I’ve Lived in California All My Life — and These Are the Most Underrated Destinations in the Golden State

The challenge of understanding California and all it has to offer travelers is that it is behemoth in size — at nearly 156,000 square miles — and somewhat shrouded in stereotype. There are beautiful beaches, sure, and Los Angeles and San Francisco are iconic cities within its bounds, but so much of California’s beauty goes unseen if you don’t leave those urban centers.

I didn’t think so at the time, but I was fortunate to grow up in the Central Valley of California; it may have not been a hub of opportunity, but it was an unbeatable location from which to explore the state. Combine that with two parents who have never blinked an eye at a long drive and the result is me, a kid-turned-adult who will buckle up for just about any road trip to a new-to-me corner of California.

If you’re looking to lift the veil on the Golden State, here are 10 underrated destinations in California, as recommended by a devoted resident explorer. Keep in mind that getting there is half the fun.

San Luis Obispo

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For years, all I really knew about San Luis Obispo was that it is home to a great public college: California Polytechnic State University. No one told me it was minutes from the sea and surrounded by verdant foothills, but maybe that’s because many of those hills are covered with wine grapes, and I was too young to partake in the fun then.

But I’m not too young now, and San Luis Obispo is a pretty three-hour drive from Los Angeles with plenty to do, from shell hunting along the Morro Bay shoreline to kayaking and wine tasting. My favorite tasting rooms right now are at Chamisal Vineyards and Baileyana, both easily reached from town, but travelers can choose their own adventure from the many wineries in Edna Valley. On Thursday evenings, the SLO farmers market pops up along Higuera Street, and perusing the 100-plus stalls here is a great way to experience the wealth of this agricultural region and feel like a local. 

If you’re able to stay a couple of nights, you have many good options. Hotel San Luis Obispo is located in the very walkable downtown, and the lobby bursts with energy on weekend evenings, thanks to its lively restaurant and bar. For a modern lodge vibe, consider the 25-room San Luis Creek Lodge, which is also in the downtown area. There’s also Madonna Inn, open in some form since 1962 and a quintessential California property. Today, it has 110 quirky themed rooms plus a famous dessert counter and a gold-trimmed, bubblegum-pink steakhouse. If you require a souvenir, perhaps it’s a Madonna Inn wine goblet; less is certainly not more here, and that’s a motto I can stand behind.

Cuyama Valley

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This valley stretches like a hammock between the familiar Interstate 5 and U.S. 101; on a map, you’ll find it approximately between Bakersfield and the Central Coast town of Santa Maria. Veer onto State Route 166 and you’ll eventually find yourself in Cuyama Valley, an incredible swath of land long home to the Chumash people.

This is a place to slow down and revel in quiet. If that suits your needs, check in to Cuyama Buckhorn, a roadside motel in the town of New Cuyama, population under 700. The property has everything you need for an escape with a good Western lean, from rooms adorned with vintage cowboy hats to fire pits, a barrel sauna, and a giant pool with a wide-open view west, great for sunset watching. But my favorite corner of the Buckhorn is the bar, with its dripping taper candles and bartender, Sam Seidenberg, mixing drinks behind the counter. Order the Rumble Fish, a cocktail made with cachaça, grape shrub, yuzu sake, and Dimmi, then topped with a cluster of frozen grapes. It’s a drink and a snack, my friends and I decided — the liquor fueling a night of stories and laughs and plans to return.

If you’re ready for more driving after a great breakfast, head to Carrizo Plain National Monument, one of California’s most remote destinations. The southern entry to the 250,000-acre preserve isn’t far from the Buckhorn; once within preserve bounds, though, roads are unpaved, heavily grooved, and hardened by the elements, so it will take you some time to get to the major sights. I still found the drive through the plains worthwhile — we saw more tarantulas than people, and even a herd of elk running with the wind.

Visiting the monument’s Painted Rock was our goal (permits are required, but easily obtained online). Once parked in the dirt parking lot, you can trek toward the crescent-shaped sandstone formation (2.5 miles out and back) through dancing grasses and wildflowers. At the rock’s center are remnants of ancient native paintings. The alkaline (and usually dry) Soda Lake is another landmark to see nearby. In springtime, these plains burst with wildflowers, so mark your calendar for mid-March or mid-April if you’d like to see the colorful show.

Mammoth Lakes

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Named for the seven alpine lakes within its bounds, Mammoth Lakes is ideal for nature lovers and hikers of all skill levels. It’s also popular with mountain bikers, and there’s even a free trolley that shuttles visitors (and their bikes, skis, or snowboards) from the town center to trailheads and mountain resort entrances. 

When I visited in the summer, my friends and I circled three lakes in one day: McLeod Lake (a 1.8-mile loop), Horseshoe Lake (also 1.8 miles) and Convict Lake (about three miles), which is a short drive from town. Tremendous mountains surge up around all of these lakes; visit in September and October for the chance to see the aspen and cottonwood leaves changing color. And if your legs get weary, ask a local for their favorite nearby hot spring. If you get names like Crab Cooker and Wild Willy’s, you’ll know you’re on the right track. Pack your own towel for the trip, prepare for a complete lack of signage, and don’t be surprised if someone’s soaking in the nude when you arrive.

Following your hike, fuel up in town. For a big-city experience (think flashy bar and upscale pastas and pizzas), try Vulcania, a restaurant by the Voltaggio brothers. And to rub elbows with locals, pop into places like Elixir Superfood & Juice and Stellar Brew; grab-and-go burritos at the latter are great to pack along for a hike.

The Westin Monache Resort has beautiful accommodations; I spent a lot of time looking at the Sierras from my two-bedroom suite. Plus, the property is located right next to The Village, which is full of restaurants, shops, and bars. And for a somewhat historic stay, consider the recently rebranded (and expanded) Outbound Mammoth, formerly the Sierra Nevada Resort. One of the original owners was Clark Gable, and for years, Hollywood stars escaped the fray of the city here. Book a room or chalet with a fireplace for an especially cozy stay, or consider the resort’s new cabins and villas. And be sure to take advantage of the on-site dining options, too, including Bar Sierra (where talented sommelier Chip Ermish curates a spectacularly diverse wine cellar) and Cafe Crêpe, a food truck making masterful French treats. 


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My grandfather lived in Sacramento most of his adult life, so I spent many a holiday in the city, eating turkey dinners in his immaculate garage and driving to see the Chinook salmon run in the Sacramento River — an incredible natural plight to witness in person and at any age.

I’ve long felt that California’s capital deserves a bit more attention than it gets — a sure sign that my elementary school lessons about the region did the trick. In Old Sacramento State Historic Park, field-trippers visit the California State Railroad Museum to learn about how locomotives changed the West dramatically, delivering settlers and increasing transcontinental trade. Also on Front Street in this district are still-standing, Gold Rush-era structures, and it’s fun to peruse the trinket and souvenir shops they now house. From here, you can also walk to Tower Bridge, a rare vertical lift bridge (which allows for taller vessels to pass under), standing since 1935. Pedestrians can stroll over to get a nice view of the Sacramento River.

Proof that California’s capital is also modern and cool, Kimpton Sawyer Hotel offers 250 rooms and proximity to both old and new Sacramento. Revival at The Sawyer, the hotel’s lush rooftop bar and lounge, draws both locals and out-of-towners with live music, DJ sets, Sacramento Kings-themed cocktails and more. Golden 1 Center is just next door, if you’d like to watch the Kings play in person or catch a concert. The annual Farm-to-Fork Festival takes place nearby as well, bringing thousands of people together to celebrate the bounty of this historic, agricultural capital. And when you need a caffeine pick-me-up, find the closest location of Temple Coffee Roasters — a great roaster rooted right here in Sacramento.

Laguna Beach and Dana Point

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There are more than 400 beaches in California, and after years of checking out plenty of them in the southern half of the state, I count Laguna Beach as my top choice. Laguna delivers a small-town vibe and big-city perks, and at about 55 miles from Los Angeles, it’s easily reached. I prefer to arrive from the north via the Pacific Coast Highway; as you round a curve in the roadway just above Main Beach, you get an awesome view of the usually umbrella-dotted shore and the sea.

After playing in the sand at Main Beach, stroll the cute downtown village, where shops, galleries, and eateries line Broadway Street, Ocean Avenue, Forest Avenue, and beyond. For meals and snacks, I point people to Nick’s Laguna Beach, Zinc Cafe, and then Dolce Gelato for a sweet treat. There are outdoor adventure options, too. Crystal Cove State Park is one of Laguna’s big draws, perhaps foremost for its four tide pool areas. Check the tide chart, arrive when the water is low, and you’re sure to spot barnacles, anemones, sea stars, urchin and hermit crabs, to name a few. And if you’re into hiking, this same park has awesome trails across its 2,400 acres of backcountry land. 

For a luxe yet relaxed stay, check into The Ranch at Laguna Beach. Set in Aliso Canyon, this upscale hideaway is hard to leave. And you don’t have to, if you choose, as there are great on-site eats, a spectacular nine-hole golf course that meanders into the canyon, and a lovely path down to the beach — only 350 yards away. Take the garden tour to see how the resort grows great produce for its signature restaurant, Harvest. Next time I’m in town, I’ve got my eyes on a stay at Montage Laguna Beach. 

If you head south a few miles (and just out of Laguna’s city limits), you’ll find even more options. To overlook the water, check into The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, which sits on a bluff and offers direct beach access, a spa, and a dedicated eco adventure center (for planning surfing, kayaking, whale watching, and more). In Dana Point, Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa is a great choice. Also on a bluff, the property overlooks the harbor and is charming with its Victorian-style facade and red roof. My kids loved the sprawling lawns (where they cartwheeled and raced), poolside splash pad, family-friendly putting green, and adjacent playground in Lantern Bay Park; us parents loved the stellar cocktails and fabulous dinner at the on-site restaurant.

Santa Ynez Valley

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Set in Santa Barbara County, the Santa Ynez Valley is a California gem with a food and hotel scene that’s burning brighter and brighter every year. I’ve been nearly half a dozen times in the last four years — with my kids, with fellow mothers eager to get away, and with my spouse for an escape. All that’s to say, there is no wrong way to do Santa Ynez Valley — come as you are and enjoy.

A car is necessary here, as having wheels will allow you to cruise meandering country roads like Foxen Canyon and to hopscotch to fabulous small towns like Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, Ballard, and Buellton. You will also surely visit Solvang, not just because it’s the largest town in the valley, with a population around 6,000, but also because its slow-spinning windmills and Danish architecture are a sight to see; in 1911, three Danish immigrants set down roots here, buying thousands of acres of land and encouraging fellow Danes to join them. If you really want to experience this history, come during Danish Days in the fall or Julefest in winter. And any day of the year, it’s a lovely town in which to stroll, shop, museum hop, and eat. Dine at Peasants Feast, do a tasting at Kings Carey Wines, and try the Danish pastry aebleskivers before hitting the road.

Hotel Ynez was perfect for a girls weekend, with cute rooms and a giant central garden featuring hammocks, fire pits, big trees, and more. The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern, Auberge Resorts Collection is now welcoming guests to its stunning grounds in Los Olivos. And for a luxe ranch stay, Alisal Ranch is at the top of my must-experience list; the family-friendly property is more than 10,000 acres and on-site activities range widely, from family bingo and crafts in the barn to horseback riding and mountain e-biking. Plus, meals and drinks are included in the stay.

To further fuel your travels, have wine and cheese under a magnificent oak tree at Roblar Winery, enjoy an alfresco breakfast at Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos or Ballard, or sip your way through the tasting rooms in Los Olivos. And don’t leave without having a meal at the award-winning Bell’s or Bar Le Côte, two restaurants by chef Daisy Ryan and partner Greg Ryan.

Channel Islands National Park

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Channel Islands National Park is an incredible California destination for outdoor adventurers, but the commitment it takes to reach it makes it relatively overlooked. Set miles off the coast, the park is accessible only via ferry, and many travelers book their journey through official concessionaire Island Packers out of Ventura Harbor. The company has been chartering folks across the Santa Barbara Channel and to the islands since 1968, and today, day-trippers can buy round-trip boat tickets for roughly $45 to $63. The ride is one hour each way, and marine life sightings include humpback whales (seasonally) and dolphins.  

These islands are a true pack-in and pack-out situation, with no potable water in the park, no food for sale, and vault toilets here and there. But that lack of infrastructure is part of what makes the islands what they are today — a nature sanctuary unlike any other place on Earth. I opted for a solo day trip to Santa Cruz Island, and while I hoped I’d spot an island fox as I hiked, I settled for island scrub-jays and wind-whipped grasses instead. When I return, I’ll do an entirely different trip. You can camp on the islands, join a guided kayaking excursion with Channel Islands Adventure Company, book a bird-watching trip, or scuba dive with an outfitter like Channel Islands Expeditions, among other options.

Mendocino County

Courtesy The Inn at Newport Ranch

Mendocino County is one of my favorite places in California to explore, but a familiar story applies here: The region isn’t supremely accessible (you’ll drive about three hours from San Francisco, for example), and I believe that impacts the number of people who visit. I love the area for its green preserves and the big trees in them (if you want to go forest bathing, this is the place); its pastoral seaside bluffs that are a wildflower or bird-watcher’s paradise; and all of the small towns that a traveler might string together for a full itinerary. 

If it’s your first time here, I’d recommend exploring Fort Bragg, with requisite stops being Glass Beach, Noyo Harbor, and Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. If you’ve got kids, a ride on the historic Skunk Train through ancient redwoods never fails to please, and there are even themed rides during the holiday season. Then, about 10 miles south, stroll around the town of Mendocino, home to 19th-century Victorian homes and cottages and enough cute shops to fill an afternoon.

And note that hiking in this region is first-rate. Ramble in Mendocino Headlands State Park, and save time for a trek in Van Damme State Park. A cooler day at the beach is also in order here — for that, I point visitors to Russian Gulch State Park and Big River; at both sites, rivers run right through the sand and to the sea. For an entirely different trip that foregoes the sea, spend a few days wine tasting in Anderson Valley.

On top of that, Mendocino’s list of boutique hotels is formidable. If you’re inland, stay at the Thatcher Hotel in Hopland. On the coast and above Fort Bragg, The Inn at Newport Ranch is set on 2,000 acres, and guests here can take an ATV tour of the grounds to get a better sense of its splendor. Other local favorites include Noyo Harbor Inn, Nicholson House, and Little River Inn. For a glamping experience, book a tent at Mendocino Grove.

Russian River Valley

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Starting from the Laughlin mountain range in Mendocino County, the Russian River flows south toward Healdsburg and Windsor before veering west, through Sonoma County and to the Pacific Ocean. Towns in its westward path include Forestville, Guerneville, Monte Rio, and Jenner. Vineyards surround it much of the way — this is the Russian River Valley.

As a kid, I spent many a day in Healdsburg Square, now known as Healdsburg Plaza, because my grandmother lived nearby. We would shop for the latest installment of “The Baby-sitters Club” series at Toyon Books, which is now a Copperfield’s. And she’d buy French bread and ingredients for her whole chicken recipe at the local Nob Hill, paying by handwritten check, of course.

Once I was an adult and traveling on my own schedule, I found myself back in the Russian River Valley here and there. In the summer, float the river in Forestville on your own inner tubes — it’s slow going and more about the scenery and than the speed. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is a perfect place to get up close to magnificent redwood trees. And rustic little Guerneville is a great town to stroll around. Go wine tasting nearby, sleep beneath the redwoods at glamping resort AutoCamp Russian River, and leave time to explore further west. The recently reimagined Dawn Ranch is sure to be a flame that attracts new visitors to the region. 

Cayucos and Cambria

 Jessica Alexander

Located roughly 15 miles from one another, Cayucos and Cambria are two Central Coast towns that can easily be rolled into one awesome trip. Though they may be overlooked at times because of the grandeur of their northerly neighbor, Big Sur, they are laid-back and beautiful. I recommend them if you’re looking to do less and relax more — precisely my preference when in a misty small town by the sea. 

In Cayucos, check in to The Pacific, a 20-room property that includes historic bungalows from the 1950s. Fully reimagined and reopened in 2022, it’s a stylish retreat and an ideal home base for some low-key local exploring. Hang out on Cayucos State Beach or check out the tide pools in Estero Bluffs State Park. Stroll along the historic Cayucos Pier (built in 1872), and try some of the town’s favored eateries, like Bijou Bakery and Cafe della Via.

Next up is Cambria, a beloved coastal enclave that’s often where travelers stay if they’re visiting Hearst Castle. But there’s plenty more to add to your itinerary here. Moonstone Beach is a must for its lovely views and one-mile boardwalk, and Sea Chest Oyster Bar is a great choice for a meal. For even more dramatic views, take your pick from the trails in Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, and make the 10-minute drive to the Piedras Blancas rookery to say hello to the region’s resident elephant seals. Shopping in downtown Cambria is a nice way to while away an afternoon as well, and that will put you relatively close to Robin’s Restaurant, which has been serving eclectic comfort food in this community for years. As for lodging, consider booking a room at the cheery Cambria Beach Lodge or the 25-room White Water, a luxury lodge on a Moonstone Beach bluff.