Last Updated on 7th February 2023 by Sophie Nadeau
California is a large state on the Western coast of mainland USA that is best known as being the home of Hollywood, Disneyland, wine, Redwood Trees, and the Golden Gate Bridge. And with so many top attractions on offer, you would be mistaken for thinking that there are no hidden gems left to uncover. However, there are plenty of secret spots in California worth discovering, if only you know where to look…
If you are planning a trip to the West Coast, then be sure to check out our guide to the best things to do in California. And if you’re thinking about visiting some of the top cities, then here’s our guide to the best things to do in San Francisco and our guide to the best of one day in Los Angeles.
- Jack London State Park
- The Alabama Hills
- Mojave Desert Lava Tube
- The Sonoma Coast
- Pfeiffer Beach
- Channel Islands National Park
- Lava Bleds
- Point Reyes
- Bodega Bay
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve
- The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
- El Matador State Beach
- Lake Arrowhead
- Fossil Falls
Jack London State Park
By Tom of Travel Past 50
Visiting Jack London State Park near Sonoma, California, can bring back many pleasant memories of Jack London’s stories and novels about the American wilderness and wildlife.
The Jack London State Park is built out of the remnants of London’s home and ranch where he lived in the last years of his life. The park today consists of the ruins of the house he built, the dam he constructed to provide water, the trees he planted to restore the landscape that had been devastated by pioneer farmers.
London was also one of the first to plant a vineyard in this part of California. London originally built a mansion he called the Wolf House on the property, but it burned down in 1913 before he and his wife were able to occupy it.
That put London is deep debt, and he had to go back to writing feverishly to recover his finances. London and his wife subsequently lived in a small cottage on the property until his death in 1916.
After London’s death, his wife Charmian built a house she called the House of Happy Walls, which was a smaller version of the Wolf House. She lived there until her death in 1955. It is now the museum and visitor center of the State Park. The grave site of Jack London and Charmian is near the ruins of Wolf House.
Today the park includes the home/museum and more than 29 miles of trails for hiking, biking and even horseback riding. If you’re not up for such a trek, there is a leisurely one-hour walk that leaves from the museum and takes in London’s replanted wood, the dam where waterfowl abound, and a restored meadow. There are also a few picnic tables spread over the area where you can take a shady lunch break from your hike.
The Alabama Hills
By Dhara of Roadtripping California
Located just west of the town of Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills are a must-visit destination at the southern end of the Eastern Sierra of California. The Alabama Hills were named after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship that was used during the American Civil War.
Outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, and landscape photographers will all be drawn to the beauty of the Alabama Hills. The National Scenic Area is managed by the BLM, and while there are many developed campgrounds here, dispersed camping is also permitted.
Among the many things to do in the Alabama Hills, the Arch Loop hike is a favorite activity for many visitors. Along this easy trail, you will find the stunning Mobius Arch, a natural arch that perfectly frames Mount Whitney and other nearby Sierra Nevada peaks.
There are hundreds of natural arches in the Alabama Hills to visit, and the landscape looks especially beautiful at sunrise, sunset, or after dark, if you want to photograph them. The Alabama Hills area has featured in numerous western movies, shows, and commercials, and you can obtain a self-guided map and check out some famous locations!
Driving the Instagram-famous Movie Road is another popular thing to do in the Alabama Hills. The road runs straight towards the Sierra mountains, making for magnificent photos. Other than hiking, you can also do dirt road drives (in appropriate vehicles), go horse riding or mountain biking, or try rock climbing.
For the most enjoyable experience, visit the Alabama Hills between fall and spring: the high desert gets extremely hot during the summer. For more fall-inspired content, be sure to check out our guide to the best fall foliage in the US.
Mojave Desert Lava Tube
By Nina of Where in the World is Nina
After traversing a rough, bumpy, dirt path for about five miles in a barren desert you’ll know you’ve made it once you can’t drive any further. If you’re not in the proper vehicle, getting to the Lava Tube on your California road trip might not be in the cards. This road is not great!
While is not bad enough to need a four-wheel drive, we’d recommend, at the least, having a high ground clearance vehicle.
Once you grab your headlamp, and if you’re into photography your camera and tripod, you can make the short trek over to the Lava Tube. It’s only about a quarter-mile up to a gaping hole in the ground with some steep steps leading you down.
At the bottom, you’ll head to the dark abyss to your left and keep an eye out for a tiny bit of light. Watch your head! Head towards that bit of light as your eye adjust and soon the cave will open up into a cathedral!
You’ll see the skylights pouring sunshine into the cave of old molten lava! It’s sure to be one of the coolest things you’ll see in California.
Tip: Make sure to come between 11-2 pm if you really want to see the beams of light coming through the skylights. Mid-day on a clear day will always offer better beams so you can witness this phenomenon.
The Sonoma Coast
By Erin of Super Simple Salty Life
The Sonoma Coast is full of unique places to visit, explore, and spend quality time. This stunning coastline stretches 17 miles along the Pacific Ocean and contains several beaches, jagged rock bluffs, and dramatic headlands.
Goat Rock Beach is on the northern end of the Sonoma Coast right off of Highway 1, where the Russian River meets the ocean. This spot has driftwood sculptures which provide some shade on the beach, gigantic boulders jutting out of the huge crashing waves of the Pacific, and tide pools all along the shoreline. Perhaps the most entertaining feature of this area are the multitudes of barking harbor seals sunning themselves on the exposed rocks and bobbing in the cold water! To protect the seals, dogs are not permitted on the beach.
Goat Rock Beach is also a great place to bring a picnic lunch. Plan for a stop at Duncans Mills General Store before reaching the coast. Established in the 1800’s this old-town convenience store is the perfect spot to fill up the cooler and grab freshly prepared, delicious sandwiches for the afternoon.
Further down the coast is the Sonoma Coast Vineyards tasting room overlooking Bodega Bay. On a clear day you can hear the fog horns calling out in the bay. This is a great place to enjoy a refreshing flight of wine while listening to the waves.
Traveling down the coast from north to south gives the best views of the coastline and the ocean beyond. There are several twists and turns but the majority of the time the road follows the coast. Be on the lookout for all of the different beaches, overlooks, and viewpoints to pull over and check out along the way!
By Alisha of Travel Today Work Tomorrow
Pfeiffer Beach is one of California’s best kept secrets and an absolute must-visit location in California! Nestled along the rugged central coast of Big Sur, California, is where you can find the unique and stunning Pfeiffer Beach.
When you arrive at Pfeiffer Beach, you will be blown away by all of its natural beauty. The sparkling pacific ocean, epic rock formations, and wide span of sandy beach are some of the many reasons why Pfeiffer is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in California. However, what makes this place a true hidden gem is its purple sand beach.
There are swirls of purple scattered throughout the sand. You will have a better chance of witnessing the purple sand after a recent rain storm. The purple hues are created by manganese garnet that has washed down from the nearby mountains after a rainfall.
Besides the unique purple sand, Pfeiffer Beach is also known for its Keyhole Arch. A large rock formation with a tunnel through the middle. At certain times of the year, you can catch the sun setting perfectly through the center of the Keyhole.
Before visiting Pfeiffer Beach, you should know parking is limited. If the parking lot is full, they will turn you away to come back at a different time. Your best bet to avoid this is by visiting during off hours. The busiest time of day at Pfeiffer Beach is between 12 pm to 2:30 pm.
If you are looking for a hidden gem in California, Pfeiffer Beach is the destination for you. Pfeiffer Beach has so much to offer and is a one of kind location that is well worth a visit!
Channel Islands National Park
By Michelle of The Wandering Queen
One of the best-hidden gems of California is Channel Islands National Park. This park is located only a few hours from Los Angeles, and it is one of the least visited national parks in the state. To be fair, getting to the park can be a bit difficult, and you need a boat to take you over to the park.
There are also no hotels, only campgrounds, and it can be difficult to pack your camping gear onto the small ferry. The park is made up of five islands. They are called Santa Cruz Island, Santa Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, Santa Barbara Island, and Anacapa Island.
The best island is the Santa Cruz Island, and it is the largest and easiest to get to. The Chumash people inhabited the national park for thousands of years, and eventually, the USA constructed a lighthouse on Anacapa Island, and all five islands became a national park in 1980.
Today the only inhabitants of the island are the cute Channel Island foxes. Once on the island, there are plenty of things to do, include hiking. There are many fun trails in the park, like Potato Harbor and Smugglers Cove.
You can also go snorkeling in the bay and spot incredible fish. Cave kayaking is also a wonderful activity that many people do during their time on the island. You can book through a company called Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
Channel Islands National Park is not one of the national parks you think of when you think of California, but it is still a fantastic place to visit on a beautiful weekend.
By Mark and Kristen of Where Are Those Morgans
It is hard to find a true ‘hidden gem’ attraction or location in a place as popular and heavily visited as California. But Lava Beds National Monument epitomizes what it means to be understated and almost unheard of, yet an unforgettable experience.
Located just 20 miles from the border with Oregon in the far north of California, Lava Beds is a near 50,000 acre arid region situated on the northeastern side of Medicine Lake Volcano.
Above ground you can see lava fields, cinder cones and basaltic lava flows forming a rugged landscape. But it is what lies below ground that makes Lava Beds a fantastic stop when visiting the northern reaches of California.
Half a million years of volcanic eruptions and lava flows have resulted in a network of underground caves and tunnels. And you are free to explore up to as many as 24 caves on your visit to Lava Beds.
You are free to choose between beginner caves, intermediate caves and challenging caves. The best part? There are no limitations, no barriers, no guides and no crowds. You can explore entirely independently and at times in total solitude.
However, the caves are no joke and you should only enter a cave you feel comfortable exploring. Some will require crawling, some are very easy to get lost in and all will require headlamps.
You must check in at the visitor center, where you will receive a map and advice on which caves to explore from easy through hard. The adventurous visitor will have a field day navigating lava tubes, but Lava Beds is perfect for the whole family, with a handful of the easier caves featuring educational material.
When driving between the national parks in Northern California and Crater Lake in Southern Oregon, don’t forget to stop and walk (or crawl!) through these incredible geological features at Lava Beds National Monument.
Contributed by Gabriel Glasier of Chef Travel Guide
Located just 30 miles north of San Francisco, Point Reyes national seashore is a sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and the perfect escape for nature lovers. The diversity of things to do ranges from hiking the coastal trails to exploring some of northern California’s most beautiful beaches including Sculptured Beach and Point Reyes South Beach.
The adventures don’t stop there as you can set up at one of the park’s beautiful drive-up campgrounds or you can backpack into Wildcat campground for an overnight trip. Camping makes the perfect base for getting in touch with nature and getting access to the area’s abundance of wildlife which includes tule elk, elephant seals, harbor seals, and five species of Albatross.
If you visit between January and the start of May, you can hike down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse on the tip of the peninsula where you watch the migrating grey whales.
If you are looking for a more indulgent getaway, the town of Point Reyes Station is a cheese lover’s dream come true. Several of the best cheese producers in America are located in and around the town including Cow Girl Creamery, Point Reyes Farmstead, Marin French, and Nicasio Valley Cheese Company.
If you are a fan of oysters, then you definitely need to make a stop to try the incredible oysters that are harvested by Hog Island and Tomales Bay Oyster Company.
Whether you are up for a hike to see Alamere Falls crashing onto the beach or just want to watch the sunset from the South Overlook, Point Reyes will captivate your wild spirit and quench your thirst for the outdoors.
By Rasika of Bae Area and Beyond
Bodega Bay is a small seaside town on the coast of northern California. It’s known for its beaches and its seafood restaurants. Bodega Bay is located about 67 miles (108 kilometers) north of San Francisco.
It’s in Sonoma County along the famous Pacific Coast Highway 1, which runs along the coast through the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are many things to see and do in Bodega Bay.
Bodega Bay has several beaches along its scenic coast with many of these beaches being rocky or sandy with waves. Its picturesque beaches and rugged coastline make it the perfect place to go sailing or surfing.
There are several coves along the coast that offer great spots for fishing or clamming. Hike to Bodega Head for panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Bodega Bay also has a golf course, two regional parks and many nearby wineries where you can taste their local wines.
You can take a trip out to Fort Ross State Historic Park, which was once a 19th-century Russian settlement. The very first Russian buildings constructed in California were in Bodega Bay.
What makes Bodega Bay unique from other California towns is it was once the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie “The Birds.” This 1963 film has locations in the town including the Potter Schoolhouse and Saint Teresa of Avila Church.
Before visiting Bodega Bay, make sure you’re packing for a windy day. Coastal weather can also be unpredictable so pack essentials for sunny and rainy weather.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
By Anwar of Beyond My Door
Surprisingly not one of the most visited parks, Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California protects a region that contains all the various types of volcanoes in the world.
The area is rich in hydrothermal sites like bumpass hell, acres of bubbling mud pots, fumaroles, and hot springs. The area contains all four types of volcanoes as well from plug domes, shield volcanoes, cinder cones, and stratovolcanoes.
It is incredibly rare to find all these types of features in the same area, and Lassen is one of the few places in the world where all such features exist. Established originally as two separate national monuments, the park became Lassen Volcanic National Park in 1916.
The park is still one of the lesser visited parks receiving roughly 500,000 visitors a year. That is far fewer than Yosemite further south which sees a few million annually. Therefore, it’s very possible to have many areas of Lassen all to yourself!
For those visiting, some top areas include: Bumpass Hell (the largest geothermally active part of the park), Cinder Cone (dormant Cinder Cone volcano), Devil’s Kitchen (boiling steam and mudpots), Lassen Peak (The park’s namesake and the most recent volcano to erupt), Prospect Peak (3rd highest peak in the park, and a shield volcano), and Sulphur Works: A former Yellow Ochre Mine (used for paint) that is now part of the park and very geothermally active.
For those who are fascinated by Volcanoes and may not realise all that is in the US, Lassen provides the perfect playground to explore all these features.
Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve
By Katy of A Rambling Unicorn
Deep in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve lies a wild and wonderful hidden treasure – the Kelso Sand Dunes. These towering piles of sand are the largest windblown sand deposits in the Mojave Desert.
It is also one of the few places in the world where visitors can experience a rare phenomenon known as “singing sand”. Also known as “booming dunes”, the sand can emit a deep rumbling or booming sound under certain conditions.
The dunes were formed over thousands of years by the wind. The sand originated in the San Bernardino Mountains and was transported to nearby lakes via the Mojave River. These lakes have since dried out and exposed the sediments to the wind – which blew them to the Kelso Sand Dunes.
The dunes are closed to vehicle traffic so the best way to see them is on foot. The Kelso Dunes Trail is the easiest way to explore the dunes and leads all the way to the very top.
At 2.7 miles roundtrip with an elevation of 423 feet it seems like an easy trail – but it is not. Be warned that walking on sand is much harder than walking on other surfaces. Most hikers don’t make it to the top and simply enjoy playing in the sand near the trailhead. Those that make it the summit, however, are rewarded with incredible views of the nearby mountains.
The trailhead is accessed via a 3-mile graded dirt road in the Mojave National Preserve. Hikers should avoid the dunes in the summer when temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees F. Be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and sun protection as there is no shade available at the dunes.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
By Shannon of Adventuring With Shannon
One of the best kept secrets of California is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. This ancient forest is home to some of the worlds oldest living trees: The Bristlecone Pines. Because the Bristlecone Pine trees only grow at altitudes of around 10,000 feet, these trees have remained relatively undisturbed by humanity.
Due to their remote habitat, slow growth, and ability to withstand high winds, these trees have an incredibly long lifespan. One of the oldest living trees. The Methuselah Tree, is located deep in this forest and is estimated to be over 4000 years old.
The Ancient Bristlecone Forest is located in Inyo National Forest which is situated between Death Valley, Mammoth Lakes, and the Eastern Sierras. The area is accessible by car, but visitors will have to take one of the hiking trails to be able to see the ancient grove.
At the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Visitor’s Center, visitors will be able to speak with a park ranger (If visiting during peak season) about the conservation of these protected ancients. There are 3 main trails that leave from the visitor’s center, the most popular is the Methuselah trail.
The Methuselah trail is a 4.5 mile loop that takes you into the ancient grove. Although visitors will not know which tree is the Methuselah tree itself because the location is hidden due to threat of arsen, there are many incredible and ancient trees to explore on this hike.
These trees are able to withstand and survive intense winds by twisting and turning. This survival method has caused the trees to spiral into incredible shapes. Visitors should be prepared to hike at high altitudes and bring a lot of water as there is none on trail.
These trees are mostly untouched by humanity unlike many of the California parks which makes them a true hidden gem.
El Matador State Beach
By Alanna of Periodic Adventures
Located in Malibu, is one of the best kept secret beaches in Los Angeles, El Matador State Beach. While it can get more crowded in the summer, this beautiful beach is usually skipped over by travelers.
As one of three beaches within Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, El Matador is known for it’s large rocks with caverns and archways carved out of them. These make for some incredibly picturesque landscapes.
To get there, travel along Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and turn left onto El Matador Beach Rd. There is a small parking lot, but if it gets full you can park along the side of PCH. Descend the pathway down the cliffside to the beach.
In order to reach the secluded cave, head to the right (facing the ocean). You’ll need to pass under and through archways and around pillars of rock, but ultimately, you’ll arrive at the final cave that’s enclosed.
This makes for a wonderful secluded spot to take photos, bring a picnic, or just escape from the hustle of the city. Be sure to check the tide charts before visiting to ensure you won’t be blocked in.
If you’re looking for a nearby restaurant, head south along PCH to the Point Dume area and you’ll find plenty of options. Spruzzo Restaurant serves highly-rated Italian fare and The Sunset Restaurant has fresh seafood options.
El Matador State Beach is a must-visit on any California road trip and especially on a trip to Los Angeles. It’s even a budget friendly destination, as it’s totally free to enter. Street parking is free too!
By Jenifer of The Evolista
Nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains, Lake Arrowhead is a hidden gem in California, known mostly to locals. This alpine getaway was originally a logging town. In the early 1900s, Los Angeles developers built a dam and reservoir to create the recreational area that exists today. And Hollywood has taken notice, with movies like The American President, The Parent Trap and Space Jam filmed in the area.
As you head up into the mountain, it’s amazing how quickly city life falls behind. You’ll be surrounded by tall pines, bright blue skies and lots of fresh air.
There are plenty of things to do in Lake Arrowhead. Take an Arrowhead Queen lake tour for a unique perspective and a chance to see many of the beautiful properties that surround the lake.
Outdoor enthusiasts can go water skiing or hiking on the many trails surrounding the lake. Sky Park at Santa’s Village is one of the best places to go for family fun with rock climbing, ziplining, mountain biking and so much more.
When you’re ready to refuel, there are plenty of dining and shopping options in Lake Arrowhead village. Don’t miss the decadent waffles at Belgian Waffle House! On weekend evenings in the summer, there is an outdoor concert series that’s a blast.
One of the best tips for visiting Lake Arrowhead is to stay for a few days. This is a place to slow down and just have fun. So whether you’re looking for a relaxing getaway or an action-packed vacation, Lake Arrowhead has something for everyone.
By Catherine of Nomadicated
As you stand on top of Fossil Falls, it’s hard to imagine an ancient waterfall in a lush, watery landscape in the now arid California desert. Volcanic lava flows slowly cooled along rivers and the valleys of the Sierra Nevadas. Combined with the etchings of the Ice Age glaciers, the elements helped build Fossil Falls initial formation.
Sculpted by wind and pounded by water from the Owens River over time, the remains of the lava flow had been polished smooth into the appearance you see today. As glacier caps melted and the last Ice Age turned into desert, the lost river finally revealed the beautiful bedrock of Fossil Falls.
Just off Highway 395 in the Southern California desert, drive past natural cairns of volcanic rock and colored sand to begin the 0.2 mile hike to Fossil Falls. Watch as the flat landscape exposes a dry river wash shifting abruptly into a spectacular lava flow cliffside. Climb amongst the rocks or walk along the chasm’s edge to completely view Fossil Falls.
Keep an eye out on the trail for artifacts and rock art left behind by the ancient “paleo” people who lived along the rivers 10,000-20,000 years ago.
Tip: Fossil Falls is situated on BLM land and has a first-come, first-serve campground available a few minutes away from the trailhead.
By Mary of BRB Mary
Sometimes hidden gems are hidden in plain sight and this is the case for beautiful Sausalito. Sausalito is a floating neighbourhood located on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marine County.
The floating neighbourhood is often overlooked by tourists who turn around once they have had enough of looking at the famous red suspension bridge. What they don’t know is that they are missing out on one of the most unique neighbourhoods in the San Francisco area.
Sausalito is a visit you should add to your San Francisco itinerary. The neighbourhood is made of about 500 house boats, all connected by a pontoon. The pontoon is accessible by foot or bike only and open to both residents and tourists.
The atmosphere in Sausalito is very laid-back and relaxed, away from the bustling city and groups of tourists everywhere. It almost feels like a completely different city!
Each house boat is decorated differently with quote signs, flowers and quirky decorations. They are also of different colour, sizes and shapes. The neighbourhood definitely has a bit of a hipster kind of vibe!
While in Sausalito town, you can wander between the house boats, and admire the details and efforts that each resident put into making them a home. If you are lucky, you might even see a house boat being set up.
This is quite an interesting process as several small boats are needed to guide the new house boat into its spot without touching the others around. Sausalito boardwalk also offers a great view on different San Francisco areas!
To reach Sausalito from the city, head to the Golden Gate Bridge and drive across it. From the Redwood Highway, take the exit onto Alexander Avenue which will take you straight to Sausalito town. There is free parking outside of the neighbourhood. From the parking, you can easily walk onto the pontoons and around the neighbourhood.
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