One of the reasons I love California is that we have such diverse landscapes, including tremendous mountain ranges filled with charming destinations waiting to be explored. The best mountain towns in Calfornia are found up and down the state, from the remote Klamath Mountain Wilderness near the Oregon border to the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego.
Of course, we highlight popular destinations like South Lake Tahoe in the north and Big Bear in the south, but there are so many other California mountain towns worth visiting and endless things to do once you arrive, especially if you enjoy being outside. These are our picks for the 25 best mountain towns in California, along with what to do and where to stay while you are visiting.
Best Mountain Towns in California
1. South Lake Tahoe
Can’t-miss highlight of this California mountain town: World-class skiing and one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
Perhaps the most well-known mountain town in California and certainly one of the largest, South Lake Tahoe is a major vacation destination for ski enthusiasts, hikers, water sports aficionados, and even gamblers, thanks to its location straddling the California/Nevada state line.
South Lake Tahoe is a place where you can either stay in a luxury cabin on the lake or tent camp among the towering pines and curious black bears, making it a destination for all budgets.
Visiting Emerald Bay State Park, skiing at Heavenly Mountain Resort, picnicking at Fallen Leaf Lake, and a day cruising on the lake are among our favorite things to do in South Lake Tahoe.
Insider tip: If you love miniature golf, you will definitely want to visit Magic Carpet Golf which has two, 19-hole courses and one 28-hole course filled with great hazards and structures to enjoy. It is definitely one of the best mini-golf spots in the state.
Stay Here: Camp Richardson is a beloved historic resort just outside of town with a beach, marina, camping, and lodging. Even if you don’t stay here you will want to stop in and visit the Beacon Bar and Grill, a restaurant on the water that is well-known for its Rum Runners and the best calamari strips in the state!
Lake Tahoe is one of our favorite Northern California weekend getaways. See what else made our list!
2. Tahoe City
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Skiing at a former Olympic venue, Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley).
The north shore of Lake Tahoe is much quieter than the bustling south shore, and home to the much smaller town of Tahoe City. The small downtown strip is lined with quaint shops and restaurants, and has a nice walking path along the shore.
This side of Lake Tahoe is closer to Interstate 80, and just 45 minutes from Reno. It is close to a few great ski resorts- Palisades Tahoe, Alpine Meadows, and Northstar. They all have varied terrain and offer some of the best sking in the country.
In the summer, popular activities include floating down the Truckee River, beach days at the lake, hiking on trails such as the Tahoe Rim Trail, and rides aboard the Tahoe Gal, a ship that cruises Lake Tahoe from Tahoe City. The sunset dinner cruises are especially nice.
Insider Tip: If you have newbies or young kids with you, check out Granlibakken, which is great for beginning skiers and snow boarders. It is also a popular spot to go sledding, snowshoe, and even cross country ski.
Stay Here: Granlibakken Tahoe is situated on 74 acres in Tahoe City and is filled with onsite activities no matter the season. Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort has a 275-foot private beachfront and each room features a lake view and a full kitchen over in the Tahoe Vista area.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Donner Memorial State Park, home to Donner Lake and site of the Donner Party tragedy.
The largest mountain town in California along bustling Interstate 80, Truckee is home a great home base for exploring the Tahoe region, taking day trips to Reno, or vacationing at Donner Lake.
In the winter, Truckee is often snow-covered, and the many vacation homes in the area serve families well who are looking to visit a local ski resort- Tahoe Donner, Boreal, Sugar Bowl, Soda Springs, Northstar, Palisades Tahoe, and Alpine Meadows are all within 30 minutes.
Truckee is a town filled with history and a great frontier-vibe with a cute downtown. It is also home to Donner Memorial State Park. While many people stop at this park to learn about the Donner Party, there are also eight miles of hiking trails which are great to explore once the snow has melted.
In the summer, Donner Lake becomes the main attraction for vacationers enjoying fishing, boating, and water sports.
If you are looking to take a unique hike, check out the Donner Summit Tunnels. They were built by Chinese laborers in the 1800s and abandoned in 1993 when a new route was established. They are are very cool to walk through as part of an easy, 4.5-mile round-trip hike. Be sure to bring a flashlight!
Insider Tip: Wake up early to enjoy breakfast at Squeeze Inn, a beloved cafe that is well-known for serving up 60 different specialty omelettes.
Stay Here: The only hotel lodging on the lake, Donner Lake Village has its own private beach and marina, as well as plenty of lake-view rooms. Also check out VRBO or AirBnB for cabin rentals.
4. Big Bear Lake
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Strolling through Big Bear Lake Village. This charming little downtown district is filled with cute little shops and fun restaurants. You can even take a horse-drawn carriage ride through town!
Big Bear has been one of the most popular weekend getaways in Southern California for generations. My great grandfather built a cabin up near Big Bear Lake nearly 100 years ago and since then, the word has definitely gotten out about this special place!
After a winter storm you will find Big Bear jam-packed with Southern California residents eager to see and play in the white stuff. If you want to avoid a traffic jam, try to time your winter visits for mid-week.
You can ski at either Bear Mountain or Snow Summit, enjoy snow tubing at Magic Mountain, and even joining snowshoeing tours with the folks at Big Bear Discovery Center.
In the warm season, Big Bear is still an ideal weekend getaway for those who want to enjoy some cool mountain air. There are several hiking trails in the area as well as Big Bear Lake to enjoy. Rent a pontoon boat, go fishing, or just have a picnic by the water.
Insider Tip: Fall is a great time to visit Big Bear Lake if you want to enjoy changing leaves, pleasant temperatures, and few crowds.
Stay Here: Big Bear is a great place to rent a cabin. Big Bear Vacations has a great inventory of cabins at various size and price points.
5. Lake Arrowhead
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Admiring all the beautiful homes that line the lake from a boat or paddleboard.
Just 80 miles from Los Angeles, Lake Arrowhead might as well be a world away. Originally known as Little Bear Lake when it was created as a reservoir in the 1890s, Lake Arrowhead has been a resort community for 100 years.
Access to the lake is reserved for residents or guests staying at Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa. It is warm for a high elevation lake, and great for waterskiing, paddleboarding, boating, fishing, and kayaking. You can also embark on the Arrowhead Queen‘s one-hour boat tour around the lake and catch views of celebrity homes.
Lake Arrowhead Village is both charming and dog friendly. It plays hosts to several events and festivals like concerts in the summer and a bonfire in the winter.
SkyPark Bike Park at Santa’s Village is a popular spot for mountain bikers when there isn’t snow on the ground and Santa’s Village is a great family destination no matter the season. In addition to the bike park and village there is archery, rock climbing, axe throwing, a train ride, zip line, and more.
Insider Tip: Grab a beer from Lake Arrowhead Brewing Company and head to Lou Eddies Pizza, a little pizza joint in the forest that is winning awards and was even been named one of Yelp’s 100 top restaurants in the United States!
Stay Here: Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa is where you will want to stay if you want to enjoy all the lake perks, and a spa. Ask for a lakeside room with a balcony to full take advantage of location, location, location.
6. Oak Glen
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Apple picking in September and October.
Set right at the snowline in the San Bernardino Mountains, Oak Glen is a tiny hamlet that is well-known for being the premier apple picking destination for the LA metropolitan area.
For most of the year, things are relatively quiet but come autumn, Oak Glen becomes quite the bustling destination, especially on the weekends. In all, there six seasonal u-pick apple farms to visit.
Los Rios Rancho Apple Farm is the largest apple farm in all of Southern California, and quite historic as well; it was has been in operation for nearly 115 years! In addition to growing 32 different varieties of apples, they also have u-pick strawberries and raspberries in the summer, pumpkins in October, and chestnuts in November and December.
In addition to the apple farms and cider mills, you will also want to make time to visit the Oak Glen Preserve which protects 900 acres and is home to the Southern California Montane Botanic Garden. The Montane Garden features a couple ponds, a wetlands boardwalk, a section dedicated to the conifers of California, a deciduous forest, seasonal wildflowers, and a Children’s Outdoor Discovery Center.
Insider Tip: Oak Glen is a great place to enjoy fall foliage in Southern California. Colors tend to peak late October through mid November. The colors of the deciduous trees really pop against the oaks and evergreens.
Stay Here: Most people visit Oak Glen as a day trip but there are a couple cute AirBnb options in the area.
7. Mammoth Lakes
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Epic skiing in the winter and epic hiking in the summer.
Mammoth Lakes is the most popular ski destination in the Eastern Sierra. Though it is about equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco, it is much more popular with Southern California residents because NorCal folks have to drive past so many of the Tahoe-area resorts in order to reach Mammoth.
Mammoth Lakes is just on the other side of the Sierras from Yosemite National Park, and receives well over 200 inches of snow per year on average. On especially snowy years, Mammoth can receive over 600 inches of snow!
Mammoth Mountain Resort has one of the longest ski seasons in country. It typically begins in early November and runs through Memorial Day, though there has been skiing until the 4th of July on more than one occassion!
Mammoth Lakes may be known as a ski resort town, but during the warm months, there are even more things to do in Mammoth!
Mammoth Mountain Resort becomes a mountain biking destination, with 80 miles of trails that traverse the mountain. If mountain biking isn’t your thing, you can still take a scenic gondola ride up to the summit and enjoy the views.
There is also via ferrata and the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center where kids can tackle climbing walls, a junior zip line, bounce on the bungee trampoline, and complete a ropes course.
One of the main attractions near Mammoth is Devils Postpile National Monument, an impressive and extremely rare example of columnar basalt. The national monument is also home to Rainbow Falls, a 100-foot waterfall.
Devils Postpile is one of 75 California Landmarks you should see before you die!
There is no official “Mammoth Lake”, but there are several wonderful lakes in the Mammoth Lakes Basin. Twin Lakes, Lake Mary, Lake George, Lake Mamie, and Horseshoe Lake are all connected via a paved bike path. If you are looking for a workout with plenty of views of Mammoth Lakes along the way, take the series of switchbacks up to Crystal Lake.
Insider Tip: Mammoth Lakes is a great home base for several day trips. Tioga Road is open during the summer, making a day trip to Yosemite National Park an easy option when the road is open. Mono Lake, an other-wordly saline soda lake is less than an hour from Mammoth Lakes as well.
Stay Here: Mammoth Mountain Resort has several lodging options including luxury homes, condos, and standard hotel rooms.
8. June Lake
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Fall foliage season along the famed June Lake Loop.
June Lake is a small mountain resort town just north of Mammoth Lakes. It is home to June Mountain, a less expensive and less crowded alternative to Mammoth Mountain Resort. Families like this resort because kids under 12 ski for free, and beginners generally feel more comfortable on a mountain which caters to them.
Outside of ski season, people love to visit June Lake to enjoy hiking, fishing, camping, and just enjoying nature. Besides the namesake lake, the area is also home to several other lovely lakes like Gull Lake, Grant Lake, and Silver Lake.
June Lake is also a premier leaf-peeping destination. Quaking aspens flanking June Lake seem to glow as the sunlight penetrates their leaves. Granite mountainsides reflect in the lake’s waters with fiery trees highlighting the foreground. Foliage tends to peak in mid-October along the June Lake Loop.
Insider Tip: Parker Lake is an easy and excellent day hike near June Lake. The hike is just over 3.5 miles round trip and the reward is a peaceful lake framed by 12,000-foot peaks. Parker Creek runs along a portion of the trail, and brook trout and brown trout in the both lake and creek, so don’t forget your fishing poles!
Stay Here: Double Eagle Resort and Spa has a beautiful location at the base of Carson Peak. Choose from hotel rooms or two-bedroom cabins with fully equipped kitchens, fireplaces, and decks overlooking Ron’s Pond. They also have a large spa and fitness center.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Boasting the closest ski resort to Los Angeles, Mountain High Resort, Wrightwood also features some of the easiest mountain driving in the country, which is especially helpful for family members who get car sick.
Just 90 minutes from LA, Wrightwood is a small town that also features plenty of hiking, mountain biking, and snowshoeing trails; a local brewery with outdoor seating and regular live music; a thrilling zipline tour (with a line over 1500 feet long!); and plenty of local restaurants.
Speaking of a quick bite, don’t miss the pizza at Mile High Pizza, the wine cellar and tasting room at Village Grind, the breakfasts at The Grizzly Cafe, fine dining at The Blue Ridge Inn, and a bowl of healthy (or not so healthy) deliciousness at Bigfoot Bowls.
Insider Tip: The Pacific Crest Trail runs just above Wrightwood, so don’t miss the chance to walk a few steps on the famous trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. Head to the Grassy Hollow Visitor Center to hit the trail or take a few pictures at Inspiration Point nearby. On a clear day, you can see Catalina Island in the Pacific Ocean. The Big Horn Mine Trail is another best bet that ends at a mine that originally opened in 1895!
Stay Here: There are no major hotels or resorts in Wrightwood, but there are plenty of amazing cabins, inns, Bed and Breakfasts, AirBnBs and VRBOs in town with easy access to the town’s perks and the ski resort. Two best bets include the newly renovated Grand Pine Cabins and Wrightwood Sunshine Loft, an in-town AirBnB.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Enjoying a day on Pinecrest Lake.
Pinecrest is a Sierra Nevada resort town located 30 miles east of Sonora off Highway 108. It home to Pinecrest Lake, a 300-acre lake owned and operated by Pacific, Gas and Electric Company.
The lake is a picture-perfect outdoor destination no matter the season. During the summer it is popular with boaters, campers, fisherman, and families looking to enjoy a day splashing by the shore. There is also a four-mile hiking trail, Pinecrest National Recreation Trail, which winds around the lake.
During the winter, Pinecrest is a popular place for snowplay as well as skiing at Dodge Ridge Ski Resort. Dodge Ridge is a smaller, family-focused resort, making it a more affordable option than the Tahoe resorts to the north. In recent years, Dodge Ridge has also been welcoming summer guests to enjoy mountain biking and disc golf as well.
Kennedy Meadows is close by and a great place to enjoy a horseback ride. They have a wide range of trip options, ranging from one hour to multiple days.
Insider Tip: If you are looking for some adventure and a great hike to a swimming hole, head to Cleo’s Bath. It involves a four-mile hike and some rock scrambling, but the rewards are worth your efforts. This is best experienced in the summer.
Stay Here: Pinecrest Lake Resort has a variety of lodging options- motel rooms, townhouses, and cabins. It also operates the Pinecrest Marina which rents party boats, kayaks, paddleboats, and motor boats.
11. Twain Harte
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Twain Harte Lake, a private lake that offers summer fun for families like swimming, picnicking, fishing, and paddleboarding.
Named for two authors that once lived in California, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, Twain Harte is a wonderful home base for exploring the Sierra Nevadas east of Sonora. It is no wonder that many Bay Area folks have vacation homes in Twain Harte.
Day trips to Yosemite are only about 90 minutes, so it is easy to explore the park and then return back to a spacious rental cabin. In the summer, Don Pedro Reservoir and New Melones Lake are popular destinations as well. Both lakes are great for water sports like boating, water skiing, and even house boating.
Head into Jamestown, just 20 minutes away, for a scenic ride on the historic Sierra Railway and a visit to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.
Insider Tip: Head out on the Main Tuolumne Ditch Trail, a dirt single track trail with wooden water flumes ranging from several yards to one mile in length. These flumes have 2 x 12″ planks in place for maintenance workers so you can use them to walk across the flumes (or go around them if you don’t like heights). It is five miles from Twain Harte to Lyons Lake.
Stay Here: There are a few inns and bed and breakfasts in town, but if you want lake access you will want to rent a cabin with lake priviledges.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Mossbrae Falls, one of the best waterfalls in Northern California.
Dunsmuir is located in the Trinity Mountains along the Upper Sacramento River, located just off Interstate 5. It is rugged and outdoorsy, with a rich railroad history.
Castle Crags State Park is located just outside of town. These 170-million-year-old formations are popular with hikers and rock climbers. There is also great fishing along the Sacramento River which passes through both the town and park.
There are a couple different waterfalls you will want to visit while in Dunsmuir. Hedge Creek Falls are located by the Sacamento River. Mosbrae Falls is a lush and elegant waterfall formed when pure spring water pours out of the moss-covered cliffside into the Sacramento River.
Mosbrae Falls is certainly the more impressive waterfall but it requires that people walk along the train tracks (which are private property) in order to access them, and this is considered trespassing.
Thousands of people do walk along the tracks to Mosbrae Falls every year, but thankfully the city of Dusnmuir has been working with the Mount Shasta Trail Association to build a trail that connects Hedge Creek Falls with Mosbrae Falls. They are actively taking steps forward to build the trail, but it seems like it is still in the “red tape phase”.
Insider Tip: This town is known for its great local water which plays a role in crafting tasty brews at Dunsmuir Brewery Works. Great beer is best accompanied by a great burger, and the brewery has those as well, including a popular elk burger.
Stay Here: If you are looking something unique and in line with the towns railroad history, stay at the Railroad Park Resort. There are over a couple dozen cabooses that have been converted into quaint lodging with private bathrooms, mini fridges, microwaves. The Castle Crags provide the perfect natural backdrop. There is even a restaurant on property in a coverted dining car!
13. Mount Shasta
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Iconic Mount Shasta looming 14,163 feet above town.
Less than 10 miles north of Dunsmuir up Interstate 5 you will come to the town of Mount Shasta, the gateaway to the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and its namesake volcanic behemoth. This is a great destination for enjoying some of the amazing outdoor adventures that can be found in the northern reaches of the state.
The McCloud River Recreation Area is outside of town and home to McCloud Falls, a set of three waterfalls (Lower, Middle, and Upper McCloud Falls) interconnected by an easy, four-mile (round trip) trail. During the summer months, the pools below these waterfalls are fun places to swim.
Lake Siskiyou is less than three miles from downtown Mount Shasta. It is a popular spot for fishing, swimming, and walking or cycling the seven-mile Lake Siskiyou Trail which circumnavigates the lake. In the summer there is a beach with roped-off swim area, hourly SUP board and kayak rentals, and a Splash Zone with inflatable toys to play on in the lake.
Castle Lake is another great destination nearby. This lake is filled with pure water and has been studied by UC Davis for decades. I suggest taking the two-mile hike from Castle Lake up to Heart Lake, and enjoying the great views of Mount Shasta.
If it is caves you crave, Pluto’s Cave is not far from Mount Shasta and made our list of 25 Amazing Caves in California You Can Visit.
Insider Tip: Interested in checking out the headwaters of the Sacramento River, the largest and most important river in California? Then head to Mount Shasta City Park, home to Headwaters Spring, the source crystal clear origin of the Upper Sacramento River.
Stay Here: Mount Shasta Resort is a great year-round destination set on over 125 acres at the base of Mount Shasta. There are one-and-two-bedroom chalets and some are lakeside. There is also a golf course and spa on property.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Lake Almanor, the centerpiece of town and a popular vacation destination.
Chester serves as the gatewat to both Lake Almanor and Lassen Volcanic National Park, two major vacation destinations in northeastern California, especially during the summer. The road between Quincy and Lake Almanor is also a good place to enjoy fall foliage.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is just 30 minutes from Chester, and a great spot for those who want to experience an active volcano in the state of California. Lassen last erupted 100 years ago but it is still very much alive.
One of the best places to enjoy some geothermal action is on the Bumpass Hell Trail. This region is filled with bubbling mud pots and plenty of (stinky) sulfur steamworks which are accessed via a three-mile-round-trip trail that leads to a boardwalk which cuts through this active volcanic area.
Other trails in the area which are filled with volcanic features that you won’t want to miss include the three-mile trail to Boiling Spring Lake, a lake that remains at 120 degrees and 4.2-mile Devil’s Kitchen which second largest hydrothermal area.
Insider Tip: The road between Quincy and Lake Almanor is a great place to enjoy fall foliage.
Stay Here: There are several great vacation homes to rent around the lake, golf course, or forest but if you are looking for traditional lodging, Best Western Rose Quartz Inn is highly rated and includes breakfast.
15. Happy Camp
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: The rugged Klamath Mountain Wilderness surrounding town.
Happy Camp is one of the most remote towns in California. It is located in far Northern California, about 30 miles from the Oregon border and 70 miles from the nearest major town of Yreka (and by “major” we mean a town of only 8,000 people).
It used to be a logging town but since the mills have shut down, it has become a haven for artists, outdoorsy folks, and those still embracing the desire to separate from California and form the State of Jefferson. You can even find State of Jefferson flags and shirts for sale around town.
Happy Camp is a popular destination for fishing Steelhead trout in the Klamath River, the second largest river in California. As a matter of fact, the town has deemed itself to be the “Steelhead Capital of the World”.
It is also a popular place to enjoy river rafting with three-day rafting trips on the Lower Klamath originating in town. This trip is a great option for beginners. There is also great mountain biking, camping, and hiking in this area.
Happy Camp is also known as “Bigfoot Country” and Bigfoot hunters come from all around with hopes of spotting this mythical beast. There is even a large Bigfoot sculpture created by local artists on Highway 96 on the eastern side of town!
Insider Tip: The Marble Mountain Wilderness portion of the Pacific Crest Trail passes near Happy Camp, a great backpacking destination.
Stay Here: Klamath River Resort Inn is a nice place to stay along the Klamath River. The property has a lovely lawn with chairs by the river, and it is a splendid spot to slow down and enjoy nature.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Exploring the Hetch Hetchy portion of Yosemite National Park, a region often missed by visitors.
Groveland is one of the gateway towns for Yosemite National Park, located off Highway 120. It has a rich California Gold Rush past and has been the center plenty of controversy revolving around its role as the base of operations for the nearby Hetch Hetchy Dam which supplies water to San Francisco.
Hetch Hetchy Valley is located inside of Yosemite National Park, about 35 minutes outside of town. The Tuolumne River winds through this valley which is said to be as beautiful as Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately it was flooded once the 430-foot-tall O’Shaughnessy Dam was built in the 1930s.
There has been a long campaign to remove the dam and return the valley to its natural state, but since it is the primary source of water for 2.5 million people and there is currently a water shortage in the state, these efforts haven’t been successful thus far.
This region is still very nice to hike, and the five-mile, round-trip hike to Wapama Falls shouldn’t be missed. The trail follows the shore of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and is especially lovely during wildflower season.
Groveland was founded in 1848 (originally named “Big Oak Flat”) and is home to Iron Door Saloon, the longest continually operating saloon which opened back in 1852. The vibe at this bar and along Main Street definitely is reminiscent of the town’s Gold Rush past.
Groveland is home to Pine Mountain Lake, a private community with its own lake and golf course. It is a gated community but you can book a stay at a vacation rental and enjoy the ammenities.
Insider Tip: If you want more California history check out the Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum which has exhibit on the Gold Rush, Hetch Hetchy, and exhibits highlighting local plants and animals, including a huge, stuffed 565-pound California Black Bear
Stay Here: Rush Creek Lodge is resort-style lodging within a short drive to Yosemite National Park. It has rooms, suites, and even hillside villas, as well as a spa. During the summer months you won’t want to miss their Poolside Summer BBQ which is perfect for families.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
Wawona is a historic town located entirely within Yosemite National Park at its southern entrance. It is one of the only places where you can rent a vacation home inside the park, and the only spot inside the park to enjoy horse-drawn wagon rides and see a covered bridge.
The biggest attraction in the area is probably the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, a magnificent forest of 500 mature Sequoias first protected by President Lincoln in 1864. Some of its most famous trees are the Grizzly Giant, Fallen Monarch, and the California Tunnel Tree.
You will also want to check out the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad in nearby Fish Camp. They offer narrated steam train rides which can include lunch or dinner. These scenic rides are in the Sierra National Forest, just outside of Yosemite.
Insider Tip: The Chilnualna Falls Trail is a strenuous one with 2,400 feet of elevation gained over 4 miles, but if you hike it along the creek for the first half mile, you can still enjoy some of the trail’s highlights and beauty without all the effort.
Stay Here: The Redwoods in Yosemite is a collection of vacation cabins inside the national park. They come in a variety of sizes and price points, and some are pet friendly.
18. Pine Mountain Club
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Spotting rare birds of prey up on Mount Pinos.
Anyone who has driven the infamous “Grapevine” up Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles has driven past a few different Southern California mountain towns, but most don’t stop and explore. Believe it or not, there is plenty to enjoy once you get off the interstate.
Pine Mountain Club sits in the shadow of Mount Pinos, a 8,847′ peak dotted with Jefferey pines which sits on the border of Ventura and Kern Counties in the Los Padres National Forest. During the winter, this is a popular place to enjoy snow play, sledding, backcountry skiing, and even snow camping.
In the summer, the weather is a mild escape from the heat of the surrounding lower elevation cities of LA Metro and Bakersfield, and Pine Mountain Club is a great place to be outside. Hiking and bird watching are two great activities, especially since the areas is home to several birds of prey, including endangered California condors.
Hiking trail options include Eagle Pass Ridge which leads you to a scarf joint of the San Andreas Fault and the trail to Silverville Mine which is still being worked by the claimholder.
Insider Tip: Pine Mountain is a fun home base for ATVing. There are several trails in the area including ATV trails including Caballo, Marin, Toad Springs, Campo Alto, Mesa Springs, Sheep, Chula Vista, McGill, and Mt. Pinos.
Stay Here: Pine Mountain Inn is a charming inn close to all the perks of living in Pine Mountain Club. Each room has its own theme and decor.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Rafting the Kern River.
Kernville was founded as the mining settlement known as Whiskey Flat back in the mid-1800s. It was named after a whiskey saloon that was built to serve gold miners and outlaws that were attracted to the area.
Today, you can visit Silver City Ghost Town which is home to historical buildings from Whiskey Flat.
Today, Kernville attracts outdoor enthusiasts looking to go white water rafting, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and climbing in the summer as well as skiing and snowboarding in the winter.
This town serves as the gateway to the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, as well as Sequoia National Forest. It is at a lower elevation than some other mountain towns in California, but since it is such an important gateway to the southern end of the Sierras, we wanted to include it.
The Kern River is a very popular destination for whitewater rafting. There is Class II and III whitewater in town, and Class IV and V whitewater further up the river. If you aren’t interesting in rafting but want to catch a glimpse of it, head to the deck Ewings Restaurant where you will see close to 100 rafts floating by per day during peak season.
One of the most popular day trips from Kernville is to the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Monument. This sequoia grove is located on the Western Divide Highway about an hour from town. It is home to 125 giant sequoias that are up to 20 feet in diameter and soar over 200 feet tall.
There is a 1.3-mile loop trail that winds through the grove which is a great alternative to the busy groves in Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks.
If you visit Kernville during the winter and like to ski, head to Alta Sierra, a small ski resort that serves the communities in the southern Central Valley. They also have snow tubing.
Insider Tip: Visit the Kern River Brewing Company. It is owned by two former Olympic kayakers and was named the best small brewery in the country in 2019.
Stay Here: Corral Creek Lodge is small lodge along the Kern River outside of town that is a great central hub for enjoying outdoor adventure as well as pursuits in town.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Hiking one of the numerous trails in the area, including the Pacific Crest Trail.
Palm Springs and the rest of the Coachella are backed by the towering San Jacinto mountain range. While life in the valley is filled with scorching temps and palm trees, things change rapidly once you start climbing in elevation.
Idyllwild is a land of pine trees and boulders, making it an ideal Southern California mountain town escape. Most access the town on the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, which winds its way through several different ecosystems as it climbs.
Idyllwild is one of those towns that doesn’t allow big chains to set up shop, so you will have the joy of patronizing a bunch of cute mom and pop shops. The heart of town is very walkable and has a definite mountain town vibe. It is also very welcoming to artists and hosts Idyllwild Art in the Park during several weekends throughout the year.
This is another one of those mountain towns in California that serves as a great home base for hiking or rock climbing. Mt. San Jacinto State Park has several great hikes, including the one to San Jacinto Peak, but many of them are strenuous since these mountains are so steep.
If you are looking for something more tame, head to the Idyllwild Nature Center which is the jumping off point for several easier-but-still-scenic trails in the area, including one that leads to Idyllwild Regional Park.
Insider Tip: If you are an animal lover, stop by the Living Free Animal Sanctuary. It is set on 155 acres and rescues cats, dogs, horses, and donkeys. Behind-the-scenes tours allow you to visit the cattery, dog kennel, and meet some of the horses and donkeys.
Stay Here: Most people who visit Idyllwild either camp or rent a cabin.
21. Pollock Pines
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Sly Park Recreation Area, home to Jenkinson Lake.
Pollock Pines is the largest mountain town along Highway 50 as it climbs in between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe. It sits in the El Dorado National Forest and is surrounded by dense pine forest and gets anywhere between six inches and six feet of snow per season.
Sly Park Recreation Area is located just outside of town. It is home to Jenkinson Lake, a fun spot to water ski, kayak, peddle boat, and fish. There are also nine miles of trails around the lake which can be hiked, biked, or ridden on horseback.
The town is close to Apple Hill, a collection of 50 family farms, most of which have wonderful apple orchards. During the fall, this region is bustling with tourists from the Sacramento area eager to pick apples, visit cider mills, select pumpkins, and experience all the booths and attractions that many of these farms have to offer. During December, it is also a major cut-your-own Christmas tree destination.
Insider Tip: Pollock Pines was one of the original stops on the Pony Express. Sportsman’s Hall, which served as the Pony Express station, is still in operation and serves up three meals daily.
Stay Here: The Best Western Stagecoach Inn is the best bet in town.
22. Meyers (+Twin Bridges)
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Skiing at Sierra-at-Tahoe or hiking in nearby Echo Lake.
Another Pony Express stop in the mid-1800’s, Meyers is now known as the junction point for Highways 50 and 89, as well as a western suburb (if you can call it that) of South Lake Tahoe. Most people who visit Meyers use it as a homebase to explore the Lake Tahoe Region, including its many ski resorts.
Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort is less than 10 miles away, just off Highway 50 in the tiny 30-person hamlet of Twin Bridges. Echo Lake Snow Park is five miles away and a popular place for snow play. If you want to try snowmobiling, Lake Tahoe Adventures operates in town and will take you out on a tour of nearby Hope Valley.
In the summer, hiking along the Echo Lakes is a popular activity. The Pyramid Creek Trail to Horsetail Falls is another popular destination as well.
Insider Tip: Enjoy a 5.8-mile, round-trip hike to Tamarack Lake by taking advantage of the water taxi to Echo Lake Chalet on Upper Echo Lake. Use the taxi on the outbound leg and then return by walking past the northern shore of the glacially carved Echo Lakes.
Stay Here: Most people visiting this portion of the Sierras either rent cabins or stay in South Lake Tahoe.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Apple picking at one of the area orchards.
The southermost of all of the featured mountain towns in California is Julian, a cute and historic hamlet in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. It was home to a gold rush which was sparked after gold was discovered in a nearby creek in 1870.
The gold rush only lasted 30 years, but you can still tour two of the original mines, Eagle and High Peak Mines, today.
Julian is also well known for its apple orchards, and you can pick your own apples straight from the trees during the fall. Local orchards and businesses also sell fresh-pressed apple cider, pies, and a variety of other seasonal goods. Stop in the Julian Pie Company on Main Street for delicious pies in flavors like Apple Mountain Berry and Caramel Apple.
Animal lovers will certainly want to visit the California Wolf Center which a nonprofit dedicated to returning wild wolves to their natural habitat through capitve breeding. They have been successful at breeding critically endangered Mexican gray wolves. Public tours are offered Friday through Sunday.
Insider Tip: Stop in Miner’s Diner to eat at the old-fashioned soda fountain which was originally installed in 1928. Try classic drinks like sarsparilla and phosphate or go big with a banana split or rootbeer float.
Stay Here: Embrace the town’s history and stay at the Julian Gold Rush Inn. This historic landmark hotel was built in the 1890s. Rooms are tastefully decorated with vintage decor and feature touches like claw-foot tubs and cast-iron fireplaces.
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Gold Bug Park and Mine, an authentic gold mine from the Gold Rush era.
Placerville is a Gold Rush town east of Sacramento that serves as a gateway to the Tahoe country, El Dorado Wine Country, as well as Gold Country. The town comes with a past common to the wild and wooly 1850s. As a matter of fact it was once known as Hang Town due to the fact that five men were once hung on the same day from the same tree.
Historic dowtown Placerville is the Fountain-Tallman Museum, where you can learn more about the town’s Wild West history, as well as “the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi”- Placerville Hardware Strore, and lots of antique shops, galleries, stores, and restaurants. If you plan well, you can even take advantage of the free stagecoach rides offered once a month.
If you want to dive deeper into the town’s mining history, head to Gold Bug Park and Mine which offers tours and has a museum, historic stamp mill, blacksmith shop, and gem panning trough.
Insider Tip: Head up HIghway 50 to Apple Hill, a community of farmers that grow Christmas trees, pumpkins, and plenty of apples. During the fall and holiday seasons, this region is bustling with tourists visit the farms to enjoy festivals, food, apple picking, and plenty of fun.
Stay Here: Embrace the history of this California mountain town and by staying at the Historic Cary House Hotel. The property has plenty of antiques, some dating back to the 1850s, and is a short walk to all that Placerville’s Main Street has to offer.
25. Nevada City
Can’t-Miss Highlight of this California Mountain Town: Lots of Gold Rush history and the Nevada City Winery, the oldest winery in the region.
Nevada CIty is yet another California mountain town with Gold Rush roots. It was settled in 1849 and the first mine, Gold Tunnel, was built in 1850.
Much of Nevada City’s downtown area has been deemed a historic district, with several buildings deemed California Historical Landmarks or on the National Register of Historic Places such as Nevada Theater (California’s oldest theater) and the National Hotel which is one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in the West.
If you love historic bridges, there are several which cross the numerous creeks and rivers in the area such as Edwards Crossing Bridge, Purdon Crossing, Hoyt’s Crossing, and South Yuba River Bridge.
Nevada City serves as the headquarters for the Tahoe National Forest, and there are several great hiking trails in the national forest as well as around town. The Independence Trail, a five-mile round-trip trail, is the nation’s first handicapped-accessible wilderness trail which was created by transforming a historic gold mine ditch!
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park is another great place to visit. There, gorgeous red and white cliffs are exposed among the evergreens thanks to hydraulic mining generations ago. The park offers tours of the resident ghost town as well as guided gold panning.
Insider Tip: Visit during December to enjoy the town’s Victorian Christmas celebration. Enjoy wandering carolers dressed in Victorian attire, over 100 artisan vendors, visits with Father Christmas, and fresh roasted chestnuts.
Stay Here: The National Exchange is a historic hotel built in 1856 which has been recently renovated and is home to the National Bar (also historic with great ambiance) and fine dining at Lola, the hotel’s restaurant.