The 50 Most Underrated Places in California
Regardless of the reasons — whether they are positive or negative — one aspect many people would likely agree about the state of California is that it is…
The 50 Most Underrated Places in California
California has a wide range of topography, from mountains to deserts to seaside coasts. Dozens of varieties of produce are grown there. Movies, music and video games — many of which are created in California — tend to feature the surface discoveries; but look a little deeper, and you will likely find that there are many more places and things to see.
Bizarre rock formations, unexpected architecture, and distinctly niche-interest museums are tucked away on back streets or in far-off desert plains. There is a castle built by an ‘outsider-architect,’ a graveyard of rusted war boats yet to be decommissioned and a store selling time-travel supplies.
Following up on this article of the most underrated place to visit in every state, this article focuses in on the hidden gems and treasures of the Golden State, as everybody supposedly dreams about visiting California at one time or another — but the California in the collective imagination is nothing compared to the real thing.
A series of six maps has been created which reveals the arguably most underrated places in California; and this article — which was written by Barbara Davidson from NetCredit — gives more details about them as per the methodology and sources for the information.
To create these maps of the 50 most underrated places in California, hundreds of recommended places at Atlas Obscura were searched; and those places which were most interesting were selected. The criteria for an ‘underrated’ place was a location which had fewer than 1,000 reviews on Google; but those reviews had to earn a rating of four stars or higher. Attempting to get an even spread across the different regions of the state narrowed the list down to the 50 most underrated places to visit in each region of California. Click here for the sources of this series of maps.
I have been given express written permission to use the images and the verbatim text from the aforementioned article in this article. How many of the places in the maps do your recognize?
1. Mountain Region
The California Mountain Region is famous for Death Valley and the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. But at an elevation somewhere between these extremes, you’ll find a museum dedicated to the sasquatch, a geological oddity that looks like it was made by a Play-Doh factory and a free, natural spa decorated by hippies.
You’ll also find the China Flat Museum Bigfoot Collection in Willow Creek, not far from where the Patterson-Gimlin sasquatch film was shot. The museum itself may not be enormous, but its encased assortment of ape-man artifacts gives it the feeling of a Victorian cabinet of curiosities. Among other rarities, you can see preserved footprints of the mysterious creature and a giant wooden sculpture of its likeness. Afterward, why not head out on the trail and try to find the ‘real’ thing?
2. Central Coastal Region
The AlloSphere is a Fantastic Voyage-style take on the planetarium concept. Instead of looking up at the stars, scientists and visitors can gaze at the 360-degree, 24-million-pixel screen system and experience the inside of a brain scan, or any other microscopic event. The facility can be found at the California Nanosystems Institute building at the University of California Santa Barbara. It is also one of the biggest anechoic chambers in the world (meaning it gets deadly silent when they switch off the awesome 512-channel sound system).
For a real, live view of nature’s magnificence, head to the 1889-built Point Sur Lightstation at Big Sur. It sits on volcanic rock, 361-feet above the ocean. The lighthouse keepers lived up there, too, for many years, but the warning system has been automated since 1972. Today, it is California’s only complete lighthouse of its era to be open to the public – yet its remote setting keeps it as obscure as it is romantic!
3. Central Valley Region
California’s Central Valley region may be known for farming and fabulous wine, but it has its dark and exotic features, too. Folsom Prison Museum mostly belongs in the first category. This former penitentiary is best known for being the prison where Johnny Cash recorded his famous live album in 1968. Now that it is ‘closed for business,’ the prison retains a spooky sense of yesteryear. Animatronic ‘puppet prisoners’ populate the cells, and the museum is fully staffed by former prison guards.
Towards the exotic end of the scale, Chagdud Gonpa is an authentic Tibetan-style Buddhist Temple a half mile west of where Canyon Creek meets Trinity River. “This may be as close to the feel of Tibet as you’ll ever get without actually going there,” writes Atlas Obscura.
4. Desert Region
Perhaps it’s not surprising that there are some lesser-visited attractions in the desert. It’s also no surprise that many of them are geological in nature. At the Mojave Lava Tube, you can follow a 10,000-year-old trail of molten lava through tar-black tunnels naturally lit by beams from the hole-peppered ceiling. You’re really touching ancient history as you run your hands along the walls of solidified lava.
The Amboy Crater is an underrated side-attraction to Route 66. Like the Mojave Lava Tube, it is a former volcanic site. But this one is outdoors in the sun and represents the moment – 79 millennia ago – when lakes of liquid lava bubbled on the Californian landscape. The crater can be reached by a 2-3 hour hike and offers remarkable views across the desert.
5. Northern Coastal Region
Did you know there’s a Charles M. Schulz Museum? This celebration of the Peanuts cartoonist can be found in Santa Rosa in the northern coastal region of California. It features a reconstruction of Schultz’s studio, pieces of his early artwork and a Snoopy-shaped labyrinth, as well as temporary thematic exhibitions such as 2019-20’s “Peace, Love, and Woodstock” show.
The Glass Beach at Fort Bragg is a curious collaboration between nature and humans. Through the 20th century until 1967, residents of the town would throw hefty garbage such as appliances and vehicles over the cliff to the seafront. Occasionally they would throw a Molotov cocktail down to burn it up and make more space. Years later (and following a clean-up operation), all that remains is a landscape of glass pebbles, worn smooth by the ocean waves.
6. Southern Coastal Region
No tour of underrated California would be complete without a stop at an underrated Hollywood attraction. The Hollywood Forever cemetery may sound like a gloomy place for a visit, but it has all the pizzazz and glamor you’ve come to expect from Tinsel Town. Showbiz names including Cecil B. DeMille, Johnny Ramone and Estelle Getty can be read from among the ‘kitsch-but-respectful’ headstones. Each summer, movies are projected onto the wall of Rudolph Valentino’s mausoleum.
Just up the road, Malibu Hindu Temple is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a piece of authentic Hollywood history that looks like it was beamed in from the other side of the world. The temple is cinematically cross-cultural, having appeared in both Hollywood’s Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) and ‘Kollywood’ (Tamil) film Jeans (1998). It is open every day of the year for services, recitals and puja.
California is even more California than you think once you get to know it. Which underrated place would you like to visit first?
I have been to California countless times; and I have visited much of the state: I drove through a redwood tree; stood on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl; drove down Lombard Street in San Francisco, conducted business in Silicon Valley, and have been to the San Diego Wild Animal Park as only a few of my many experiences in California — although I thankfully have yet to experience an earthquake or a wildfire there.
If you want to travel to California, you might want to do so while it is still one state, as an attempt to break it apart into three states has occurred as recent as two years ago — which is not to be confused with a campaign for the state to secede from the United States to become a sovereign nation, as an organization called YesCalifornia was granted permission by the attorney general of California to advocate for the official secession of California by collecting signatures to qualify what is known as the California Self-Determination Referendum Act for the ballot in November of 2020…
…nor is this initiative to be confused with a northern portion of the state wanting to secede from the state of California and become the state of Jefferson; and in yet another initiative, a large area comprised of 17 counties in California which calls itself New California and declared independence from the rest of the state as of Monday, January 15, 2018.
California was also the first state in the United States to ban personal care products in the form of miniature plastic toiletry bottles — which contain fewer than 12 ounces of liquid product — from lodging establishments to become effective as of Sunday, January 1, 2023.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, California is indeed a unique state…
Photograph of a rainbow lorikeet at the San Diego Wild Animal Park ©2006 by Brian Cohen.