Skip to main content

Have These Five California Towns to Yourself

If you've got four wheels and a sense of adventure, check out these off-the-beaten-path locations.

From the high Sierra to the high desert, from the baking inland valleys to the cool coastline of the Pacific Ocean, California offers a wealth of sights and activities you won't find on TV or in films.

If you have

four wheels

, you can find any of these places without too much trouble. Here are five California towns that offer up diverse pleasures, diversions and, sometimes, sheer oddities:

Nevada City

Rustic State Highway 49, named for the wealth-seeking prospectors of the 1849 California Gold Rush, offers a string of small towns, of which Nevada City may be the prettiest. A charming collection of wooden Victorian houses from the late 19th and early 20th century decorates Nevada City, along with church steeples, small heritage hotels from pioneer days and leafy trees that bring a splash of fall color reminiscent of the Eastern Seaboard. Route 49 winds through the Sierra foothills, providing ready access to the Gold Country.

Nevada City

Point Reyes Station

In this compact, welcoming Marin County town an hour's drive north of San Francisco on Highway 1, visitors get a glimpse of the historical Wild West: One wide, longish main street, a friendly but rough-around-the-edges saloon, a crusading local newspaper.

Most important to visitors, Point Reyes Station is the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore, an unspoiled coastal retreat rich in photo-ready sand dunes, briny lagoons, lovely beaches -- check out the lonesome beauty of Limantour Beach -- wildflowers, sawgrass and sandpipers. The Station House Café, bang- on in the center of Point Reyes Station, is a reliably good place for lunch and a drink.

El Centro

El Centro? Yep. Some Californians would question the inclusion of this not-very-pretty and decidedly not-trendy place on a visitors' short-list, but it's a good place from which to explore the deserts of far-Southern California.

El Centro sits astride Interstate 8, and most travelers use it solely to fill the gas tank. Nearby attractions abound for those willing to get off the Interstate, however. Calexico, down Route 111 on the border with Mexico, provides a taste of raw borderline life.

Salton City, north of El Centro along Route 86 and connecting local roads, takes you through the lush, irrigated farmlands of the Imperial Valley to the Salton Sea, a boaters' favorite formed early last century when water poured into a depression in a massive accident to form the big, salty lake. It's California's version of the Dead Sea.

Due east of El Centro, just off I-8, is Date City. To beat the boiling heat, try a refreshing date shake, a milkshake studded with sweet, locally grown fruit.

Half Moon Bay

This seaside town is a 25-minute drive from San Francisco to the north and just more than an hour from San Jose/Silicon Valley to the east. Often foggy, cool and breezy, the town is more restful than spectacular. Half Moon Bay is famous for its annual Pumpkin Festival (Oct. 18-19 this year), when locals line the streets to stuff themselves with pumpkin treats and gawk at the gargantuan pumpkins specially grown for the pumpkin weigh-off -- winning entries go well into the hundreds of pounds.

For a classy spot to grab a meal or drink and watch the sunset, try the Ritz-Carlton, where you'll share space with wedding parties and golfers drawn to the resort's two championship golf courses. For a quick coffee on your way out of town, see the tiny Caffino drive-in stand where route 92 meets scenic Highway 1.

Los Olivos

Tucked away in Santa Barbara County's arid Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos is a functional center in Santa Barbara's thriving wine-growing region and the home to several wineries. Just off Interstate 101, the main north-south freeway between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, this dusty, work-a-day old railroad town is a world away from the metropolis.

Right around Los Olivos, the local roads turn winding, hilly and narrow, tracing the contours of the valley, providing picturesque views and taking you through the region's verdant vineyards. This is a fine place for wine-tasting, winery tours and picnicking with a bottle of vino. If the region lacks the sophisticated dining of Napa Valley, it also lacks the crowds and big, idling tour buses that can make Napa vexing.

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.