California Off the Beaten Path: Lesser-known Towns to Explore
In addition to its world-famous beaches and pop culture hot spots, California’s less-traveled cities and towns offer a world of unexpected experiences.
The Golden State, the Land of Sunshine, the Promised Land – whatever you call California, it’s one of the most mythologized states in the USA. While the gorgeous beaches and glitzy cities get a lot of attention, there’s still so much to discover in the rest of the state. Whether you’re looking for history, family activities or outdoor fun – or perhaps all of the above – you’ll find it in these less-traveled California towns. Listed from north to south, they are all conveniently located off the state’s major freeways and highways.
Ferndale: A Cultural Medley
Ferndale is a fairy tale-like city with well-preserved Victorian houses that give visitors a visual and architectural feast. In the mid-1800s, the dairy industry thrived here, attracting immigrants from Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and China. Stroll through the Main Street Historic District and admire the charming buildings, many of which are now converted into bed and breakfasts, artisanal chocolate shops, galleries and handicraft boutiques. The Historic Ferndale Cemetery is one of the most beautiful burial grounds in California, offering a picturesque view of the town and Eel River Valley.
Charming Victorian buildings in the Main Street Historic District of Ferndale
Redding: Amid the Redwoods
Located between Sacramento and the Oregon border, Redding is renowned for its natural beauty and outdoor lifestyle, as well as proximity to Lassen Volcanic National Park and Shasta Lake. Its most definitive attraction in town is the magnificent Sundial Bridge. The soaring, white tower was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and is the world’s largest working sundial. Tour the Turtle Bay Exploration Park where you’ll find a butterfly house, museum, animal shows and Paul Bunyan's Forest Camp. Walk across to the northern end of the bridge and see native plants at the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, rent bicycles or join a Segway tour to enjoy the Sacramento River Trail. Enjoy many water activities at nearby Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
Gold panning, a fun and popular activity in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area near Redding
Fort Bragg: Coastal Beauty and Charm
Fort Bragg transformed from a military fortress to a logging town and now, with its enviable location on the Pacific Coast, a tourist destination. The old factories were demolished in the 1990s, but some legacies endure, the most famous of which is the 131-year-old Skunk Train. This antique diesel train traverses redwood forests, mountain tunnels and the scenic coastline. Go whale watching in the harbor or kayaking in the Noyo River. Join the other curious tourists hoping to see (but not remove) the bright sea glass of Glass Beach at MacKerricher State Park. Grab lunch and find the perfect memento at Union Lumber Company Store where lumberjacks used to buy their necessities.
The lighthouse at Fort Bragg on the coast of the Pacific Ocean
Irvine: Home of the Great Park
Located in famed Orange County, Irvine is home to Orange County Great Park, originally a military base and now an expansive park for sports, recreation and special events. A considerable portion is fully developed and more mixed-use and green space are planned over the coming years. Climb aboard the Great Park Balloon, a hot air balloon tethered to the ground and rising 122 meters for panoramic views. Children love the carousel and playground. Visit the Palm Court Arts Complex and repurposed military hangar for rotating exhibits and historical military displays. On Sundays, pick up some fresh, local produce and grab lunch at the farmers’ market.