When you think of Southern California what do you first think of? Los Angeles, San Diego, Hollywood probably come to mind. That’s the Southern California we all know. Those are all wonderful places for the typical traveler; however, I’m not typical. I like to find hidden gems that few people know about; to find the unique and quirky places and people. I set out on a road trip voyage to discover the unique places to visit in California. However, the state is so huge, I had to break it into Northern and Southern California! You can see my article on places to visit in Northern California here.
What Makes These Southern California Places Unique?
The places that made this list are little gems I found as I traveled throughout the region by car. Some of these places are popular already by the travelers who come to these rural areas, and some are just regular local places, not on any tourist trail. They include sights, landscapes, restaurants, parks, and hotels. And together they made up the best places in my trip!
The Best Places to Visit in Southern California
These 4 regions are easily reachable via car from LA, San Francisco, Palm Springs, or San Diego airports. I suggest you make a road trip out of it and pick a few of the places and plan a weekend or better yet – a week long trip!
Connecting LA to San Francisco the Central Coast is not only the transition between Northern and Southern California; it is the heart of California. Highway 1 is a stranger to no one, however I have found a few unique spots along Highway 1 you likely haven’t heard about!
Ellen’s Danish Pancake House: Buellton California may be known for it’s great Pinot Noir wine, but it also has delicious pancakes! Even though you can find all kinds of pancakes at Ellens, the real stars are the Danish ones; a crepe with the taste of a pancake. It immediately reminded me of the pancakes my Danish grandmother used to make on the farm; a fun trip down memory lane. The diner is a local icon and a great way to get a dose of local culture!
Ellen’s Danish Pancake House
Bubble Gum Alley: San Luis Obispo’s Bubble Gum Alley is filled with more than 1.7 million pieces of bubble gum. It’s 65 feet long and 15 feet high and covered in layers and layers of previously chewed bubble gum. Even though it has a big ‘ick’ factor, of course you’ll want to stroll through the unique alley and add to it!
Bubble Gum Alley
Libertine Brewery: The founders of Libertine have injected their quirkiness and their love of music into everything they produce at Libertine. Known for a vast array of wild beers, be ready to pucker because these beers are sour! Stop in at their restaurant and brewery and try a flight of beers, and enjoy all of the rocknroll themed décor. Every little thing there has a little twist of dry humor to it. And be sure to ask them the story of how they named their beers!
Libertine Brewery Website
Looking for Adventure in California?
Check out my top California adventures you need to add to your itinerary!
Flying Flags Resort: This place has a little bit of everything to sleep in – Glamping tents, vintage Airstreams, and tiny cottages! I’m normally not one for RV parks, but this place is so unique you really can’t pass it up. Sure – you can pull up and stay there in your own RV if you have one. Or you can skip the boring old hotels rooms and rent one of their places and have a unique experience. The weekend we were there they had a vintage Airstream weekend and the place was packed with cute little unique RV’s!
Flying Flags Resort Website
San Luis Obispo Farmers Market: This is more than just a typical farmer’s market; first off it’s not in the morning, it’s held at night. There’s not only fresh, seasonal produce there, but there’s also entertainment (local bands/performers), and prepared food. It’s sort of like a street fair had a baby with a farmer’s market – and the result is genius! Held every Thursday from 6-9PM in downtown San Luis Obispo, go with a shopping list and go hungry!
SLO Thursday Farmers Market Website
Made up of well-known destinations like Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Lake Tahoe; the area is an outdoor adventurer’s dream. But it doesn’t take much to find the regions less traveled and the unique stops.
Horseshoe Lake: A typical pristine lake with a mountain backdrop that you’ll find all over Mammoth Lakes, but this lake has a twist to it. On one end of the lake the lush landscapes switches into a dead and brittle one. Instead of a lush green forest, you have a bunch of stark dead trees. They are being killed by carbon dioxide emissions of magmatic origin. It’s an fascinating area to see the volcanic history that lies beneath the Mammoth Lakes area.
Horseshoe Lake Mammoth Lakes
Olmsted Point Yosemite: How do you get away from the crowds in Yosemite? You go up. Four million people a year drive through Yosemite taking in all of it’s beautiful landscapes, and yes it can get a big crowded. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be part of the crowd. Leave that crowd behind at Olmsted Point, a popular scenic lookout along Tioga Road, by simply hiking up the vast granite slopes across the road from the parking. If you are ambitious and go all the way to the top you will have the best views, and absolutely no other people!
Olmsted Point Yosemite
Erick Schat’s Bakery: This small town bakery in Bishop, established in 1938, was bursting at the seams with people and bread when we stopped! If you love carbs, this is definitely an iconic, unique stop. Learn about the story of sheepherder bread and taste the various flavors. You have to see this place to believe it; and or course get a pastry of two..or five!
Erick Schat Bakery Bishop
Rush Creek Lodge: This cool new resort set right on the outskirts to the entrance to Yosemite National Park is a fun alternative to roughing it in the park! Even though the resort leans luxury, it still pays homage to its rustic surroundings. Once the sun goes down behind the trees the fire pits are ablaze, and it sort of feels like you are ‘camping’ with a giant group of friends. Plus, there are bottomless s’mores – two words everyone wants to hear!
Rush Creek Lodge Website
When you think of California Deserts you think of Death Valley and Mojave Desert – but it’s more than just dry climates and vast open space where mustangs roam.
Ridgecrest: the town of Ridgecrest seldom gets noticed, it’s typically just a quick stop on your way to other places in the deserts. However, it has a unique mix of ancient history and military cultures that makes is a bit quirky. It is the home to the earliest known life in the region. Ancient petroglyphs were etched into canyon walls by the Coso people over 10,000 years ago. You’ll find those petroglyphs on a highly secured military base, China Lake Naval Weapons Station. That means that the access to these ancient wonders is not a simple process, but it is a process that’s worth it. Inquire at the Maturango museum how you can see them in this highly protected environment.
Ridgecrest Visitor Bureau Website
Randsburg: Wander through Main Street in tiny town of Randsburg, but don’t expect to see anyone because it’s a living ghost town! You won’t see any ghosts, but you also won’t see any people unless it’s the weekend when the century old shops open up and people actually wander around the town. However come in the middle of the week and you’ll likely not see a soul. Be sure to stop in at the soda fountain at Randsburg’s General Store which has been operating for 112 years!
Randsburg Visitor Bureau
Fish Rocks: The largest fish in the desert is just outside of Ridgecrest; Fish Rocks is a clever art project that’s a favorite photo stop. The story is that the fish were originally created by locals who were ‘enjoying the 70’s’; it was a popular gathering place for ‘social gatherings’. When Cal Trans re-did the road, they removed the paintings from the rocks. However Trona and Ridgecrest residents loved them so much they started a petition to get them back. The highway department repainted them and continue to maintain them!
Fish Rocks along Highway 178
Burros and Wild Horse Facility Ridgecrest: For a truly unique experience, visit the Burros and Wild Horse Facility with a big bag of carrots to build a close rapport with the local animals. Run by the Bureau of Land Management, this facility houses captured wild burros and mustangs and prepares them for adoption which includes vaccinations, deworming, blood tests and freezemarking. On an average year, the corrals will prepare more than 1,000 animals. For any animal lover, this experience is a treat. Learn about the challenges of wild animals in the desert, drive around the corals, and see the babies. You may even decide you want to adopt one and take it home!
Ridgecrest Regional Wild Horse and Burro Corals
In the late 19th century the inland empire was built upon the success of the naval orange. But today it has diversified into all kinds of farms, restaurants, and unique adventures.
EAT Restaurant and Marketplace: Here you’ll get hyper fresh and nutrient dense dishes made by the incredible Chef Leah Di Bernardo. She is implementing inventive ideas on how to do farm to table while supporting and working with the local farmers. If you are truly lucky you’ll find her wandering around the restaurant chatting with the customers. She’s not the only star of this unique eatery – the food is incredible. EAT believes all eaters should have a place to dine, and supports Carnivores, Vegetarians, Vegan, GF, and Paleo without leaving taste out. Those were the best gluten free donuts I’ve ever had!
Extraordinary Artisinal Table EAT Website
Grape Escape Balloons: Temecula Valley is known for its variety, growing and producing over 50 different varietals of wine; from Cabernet Sauvignon to Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot to Mourvedre, Viognier to Chardonnay. Sure, you can simply go wine tasting, but if you want something unique then soar above all of those varietals in a hot air balloon! Lift off with the sun and float about wineries in the valley and upon landing enjoy a breakfast and champagne.
Grape Escape Balloons Website
Map of Places to Visit in Northern California
Now since I got you excited to try some of these quirky places, I’ll show you where you can find them.
I was a guest of Visit California for a #CaliforniaWild project during my time in California. However all opinions expressed here are my own.