For visitors looking for all of this and more, here’s a primer on some of the best off-the-beaten-path things to do in California.
California is known for its sun, beaches, and palm trees, but that’s only part of the story.
The Golden State not only has the longest coastline in the continental United States, but it also has small-town getaways, snowy adventures, fine food and wine, Indigenous culture, and unique natural encounters.
Dine at restaurants that have won awards
A colorful array of fresh produce (a third of the nation’s fruit and nuts are grown in California) and top-notch local meats and seafood add superior flavors to the state’s world-renowned restaurant scene. Dining options in big cities and small towns range from hip street eats to casual diners to high-end fine dining.
Restaurants in California’s global capitals, San Francisco and Los Angeles, are no strangers to food awards. This recognition emphasizes California’s status as a culinary powerhouse.
Explore California’s wine trails
Most visitors associate California wine with the well-known Napa Valley, but the state is home to more than 130 distinct, federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Beyond Napa, begin your oenophile journey in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley (we recommend Sonoma-tasty Cutrer’s chardonnay and pinot noir).
Lodi in the Central Valley is best known for its zinfandels, but the region is quickly emerging as a top destination for less familiar grape varieties such as albario and vermentino, including Klinker Brick Winery’s crisp whites.
Desparada Wines, based in Paso Robles’ Tin City food and wine market, is known for its French and Italian-influenced reds, whites, and blends. Meanwhile, Temecula, in Riverside County, between Los Angeles and San Diego, is ideal syrah-growing country.
Seek out winter activities in the mountains
Peaks ideal for winter recreation are plentiful in California’s elevated, snow-capped areas. From mid-December to April, Mt Shasta in the far north of the state is a playground for cross-country skiing, night skiing, and snow tubing.
Mammoth Mountain in the High Sierras, located inland from Fresno, receives an average of 30 feet of snow per season. It’s an excellent location for snowboarding, snowshoeing, or dog sledding. After a long day of skiing, relax in some of America’s coziest ski-in/ski-out vacation rentals, lodges, and resorts.
Go snowboarding in Big Bear, California’s freestyle capital, or take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of Mt San Jacinto to access winter camping sites and prime spots for family snowball fights. Palomar Mountain offers scenic seasonal drives through cedar, pine, and fir trees if you’d rather stay warm.
Discover American culture in small towns throughout California
Small towns in the United States offer the best of the best, and California is no exception. Chico, located north of San Francisco, is a vibrant college town surrounded by farming communities, which is always a good sign when looking for great food in California’s northeast.
Bidwell Park in town is a great place to go swimming, horseback riding, fishing, and hiking. You can also visit the highly regarded Sierra Nevada Brewing Company brewery and the Museum of Northern California Art to see work by local artists.
Dunsmuir, located in the Trinity Mountains a few hours north of Redding, is a popular fly-fishing destination as well as a significant stop for US railroad history buffs.
Calistoga, near Napa, is a great place to soak in soothing mineral waters at spa resorts ranging from modest to opulent. Some are also dress-optional. Cambria, on California’s Central Coast, is an artsy seaside town with cozy inns. It’s also the setting for Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s opulent former home and a must-see for anyone driving the Pacific Coast Highway.
Ojai, located in the inland and easily accessible from Los Angeles, attracts wellness-seekers who also enjoy the comfort of staying in boutique hotels. Idyllwild, a mountain town, is home to 30,000 acres of the San Jacinto Wilderness, as well as art galleries, outdoor rock climbing, and an annual outdoor jazz festival.
Discover the indigenous cultures of California
Innovative cultural centers, sacred sites, learning spaces, and hands-on arts and crafts experiences are just a few of the many ways visitors can learn more about California’s more than 100 federally recognized tribes.
Fort Humboldt State Historic Park, near Eureka on the North Coast, has exhibits that explore how miners and settlers interacted with a variety of California tribes, including the Karok, Hupa, Wiyot, Yuki, and Shasta.
After biking the American River Parkway (Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail) in Folsom (300 miles south of Eureka), visit the Folsom History Museum to learn about the region’s Indigenous peoples and Gold Rush history. A new museum dedicated to the experiences of Folsom’s Chinese Americans is under construction.
Take basket-making and other crafts classes at the Nuui Cunni Native American Intertribal Cultural Center east of Bakersfield, near Sequoia National Forest, for a more hands-on experience. The Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center in Bishop, a small town popular with boulderers, mountain bikers, and fishermen, also sells woven baskets and other Indigenous arts and crafts made by local artisans.
The rock art at Chumash Painted Cave Historic Park near Santa Barbara is thought to have been painted by the Chumash people in the 1600s and earlier. Continuing south toward Los Angeles, the Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center celebrates the history and culture of the Chumash, Kitanemuk, Serrano, Tataviam, and Tongva tribes.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ Cultural Plaza is being built in the Coachella Valley. The center’s plans include a museum and a spa powered by mineral-rich waters from a nearby hot spring, which Native Americans have used for centuries for healing and spiritual purposes.
The Mission Trails Regional Park area in San Diego County played an important role for indigenous Kumeyaay and Luiseo people. It’s still a great place for hiking, mountain biking, trail riding, and weekend camping.
Observe amazing natural events
Every year, California is the site of some incredible natural events. If possible, attempt to visit Point Reyes (Sonoma County), Long Beach (Los Angeles County), Newport Beach and Laguna Beach (Orange County), and San Diego during their yearly bioluminescence displays.
Algal blooms give the ocean a reddish-brown tint during the day, and the same tiny organisms that give the ocean its nighttime illumination also cause algal blooms. However, viewing these “red tides” from land is recommended since the toxins produced by the algae might irritate those who have asthma and other medical issues.
The Central Coast, including Pacific Grove’s Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Monterey County, receives large numbers of these remarkable butterflies during the annual monarch migration, which starts in November and lasts until March. Although there are a lot of butterflies, the western monarch butterfly population has decreased by 99% during the 1980s. This decline is most likely due to a combination of climate change, drought conditions, and habitat degradation. If you’re fortunate enough to see these beautiful butterflies, remember how fragile they are.
Another compelling reason to travel to northern California between December and April is to witness the 20,000 or more gray whales that pass by on their annual journey between Alaska and Mexico. Also seen all year round are humpback whales, blue whales, orcas, and other species. The most well-known whale-watching location in California is Monterey Bay.
Purchase items created by Californian craftsmen
California is known for its recognized ingenuity, which is seen in the state’s abundance of locally manufactured furniture, clothing, and accessories. Shop for kitchenware, jewelry, and self-care items from manufacturers including Johanna Howard Home, 54 Thrones, and ByChari at Sweet July in Oakland, which features Black-owned businesses and Bay Area craftsmen.
The Alta Baja Market at 4th Street Market in Santa Ana honors cuisine from Mexico, the Southwest, and California. It’s a good location to find wines from Mexico’s newly-established Valle de Guadalupe wine area.
A wine shop, florist, produce market, and restaurants can be found in Downtown Los Angeles’ The Row, which also houses sustainable fashion boutiques including Coast by Coast swimwear and Banks Journal menswear.