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A Lovely Compilation of Off-The-Radar Small Towns in California

Big Foot. A made-up language. Clouds of Monarch butterflies. Discover the quirks and allures of some of California’s lesser-known towns.

Everyone talks about California’s cute little towns, but they always list the same ones: Carmel, Del Mar, Solvang, Sausalito, and Ojai—but there are so many more! Here are some off-the-radar towns beloved by locals, each one possessing its own unique charms.

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PHOTO: JRJfin/Shutterstock
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Murphys

Wine might be the last thing you’d expect in this sweet Mother Lode town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, but thanks to Italian gold miners back in the mid-1800s, the viticulture legacy is long-established. Today you’ll find 20-plus tasting rooms on Main Street alone, including Hovey and Twisted Oak (with its rubber-chicken forest). The dining scene matches the oenophile vibe, with standouts including Grounds and Firewood. But that’s not all you’ll find in this historic-building-filled, wine-swilling town. Browsing is fun at chic clothing boutiques, art galleries, and intriguing foodie shops. Peek into (and/or stay at) the Murphys Historic Hotel & Lodge, whose guest ledger includes Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, and Ulysses S. Grant. Mercer Caverns are here too, discovered by a gold miner in 1885; the rare aragonite flos ferri is a mineral deposit that claimed Grand Prize at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. And all this doesn’t even begin to touch on the great outdoors waiting just beyond…

INSIDER TIPBrice Station Vineyards, just above Murphys, is California’s highest elevation vineyard, with a small concert venue and working pottery studio.

 

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PHOTO: Michael Roumph/Shutterstock
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Niles District

Okay, this one isn’t a town, per se, but a historic enclave of Fremont in the San Francisco Bay Area. That said, Niles feels like a town so we’re including it. Its four-block main street, Niles Boulevard, has antique stores, museums, art galleries, and restaurants. But perhaps what’s most surprising is that little Niles once was the epicenter of the silent film movie-making industry, before it moved to Tinseltown. Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and Bronco Billy—the world’s first cowboy movie star—made movies here; stop by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum to learn more. Here, too, the Niles Canyon Railway takes passengers on a ride through the canyon, tracing the original route of America’s first transcontinental railroad, established in 1869.

INSIDER TIPHop on a bike along the paved Alameda Creek Regional Trail, which winds 12 miles through tidal marshes alive with egrets and jackrabbits.

 

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PHOTO: Bob Dass [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons
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Boonville

This little town, hidden deep in Mendocino wine country, has been sleepy for, like, ever. But Sleeping Beauty has recently awoken with an infusion of new shops, restaurants, and wineries. Check out Mosswood Market Café and Bakery, Paysanne (ice cream and cookies), the Farmhouse Mercantile, and Pennyroyal Farm, a rustic winery and distillery. And what’s that? You’re having trouble understanding the locals? Perhaps they’re speaking the town’s unique language, Boontling. A mix of Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Spanish, even Pomoan (native Californian), it was created in the 1800s to talk behind people’s backs. Not many speak it anymore, actually, but you’ll surely see it written on signs and products, including Anderson Valley Brewing Company, which marks its labels with “Bahl Hornin’” (Good Drinkin’).

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PHOTO: Tirzah Hancock/Shutterstock
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Downieville

The 19th-century gold rush may have created this little town on the Yuba and Downie Rivers in the Sierra, but its new boom can be attributed to outdoor adventure—especially mountain biking. The 13.8-mile Downieville Downhill drops 4,800 feet through stunning fir forest on one of the country’s longest stretches of continuous descent. There’s also sublime hiking (the Lookout Trail up craggy Sierra Buttes is breathtaking), fishing, whitewater rafting—and gold panning; some say there’s still gold to be found. The town itself has little clapboard houses, outfitters, and a handful of restaurants to support your outdoor fix.

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PHOTO: Alexander Demyanenko/Shutterstock
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Pacific Grove

Once a church summer retreat, this little town on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula retains its Victorian charm with dollhouse cottages and elegant mansions—many now housing inns and restaurants (Green Gables Inn, for instance, occupies a gorgeous Queen Anne). The small downtown has eclectic boutiques, galleries, antique shops, and more. And yes, that’s the Pacific Ocean to the west, where you can frolic on dunes, poke into tide pools, and take romantic sunset strolls. But wait, there’s more. In winter, clouds of fluttering, black-and-orange Monarch butterflies gather here on their annual migration. The best place to see them is Monarch Grove Sanctuary, where they cluster in the eucalyptus trees. And if that’s not enough, you have nearby Monterey, Carmel, and the scenic 17-Mile Drive to explore.

INSIDER TIPHere, too, you can book a room in the famous Asilomar Conference Grounds, which offers lots of fun activities, including campfires, games, and walking trails.

 

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PHOTO: Loree Johnson/Shutterstock
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McCloud

This outdoorsy lumber town has been described as a cross between Norman Rockwell and Northern Exposure and that’s a perfect description. Sitting in the shadow of heavenly Mount Shasta and surrounded by abundant pine forest, its Americana streets offer galleries, shops, restaurants, and bike and camping outfitters. You can’t miss the sprawling McCloud Mercantile, the old lumber company’s headquarters which now hold shops (check out the old-timey candy counter), restaurants, and a hotel. But you’re constantly reminded that the wilderness—1 million acres of national forest—awaits just beyond. Heck, black bear and deer frequently stroll the streets. Hit the trail at McCloud Falls, where summer swimming is a must. Come winter, Mount Shasta Ski Park offers sublime sashaying down the slopes. And keep an eye out for Big Foot—no joke, the apelike beast has been spotted in these parts.

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PHOTO: Sherry V Smith/Shutterstock
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Solana Beach

The essence of California chic pervades this mellow beach town, located just half an hour north of San Diego. The heart of it all is Cedros Avenue, aka Cedros Avenue Design District, where you can upscale your home and bod at indie art galleries, furniture stores, jewelry shops, clothing boutiques, and whimsical gift shops, all of which occupy beautifully restored mid-century buildings. Belly Up Tavern offers live music year-round, and restaurant chefs concoct fresh dishes straight from the local farmer’s market (chain restaurants are not allowed here). And yes, this is a beach town at heart, so be sure to follow the surfers and sunbathers to Fletcher Cove, a glorious strand of golden sand.

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PHOTO: David Lafontaine/Shutterstock
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Julian

Wild and gorgeous hills surround this laidback gold-rush town, enchanting with spring wildflower displays. But that’s not when most people come. Autumn lures the crowds with its apples and pears, planted by post-boom gold-seekers—your choice to join or avoid. If you visit, you can pick fruit (try Apple Starr Orchard or Calico Ranch Orchard), indulge in its famous pies, and frolic at the Julian Apple Days Festival, which originated in 1907. Any time of year you’ll see the Western-style historic district filled with craft shops, art galleries, bakeries, antique stores, and restaurants. The night skies around here, by the way, are dark as black licorice, with some of the best star-gazing around.

INSIDER TIPFor a breathtaking desert view, pull off Route 79 about two miles south of Julian.

 

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PHOTO: Michael Rosebrock/Shutterstock
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Avalon

You’ll have to board a high-speed ferry to reach this charming harbor town, located on Channel Island off the state’s southern coast. Cradled by mountains overlooking dazzling Avalon Bay, Avalon is as pretty as they come. Indeed, it’s been the go-to hideaway for many a Hollywood star. Most of the action—snacking, browsing, dipping your toes in the cool Pacific—is along pedestrianized Crescent Avenue, though at only one-mile square you won’t get lost wandering afar. There’s great dining (try Bluewater Avalon for clam chowder and crab cakes); the ornately art-deco Avalon Theatre, with its hand-painted murals (it still shows movies); and the Catalina Island Museum, modeled after Chicago’s Wrigley Field—the Wrigley Family bought the island in 1919. And since this is the sea paradise of SoCal, don’t miss Lovers Cove Marine Preserve, the underwater home of moray eels, bat rays, and spiny lobsters beloved by snorkelers and divers alike.

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PHOTO: Rosangela Perry/Shutterstock
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Arroyo Grande

Victorian charm fills this little valley town off US 101, in the coveted Central Coast Wine Country. Its three main blocks along East Branch Street show turn-of-the-20th-century, lovingly-restored buildings filled with antique shops, restaurants, and cafés. Stop by Mason Bar and Kitchen to taste farm-fresh cuisine and local wines; watch the world go by (and sip amazing coffee) at Café Andreini; and check out the new, eco-friendly Agrarian Hotel. There’s wine-tasting galore waiting in the surrounding countryside—check out Laetitia Winery and Talley for starters. And don’t leave town before crossing the swinging bridge over Arroyo Grande Creek, which dates back to 1875 and is the only one of its kind left in the state.

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