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8 small towns to visit this summer in California

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 7/1/2021 By Chronicle Staff

With the pandemic subsiding and California fully reopening just in time for the height of summer, the Golden State has never looked so good.

From 840 miles of scenic coastline to the world-class Sierra Nevada mountains and from the remote northern forests down to the Mojave Desert, no other place rivals California’s unique geographic diversity.

For the second summer since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, more Californians are taking trips closer to home, postponing international vacations and opting for longer stays at more familiar local destinations instead. Unsurprisingly, we’re also choosing to visit places in natural settings — campgrounds, state parks and forests — over big cities.

All this means a lot of pressure on high profile places like Lake Tahoe, Wine Country and Yosemite: more crowds, more traffic, less time to just relax.

Which is why we asked travel writers around the state to help us curate this list of eight small-town escapes where you can unplug and explore at your own pace. These aren’t the hottest tourist spots of 2021. Here you’ll find insider guides to towns you may have never visited or even heard of.

June Lake (population: 390)

With stunning craggy peaks, alpine lakes and plenty of outdoor adventure all within a few miles, there is a reason June Lake is known as the Switzerland of California. Even so, the tourism pandemonium stays at the bigger destinations north and south. Plenty of people visit each year, but somehow, June Lake maintains its small mountain town feel.

Situated at 7,654 feet in the Eastern Sierra, June Lake is just 30 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes and 30 minutes southeast of Yosemite National Park. But many people drive right past the turnoff to get there.

There are four lakes — June, Gull, Silver and Grant — along the June Lake Loop road, in addition to several campgrounds and a few trailheads. In the downtown area, visitors will find locally-owned restaurants and cafes, shops and galleries, and a variety of lodging from woodsy cabins to motels and bed-and-breakfasts.

You’ll likely want to spend most of your time outdoors, but every traveler also needs to rest and rejuvenate, and there is plenty of opportunity for that in June Lake, too.

Hook a trout

Fishing is to June Lake as skiing is to Mammoth — it’s deeply embedded in the culture. The June Loop is known for its monster-sized trout. The region is home to brown, rainbow and brook trout, while June Lake also holds the coveted and rare Lahontan cutthroat trout. Cast from shore at any one of the lakes, or rent a fishing boat from one of the marinas along the loop and try trolling for a big fish. Anglers who want to cast a dry fly and hook a wild trout on a mountain stream will want to fish Lower Rush Creek below Grant Lake.

Rental equipment, licenses and a fish report are available at Ernie’s Tackle & Ski Shop, 2604 Boulder Drive, June Lake, (760) 648-7756, www.erniestackleandskishop.com.

Chill at the beach

The sandy beach at June Lake’s northeast end is ideal for a chill day. Pack a lunch, sunscreen and beach chairs, and spend a few hours at the June Lake Beach. Across the lake, you’ll have an unobstructed view of Carson Peak and the ski slopes at June Mountain. The shoreline is sandy and shallow, making it the best spot in the area for a relatively warm dip in an otherwise cold alpine lake. Kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals are available on the beach and include free lessons to get started.

Mammoth Kayaks and Paddleboards, (760) 924-3075, www.mammothkayaks.com.

Hike the loop

The trails in the June Loop are short on neither elevation nor scenery. The hike to Parker Lake is a relatively easy 3.6-mile round-trip through aspens and meadows, and offers views of Mono Lake across the basin. Those who want a short, yet rigorous climb to an alpine lake will enjoy the hike to Fern Lake. The trail climbs 1,580 feet in less than 2 miles, for a 3.4-mile roundtrip. From the lake, you’ll be rewarded with cascading waterfalls and craggy alpine peaks. For a full-day hike, take the Rush Creek Trail up to Gem and Agnew lakes. On this 7.2-mile roundtrip, you’ll experience the Ansel Adams Wilderness and get an up-close look at the June Lake’s tallest waterfall, the 270-foot Horsetail Falls.

For trail information, visit www.monocounty.org.

Sip the local brew

Whether it’s because of the fresh alpine water used for brewing or a long day exploring the great outdoors, a cold beer tastes extra delicious in the late afternoon. Head to June Lake Brewing in downtown, where no one takes the craft or themselves too seriously. Order a tasting flight or a pint from the one of 10 brews on draft and grab a bite from the nearby Hawaiian or Mexican food trucks. There is a large outdoor seating area where local residents often end their day to swap stories.

June Lake Brewing, 131 S. Crawford Ave., June Lake, (760) 616-4399, www.junelakebrewing.com.

Detour: Mono Lake

Explore Mono Lake and learn about the natural and political history of the Mono Basin. The South Tufa area is just a 15-minute drive from June Lake. Walk among the tufas on your own, or take an easy one-hour naturalist-guided tour to hear about the unique calcium formations, water rights, migratory birds and brine shrimp.

Free tour with advance reservations. $3 park entrance fee per person. (760) 647-6595, www.monolake.org.

—Monica Prelle

Kelseyville (population: 3,560)

If you’re not familiar with the area around Clear Lake, it can be tough to approach it as a new visitor. Online information is pretty sparse, Airbnbs are few and far between, and the lake is known more as a bastion of bass fishing than anything else. Napa Valley is right next door, casting a shadow over its lesser known wine-making neighbors.

But the lack of hype is exactly why Clear Lake is worth a harder look. It’s the state’s largest freshwater lake, surrounded by verdant vineyards and overseen by the implausibly tall Mount Konocti, a 4,305-foot-high volcano right there on the western shore.

The area is a rural-resort blend, with lakeside lodges giving way to low-slung bungalow residences farther from shore. But there’s a path between the two for those excited to hunt for the kinds of unique moments that only a small, rural town like Kelseyville can offer. This is a place for people who’d rather sink into mellow summer vibes than elbow for space in tasting rooms and hotels over the hill.

Cruise the lake

Let’s get it out of the way: People don’t come to Clear Lake for beaches. The lake serves as more of a playing field for boaters and water lovers of all stripes: Jet Skiers, fishers and kayakers, to name a few. Clear Lake State Park, in Kelseyville, is a wondrous marshy wetland with casual hiking trails that serves as a top attraction for birders scoping Great Blue Herons, American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants.

To get a taste of the whole thing, rent a Jet Ski for a few hours at Disney’s Boat Rentals on the western shore and tour the lake at your own pace. Head along the state park shoreline to spot waterbirds, then push into the lake’s southern fingers for a look at hilltop vineyards and the steep, forested backside of Konocti.

Or just motor out into the center and rip as fast as you can until your arms ache.

Disney’s Boat Rentals, Upper Lake, 707-263-0969, www.disneysboatrentals.com.

Taste the wine

The volcanic, mineral-rich red soils of Lake County give the region’s wines a terroir unique from its better known cousin counties to the west.

The Red Hills AVA, which encompasses the area around Kelseyville, sits at the northern edge of the Mayacamas Mountains and includes several higher-elevation growing areas that produce quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Zinfandel and other varietals.

Before you go thinking the juice here can’t compare to what Napa produces, consider that Lake County sends much of its fruit over the hill to top off Napa wineries’ barrels. “The grapes don’t know which county they’re in,” a Lake County winemaker recently told Chronicle wine critic Esther Mobley.

There are too many wineries to name here, but for a taste of the region’s offerings, check out the local tasting rooms at Chacewater or, in the hills south of town, Laujor Estate.

Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill, 5625 Gaddy Lane, Kelseyville. 707-279-2995, www.chacewaterwine.com. Laujor Estate Winery, 8664 Seigler Springs Road, Kelseyville, 707-349-8236, www.laujorestate.com .

Hike the mountain

Apart from the lake, Mount Konocti is the region’s defining landmark — visible from everywhere — and it rises just south of downtown Kelseyville. It’s a chunky, tree-covered volcano with several peaks, the highest of which is Wright Peak at 4,300 feet.

The 3-mile summit trail (6 miles roundtrip) is a fire road flanked by old oaks and manzanita that winds gradually up the slope, eventually opening into magnificent panoramic views of the lake and valley below. The best vistas are at Wright, but the trail breaks off to the other peaks as well.

Go early in the morning (on the trail by 8 a.m.) or late in the afternoon to avoid the high summer heat, and bring plenty of water. There are bathrooms stationed along the trail as well as the occasional quiet bench at certain lookouts.

Afterward, head to Saw Shop Public House on Main Street for a mason jar cocktail with a juicy burger or rich pasta meal. The shrimp-and-grits croquets, with andouille sausage, are delicious.

Mount Konocti County Park, free entry, www.konoctitrails.com/trails/mt-konocti-county-park/wright-peak-summit-trail. Saw Shop Public House, 3825 Main St., 707-278-0129, www.sawshoppublichouse.com.

Detour: Blue Lakes

Just north of Clear Lake along Highway 20 is a trio of sinewy stillwater pocket pools called the Blue Lakes. You might drive right by without noticing them if you aren’t looking. But they are the best place to while away a warm, lazy afternoon.

These are no-wake lakes — gas motors aren’t allowed here — which appeals to folks who just want to chill. If you brought an inflatable raft or tube, here’s where you launch. Or rent an electric party boat or stand-up paddle board at The Lodge at Blue Lakes and take in the canyon scenery. On a recent trip, I spotted an osprey chick poking its head out of a nest in a branch high above the water.

Stop by the historic Blue Wing Saloon on your way there or back to town for a refreshing salad, sweet BBQ sandwiches or a glass of Chardonnay in the saloon’s garden-patio.

The Lodge at Blue Lakes, 5135 State Hwy 20, Upper Lake, 707-275-2181; www.thelodgeatbluelakes.com. Blue Wing Saloon, 9550 Main St., Upper Lake, 707-275-2233, www.tallmanhotel.com.

—Gregory Thomas

Moss Landing (population: 54)

The half-moon sweep of Monterey Bay, from Santa Cruz to the Monterey Peninsula, lures travelers from around the world. Smack in the middle, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Moss Landing has a hidden distinction that most of those visitors don’t know about — it’s the gateway to the Monterey Canyon, one of the deepest submarine canyons on the West Coast of the United States.

Moss Landing is home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, but it’s also where you can get away to the old-school vibe of California fishing towns that move at nature’s pace. Spot wildlife on the beach and in Elkhorn Slough, taste the freshest seafood straight off the boat, discover a Shakespeare sanctuary, and wave at the people driving by on Highway 1 knowing you’ve found a sweet spot they missed.

Meet the locals

There are two ways you can explore Elkhorn Slough: on foot and by boat. For hikers, three trails cover about 5 miles in the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve, winding through oak woodlands, grasslands, salt marsh and tidal flats. The 1.12-mile Five Fingers Loop Trail has a bench at a high point overlooking the Slough, and adding the 0.3-mile Parson’s Overlook Extension offers views of one “finger” of watery inlet.

By water, get a close-up view of the inhabitants of the 7-mile-long tidal slough — Southern sea otters, harbor seals, California sea lions and migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway — on a guided kayak tour with Kayak Connection. Tours range from a daytime focus on wildlife to a sunset paddle to a starlight bioluminescence adventure, run from two to three hours, and all depart from right from their dock out front.

Elkhorn Slough, 1700 Elkhorn Road, Watsonville, www.elkhornslough.org. Kayak Connection, 2370 Highway 1, Moss Landing, 831-724-5692, www.kayakconnection.com .

Get your fill

Outdoor adventures work up an appetite, and when you taste the cioppino at Phil’s Fish Market - packed with Dungeness crab, scallops, prawns, calamari, mussels, fish and clams - you’ll understand why it beat Bobby Flay’s best efforts in Throwdown. This casual, unpretentious seafood restaurant has been a favorite here for more than 30 years.

Another popular family-owned restaurant, The Whole Enchilada, offers a diverse range of seafood with a Mexican twist. Agave fans will appreciate the wide variety of tequila and mezcal on the menu.

Phil’s Fish Market, 7600 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing, 831-633-2152, www.philsfishmarket.com. The Whole Enchilada, 7902 Highway 1, Moss Landing, 831-633-3038, www.thewholeenchilada.party .

Hit the beach

More than 21 miles of coast link six beachfront parks along Monterey Bay, and Moss Landing State Beach is an idyllic setting on a skinny peninsula between the ocean and Elkhorn Slough.

This is the place to bring your picnic, because the dunes protect the beach from the afternoon winds. Bring your binoculars, because Moss Landing State Beach is also an important stop along the Pacific Flyway for seabirds and shorebirds, including the Western snowy plover.

Jetty Road off Highway 1, Moss Landing, 831-649-2836, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=574 .

Get lit(erary)

Fans of the Bard can drop in at the Shakespeare Society of America’s New Shakespeare Sanctuary for access to its rare book and reference collection, memorabilia, visual art and theater arts archive. Among some of the items to linger over: 17th and 18th-century volumes of Shakespeare’s collected plays, a replica of London’s Globe Theatre, programs, props and a collection of 90 prints from an 1803 publication that beautifully illustrate scenes from the plays.

7981 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing, 831-633-2989, www.shakespearesocietyofamerica.org.

Detour: Lynn’s Arcade, Seaside

Leave your quarters behind and play for hours at this pinball arcade about 15 miles south of Moss Landing that feels like a secret club. Pay the $15 flat rate at the door and play as long as you like on more than 20 pinball machines (set to free play) from many eras and manufacturers. When you’re thirsty, choose from the ample list of canned beverages, from beer to kombucha to soda.

1760 Fremont Blvd., Suite D1, Seaside, 831-641-7173, www.instagram.com/lynnsarcade .

—Jill K. Robinson

Mount Shasta (population: 3,275)

You’ll see the mountain long before you see the town. As the second-tallest peak in the Cascade Range, 14,179-foot Mount Shasta towers over northern California like a volcanic reminder that life is larger than us.

The small town at the base of the mountain, the city of Mount Shasta, has a spiritual, otherworldly vibe, too. The place has more crystal shops than grocery stores, is home to a new kombucha brewery, and is a mecca for those seeking healing and transcendence. Visitors come from all over in search of the region’s portal, or vortex, into another world. Yep, it’s that kind of trippy.

The town — 60 miles south of the California-Oregon border and four-and-half hours from San Francisco via Interstate 5 — is also on the edge of a vast swathe of some of the finest wilderness in California. Shasta-Trinity National Forest covers 2.2 million acres, the largest national forest in the state, and is home to several Wild and Scenic-designated rivers, many alpine lakes and 154 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.

But you don’t have to be a crampon-clad mountaineer set on summiting a 14er or a new-age believer on a vision quest to enjoy Mount Shasta. There’s something here for everyone.

Climb the volcano

Summiting Mount Shasta is no easy feat, and it’s not for the inexperienced. You’ll ascend 7,000 rigorous vertical feet and cross technical, high-alpine terrain. Shasta Mountain Guides, the area’s original guiding company, teaches mountaineering courses and leads guided, multi-day trips.

Don’t feel like climbing a mountain? That’s okay. Opt for the scenic drive up the Everitt Memorial Highway, toward the base of Mount Shasta. The road ends at 7,000 feet at Bunny Flat, the popular trailhead for alpinists climbing the peak. Remember to pack out what you pack in and leave nature undisturbed.

Summit trips start at $895 per person; www.shastaguides.com .

Path to enlightenment

Native Americans from this area believe that Mount Shasta is the center of creation, the home of a great spirit who came down from the heavens and stepped off the peak.

Today, people flock to Mount Shasta for its spiritual guidance, magic crystals and mystic energy. For a taste of that enlightenment, sign up for an outing with outdoor guide Robin Kohn, who leads vortex and energy tours to sacred sites around Mount Shasta. You’ll spend the day hiking to waterfalls and creeks known as sources of healing, then spend time at those sites doing silent meditation and absorbing the energy. Kohn is full of knowledge on the history, geology and spirituality of the area.

From $75; www.mountshastaguide.com.

Chase waterfalls

The hike to the waterfalls on the scenic McCloud River isn’t a secret (it can get busy here on summer weekends), but it’s worth the trek for the stunning sight of these multi-tiered falls.

Park at Lower Falls and walk upriver to reach Middle Falls and Upper Falls, about 4 miles total, or park at each waterfall for a shorter walk. Stick around and you may catch sight of experienced cliff jumpers leaping off Middle or Upper Falls into the emerald pools below. Jumping isn’t recommended though; consider that a spectator sport. But there are good swimming holes. Pack a picnic and make a day of it.

More info at www.mountshastatrailassociation.org .

Look to the clouds

Due to its unusual geography, Mount Shasta gets its own type of clouds: Unique lenticular clouds swirl off the top of the mountain and appear as a UFO-shaped hat hovering above the peak. Add that to its mystical aura.

The Mount Shasta Sisson Museum, which reopened June 24 after a long Covid closure, has an exhibit on why these clouds form, as well as an extensive history of the area. Little kids will enjoy the museum’s dress-up area and train set to honor the region’s railroad history. The fish hatchery next door is the oldest hatchery west of the Mississippi.

Museum admission is free, 1 N Old Stage Road, Mount Shasta, 530-926-5508, www.mtshastamuseum.com .

Detour: McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

This state park, less than an hour away on the scenic Highway 89, is worth a visit. The Pacific Crest Trail passes through the park, as well as five miles of hiking trails within the park. But you’ll really come for one sight in particular: the view of 129-foot Burney Falls, a striking set of waterfalls that President Theodore Roosevelt once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

More information at www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=455 .

—Megan Michelson

Cambria (population: 5,647)

As Highway 46 veers west and leaves dusty Paso Robles behind, the two-lane road teases everything Cambria has to offer: towering pine forests, 100-year-old farmhouses and an endless coastline. After 200 miles on Highway 101 from San Francisco, there are few things sweeter.

Pull into this little seaside village and you can tell immediately that the pace of life is slower. Almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and LA, you’re about as far from civilization as one can be on the coast of our crowded state. And while Cambria is dependent on tourism, the town doesn’t feel like it’s rearranged itself to appeal to city slickers like you.

Main Street is low slung and short, the antique shops look nothing like the ones off Valencia Street and the restaurants are homey. Off the main drag, quaint Victorians and cute cottages start in the foothills and ramble down to the coastline, where even the oceanfront homes are surprisingly understated.

At the beach, so distinctly Central Californian with its native Monterey Cyprus and pine trees, there’s blissfully little to do except stroll the wooden boardwalk and take in the view.

And now, with faces now mostly mask-free and vaccine rates high, Cambria is emerging from its sleepy Covid cocoon to offer the kind of relaxed respite you’ve been missing for 15 months. Here are the best activities to keep your stress levels low while you let some central California cool wash over you.

Mount a steed

The Clydesdales that roam Covell Ranch, in the hills above town, are giant creatures. More than 5 feet tall and weighing up to a metric ton, the animals were bred to pull carriages and drag plows. But these days, the Clydesdales in Cambria haul a lighter load: you.

Covell Ranch has a half dozen trail-trained Clydesdales that will take you from the coastal forest through grazing pastures and up to scenic overviews. These gentle giants are so steady and large that it’s like “off-roading on a couch,” in the words of one ranch hand. No riding experience is needed, but if you’re a skilled rider the horses are happy to canter along the trails, too. And don’t worry, a step ladder is available to mount your steed.

Covell Ranch, 5694 Bridge Street, 805-975-7332, www.covellsclydesdaleranch.com.

The classiest tailgate

Moonstone Beach, with its glimmering rocks (a.k.a. moonstones) and picturesque bluffs, may be Cambria’s biggest draw, but the town’s biggest party starts just above the bluffs.

Each day at the Sea Chest Oyster Bar — except Tuesdays, when they’re closed — a line forms by about 4:30 in anticipation of the restaurant’s 5:30 opening. And while most lines are annoying products of Instagram hype and understaffed establishments, seasoned diners know that Sea Chest’s line is a prime opportunity to gather and be merry. Beach chairs are unfolded and corks popped. Make like a local and the time will pass quickly.

You may be disappointed the block party is over when the host seats you, but the meal is worth it. Most tables come with an ocean view (ask for outside seating) and though the table cloths are white, the seafood isn’t pretentious: think killer chowder, classic cioppino and oysters Rockefeller.

No reservations, cash only. Sea Chest Oyster Bar, 6216 Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria, 805-927-4514, www.seachestoysterbar.com .

Off-road yoga

When the pandemic closed Tula Yoga downtown, Terri Herrington pivoted, like a lot of studio owners, to virtual and outdoor classes. But rather than stop there, Herrington expanded and began offering guided, meditative walks through Cambria’s bountiful nature.

For years, Herrington has been offering what she calls yoga in nature: She tailors outdoor yoga experiences to her clients, from group yoga on a clifftop to pre-wedding breathing sessions for a whole bridal party. Now, she also offers peaceful guided strolls, too.

“A lot of my clients are people from San Francisco or L.A., and they’re successful, hardworking people. And a lot of times they tell me they want do yoga and go on a big hike and be fit, but what they really want to be relaxed and unwind and be out of their head,” she says.

Herrington’s new mindful walks allow clients to slow down and take in Cambria’s natural beauty. “It’s mostly just resting in nature, feeling cleansed and invigorated from it — a real nature bath,” she says. For clients who want to make a day of it, Herrington can bring in a private chef to prep a meal, then deposit you atop a peaceful bluff and leave you for the most restorative picnic imaginable.

Reservations required. Tula Yoga, 1820 Dreydon Avenue, 805-909-2818, www.tula4you.com .

Detour: Kelp foraging in Cayucos

For most beachgoers who stroll the coast south of Cambria, the seaweed you step over doesn’t warrant a second thought. But Spencer Marley has made a business out of the plentiful kelp growing offshore near Cayucos, about 15 miles south of Cambria.

Marley harvested oysters commercially and worked on an oil spill response boat for a decade, but since the pandemic he’s been taking tourists on beach walks to forage some of the finest edible seaweed around. You’ll identify at least five different kinds of seaweed, learn the history of seaweed production and Marley will teach you how to preserve your own haul. Then, afterwards, he’ll throw the day’s collection into a big, boiling pot on the beach and make you the freshest ramen for miles from scratch.

Reservations required. Call or book online. www.marleyfamilyseaweeds.com

—David Ferry

Ferndale (population: 1,377)

California's best preserved Victorian village also happens to be the westernmost incorporated town in the contiguous United States. The manicured streets of Ferndale, an old dairy community, are lined with Butterfat palaces and ornate storefronts. The entire town is, in fact, a California Historical Landmark.

But the town seems quite comfortable in the modern age too.

Today, Ferndale, located a few miles north of the Avenue of the Giants, welcomes guests exploring Humboldt County’s famous redwoods as well as the Lost Coast Headlands just a few miles east.

It’s not short on culinary and cultural discoveries either. Here you’ll find art galleries, fusion restaurants and hip coffee shops that blend in seamlessly with 19th century Gothic churches, a smithy, saddlery and a 112-year-old library. Ferndale also hosts the oldest county fair in the state and the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, a sort of laid-back Burning Man meets the Cannonball Run held each Memorial Day.

Browse Main Street

The town’s main strip, a funky fusion of contemporary and traditional businesses, is a window into the Ferndale’s rich history and culture. It even set the backdrop to the 2001 Jim Carrey movie “The Majestic.”

The Blacksmith Shop, with an in-house forge, contains the largest collection of master blacksmithing in the country. The Ferndale Meat Company, a circa 1903 butcher and sandwich business, taught town son Guy Fieri his foodie trade. The Golden Gate Mercantile, an heirloom general store, sells old fashioned sundries, hats and candies. Go up the creaky back steps to a museum of period curios and clothing, modeled by Victorian manikins.

Don’t miss Artisan’s Alley, where craft people showcase their latest stained glass, wooden ship models, wool clothing and ceramics. Afterward, order a pint at the nearby Palace Saloon, which prides itself as the most westerly bar in the lower 48.

Hear the church music

The Old Steeple has been a bookstore, art commune and a Methodist church over the last century. Today the restored tower and chapel is an intimate 230-seat venue with heavenly stained glass and impeccable acoustics that attracts nationally acclaimed folk, gospel and country performers such as Grammy nominated Iris DeMent, as well as David Lindley, who is Jackson Browne's lead guitarist. Here they play for a fraction of the cost between gigs in San Francisco and Portland or Seattle. Find the church right off Main Street, next to the town’s spooky cemetery (more on that later).

Old Steeple, 246 Berding St., Ferndale, 707-786-7030, www.ferndalemusiccompany.com/theoldsteeple .

Capture a view to die for

One of the most photographed cemeteries in California, these 5 acres devoted to eternal rest straddle a hillside two blocks off Main Street and reward those who complete the steep trail to the top sweeping views of town, ocean and Eel River valley. Worn but well maintained, the gravestones, which become older the more one ascends, serve as a bleak reminder of the challenging, often brief lives of the Scandinavian, Italian and Portuguese immigrants who settled the valley in the 1800s and tended its farms and ranches.

The tombs and crypts, featured in “Salem’s Lot,” Hollywood’s 1979 take on the Stephen King novel, are marked with Old World crosses, Masonic signs and evocative poems. Bring a camera to capture the spooky morning fogs and ocean sunsets, and comfortable shoes to walk on nature trails in neighboring Russ Park, which includes the town’s community redwood forest.

Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Craig and Berding Streets, Ferndale, 707-786-9857, www.ferndalecemetery.com .

Detour: The Lost Coast

The Punta Gorda Lighthouse, the westernmost lighthouse in the Lower 48, is worthy of a day hike on the fabled Lost Coast, the longest undeveloped shore in California. Time your visit with low tide for the full experience.

From Ferndale, drive 35 miles on the Mattole Road to the Mattole Campground and walk 3 miles south on the beach, stopping at tide pools full of sea urchins, octopi and monkey faced eels. Then cross Fourmile Creek to reach the so-called Alcatraz of lighthouses, an abandoned facility home to an elephant seal colony.

Bureau of Land Management Arcata Field Office, 707-825-2300, www.blm.gov/visit/lost-coast-headlands and www.blm.gov/visit/lost-coast-trail .

—Richard Stenger

Julian (population: 1,019)

High in San Diego County’s Cuyamaca Mountains is the former mining town of Julian. It lies an hour east of the clubs and all-night bonfires on San Diego’s Pacific Beach, but feels a world apart. With just 1,000 permanent residents and a tiny downtown peppered with historic buildings that preserve Julian’s Old West feel, life here is slow, artsy without being too crunchy, outdoorsy without being hardcore.

Julian embraces its sleepy village feel. It’s close-knit, but locals can be counted on to pick up hitchhikers coming into town from the nearby Pacific Crest Trail and welcome the waves of fall visitors who descend to pick apples in heirloom orchards. More recently, the town has earned the official designation of International Dark Sky Community and cemented itself as an attraction for star-gazers eager to scope the solar system.

For both residents and visitors alike, most days end the same way: outdoors, in the still of the mountains, perhaps gazing up at the bright belt of the Milky Way.

Mining history

In the winter of 1869, former slave A.E. “Fred” Coleman, a cattle rancher who lived near present-day Julian, found gold in a mountain stream. His discovery kicked off San Diego County’s only gold rush, which in turn transformed Julian into a proper town.

Today, visitors can get a taste for gold rush-era Julian by panning for gold at the Julian Mining Co. or taking an hourlong tour into old mineshafts at the Eagle Mining Co. History buffs who aren’t a fan of underground tunnels can instead embark on an self-guided walking tour of the old town, a state historical landmark.

Julian Mining Co., 4444 Highway 78, Julian, 951-313-0166, www.julianminingcompany.com . Eagle Mining Co., 2320 C St., Julian, 760-765-0036, www.theeaglemining.com .

Hit the trails

Julian is surrounded by stunning hikes. To the south, the cool shores of Lake Cuyamaca and shady trails of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park beckon. To the east lies the breathtakingly rugged Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Right on Julian’s doorstep is the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. The roughly 5-mile hike to the summit is considered moderately strenuous due to the elevation at the peak (5,353 feet), but the desert-to-coast views are well worth it. Check out the trailhead’s gates designed by internationally renowned local artist James Hubbell, and after you make it back to your car, reward yourself with a glass of wine at nearby Volcan Mountain Winery or Menghini Winery.

Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, 1209 Farmer Road at Wynola Road, www.sdparks.org/content/sdparks/en/park-pages/VolcanMountain.html .

Apple fever

Gold made Julian, but apples made Julian famous. Its legendary crop won first prize at two World’s Fairs and is still the reason many visitors flock to this mountain town. Starting around September, you can buy just-picked apples and fresh pressed cider without leaving Main Street at the Julian Cider Mill or head to any number of U-Pick locations outside town, like Calico Ranch or Apple and Art Orchards.

Some orchards allow you to bring a picnic, so pick up a sandwich from Jack’s Grocery and Deli and a slice of pie from Apple Alley Bakery before you leave town. After a day in the orchards, unwind at Nickel Beer Co. If you haven’t gotten your fill of all things apple, sip the Apple Pie Ale, a beer-cider blend flavored with pie spices, or try the Warrior Contribution golden ale, which supports the Inner North Star PTSD Retreat Center for veterans and first responders located in Julian.

Reservations may be required and many orchards are cash only.

Explore the night life

While you won’t find any clubs in Julian, there is an after-dark scene. Earlier this year, Julian became California’s second International Dark Sky Community, a designation that recognizes places that make an effort to reduce light pollution so as to preserve views of the night sky. So when in Julian, make sure you turn the lights out and step outside for a glimpse of the Milky Way. Although the pandemic put a pause on events, the Julian Dark Sky Network and the homegrown Curiosity Peak Observatory have previously hosted “star parties” — nights when amateur astronomers and the public gather to gaze through telescopes. Dark sky enthusiasts can even stay at the Observer’s Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that allows guests to bring their own telescopes or use the Inn’s research-grade ones for a fee.

Call Curiosity Peak for the latest info and events: (619) 354-9258.

Detour: Ilan-Lael Center

About 15 minutes outside Julian, near the little town of Wynola, is the Ilan-Lael Center, the home and life’s work of artist and architectural designer James Hubbell, who created the Sea Ranch Chapel. Starting in 1958, Hubbell and his wife Anne built and sculpted 11 organically shaped buildings that appear to curve, spiral and flow out of the land — like Hobbit homes with a Southwestern flavor. Decorated with mosaics, stained glass, seashells and gemstones, they’re true works of art. In the spring and fall, Hubbell opens the grounds for public tours, so go lose yourself in this artistic wonderland meant to inspire harmony between people and nature.

Ilan-Lael Center, 930 Orchard Lane, Santa Ysabel, 760-765-3427, www.ilanlaelfoundation.org .

—Lindsey J. Smith

Quincy (population: 1,952)

Quincy is technically in Gold Country, but it’s so far removed from the famous mineral-rich canyons near Sacramento that miners called it the Lost Sierra. The area, located in the remote mountains between Lake Tahoe and Redding, is considered the birthplace of ski racing in the Western United States: The sport began when 19th century miners cut and steamed skis from Douglas Fir planks and competed against each other using ski wax made from home remedies of spermaceti and pine pitch — a concoction they called dope.

Later, lumber mills, a transcontinental railroad and State Route 70 all fed Quincy’s fortunes. The place even has cred overhead: The Pacific Flyway brings in colorful birds like the massive, scarlet-capped Sandhill Crane, who finds food and shelter in the wetlands here.

Today, good coffee, a brewery, a new Saturday Artisan’s Market, plus a community theater and two art galleries speak to the entrepreneurial spirit that thrives here. For the most part, though, outdoor recreation is king. With new trails, a newly expanded sports shop and rentals, plenty of nearby swimming holes, as well as numerous forest-framed lakes and creeks, Quincy is a nature-lover’s wonderland.

Spy nature with the kids

Start the morning at a free 0.7-mile interpretive trail near town at the outdoor Leonhardt Learning Landscape on Boyle Creek. Cattails and willows throng the banks, and red-winged blackbirds, swallows, coyote, fox, muskrats and beavers mill about. A morning wander on the out-and-back path threads a soundscape of bird trills, frog burps, fish plops and other water rustlings. Information panels made by high school students explain the sites.

“One of our missions is to preserve land next to every school in the Feather River watershed so the students can have outdoor classrooms,” said Katie Bagby with the Feather River Land Trust, which paired with local schools and community partners to enhance the trail for education. “We want to give students a sense of wonder, stewardship and identity as mountain kids.”

More information at www.frlt.org .

Bike the trails

Get a heartier workout 15 minutes north of town in the recently improved South Park trail system. Members of the nonprofit Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship group have constructed 100 miles of free hiking, biking, equestrian and moto trails between Quincy and Downieville, and plan to build 70 miles more.

The Spanish Ridge Traverse Trailhead lifts out of the valley through switchbacks that cross a recovering fire-damaged forest where wildflowers like blue gilia, wooly sunflower and lupine pop in spring and summer. In minutes, you peer into the valleys and forests that miners’ saw, including American Valley, Quincy and the 7,000-foot-high Spanish Peak in Bucks Lake Wilderness. Afterward, splash in a Spanish Creek swimming hole near the parking area.

Maps are available at Feather River Outdoors and Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, www.sierratrails.org.

Be amazed

A local family recently gifted the Plumas County Museum a collection of baskets by the Maidu Native Americans, who fished and hunted here for centuries before Euro-American settlers arrived. Recently, PG&E transferred 2,325 acres of nearby Humbug Valley into Maidu hands.

Woven of split grasses and twigs, and patterned with natural bark dye, the historic vessels and accompanying photos show just how durable the nature-made tools for storing, carrying and sifting are.

Nearby, check out the taxidermy specimens of seven of the 12 owls living in Plumas County, including barn, northern saw-whet, northern pygmy, western screech and burrowing owls. Lean close to wings, beaks and talons to see how these feather-light animals survive. Upstairs, find a century-old pair of 12-foot-long wooden racing skis wrought by Lost Sierra miners.

Admission is $5; 500 Jackson St., Quincy, 530-283-6320, www.plumasmuseum.org .

Detour: Bucks Lake

Farther up in the mountains, at 5,167 feet in elevation, Bucks Lake is Quincy’s main water getaway, partly because it’s a fun place to swim, boat or kayak, but also because it’s much cooler than town, which sits at 3,432 feet in elevation. Bring your kayak or stand-up paddleboard or rent a pontoon boat at Bucks Lake Lodge.

This summer, lake levels are down but water is still accessible from boat ramps and day-use areas. Hike the moderate 9.2-mile out-and-back Mill Creek Trail following the shoreline northward from the southeast tip of the lake. End the day with a beer and dinner at the waterfront Lakeshore Resort, lively under new ownership.

Bucks Lakeshore Resort, 16001 Bucks Lake Road, Quincy, 530-283-2848, www.lakeshorebucks.com .

— Laura Read

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