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must-see towns during a california road trip

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Must-See Small Towns on Your Next California Road Trip

April 4, 2019

California’s biggest cities–and biggest tourist destinations–are spread out along its glorious Pacific Coast, making a coastal road trip an amazing way to explore the state. Not only will you get to experience the different attractions and atmospheres of both NorCal and SoCal, you’ll see the glorious scenery of the coast, from rugged rock formations to broad beaches of picture-perfect golden sand. You’ll also see vineyards, rolling hills, and rugged mountain ranges as you drive parallel to the Pacific.

Whether you travel up or down the coast on US-101 or CA-1, take an epic journey all the way between San Diego and the redwood forest, or cover a shorter section, perhaps between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a California road trip is a vacation you’ll never forget. To make it even more memorable, stop to explore some of the smaller towns on or near the coast. Many smaller places you’ve never heard of offer major amounts of charm and enticing attractions of their own.



A quirky little town in the midst of the Santa Ynez Valley wine country, Solvang is inspired by the Danish homeland of its founders. Windmills, timber-clad buildings, and Danish bakeries abound in the heart of the village, which is small enough to explore fully on foot. Stop in at a few tasting rooms to sample local wines (there are 120 wineries and vineyards in the vicinity) and peruse the boutiques and gift shops for authentic Danish goods and other souvenirs. Another unusual attraction just outside Solvang is Ostrichland, a farm where visitors can meet and feed resident ostriches and emus.

Downtown Solvang California with Danish style buildings
Photo credit: Prayitno / Flickr


The small town of Ojai, tucked in the hills of inland Ventura County, showcases the beauty of California just a few miles away from the coast. Unspoiled mountain vistas draw visitors who enjoy hiking and horseback riding, as well as artists whose works are shown in the town’s many galleries. Wine-tasting rooms and an acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant scene are also among Ojai’s attractions.

Yoga in a orchard in Ojai California
Photo credit: Ojai Visitors


At the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin County, is the tiny shorefront city of Sausalito. Famous for its houseboats, which inspired Otis Redding to write “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” waterfront cafes, and pretty hillside houses, Sausalito has enough charm to entice crowds of day-trippers from San Francisco to cross the bay by bridge or ferry. Most spend their time in Sausalito just strolling around, stopping for a leisurely coffee or two, and watching the world go by. If you want a little more activity in your day there, consider a tour of the famous Heath Ceramics factory.

Pelican Hill harbor in Sausalito California
Photo credit: Tony Webster / Flickr

Del Mar

Del Mar, a tony beach town just north of San Diego, is famous for horse races, beautiful beaches, and upscale resorts. Big-budget visitors enjoy shopping, golfing, and enjoying the spa in Del Mar, but all are welcome to enjoy its free-of-charge charms, among them three top-notch beaches and 12 miles of multi-use trails throughout the adjacent Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. This protected ecosystem features a babbling creek, native chaparral, and lush groves of shady trees. It also features a historic adobe ranch house, open to the public as a museum.

Del Mar beach in California
Photo credit: Atramos / Flickr

San Juan Capistrano

During a coastal California road trip, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to visit historic Spanish missions–21 of these 18th- and 19th-century landmarks dot the state–but few are as impressive as Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. If you’re visiting in March, you might witness the return of the swallows, when flocks of swallows, numbering in the thousands, come to the mission to nest after a 6,000-mile flight from Argentina. At any time of year, the historic property is a major attraction and the centerpiece of the small city of San Juan Capistrano, which also offers parks, trails, golf courses, and a history museum.

San Juan Capistrano Mission in California
Photo credit: Pamla J. Eisenberg / Flickr


Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world, and many California road-trippers stop at its gift stores to browse all manner of garlic-themed offerings. Just south of the Bay Area, the city hosts the huge Garlic Festival every July, and is also known for Gilroy Gardens, a family theme park with rides, imaginatively landscaped gardens, and “circus trees.” These 20 curious trees had their trunks patiently encouraged into improbable shapes, including baskets, chains, and spirals, over many decades.

Gilroy gardens in California
Photo credit: Jeremy Thompson / Flickr

Morro Bay

A busy fishing port, iconic smoke stacks, and the monolithic Morro Rock rising out of the ocean are the unforgettable landmarks of Morro Bay, a town on the central coast. While it’s a small town with only one main drag, Morro Bay has plenty of action, including kayaking, fishing, and harbor tours promising glimpses of sea otters, sea lions, and more. Beaches, trails, boutiques, great seafood, and one of the oldest golf courses in California are also among the town’s attractions. Plus, it’s a convenient hub for visiting Hearst Castle, the bizarre architectural masterpiece and treasure trove of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The castle is just 30 miles north of Morro Bay on CA-1.

Morro Rock in Morro Bay in California
Photo credit: Randy Durrum / Flickr

Written by Joanne Thomas for Knockaround

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