I admit that when I first moved to the west coast from the midwest I pictured California as the home of Mickey Mouse and blonde-headed beaches. Now that I’m coming up on 17 years of calling the west coast home, I’ve had the opportunity to discover some amazing vacation spots in California I had no idea existed.
Check out these off-the-beaten-path things to do on a California vacation. This post is written in partnership with Visit California and the ATTA.
Journey Through Off-the-Beaten Path California Vacation Spots
An excellent spot for star-gazers and adventurers. The Trona Pinnacles are odd-shaped spires that rise out of an old lake basin. The spires vary in size and shape, but together create an out-of-this-world landscape that needs to be seen in person. They’re located on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management), which means that you’re even allowed to camp there for free.
My traveler tips for visiting the Trona Pinnacles is to plan for a night visit, dusk to deep night is best. Be sure to pack your camera and a sturdy tripod. The deserts can get cool at night, so also pack for the weather. Enjoy hiking around the lands during the late day and sunset, then set up camp to watch the stars come out and shine.
Temecula Wine Country
Lovely spot for wine tasters looking to go beyond Napa. Temecula is part of what is considered the inland empire region of California, but it’s actually a short drive from busy southern California. This region is not too far from the California Deserts, which can be why people are surprised to discover that it’s a popular wine region. They’ve been creating excellent wines since the 70s, with a good variety from Chardonnay to Syrah.
My traveler tip is to splurge for a hot air balloon ride in Temecula. I’ve been on threee and my favorite has been floating over the estates and vineyards of that region. Also, if you’re looking for a great spot to eat, head to E.A.T. in Temecula. Fabulous, fresh food created by a talented chef who has a true passion for her community and local industry.
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Visit an Unknown National Park
Rugged and uncharted lands that will feel like another country. Many people might not even realize that there are a set of Channel Islands off the coast of California. There are actually eight islands, five of the eight are part of the National Park system. Each of the islands have a different feel and landscape, as well as different travel times. The islands are primarily uninhabited and there are no services.
For National Park buffs, my traveler tip is that you don’t actually have to travel to the islands to get your stamp. The Channel Islands National Park Visitor’s Center is actually located in Ventura, California. Ventura is also the harbor that the boats to the islands leave from. There is only one authorized boat transporter, and reservations are required. There are day trips offered from the outfitter, or you can choose to camp, just know it’s self-supported and you’ll need to bring all your food and needs with you. My friend Caz has more great ideas for things to do in Ventura, California.
Taste in the Central Valley
The heartland, and breadbasket, of California. The Central Valley is one of the largest regions of California and stretches along the heart of the state. This area is also considered the breadbasket, dotted with farms and tasting ops from north to south. I was surprised to discover that California is the second-largest cheese producer in the US. If cheese is your thing, check out the cheese trail map to plan to hit one of the 17 stops located in the Central Valley. The Hilmar Cheese Company is a favorite, and the perfect spot to grab lunch.
This region is certainly one of the best vacation spots in California for a summer road trip journey. You’ll find numerous fresh farm stands along the roads, as well as the opportunity to get up close with agriculture, something city-livers often don’t experience. The Lodi wine region is another popular spot for wine tasting for those looking to go beyond Napa. If you’re a fan of olive oil, the Seka Hills tasting room is lovely. My last tasting spot to recommend is the Old Sugar Mill, it’s very close to Sacramento and features 15 wineries under one roof.
Cozy mountain town and outdoor vacationer’s dream spot. I admit that I’ve heard of Mammoth Mountain before. It’s considered to be one of the best ski resorts in California. But I had no idea that the mountain town of Mammoth Lakes was a draw of it’s own. The town itself is everything you could want in a resort town. Quaint shops and restaurants are situated around a charming town center.
But it’s the outdoor offerings beyond the ski mountain that are also the draw for the area. As a Seattle-gal, I think Mammoth Lakes is a perfect representation of the trees, mountains, and water that make the Pacific Northwest so unique. Based on my experience I recommend heading up to Horseshoe Lake for some hiking and adventuring; take your bikes with you so you can enjoy the beautiful Mammoth Lakes Basin trail back down to the town center.
Mammoth Lakes is near Yosemite National Park and also is in the same area as the beautiful Bass Lake area.
Home of the Gold Rush
Visit the rivers that beckoned hundreds of thousands 49’ers. The Gold Country region of California is located at the base of the Sierra Nevadas and houses the state’s capital, Sacramento. This area of the state is a mecca for history buffs since the famous gold rush of 1848/1849 happened in this area of California. History buffs will want to head to Coloma, where the official discovery site is commemorated. The town is now mostly a tourist town, but during the gold rush, it had 10,000 people, a schoolhouse, a general store, and a tin-roofed post office. These historic buildings are now protected as part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
Gold Country isn’t just for trying your hand at panning for gold. It also has some great food and wine offerings that bring true meaning to the term hospitality. My traveler pick for you would be to stop into the tiny town of Volcano and eat at the Volcano Inn & Pub. There’s a quaint outdoor dining area, and you’ll love the locally-sourced food and drinks they serve. Another stop I’d recommend would be the Lewis Grace Winery. It’s a lovely property to stroll around with a glass of one of their delicious rich reds.
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Daredevils rejoice, here’s your chance to hike along the ring of fire. Most people know about the ring of fire, it’s a region surrounding the edge of the Pacific Ocean and is known for its volatile volcanic landscape. A series of these volcanos are found in California, including the Shasta Cascade region in northern California. Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to the famous Lassen Peak which blew in 1914. Things have calmed down a bit since then, but the region is still alive with volcanic activity.
My traveler tip would be to hike to Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic NP. It’s a very easy going hike (3 miles roundtrip) that terminates at Bumpass Hell, one of the spots in the park with the hottest and most vigorous hydrothermal features. Do be sure to check the National Park website as a boardwalk renovation is in the works and might detour your plans. Lassen is also an area with many beautiful waterfall hikes, so plan for one of those as well during your visit. Please note that it is a mountainous region and winter weather closures do occur.
One of the best vacation spots in California for stunning coastlines is along the north coast. While southern California features sandy beaches that smoothly reach out into the ocean, the north coast is filled with jagged cliffs and rocky outcroppings that plummet into the water below. The Stornetta Lands near the Point Arena lighthouse is an amazing place to wander and get an up-close look at this rugged and ever-changing coastline. Guided hikes are available as part of a tour, and might be a good idea since walking around the cracking coastline does present some risk.
After visiting the open nature of the Stornetta Lands, be sure to venture to some of the lighthouses that dot the coast. Point Arena is located nearby and is one of the tallest lighthouses you can climb up along the west coast. The views from the top are simply breathtaking, and if you’re lucky like we were you might even spot whales off-shore.
As you plan your where you want to go for your California vacation, don’t forget to plan for some off-the-beaten-path spots in addition to the headliners. You’ll find rejuvenation in nature, and capture some beautiful photos to remember the trip.