If you think you’ve been everywhere worth going in Northern California, chances are you’re sorely mistaken. From the Lost Coast to Monterey Bay, a handful of small communities are just as delightful as their better-known counterparts, minus the crowds.
So, whether you’re looking for a local day trip or a weekend away, you’ll find what you’re looking for at these six under-the-radar towns.
Ferndale, CA: Storybook Vibes + An Old Saloon in Humboldt County
(Courtesy of @killertown)
The Victorian village of Ferndale is so picture-perfect that it’s played starring roles in multiple films and TV shows; Legoland in San Diego even paid the town homage by building its replica in tiny plastic-brick form. Located just south of Eureka, a few miles inland from the Pacific, Ferndale is dripping in storybook homes and bay window–fronted shops.
The dead lie in its creepy but beautiful cemetery, which towers over the village on a hill, while steep-steepled historic churches attract the living. You can easily see the village’s core in a couple of hours but the eclectic Victorian B&B known as The Gingerbread Mansion Inn is well worth an overnight stay. Either way, don’t forget to stop in for a cocktail and a game of shuffleboard at The Palace Saloon, the westernmost bar in the continental U.S.
Dunsmuir, CA: A Historic Railroad Village a Skip From Mt. Shasta
By the 1930s, Dunsmuir, a small railroad town just south of Mount Shasta, had developed into a destination for visitors in search of a gateway to the Trinities. By all appearances, that’s where time stopped for this little village, now reached via I-5. It's so evocative of that period, in fact, that Dunsmuir’s entire downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In recent years, the village’s quaint character has drawn a crop of entrepreneurs who've established businesses like the brick-walled coffee shop-cum-pub The Wheelhouse and fine dining restaurant Cafe Maddalena within its historic buildings. Although Dunsmuir’s iconic mid-century movie theater is currently closed, a local group is working to save and reopen it. The town is also home to one of California's most scenic waterfalls. But take note: Mossbrae Falls is technically on private property and trespassers may be fined, despite what you may see on Instagram.
Murphys, CA: Big Trees + Gold Rush History
(Courtesy of @visitmurphys)
Murphys popped up quickly in the heat of the gold rush in 1848 and, by the early 1900s, had become a bit of a tourist destination for its proximity to the stately sequoia at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Over the last century, that slow trickle of visitors has helped to shape Murphys into a destination that’s unexpectedly rich in restaurants, wineries (there are two dozen tasting rooms on Main Street alone), art galleries, and B&Bs, not to mention a solid dose of history in its architecture and landmarks.
Stop by the Ironstone Heritage Museum at Ironstone Vineyards to see the world’s largest gold nugget, then spend the night in the historic Murphys Hotel, which has hosted luminaries like Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain since 1856.
San Juan Bautista, CA: A State Historic Park With a Shady Past
Mission San Juan Bautista.
San Juan Bautista began brutally, with a Spanish Mission that destroyed indigenous Amah Mutsen communities and enslaved its people. But while the settlement has evolved into a lovely modern village, it has not forgotten its history, both the dark side and the light.
The original mission church still stands, as do many of the adobe homes and businesses built along the old El Camino Real in the early 1800s. Many of those on The Alameda (Third Street) have been repurposed into modern shops and restaurants and, a block away, some of the town’s 200-year-old buildings—the Plaza Hotel, Zanetta House/Plaza Hall, the Plaza Stables, a historic jail, and more—have been preserved as part of the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. When you’re done wandering, grab a meal at Michelin-starred chef Jarad Gallagher’s pandemic-born barbecue restaurant and whiskey bar, The Smoke Point, followed by a solid night’s sleep at the hacienda-inspired boutique hotel, Hacienda de Léal.
Niles, CA: A Quiet Reminder of Hollywood's Silent Film Era in the East Bay
(Courtesy of @zeruch)
Despite sitting smack in the middle of the East Bay, it’s been about a hundred years since Niles was a household name. Back then, the village, isolated from the city of Fremont by the topography of Niles Canyon, rose to fame as the Hollywood of the silent film era; Charlie Chaplin, the king of those early movies, made five films here, including 1915’s iconic The Tramp.
Geography is still in Niles’ favor today. Though it’s far more accessible than it was back then, between Niles’ ubiquitous antique stores, fetching train depot and golden hills, visiting its main street (Niles Boulevard) still feels like stepping back in time. For some real insight into the town’s early days, catch one of its original black-and-white flicks on the big screen at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.
Capitola, CA: Americana in Santa Cruz's Quainter Neighbor
The colorful seaside village of Capitola is nestled in the shadow of Santa Cruz at the northern end of Monterey Bay. Like its neighbor, Capitola is a laid-back community where surf and sun are paramount. But the town’s bite-sized center runs circles around Santa Cruz when it comes to charm.
Stroll the streets festooned with the best of Americana—ice cream and candy shops, taquerias, and bar-restaurants overlooking the ocean—before laying out on one of three beaches: Capitola, Hooper, or Trees. If you just can’t drag yourself away, stay overnight in the historic pastel vacation condos at Venetian Court, and don’t miss brunch at Shadowbrook across Soquel Creek, a classic 75-year old restaurant with a cable car funicular.
In early January 2023, a bomb cyclone storm devastated the Capitola wharf, leaving the town with over $3 million dollars in necessary repair. The slow process of rebuilding is expected to begin this spring or summer, with completion estimated for Spring 2024. So there's no better time to show this Northern California small town some love.
Calistoga: A Hidden Gem Hotel in a Beloved Wine Country Town
OK, we've all heard of Calistoga. But sometimes even our favorite destinations, the ones we return to again and again, hold surprises around charming small town corners. Established in 1919, the historic Art Deco–style Mount View Hotel & Spa is a 33-room, family-owned boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Calistoga, surrounded by restaurants, fun shops, and some of the regions' best tasting rooms.
It's a trip back to the 1920s but with comfy, modern amenities—think plush guest rooms, luxury suites (some with private jacuzzis!), a full-service luxury spa, a gorgeous swimming pool, a mineral springs jet spa, and outdoor space with fire pits for lounging.
The best part? It’s affordable. Can you stay in Napa Valley for under $300 a night? Yes, yes you can. // Mount View Hotel & Spa, 1457 Lincoln Ave. (Calistoga); for more information call 707-942-6877 or visit mountviewhotel.com.
Thank you to our partners at Mount View Hotel & Spa.