These 10 Hidden Gems Are California's Best-kept Secrets

From stunning beaches to breathtaking hikes, explore the beauty of the Golden State.

View of flowers and mountains in the Trinity Alps

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The supreme sunsets, landscapes, and weather of California inspire getaways year-round to the point that it can feel like the Golden State has no true off-season. For some of us, though, experiencing a destination without the crowds is a must; standing in a grove of redwood trees is inarguably more astounding when you’re not surrounded by busloads of tourists or obsessive selfie takers.

Sometimes, seeing a sight solo means getting off the beaten path. And lucky for anyone who can get to California, the massive state has hidden gems in spades, serene in their quietude most of the time. So, if you’re after solitude in one of the world’s most beautiful places, here are 10 spots to get you started.

01 of 10

Lost Coast

Lost Coast Trail for backpacking and hiking on Northern California's coast.

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An experienced hiker’s paradise, California’s Lost Coast stretches from Shelter Cove to Mattole Beach (about 75 miles), and it's remote at roughly five hours by car from San Francisco. Unlike, say, Big Sur, there’s no long and meandering coastal highway on the Lost Coast — the terrain is too wild for anyone to bother trying to tame it with asphalt — so adventurers tackle the coastline by trail, often taking three to four days to hike and camp its length. If that’s too ambitious, drive the Mattole Loop instead, stopping to explore Humboldt Redwoods State Park (home to Avenue of the Giants) and the town of Ferndale, recognized by its Victorian architecture.

02 of 10

Mono Lake

he Iconic Tufa's Of California's Mono Lake

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Otherworldly in a number of ways, Mono Lake is an ancient saline lake on California’s eastern edge. No fish swim here, but brine shrimp do, and those draw myriad bird species that migrate along the Pacific Flyway. Distinct limestone formations called tufa stand out — literally and figuratively — at Mono Lake. See them via a guided canoe tour, or visit the Mono Lake South Tufa area to walk among tufa towers now out of water due to lake recession. This hidden gem may be best reached via Reno, Nevada; it’s about a three-hour drive from there.

03 of 10

Santa Lucia Range

View of Pfeiffer Beach along the Santa Lucia Range

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This mountain range, just inland from the not-so-hidden gem that is Big Sur, runs from below Monterey and Carmel down to about San Luis Obispo. Big Falls Trail near the south end of the range is a five-mile trek, but paths in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Limekiln State Park — temporarily closed due heavy rains — are where you really want to go to enjoy these mountains, so be on the lookout for their reopening.

04 of 10

Salton Sea

White pelicans on sandbar in Salton Sea

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Not for the faint of heart, California’s Salton Sea conjures a sense of apocalypse. The state’s largest lake, once a playground for Hollywood names like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, is mostly abandoned today and too toxic to swim in; there’s even a beach covered in the remains of dead fish. Migratory birds rely on the lake, so part of it was officially made a wildlife refuge in 1930 (November is ideal for bird-watching here). Other nearby points of interest include gurgling mud pots, or geothermal mud volcanoes, on the eastern shoreline. This hidden gem can easily be added to itineraries that include Palm Springs and/or Joshua Tree National Park, each about an hour’s drive from here.

05 of 10

Point Reyes

Idyllic white sand beach at Point Reyes

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Despite its proximity to San Francisco (about one hour north by car), Point Reyes is pleasantly quiet, especially along its coastal trails. Look for wildflowers and endemic fauna on Tomales Point Trail — which rambles for nearly 10 miles on this special, skinny peninsula, delivering gorgeous, foggy views of the Pacific Ocean — and try local cheese at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. And if you’re willing to brave a crowd just once, delight in fresh oysters at the Marshall location of Hog Island Oyster Company, which sits right on Tomales Bay.

06 of 10


view of a vineyard with rolling hills in the distance in Hopland

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Located in the southeastern corner of Mendocino County, the lovely town of Hopland makes for an excellent jumping-off point for wildly good wine tasting. Check in at the distinctly charming Thatcher Hotel, which offers a bar, coffee shop, and stylish rooms in a Victorian structure dating back to 1890. Then, make an itinerary that includes tastings at Saracina or Alta Orsa wineries, a day in the hot springs at Vichy Springs Resort, or time among redwoods in Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve.

07 of 10

Shasta Lake

View of Mount Shasta and Lake Shasta taken from Shasta dam

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This sprawling reservoir might best be experienced via houseboat — and we’re betting you haven’t booked one recently, if ever. Once on board your floating accommodations — consider these on Vrbo — try your hand at all the water sports: swimming, waterskiing, fishing, jet skiing, and more, all with regal Mount Shasta in the background. If you need some time off the water, book a tour of Lake Shasta Caverns or hit the trail. Excellent nearby hikes include the shorter Bailey Cove Loop Trail (2.6 miles) or Chamise Peak for lake views from above.

08 of 10

Trinity Alps

View of flowers and mountains in the Trinity Alps

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Another stunning preserve in Northern California, Trinity Alps Wilderness awes visitors with its alpine lakes and granite peaks. It’s an excellent option for day hiking (try Hidden Lake Trail or Tangle Blue Lake Trail), but also for multiday backpacking trips such as the 18.6-mile Canyon Creek Lakes Trail. This destination is about 50 miles from Redding (which has a regional airport) or 200 miles from Sacramento.

09 of 10


Sunlight coming through the trees in hendy woods redwood state park

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This Mendocino County town once had its own language — Boontling — and while it’s nearly extinct, the breweries, cheese, art, and antique galleries of Boonville today make it a worthy destination. Hang out at Anderson Valley Brewing Company, a family-friendly and sustainable operation on 30 acres, sampling beers as you play 18 holes of disc golf or just relax on lawn chairs.

Save time (and belly room) for a tasting at Pennyroyal Farm, which serves estate wines, plus sheep and goat cheese made on the farmstead. And spend time walking among redwoods in Hendy Woods State Park.

10 of 10


Close-up of the SS Palo Alto, an old World War II shipwreck around sunset, off the coast of Aptos

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You could traverse California’s coastline for months, stopping at state parks and scenic coastal towns, but Aptos, just a 15-minute drive from Santa Cruz, is oft-overlooked. The enclave is surrounded by sea, coastal woodlands, and vineyards. Walk the six-mile Rio Del Mar Trail for ocean views, then wine taste along the Corralitos Wine Trail. The Tasting Barn at Lester Estate Wines is the place to sip and chill — you can even book an estate tour in a cheeky teal 1981 Range Rover Defender. Finally, check out Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Trails here were impacted by recent winter storms, but if they’re open again, don’t miss a chance to hike among redwoods and waterfalls.

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