The Most Beautiful Hidden Places in California to Visit This Spring

The state is full of low-key beauty, from the North Coast to the Mojave Desert.

 Potato Harbour in Santa Cruz Island/Channel Islands National Park
Potato Harbour in Santa Cruz Island/Channel Islands National Park | Martha Brodeur/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Potato Harbour in Santa Cruz Island/Channel Islands National Park | Martha Brodeur/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

You move to California for city life, maybe chasing a dream to Hollywood or hauling new tech to Silicon Valley, but you stay for nature. There is the desert in the Southeast, forests along the coast, mountain ranges running the length of the state, and one of the most fertile growing regions in the world right in the middle. So whether you’re looking for giant redwood trees, epic sunsets over painted rocks, big waves crashing into a jagged coastline, or hidden creeks burbling through boulder-strewn ravines, California has it—and just about any other dramatic natural vista you can imagine, too.

The state is lovely year-round, and you may understandably associate the West Coast with summer, but spring is an exceptional season to get outdoors and explore California. It’s already warm enough to spend afternoons lounging and drinking on the beach, and it’s still cold enough for snow sports in the mountains. There are native wildflowers in bloom, the produce is out of control, and the camping is immaculate.

To help you take advantage of this magnificent time of year, we’ve put together a list of particularly beautiful places in California that fly a little below the radar, from secret spots you may have been driving right past for years to remote areas that take a special trip all their own. These are the most beautiful hidden places to visit this spring.

Channel Islands National Park
Flickr/David Wan

Ventura County
The Channel Islands are eight distinct islands off the Southern California coast, five of which are designated as national parkland and seven of which have no permanent human settlements (the eighth is Catalina Island). That means to get to any of the five national park islands, you need to get on a boat, either a private one you acquire or a public one run by Island Packers. Once you’re there, though, it is about as remote and secluded as you can get in California—there are no restaurants, stores, or gear rentals on the island, and cell service is spotty at best. As the website warns, there are “no remedies for poor planning once you have arrived.” But with that isolation also comes stunning coastal beauty: rocky cliffs, pebble beaches, tide pools, and unique plants to discover like you’re Darwin in the Galapagos. Backpack around and camp overnight, or haul kayaks on the ferry and paddle around for the day to see the islands from the water.

Shaver Lake, California
Flickr/Dawn Ellner

Fresno County
Shaver Lake is not technically a lake so much as it is a reservoir. It is part of a series of them built in this section of the Sierra Nevadas by Southern California Edison in the early 1900s to create the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. If you cruise up Highway 168 from the Central Valley on the weekend, though, it’s clear that Shaver’s industrial origins are the last thing on anyone’s mind—this is a sporting lake of the highest order. Jet skis whip past pontoons full of weekend warriors baking in the mountain sun, occasionally sliding off to dip into the freezing cold water. If you’re looking for serenity, the far side of the lake is full of hidden offshoots and free from structures, with plenty of empty beaches and forests to explore. And the surrounding area has more to offer, too, with great hiking trails and a pleasant ski mountain open through late spring. There is still obvious damage from the devastating Creek Fire of 2020, but the forest is growing back, making it a dramatic reminder of the precious fragility of this ecosystem.

Nojoqui Falls

Santa Barbara County
If you’re headed to the greater Santa Ynez Valley area, you’re probably going for wine or maybe for food. But take a break from your epicurean indulgences to head over to Nojoqui Falls Park, a big, peaceful green space that feels totally isolated despite being just a few minutes off the 101 freeway. The 85-acre park includes open grass, picnic tables, and thickets of knotty oak trees, but the real highlight is the waterfall for which it’s named. A short trail through a beautiful wooded ravine winds back and forth over a babbling creek, and after 10 very pleasant minutes, you arrive at Nojoqui Falls. This majestic 80-foot waterfall frankly feels a little too beautiful to be so close to civilization. Take your win, enjoy the fine mist that sprays around the clearing, and head back out for more wine and “Franch” cooking.

June Lake
Flickr/Don Graham

Mono County One of the most postcard-perfect hamlets hides just north of Mammoth, with unparalleled alpine views and tons of opportunities for outdoor activities. June Lake, which some call the “Switzerland of California,” is known for its sparkling lakes at the base of the Eastern Sierras. You’ll see plenty of wildflowers in the spring, which makes for some incredible hiking. But if you’re not up to exploring on foot, 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 the mountain scenery, with enough cafes on the way that you won’t even need to pack a picnic.

Flickr/Kee Yip (葉麒麟)

Mammoth Lakes
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.

Flickr/Peter Theony

Calaveras Big Tree State Park is home to two spectacular 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. In the spring, all of the park’s other flora will be in bloom, too, so you’ll get to appreciate the white blossoms on the Pacific dogwood trees, along with the rainbow of hyacinth, iris, and lupine. For the most rewarding hike and the park’s most impressive sequoias, head to the South Grove for a moderately difficult 5.4-mile trek.

Flickr/Cheryl Lindo Jones

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.

morro rock
Photo by Mason Trinca, courtesy of Visit California

Morro Bay
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.

See Monterey
Photo courtesy of See Monterey

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.

Mt. San Jacinto State Park & Wilderness
Photo courtesy of Mt. San Jacinto State Park & Wilderness

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.

san simeon cove
Unsplash/Gabriel Soto

San Simeon
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’ll 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.

Painted Canyon
Flickr/Chetan Kolluri

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.

Pfeiffer Beach Keyhole Rock

Big Sur
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.

fern canyon
Nora Yusuf/Shutterstock

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.

Zabriskie Point
Bill Perry/Shutterstock

Death Valley
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.

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Ben Mesirow is an Echo Park native who writes TV, fiction, food, and sports. At one time or another, his writing has appeared in The LA TimesLitroMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency ,Los Angeles Magazine, and scratched into dozens of desks at Walter Reed Middle School.
Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who plans to happily spend the rest of her life exploring California. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf to see where her next adventure takes her.
Leila Najafi has lived in California her entire life and is still discovering beautiful places for the first time. Follow Leila’s adventures around California on Instagram or check out her travel recs here.