The Most Beautiful Places in California You Never Knew Existed
Pack up the car for a road trip to seek out California’s most gorgeous hidden treasures.
While LA’s Tinseltown, San Diego’s beaches and beer, and San Francisco’s waterfront enjoy much of the state’s tourism, California is also home to four distinct ecoregions spanning over a million acres, with plenty of beautiful and hidden spots just waiting to be discovered. Whether you prefer towering forests, rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, sparkling lakes, or majestic mountains, there’s plenty to see that will make your jaw drop and your heart soar.
Thanks to the Golden State’s Mediterranean-like climate, you can enjoy most of those places year-round, but there’s something to be said for venturing out in autumn when the air is crisp, the tourists have gone home, and the fall foliage (yes, we have fall foliage in California!) is putting on a free show. From giant sequoia to mountain lakes to secluded beaches, here are our favorite natural wonders you should add to your California road trip bucket list.
Just north of Mammoth is one of the most postcard-perfect hamlets where you’ll find unparalleled alpine views and tons of opportunities for outdoor activities. Called the “Switzerland of California” by some, June Lake is known for its sparkling lakes that sit at the base of the Eastern Sierras. You’ll see plenty of wildflowers in the spring, but fall is the time to explore this area, when the trees are bursting with amber, crimson, and mustard-hued leaves that would impress even the most jaded New Englander. Obviously, the best way to experience this majestic scenery is on foot, but if you’re not a hiker, you can still see the jaw-dropping scenery by driving the June Lake Loop, a winding mountain road that takes you past all four shimmering lakes and alpine scenery, with enough cafes on the way that you won’t even need to pack a picnic.
El Dorado County
In the foothills of the Sierras, just east of Placerville, is an area with more than 50 farms and orchards known for its apple picking, pumpkin patches, and Christmas Tree farms. There are things to do in Apple Hill year-round, but to state the obvious, the time to go is during apple-picking season. Not only because you can pick your own apples at many of the orchards, but because you can enjoy crisp fall weather and the cozy sweaters that come with it, wooded areas with vibrant leaves, wineries, and all of the photo opps that come with a picturesque mountain town. Most of the farms, orchards, and wineries are on a loop, so you can drive and stop wherever you’d like—one thing to note is that due to an early season frost this year, there aren’t as many apples as usual, but you’ll still find all of the fall foliage and delicious treats your heart desires.
San Diego County
Take whatever assumptions you have about San Diego and throw them off the side of the mountain you’ll be driving up to get to the charming and historic gold mining town of Julian. At 4,000 feet elevation, Julian can be a lot chillier than San Diego proper, so it will actually feel like fall. The area is known for its apple picking, as well as scenic hiking trails in the forests of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and along the shores of Lake Cuyamaca. The adorable and historic Main Street is dotted with pioneer storefronts where you’ll find antiques, local art, tasting rooms (wine, beer, cider), restaurants with homestyle cooking, pie shops, and even a camel dairy farm.
Skiers and snowboarders flock to Mammoth in the winter for the fresh plow and the versatile terrain, but the area also has a natural après ski (or anytime of year) relaxation remedy: a network of hot springs left behind from a volcano that exploded hundreds of thousands of years ago, many of which are safe for soaking and all of which have water temperatures ranging from 95 degrees to 105 degrees. Wild Willy’s (also known as Crowley’s) is a short walk from the parking lot and in the winter may be covered with snow, but there is a boardwalk, which makes it pretty accessible year-round (appropriate footwear required). At the end of the boardwalk, you’ll find two hot springs—the first can hold 30+ people and the second one is heart-shaped, hotter, and only has room for a couple of folks—but both have stunning views of the Eastern Sierras that, combined with the restorative powers of a soak in a natural hot spring, will quickly remind you why California is such a magical place, while also making you forget whatever troubles are on your mind.
Just a few miles down the hill from Bear Valley is Calaveras Big Tree State Park, a state park that’s home to two groves of giant sequoia trees. This park is less crowded than some of the more popular spots to gaze at the largest trees in the world, but if you go in the fall, you’ll get to appreciate the red, orange, and pink leaves on the park’s dogwood trees and black oaks. For the most rewarding hike, and the park’s most massive sequoias, head to the South Grove, a 5.4-mile (moderate) hike full of fall colors.
The Cypress Tree Tunnel looks like something straight out of a fairytale book, but it does exist and it’s quite spectacular to see in person. A long row of cypress trees in the Point Reyes Peninsula form a natural tunnel with their lengthy branches. When you see the sign that says North District Operations Center off of Sir Francis Drake Blvd, you’ll know you’re in the right spot. Sunset hour is a popular time to visit with professional photographers and amateurs flocking to get the perfect shot, but sunrise is also a good time to visit and a bit less crowded. Park in the small designated lot and definitely don’t park anywhere on or close to the trees.
Calavera Lake is a 400-acre reservoir surrounded by miles of hiking and biking trails, 17 native vegetation communities, and land that was once an old rock quarry. There are multiple trails to choose from that vary in difficulty but you will be rewarded with sprawling views at the top. And you don’t have to travel far to see a natural wonder like a dormant volcano. The small mountain on the preserve called Mount Calavera is actually a volcanic plug, a hardened bit of magma and one of the last remaining pieces of the inactive volcano. At the base, you will find a man-made labyrinth and peaceful rock garden that you can contribute to.
Standing at 576 feet tall, Morro Rock, also referred to as the "Gibraltar of the Pacific,” is the focal point of a small coastal town called Morro Bay. The rock which is now recognized as a California Historic Landmark is part of the Nine Sisters which are nine volcanic peaks that stretch from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay. Throw back a few oysters (Morro Bay is famous for them) at one of their seafood markets on the embarcadero and enjoy views of the massive ancient formation while watching cute sea otters float in the water.
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Only one mile long, Carmel River State Beach features white, sandy beaches and a lagoon formed by the Carmel River that attracts song birds and waterfowl. The protected bird sanctuary draws bird enthusiasts and is also a popular spot for dog owners or anyone who wants to enjoy a romantic sunset picnic. While you’ll spot a number of local divers and kayakers, the waves are really powerful so swimming is not encouraged.
At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, you’ll find the magnificent Mount San Jacinto State Park. The tramway takes passengers to an elevation of 8,516 feet where you can hike more than 50 miles of trails and enjoy breathtaking views of the second highest mountain range in Southern California. There are also two restaurants, an observation deck, a museum, and a gift shop. Most areas of the park are designated wilderness areas so you might spot a few animals during your visit.
There are a lot of beautiful gems along Highway One and San Simeon Cove is one of them. It’s one of those viewpoints that most tourists don’t know about, so you can enjoy stunning views without the busy crowds. Across from Hearst Castle, you’lll find a parking lot adjacent to the beach and this is where you’ll want to start. When you get to the white sand beach, you’ll see an uphill hiking trail which you will follow along the bluff and continue on until you see spectacular views of the coastline. Enjoy the aromatic smells of eucalyptus, pines, cedars, and cypress along the trail, and make sure to pay attention to private property signs.
The locals call this strange 60-foot concrete castle-esque structure on Victoria Beach the “Pirate Tower,” but it wasn’t built as a place for pillagers to take refuge or lock up damsels in distress; rather, it was built in 1926 to house a wooden spiral staircase that connected a state senator’s home on the top of the bluff to the beach. The nickname came because a retired Naval officer who bought the house in the 1940s would dress up as a pirate and fill the tower with coins for kids to find. Go at low tide if you want to avoid climbing over rocks. Pirate costumes not required.
About 40 miles southeast of Palm Springs is one of the most unique hikes you’ll ever go on. It doesn’t just involve putting one foot in front of the other over and over again, but also climbing up (somewhat rickety) ladders to ascend a magnificent (and narrow) slot canyon named for colorful mineral deposits that cover the rock. These deposits were pushed up hundreds of millions of years ago by the San Andreas Fault system.
This stunning beach is a must-visit for anyone with an Instagram account for two reasons: purple sand and Keyhole Rock. Due to the erosion of the cliffs above the beach that contain Manganese garnet rocks, the sand is filled with a marbling of deep plum that has to be seen to be believed. And as if purple sand weren’t enough, Pfeiffer Beach also has a huge rock with a natural arch at the base. Get there before golden hour and position yourself in front of it to capture the last rays of sunlight as they disappear behind the horizon.
Gold Bluffs Beach
The towering walls of this narrow canyon are draped with an ancient species of verdant ferns with ancestry dating back 325 million years and an otherworldly effect that has to be experienced in person. Every curve of the corridor brings another stunning view of vertical wetland, lush vegetation, miniature waterfalls, and a feeling like you’ve seen this somewhere before, which you have if you’ve seen The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It was the backdrop in a couple of scenes, including the one where (spoiler alert) one of the characters becomes lunch for a flock of tiny Compsognathus.
Death Valley is probably best known as being one of the hottest places on the planet, in addition to being home to the lowest point of elevation in North America. Skip the heat and visit in the fall or winter, which is a great time to see Badwater Basin, a sinkhole located 282 feet below sea level that was featured on the cover of the U2 album The Joshua Tree.