California has its iconic sights like the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite, and the Hollywood sign, but there are a lot of other lesser-known sights around the state that are worth checking out as well. From a scenic waterfall that feeds directed onto a beach to a popular craft beer brewery, here are unique places to visit in California.
Top Unique Places to Visit in California
Explore historic Gold Rush towns along this highway that winds through the Sierra Foothills. Start in Old Town Auburn, and continue on to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where gold was first discovered. Continue on to Placerville, and afterward head to Sutter Creek for dinner.
This otherworldly sodium-filled lake feels like something out of a science-fiction movie, with limestone formations coming out of the water. The lake is a great stop if you’re heading to Yosemite as part of a California road trip.
Forestiere Underground Gardens
An impressive collection of interconnected underground passageways, rooms, gardens, and courtyards, this personal retreat from the relentless heat in Fresno was built by Baldasare Forestiere. Hour-long tours are given of the property from April to October.
With plenty of hiking trails, this state park boasts beautiful views of the East Bay and surrounding Bay Area. You can also drive up to the summit (watch out for the bikers) which depending on the time of year might have a dusting of snow.
If you can’t make it to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, you can still experience garlic in all its edible forms, including garlic ice cream in this specialty store. This is a great place to pick up souvenirs/gifts, including garlic condiments and garlic braids.
Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
Housing one of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts in North American, Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum feels like time traveling back to ancient Egypt. Find real mummies, stunning Egyptian architecture, a replica tomb, and exhibits on everyday life. Daily entrance from 4-5pm is free.
Charles M. Schulz Museum
Responsible for inducing a lot of childhood nostalgia, this museum boasts the largest collection of Peanuts artwork, including original Peanut cartoon strips and other artwork by Schulz. Learn about the man behind this world famous cartoon, with informative and colorful exhibits on his personal and professional life as an artist.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
Conveniently located in a college town that is home to Chico State (known as one of the state’s top party schools), this brewery is a great place to learn how one of the state’s most popular craft beer is brewed. Sign up online to take a complementary tour of the brewery. There’s also a great onsite restaurant.
This impressive man-made mountain is covered in colorful religious artwork and is worth stopping by if you’re nearby. The mountain is in the middle of nowhere, but if you’re driving up from the LA area, you can stop on your way to Palm Springs. Try to go early in the day or at sunset, since it can get quite hot during the middle of the day.
Located in the stunning Mendocino Country, this miniature forest of hundreds of trees only reaches a few feet tall. It’s an easy detour from the Pacific Coast Highway and has a 1/3 mile wheelchair accessible ramp to view the trees from.
This former landfill turned art park shows how beauty can come out of a once desolate area. Make your way through murals, rock labyrinths, and oversized life sculptures. Keep a lookout for local birds who call this park home, like burrowing owls, and blue herons.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Hidden within the foggy Sunset district of San Francisco, this stunning mosaic staircase provides views of the surrounding neighborhood and the Pacific Ocean from beyond if the fog is not too heavy. The staircase itself is quite impressive, transforming from sea to sky, and night to day.
Bigfoot Discovery Museum
If you’re in the Santa Cruz area, this unique museum is worth checking out, especially if you’re into local folklore. The owner is on site usually to answer any questions or share his own sightings he has had. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
A popular 13-mile hike where you are rewarded with a rare waterfall that empties directly into Wildcat Beach from 30 feet above. Make sure to get there early since the parking lot can fill up quickly.
Located an hour southeast of Palm Springs, this slot canyon boasts colorful rock formations that you can hike through. The entire loop itself is not easy, since it requires climbing on ladders and walking through narrow passageways for 5 miles. There is an option to walk in the main canyon, which is more of a moderate hike.
Famous for its candelabra-shaped redwood trees, this unusual forest on the Mendocino Coast is believed to be the result of salty ocean air and strong winds. The so-called Enchanted Forest, where these ancient trees are located on the Peter Douglas Trail, is a 2.3 extension of the Lost Coast Trail.
Hetch Hetchy Valley
Nestled in a quiet corner of Yosemite, this picturesque area is a great alternative to the more popular Yosemite Valley. This valley is beautiful in any season, but especially in spring when the wildflowers are in bloom and the waterfalls are plentiful. For a moderate hike, Wapama Fall is an excellent choice that is 5 miles round trip.
Point Bonita Lighthouse
The southernmost tip of Marin, this working lighthouse was built in 1855 and helped many ships find their way ashore. On clear days there are spectacular San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge views. The lighthouse is open only on Sundays and Mondays from 12:30-3:30 p.m. depending on the weather.
During springtime, this is one of the more colorful corners of the state, with hillsides filled with colorful wildflowers including the state flower, the California poppy. The wildflower bloom starts usually around mid-March and goes through April, with the height of the season being late March to early April.
Tecopa Hot Springs
California has its fair share of excellent hot springs scattered around the state, but this all-natural one is hard to beat with its beautiful natural setting in Death Valley. At first glance it may seem like a regular pond, but once you get inside the soothing waters will heal whatever ails you.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Located in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest, some of the world’s oldest trees grown here, the bristlecone pines. The area is 10,000 feet above sea level and due to the altitude the hike is not easy. This forest is usually open from mid-May to the end of November.
These massive sand dunes are located in the Mojave National Preserve, and reach 700 feet in elevation. If you want to hike up the dunes, you are rewarded with panoramic views of the surrounding desert. Sunset views are highly recommended.
A quick ferry ride from San Francisco, Angel Island is a great place to spend an afternoon biking or walking the scenic trails or learning about the island’s complex past. There are a limited amount of campgrounds as well if you want to spend the night under the stars with the city lights in the background.
College Cove Beach
This stunning hidden beach is a popular local spot at sunset and is attached to Trinidad State Beach via The Portal, a rock arch. The cove boasts a beach surrounded by groves of redwood trees. Be aware that College Cove Beach is known to be a nude beach, so don’t be surprised if you see people in their birthday suits.
Time Travel Mart
A unique convenience store in Los Angeles that sells all the products you need for successful past, present and future time travel, including robot milk, dinosaur planters and time travel bumper stickers. The space doubles as a literary tutoring center and all proceeds go back to the associated non-profit organization 826LA.
Part of the Channel Islands, this tiny island measures only 12 miles and is a great spot to explore for an afternoon, including the scenic Inspiration Point often known as one of the most beautiful views within the islands. This vista allows you to see the two small Anacapa islets and the Santa Cruz Island beyond.
Museum of Neon Art
A tiny museum that houses historic neon signs from Los Angeles’s past, like the dragon sign from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. There are also tours of contemporary signs around LA’s Chinatown, Hollywood, and downtown’s theater district. Admission is $10.
What are your favorite unique places to visit in California?