6 under-the-radar travel spots to visit in California

Golden State hidden gems: 6 underrated travel destinations in California

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Last updated May 10, 2024.

LA, San Francisco, Tahoe, Yosemite, Napa—y’all get plenty of love, and for good reason. But today’s post is dedicated to underrated travel destinations in California that might not have been on someone’s radar otherwise.

Between living in California and Florida, I’ve spent most, if not all, of my life in tourist hotspots and high-traffic areas. And while I get plenty of time to escape when I travel overseas, it’s nice to be able to explore my home state without having to wander far or spend too much.

California is well known for its memorable beaches, multiple iconic cities, and sprawling vineyards. While a blessing, it’s easy to see how lesser-known places may not get the same attention, even if they’re equally deserving.

Places like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles draw millions of tourists each year. Still, so many hidden gems throughout the Golden State offer unique experiences away from crowds and congested roads.

If you’re up for some adventure, then you’ll enjoy these 6 underrated travel destinations we’re about to uncover.

6 underrated travel destinations in California

1. Mendocino Coast

6 underrated travel destinations in California - Mendocino Coast
Point Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County. Photo by Phillip Gwin.

So much of California’s shoreline is beautiful, but the stretch of Mendocino Coast is simply breathtaking. It’s a serene escape from city life with dramatic sea cliffs, rolling fog, and whispering redwood trees reminiscent of the old Pacific you read about in books.

Mendocino exudes timeless charm and Victorian style with buildings and homes perched on bluffs overlooking the ocean. The area has a thriving arts community, galleries to explore, and lots of water activities to enjoy, including plenty of whale-watching opportunities. Mendocino Coast is a place you cannot miss.

Nearest airport: San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

Where to stay: Little River Inn, SCP Mendocino Inn and Farm, Beachcomber Motel and Spa on the Beach

Things to do: Visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, explore the City of 10,000 Buddhas, take the Skunk Train, and check out Glass Beach.

2. Morro Bay

6 underrated travel destinations in California - Morro Bay
An aerial view of Morro Rock and Morro Bay, California. Photo by ByDroneVideos.

Morro Bay is a quiet beach town on California’s Central Coast off iconic Highway 1. It’s known for its striking landmark, Morro Rock, which is actually a volcanic plug that sits at the entrance of Morro Bay harbor. Morro Rock is the last part of a chain of nine volcanic peaks, also known as Nine Sisters, that extend from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay.

It’s hard to go anywhere in Morro Bay without seeing Morro Rock, making it a lovely backdrop for photos, waterfront restaurants, and local shopping near the coastline. And if you’re up for adventure, there’s plenty of opportunity to go on a whale watching or fishing trip here. So, remember to bring your camera for some one-of-a-kind photography.

Nearest airport: San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP)

Where to stay: Inn at Rose’s Landing, Inn at the Cove, Fireside Inn on Moonstone Beach

Things to do: Visit Morro Rock, Wander Morro Bay State Park, and take photos of birds at the Heron and Cormorant Rookery.

3. Lassen Volcanic National Park

6 underrated travel destinations in California - Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Sunset at Lassen Peak reflecting on Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California. Photo by Engel Ching.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is a spectacular national treasure with a landscape shaped by the Earth’s raw power—volcanoes. Located in the northeastern part of the state, it’s one of the few places in the world where you can find all four types of volcanoes: shield, stratovolcano (also known as composite), cinder cone, and plug dome. It’s also home to Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world.

Because there’s volcanic activity, you’ll find boiling springs and bubbling mud pots as you explore the park. A stop at Sulphur Works is a great chance to experience fumaroles, roaring steam vents on the Earth’s surface that release volcanic gasses and vapors.

Beyond the volcanoes, you’ll enjoy stunning crystal-clear lakes and rugged peaks perfect for hiking, camping, and general nature enthusiasm. Depending on the time of year, you might even enjoy a winter wonderland, as the park is routinely blanketed with snow during the colder months.

Nearest airports: Redding Municipal Airport (RDD), Sacramento International Airport (SMF)

Where to stay: Highlands Ranch Resort, The Village at Highlands Ranch, St. Bernard Lodge

Things to do: Hike trails, visit hot springs and geysers, see unique geological formations, and enjoy the peace and zen that comes with the outdoors.

4. Solvang

6 underrated travel destinations in California - Solvang
Boutique shops and restaurants with Danish-style architecture in Solvang, CA. Photo by Hayk_Shalunts.

Want to go to Denmark but can’t go to Denmark? Try Solvang. Sometimes referred to as the Danish Capital of America, Solvang is a charming village in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. It offers a quaint European escape and is known for authentic Danish architecture, including windmills, half-timbered houses, and horse-drawn carriages.

Wander the streets and you’ll find bakeries serving fresh Danish pastries, traditional Scandinavian cuisine offerings, and boutiques with Danish crafts and goods. If you get the chance, check out the Danish Days festival, which celebrates the town’s heritage, and visit some of the local wineries, as Santa Barbara is a wine country.

Nearest airport: Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA)

Where to stay: Hotel Corque, Atterdag Inn, The Landsby

Things to do: Get authentic Danish pastries from one of the many bakeries as you explore the boutique shops and take in European architecture, visit the Round Tower, and taste wine at Rideau Vineyard.

5. Temecula

6 underrated travel destinations in California - Temecula
View from a balloon ride of Temecula mountains, vineyards, and Lake Skinner at dawn. Photo by Rosamar.

Temecula is a hidden gem in Southern California, touted for its vibrant history and wine country. It’s almost an equal distance between Los Angeles and San Diego and has over 40 wineries, so if you’re looking for the California wine experience, Temecula’s a great place to get it.

Within the town is Old Town, a blend of historic buildings, contemporary buildings, and boutique restaurants that make for a unique SoCal fusion of the past and present. Because it’s in the valley, Temecula has mild weather throughout the year, making it a great place to experience a hot air balloon if you’ve never done that before. It’s a unique way to enjoy breathtaking views of the vineyards and surrounding landscapes.

Quick tip: Check out Swing Inn Café before you head out. It’s a yummy mom-and-pop joint in Old Town known for its breakfast and Texas-style BBQ, brisket included. Dean Norris, who played Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad, recently took over operations with his wife, making it a popular choice for locals and tourists.

Nearest airports: Ontario International Airport (ONT), San Diego International Airport (SAN)

Where to stay: South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, Temecula Creek Inn, Gaia Inn & Spa

Things to do: Go wine tasting, go on a sunrise hot-air balloon tour, and explore wine country on horseback.

6. Catalina Island

6 underrated travel destinations in California - Catalina Island
A pedestrian walkway in Avalon, Catalina Island. Photo by Sofiia Dorsey.

Catalina Island is a scenic island escape off the coast of Southern California, roughly 22 miles away from Los Angeles. It takes an hour to get there by ferry, but you’ll be glad you took the ride once you arrive. The island combines Mediterranean ambiance with the typical outdoorsy expectations that come with the Golden State.

The island’s main town is Avalon, where most of the population lives. You’ll find gorgeous streets lined with palm trees, boutique shops, and many seaside restaurants. Away from the town is the adventure traveler’s haven. There are ziplining, hiking, and ocean activities, including eco-tours, where you can catch a glimpse of the area’s rich biodiversity. And with the ocean providing a crystal-clear view, it’s perfect for snorkeling, kayaking, and the island’s popular glass-bottom boat tours. You don’t want to miss this one.

Nearest airport: Long Beach Airport (LGB)

Where to stay: Hotel Atwater, Aurora Hotel, Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel

Things to do: Go zip-lining, explore the sea through a sub excursion or snorkeling, and book a bison tour for something different.

Your adventure to quiet California awaits

I love visiting traveler hotspots, eating all the foods, and visiting all the places people are talking about, but sometimes, it’s nice to take a step off the beaten path and experience something new.

Some of these destinations don’t make the typical top destination lists, and that’s precisely why we love them. They offer an opportunity to explore California without the crowds—depending on where you stay, you might even find yourself saving some money.

From visiting the tranquil Mendocino Coast to casually strolling Solvang shops with a warm, buttery Danish, these are the types of getaways where you go on them and come home actually feeling refreshed.

Enjoy!

If you’ve been to any of these places or have some hidden gem suggestions of your own, remember to share them in the comments section!

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