California dreaming? 10 cool towns to visit in the Golden State

May 27, 2020

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California is so big, it could almost be a separate country from the rest of the U.S. And in fact, it once was, albeit briefly (for 25 days in 1846). The state flag still says “California Republic,” and there’s so much to see in this vast state beyond Los Angeles and San Francisco. Sure, they’re probably the most iconic cities in the state, but there’s a lot more behind the scenes, as it were.

A vast stretch of land, California encompasses everything from beautiful beaches and imposing mountain peaks to towering redwood forests and seemingly infinite desert vistas. With such diverse topography, it’s really no surprise there are plenty of hidden small towns in the mix worth the detour. From hamlets with a Gold Rush past to charming seaside enclaves, here are the cool California towns you want to include on your next California itinerary.

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Pismo Beach

(Photo by Geri Lavrov/Getty Images)
(Photo by Geri Lavrov/Getty Images)

Pismo Beach, a legendary coastal resort area, is the epitome of California cool and a microcosm of the Golden State with expansive beaches and wineries and even a monarch butterfly preserve. Though the moniker is no longer in use, Pismo Beach used to be called the Clam Capital of the World. One of the most fun things to do here is to rent an ATV to cruise the sand dunes next to the wide Pacific Ocean. Also in San Luis Obispo county but farther north, you’ll find the famous Hearst Castle at San Simeon.

Point Dume in Malibu

Malibu is an affluent, beachfront city in western Los Angeles County, California, United States. As of the 2000 census, the city population was 12,575. Malibu consists of a 21-mile (34 km) strip of Pacific coastline. The community is famous for its warm, sandy beaches, and for being the home of most movie stars and others associated with the entertainment industry.
(Photo by Danita Delimont/Getty Images)

Malibu is essentially a narrow coastal strip some 30 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. But since 1991, it’s existed as an independent city preceded by its reputation for sprawling oceanfront houses and incredible surfing. Angelenos tend to be best acquainted with those parts of the “Bu,” as it’s called, that lie on either side of the Pacific Coast Highway as it cuts across all 21 miles of Malibu. That’s because the kind of real estate that packs in celebrities like Beyoncé and Chris Martin tends to be close to the shore and tough to access.

There are exceptions though, such as Malibu Lagoon State Beach and Zuma Beach. In between, there’s a promontory called Point Dume that contains the priciest properties in Malibu. From atop the bluff, stars such as Barbra Streisand can enjoy some of California’s most spectacular ocean views, but anyone can visit the beaches below: Both the crescent-shaped Dume Cove beach and Big Dume beach are actually part of the California state beach system.

Read more: 9 travel podcasts guaranteed to spark your wanderlust

Mammoth Lakes

(Photo by Nicole Kucera/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nicole Kucera/Getty Images)

Say “Mammoth Lakes” to almost any Californian and the first image that comes to mind is Mammoth Mountain, an iconic ski area and the highest one in the state. The rugged Sierra Nevada mountains are California’s proximate answer to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the main appeal is all-season recreation. Mammoth Lakes has a charming central village in addition to natural draws such as forests, mountain peaks and (you guessed it) lakes.

Devil’s Postpile National Monument is located west of Mammoth Mountain. The monument itself is an unusual formation of basalt rock columns, but the area also includes Rainbow Falls, a 101-foot tall waterfall on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Mammoth Lakes is also a good base from which to set out for Yosemite National Park. The local airport is Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH) and typically has year-round nonstop flights from Los Angeles and seasonal flights from other California cities.

Related: A gondola ride away from the slopes: A review of the Westin Mammoth in California

Carlsbad

(Photo by Sherry Smith/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sherry Smith/Getty Images)

This oceanside city in San Diego County is a perennial family favorite. For starters, there are beautiful beaches like South Carlsbad State Beach and Tamarack Surf Beach, behind which is the popular Carlsbad Sea Wall Walk. Carlsbad is also the home of the Legoland California theme park. There’s also the seasonal Flower Fields celebration at Carlsbad Ranch, which transforms 60 acres of undulating North San Diego County hills into sprawling flights of floral fantasy every spring.

Related: The best beaches in California 

Murphys

(Photo courtesy of Calaveras.com)
(Photo courtesy of Calaveras.com)

Murphys, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Calaveras County, was one of California’s richest “diggins” during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s — hence its former name, Murphys New Diggings. The draw today isn’t gold though. It’s quaint, as you’ll see when strolling down the town’s idyllic little Main Street with its clapboard buildings and white picket fences. But where prospectors and gamblers once mingled in between gold-digging expeditions (fit in a visit to the Old Timers Museum if you can), now winemakers hold sway and there are upwards of two dozen wine-tasting rooms along Main Street and several vineyards in the vicinity. As the so-called Queen of the Sierra, Murphys has a small population of around 2,213, but plenty of homestyle restaurants and cozy country inns. One such is the Murphys Hotel, whose illustrious guests have included Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.

Tahoe City

(Photo by ddub3429/Getty Images)
(Photo by ddub3429/Getty Images)

With an elevation of 6,250 feet, Tahoe City ranks high on California’s snow list. It lies on the western shore of Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America. But with plenty of sunny summer days, this destination is a magnet for visitors all year round. The Granlibakken ski and sledding area is the area’s oldest ski resort and popular with families with onsite rentals.

First-time visitors should consider the classic seven-hour Lake Tahoe Circle Bus Tour, still the ideal way to delve into Lake Tahoe and its rustic history that includes Emerald Bay State Park and Logan Shoals Vista Point. During the summer, the historic lakefront Queen Anne-style Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, built in 1903, provides a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Lake Tahoe wealthy set of yore. The estate is located within Sugar Point State Park, where the world’s tallest pine trees grow.

Related: How to get to Los Angeles on points and miles

Half Moon Bay

(Photo by Erica Davis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Erica Davis/Getty Images)

Its name may only spell half a moon, but this frequently foggy place on the Pacific Coast south of San Francisco is famous as a full-on surfing spot. Just north of Half Moon Bay State Beach is the bluff-backed Mavericks Beach, a renowned site for big wave surfing (particularly in winter) at the tip of Pillar Point. For some sylvan splendor away from the ocean, check out the Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

Ojai

(Photo by hlehnerer/Getty Images)
(Photo by hlehnerer/Getty Images)

Ojai may be less than 90 miles from downtown Los Angeles, but in many respects, it’s a world away. This low-key town, nestled in a setting of rolling hills and oak trees, stood in for the mythical paradise of the 1937 film classic, “Lost Horizon.” Today it’s the ideal destination for those who appreciate an absence of chain stores, fast food and sprawling shopping malls.

Spiritually focused and scenically seductive, this rustic hamlet is where visitors wait for the “pink moment” as the sun sets in the east over the Topa Topa mountains (they really do, and the peaks really do glow pink). Ojai is populated by artisans, actors, architects, those on the cusp of retiring and a number of meditation and music festivals now are staged here.

Avalon

A unique look at the Catalina
(Photo by Matthew Micah Wright/Getty Images)

Avalon, a small resort port on the island of Santa Catalina, is the southernmost city in Los Angeles County. Catalina is one of the eight Channel Islands of California, accessible via ferry ride from Long Beach (about one hour), Dana Point or San Pedro. Much of Avalon developed thanks to the largesse of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. in the 1920s, and the iconic island has a star-studded history. The 1929 Catalina Casino remains a landmark perched at the water’s edge and Lover’s Cove Marine Reserve lures snorkellers year-round. Catalina’s classic glass-bottom boat tours are a touristy but time-honored tradition, popular with families. Much of Avalon clings to the waterfront facing scenic Avalon Bay. A small group tour, such as Catalina Island’s Avalon Scenic Tours operated by the Catalina Island Company, serves as a good introduction to this SoCal town.

Hermosa Beach

(Photo by Sparty1711/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sparty1711/Getty Images)

You probably already know about Santa Monica as well as the famously zany Venice Beach, which is adjacent to it. But the Los Angeles County coastline is pretty vast, meaning there are many other great beachfront areas, too, and one of the best insider spots is compact Hermosa Beach. At just 1.4 square miles, it’s dwarfed by virtually all its neighbors — Venice Beach is north, Palos Verdes to the south and Los Angeles due east — but that’s part of the charm.

Life here revolves around the wide beach, especially popular with surfers and volleyball players. With a pier jutting into the Pacific and a sunny promenade called the Strand that continues to Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach is a popular film location and the epitome of laidback Southern California beach life.

Featured photo by Ed Freeman/Getty Images

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