5 Off-the-Beaten-Path Destinations in California

When people make plans to go to California, they always seem to end up in one of the standard, over-crowded destinations. L.A., San Francisco, and Napa Valley are wonderful, but California is a big state. Instead of being just another tourist with an Instagram picture in front of the Hollywood sign, why not check out some of the lesser known beauties? You won’t be disappointed.

Pfeiffer Beach

Foggy beach with stones and large rock outcropping at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California
Credit: Jennifer Hubbard/ Shutterstock

Pfeiffer Beach is located in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in central California about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The beach is easy to miss since you can’t actually get there from the park. The only way to get to the beach is off of Route 1 right before the southern entrance to the park. Once you make it down the windy road, you’ll see a small parking lot and a couple of picnic tables — nothing too big or fancy. Since it’s so far away from the major cities, not many people go here just to hang out.

The beach is famous for its Keyhole Arch, a rock formation with a small hole in the bottom. When the sun is low in the sky at the end of the day, you can line up the sun in the hole and get some truly unique pictures. If that’s not cool enough for you, in some places on the beach, the sand turns purple! Quartz and manganese deposits wash out from the nearby hills, giving the sand its unique color.

Mono Lake

Glassy water reflects clouds with rocky tufa towers in background at Mono Lake, California
Credit: Radoslaw Lecyk / Shutterstock

Located in the eastern Sierras, Mono Lake is an ancient saltwater lake nestled high up in the mountains at 6,678 feet above sea level. Limestone deposits form large columns called tufa towers surround the lake. It looks like it belongs on another planet.

Researchers estimate that the lake is over a million years old, making it one of the oldest in North America. Mono Lake has no outlet. Saltwater that flows into the massive 695-square-mile lake from the mountain streams and rivers can’t escape, which builds up the salinity of the water. It is a haven for brine shrimp, who like living in these salty conditions. More than a million birds flock to Mono Lake each year to feast on the little crustaceans.

Hearst Castle

View of a guest mansion and water fountain at the Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California
Credit: jejim / Shutterstock

This “modest” home was built by publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst and is located high up on a hill in central California. Hearst named the home “La Cuesta Encantada,” which translates to “The Enchanted Hill.” The home sits on more than 250,000 acres with 123 acres of gardens, pools, and terraces surrounding the house. The famous Neptune Pool alone is enough to take your breath away. It was built to look like an ancient Greek structure with statues and columns.

The entire compound consists of three guest houses and the main house, totaling more than 90,000 square feet of living space! The main house, called “Casa Grande,” alone is 68,000 square feet. In total there are 58 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces, and 60 bathrooms — perfect for entertaining all your friends and family, and their family, and their family’s family. The largest outdoor pool holds an impressive 340,000 gallons of water. Even the indoor pool has 205,000 gallons of water!

The castle is still owned by the Hearst family but has been turned into a museum open to the public to showcase the lavish lifestyle that Mr. Hearst and his family lived, along with his incredible art collection.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Aerial view of winding hills, valleys, and creeks at Mt. Lassen Park in California
Credit: Dreamframer / Shutterstock

Lassen Volcanic National Park is located in northern California and is home to an active volcano, as well as others. For those who like to see it all, every different type of volcano can be seen within the park! The last eruption was more than a century ago, but there’s still plenty of activity throughout the park.

The Bumpass Hell Trail will take hikers around various steam vents and mud pots. Big Boiler, the largest fumarole in the park, is one of the hottest in the world, reaching temperatures of over 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Aside from the fascinating volcanic activity, Lassen Volcanic National Park also offers pristine hiking trails and lakes that would amaze any nature enthusiast.

Painted Canyon

Stacking stones piled on a mountain ridge in the Mecca Hills region of California
Credit: Cheri Alguire / Shutterstock

Painted Canyon is a narrow gorge within the Mecca Hills Recreation Area in southern California. Over the years, seismic activity from the San Andreas fault line displaced millions of tons of rock and minerals to form these beautiful gorges.

Hiking through Painted Canyon is a unique experience. The colorful rocks provide a fascinating backdrop reminiscent of an oil painting as you wind through the narrow pathways. A series of ladders allows hikers to climb up, down, and sometimes even through the rocks. Make sure to pack lightly. The hike is somewhat strenuous but totally worth it.

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