7 Best Small Towns on the West Coast for Wine Tasting, Whale Watching, and Beautiful Views
Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
If you're planning to replace your usual big-city trip to San Francisco with a visit to Sausalito, you're not alone. Small town America has seen a resurgence in recent months, as travelers are looking to live and vacation in places with fewer people and easier access to outdoor space. And while cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Diego likely spring to mind when picturing the West Coast, the states lining the Pacific Ocean are home to plenty of small towns that offer unforgettable experiences, from wine tasting to whale watching.
All with a population under 15,000, these West Coast towns provide lots to do and see — without the crowds.
It doesn't get more charming than Carmel-by-the-Sea, a seaside town with a rich history and bustling arts scene. Spend the morning walking the Scenic Bluff Path along the coast, before surfing and lounging on the pristine Carmel Beach. On a rainy day, drop by the whaling museum at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve or Carmel Mission, a beautifully restored mission church and historic landmark.
When you need to refuel, book a table on the outdoor patio at Hog's Breath Inn (which was once owned by Clint Eastwood), or pick up sandwiches from Bruno's Market & Deli and picnic at the nearby Devendorf Park.
This small town sits right along Oregon's central coast, providing easy access to the beach as well as the ocean. To get the lay of the land, rent a bike from Bike Newport and cruise along the Oregon Coast Bike Route, which runs from Yaquina Bay Lighthouse to Yaquina Head Lighthouse. If biking isn't your thing, look for whales (during the winter months) at Yaquina Bay State Recreation Site or head south to the Hatfield Marine Science Center to check out the tide pools.
Sausalito almost has a Cinque Terre feel to it, with brightly colored hillside homes lining the sea, and perhaps most interestingly, a large number of floating homes and houseboats (including one previously owned by Shel Silverstein). The tiny, artistic enclave sits right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, providing both an escape from the city and easy access to it.
Head to the nearby Muir Woods National Monument and walk beneath old-growth redwood trees, or check out the functioning 3D hydraulic model of the Bay Area at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Bay Model Visitor Center.
Nestled right off the coast of Oregon at the mouth of the Siuslaw River is Florence, a small town with a lot going on. You can walk the trails around the restored 19th-century Heceta Head Lighthouse, or take it to the next level and book a room at the undeniably special bed-and-breakfast in the lighthouse's lightkeeper cottages.
Across the river from Florence, you'll find the towering coastal sand dunes of Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, as well as the system of sea caves and caverns that make up the Sea Lion Caves, home to Steller sea lions.
Port Townsend, Washington
It can be easy to get swept away by this coastal town's waterfront location or wonderfully quaint downtown, but in addition to being pretty, Port Townsend also has a rich history — from its early Native American roots to the remaining Victorian architecture. With not one, but two National Historic Landmark Districts, you can meander by beautiful Victorian homes and century-old downtown buildings, all while enjoying the town's present-day maritime culture.
Port Townsend is the ultimate home base for whale watching or sea-life excursions, or you can take in the vibrant arts scene with a show from Key City Public Theatre or the monthly gallery art walk.
White Salmon, Washington
Right over the border from Hood River, Oregon (another great small town), is White Salmon, a tiny enclave in the Columbia River Gorge with stunning views over the Columbia River toward Mount Hood. White Salmon may be small, but it has plenty of mountain biking trails (check out the Coyote Wall trail system) and several great spots to eat and drink.
On a warm summer day, pick up a breakfast sandwich from White Salmon Baking Co. and head to Hood River to rent a SUP or kayak for an afternoon on the water. Then, make your way back to White Salmon for a round of beer at Everybody's Brewing.
Sonoma is just as synonymous with wine as Napa, but it has managed to retain a more laid-back vibe without losing what the area is known for: vineyards upon vineyards. Post up at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa for easy spa and golf access, or book a luxurious short-term rental through AvantStay, where you'll get stellar amenities like a Jacuzzi, pool, expansive outdoor space, and BBQ grill.
When you're ready to explore, spend the morning visiting Sonoma's renowned art galleries and enjoying the colonial-era architecture, before diving into the wonders of wine country. Book a few tastings at local Sonoma vineyards or make a loop through the area, linking the wine towns of Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, and Petaluma.