If you’ve ever been to California, you know there’s something special about the countryside. The rolling hills, the rustling trees, and the endless blue sky all come together to create a landscape that is both peaceful and serene. This blog post will explore the secrets of California’s countryside and discover why it is so special. We’ll also look at some of the best places to visit in this beautiful region of the country!
The California Countryside
California is full of wonderful countryside and rural areas. From Marin Country and the Napa Valley in the north, Yosemite, Big Sur, and Lake Tahoe in the center, down to the spectacular coastline and deserts of southern California.
The state is chock-full of wilderness areas, orchards, rivers, mountains, and canyons. Although the most populous state in the US, most of California’s population lives in the cities, leaving the countryside sparsely populated for the most part. There’s wonderful rural America in those hills!
Here are some familiar, perhaps not so familiar, countryside areas to know about in California. We mention small towns because, more often than not, you’ll want a local base to overnight or eat at the end of a day exploring the local area’s countryside and nature.
Unless, of course, you are heading out to a wilderness area or multi-day trekking.
Northern California Countryside
Within striking distance of San Francisco:
Just north of San Francisco, Napa Valley is, of course, world-famous for its wines. In effect, the French wine industry – and grape varieties – were transposed to Napa (and Sonoma Valley, nearby Russian River, and Anderson Valleys, among others). These days the Napa wine country is home to some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and sparkling wines you’ll find anywhere. Alongside the wines came the chateaux (castle) like architecture.
Although overnighting in Napa can be ludicrously expensive, it’s a single valley and, therefore, easy to visit – if you can avoid the worst traffic. In addition, the landscape is beautiful if you can make it there.
Adjacent Sonoma Valley is much more down-to-earth. Think rolling hills plastered with vineyards. Sonoma town also has fascinating local history; the last Spanish mission built in California was founded there.
An alternative would be to camp in the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park Campground, which has excellent hiking nearby.
Just down the road is the small town of St Helena. Together with an attractive downtown, it serves as a jumping-off point for various outdoor activities in the area: biking and hiking. Just don’t try to park in the town on a summer weekend!
If you feel like going for a hike, the summit of Mount Saint Helena is an excellent place to start. You can see the High Sierra, the San Francisco Bay, and the rest of the area on a clear day. From the top of the mountain, there are superb panoramic vistas across the valley below.
You may also spot deer or elk grazing along the ridges. Several trails lead down off the peak; however, we recommend staying on the main path as much as possible. Be sure to bring plenty of water!
There’s loads of California history in the town. The Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo landed on St. Helena Island in 1542; he named it Isla de Los Pinos because of its abundance of pine trees. The island became part of Mexico after independence from Spain in 1821. In 1850, Mexican President Santa Anna sold the land to John Sutter for $1 million.
He renamed the area New Helvetia but later changed his mind and returned the name to St. Helena.
Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay was developed as a resort in the nineteenth century. It now serves as a magnet for surfers (the big-wave surfing competition is held between December and March, as swells reach over 50ft. In addition, ramblers in the area are drawn to its long beaches.
Although close to San Francisco, the town feels much farther away because it’s reached via a two-lane country road. The area was settled as early as 1849 when gold miners arrived at Sutter’s Mill. In 1870, after discovering oil near Santa Cruz, the city of Monterey incorporated what had been known as “Oil Town” until then.
A few years later, the railroad brought more people to this part of California.
There are many activities at the beaches and nature sites. The ever-inspiring ocean provides a fantastic backdrop for all sorts of outdoor activities.
Surfers’ Beach, Venice Beach, and Francis Beach are just a few of the multiple state beaches on the Half Moon Bay coastline.
Pacific Grove and Carmel
Located near Monterey, Pacific Grove has the dubious distinction of being the last ‘dry’ little town in California. As a result, all booze was banned there until 1969.
These days, you can not only enjoy an excellent pint. Bring your binoculars to spot seals and sea lions at the Lone Cypress lookout just to the south.
Green policies such as nature and sustainability are what Pacific Grove focuses on. Its proximity to the beach makes it a hotspot for surfing, swimming, kayaking, and eating delicious seafood. This is why it’s now known as the center of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Suppose you’re able to come into town during the fall or wintertime. In that case, you will see an abundance of Monarch butterflies that take up residence in the trees because this is where they stop off on their journey south to go over winter.
Until World War Two, the Santa Clara Valley was full of farms and orchards. After becoming the tech industry’s birthplace, towns like Palo Alto, Cupertino, and Santa Clara formed a line of shopping malls and industrial estates.
So it’s hard to imagine any countryside to explore.
However, venture just a little way out of Cupertino. You arrive at the Picchetti Winery, located on the Ranch Preserve of the same name. A little further down the trail, you find the Stevens Creek Tony Look Trailhead – and suddenly, a wild place opens up in front of you, entirely unexpected for the region.
No guide to the countryside in California would be complete without mentioning Yosemite.
As mining, logging, the oil industry, and industrial-scale agribusiness ripped up the California countryside, the naturalist John Muir and his friends at the Sierra Club campaigned to save Yosemite as a national park.
This happened, and the area is a magnificent one to visit. Even if not getting into serious trekking and rock climbing. If planning to attempt the Half Dome hike, remember that you need a permit and have a stout head for heights – the final stretch is near-vertical.
Lake Tahoe is an iconic place for vacationers – with many different outdoor activities and sports in a spectacular alpine lake setting. Hikers, mountain bikers, skiers, anglers, kayakers…all will feel in their element!
It’s a vast area, well worth researching properly before arrival.
Everything from Incline Village, where multi-millionaire George Whittell played with his pet lion at Thunderbird Lodge, has no guest rooms. Whittell tolerated no one staying overnight.
Don’t miss the Emerald Bay and DL Bliss State Parks for panoramic views, beaches, and lighthouses.
A California gold-rush town, Nevada City, is brimming with charm and history. Locals have worked diligently and carefully to maintain their Victorian buildings to serve visitors and future generations.
Park the car, walk along the narrow streets where you’ll see a variety of businesses, restaurants, and ateliers, and reward yourself with delicious handmade desserts or a rare gift!
Many events occur throughout the year, including the Nevada City Classic bike race, First Friday Art Walks, and Winter Wonderland festive celebrations.
Central California Countryside
Within striking distance of Los Angeles
Located 90 miles (145 km) north of Los Angeles. Ojai is an ideal place to escape inner-city life. Founded in 1887, this rustic town is home to historic Spanish mission revival architecture, such as the Arcade Plaza, filled with shops, restaurants, and art galleries.
The area’s natural beauty is an excellent background for outdoor recreation. Perfect for hikers who want to explore the splendors of the nearby Los Padres National Forest or check out some local vineyards.
If arts and culture are more your things, visit other cultural institutions such as the Ojai Valley Museum. Or even stop by Libbey Park when it stages its annual music festival each year, where you can take in some impressive performances from international and homegrown talent without worrying about whether you’ll have enough cash on hand to enjoy yourself after paying expensive cover charges!
A city with the look and feel of a fairytale, Solvang has been preserving its Danish heritage since 1911. The streets are lined with Scandinavian-style buildings, colorful facades, and traditional street lights. They’ve been known to produce magnificent light shows right before each holiday season.
Like the annual Julefest from Thanksgiving until early January, an exciting time for tourists and locals alike!
Morro Bay is located north of San Luis Obispo in Central California.
It is a pleasant seaside town surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and Morro Bay State Park. If you’re visiting, stop by to see the striking 576-foot rock that rises right out of the bay known as Morro Rock and take in its spectacularly breathtaking views.
To climb it, you’ll need a permit.
Surfing is a fun sport that has contributed a lot to the culture of California.
Apart from the famous glamourous beaches frequented by Hollywood celebrities, you can still uncover and live in the spirit of surfing’s California roots. Here in off-the-beaten-path spots like San Clemente, there are reminders of an authentic California lifestyle that you won’t find in OC anymore.
Surf your board or swim at the local beach and see if you can find some locals willing to give you surfing lessons!
San Juan Capistrano
Nestled in the hills of Southern California is a charming town whose history dates back to the founding of its mission on November 1st, 1776. First, it began as a city in Spain, then in Mexico; it finally joined the United States in 1848.
After immersing yourself in the city’s rich history, take to the wild! Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park offers tons of outdoor fun, hiking trails, biking opportunities, and even wildlife viewing. If you plan to visit during the weekend, a guided nature walk may also be available by friendly rangers who are happy to show you around their pristine park.
In spring, many varieties of gorgeous wildflowers flourish all around.
The San Bernardino city of California resides in the San Bernardino Valley. The Valley was given its name by pre-colonial Tongva Indians who referred to it as “the cupped hand of God.” Their name for the area was Wa’aach in the Tongva language.
In recent years, the city has seen an increase in tourist-related businesses such as bed & breakfasts, wineries, restaurants, spas, art galleries, antique shops, etc., due to its proximity to Disneyland Resort and other attractions in Southern California.
San Bernardino hosts many fun annual events that draw thousands of visitors across the country. Some of these festivals include Route 66 Rendezvous, a four-day celebration of America’s “Mother Road” is held in downtown San Bernardino each September; The National Orange Show, founded in 1911, which is a community festival offering rides and entertainment, has been held each for over 100 years; and Berdoo Bikes & Blues Rendezvous, a two-day community event that offers live blues music and bike night.
There’s a place that begs for attention. It’s a wonderland filled with whimsical yucca trees (yuccas that have been grown into tree-like shapes reminiscent of Joshua from The Bible). It is even more magnificent than its name – Twisting Joshua Tree National Park – gives credit for.
Don’t allow yourself to overlook it because this place is the convergence of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts and acts as a gateway to America’s southwestern states.
Santa Ynez Valley
Santa Barbara County has an old-fashioned, nostalgic atmosphere about it. You’ll feel at home if you like food and wine. Also, it’s a place where a cycling enthusiast can find plenty of winding country roads to explore!
Southern California Countryside
Within striking distance of San Diego:
A dose of peace may be the ticket after a long day. The small town of Bonsall in San Diego County can provide that and more, so make sure to visit if you get the chance! You’ll find a tiny town with less than 5,000 residents in an environment surrounded by nature in all its glory – perfect for biking, hiking, and peaceful gazing.
With its three-block main street, the Mountain hamlet of Julian is a favorite getaway for city folk crazy about the quaint 1870s streetscape and its famous apple pies.
A prospector’s town was built on gold-mining lore after the Civil War.
What Locals Say About the Californian Countryside
California is composed mainly of small towns, farms/ranch land, and vast areas of its geography: National Forests or Parks or State forests and parks. Since it’s a big state, the diversity of its landscape is immense. It’s definitely a great place to call home if one wishes to live in the forest because California offers many options!
Central California has some beautiful open fields for migrating birds, and many small towns are still surviving. We’re taking good care of our rivers and lakes so that they have improved. We even give the salmon their ride over to where they spawn. And we’re careful of endangered animals, birds, etc., in upper-state counties.
California is the most populous state in the United States. Yet, most of the state remains untamed and isolated, making it a favorite destination for those seeking adventure or relaxation away from urban areas. The San Andreas Fault bisects this large state into two distinctive regions: the urbanized coastal strip on one side and the other side, mountain chains, farmlands, perennially green forests, arid deserts, fishing ports, and untouched wilderness.