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13 Charming California Mountain Towns That Are TOO GOOD To Ignore 🤯

California has some of the most charming and beautiful mountain towns you could ask for.

And that makes it IMPOSSIBLE to choose which to visit.

But this post takes the thinking out of the equation as we list the 13 most charming mountain towns that you just CANNOT afford to miss.

And we’re pretty sure there’s AT LEAST one town here that you weren’t aware of.

google maps mountain towns california (1) (1)
Google Maps

Beautiful snow-capped mountains, serene lakes, golden autumn aspen trees and historic downtown areas.

This list will not fail to please.

1. Idyllwild

A mountain escape with arts and outdoor fun. 

Idyllwild is a charming town in the San Jacinto Mountains, perfect for nature enthusiasts, art lovers, and those seeking a cozy mountain atmosphere.

Tahquitz Rock (Lily Rock) idyllwild

You can enjoy a variety of activities including hiking to the famous Tahquitz Rock (also known as Lily Rock), exploring the scenic beauty of Lake Fulmor, and strolling through the artsy downtown filled with galleries, shops, and restaurants.

The area shines in fall with vibrant leaf colors, but offers distinct experiences in every season.

Idyllwild is ideal for both adventurous spirits and those looking for a tranquil retreat.

💡 Insider tip: For a unique local experience, visit the Idyllwild Nature Center.

It’s a great place for less crowded nature walks, offering insightful exhibits on the region’s natural history and a closer look at the diverse local wildlife.

2. Julian

Dig into history and homemade apple pies at this hidden gem town.

Julian is a small town located in the Cuyamaca mountains of San Diego County, famous for its gold mining history and delicious apple pies.

Visitors can explore the historic downtown, take a tour of the old mines, or visit during the fall for the best apple picking and pie tasting.

cuyamaca lake

Hiking enthusiasts should not miss the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve for scenic trails and views.

You also have Lake Cuyamaca which offers fishing, boating, and breathtaking natural scenery just a short drive from Julian, making it a must-visit if you’re in the area.

Julian is perfect for families, couples, or anyone looking to experience a blend of history, nature, and culinary delights.

The town also hosts various festivals throughout the year, making any visit special.

Insider tip: Stop by the Julian Pie Company for some of the best apple pies, but also venture to lesser-known orchards and farms around town for apple cider and tastings.

Don’t forget that Julian is also a designated Dark Sky Community so it has some of the best stargazing in California.

3. Lake Arrowhead

A lakeside retreat which is sometimes known as the ‘Alps of California’, with year-round activities to enjoy. 

Located in the San Bernardino Mountains about 20 minutes north of San Bernadino, Lake Arrowhead offers a picturesque setting known for its beautiful lake and outdoor activities.

lake arrowhead village (1)

Visitors can enjoy boat tours on the lake, hiking in the surrounding forests, and exploring the Lake Arrowhead Village for shopping and dining.

For winter enthusiasts, the nearby Snow Valley Mountain Resort provides skiing and snowboarding opportunities, making the area a great destination for snow sports.

The lake is particularly nice in the summer for water activities, while the winter transforms the region into a snowy paradise.

You can’t go wrong with this place in any season.

Lake Arrowhead is ideal for those seeking a mix of relaxation and adventure, with activities suited for all ages and interests.

Insider tip: For a unique experience, try out the Lake Arrowhead Queen paddlewheel boat tour for a narrated history of the area and stunning lake views.

4. Truckee

Adventure and history in the High Sierra, only a stone’s throw from Lake Tahoe. 

Truckee is a vibrant town in the Sierra Nevada mountains about 20 minutes drive from Lake Tahoe’s north shore, offering a perfect mix of outdoor activities and historical charm.

donner lake

You can explore the historic downtown, with its unique shops and restaurants, or go on adventures in the nearby Donner Memorial State Park and the Truckee River.

For skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts, Northstar California Resort is just a short drive away, providing world-class slopes.

Truckee is a great destination year-round, with each season offering its own unique set of activities, from hiking and mountain biking in the summer to snow sports in the winter.

It’s a fantastic spot for families, outdoor adventurers, and history buffs.

donner pass and donner lake in snow near truckee

Insider tip: For a truly local experience, check out the Truckee River Legacy Trail, a scenic path that offers stunning views and a peaceful walk or bike ride along the river.

If you have the time, then visit the Old Truckee Jail Museum to get a glimpse into the town’s wild west past, a lesser-known attraction that’s full of fascinating stories.

Need more info on Truckee? Read this post linked below (It’s about Truckee)

Related Reading: Visit This Charming California Mountain Town BEFORE It Gets Too Popular

5. Big Bear Lake

A year-round paradise in southern California for outdoor enthusiasts. 

Big Bear Lake is a premier destination in the San Bernardino Mountains known for its stunning lake, outdoor activities, and family-friendly atmosphere.

You can enjoy boating and fishing on the lake in the summer, while the winter months offer excellent skiing and snowboarding at Snow Summit and Bear Mountain resorts.

The town also boasts beautiful hiking trails like the Castle Rock Trail, offering panoramic views of the area.

big bear lake san bernadino

Big Bear Lake is perfect for travelers seeking adventure or a relaxing getaway, with activities suitable for all ages and interests, from nature walks to adrenaline-pumping mountain sports.

autumn trees big bear lake (1)

Insider tip: For an off-the-beaten-path experience, visit the Alpine Pedal Path, an easy, scenic trail perfect for biking or walking that offers beautiful views of the lake and access to less crowded spots.

Also, consider a visit to the Big Bear Alpine Zoo, a rehabilitation facility for injured and orphaned wild animals, offering a unique opportunity to learn about local wildlife and conservation efforts.

6. Grass Valley

A historic gem with a vibrant arts scene.

Grass Valley, in the heart of the Gold Country in Nevada County, is rich in history and culture, making it a unique destination for visitors.

The town’s historic downtown is lined with beautifully preserved buildings, boutique shops, and excellent restaurants.

If you like your history, then you’ll like attractions like the Empire Mine State Historic Park which offers a glimpse into the area’s gold mining past.

Grass Valley is also known for its thriving arts scene, with numerous galleries, theaters, and live music events.

Empire Mine State Park, Grass Valley, CA. (1)

The town is a perfect spot for history enthusiasts, art lovers, and anyone looking to explore the charm of California’s Gold Rush era.

If you prefer to get into nature then nearby natural attractions like the Yuba River provide outdoor activities such as hiking and swimming.

Bourn Cottage, Empire Mine State Park, Grass Valley, CA. (1)

Insider tip: For a taste of local culture, plan your visit during one of Grass Valley’s events, like the Wild and Scenic Film Festival or the Grass Valley Thursday Night Market.

These events offer a great way to experience the community spirit and artistic talent of the area.

If you like watching movies then don’t miss a showing at the historic Del Oro Theatre, an art deco gem that screens both contemporary and classic films.

7. Sutter Creek

A Charming gold rush town with a rich history.

Sutter Creek is a picturesque town in Amador County, celebrated for its Gold Rush-era history and well-preserved downtown.

Autumn in Sutter Creek (1)

This charming town features historic buildings, antique shops, and local wineries that create a perfect backdrop for a leisurely exploration.

You can delve into history at the Knight Foundry, one of the few remaining water-powered foundries in the United States.

Sutter Creek is an ideal destination for those who appreciate history, wine tasting, and small-town hospitality.

It’s especially beautiful in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.

Insider tip: Make sure to visit the Sutter Creek Theater for live music and performances in an intimate setting, a hidden gem that brings a variety of high-quality entertainment to the heart of Gold Country.

Also, take a walk down Main Street to enjoy the town’s unique shops and restaurants, and don’t miss a chance to taste locally produced wines at one of the tasting rooms.

8. Bishop

Outdoor adventures in the heart of the Eastern Sierra with access to some of the most beautiful lakes in the state.

north lake near bishop california (1)

Bishop is the gateway to the Eastern Sierra’s stunning landscapes, offering a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts.

North Lake in the fall at dawn with aspens and reflections, headwater for North Fork of the Bishop Creek. Inyo National Forest near Bishop, California. (1)

The town is surrounded by natural beauty, with access to incredible hiking, fishing, and rock climbing.

North Lake and Lake Sabrina, just a short drive from Bishop, are must-visit spots for anglers and hikers looking for picturesque mountain views and tranquil waters.


The area is known for its vibrant fall colors too, making it a perfect destination for autumn visits.

Bishop caters to everyone from adventure seekers to those who simply want to enjoy the serenity of mountain lakes and the vastness of the Sierra Nevada.

A dirt road thru aspens in fall color. By North Lake near Bishop Creek and Bishop California. Inyo National Forest. (1)

Insider tip: North Lake and Lake Sabrina are popular for their beauty and recreational opportunities, so consider visiting in the early morning or on weekdays to avoid crowds and fully enjoy the peacefulness of the area.

Additionally, the local bakery in Bishop (Erick Schat’s) is famous for its special bread, the ‘Original Sheepherder’s Bread‘, – so make sure to stop by before a day of exploration or to relax after an adventurous day.

9. Mammoth Lakes

A mountain destination for all-season adventures that never lets you down.


Mammoth Lakes, in the Eastern Sierra, is a year-round destination known for its stunning alpine scenery and outdoor activities.

Lower Twin Lakes at Mammoth Lakes (1)

The area boasts beautiful lakes like Lake Mamie, Lake Mary, and Lake George, each offering unique opportunities for fishing, kayaking, and picnicking against a backdrop of breathtaking mountain vistas.

You also have the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area which provides some of the best skiing and snowboarding in California, with extensive trails and terrain parks.

Whether you’re visiting in summer for the hiking and water activities, or in winter for the snow sports, Mammoth Lakes caters to both adventure seekers and those who love a bit of peace and quiet.


Insider tip: To escape the crowds, visit Lake Mamie or Lake Mary early in the morning for a serene experience and the chance to see wildlife.

For a unique summer adventure, take the scenic gondola ride at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area for panoramic views of the Sierra.

10. Mt Shasta

Majestic mountain landscapes and year-round adventures.


Mt Shasta in Siskiyou County, towers over Northern California as a beacon for those seeking outdoor adventure, spiritual exploration, and breathtaking natural beauty.

And the nearby town of Mt Shasta is a perfect base to explore this area.

The area is a paradise for hikers, skiers, and nature lovers.


The nearby Lake Siskiyou offers kayaking, swimming, and camping with stunning views of the mountain that might just take your breath away.

You can also visit Faery Falls to witness its cascading waters and the historical ruins of Ney Springs.

Faery Falls in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Northern California (1)

Winter brings the thrill of skiing and snowboarding at the Mt Shasta Ski Park, with slopes suitable for all skill levels under the watchful eye of the mountain.

Mt Shasta is ideal for anyone looking to connect with nature, find spiritual solace, or go on mountainous adventures throughout the year.

Insider tip: Dive deeper into the Mt Shasta experience by joining a guided spiritual or historical tour around the mountain to uncover its mysteries and sacred sites.

For a peaceful day, head to Lake Siskiyou’s beach early in the morning or during the week to enjoy serene views with fewer people.

11. Lone Pine

Gateway to natural wonders and cinematic landscapes that are almost other-worldly.

View of Lone Pine Peak, east side of the Sierra Nevada range, the town of Lone Pine, California, Inyo County, United States of America, Inyo National Forest (1)

Lone Pine is a small town in the Owens Valley of the Eastern Sierras.

It’s got a big reputation among outdoor enthusiasts and movie buffs and there’s no surprise as to why.

mobius arch stone at Alabama Hills, Lone pine, USA. (1)

Situated in the shadow of the majestic Sierra Nevada, it offers easy access to the Alabama Hills, known for their unique rock formations like the Mobius Arch, and a backdrop to numerous films.


The area is also a hotspot for hikers and climbers who are drawn to the challenges of Lone Pine Peak and the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney.

Alabama Hills Recreation Area in Lone Pine California. Many West (1)

Whether you’re looking to explore the rugged terrain, conquer high peaks, or simply enjoy the storied landscapes of the Old West, Lone Pine is an ideal destination.


Insider tip: For photographers and nature lovers, the Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills provides a perfect natural frame for capturing Lone Pine Peak or Mt. Whitney, especially at sunrise or sunset.

If you’re thinking of attempting Mt. Whitney, consider acclimatizing by exploring the less crowded trails around Lone Pine Peak first.

Visit the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center in Lone Pine to get the latest information, permits, and tips for making the most of your adventures in this breathtaking region.

12. Kirkwood

A hidden gem for ski enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Kirkwood is not just another mountain town.

It’s a perfect place for those seeking thrilling ski slopes and pristine natural beauty.

In the Eldorado National Forest, Kirkwood Mountain Resort is known for its challenging terrain, deep powder, and fewer crowds, making it a favorite among serious skiers and snowboarders.

caples lake california kirkwood (1)

Just a stone’s throw away, Caples Lake offers year-round outdoor activities, from fishing and kayaking in the summer to snowshoeing and ice fishing in the winter.

Kirkwood’s secluded location provides a tranquil escape with breathtaking landscapes and plenty of opportunities for adventure.

Insider tip: Take advantage of Kirkwood’s high-altitude location by exploring the backcountry areas offered by the resort for an unforgettable skiing experience.

Don’t miss the chance to stay in one of the cozy cabins by the lake for a true mountain retreat experience.

13. South Lake Tahoe

An iconic lakeside paradise with endless adventure and breathtaking views.

As the name suggests, South Lake Tahoe is on the southern shores of Lake Tahoe.

South Lake Tahoe is renowned for its stunning landscapes, combining crystal-clear waters with towering mountains.

emerald bay lake tahoe (1)

Emerald Bay State Park is a jewel of the area and is only about 10-15 minutes drive from South Lake Tahoe.

It offers postcard-worthy views and outdoor activities like kayaking or hiking to Vikingsholm Castle.

For those looking to hit the slopes, Heavenly Ski Resort has you covered.

looking at lake tahoe from heavenly ski resort (1)

It has world-class skiing and snowboarding experiences with panoramic views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains.

After the sun sets, South Lake Tahoe’s clear skies make it an ideal spot for stargazing too, offering a dreamy end to action-packed days.

Insider tips: For a unique view of Emerald Bay, hike the Rubicon Trail, which offers less crowded paths and stunning perspectives of the bay and Fannette Island.

Even if you’re not skiing or snowboarding, don’t miss the opportunity to take a scenic gondola ride at Heavenly Ski Resort for breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe.

For stargazing enthusiasts, visit the Tahoe Star Tours for guided nighttime sky viewings, where you can learn about constellations and celestial events in an unforgettable setting.

Sophie Davis

Born and raised in the Bay area of California, Sophie is a California native. She joined our team in 2023 to create travel guides on California.

Learn more about the Traveller's Elixir Team.

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