15 Best Small Towns to Visit in California

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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There are plenty of enviable destination spots in California, but as the third largest of all 50 states, there are a ton of lesser known, out-of-the-way towns.

In fact, the majority of California is comprised of small coastal towns and friendly neighbourhood places high up on the mountain.

The Golden State has a natural and quiet beauty that inspires all visitors to let their cares go and soak up the sun. Let’s have a look at the best small towns to visit in California:

1. Arcata

ArcataSource: humboldtlistings

The perfect microcosm of California as a whole is Arcata. It has a diverse population, is not particularly urban nor particularly rural, and has a varying climate and landscape.

Visitors love the redwood forests, marshlands (take note bird lovers), accessible beaches, and the laid back town square.

Humboldt State University is located there, and although it’s part of the California State University system, it definitely gives off its own hippie vibe – much like Arcata itself.

If you’re looking for family friendly and small town wholesomeness, you’ll love hearing that the entire town will get together to watch the minor league Humboldt Crabs play a few innings.

It was listed on the Hardie House “Ten Most Enlightened Towns,” and you’ll find that strong sense of community that’s missing from big cities.

2. Avalon

AvalonSource: flickr

With a population around 4,000 souls, Avalon is located on Catalina Island. Originally a pre-modern settlement of the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe, it’s now the only incorporated town on the island. – and the southernmost city in Los Angeles County.

Despite its location on the west coast of the United States, Avalon has a distinctively Mediterranean feel.

Homes tucked into hillsides, lush vegetation, and brilliant blue water all play a part of creating this mellow vibe.

An unbelievable one million people visit each year to take part in the spectacular outdoor adventure activities on offer.

There’s also art galleries, boutique shopping, streets lined with gorgeous palms, and restaurants with fabulous food and ocean views.

It’s a popular stop for cruise ships, and thanks to year round moderate temperatures, there’s an actual waiting list to live there.

3. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-SeaSource: flickr

Known simply as Carmel, this is another European-style town located on the Monterey Peninsula.

Known for the historic Carmel Mission, and wonderful libraries and museums, it’s a must-visit for anyone touring the California coast.

The San Carlos Borrmoeo de Carmelo Mission was founded in the 18th century and remains a beautiful and peaceful spot.

Everyone falls in love with the towns cottages – that look like they could have been the inspiration for many Disney fairy tales.

Carmel is the perfect size for exploring by foot, and the white sandy beaches are always a big draw.

The town also boasts beautiful architecture, great food, and plenty of boutique shopping.

Don’t miss the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve where you can spot sea animals and visit the whaling museum.

4. Dunsmuir

Dunsmuir - Hedge Creek FallsSource: flickr
Dunsmuir – Hedge Creek Falls

It’s been described as a serene and secluded mountain paradise. It’s towns like Dunsmuir that keep the rich history of the United States alive. Stroll around the historic district and the old railroad depot to get a glimpse of early 20th century California.

Join the locals for unbelievable rock-climbing, hiking, mountain-biking, skiing, and camping.

Outdoor adventurers love to take a crack at Mt. Shasta, which stands at just over 14,000 feet, and has a forest full of tall Jeffrey ponderosa pine trees.

Dunsmuir has no traffic lights, no parking meters, and well, no traffic! Be sure to visit the Botanical Garden in the city park in order to see Shasta lilies and other native flora.

If you visit during the summer, see if you can catch the annual Tribute to the Trees solstice concert.

5. Ferndale

Ferndale, CaliforniaSource: flickr
Ferndale, California

With less than 1,500 residents, Ferndale is a cosy Victorian village in Humboldt County, California.

Main Street is listed on the National Register of Historic places and has dozens of examples of Victorian homes and buildings.

Many of the buildings have been preserved by turning them in to storefronts, cafes, and art galleries.

With redwood forests on either side it’s a great nature spot.

Drive the five-mile Lost Coast, a spectacular section of pristine coastline or visit Russ Park, a bird sanctuary with Sitka Spruce trees.

6. Grover Beach

Grover Beach, CaliforniaSource: flickr
Grover Beach, California

With a climate so mild it’s impossible to stay away, Grover Beach is a small beach community, right in the centre of the coast.

Boasting 12 months of sunshine, and only 20 inches of rain per year, it’s the perfect place for families looking for the beach lifestyle that made California famous.

The community is diverse, the cost of living affordable, and you’re in close proximity to the mountains, Arroya Grande Valley wine region, and Lope Lake.

You absolutely must visit Monarch Grove when you’re there.

It’s a sanctuary for Monarch butterflies and from November to February each year, they create a fantastic sight that will lighten your heart.

7. Julian

Julian, CaliforniaSource: flickr
Julian, California

Julian got its start as a gold mining town. Hidden in the Cuyamaca Mountains, with exceptional pine and oak stands, this small town in Southern California is known for its apples and history.

Visit the museums, art galleries, and cafés that feature pies and cider from local farmers.

You can even learn to make your own cider.

If you’re traveling with kids you can pick up a History Hunt card from the chamber of commerce and take an exciting tour that includes the Julian jail, pioneer cemetery, and many other fun spots.

When you’re done, take a horse and buggie ride, or mine for gems in one of the shops along Main Street.

For the adults, try a wine tasting that highlights many of the local vineyards.

8. Sonoma

SonomaSource: flickr

Synonymous with California wine country, Sonoma is many things. It’s a historical destination, a foodie paradise, and a nature lovers dream spot.

The historic downtown features a Mexican colonial architecture and the street layout still follows the original plans designed by General Mariano Vallejo.

Considered the birthplace of viticulture in California, and each year residents celebrate the valleys first Zinfandel grape with the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival.

You’ll enjoy the Mission San Francisco Solano (the last Spanish mission in California, the Sonoma State Historic Park, El Pueblo de Sonoma, and the annual international film festival.

9. Nevada City

Camp Augusta, Nevada CitySource: flickr
Camp Augusta, Nevada City

Many consider the entire town of Nevada City to be a historical landmark.

Situated in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s a former gold rush town that’s now an idyllic natural wonder.

Overflowing with charm, Nevada City has carefully preserved the original Victorian architecture first created when the town was the third largest in the state.

It’s regularly named among the best small towns in California, and despite its size, there’s a ton to do here.

Enjoy a stroll through historic downtown, shopping that includes locally made crafts, the annual Bicycle Classic, First Friday Art Walks, and even try some gold panning of your own.

For outdoor lovers, Nevada City has great kayaking, rafting, and boating.

10. El Segundo

El Segundo BeachSource: flickr
El Segundo Beach

There isn’t much about California that’s remote, but El Segundo qualifies. The relaxing beach in this small town doesn’t draw the usual crowd because the waves tend to be a bit rougher here.

Which makes it perfect for those who want an escape. The community there is active and residents take pride in a clean, safe, and accessible town.

11. Ojai

Ojai, CaliforniaSource: flickr
Ojai, California

Another escape from the cities and crowds is Ojai. Ninety miles north of Los Angeles, it makes the perfect nature retreat for city dwellers and vacationers alike.

You’ll fall in love with the Spanish Mission Revival buildings – like the Arcade Plaza, and the Los Padres National Forest, where you can hike around Topa Topa Mountain.

Ojai is known for its citrus groves and high quality organic produce.

If you’re there in the spring, the hint of orange in the air adds a charming touch to small town life.

Visit the farmer’s market (complete with live music) to sample fantastic local produce and if you’re a foodie, try a farm and food tour.

You can visit Regalo Olive Oil Ranch, Friends Ranch, Libby Park, several regional vineyards, and more.

Don’t forget to check out the Ojai Valley Museum as well as the art centre.

12. Montague

Montague - Lavender PlantSource: flickr
Montague – Lavender Plant

Montague was established in the mid 19th century and takes its name from the chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad – an industry vital to the young towns growth.

Part of the appeal there is the American Old West charm and the natural beauty that has been so well preserved.

Located in the Shasta Valley, it’s a favourite destination for hot air balloon lovers.

There’s an annual Balloon Fair and it’s simply gorgeous to see so many balloons floating above the valley floor.

13. St. Helena

St. Helena - Beringer VineyardsSource: flickr
St. Helena – Beringer Vineyards

You’ll be hard pressed to find a livelier or more engaging community than St. Helena. Some call it Napa Valley’s Main Street because it represents the best of what the region has to offer.

The town itself is surrounded by vineyards and Mediterranean-esque hills. Home to the Culinary Institute of America, this is a foodie’s mecca. It’s also something of a literary mecca, and if that’s your world, St. Helena is a virtual who’s who of writers and publishers.

Locals pride themselves on hospitality, fine wine, adventurous cuisine, wellness, and the arts. Enjoy the boutiques, restaurants, and galleries, as well as hiking and biking.

14. Los Alamitos

Los Alamitos MuseumSource: flickr
Los Alamitos Museum

It might seem like an odd combination, but Los Alamitos is famous for sugar beets and water polo.

Originally developed as a sugar beet ranch in the late 19th century, the industry that has grown around the first 8,000-acre farm created the town as it is today.

As for water polo, the USA Water Polo National Aquatic Center is located here and hosts world class athletes who train and compete here year round.

Even the Los Alamitos High School team is nationally ranked.

Spanish and Mexican influence can be seen throughout town and the border to Mexico is quite close.

15. Healdsburg

Healdsburg - Jordan WinerySource: flickr
Healdsburg – Jordan Winery

This is a town that routinely pops up on every ‘Best of” list you can think of. Best of… California, small towns, vineyards, luxury destinations, and old-fashioned charmers.

As one of the jewels in the Sonoma region’s crown, Healdsburg has an edge on sophistication and pampering.

If you want to treat yourself to the best of the best, this is your spot. It’s enchanting and world–class.

Get out-of-doors and visit the Russian River for canoeing, swimming, fishing, boating, and hiking.

Many say that it’s the river that is the secret to Healdsburg’s successful vineyards.

15 Best Small Towns to Visit in California:

  • Arcata
  • Avalon
  • Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • Dunsmuir
  • Ferndale
  • Grover Beach
  • Julian
  • Sonoma
  • Nevada City
  • El Segundo
  • Ojai
  • Montague
  • St. Helena
  • Los Alamitos
  • Healdsburg