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California’s Sierra Nevada’s 9 Most Underrated Towns to Visit in 2024

by Staff

The Sierra Nevada mountain range stretches 400 miles between California’s Central Valley and the Great Basin. Formed millions of years ago through the action of glaciers, the region is awash with dramatic natural landscapes, from towering mountains and deep canyons to roaring waterfalls and dense forests. These present the ultimate playground for outdoor adventurers, with recreation opportunities for hikers, campers, skiers, and rock climbers.

Several towns have cropped up across the vast territory of the Sierras, acting as the perfect jump-off base for exploring this Golden State gem. While some of these are known to travelers around the country, many remain overlooked and underexplored. In 2024, you have an excellent opportunity to uncover Sierra’s best-kept secrets. Boasting exquisite natural scenery, a small-town feel, and endless outdoor adventures, these are the most underrated towns in California’s Sierra Nevada.

Truckee

The afternoon sun illuminates the historic gold rush era architecture of downtown Truckee, California, USA.


Glistening waters, lush forests, and jagged mountain peaks precisely describe the sublime natural scenes surrounding the quaint village of Truckee. This four-season destination treats warm and cold-weather travelers to endless outdoor adventures in equal measure. During summer, the sprawling waters of Donner Lake draw the most visitors with recreation opportunities for swimmers, boaters, paddle boarders, kayakers, and ice fishermen. Bordering the water, the Donner Memorial State Park invites tourists to take advantage of scenic hiking trails, primitive campsites, and spectacular water views to appreciate Truckee’s raw wilderness.

Come the snow season, all the hiking trails and routes turn into idyllic cross-country skiing paths. However, all roads in the town lead to the famous Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Center. Besides luxurious accommodations, skiers, snow hikers, and snowshoers are rewarded with scintillating snow slopes, cutting through pristine meadows and creeks with unparalleled alpine views. 

Mammoth Lakes

Aerial view of Mammoth Lakes, California, during winter, with snowy mountains in the background.
Aerial view of Mammoth Lakes, California, during winter, with snowy mountains in the background.

Mammoth Lakes’ claim to fame is California’s most exciting skiing and snowboarding destination. This winter wonderland is home to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which provides world-class slopes for snow sports lovers just about 9 minutes away. But this barely hints at the stunning natural scenery that encircles Mammoth Lakes. Sandwiched between soaring mountain peaks and sprawling forests, the open spaces beckon adventures to get lost in the town’s backcountry. A hike to Minaret Vista’s vantage point puts you in the right position to appreciate the town’s natural appeal, summarized by the luscious panoramas of Mammoth Mountain. 

Mammoth Lakes is just as impressive in the summer as in the winter. When the sun shines, most visitors explore the numerous trails across the town on secluded hiking excursions. The Crystal Lake Trail presents one of the most scenic routes in town, adored by hikers. Furthermore, you cannot miss out on the geological wonder of Hot Creek, featuring geysers and hot springs shooting from the ground. 

Groveland

Groveland Main Street in Groveland, California, USA.
Groveland Main Street in Groveland, California, USA. Editorial credit: FinJoe / Shutterstock.com

Groveland gained prominence in the mid-1800s as a thriving California Gold Rush town. Although it lost its knack for attracting prospectors, housing a tiny community of over 500, the village maintains its rustic charm. Tourists interested in Groveland’s colorful heritage can browse the collection of artifacts inside Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum for a look into the past. Meanwhile, the around-1852 Iron Door Salon is one of the most recognized landmarks in the town and continues to entertain residents with beer and live music inside an antique environment. 

History aside, Groveland is an adventure lover’s paradise, surrounded by the dense wilderness of the Stanislaus National Forest. Opportunities abound for recreation, a credit to the 1,000 miles of hiking routes cutting across the region, beautiful rivers, scenic lakes, and pristine streams within Groveland’s territory. Visitors can enjoy water-based fun at Pine Mountain Lake and Tuolumne River, courtesy of local outfitters like Sierra Mac River Trips. 

Nevada City

Shops and eateries along Broad Street in Nevada City, California, U.S.A., adorned with rainbow flags during Pride Month.
Shops and eateries along Broad Street in Nevada City, California. Image credit: Chris Allan / Shutterstock.com

Sitting about 60 miles from Sacramento, Nevada City is an ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of the busy city. This tiny community is considered among the best preserved California Gold Rush-era towns and charms visitors with exciting sites and relics. History lovers naturally gravitate towards the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum for a sense of the town’s past. The facility houses a collection of artifacts, documents, and archives chronicling transportation history. You can uncover further history at the landmark Nevada Theater, a rustic structure boasting the title of the oldest operating theater on the Pacific Coast.

When you are not soaking in Nevada City’s rich history, you can explore its vast wilderness along the Deer Creek Tribute Trail. This popular hiking route traverses a densely wooded region with lovely creeks. You will also want to check out the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, which houses the state’s largest hydraulic mine. 

Mariposa

A street in Mariposa, California, lined with residential homes on a cloudy day.

A street in Mariposa, California, lined with residential homes on a cloudy day. By Ken Lund, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons


One of the most underrated towns in the Sierra Nevada, nothing seems to be going for this sleepy community of about 1,200 in Mariposa County. You will have to visit it to get a feel for its unique Old Western charm. Nestled on the scenic foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Mariposa traces its beginnings to 1850, when it played a vital part during the California Gold Rush frenzy. Today, tourists can learn exciting facts about the town’s past at the Mariposa Museum & History Center, which houses an excellent archives collection. Meanwhile, Mariposa’s gold mining heritage is well preserved and documented inside the California State Mining & Mineral Museum, with an exhibit of more than 13,000 precious gems to discover. 

The town strikes a perfect balance between indoor and outdoor attractions. Stepping into the open, the Stockton Creek Reservoir Trailhead provides an avenue to explore the backcountry and enjoy fresh air. Furthermore, Mariposa is only an hour from Yosemite National Park, placing you within striking distance of the fun inside the country’s tourist gem. 

Sonora

Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California.
Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California. Editorial credit: StephanieFarrell / Shutterstock.com

Sonora is another historic location teeming with Gold Rush heritage. During its heyday, it earned the nickname “Queen of Southern Mines,” hinting at its vital role during the mining boom era. As the seat of Tuolumne County, it houses the Tuolumne County Museum, where you can explore the region’s storied past by perusing antique photographs, archives, artifacts, and such memorabilia. A short drive from the town, the Columbia State Historic Site invites historians for a vivid depiction of life in the Gold Rush period. The impressively-preserved town is home to almost thirty rustic structures in their original state. 

For the outdoorsy traveler, you can take advantage of local outfitters like Wild Yosemite to indulge in exciting guided hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing excursions sixty minutes away from Yosemite National Park. Alternatively, you can stay within the town limits by taking on the nearly 3 miles of trail provided by the Dragoon Gulch Trailhead. 

Sierra City

Buckhorn, Sierra City, California
Buckhorn, Sierra City, California.

This quaint alpine community in Sierra County is perched at an altitude of 4,147 feet, providing unbeatable views of lush forests, shiny lakes, and imposing mountains surrounding the town. With so much to explore and discover outdoors, adventurers can look forward to a jam-packed vacation in Sierra City. Hiking along the Loves Trail takes you through the raw wilderness of Tahoe National Forest, culminating in breathtaking views of the Love Falls. But if hiking sounds like too much strain, you can get behind the wheel to drive along the Gold Lake Highway and soak in the magical scenery of the town. 

There is a wealth of fascinating history to be uncovered in Sierra City. Fortunately, several historical markers perfectly chronicle this through diverse artifacts and archives. The Sierra County Historical Society is an excellent place to start, while the Kentucky Mine Museum offers an idea of the area’s mining heritage. 

June Lake

Kiteboarder at the June Lake, close to Yosemite National Park.
Kiteboarder at June Lake, California.

This laidback waterfront community in Mono County lies on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Beautiful mountain slopes and clear lake waters make June Lake a four-season destination, presenting both summer and winter recreation opportunities. During the sunny season, kayakers, swimmers, boaters, and canoers assemble at the June Lake Marina to make the most of aquatic fun. Tourists also find a serene atmosphere to sunbathe, unwind, and people-watch at June Lake Beach. 

Come the snow season, June Mountain Ski Area turns into June Lake’s crowning jewel. The resort’s world-class slopes have a magnetic effect on snowboarders, skiers, and snowtubers inside and outside the town. After enough of the endless outdoor adventures in June Lake, you can sample refreshing local craft beers at the June Lake Brewing and revel in its family-friendly atmosphere. 

Locke

Al's Place in Locke, California.
Al’s Place in Locke, California. Image credit jmoor17 via iStock.com

Locke’s charm lies in its deep Chinese roots, being the last of the Chinatowns along the Sacramento River. Its colorful heritage is evidenced by the string of museums and historical markers dotting the town, offering a window into the bygone eras. The Dai Loy Museum is a historic gambling hall built in 1915, with old pictures and exhibits representing the gambling culture among the ancient Chinese community. Locke Memorial Park is another historical site honoring Chinese citizens who immigrated to California and helped construct the railroad. 

There is more exciting history to check out at Locke Boarding House Museum State Park, which dates back to 1909 and housed laborers from the Southern Pacific Railroad. After absorbing enough of Locke’s exciting history, you can get a sense of local culture by sampling Chinese cuisine at Al’s Place. 

Discover Sierra Nevada’s Hidden Highlights

The Sierra Nevadas in California play host to a string of charming little towns that showcase the diversity of the natural gems in the region. Besides rich historical heritage and cultural legacy, they promise visitors countless outdoor adventure stores in the heart of California’s backcountry. Whether your interests lie in mountain biking down slopes, hiking pristine trails, soaking in hot springs, or perusing galleries along historic main streets, each has unique attributes worth experiencing. For those seeking to step off the beaten path in 2024, any of these underrated towns will make for a fulfilling experience.

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