Beat the crowds at these lesser-known destinations for your next California road trip.
As one of the largest, most geographically diverse states in the U.S., it’s easy to lean on common conventions to make sense of the vastness that is the Golden State. Yes, California is sunny, and beachy, trendy, and loud (in more ways than one). And, part of its expansive allure is found in lesser known parts, including its smaller communities. With increasing interest in road trips this year, from north to south, these six towns personify a California that’s richly elemental (all four seasons! Deserts! Alpine forests!), introspective and creative; and worth a visit. They’re equal parts snug and stretch, just like your favorite pair of well-worn jeans.
1. Guerneville, Sonoma County
1.5-2 hour drive from San Francisco; 7 hour drive from Los Angeles
Guerneville, once a popular leisure destination for the gay community in the 1970s, is situated in the heart of northern California’s best hits. Check in at AutoCamp, a collection of glamp-ready Airstreams, canvas tents, and spacious suites designed for all abilities—walk-in shower, accessible outdoor fire pit, remote-controlled window treatments. Admire the redwoods from the comfort of its sleek clubhouse, or a stroll through Armstrong Redwoods natural preserve. Walk to Main Street and sip on Russian River Valley wines; dine on tamales at El Barrio, organic, farm-to-table eats at Boon; grilled cheese, and salads at Big Bottom Market. Swim and sunbathe at Johnson’s Beach.
2. Bishop, Inyo County
4-5.5 hour drive from Los Angeles; 6.5-8 hour drive from San Francisco
Blink and you’ll miss this small town tucked into the Eastern Sierras; where Highway 6 and 395 converge. Bishop is a low-key base for a slew of outdoor pursuits, including mountain biking, backpacking, and winter skiing. Slow down here for surprisingly curated food and drink. Good Earth Yogurt is much more than organic, self-serve fro-yo; it’s also a wine bar…that serves pies, and sometimes cupcakes. After a day in the wild, the town’s active residents and visitors congregate at Mountain Rambler Brewery, and Owens Valley Distilling Company slings cocktails from their shelf of small-batch gin, rum, and vodka. Ponder your relationship with time at Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to knobby, thousands-years-old trees; they’re among the world’s oldest.
3. Atascadero, San Luis Obispo County
3.5-4.5 hour drive from San Francisco; 3.5 hour drive from Los Angeles
Along the Central Coast, Atascadero is more vibrant beyond first blush. Mingle with locals at Colony Market & Deli, which operates out of a former midcentury gas station. The airy space serves hearty sandwiches and a local wine and craft beer list on tap, in can, and bottle. At The Artery, find art supplies for newbie and dedicated creatives. Rummage through Mudflat Mercantile’s collection of vintage cowboy boots, textiles, old rotary telephones and typewriters. The Carlton Hotel, built in 1928, keeps you central to the town’s restaurants and independent shops. Bru has your caffeine quota covered.
4. Carpinteria, Santa Barbara County
1.5 hour drive from Los Angeles; 5.5-6.5 hour drive from San Francisco
South of glitzy Santa Barbara, Carpinteria (a name given by a Spanish explorer for the Chumash, Indigenous people of the region and expert tomol–or canoe–builders) offers an oceanfront safari. Camp at mile-long Carpinteria State Beach, with seals and sea lions sightings during winter and spring months, and tidepooling for starfish and other sea creatures year-round. Follow Carpinteria Bluffs Trail to view harbor seals in their natural habitat. Nearby, tar oozes from Carpinteria Tar Pits; one of only several tar pits—or natural asphalt lakes, to be scientifically precise—that exist in the world. The Chumash used the tar to naturally waterproof their boats; and later, miners used it to help construct California’s coastal highway. For a bite, most restaurants are situated along Carpinteria Avenue.
5. Idyllwild, Riverside County
2.5 hour drive from Los Angeles; 8+ hour drive from San Francisco
Striking pines replace palm trees in this mountain village located two-hours drive East of Los Angeles. Idyllwild is a hub for hikers and rock climbers intent on exploring the San Jacinto Mountains. Deer Springs Trail, for example, is a popular heart-pumping, 6.5-mile out and back day hike through designated wilderness with rewarding, panoramic views of town. Fill up on omelettes and homemade biscuits at Red Kettle diner. Keep the open-air experience going with vegetable risotto and braised rabbit, enjoyed on Ferro’s patio. El Buen Cacao specializes in single origin dark chocolate (bars, raspberry truffles, peanut butter cups, rich drinking chocolate) using beans from Mexico to Belize. Chase nostalgia at Record Collector record store; and Ephemera for vintage accessories, cassette tapes, and tarot cards. Airbnb’s are just as eclectic, from modern A-frames to cozy cabins with stone chimneys.
6. Solana Beach, San Diego County
2 hour drive from Los Angeles; 8+ hour drive from San Francisco
As neighboring Encinitas draws the wellness set, and others clamor to La Jolla for seal selfies, Solana Beach tends to get overlooked. The next time you’re cruising along the 101, stop for sea salt- or cayenne-tinged lattes from Lofty Coffee, which you’ll sip while building your own flower bouquet at Native Poppy next door. Spoil fur babies at Muttropolis, and infuse your home with California-coastal design at Bixby & Ball. Stay for intimate, live musical performances—punk, country, to 80s cover bands—and stand-up comedy at Belly Up. Fletcher Cove is an ideal entrypoint to sand and sea, as well as a prime spot to watch (and of course, Instagram) a sherbet sunset.