Guides

5 Lesser-Known California Gems Worth A Spot On Your Itinerary

Brought to you by Visit California

With top tips and ideas for your next California road trip.

There’s nothing quite like filling the car with snacks, turning up the tunes, and hitting the road for an adventure or two – especially when you’re exploring California’s best-kept secrets.

From seaside cliffs and bohemian hideaways, to cute towns and historic landmarks these unique, unforgettable locations are all just a hop, skip, and a jump from California’s most popular cities. So, whether you’re planning on visiting one or a couple on a road trip through the Golden State, you’re sure to be inspired.

#1 Ojai

 

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OK, so you’ve landed at LAX and it’s time to start exploring! While it might be tempting to head straight toward the bright lights of Tinseltown, the best out-of-town getaway you’ve never heard of is just an hour-and-a-half away.

Make your way north through Calabasas and Thousand Oaks (AKA Kardashian Kountry) and continue straight on the 101 until you reach the charming small city of Ojai in Ventura County. Nestled among the Topatopa Mountains, a few nights in Ojai is the best way to get over your jet lag and indulge in some much-deserved rest and relaxation.

It’s small but homey, spiritual but exciting, and close enough to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles that you don’t feel too secluded. What’s more, the intoxicating scent of orange groves fill the air and every turn is essentially another Insta-worthy moment of mountains, bohemian style, wine tastings, and must-visit breweries.

 

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Ojai also happens to be a favourite spot of the celeb crowd, including Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon (who got married at her Ojai estate). You’ll feel like a bit of a celeb yourself after a few nights at the Ojai Rancho Inn. Guests at this Instagram-friendly lodge-like motel are greeted by cool, modern-rustic interiors. The rooms have log bedframes and their own front porches, while hot tubs and cruiser bikes add to the upscale motel experience.


#2 Carmel-by-the-Sea

 

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Coming from Los Angeles? Your trip along Highway 1 is part of an iconic route that hugs the coast in all the right places. It even takes you through Pismo Beach (Clueless reference, anyone?). Make a lunch stop at Splash Café for the epic clam chowder, followed by a quick wander along the pier.

Then crank up your road trip playlist and head north until you reach the ridiculously delightful seaside city of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Also located just under two= hours from San Francisco, Carmel feels more like a fairy tale village than a small city. What’s more, it’s just 10 minutes’ drive from Monterey, which you’ll recognise from Big Little Lies (which is back on screen for its drama-filled second season).

Once you’ve had a chance to check out the turquoise beauty that is China Cove, ditch the car – Carmel is best discovered on foot. Stroll along Ocean Avenue, indulge in a seafood dinner at Grasing’s, and explore your way through Carmel’s Secret Garden Passageway next to the Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore.

There are 42 hidden passageways in Carmel’s village-like centre – all waiting to be discovered.

 

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When it’s time to hit the hay, make sure you book a room at The Hotel Carmel, which features boutique vibes without the hefty price tag and even offers a complimentary nightly wine hour.


#3 Russian River

 

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Fun fact about Northern California: NorCal, as it’s known, has so much to offer you could easily spend two weeks exploring every small town and big city in sight. Though the possibilities are seemingly endless, our recommendation is to take a trip north of San Francisco (around 90 minutes) to the laid-back Russian River area in Sonoma County. Not only can you stay in a luxury Airstream camper at AutoCamp, you can even float down the river in a kayak.

If all that floatin’ leaves you feeling peckish, head on down to Boon Eat + Drink, which features organic and seasonal Californian meals. Not into water sports? Give the Osmosis Day Spa a go instead. With cedar enzyme baths and Zen harmony facials, you’ll be blissed out in no time.

 

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Last but by no means least, make sure you head to the nearby Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, which features the one and only Colonel Armstrong – a mighty 1400-year-old tree.


#4 Mendocino

 

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Less than two hours north of Sonoma County is the pretty coastal hamlet of Mendocino – a magnet for artists and romantics, with cute cottages and wind chimes aplenty. Surrounded by epic cliffside trails, it’s perfect for outdoor explorers. There are also a number of museums and art galleries in which to while away the day, including the amazingly quirky Larry Spring Museum of Common Sense, which is dedicated to the work of self-taught physicist and folk artist, Larry Spring. Mendocino asks for a contemplative visit – one filled with late-night conversations next to a roaring fire, hot chocolates and a desire to lose yourself in the nooks and crannies of this curious little town.

 

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When you’re ready to say goodnight, treat yourself to a glamping experience you won’t soon forget at Mendocino Grove. With the woods and ocean right at your doorstep, you couldn’t ask for more. For those preparing to drive to San Francisco the next day – make sure you enjoy a pit stop in Bodega Bay for a bite at The Tides. You may recognise it from Hitchcock’s famous cult hit, The Birds.


#5 Gold Country

 

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If you’re looking for adventure, it’s time you stepped foot into Gold Country, ya hear? Tucked away to the west of the Sierra Nevada Range, Gold Country is named after the precious metal that was discovered there in 1848 (which also prompted the largest migration in US history). Gold Country is a playful stop on any NorCal road trip. You and your besties can keep busy panning for gold like they did in ye olden days, indulge your spooky side with some ghost-hunting at the historic Murphy’s Hotel, discover a number of hidden gems along Highway 49, and fuel up with a major breakfast at restaurants like Element (we suggest the All Sutter Creek to keep you going throughout the day).

(Lead image: Casey Horner / Unsplash)

Start planning your dream 2019 California road trip today.