Head off-the-beaten path in California this summer by adding these unique family stops to your California road trip
On the scheming stages of a California road trip? If you’re the type of traveler who prefers visiting hidden gems rather than the usual tourist highlights, chances are you’re currently on the lookout for authentic places to check out during your visit to the Sunshine State.
From bubbling mud pots surrounded by volcanoes to caves hidden amid pinnacles and metal statues depicting all sorts of whacky creatures, these are some of the most unique places to visit in California on a road trip!
Most Unique Places to Visit in California on a Family Road Trip
1. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of California’s best-kept secrets, so well kept that even many Californians don’t know of its existence! Featuring a terrain similar to that of the popular Yosemite National Park, this gem of a park is an excellent alternative, sans the crowds.
Lassen is relatively small (a mere 106,000 acres), but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in interesting scenery. Because of its location in a seismically active area, with volcanoes included, it contains bubbling mud pots and sulfur emissions that give the place an eerie otherworldly atmosphere.
The Bumpass Hell Trail is one of the most fascinating in the park, but do note due to high altitudes, the park’s through road and many trails are only open in the summer months.
Include a visit to Lassen Volcanic National park as part of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, one of the most interesting scenic drives in Northern California
2. Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is another hidden jewel in the Golden State’s collection of unique destinations. Like Lassen, many people don’t know of its existence, including Californians! That said, this relative anonymity makes it a great destination if you want to enjoy the best of California’s natural beauty without the crowds.
Pinnacles is home to some extraordinary rock formations and two caves you can explore freely without the need for a guided tour (it’s a great place for those traveling with children, as cave exploring here is a breeze!).
Another prime activity here is rock climbing. The park offers quite a few options, which include lessons for newbies as well multi-day adventures for those with higher skill levels.
Be sure to be on the lookout for condors at Pinnacles, as this is one of the best places in the United States to spot these scavengers. They are a critically endangered species, but sightings here are quite common thanks to the park’s great reintroduction program.
If you have the urge to find some great Instagrammable spots that haven’t been done hundreds of times, Capitolia is just the place you’re looking for! This colorful coastal town south of San Francisco features streaks of houses painted in all shades of the rainbow, so you will have tons of sites and angles to pick from.
Nearby Santa Cruz is really cute, but Capitolia is simply dreamy. With a relaxed laid-back atmosphere reminiscent of summer vacations, it still manages to offer lots of fun activities to keep visitors busy all day long.
Besides the typical beach activities to do during the day, this pretty seaside village has tons of eateries, shopping options galore, and a jam-packed calendar filled with plenty of seasonal events like Movies at the Beach, Capitola Art & Wine Festival, and Twilight Concert Series.
Also named “a little slice of Denmark”, a visit to Solvang will make you feel as though you’ve been transported into a quaint village somewhere in Europe. Think half-timbered houses, quirky little shops, and of course, bakeries offering delicious Denmark-inspired pastries – that’s Solvang in a nutshell.
Besides giving your sweet tooth a feast by eating all the goodies on offer (try fresh bear claws and Danish kringles!), wine-tasting is another prime activity here. Tasting rooms are scattered all over Solvang, and lush vineyards can be found in the outskirts, making Solvang an ideal place for a wine-filled vacay.
If you want to check out a super quirky place, you can make a stop at the nearby Ostrichland, a farm that ostriches and emus call their home, and welcome visitors looking to meet these magnificent feathery creatures!
One of the best-preserved towns along the California Gold Rush Trail, Columbia was once the second-largest city in the state at the peak of the Gold Rush. A wonderful history lesson awaits at Columbia State Historic Park, where you can stroll along wooden sidewalks, ride an authentic stagecoach, pan for gold and even chat to townspeople dressed in period attire.
Admire 19th-century architecture, visit historic inns, restaurants, working blacksmith shop, an old-fashioned bowling alley, theatre and shops supplied with treats and trinkets add to the ambience of the town where a new surprise is around every corner.
Galleta Meadows at Borrego Springs
Can you imagine yourself going on a scavenger hunt in search of humongous metal prehistoric animals, sea serpents, and creatures so strange that they seem from another era?
Scattered all over Borrego Springs, you’ll find more than a hundred metal sculptures in the shape of elephants, dinosaurs, insects, sloths, and a bunch of other wacky-looking creatures that seem like they escaped from a fantasy book.
Although some of these sculptures are more than 10 feet high, they can actually be a bit hard to find in the middle of the desert, making this a super fun and budget-friendly Cali experience. Drive around in your car or opt to rent an e-bike and count how many of them you can spot!
Malibu Creek State Park
For outdoors buffs who yearn for a day or two immersed in nature, Malibu Creek State Park is a great choice. Sitting only 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles, Malibu Creek features some of the most astounding vistas of the city’s surroundings and the Pacific Ocean.
Because of its location in the Santa Monica Mountains, its particular terrain is full of fantastic hiking and biking trails, all of which feature stunning views of the ocean. The mountains are a natural habitat for wildlife, so keep your eyes wide open for deer, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions!
For extra adventures, you can horseback ride, rock climb, or rent a kayak to explore the waters in the state park. For closer contact with the area, spending a night at one of the camping sites is highly recommended for nature lovers.
Hot Creek Geological Site, Mono County
Natural rock baths dotted around the base of Mammoth Lakes are undoubtedly one of the most unique places to visit in California. Whilst swimming is not allowed in the Hot Creek Geological Site, it’s still a fascinating phenomenon to witness at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where visitors can marvel at the springs, geysers, and fumaroles (gas vents).
Further afield, between Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes, there are some more natural hot springs if you’re prepared to do some exploring – but do be careful; these are not day spas, so be cautious of slippery surfaces and boiling water. (and be careful which one you choose with the kids as some are clothing optional!)
We hope you’ve found something unique here to add to your California road trip itinerary. The Sunshine State is always full of surprises!
More for Planning Your California Road Trip
- Check out these incredible scenic drives in California you’ll want to build into your road trip itinerary.
- These are the most beautiful places in California you have to visit at least once!
- Reconnect with nature in these stunning California destinations.
- Visiting in the late summer or fall? You might be able to capture the best sunflower display in the west.
- Continuing north? This Portland to San Francisco itinerary will see you through the best of Highway 1 and the 101 – northern California to Oregon.
- Never forget an important road trip item again! Download our essential road trip checklist before you start packing.
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