop at the small towns nearby. Point Reyes National Seashore is nearby and certainly worth a visit too.
Fort Bragg is the town next to Mendocino on California’s northern coast. It is home to MacKerricher State Park with its resident birds and seals and also the colorful Glass Beach. You can also hop on-board the Skunk Train, a historic steam locomotive, for a scenic ride here. While you’re in the area, make sure to check out the Mendocino Botanical Gardens, grab a drink at North Coast Brewing, and take plenty of walks along the rugged coast.
For huge redwood and sequoia trees, consider making Arcata your next vacation destination. You’ll feel so tiny while walking among these gentle giants and have lots of hiking trails nearby to explore. Favorite spots in this area include craft beers at Redwood Brewing, hiking the trails at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the gondola ride at Trees of Mystery, and driving through a tree with your very own car!