December 12, 2020
As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.
Sunny Southern California has no shortage of tourist attractions and must-see destinations. Even if you’ve been to all of the popular destinations, there’s always something new to discover; there’s so little time yet so much to see. From off-the-beaten-path spots to mysterious places you need to check out yourself, SoCal is a hub of hidden treasures. So, the next time you’re heading out on the highway, blast your favorite California road trip playlist on full volume and pay a visit to these hidden gems in Southern California.
The Hidden Gems Of Santa Barbara
Red Rock Pools
Location: Gibraltar Trail, Santa Barbara
The coolest swimming hole you’ll find when exploring Santa Barbara is Red Rock Pools. This hidden gem in Southern California is tucked away in a crescent-shaped bend along the Santa Ynez River. There’s a half-mile hike with a hill around 50 feet tall leading you to Red Rock Pools. Although the trail is a short one, beware of the poison oak in the area. Once you get there, the fun begins. Depending on the river flow, the pools can get deep enough where you can jump off rocks that are 35 feet above the water.
Location: 999 Andante Road, Santa Barbara
Is your fantasy villa shaped like a whale? If yes, then you’re in luck. The Whale House is a hidden gem in Santa Barbara nestled in Mission Canyon’s woods. Made of undulating rows of cedar shingles, the home was designed by architect Michael Carmichael. Completed in 1978, the Whale House took three years and 20 experts to complete. The results? A magnificent hidden gem in Southern California that’s one of the most astonishing homes in the U.S.
Moreton Bay Fig Tree
Location: Corner of Chapala Street and Montecito Street, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara’s Moreton Bay Fig Tree is considered to be the largest of its kind in the country. The story of this colossal tree is even more interesting—in 1876, the seedling of the tree was given to a local girl by an Australian seaman; the girl moved away and her friend Adeline Crabb relocated it to its present location. The Moreton Bay Fig Tree usually goes unnoticed amid the many tourist attractions, but this hidden gem in Santa Barbara is worth seeing. The designated historic landmark’s circumference measured 498 inches as of July 1997!
Must-See Hidden Gems In LA
The Last Bookstore
Location: 453 South Spring Street, Los Angeles
The Last Bookstore is a Los Angeles icon and one of the best used bookstores in California, but it is often overlooked by visitors. Encompassing 22,000 square feet, it’s located in the atrium and vault of what used to be a bank. Bibliophiles flock to The Last Bookstore to get a whiff off the musty yet decadent smell of well-kept vintage books. The best part about this enchanting bookstore is the sculptures made using damaged copies and the hidden nooks all throughout the area. Wander around the store looking for classic California-based books and lose track of time while exploring the undiscovered corners of this hidden gem in L.A.
Location: Paseo Del Mar, Los Angeles
San Pedro, a community within Los Angeles, was once filled with luxurious homes. But they met their inevitable demise in 1929 when a landslide caused them to plunge into the ocean. Locals called the disaster "Sunken City:" What was once a neighborhood of exclusive houses became an abandoned space of streetcar tracks, empty streets, and wrecked foundations. Although most people hike around the area, Sunken City itself is off-limits—it’s San Pedro’s very own Lost City of Atlantis and remains one of the most devastating hidden gems in Los Angeles.
Garden of Oz
Location: 3040 Ledgewood Drive, Los Angeles
Among the funkiest and weirdest tourist attractions in Southern California is Los Angeles’ Garden of Oz. Back in the 90s, Gail Cottman wished to build a beautiful flower garden on a small plot of land. It was decorated with bright tiles and beads, and soon enough, the garden transformed into a beautiful oasis that reminded Cottman of one of her favorite movies: The Wizard of Oz. You’ll find the yellow brick road, Dorothy Throne, Wall of Toys, and shrines of noteworthy figures such as Rosa Parks, Duke Ellington, and the Dalai Lama. Rumor has it that Gail gave the keys of this hidden gem to the neighborhood kids.
Hidden Gems In Orange County
The Great Park Balloon
Location: Great Park Balloon Ride, 8307 Great Park Boulevard, Irvine
The centerpiece of Irvine’s Orange County Great Park is a giant orange helium balloon that’s operated as a community ride attraction by the city. The fiery orange and yellow orb is not only one of the largest helium balloons in California, but also in all of the U.S. The Great Park Balloon is capable of hosting up to 30 people and rising 400 feet into the sky. You’ll have magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean, Catalina Island, San Gabriel Mountains—you might even catch a glimpse of Disneyland.
Location: 1333A Avocado Avenue, Newport Beach
A rabbit version of Stonehenge in the heart of Newport Beach—does it get any quirkier in California? This goofy and absurd sculpture installed in 2013 is known as “Bunnyhenge.” It’s an assemblage of 14 white rabbits standing in a circle, staring at each other. The hidden gem in Orange County has left residents divided—the city spent around $14,000 for each bunny. Even though many people have spoken against Bunnyhenge, it remains erected in the park by Newport Beach’s City Hall.
World’s Largest Surfboard
Location: 411 Olive Avenue, Huntington Beach
One of the most iconic surf spots in California is Huntington Beach. Naturally, it’s home to the world’s largest surfboard. The 42¼-foot surfboard is exhibited right outside the International Surfing Museum. Two Guinness World Records were set in June 2015, when 66 people managed to ride a wave for 12 seconds on the largest surfboard. Their goal was to surf for 10 seconds, but they managed to squeeze in two more seconds, greatly exceeding expectations.
Hidden Gems Along The Central Coast
The Bells Of El Camino Real
Location: Mission San Diego de Alcalá, San Luis Obispo
El Camino Real, also known as the Royal Road, is a 700-mile historic California Mission Trail. It connects 21 missions, four military forts, and several towns. The Mission Bell Marker system was created to install a distinctive marker along the route. In 1906, the first bells of El Camino Real were set up. You’ll find the bells in San Diego, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. Whenever you find yourself cruising on Highway 101 or 82, keep an out for these hidden gems along the Central Coast.
Location: Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties
Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes is one of the largest dunes in California, extending from Santa Barbara County to southern San Luis Obispo County. At first glance, the dunes don't exactly look like they would be "hidden" gems on the Central Coast due to their sheer size, but it’s the treasures beneath the sand that make this destination so complex and fascinating.
The silent religious epic film The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille was filmed here since the dune complex resembled the Sahara Desert. Once filming wrapped up, DeMille demanded his employees bury the production site. The set had a 720-foot-long Egyptian palace, 21 five-ton sphinx sculptures, and four pharaoh statues—each was at least 30 feet high.
The Iron Road Pioneers
Location: 1011 Railroad Avenue, San Luis Obispo
The Iron Road Pioneers is a larger-than-life bronze sculpture that pays homage to the Chinese immigrants who constructed the Transcontinental Railroad. Located outside the San Luis Obispo Amtrak station, the sculpture was created by Elizabeth MacQueen and erected in 2003. Building the railroad was no easy feat—there was a minimum of 20,000 people involved, many of whom died in the process. This hidden gem on the Central Coast honors the thousands of Chinese people who worked relentlessly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries throughout the Golden State.
Hidden Gems In San Luis Obispo
The Dorn Pyramid
Location: 2890 South Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo
The coolest places often end up being the weirdest ones to visit in California. The Dorn Pyramid is a perfect example of exactly that. The strange and isolated pyramid tomb was erected by Fred Adolphus Dorn. Legend has it that he lost both his wife and son during childbirth, so he built the mysterious mausoleum in their memory. To make things even more peculiar, the front of this hidden gem in San Luis Obispo County says “DISTVRB NOT THE SLEEP OF DEATH”.
Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard
Location: Poly Canyon Road, San Luis Obispo
The Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard is a nine-acre collection of abandoned and quirky structures located by the hills above California Polytechnic State University. Over the years, architecture, engineering, and design students built these curious structures. Back in the day, people regarded the space as an outdoor experimental construction laboratory; now, it is considered an architectural graveyard. If you find yourself driving around California Polytechnic State University when visiting San Luis Obispo, make sure to check out this hidden gem.
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