12 California Hidden Gems

California tends to get a bad rap these days. But, if you put political opinions aside for a minute, and just stop to smell the roses, or the spring poppies I should say, California really is such a marvelous place. As far as a travel destination goes, the state has everything. From the glitz and glam of Hollywood to the laid back, secluded feel of Joshua Tree; from snowboarding in mountain towns to surfing in beach cities, California has it all. Growing up in California, we have had the opportunity to explore quite a few unique areas throughout the state. We love finding off the beaten path hot springs and watering holes and we always seem to find ourselves on new trails so we’ve rounded up a list of a few of our favorites. Check out these 12 must see, hidden gems in California. C’mon, let’s go explore!

  1. Ladder Canyon / Painted Canyon (Mecca)
    Painted Canyon Trailhead, Painted Canyon Rd, Mecca, CA 92254

Kicking off the list with one of our all time favorite hikes, Ladder Canyon! Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Trail is an epic hike just outside of Greater Palm Springs in the Mecca Wilderness Area. It’s a 4.4 mile hike that has a Utah/Arizona feel to it with the way the red/orange rocks are formulated. The trail takes you through a section of slot canyons where you have to climb man made ladders to continue up to each new section. You eventually drop down into Painted Canyon, named for its prehistoric, colorful rock walls.

Tips to Consider:
– Make sure you drive there in a car that is equip for a little off-roading.
– Always start on the Ladder Canyon side and work your way toward Painted Canyon not vice versa. It’s easy to get lost if you start with Painted Canyon.
– Look for arrows made of rocks, they are there to guide you.

2. Walker Canyon Poppy Fields (Lake Elsinore)
27200 Lake St, Lake Elsinore, CA 92530

This is a hiking trail in Lake Elsinore. Visitors come by the thousands during peak season (March-April) to see the wildflowers. We got to visit back in 2019, during the last California superbloom and the mountains were covered with orange poppies as far as the eye can see. It was incredible. The full hike is about 3.5 miles round trip, but you don’t need to hike at all to see the poppies or get a gorgeous pic.

Tips to Consider:
-The last California superbloom was in 2019 so if you’re looking to visit in the future, be sure to do your research and learn about the current status of the hills as it’s constantly changing.

3. Three Sisters Falls (San Diego)
Three Sisters Falls Trailhead, Boulder Creek Rd, Santa Ysabel, CA 92070

Three Sister Falls is a 4.1 mile, out and back trail located on the outskirts of San Diego County, near Julian, California. When the water is flowing, there are three main waterfalls (hence the name Three Sisters). It is best to visit after a good rain season and we definitely did not visit at the best time. The trail was still beautiful and our pups got to enjoy swimming in the water but unfortunately the waterfall was not flowing.

Tips to Consider:
-Visit during winter or spring.

4. Aztec Falls Swimming Hole (Lake Arrowhead)
Cedar Glen, California 92321

This is a moderate 1-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in Lake Arrowhead. It isn’t much of a hike but rather a steep decent to get down to a refreshing watering hole where you can cliff jump.

Tips to Consider:
-Our biggest advice is to be smart when visiting here. Many young teens and college kids visit here to drink, party and have a good time. We watched several groups of drunk people attempt to make the climb back up and slip and fall.
-The water is deep enough to cliff jump but we watched way too many intoxicated people jump. Be smart and be safe!

5. Abandoned Pier Swing (Davenport)
Cabrillo Hwy and Cement Plant Rd Davenport, CA 95017

The small town of Davenport located near Santa Cruz, California carries a large amount of history. A whale captain name John Pope Davenport founded the city and built a 450 foot wharf in 1867 to load lumber brought down from the city for shipment to Santa Cruz. The wharf site became known as Davenport’s Landing and was considered one of the best landings along the coast. A storm came and destroyed a large portion of the bridge and Mr. Davenport eventually went bankrupt and moved to Santa Cruz. Today, the old pier has a swing chained around it, allowing visitors to swing and enjoy the sound of the waves and views of the vast ocean.

Tips To Consider:
– If you are looking to check out this location, be advised, to get down to the swing, you must descend down a steep cliff with a rope.
-Also consider checking out Shark Fin Cove while in Davenport!

6. Potato Chip Rock (San Diego)

14686-14678 Lake Poway Rd, Poway, CA 92064

This is a 7.3 mile out and back hike in Poway, California that takes you to a rock that looks like, yep you guessed it, a potato chip!

Tips to Consider:
-Photos of people posing on Potato Chip Rock are everywhere on Instagram and so many people take on the hike simply for the photo op without realizing how difficult the hike actually is. It’s 7.3 miles….7.3. For avid hikers, it’s a nice little trek but for those who don’t hike often be prepared for a tough climb.
– There’s supposedly an alternative route to get to the rock that’s much easier and less milage. We haven’t done it before, but consider looking into it if you’re not prepared to hike over 7 miles.

7. Wild Willy’s Hot Springs (Near Mammoth Lakes)

Hwy 395 Benton Crossing Rd Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546

This incredible hot springs is located on the outskirts of Mammoth off the 395. We’ve visited twice, once in January with snow on the ground and once in the summer when the weather was a bit hot. The water is about 100 degrees and one of the hot springs is actually shaped like a heart!

Tips to Consider:
-Visit in the winter. The experience was incredible. There was snow on the ground and the temperature was below freezing and we were sitting in hot water in our bathing suits. When we visited in the summer, it was hot outside and the water was too hot for us to want to sit and relax in.
-If you visit in the winter, bring warm clothes to immediately put on afterwards because the long walk back to the car is brutal.

8. Big Pine Lakes (Near Bishop)

The hike to Big Pine Lakes may be one of the best day hikes in California. The water is such a pretty turquoise color. There are 7 Big Pine Lakes, numbered sequentially (we only visited 2 of the 7). The first two lakes are supposedly the most beautiful with views of Temple Crag in the background (featured in this photo). Lake 1 & 2 are also very close to each other. To the second lake and back it’s around 11 miles total of hiking.

Minimum Elevation: 7,824 ft.
Maximum Elevation: 10,291
Elevation Gain: 2,848

9. McWay Falls (Big Sur)
52801 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920

This iconic waterfall is located in Big Sur, California along Highway 1. It’s a short 0.6 mile round trip to the viewpoint of McWay Falls located in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park.

10. Whitewater Preserve (Near Palm Springs)
9160 Whitewater Canyon Rd, Whitewater, CA 92282

We’ve lived in the desert our whole lives and never realized how beautiful the trails at the Whitewater Preserve are. The mountains during spring time are so green and the trails are dog friendly with water at the beginning/end for them to play and cool off in.

Tips to Consider:
-The gates to the preserve close at 5PM. We like to park on the street in the dirt outside the gates and take the pups to run around in the water in the evenings (especially in the summer when the temps during the day are over 100). For longer hikes it’s also smart to park outside the gates just in case you don’t make it back to your car by 5PM.
-Bring plenty of water, most of the trails aren’t shaded.
-There isn’t much phone reception out there. Be sure to let others know where you are in case of emergency.

11. Salvation Mountain (Imperial County)
  Beal Rd, Calipatria, CA 92233

Salvation Mountain is located about an hour and a half outside of the Greater Palm Springs area just east of the Salton Sea in Imperial County. Salvation Mountain is artist, Leonard Knight’s tribute to God and his gift to the world with the powerful message: “God Is Love”. It’s such a strange, interesting place but definitely worth making a trip out to see once in your life.

Tips to Consider:
-Stop by to see Slab City, East Jesus, Bombay Beach, the Banana Museum and the Salton Sea while you’re there. All these locations are such strange sites but are definitely worth seeing.

12. Idyllwild-Pine Cove (Near Palm Springs)

Idyllwild is a magical little mountain town located just outside of the Greater Palm Springs area in California. The town is only about an hour from the desert floor and yet at least 25 degrees cooler. It’s a great place to get away from the heat, relax and escape the busyness of every day life.

Read our latest guide for insight on where to stay, hike and dine in Idyllwild!


We hope this blog gave you a bit of inspiration and insight for your next California adventure! Travel on my friends!

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