California may conjure images of rugged coastline, spectacular beaches, and world-renowned wine country. But head for the hills, and you’ll find some of the most beautiful mountain towns in California. The Golden State is home to more than 170 mountain ranges and tucked within them are some hidden gems that’ll spice up any trip.
Dotted about California’s mountain ranges are picturesque towns and villages full of charm and character that beg to be explored. From spectacular national parks and glimmering lakes to world-class ski resorts, the diverse terrain of California makes these alpine towns an idyllic escape from the big cities and the Pacific Coast tourist hotspots.
Need a change of scenery? Explore some of California’s small mountain towns and experience what each of these pretty little hamlets has to offer!
Named after the nearby Mammoth Mountains, Mammoth Lakes is an enchanting town set high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Best known for being one of the best places for carving up the snow on the West Coast, Mammoth Lakes is home to top ski spots like the Mammoth Mountain Resort. Hit the slopes on imaginatively named ski runs such as Paranoid Flats, Gremlin’s Gulch, and Wipeout Chutes.
You’ll find plenty of other outdoor activities to enjoy around the picturesque small town. Head into the wilderness for alpine mountain biking or wild camping. Spend a few hours kayaking on one of the many lakes of the Mammoth Lakes basin. Visit the spectacular 101-foot Rainbow Falls and marvel at the perfectly hexagonal basalt columns of the Devil’s Post Pile National Monument, a feat of nature not to be missed.
Soak in one of the many hot thermal springs in the area while you take in the spectacular vistas of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Salute the end of the day with a cold brew from the Mammoth Brewing Company and enjoy the highest-altitude beer on the West Coast!
Big Bear Lake
Nestled on the banks of Big Bear Lake in the heart of the San Bernardino Mountains, the charming town of Big Bear is an all-season playground for outdoor enthusiasts. The spectacular landscapes and untamed wilderness around Big Bear Lake make it a popular filming location for Hollywood producers. But there are also tranquil hideaways here where you can lose yourself in the beauty of the mountains.
You can enjoy a wealth of outdoor activities all year long. Exploring the top tourist attractions in Big Bear, you can hit the slopes for skiing and snowboarding at the Big Bear Mountain Resort or have some snow tubing fun at Grizzly Ridge Tube Park.
When the snow melts, the real fun begins. Hike or mountain bike the challenging trails that crisscross the mountains. Spend lazy days boating and fishing on the turquoise blue waters of the tranquil Big Bear Lake. Take a mile-long ride to 8,200 feet on Snow Summit’s Scenic Sky Chair.
Picnic beneath the towering pines at Bluff Lake Reserve and marvel at the beautiful scenery. Explore the deluxe boutiques, kitschy gift shops, and stylish home décor stores in the charming Big Bear Lake Village. Or take a trolley ride around town and take in a performance at the Pickleville Playhouse.
South Lake Tahoe
Set on the shores of the beautiful Lake Tahoe, South Lake Tahoe is a large mountain town with a cozy village vibe. Surrounded by the cobalt blue waters of the lake and spectacular natural scenery, South Lake Tahoe is an adventurer’s paradise.
The Californian town has something for everyone, from gorgeous beaches and forested hiking trails to rock-climbing retreats and world-renowned ski resorts. Join the crowds of hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers, and water skiers recreating by the lake, then kick back at one of the many bistros and craft breweries.
One of the best things to do in Lake Tahoe is to hike the spectacular Rubicon Trail along Emerald Bay State Park’s conifer-clad shoreline. Discover the stone-and-timber castle of Vikingsholm at the head of Emerald Bay. Trek into the stunning glacier-sculpted landscapes of Desolation Wilderness or up to the Velma Lakes for chilly swimming.
South Lake Tahoe has a fantastic food scene with plenty of great restaurants and laid-back eateries. If you like to lay a bet, you’ll find several casinos just across the state line in Nevada. And thanks to the South Lake Tahoe Beer Trail, there’s a craft beer brewery around every corner, too!
Nestled in a valley of the Topatopa Mountains at the southern edge of the Los Padres National Forest, Ojai is a small mountain town that oozes charm. Meaning ‘nest’ in Chumash, the enchanting town is a delightful refuge in the heart of Ventura County.
Known for its breathtaking pink-hued sunsets, Ojai has it all, from boutique hotels and quaint gift stores to a deluxe spa resort and an award-winning golf course. Pick up fresh produce and locally handcrafted goods at the farmer’s market and taste some of the best local wines and olives produced along the Central Coast. If you prefer a good brew, head to the Ojai Valley Brewery for excellent locally-made beers.
Bask in the Ojai Valley’s Mediterranean climate and enjoy a range of outdoor activities, from hiking to mountain biking in the nearby Los Padres National Forest. Spend some time on the tranquil waters of Lake Casitas boating, paddling, or bathing, and don’t miss the annual Ojai Music Festival and its line-up of famous classical artists.
Resting on the flanks of the eponymous mountain in Siskiyou County, the Northern California mountain town of Mount Shasta is a gem. Close to the Oregon border, Mount Shasta is surrounded by otherworldly landscapes shaped by volcanoes and the Cascade Mountain Range. You’ll find an outdoor playground with clean, fresh air and a variety of cultural experiences.
Discover the history of the town of Mount Shasta at the small but fascinating Mt. Shasta Sisson Museum, which you’ll find just a short drive from downtown. Learn about the various industries that supported the region, as well as the spiritual and supernatural beliefs about the mountain.
Depending on what time of year you visit Siskiyou County, you can hit the slopes of the mountain for skiing in winter or hiking in summer. There are also miles of cross-country skiing trails around the mountain and plenty of incredible hiking trails through spectacular scenery. Hike to the magical McCloud Falls for some beautiful photographs.
Nestled in the heart of the Six Rivers National Forest, the “rugged mountain community” of Willow Creek is best known for being the home of the mysterious Bigfoot. This tiny town in Humboldt County is known as the ‘Gateway to Bigfoot Country’, with the dense forests around the town having the greatest number of Bigfoot sightings in the country.
Resting alongside the beautiful Trinity River, you’ll find plenty of recreational activities to enjoy in Willow Creek, from white-water rafting and tubing in the river to hiking picturesque wilderness trails, fishing, and camping. Go hiking in the magnificent forests around the town or the Trinity Alps, or hit the dirt tracks at Veterans Park with your mountain bike.
Visit the Willow Creek China Flat Museum to find out more about the famous Bigfoot and take a photo with the 25-foot-tall sculpture of the beast. Take a scenic drive along the Bigfoot Scenic Highway to the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, the largest Indian reservation in California.
For a dose of the Old West in the heart of California, head to the mountain town of Lone Pine. Embraced by the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains in eastern California, Lone Pine is a tiny blip in the vast Owens Valley.
The secluded and starkly beautiful surroundings of the valley made Lone Pine a favorite location for Hollywood Western films throughout the years. Head to the Museum of Western Film History to find out more about the town’s famous film star status.
Fishing in these parts has an almost sacred role and Lone Pine is a jumping-off point for fishing in both the Owens Valley and the Golden Trout Wilderness. It’s also the gateway for hikers heading up Mount Whitney, the highest point United States.
If summiting the 14,505-foot peak isn’t on the cards, you can hike along parts of the Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail through beautiful woodlands to the Lone Pine Creek Falls.
Water is at the heart of the mountain town of Dunsmuir in the Trinity Mountains. Situated along the Upper Sacramento River, Dunsmuir is renowned for having ‘the best water on Earth’ sourced from snowmelt that naturally filters through volcanic rock on Mount Shasta.
The lovely alpine town of Dunsmuir is surrounded by spectacular landscapes of mountain lakes, streams, and waterfalls and is a watersports lover’s paradise. The Upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers teem with trout, drawing anglers from all over the country to test their skills. Head to the glacially carved Castle Lake in winter for excellent ice-fishing.
You can enjoy easy hikes just outside of town to the beautiful Hedge Creek Falls and Sweetbriar Falls. The vast Castle Crags State Park has over 30 miles of hiking trails through spectacular landscapes of 170-million-year-old granite spires and rock formations.
Best known for its delicious apple pies, the picturesque town of Julian is rich in history, beauty, and apples. Located in the rugged Cuyamaca mountains in San Diego County, Julian has been celebrating the sweet fruit for 75 years. Every September, the town enjoys a month-long celebration of apple-related everything, including out-of-this-world apple pies.
Established during the 1870s gold rush, the town has beautifully restored historic buildings, eclectic shops, and art galleries full of works by the many local artists that call Julian home. Discover the history of the town on a self-guided heritage walk and take a guided tour of an abandoned gold mine.
The beautiful surrounding landscapes call to be explored, too. Head out onto the water of Cuyamaca Lake in kayaks, canoes, or paddle boats. Hike or mountain bike on numerous scenic trails, visit the nearby county and state parks, or enjoy a horseback adventure in the Julian area.
Bass Lake is a tiny town with a big heart. Home to just 500 people, this forest-wrapped hamlet is the perfect escape from the crowds at the nearby Yosemite National Park. Set on the shores of the eponymous pine-trimmed reservoir, Bass Lake is a haven for outdoor activities.
Due to its fairly low elevation, the waters of Bass Lake are blissfully warm in summer, making it ideal for swimming, water skiing, and wakeboarding. Rent a canoe or a kayak and explore the shoreline or cast a line to snag bass or trout.
Venture into the surrounding Sierra National Forest on one of the many hiking and mountain biking trails. Head up to Goat Mountain Fire Lookout for spectacular views or along Willow Creek Trail to Angel Falls and cool off with a swim.
Another great way of exploring this scenic stretch of the High Sierra is on wheels. You can rent bikes, fat-tire electric bikes, ATVs, and RZRs here for an off-road adventure. If you prefer to be driven, book a private Jeep tour with a guide.
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Nevada City is a charming mountain town with a rich history. Founded in 1849 as a gold mining camp, this California gold rush town has a beautifully preserved Downtown Historic District with handsome Victorian-era buildings.
Stroll around the pretty district and take a step back in time. Pristine 19th-century buildings house quaint antique stores, gift shops, restaurants, and wine-tasting rooms. Admire the Nevada Theater, built in 1865, California’s oldest operating structure, and the Victorian gingerbread façade of the bell-towered firehouse.
There are also plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy around the town. Hike along the South Yuba River on the Deer Creek Tribute Trail, which takes you across the Deer Creek suspension bridge. Gaze at thousands of brightly colored tulips at the Crystal Hermitage Gardens and sample some of Gold Country’s top wines in the nearby town of Grass Valley.
Discover the rich mining heritage of the town at the Empire Mine State Historic Park. Take a guided tour of the mine yard and visit the country estate home of the mine’s former owner.