Travel

10 Hidden Gems in California You Didn’t Know Existed

Think you know everything about Central California? Well, think again. There’s a lot more to do than just heading to the beach.

Central California is a big chunk of the Golden State, and it’s crammed with great hikes, cool towns, antique stores, desert vistas, and yes, bucolic coastline. Whether you’re in the mood for hot springs, an old-school tavern or a pine forest,  you’ll find it all here.

10. Alabama Hills 

flickr/Richard Toller
Flickr/Richard Toller

One of the prettiest places you’ve never heard of is just a few miles west of Lone Pine, Calif. Named for a Civil War cruiser by Southern gold seekers, this range of hills, rugged rock arches, and spectacular views of the vast Owens Valley has been used countless times as a backdrop for classic Hollywood Westerns and television shows like Bonanza.

8. Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery

Flickr/Terry Feuerborn
Flickr/Terry Feuerborn

Sure, there’s the beautiful, often snow-topped Mt. Whitney ready for you to climb, or  easy trails around its base. But everyone knows about Mt. Whitney. More under-the-radar is the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, which looks like a charming European estate. Wander the lush grounds, explore a 1916 era chateau, and yes, trout beds. A great spot for picnics, a shady garden stroll, and fish viewing. There’s a gift shop, too. Open daily, it’s a fascinating road stop just off Highway 395.

8.  Mammoth Hot Springs

Flickr/Matt Artz
Flickr/Matt Artz

Just outside of Bridgeport and close to the ski town of Mammoth, you’ll find a paradise of natural hot waters, where steamy blue water bathing spots include the Travertine Pools, the Hilltop Tub — which gives bathers a 360-degree mountain view — and Wild Willy’s.

7.  Bristle Cone Pine Forrest

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest a protected area high in the White Mountains in Inyo County in eastern California.

What’s as old as Methuselah? Well, Methuselah, a 4,846-year-old bristlecone pine in the White Mountains. Explore the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and follow gentle trails beneath the branches, high above the desert floor.

6. Trona Pinnacles

flickr/Yastada Ishimori
flickr/Yastada Ishimori

One of the most surprising landscapes in Central California, these tufa spires look like something from another planet, and indeed they’ve doubled as such in Star Trek movies. Over 500 of these strange and wonderful formations rise out of the Searles Dry Lake Basin outside the tiny town of Trona.

5. Bodie Ghost Town

Flickr/Brent Pearson
Flickr/Brent Pearson

There are ghost towns and then there’s Bodie. Located just north of Bridgeport, this is an original mining town built in the late 1800s, now a State Historic park left in a state of arrested decay. Walk the streets, look in shop windows, and experience life like it was when William S. Bodey discovered gold in the region back in 1859.

4. Nitwit Ridge

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Let William Randolph Hearst’s heirs keep Hearst Castle, because just down the coast there’s another awesome castle to explore. Nitwit Ridge was created by itinerant artist Arthur “Art” Harold Beal, who spent over fifty years creating his own castle on a hill. Open for tours, it’s a California Historic Landmark and a folk-art masterpiece, located in Cambria, Calif.

3. Elephant Seal Preserve

Linda Tanner
Linda Tanner

Seven miles north of San Simeon, there’s the Piedras Blancas rookery, home to a migrating troop of over 17,000 elephant seals. Open for viewing daily, a boardwalk viewing area lets visitors admire these enormous and incredibly cool marine mammals who come to shore to birth, breed, molt, and rest.

2.  Mono Lake

Flickr/Maureen
Flickr/Maureen

Large, highly alkaline, and shallow, home to brine shrimp and migrating birds, Mono Lake is best known for its partially submerged tufa rock formations, and the smooth glassy surface that reflects many a stunning sunset. A photographer’s paradise, the lake is the largest natural inland body of water in the state.

1.  Cayucos

flickr/Allie_Caulfield
flickr/Allie_Caulfield

Talk about hidden gems, here’s the beach town that not that many people know exist. Maybe it’s because it’s just off the main drag of Highway 101, so lots of people just drive right by it. But pull off the road and into a slice of Central California’s peaceful past, with a smooth, flat beach perfect for long walks, an old-fashioned candy and ice cream store, antique shops, a wine-tasting room, and the historic Old Cayucos Tavern, built as a cowboy bar back in 1906.

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10 Hidden Gems in California You Didn’t Know Existed