Kelley house, Mendocino, California

Kelley house, Mendocino, California, built in 1861. By W Nowicki (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

by Ellen Harvey

Each state has its share of large cities and small towns. While the big cities continue to grow more homogenous as the years pass, small towns have managed to maintain their charm with distinct character and landmarks.

Each small town has its own flavor. Small-town life is also quite different from big-city living, especially when the town is located in a remote area.

So if you’re thinking of visiting, keep in mind that just as planning a visit to a national park is different from planning a vacation to a casino, planning a vacation to a small town is different from planning to visit a larger city.

One awesome benefit of visiting a small town is that you can often count on a much cheaper vacation experience without sacrificing any of the enjoyment.

5 California Small Towns

The great state of California has several metropolitan hotspots, but many of the state’s humble beginnings can be traced to its smallest towns. These five California towns are particularly known for bringing time to a standstill and allowing you to feel the adventurous spirit the state was founded upon.

When you visit any of these small towns, you never have to worry that one member of your party will be bored. There is literally “something for everyone,” from the history buff to the serenity-seeker, the nature lover to the wine enthusiast.

Bolinas: The Tiny Gem of Marin

Bolinas is a small town that intends to stay that way. In fact, if you can find Bolinas, you are doing better than most — its residents are notoriously protective and have a tendency to tear down any road signs that point in its direction.

Bolinas, CA 3422

Bolinas, CA, street scene on Wharf Road at 37.90976 N 122.6854 W

However, once you do arrive, you will find it was worth the effort. Dubbed the “Howard Hughes of Towns,” its reclusiveness has preserved its natural coastal beauty, which sidles right up to Bolinas Bay. Bolinas also houses the Bolinas Museum, which is considered the premier museum for all of Marin County, as well as its own botanical gardens and a singular live-and-let-live atmosphere.

Arcata: An American Original

Arcata is the nature lover’s paradise. This tiny town has its own bird marsh and redwood forest. Its minor-league baseball team is a town treasure, and so are its many family-owned restaurants and its gem of a town square, around which town life revolves.

Arcata California Kinetic Sculpture Race 2010

Arcata, California, Kinetic Sculpture Race 2010. By Bob Doran –

You won’t want to leave Arcata without visiting the remarkable Pythian Castle, which has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. You will also enjoy a great number of classic Victorian structures that have been restored to their former glory.

St. Helena: Going Back in Time With Wine

If you love wine, St. Helena is a must-visit small California town. The town itself is located en route to and from many of the most famous Napa Valley wineries, including Beringer, Trinchero and of course St. Helena Winery.

V Sattui Winery, St. Helena, California, USA

V Sattui Winery, St. Helena, California, USA. Photo by Jim G –

During your visit you can enjoy walking or riding down historic Main Street, which is where writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his new bride once travelled via horse-drawn buggy.

Nevada City: Gold Rush Relics

Nevada City existed for one reason only: It was a site where gold was found during the California Gold Rush.

Founded in 1849, Nevada City is one of just a handful of small towns that survived the decline of the gold rush fever and maintained their viability into the 21st century. In fact, the whole town has been designated as a National Landmark. Among its many treasures is 1861 Firehouse No. 1, where relics from the infamous Donner Party are on display.

Mendocino: Organic Food and Local Art

Mendocino is best known as an artist colony that features incredible local artists and even better local organic cuisine.

Masonic Hall. Mendocino, California

Masonic Hall. Mendocino, California, built in 1866. Photo by W. Nowicki.

One little-known honor bestowed on the town is that it served as Cabot, Maine’s double for the hit series “Murder, She Wrote.” You can also enjoy whale watching, winery tours, walking among ancient redwood trees and more.

Any of these five towns can provide a vacation experience you won’t want to forget.

About the Author: Ellen Harvey is a travel writer who was raised in Bashaw, Alberta. Her father worked in the Bashaw cheese plant, which had been the most recognized source of cheese production in Alberta. The plant has since closed. The population in Bashaw as of 2011 was 837, up from 796 in 2006.
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