15 Best California Mountain Towns in 2023 (By a Local)
No trip to the Golden State is complete without exploring some of the best California mountain towns. The granite mountain ranges are responsible for a large part of the beauty and iconic reputation of California.
I’m a mountain freak and spend most of my time exploring California’s jagged peaks. I’ve acquired a lot of experience in the backcountry and have stayed in most small towns California has to offer.
As a result, I’ve devised this list of the 15 top mountain towns in California.
Table of Contents
- 15 Best California Mountain Towns
- FAQs About Mountain Towns in California
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15 Best California Mountain Towns
South Lake Tahoe
A Sierra Nevada Mountain town on the verge of the largest alpine lake in the nation
📍 Google Maps | Website | What to Do in Lake Tahoe | 👉 Browse Hotels in South Lake Tahoe on Booking
Experience the largest alpine lake in North America with a trip to South Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is the perfect destination to end if you are on a road trip in California from south to north.
The Tahoe city center is quaint and cozy but has all the major amenities of suburbia. You will find a plethora of eateries and cafes, breweries, mechanics, auto parts shops, bike rental places, and more.
Explore the Lake Tahoe Emerald Bay State Park for crystal-clear water and viewpoints unrivaled anywhere else in the area. The East Shore of South Lake Tahoe is another top destination of the homey mountain town. Have a lakeside picnic here as you sunbathe under the hot Northern California sun or find refuge under the alpine pines.
Stay in a top Lake Tahoe resort or bring your tent for some backcountry California camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountain wilderness.
Big Bear Lake
Go skiing down steep Big Bear slopes this winter for a mountain escape you won’t forget
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Big Bear Lake on Booking
Welcome to the perfect mountain escape. Disappear into the San Bernardino Mountains as you stay for a weekend in an A-frame cabin and forget about the smog and traffic of the big city.
Big Bear Lake is one of the most developed mountain towns in Southern California, and one of my favorite California towns in general. Watch the foliage transform into an autumn jubilee or hit the white powdered slopes of Big Bear Mountain Resort in the winter.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of cabins for rent in Big Bear Lake and new trails to explore each day of your stay. Of course, no Big Bear vacation is complete without spending some time on the lake. Rent a boat or kayak for the perfect alpine lake excursion.
For more, see our guide to what to do in Big Bear.
Soak in the Mammoth hot springs to relax your muscles after a long day of skiing
📍 Google Maps | Website | Best Places to Stay in Mammoth Lakes | 👉 Browse Hotels in Mammoth Lakes on Booking
If outdoor recreation is your passion, then you’ll find lots of fun outdoorsy things to do in Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth Mountain Resort is one of the best ski resorts in California and gathers thousands of visitors in the winter seasons.
For a quieter, more local experience, I recommend visiting Mammoth in the off-shoulder months. Check out the hundreds of hiking trails and lakes in the area or go for a dip in the Mammoth hot springs.
Mammoth is also a prime location for fishers. Stay at the Brow’s Owens River Campground right on the river for your next fishing vacation. Mammoth is the perfect place to rent a cabin and unwind from everyday life by a campfire.
The gateway town to Mt. Whitney and other Eastern Sierra hikes
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Lone Pine on Booking
The gateway town to the Sierras, this Inyo County village is the ideal place to set up basecamp for hiking and climbing. Lone Pine is only 3 ½ hours from Los Angeles and is one of the first of many scenic towns situated along the 395 highway.
The Alabama Hills is the perfect place to camp in Lone Pine to save money. This BLM land is free for campers and is open to tents, van campers, and RV camping. Watch the sun illuminate the desert landscape with its soft sunrise palette in the open Alabama Hills recreation area.
Take a drive up to the Whitney Portal to hike the tallest mountain in the U.S. (outside of Alaska). Most hikers go for the summit but there are scenic views every step of the way. I recommend hiking to the first Lone Pine Lake only about 3 miles in for an easy day trek.
Lone Pine has also been the site of many western cowboy movies and offers visitors an air-conditioned film museum.
Stay in a cozy cabin and relax by the fireplace with some hot cocoa
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Lake Arrowhead on Booking
Lake Arrowhead takes the cake as the most luxurious mountain town in Southern California. You can find upscale shops in the Lake Arrowhead Village as well as elegant eateries.
The town accommodates all lifestyles, however, and also boasts a brewery, a Mexican cantina, and a stage that hosts live musical performances on the weekends.
Rent a boat and go for a sunset cruise around Lake Arrowhead for the peaceful escape you need. The most favored activity in Arrowhead is lounging around your charming mountain cabin and lighting a bonfire with a glass of wine.
A quirky spiritual town in Northern California with one of the highest mountains in the state
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Mount Shasta on Booking
Mount Shasta is nearly as far away from Los Angeles as a mountain town can be. Because this forest municipality is off the beaten path, it remains somewhat of an untouched gem.
A select number of visitors are drawn to Mount Shasta in hopes of climbing the 14,179-foot mountain. Some climbing prospects make it to the snow-crested summit and others opt for lower-elevation campsites on the mountain.
Mount Shasta is the place to be for outdoorsy travelers. Besides climbing one of the most technical mountains in California, visitors can also kayak in Shasta Lake, mountain bike on an established trail, or camp in one of the many established campgrounds.
For those wanting a more urban experience, Shasta also offers one-of-a-kind hipster cafes and vintage stores in the stylish downtown Mount Shasta village.
Home to famous hiking trails, black bears, and bighorn sheep
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Mount Baldy on Booking
Mount Baldy Village is a quaint mountain village that makes for an easy day trip from Los Angeles. With only one road leading in and out, Mount Baldy still retains a small-town aesthetic.
There are only around 1,000 residents and one active restaurant in the village. There is another restaurant, The Notch, at the top of the ski lifts that is only open on the weekends during the off-ski season. If you wish to reach The Notch, you must either ride the lifts up or hike on a fire road and earn your meal.
Mount Baldy receives the most traffic on the weekends from Los Angeles residents aching for an escape from the city. The Mount Baldy mountain trail (also known as Mount San Antonio) and Ice House Canyon trails are packed at this time. Visit during the week for a more remote experience.
👉 Pro Tip: The Mount Baldy Village hosts live music every Sunday from 3 pm-6 pm. Check their website for the most up-to-date schedule.
A hip mountain town hidden between the San Jacinto Mountains
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Idyllwild on Booking
Tucked away in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild is one of the most secluded mountain towns in California. Be prepared for deer sightings and a fresh pine scent when you venture up the windy mountain road to visit this outdoor oasis.
The most popular hike in the area is Mount San Jacinto via Marion Mountain. The trail takes hikers up to the 10,834-foot peak in 5,400 feet of gain. There are hike-in Idyllwild camping options available on the mountain and drive-up campsites as well – it’s a great camping option from San Diego.
After your hike, enjoy the charming amenities and fun things to do in downtown Idyllwild. The small mountain town village has a brewery, vintage stores, Native American stores, a pizza restaurant, and various other restaurants.
Enjoy off-grid backcountry camping in the San Gabriel Mountains
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Wrightwood on Booking
Wrightwood is a Southern California forested gem. Famous for its Mountain High Ski Resort, the village receives most of its visitors during the winter months.
Wrightwood is a local mountain town with one grocery store and one gas station. All neighbors know each other and you are sure to make friends with the grocery clerk during your stay.
More experienced hikers take on Mount Baden-Powell, a 9-mile trek to 9,407 feet with stunning views of Mt. Baldy from the summit. Less physically active visitors can enjoy an easier, 3.7-mile stroll to the Big Horn Mine.
Access to the abandoned mine entrance is open, so make sure to bring a flashlight to avoid any spooky scares.
👉 Pro Tip: Village Grind is my favorite cafe in Wrightwood. They recently expanded the inside to accommodate more tables. It’s the perfect place to study or work remotely in Wrightwood.
One of the first towns ever established in early California history
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Mariposa on Booking
Mariposa served as a Gold Rush town during its early days in 1850 and is a symbol of California’s history. Many downtown Mariposa buildings are original and can be dated back to the state’s beginning.
Mariposa visitors find remnants and reminders of the town’s early days from the old American frontier. There are no strip malls, boutiques, or stop lights in town so the town really resembles a wild west.
Mariposa is also the gateway town to one of the best National Parks in California, Yosemite National Park. The town now caters mostly to tourism and offers guests plenty of family-friendly activities year-round.
Visit one of the Mariposa museums to learn more about California history or go for a carriage ride. You won’t want to forget your cowboy hat when you visit this western-style town.
A mountain wonderland along the 395 highway
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Bishop on Booking
Make a stop in Bishop on your 395 highway road trip. Only a short distance from Death Valley National Park, Mt. Whitney, Mammoth, and June Lake, Bishop is in the perfect location for the ultimate Sierra Nevada Mountain getaway.
Lake Sabrina is perhaps the most popular destination in Bishop, and one of my favorite places to visit in California. Take pictures at the lake, fish, or stay at a nearby campsite for an optimum experience.
In town, stop by Erick Schat’s Bakery- home to a European-style, locally-famous bread. Rusty’s Saloon is another favorite establishment. Pop in for a quick drink after a long day on the trails or try your luck in a game of pool.
The small mountain town camaraderie in Bishop is unmatched in any other California mountain town, making it the ideal spot for the perfect mountain vacation.
An old American-style town with freshly baked goods and memorabilia from the 1950s
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Julian on Booking
Julian is a historic landmark in San Diego County. This small borough has an old-town America feel and the aroma of freshly baked apple pies flooding into the town streets.
Three Sisters Falls is one of the best hiking trails in the area. This moderate, 4.1-mile hike takes you to the base of three waterfalls, the best way to cool off during a hot Southern California summer.
Although there are many great hiking trails among the rolling hills of the San Diego town, the old diners are the best attraction in Julian and are great if you’re looking for a San Diego date idea. Many diners are decorated in antiques from the American 1950s, with vintage Coca-Cola bottles, bubblegum machines, and soda fountains.
Julian is one of the best examples of small-town America before the turn of the century.
One of the best mountain towns in California with locally sourced shops & restaurants
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Ojai on Booking
The quirky little town of Ojai is one of the best mountain towns for gorgeous Spanish architecture and hiking in the Topatopa Mountains.
There is certainly no shortage of small businesses in Ojai. In fact, the town prides itself on sourcing locally crafted handicrafts, food, and drinks. Corporate chains are banned in Ojai and although you won’t find a Starbucks, you may discover your new favorite latte from an Ojai cafe.
Poolside lounging is encouraged in this curious town but antsy travelers can also take a hike into the surrounding Ojai hills, among the ocotillo and juniper.
The gateway town to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Three Rivers on Booking
Three Rivers California equates to sequoia paradise. Home to the tallest trees in the world, Three Rivers is a nature wonderland.
Three Rivers is also the gateway town to Sequoia National Park and is surrounded by Sierra Nevada Mountain on either side. It’s one of the best weekend trips from San Diego and, needless to say, the area is a nature lover’s dreamland.
While there isn’t too much to do in the small mountain town, the activities in the surrounding areas are tenfold. Go hiking, kayaking, bird-watching, or fishing in the uncanny scenery.
A family-oriented resort lake situated minutes from the Yosemite entrance
📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Bass Lake on Booking
Bass Lake is most famous for, you guessed it, the lake! Families on their way to Yosemite National Park stop by this alpine destination with their boats and jet skis for an awesome watersport experience.
Only 36 miles from Yosemite, enjoy beautiful sunsets over the open Bass Lake. There are also excellent fishing spots on the lake as well as fun hiking trails suited for all fitness levels.
👉 Pro Tip: Rent a house right on the lake for the best experience.
FAQs About Mountain Towns in California
What is the best mountain town to live in California?
Lake Tahoe and Big Bear Lake are the top mountain towns in which to live in California. They both have a small mountain feel with the amenities of a bigger suburban city. See our full article on where to live in California for more.
Are there stores in California mountain towns?
There are stores in California mountain towns. Many towns have grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and shopping boutiques.
What’s the weather like in California mountain towns?
The weather in California mountain towns depends on the region. Northern mountain towns are colder year-round whereas towns in Southern California maintain good weather year-round.
Now you’re ready for a road trip throughout California’s best mountain towns. While on your ultimate California trip, be sure to check out the top California beach towns too!
Have fun exploring!
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How is Mt. Baldy a mountain town?
Appreciated the info. I wonder where you would rank Truckee, Colfax, or Auburn?
WAY up there!…….all 3 have different positives!
Thank you for all the great advice on where to go and are beautiful California I really enjoyed it I have been to Ottawa gorgeous quaint lotta jazz concerts big bear has a lot going on memorize awesome in this year and the next week we are going to Shasta
Truckee not included? Bridgeport. June Lakes, Groveland, Chester….