Hidden Gems in Southern California – A Local’s Guide

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hidden gems in southern california

A year-round sunny climate attracts visitors to the many beautiful places in Southern California. To avoid crowds, get off the beaten path to explore SoCal’s hidden gems from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Trust us, they’re worth adding to your bucket list.

As a native Californian, I’ve explored the state’s many beautiful places from San Diego to Northern California my entire life. And it amazes me that I still find countless California hidden gems. These unique places can be found in small towns as well as in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

From secret gardens to secluded beautiful beaches, here are 22 hidden places in Southern California that you must visit.

Southern Pacific railroad car and depot, one of the hidden gems in southern california
The South Coast Railroad Museum focuses on the history, technology, and adventure of railroading. Photo credit: Karna Hughes, courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

South Coast Railroad Museum, Santa Barbara

The next time you’re in Santa Barbara, you must visit this hidden place. Situated in the Goleta neighborhood, there are two historical landmarks. The South Coast Railroad Museum features the Goleta Depot. This country railroad station house was built by the Southern Pacific in 1901. You can ride a miniature train on weekends.

The adjacent Rancho La Patera and Stow House is the historic center of the Goleta lemon trade. Learn about the early settlers and tour the gardens. These historical places are a favorite day trip for locals.

a hot spring in Santa Barbara, a hidden gem in southern california
A scenic hike leads to Hot Springs Canyon in Santa Barbara. Photo credit: Michael Mendelson

Soak in Hot Springs Canyon, Santa Barbara

There are many natural hot springs in SoCal. But even as a native Angeleno, I just recently found out about the Hot Springs Canyon Trail in Montecito in Santa Barbara County. The moderately difficult, nearly four-mile roundtrip trail follows a river to the cascading hot springs. It’s an ideal day trip from Los Angeles.

Anacapa Island stone arch in ocean, a hidden gem in southern california
Anacapa Island is part of the Channel Islands National Park. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Sail to Channel Islands National Park, Ventura

Imagine kayaking through sea caves and hiking on deserted islands on a day trip in SoCal. Accessing the Channel Islands is one of SoCal’s best kept secrets! The San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands comprise Channel Islands National Park. Islands Packers provides a variety of cruises to the islands. It feels magical to paddle through clear blue water with sea lions following along on Santa Cruz Island. You can also hike and camp on some of the islands.  Or, just take a wildlife cruise that sails near the islands.

Ventura Botanical Garden view of ocean
Enjoy city and ocean views from the hilltop Ventura Botanical Gardens. Photo courtesy: Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau

Visit Ventura Botanical Gardens

Several years ago a fire scorched the gardens, which have since grown back. But the fire revealed terraces and long stone walls from the late 1700s that were hidden from undergrowth. Today, those ancient features are an integral part of the 107-acre Mediterranean-themed gardens. Cozy walking paths meander through the gardens and lead to expansive ocean views.

Man with surfboard walking in front of family at the beach
Hollywood Beach’s secluded location makes it a favorite with locals. Photo courtesy: Janis Flippen

Swim at Hollywood Beach, Oxnard

A California hidden gem, Hollywood Beach is nestled on the south end of the peninsula that separates Channel Islands Harbor from the ocean. The quiet Oxnard neighborhood in Ventura once attracted stars like Clark Gable and Rudolph Valentino. Today, homes line the wide, white sand beach. Amenities include free public volleyball courts and restrooms. In addition, lifeguards are on duty between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Parking is a breeze. Access is via many streets between West Channel Islands Boulevard and the harbor channel. Parking is available along Ocean Drive and the side streets, and also in the huge free harbor parking lots along Harbor Boulevard.

Oxnard Beach Park is about three miles from Hollywood beach and has a different vibe. It’s great for families seeking beach and park activities. The large grassy park has palm trees, picnic tables, BBQ grills, walking paths and a pirate-themed playground.

Read More: Zachari Dunes Mandalay Beach Review: A Hilton Curio Collection Gem in Oxnard

People in front of swans at meditation gardens, one of the hidden gems in southern california
The meditation gardens are free to visit but require reservations. Photo courtesy: CaHairyBear/Flickr Creative Commons

Relax at Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, Pacific Palisades

While on a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, take time to relax at this hilltop nature and spirituality sanctuary that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. You’ll find a temple, a meditation garden and a lake with duck, swans, fish and turtles at this hidden gem. Founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, the facility’s Gandhi World Peace Memorial contains a portion of Gandhi’s ashes sent from India.

Pool at Annenberg Community Beach House, one of the hidden gems in southern california
Southern California history and beach culture come together in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy: Annenberg Community Beach House

Play at Annenberg Community Beach House, Santa Monica

Swim and play at an oceanfront beach house that once belonged to newspaper publisher and businessman William Randolph Hearst. Situated on Santa Monica State Beach, the house was built in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst for actress Marion Davies. The property was sold to the state of California in 1959 and is operated by the City of Santa Monica. Now it’s open to the public for swimming and beach activities. Or you can just relax and enjoy ocean views.The property features the Marion Davies Guest Beach House, a historic swimming pool with marble decking, volleyball courts and more.

Romp at Rosie’s Dog Beach, Long Beach

Long Beach has a nice beach but don’t expect giant waves or lots of surfers. The beaches in Long Beach are sheltered, so the water is relatively calm. If you are traveling with your dog, Long Beach has one of the best dog beaches in Southern California.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Long Beach Transit offers budget-friendly transportation between waterfront attractions. You can also ride the AquaBus around Rainbow Harbor for only $1 each way.

Stroll Through the SuihoEn Japanese Garden

This serene garden is situated in the heart of crowded San Fernando Valley. Yet, many people don’t know about it. Although it’s an authentic Japanese garden, it’s also unique. The Japanese garden utilizes water from the adjacent Donald C. Tillman reclamation plant. The reclaimed water feeds the lake and three-level waterfalls in the “wet-strolling” garden, where water lilies and lotus flowers bloom in summer. In the dry Zen garden, dichondra mounds form Tortoise Island and a path leads to a wisteria-covered arbor. Nestled within a bamboo hedge is a traditional tea garden and tatami-mat teahouse.

Dressing room table of Lucille Ball
Visit Lucille Ball’s dressing room. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Discover The Hollywood Museum

Housed inside the historic Max Factor building, the four-story Hollywood Museum has many exhibits with movie props, costumes, photos and other memorabilia. The first floor is dedicated to make-up king Max Factor, who is credited with inventing tube lipstick and other cosmetics. The first floor also features an elegant lobby and dressing rooms used by Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and other stars.

stonework at old LA zoo, one of the hidden gems in southern california
See empty animal cages and enclosures at the old L.A Zoo. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Explore the Los Angeles Abandoned Zoo

Built in 1912, the original L.A. Zoo is among the unique places in Griffith Park. When a new Los Angeles Zoo was built nearby in 1966, the old zoo was abandoned but not dismantled.  My husband and I had heard about the old zoo and finally went to see it. There were several families there. We overheard one boy, about 10, tell his parents the vacant zoo was cool but scary. Visitors can roam through the enclosure ruins. There’s an onsite picnic area and nearby hiking trails.

hidden gems in southern california
Situated in a pocket of Griffith Park, Amir’s Garden is managed by volunteers. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Hike to Amir’s Garden, Griffith Park

A short (half-mile) but somewhat steep hike leads to Amir’s Garden. The garden was planted by Iranian immigrant Amir Dialameh in 1971 after a fire scorched the mountain. Amir (who passed in 2003) planted trees and water-bearing plants to prevent fires from devouring this rugged patch of land. He used to carry water up the hill before sprinklers were installed. Today, the garden is tended by volunteers, and is a respite for hikers and equestrians.

Read More: Best Places to Camp in Southern California

Descanso Gardens is situated in a quiet La Canada neighborhood. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Dig Descanso Gardens

Descanso Gardens has been my go-to getaway for many years. So, while I don’t think of it as secret spot, it is a hidden place in a residential neighborhood. It has several themed gardens, but my mom’s favorite has always been the Rose Garden. There are many places throughout the gardens to relax by a pond or stream. It’s an ideal day trip any time of year.

Read More: 12 Unique Things to Do in Ojai, a SoCal Hidden Gem

The St. Francis Dam Trail area is a pretty hike but has a tragic history. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Hike the St. Francis Dam Trail

As you walk along the St. Francis Dam Trail, you’ll see chunks of rock and cement. It’s a reminder of one of the worst civil engineering disasters of the 20th century. Shortly before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam collapsed and unleashed a 250-foot wall of water and mudflow. Hundreds of people were washed out to sea.

The hike itself is beautiful. Situated in the remote San Francisquito Canyon, the mostly flat and paved path follows an old road. The scenery changes from canyon walls and red rocks to a river and shaded trees. The walk is about three miles roundtrip.

Explore the eerily quiet ghost town of Mentryville. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

See Mentryville Ghost Town

When my kids were growing up, we would often go to Mentryville, a ghost town about 15 minutes from our home. Nestled in Newhall’s chaparral slopes in the Santa Susana Mountains, Mentryville was an oil-drilling boomtown from 1876 to 1900. The town was built around oil well Pico No. 4, the first commercially successful oil well in the Western U.S.

Today, Mentryville contains just a handful of historic buildings. They include a 13-room mansion and a one-room red schoolhouse. It’s a nice, quiet place to bring a picnic and hike in the local hills.

SheBuysTravel Tip: While in Newhall, check out Hart Park, home to the William S. Hart Museum. William Hart was the first silent film cowboy. Take a walk through the nearby western-themed Old Town Newhall and see the Walk of Western Stars. 

Walk along cobblestone streets and enjoy German food. Photo courtesy: Desi Aragan

Stroll Through Old World Village, Huntington Beach

There’s more to Huntington Beach than sand and surf. For example, the inland Old World Village is a charming Bavarian village. Old World, which was settled more than 40 years ago, features eateries (try the sausages!) and shops. Walk along cobblestone streets and enjoy a German beer garden.

Learn About House of Pacific Relations, Balboa Park

While Balboa Park is not hidden, it’s home to many gems. For example, the House of Pacific Relations contains historic cottages that represent 32 cultures. A different country is celebrated each Sunday throughout the year. It’s a great time to visit and enjoy ethnic foods, costume, songs and dance.

Tackle Thousand Steps Beach

Laguna Beach has over 30 scenic coves and beaches that attract many visitors. To get away from the crowds, follow the locals to Thousand Steps Beach. While there aren’t 1,000 steps, there are many to navigate. That discourages many people, but it’s worth visiting this wide beach with tide pools and caves. It’s actually one of the largest beaches in south Laguna Beach. Amenities include volleyball courts and restrooms.

Europa Winery has a cozy, Old World ambiance. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Wine Tasting in Temecula

Boasting over 50 wineries, Temecula is finally becoming recognized as a wine region. But it’s still a low-key place. My daughters and I recently visited on a weekday getaway and practically had the wineries to ourselves. We spent two nights at the Ponte Hotel and visited several wineries.

Spend the Night in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

While this small, secluded desert town is fun to explore during the day, you’ll want to spend the night to see the night sky. In fact, it’s a designated Dark Sky Community, making it one of the best places for stargazing. You won’t see street lights, fast food chains and big resorts. Instead, families will find scenic hiking trails, indoor/outdoor art displays and art galleries.

hidden gems in southern california
Sunnylands is a lesser known attraction that’s well worth a visit. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Learn About Sunnyland Center & Gardens, Palm Springs

Palm Springs is a popular getaway but there are fun hidden gems within the desert region Several years ago, I brought my mom to the Sunnyland Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage. We both loved it!

The 25,000-square foot home was built in 1966 for Walter and Leonore Annenberg. In 2001, the Annenbergs signed a Declaration of Trust outlining their vision for the future use of Sunnylands. It served as a sanctuary for eight U.S. presidents and world leaders before opening to the public in 2012. The center has paved paths that meander among gardens with desert plants and lakes. In addition, the estate features a rotating art exhibition and cafe with views of the Coachella Valley.

Joshua Tree National Park is filled with cactus-like trees. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch.

Travel to Joshua Tree National Park

Located 114 miles east of Los Angeles, the 792,519-acre park’s unique rock formations and plants create a fascinating landscape for hiking, biking and rock climbing. Joshua Tree’s magnificent night skies make it possible to clearly see the Milky Way, constellations and millions of stars.

To make the most of your stay, stop by one of the four Joshua Tree visitor centers for maps and information. Among the popular activities are Skull Rock and a 1.7-mile nature trail. An 18-mile motor tour with 16 scenic stops provides a leisurely way to see the park. Ranger programs offer guided tours, hikes and a children’s story time.

Native Angeleno and seasoned travel journalist Mimi Slawoff writes for numerous print and digital publications. She is also the author of Oldest Los Angeles (Reedy Press, 2022). A lifelong world traveler, Mimi is an award-winning journalist who writes about outdoor adventures, cruises, Europe and cultural activities. Mimi has three grown kids and lives with her husband and their dog, Maya, in Los Angeles.
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