Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California’s Hidden Gems

Post originally Published November 5, 2023 || Last Updated November 5, 2023

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Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Lesser-Known National Parks

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California’s Hidden Gems

Stretching from sea to shining sea, the United States is home to some of the most stunning national parks in the world. While famous spots like Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon attract millions of visitors every year, there are also hundreds of lesser-known parks and monuments that provide the same jaw-dropping scenery without the crowds. For travelers looking to get off the beaten path and experience nature at its finest, these underrated gems are an outdoor lover’s dream.

One such overlooked destination is Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. Lassen offers all the volcanic drama of Yellowstone but on a smaller, more intimate scale. Hike through conifer forests and flower-filled meadows to reach bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles and the massive lava dome that gives the park its name. The diverse volcanic landscape is certain to impress geology buffs and photographers alike. Just be sure to time your visit for late spring or summer, as heavy snowfall makes the higher elevations inaccessible for much of the year.
The Florida Panhandle is better known for its sugary white beaches, but Outdoor aficionados shouldn’t miss Gulf Islands National Seashore. Encompassing several barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi and Florida, this national park combines history with ecological riches. Follow winding trails through seaside prairies and maritime forests to 19th century forts, lonely lighthouses and secluded strips of sand that look like they belong in the Caribbean. The park’s islands and crystal clear waters are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, fishing and paddling in solitude.

Adventurous travelers looking to earn serious bragging rights should consider backpacking the Juniper Dunes Wilderness in Oregon. Getting there requires dedication, as the closest paved road is 25 miles away. Those who make the trek are rewarded with 15,000 acres of towering sand dunes, high desert hills and secluded lakes. Follow game trails through sagebrush to set up camp along the shore of picturesque Hoodoo Lake. Backcountry permits are free but required, and visitors should pack plenty of water in this arid environment. With less than 100 permits issued per year, you’re almost guaranteed to have this remote wonderland to yourself.

What else is in this post?

  1. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Lesser-Known National Parks
  2. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Secluded Beaches Worth the Trek
  3. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Small Towns with Big Charm
  4. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Adventures in the Desert Outback
  5. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Forgotten Ghost Towns
  6. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Mountain Lakes Ideal for Camping
  7. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Unique Roadside Attractions
  8. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Get Away from it All in the Redwoods

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Secluded Beaches Worth the Trek

With over 800 miles of coastline, California has no shortage of beautiful beaches. However, some of the very best are those that take a bit more effort to reach. Getting to these remote strands means leaving the crowds behind for an exclusive experience in nature. For intrepid travelers, the journey is well worth the payoff.
One such secluded shoreline can be found in Leffingwell Landing State Beach. Located just south of Hearst Castle, this rugged stretch of sand takes dedication to access. Visitors must traverse a steep, narrow path down seaside cliffs to the cove below. Exercise caution as the terrain is slippery in spots. Once you arrive, you'll be rewarded with dramatic rock formations, tide pools teeming with sea life, and an endless expanse of beach to explore. Best of all, you’re likely to have all this natural beauty entirely to yourself.

For the ultimate remote beach, head to Jalama Beach County Park. Situated more than 100 miles from Santa Barbara, Jalama lies hidden between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific. Be prepared to drive 11 miles on a winding, unpaved road to reach the park entrance. Your effort is quickly forgotten upon arrival, as you're greeted with sweeping ocean vistas. Meander along 14 miles of deserted coastline, watching for breaching whales and shorebirds hunting in the surge. At dusk, retreat to one of just 30 secluded campsites to fall asleep to the murmur of waves. With a location this far-flung, overcrowding is never an issue.
Looking for a tropical getaway without leaving the state? Point Arena Cove in Mendocino County offers a slice of paradise. Sheer cliffs and the historic Point Arena Lighthouse hem in this crescent-shaped inlet. Scramble down the steep path to discover a white sand cove straight out of Hawaii. Go tidepooling among the pools and caves or bask on the expansive beach. Up top, picnic tables offer unbeatable ocean vistas. Just 20 minutes from the nearest town, Point Arena Cove lets you escape the world in style.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Small Towns with Big Charm

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California’s Hidden Gems

Dotted along California's backroads and tucked into its hidden valleys, small towns brimming with character are there for travelers willing to venture off the beaten path. Though they may be short on space, these pint-sized communities are overflowing with charm. From historic downtowns to quirky attractions, California's rural hamlets invite visitors to slow down and savor local flavor.

For those seeking an authentic taste of the Old West, the tiny outpost of Laws in the eastern Sierra Nevada delivers. With a current population of just 150 residents, Laws has preserved its 19th century roots. False-fronted buildings line the main street, looking much as they did over a century ago. Peek inside the elementary schoolhouse or General Store to get a glimpse of pioneer life. Nearby, the Historic Laws Railroad Museum chronicles the town's origins as a stop on the Carson and Colorado Railway. Train enthusiasts can even take a ride on a restored railcar.
Down south in wine country, the village of Geyserville beckons oenophiles with its low-key vibe. Sample zinfandels at family-run tasting rooms before strolling along breezy backroads draped with grapevines. At night, dine al fresco at Diavola Pizzeria, housed in a converted 1920s barn. With just 900 residents, Geyserville provides entry to the Sonoma Valley wine trail without the crowds.

For offbeat fun, Douglas City is a can't-miss stop. This undersized lumber town in the Trinity Alps displays its quirky side at Dog Bar Road. Here, artists have transformed stumps and logs into whimsical sculptures of fantastical creatures. Meandering down the dirt road feels like walking through a magical woodland filled with dragons, wizards, and unicorns. After exploring the forest of fables, grab a burger at the log cabin HooDoo eatery before continuing your lumber town adventure.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Adventures in the Desert Outback

Stretching across southeastern California, the Mojave and Colorado deserts seem endlessly barren at first glance. But for off-road enthusiasts, these arid expanses hold the promise of adventure. Maze-like canyons, windswept dunes, craggy peaks and vast dry lakes offer freedom and solitude for those willing to traverse the backcountry. All it takes is a 4x4 vehicle, some navigation skills and a thirst for the open road.

Many travelers make the pilgrimage to Dumont Dunes, located just north of the Mojave National Preserve. Here, towering mounds of golden sand rise as high as 300 feet. Bring an ATV, dirtbike or dune buggy to careen up and down the slopes, pulling aerial stunts against the backdrop of the rugged Providence Mountains. Camp right in the dunes to wake up surrounded by rippled sand. Be sure to climb to the top of the tallest dune to take in sweeping high desert vistas. This is desert adventure at its best.
For the ultimate remote journey, venture to the Amboy Crater in Mojave National Preserve. You'll traverse rough dirt roads through the heart of the Mojave to reach this 250-foot cinder cone volcano. The short but steep hike to the rim provides stunning views across one of the most desolate landscapes in America. Photographers flock here to capture the symmetrically perfect crater against the sea of creosote bush below. After your pit stop, continue another 60 miles on Historic Route 66 to grab a burger at iconic Roy's Motel and Cafe.

Off-pavement enthusiasts also shouldn't miss the Silurian Valley, situated west of Death Valley National Park. Unmatched solitude can be found along the valley's 84,000 acres of creosote flats, wandering dunes and rugged hills. While dry lakebeds offer great camping spots, be prepared with extra fuel and supplies; the nearest facilities are 50+ miles away in Trona. After you set up camp, sit back and soak in the profound silence of this remote desert basin. As the piercing stars emerge overhead at night, you'll feel wonderfully small and astonishingly alive.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Forgotten Ghost Towns

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California’s Hidden Gems

Tucked away in California’s secluded valleys and lofty mountain ranges sit the weathered remains of once-bustling towns. During the Gold Rush era, boomtowns sprouted up statewide as prospectors rushed to strike it rich. Many quickly faded when the mines ran dry, leaving eerie ghost towns frozen in time. Exploring these abandoned outposts offers a fascinating glimpse into California’s colorful past.

Just north of Death Valley lies Rhyolite, among the best preserved of California’s ghost towns. In 1905, prospectors flocked here after gold was discovered, and within two years Rhyolite boasted a population of 5,000. Extravagant buildings like the three-story bank were constructed with imported marble and granite. But by 1916, the mines were tapped out and this desert oasis became a ghost town. Today, many ruins still stand, including the skeletal remains of a grand railroad station. Don’t miss the Goldwell Open Air Museum, where trippy art installations dot the desert landscape.

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the town of Bodie captures California’s Wild West era. Established in 1859 after gold was discovered nearby, Bodie grew to support a population of 10,000. Lawlessness and violence were rampant until a vigilante committee restored order. When its gold mines petered out, the town was abandoned and left remarkably intact. A state park preserves Bodie in “arrested decay,” with furnishings and belongings scattered just as they were left. Visitors can peek inside the blacksmith shop, general store and other buildings for a vivid glimpse of life during California’s gold rush.

For a haunting coastal adventure, make the steep trek to Año Nuevo Island. From 1850 to 1895, Chinese fishermen inhabited this windswept island north of Santa Cruz. Their village included 40 redwood dwellings connected by wooden sidewalks. Meander among the mossy foundations and peek into root cellars while seals lounge nearby. Soak in sweeping Pacific vistas from this fog-shrouded island that time forgot.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Mountain Lakes Ideal for Camping

Tucked high in the peaks of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains, alpine lakes beckon outdoor enthusiasts with cool blue waters and idyllic settings. Surrounded by evergreen forests and rocky crags, these hidden gems create an ideal basecamp for adventure. Pack up your tent, grab your fishing pole and lace up your hiking boots to explore California’s finest mountain lakes.
Just outside Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne Meadows provides easy access to dozens of sparkling waters. Saddlebag Lake is a favorite for its spectacular views of Lembert Dome and sheer granite walls. Towering pines shade the shoreline, while crystal clear waters reflect the sky overhead. Catch golden trout right from the rocky beach before heading out in a kayak to explore the lake’s coves and inlets. Nearby, May Lake offers similar stunning scenery without the crowds. Take a pleasant stroll around its perimeter before diving into the deep blue waters. Finish off your day grilling trout atop a boulder while watching the alpenglow spread across the craggy peaks.
Further north, Caribou Lakes make an ideal family basecamp. These two placid lakes connected by a meandering creek provide beginner-friendly camping complete with gorgeous vistas. Let the little ones splash in the shallows while you cast for feisty brook trout nearby. When it’s time to dry off, cobble together driftwood to get a campfire going and roast up those fish. Wake to crisp mountain air before embarking on scenic hikes to secluded smaller tarns. With gentle trails and gorgeous scenery, Caribou Lakes check all the boxes for an easy mountain getaway.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Unique Roadside Attractions

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California’s Hidden Gems

With over 58,000 miles of highways crisscrossing the Golden State, road trippers are spoiled for choice when it comes to unique sights along the way. From quirky art installations to bizarre buildings, California’s roads offer endless detours that add color and whimsy to any drive. Getting out to explore these curiosities turns travel into an adventure.

For classic Americana kicked up a notch, a stop at Cabazon Dinosaurs is essential. Located just west of Palm Springs, these towering concrete dinosaurs have been welcoming Interstate 10 travelers since the 1960s. Standing 150 feet tall, Dinny the Brontosaurus will promptly steal your attention. His neighbor Rex, the Tyrannosaurus, clocks in at 45 feet high. Brave the stairs inside Rex to take in the desert view between its ferocious teeth. Grab a photo critiquing the dinos’ anatomy before continuing down the prehistoric path.
Further south near Victorville, Roy’s Motel and Café serves up nostalgia alongside its famous Route 66 burgers. This neon-lit pitstop opened in 1938 and remains frozen in time, down to its retro gas pumps. Inside, every inch is packed with fascinating Route 66 artifacts and memorabilia. Sit at the counter for a chocolate malt before exploring the retro treasures in the gift shop. Be sure to wave to Mr. Roy himself – you’ll find him parked out front in a vintage Woody wagon.

For the ultimate only-in-California experience, make tracks for Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea. This hand-built, hand-painted “mountain” is an explosion of color dedicated to love and god. Folk artist Leonard Knight spent over 30 years transforming adobe and straw into his vision of a holy mountain. Climb past yellow brick roads, trees, streams and bible verses swirled in psychedelic hues. This unique landmark exemplifies the wonderfully weird side of the California desert. Just be sure to respect the installation and leave only footprints when you visit.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering California's Hidden Gems - Get Away from it All in the Redwoods

Looking to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life? There’s no better place to find peace and tranquility than in Northern California’s majestic redwood forests. These towering giants have a way of making even the most stressed-out city dweller feel small and insignificant in the best possible way. Walking among these ancient trees instantly slows you down, forces you to put away devices and reconnect with the present moment. It’s no wonder people have been coming to the redwoods for over a century to clear the mind and recharge the spirit.

One of the most magical places to lose yourself among the redwoods is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Located just south of the Oregon border, this relatively undiscovered gem provides easy access to awe-inspiring groves of old growth forest. Stroll along streams draped in ferns down dimly lit trails carpeted in velvety green moss. Crane your neck to glimpse the massive trunks of trees well over 300 feet tall that have stood here for hundreds of years. Find a sunny spot and have a picnic in a meadow filled with wildflowers while listening to squirrels chatter and birdsong overhead. At night, retire to your tent beneath the misty canopy of redwood boughs. You’ll sleep like a baby in this timeless sanctuary.

Further south, Hendy Woods State Park lets you disappear into an ancient redwood realm just steps from the touristy town of Mendocino. Locals refer to it as the “Redwood Cove” thanks to the cathedral tunnel of trees that encircles visitors in verdant seclusion. The centerpiece is the “Big Hendy” tree, which at 95 feet around is one of the largest redwoods in the world. Nearby Discovery Tree Trail winds through 300-foot tall giants along the banks of the Navarro River. Find a sunny patch of forest floor to sit and simply be, drinking in the profound stillness. Before leaving, cool off with a refreshing dip in the crystal clear waters of Hendy Creek.

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