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Tall mountains, lush forests, alpine lakes, and wildflower-dotted meadows make NorCal a dream come true for every outdoor enthusiast, but its rural communities also beckon to visitors. Venture off to one of Northern California’s small towns and soak up the laid-back vibes that can only soothe your soul. Whether you’re looking for the best small towns in Northern California to live in or simply seeking a change in scenery for a weekend, the region’s tight-knit communities will immediately capture your heart.
With San Francisco, Monterey, and Oakland stealing the show for quaint towns in Northern California, it’s time to discover a new world. Get away from the crowds and explore NorCal’s hidden gems, from the most underrated small towns near Lake Tahoe to mountain communities along the Lost Coast—the real gems are not where you think they are. So, rent a cabin near one of the most beautiful lakes and unplug from the white noise around you. Find tranquility along the way while familiarizing yourself with affordable small towns in Northern California you might decide to move to.
One of the cutest small towns in California has to be Auburn. Nestled in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, just 30 minutes northeast of Sacramento, this sleepy community boasts a rich Gold Rush history and pristine nature. Auburn is also one of the top places to retire in the state thanks to its affordable housing and charming surroundings.
Hike and bike along more than 100 miles of trails in the nearby Auburn State Recreation Area. Browse the authentic downtown’s boutique shops and art galleries before stopping by North Fork Deli for a delicious lunch. While Saturdays are the most popular times to visit the farmers market offering locally grown produce, California's best U-pick farms welcome visitors to pick their own almost daily. Get inspired by the beauty of a slow-paced lifestyle while lodging at the elegant Park Victorian.
Tucked between Lassen and Shasta-Trinity National Forests, Burney has a population of just over 3,800 people and can only be described as “beautiful and friendly.” Take a one-hour drive from Redding to explore the picturesque small town situated at the foot of Burney Mountain.
Cruise along the scenic 60-mile Dana Loop, which begins and ends in Burney. Visit the Pit River, Fort Crook Museum, 100-year-old Glenburn Community Church, and McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park along the way. While at the park, hike to one of the most popular waterfalls in Northern California—Burney Falls—and let the rushing waters of Burney Creek wash away your worries. Fish for wild trout in Hat Creek and Pit River, and camp at Cassel Campground in Hat Creek Valley to become one with NorCal’s extraordinary nature.
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With an abundance of small coastal towns in Northern California, it’s hard to choose which one to visit first, yet there’s a mysterious air around Eureka that’s impossible to ignore. Settled between giant coastal redwoods and Humboldt Bay, Eureka is a hub for creative souls and curious spirits and is among the most affordable beach towns in the state.
Founded in the mid-1800s thanks to the timber industry, the town mostly thrives off of tourism today. Spend a weekend in Eureka to witness its unique past and natural wonders. Discover the secret of the Victorian-era Carson Mansion, and join the Haunted History Ghost Tour to learn all about the arcane town. You can also visit the Sequoia Park Zoo (which was founded in 1907), and stroll through Woodley Island before checking in at the Carter House Inn, where dinner at Restaurant 301 awaits you.
Located three hours north of San Francisco, the “Port of Good Hope” has enticed visitors and bypassers with its natural beauty since 1850. Admire the rugged coastline of the cape surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, and hike in Mendocino Headlands State Park to discover hidden caverns and glorious vistas. Revitalize at one of Mendocino Coast Reservations’ vacation rental homes, where you can wake up to ocean or redwood forest views in one of the best small towns in Northern California.
Pack a picnic to savor along the shore off of Heeser Drive, with a view of Goat Island. Bring binoculars to spot wildlife, and admire the rock formations creating natural bridges. Then, make your way to the Devil’s Punchbowl in Russian Gulch State Park and listen to the echo created by waves crashing into the 100-feet-wide and 60-foot-deep tunnel. Afterward, explore Mendocino Headlands State Park and feast your eyes on earth’s tallest living trees: the astonishing coastal redwoods.
To enjoy adventures in downtown Mendocino, stop by the Ford House Visitor Center and Museum to learn about the small coastal village’s history. Stroll along the beachfront lined with boutique shops for souvenir shopping, and let the day pass while indulging in a romantic dinner at the Trillium Cafe before watching the sunset at Big River Beach. Explore Van Damme State Park’s waters with an early morning shore dive or snorkel experience before returning home.
Take the ferry from downtown San Francisco or drive across the Bay via the Golden Gate Bridge to discover the hidden gem of the Tiburon Peninsula. About 17 miles north of San Francisco, Tiburon offers a relaxed atmosphere for those needing an escape from the big city life. Considered one of the most beautiful towns in Northern California, Tiburon provides an abundance of activities for visitors and residents alike.
Venture off to Angel Island State Park (the Bay’s largest natural island) for miles of hiking trails, take a selfie from Lyford's Stone Tower, and bask in the sun at Paradise Beach. You can also learn all about Tiburon’s history on a self-guided walking tour along the Old Rail Trail from downtown to Blackie's Pasture. After a fresh, organic lunch at Luna Blu Restaurant, bike off the calories on the scenic Paradise Loop or go bouldering at Ring Mountain like the locals. Check in at The Lodge at Tiburon, and treat yourself to a stay in the roomy Residential King Suite with a terrace overlooking the Belvedere Hills.
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