by Dan Ketchum
Yes, the postcard laid-back surf culture and hyper-Instagrammable plasticity of Hollywood are all part of California’s DNA, but let’s not forget that California also has a lock on quirkiness — when you pair rugged, super diverse natural landscapes with a local tilt toward creativity, you’re bound to get plenty of unique spots that you find in most top-10 lists. Get ready to get weird, but get weird in style.
1. Mitchell Caverns (Essex)
The Providence Mountains State Recreation Area is located within the Mojave National Preserve, which means you’ll find a cornucopia of off-the-beaten path desert trails and frontier views untouched by time. But you can’t go much farther off — or under — the path than the Mitchell Caverns, an extraordinary limestone cave system filled with gravity-defying helictites and serene ancient water pools alike.
2. Watts Towers (Watts)
If you want to do LA under-the-radar style, the Watts Towers Arts Center is what you’re looking for. In this uncharacteristically chill park, you can take in a slice of urban quiet as you gaze upon 17 spiraling, wiry, complex interconnected towers built piece-by-piece via local scrap materials by Italian-American artist Simon Rodia over a 33-year span, proving that art truly can come from anywhere.
3. Monarch Butterfly Grove (Pismo Beach)
There are only five sites in the Golden State that count more than 10,000 butterflies annually, and the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach is one of them — you can’t get much more “hidden gem in California” than that. From late October through February, the beach’s massive eucalyptus trees house breathtaking flocks of the striking amber-hued creatures, numbering nearly 2,000 of them per day by winter 2020 counts.
4. Salvation Mountain (Imperial County)
Just north of Calipatria in Imperial County, Salvation Mountain is a man-made testament to technicolor dreams and candy-coated visions. Created by artist Leonard Knight over a 28-year period, this eminently photo-friendly outdoor attraction compiles half a million gallons of latex paint over inner workings of telephone poles, tires and car parts, resulting in an actual mountain of eye-searing art. Bring your Over the Rainbow vape pen to brighten up those colors even more.
5. Annie’s Canyon Trail (Solana Beach)
This hidden gem in Southern California’s San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Preserve is convenient to San Diego but feels like it couldn’t be farther from civilization. The whole two-mile trail welcomes intermediate hikers, but the highlight is the quarter-mile canyon loop, which pays off its few strenuous spots with incredible ocean air and towering sandstone walls that engulf hikers in a big rocky hug.
6. Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum (Joshua Tree)
Joshua Tree is the idiosyncratic getaway of choice for many LA locals, and while it may be gentrifying quickly, you’ll still find plenty of quirk. The Noah Purifoy Foundation’s Outdoor Museum offers fine art for the low price of free, combining avant-garde found-object sculpture with natural desert features and on-brand Joshua Tree solitude.
7. Pfeiffer Beach (Big Sur)
Before you escape to Pfeiffer Beach, take a personal escape with our Houdini Indicia-blend vape, a perfectly calm pairing to maximize the landscape’s naturally relaxing qualities. Natural wonders never cease at Pfeiffer, which is low-key and known for its iconic Keyhole Rock. Far from the influencers, though, you’ll find tranquil wading at low tide.
8. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle (Escondido)
For a far-out escape that’s just as friendly to families as it is to art enthusiasts, check out Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Escondido. Here, you can take in the one-two combo of the Iris Sankey Arboretum alongside the last major international project of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. In the 12-acre natural habitat, you’ll discover playful, colorful sculptures often spanning hundreds of feet in size that aim to encapsulate California’s culture and history via 3D mosaic art.
9. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (Colorado Desert)
This local-approved getaway might be among the most massive hidden gems in Southern California, but it’s also the closest you’ll get to feeling like you’re on Jupiter. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park hosts mountains, deserts, snow, dunes, canyons and more, all making for a desolate paradise of hiking, camping and off-roading. Don’t miss the otherworldly beauty of Slot Canyon when you’re there.
10. Saddle Peak Trail (Malibu)
Forget Malibu Barbie’s Corvette — Saddle Peak Trail is ready to host a different kind of convertible with its horse-friendly trails. Malibuites love the ocean breezes, wild berries and fragrant Humboldt lilies on this shady trail that opens up to a stunning, ocean-view peak among the Santa Monica Mountains. Make the harmonious Phantom high-CBD vape pen your trail buddy for this one.
Dan Ketchum is a freelance lifestyle, fashion and food writer with a decade of experience in both writing and living in Southern California. He’s been fortunate enough to collaborate and publish with companies such as USA Today, the San Francisco Time’s SFGate, The Seattle Times and more.