Alcatraz, Disneyland, Yosemite, the Golden Gate Bridge — sure, these are must-see California attractions, but they certainly aren’t the only things the Golden State has to offer!
Spanning much of the West Coast and offering cities, lakes, mountains, beach, and even desert, California is chock-full of fascinating places to visit and experience. So whether you think you’ve seen it all or just like to stay off the beaten path, we’ve put together a list of the 30 most overlooked attractions in California.
While other tourists find their spots on one of the many beaches surrounding Lake Tahoe, head off the beaten path and up to Angora Lake instead. Angora is one of hundreds of glacier-fed lakes located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and it just happens to be one of the prettiest. You’ll have to hike about a mile from the parking lot to the lake itself, but even that is a one-of-a-kind experience. Once at Angora, find your spot on the small beach or rent a boat for a totally different view.
Año Nuevo State Park
Located an easy distance from San Francisco is the town of Pescadero and its Año Nuevo State Park. The beach-side park is home to myriad hiking trails from which you can explore the pristine California coastline. It’s also home to one of the largest colonies of elephant seals in the state, and the unique set-up of the park allows visitors to get up close to the amazing creatures.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Ask any Southern California native about the best local places to hike, and you’ll get a whole list of locales before Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is mentioned. Located approximately three hours from Los Angeles and two from San Diego, Anza-Borrego is the perfect place to spend the day exploring slot canyons and other unique geographical features.
Black Chasm Caverns
It’s true that California boasts a number of interesting caves and caverns, but why Black Chasm Caverns seems to be one of the lesser known is a mystery to us. A visit to Black Chasm will take you down into the cavern itself, where you can explore massive naturally formed rooms and unique rock formations.
Bodie State Historic Park
Once a lawless but booming mining town, Bodie is today a unique ghost town that has been completely suspended in a condition of “arrested decay.” Unlike the case with other former Gold Rush towns, a visit to Bodie yields a fascinating glimpse into what life was like here. About 5% of the original town remains, but what is still here is detailed and remarkably intact. Indeed, many of the shops and homes, and even the school, still have original artifacts lying on tables or hanging on walls.
Castello di Amorosa
Calistoga and the rest of the Napa Valley may be chock-full of fancy wineries and Zagat-rated farm-to-table restaurants, but among all of those famous places is Castello di Amorosa, a must-see no matter how far your wine interests might extend. Though the wine here is good, the winery itself is the true star. Constructed from actual ruins of European castles, Castello di Amorosa is built to resemble a medieval fortress, complete with great hall and surrounding walls.
You’ll have to take a ferry to get to Catalina Island, but the added effort is totally worth it, especially if you’re interested in snorkeling or scuba diving — activities which are not always possible in the rough waters right off the coast. But even if you’re not planning on getting in the water, Catalina Island is a worthwhile stop on any California itinerary. The little town is bursting with charm and perfect for an afternoon stroll. Just keep your eye out for the surprising herd of bison, a remnant of the days when cowboy movies were filmed here.
Nestled into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the historic town of Columbia was once thriving with gold miners set on making it rich. Today, Columbia has completely embraced its unique history and its main drag includes a collection of shops and restaurants — including one especially inviting old-timey candy shop — carefully restored to their former glory. You can take horse-drawn carriage rides and even try your luck panning for your own lucky find.
Coronado via Ferry
Within eyesight of San Diego is beautiful Coronado, the upscale peninsula which is perhaps best known as the home to the famous Hotel Del Coronado. But while most people choose to get to this chic small town by car and bridge, we can’t help but think that the Coronado Ferry offers much more of an experience. Simply hop on the ferry, enjoy the stunning views, and get off within steps of the Del Coronado.
San Mateo County
Situated on the coast of Northern California, between the towns of Pacifica and Montara, lies the infamous Devil’s Slide. Once a section of the famous Pacific Coast Highway, today the attraction is a 1.3-mile multi-use trail from which hikers, cyclists, and even equestrians can enjoy pretty coastal views.
It’s easy to be awed by Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach. Rather than sand making up the coast line here, the aptly named beach is covered in colourful sea glass — that is, glass shards and other pieces of pollution that have been smoothed by the ocean’s tides into something beautiful. The result is an almost magical place to visit. Just grab a basket or baggy and start collecting!
The Griffith Observatory
Though it has appeared in countless films and advertisements, the Griffith Observatory remains one of Los Angeles’s most underrated attractions. However, there’s no doubt that this gem of a site is worth the trip. The Observatory itself, with its giant public telescope, is a fascinating place from which to explore the universe, while its location on the southern slope of Mount Hollywood provides some of the most iconic and breathtaking views of the L.A. skyline anywhere.
Jack London State Park
Who hasn’t found themselves captivated by the literary world of Jack London? The classic author’s own “Valley of the Moon” is located right in the Sonoma Valley, not far from Jack London State Park. Visitors can walk in London’s footsteps by taking nature walks among the beautiful wooded surroundings and exploring The Wolf House, the house that burned down before London could finish its construction.
Japanese Tea Garden
San Francisco, California
Golden Gate Park is a popular attraction for those visiting San Francisco, though most people tend to miss the stunning Japanese Tea Garden in lieu of the bigger (and totally worthy) museums next door. But a stroll through these lovely gardens is a stroll through peaceful landscapes designed with care by some of the most famous Japanese artists.
Joshua Tree National Park
Stunningly unique rock formations and sprawling desert make up Joshua Tree National Park, which is underrated for its remoteness, but certainly not for its ability to awe. Visitors to the park can spend a day exploring the landscape or multiple days camping, but any time spent at Joshua Tree is certain to be time well spent.
Located in San Diego County, the entire small town of Julian is listed as a California Historical Landmark. Despite burning almost entirely to the ground in the 1950s, the town has been restored to resemble the way it looked during its heyday in the late 1800s. Julian is a fun place to explore, though it makes our list for one simple reason: apples. Julian’s famous apple orchards are more than a century old, and the town attracts quite a few people who come in search of its famous pies and cider.
La Brea Tar Pits
Los Angeles, California
Located amidst the glitz and glam of Hollywood is something a little less luxurious, but arguably more entertaining: the La Brea Tar Pits. A fun museum surrounds the titular pits, where hundreds of animals met their gooey ends eons ago. Scientists are still finding the remains of prehistoric animals (even dragonflies!), most of which are on display along with jaw-dropping facts and displays.
Lake Shasta Caverns
If you’re headed anywhere on Highway 5, be sure to stop at Lake Shasta Caverns. A visit to these top-notch show caverns includes a boat ride across an underground lake, a cavernous shuttle ride, and a whole lot of adventure.
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
Located way up north in Shasta County is McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. This beautiful natural setting is ideal for picnicking, hiking, fishing, or for longer stays, camping. Best of all, it’s nowhere near as crowded as nearby Lake Shasta.
Old Town Sacramento
When it comes to big cities, few people look further than San Francisco and Los Angeles. But Sacramento, and especially its charming Old Town, is definitely worth a stop on even the busiest of itineraries. This old part of the capital has been carefully designed to look just as it did during the state’s earliest years. With all there is to see while wandering, plus the many shops, restaurants, and even a museum, one shouldn’t have trouble filling an afternoon exploring.
Olde Towne Orange
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by crowds in Southern California, which is why gems like Olde Town Orange are so worth a visit. This quaint and historic downtown area is perfect for a leisurely stroll. Spend some time window shopping, sit by the picturesque fountain, and grab a bite to eat at any of the locally owned restaurants. We especially recommend The Filling Station, an old gas station turned eatery.
Laguna Beach, one of Southern California’s most picturesque beach towns, is home to Victoria Beach, where visitors will find clear blue waters, a collection of fascinating tide pools, and lots of jagged rock formations — and a mysterious-looking stone tower known as Pirate Tower. Though the tower’s history isn’t all that awesome (it was just a fancy staircase providing beach access to the homeowners above the beach), visitors always have a good time coming up with their own stories about the various purposes that could have been served by this unexpected structure.
Point Reyes National Seashore makes for a perfect day trip from the bustling sites of San Francisco. Start your visit at the Cypress Tree Tunnel, a postcard-perfect canopy of picturesque cypress trees. Then, head 20 minutes up the road to Point Reyes Lighthouse, where an easy hike will lead you to the historic lighthouse and some pretty stunning views.
The Sailing Stones of Racetrack Playa
No one has ever seen them move, and yet the Sailing Stones of Racetrack Playa each have a track behind them noting the fact that they have indeed traveled some distance. Some of these tracks are nearly 1,000 feet long, while others zig-zag in odd patterns. Though scientists have recently discovered that winter ice flows and strong winds can be credited for this apparent phenomenon, figuring out just how a 700-pound rock called Karen can travel more than half a mile is a surprisingly fun way to spend some time.
Tucked into the gorgeous Santa Ynez Valley, the charming little town of Solvang is worth the day trip from Santa Barbara, or at the very least, the slight detour from the trek down the 101. Founded by a group of Danes in 1911, Solvang is chock-full of Scandinavian charm and character. On any given day, the town’s main square is an enjoyable place to wander, though if you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with one of Solvang’s many entertaining heritage events.
Sunny Jim Cave
Between the world-class beaches and top-ranked restaurants is the underrated attraction that is Sunny Jim Cave. This unique sight can only be accessed via The Cave Store (situated on Coast Boulevard). From the store’s interior, descend the steps until you find yourself right there at Sunny Jim Cave. One peek at those views, and you’ll see why we just had to include this stunning sea cave on our list of California’s most underrated attractions.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Just as its name suggests, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is the perfect place to spend an evening watching the sun set. The natural park covers nearly 70 oceanfront acres, and offers its visitors stunning views of the rocky coastline. Time your visit just right, and you may see some cliff divers. At the very least, you’re bound to see some natural beauty that one can only find in California.
Like Columbia and Old Town Sacramento, Sutter’s Fort is another underrated California attraction dating back to the Gold Rush. The well-built fort is set up, complete with costumed actors, just as it was on the day gold was first discovered just down the river. Visitors will have a blast wandering through each of the fort’s sections, learning about what life was like for an early Californian.
There’s so much to see above ground in L.A., that few people even consider that there’s a whole different world below ground. But indeed, 11 miles of underground tunnels exist below the city that were once used for everything from transporting horses before the days of automobiles to dodging prohibition. Though the tunnels are officially closed to the public, those brave enough can still access what’s left by taking the elevator behind the Hall of Records on Temple Street.
Van Damme Pygmy Forest Trail
Located near Mendocino, the Van Damme Pygmy Forest Trail is a unique and mysterious — albeit beautiful — place to spend an day. The forest gets its name from the hundreds of tiny trees which, despite being healthy at over a century old, have been unable to grow tall. Explore the forest via the impressive system of walkways and bridges — a canopy tour of sorts.