Northern California Mountain Towns: 13 Fun Places to Explore

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Published: June 21, 2023

Mountain towns in Northern California offer you the chance to take a step back in time with historic saloons, downtown areas, and Gold Rush stories. Most of these charming places are either in the Sierra Nevada Foothills or in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

My favorites include Groveland near Yosemite National Park, Nevada City, and South Lake Tahoe. You will also love Felton, Mount Shasta, and Murphy's.

Any of these gems are fun to visit for a few hours or even all day.

Read on for more details on my favorite mountain towns in Northern California.

Northern California Mountain Towns

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1. Nevada City

Nevada City Downtown

Nevada City is not to be confused with the state of the same name. It is one of the many mountain towns in northern California and was settled during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Nevada City is a thriving town with many fine historic buildings.

Tourism forms the backbone of the economy in this charming small mountain town, with attractions including the Tahoe National Forest and the skiing areas in the mountains. The ski slopes are among the best in the region and are popular in season.

If you take a walk around the Old Town district, you'll find many shops and businesses displaying artifacts from the Gold Rush era, plus fascinating museums focused on the town's history.

Nevada City has plenty of accommodation options, and RV parks and camping facilities are nearby. With plenty to engage a family in Nevada City, this is a prime destination for a fun vacation, and the Tahoe National Forest is there to be explored.

2. Mariposa

The charming town of Mariposa lies within the county of the same name and is in the foothills of the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is famous for the flocks of Monarch butterflies that overwinter here, Mariposa meaning 'butterfly' in Spanish. It is worth timing a visit to see the many thousands of Monarchs as they make a truly spectacular sight.

Among the town's main attractions are its proximity to the world-famous Yosemite National Park, much of which lies within Mariposa County, and the town is home to some interesting old buildings.

The county courthouse, for example, was built in 1854 and is still in the same use today, making it among the oldest continually active court houses in the USA. Visitors can take a guided tour.

There is much to be found in Mariposa if history is your thing, and as with many a small mountain town, you'll find gold and logging played a great part in the foundation of this attractive town.

3. Groveland

Iron Door Saloon in Groveland

Sitting at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Groveland may be among the best mountain towns in California for getting a glimpse of how these small communities would have been in the past. Originally a Gold Rush town, it became a quiet farming location and underwent a boom after 1910 when work began on the Tuolumne to create a water supply for San Francisco.

This was known as the Hetch Hetchy project and involved building a dam at Hetch Hetchy and Don Pedro. Controversy ensued, and the project is now hailed as the initiative behind the environmental movement in the USA.

Today, this small mountain town is a tourist destination thanks to the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite, both of which are right next door. Here you can enjoy many miles of hiking trails among the majestic Sequoias that are amazing to behold.

Groveland is also famous as the home of the Iron Door Saloon. This historic building has been a saloon since 1896 and claims to be the longest continuously operating bar in California.

>> Great places to stay in and near Yosemite

Tours to Yosemite from San Francisco

4. Tahoe City

An attractive California mountain town, Tahoe City sits at an elevation of 6250ft and overlooks the picturesque Lake Tahoe. Founded in the 1870s, the town is now a popular tourist destination thanks to the lake and its proximity to the local hiking trails and skiing areas.

A genuinely attractive town with a welcoming atmosphere, Tahoe City offers plenty of accommodation options in and around the town, with camping and RV sites within the vicinity. There are fine restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and markets and shops that should be explored.

Also worth a visit is the Watson Log Cabin, a traditional building from 1908. It is now listed as a historic building of interest and a fascinating example of life in the mountains 100 years ago.

5. Mt. Shasta

At 3,600 feet above sea level, on the side of Mount Shasta, a potentially active volcano, is the town of the same name. The mountain is the second-highest peak in the Cascade Range at 14,179ft and is a famous Northern California landmark.

The town itself - founded in the Gold Rush days - is a popular tourist destination thanks to the many outdoor activities that can be enjoyed in the region.

Trout fishing on the McCloud, Sacramento, and Klamath Rivers - all within easy reach are popular, and the many miles of walking and cycling trails attract those who enjoy the outdoors.

As the town is on the side of the mountain, climbing it and other nearby challenges is a popular pursuit.

Alpine and cross-country skiing can be enjoyed nearby. At the same time, the various lakes include Shasta Lake and Castle Lake, and they are both beautiful and offer boating and other activities. There are several spectacular waterfalls in the region and delightful streams and rivers.

Mt. Shasta offers plenty of accommodation choices and is a prime destination for those seeking adventure.

6. Murphys

As with many small mountain towns in California, Murphys is a product of the Gold Rush era. Located in the foothills of the impressive Sierra Nevada Mountains, this small and welcoming town has a lot to offer visitors.

Nestled between Lake Tahoe and the famous Yosemite National Park, this is a fun town to visit and one that makes a great family vacation.

Murphys is home to hotels and guest houses, and camping and RV sites are within easy reach. The many hiking trails in Yosemite are among the finest anywhere, and Lake Tahoe is a delight, with boating and fishing available.

Within the town, you'll find many good restaurants and cafes, plus lively and friendly bars offering a variety of entertainment. Interesting shops, galleries, and more add to the atmosphere of this vibrant town.

Keep an eye on the website, as Murphys often run special events for locals and visitors, which can add a touch of fun to your visit. As the name suggests, this popular town has a distinctly Irish theme.

More Fun Things to Do in Northern California

Northern California Things to Do
Northern California with Kids 300
National Parks 300

7. South Lake Tahoe

Snowy Day in South Lake Tahoe

As the name suggests, South Lake Tahoe is a city on the southern end of the lake of the same name. One of the larger mountain towns in California with a population of around 21,000, the east end of its borders Stateline, Nevada, which is why the town is a significant draw for tourists.

This part of town is home to hotels and B&Bs, tourist shops selling souvenirs, restaurants, bars, and many other outlets. The western end of the town is mainly residential; hence tourists tend to head for the east.

The main attractions are the Nevada casinos over the border in Stateline, and the Heavenly Mountain Resort, a major skiing destination with 97 runs and 60 lifts. This fine skiing location offers a choice of slopes for various experience levels.

Visitors can enjoy the region's history - much of it inspired by the Nevada gambling boom - and many interesting older buildings in South Lake Tahoe to enjoy. And don't forget the focus point - Lake Tahoe, a glorious expanse of water offering many a photo opportunity.

8. Mammoth Lakes

While the history of Mammoth Lakes goes back thousands of years, when the Mono people settled here, the modern history dates to the 1870s and the ongoing Gold Rush.

Next to Mammoth Mountain and at an elevation of 7800ft, the ski slopes are among the major attractions of this charming mountain town, but there is much more to be enjoyed.

With a choice of hotels and B&Bs, Mammoth Lakes is a popular tourist destination. There are more than 4500 rental units in the town, and Mammoth Mountain Resort is the top skiing destination in California.

The combination of alpine lakes, craters, and hot springs add to the spectacular mountain landscape, and the views are simply stunning.

A choice of local tours, including guided snowmobile adventures, are run daily, while indoor activities include unusual pursuits such as axe throwing, which the indigenous people would have used when hunting.

With lively bars and good restaurants, a selection of interesting shops, and other outlets, Mammoth Lakes is a friendly and welcoming mountain town that is great for a fun family vacation.

9. Angels Camp

The charming mountain town of Angel's Camp sits at an elevation of around 1400ft in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The town bills itself as 'the Home of the Jumping Frog' and runs a 'frog jubilee' each year to celebrate this.

The legend is that Mark Twain heard a story while staying in town at the Angel Hotel and wrote, 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.'

Angels Camp has its roots in the Gold Rush era - indeed, during a few decades of production, the local mines yielded $20 million worth of gold - and much of this history can be seen in and around the museums and old buildings, especially in the quaint downtown area.

Today's economy is primarily tourism-based, thanks to proximity to ski resorts and many miles of mountain hiking trails and other activities.

The Old Town of Angels Camp is known for its antique shops and other interesting retailers and is a registered California Historical Landmark. Many older buildings remain intact, and walking town tours are a popular way of enjoying the rich history.

10. Oakhurst

Oakhurst South Gate Brewing Company

Originally known as Fresno Flats, the town now known as Oakhurst is an attractive small mountain town with roots in the logging industry. Historically a meeting place for the Mono, Miwok, and Yokut peoples, the first western settlers arrived in the latter half of the 19th century.

Nowadays, the town is a popular tourist destination, with most of the economy coming from visitors. The town's history is displayed in several original buildings still standing in Oakhurst, giving a great impression of how the town would have looked all those years ago.

At an elevation of 2274ft, Oakhurst is within easy reach of some local skiing ranges and offers access to many miles of mountain trails and paths. A major reason for choosing Oakhurst as a vacation destination is the short distance by road to the famous Yosemite National Park. Tour guides are running professional excursions, and these are worth checking out.

With plenty of accommodation in and around the town and RV and camping pitches in easy reach, Oakhurst is worth a visit.

11. Bass Lake

Just a few miles from the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, Bass Lake makes an excellent choice for exploring that world-famous park and the stunning Sierra National Forest, where the town and lake are situated. The location alone, complete with magnificent towering trees, is a reason to visit Bass Lake.

There are many accommodation choices, including hotels, B&Bs, lakeside lodges, and camping and RV sites. The lake - a reservoir constructed in 1902 - is a haven for water sports, boating, kayaking, and fishing, with many species in the water. Swimming in the lake's warm waters is also enjoyable, and there are many miles of scenic hiking trails around the lake and town.

Bass Lake town is known for its antique shops, restaurants, boutique clothes shops, and more.

Plenty of friendly and welcoming bars are great for a relaxing drink.

Take a trip to Yosemite - it's a must, as it offers some of the most amazing views anywhere in the world, and enjoy a relaxing waterside break at Bass Lake.

>> More fun things to do near Yosemite National Park

12. Truckee

The coming of the railroads in the latter part of the 19th century gave rise to the town of Truckee. Occupying a lovely spot in the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains, known initially as Gray's Station.

The tracks would arrive in 1868. The current name is the stuff of legend.

The first European settlers were met by a chief of the local indigenous Paiute, known as Tru-Ki-Zo. He rode towards them with a greeting in his language - 'Tro-Kay' - which means 'everything is alright' in his native language. The newcomers thought he was shouting his name!

Today, Truckee is largely a tourist town, especially popular with those who enjoy the great outdoors. Hiking trails are plentiful among the pines and the dedicated Legacy Trail along the Truckee River takes in the magnificent scenery. Mountain biking is popular, and the town is close to many of the local ski slopes.

With plenty of accommodation choices - hotels, camping, and RV sites can all be found nearby - plus highly rated restaurants and other outlets, Truckee is a nature-lover's delight.

13. Felton

Henry Cowell Hiking Near Felton

Felton, a small mountain town in Santa Cruz County, officially came into being in 1878. A product of the logging industry in the area, much of that industry's history is preserved in and around the town, and it has become a popular tourist destination over the years.

Felton is a few minutes' drive from Santa Cruz, where visitors can experience the historic boardwalk, and right next to the spectacular Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. In the park are some of the most famous and legendary of all the great redwood trees, which can be visited by taking any of the many miles of hiking trails.

Places to visit in Felton include Roaring Camp, a recreation of an 1880s logging camp complete with an original railroad depot from that era. Visitors can take a steam train ride up Bear Mountain, which kids will particularly love. Also of interest is Felton Covered Bridge, which dates from 1882 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is plenty of accommodation in and around Felton, including RV sites with direct access to the State Park.

>> Great things to do around Santa Cruz

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

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