Using this guidance from seasoned park rangers, here’s how to embrace your next opportunity to connect with nature and visit wild California.
As the most species-rich U.S. state, California reflects the footprints of human and natural history like no other place in the world. Though its biodiversity faces challenges due to ranching, agriculture, and wildfires, California is a haven for respectful ecotourism that makes visitors think about our collective future.
In California, you don’t need to venture far to enjoy an afternoon of solitude and intimate connection with nature. Most hikes listed below are within a one-hour drive from a city—or at the very least, a cozy winery. If you’re planning a trip to the Golden State, keep in mind explorers are asked to stay on designated trails and keep dogs (where permitted) leashed.
Below is a guide to scenic hidden gems in California, curated with the help of experienced park rangers and local guides. This list should help you enjoy an unforgettable exploration of the state’s lesser-known wonders.
Located conveniently within an hour and a half of every major SoCal urban center, Temecula offers a serene escape into nature. The valley spans a stunning 32-square-mile area, characterized by rolling vineyards, golden hills, and an expansive sky. Elevations vary from 1,175 to 2,600 feet, and the surrounding snow-capped peaks of Mount San Jacinto, Palomar Mountain, Mount San Bernardino, and Mount San Gorgonio create a gorgeous panorama.
Adobe Loop Trail at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Preserve. The Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Preserve, managed by Riverside County Parks, is a unique sanctuary at the southern end of the Santa Ana Mountains. The plateau is something of a marvel, just 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean and close to Interstate 15, yet home to a rare ecological community.
According to park ranger and interpreter Rob Hicks, the Nature Conservancy purchased the plateau in 1984 to preserve the mesa’s vernal pools, which host tiny crustaceans known as fairy shrimp. These creatures exist in no other place in the world and are highly adapted to the Plateau’s temporary pools. They live in a dormant state as embryos, waiting for the right weather conditions to develop and breed. With a life cycle intricately tied to the wetland’s existence, these crustaceans have evolved to survive only here.
INSIDER TIP: The Santa Rosa Plateau features two recreational sections: The strictly regulated ecological reserve for trail hiking only, and a more lenient, county-owned multi-use area allowing biking, horseback riding, and dog-walking on leashes. Be sure to go to the right one.
You’ll see four unique biomes on display at the Santa Rosa Plateau: grassland, woodland, chaparral, and wetlands. The reserve is also a haven for wildlife, including coyotes and various bird species. Be sure to visit the Machado Adobe, one of Riverside County’s two oldest buildings dating back to when the area was part of Mexico.
Don’t leave the valley without a visit to EAT Marketplace in Old Town Temecula. Chef di Bernardo is deeply passionate about using local, high-quality ingredients in her dishes, which appeal to eaters of every palate and dietary philosophy. What’s even better are the company’s values ensuring fair and a living wage for all involved in its food production process, from growers and pickers to kitchen staff.
A favorite among patrons is the steak sandwich, served on freshly baked ciabatta bread with caramelized onions and gooey Fontina cheese. The popular “Brooklyn Girl” sandwich, a tribute to Chef di Bernardo’s mother, is a classic New York deli-style sandwich. For dessert, try the gluten-free specialty donuts, which Chef di Bernardo also serves at EAT’s Pasadena-based sister company, Hello You’re Welcome. With mouthwatering flavor combinations and healthy ingredients, these treats satisfy your sweet tooth and your body and soul.
Enjoy a wine tasting at Wilson Creek Winery, a leader in regenerative farming practices. Benefit from the viticultural team’s deep understanding of grape quality and flavor, while simultaneously feeling content that their winegrowers’ focus on soil health improves the region’s ecological balance.
“Because of what we have done with the soil, we now use 60% less water and get 120% our prior yields at a higher quality without having to use any synthetics,” explained vineyard manager Greg Pennyroyal. In an era marked by climate change, lessened water consumption is great news.
Plus, the wine is delicious: A crowd favorite at Wilson Creek Winery is the Almond Sparkling, a unique white blend infused with natural almond essence. The result is a surprising, sippable spirit that balances sweetness with the nutty aroma of marzipan.
Book a room with a vineyard view at The Vine House Bed & Breakfast, an upscale family-owned bed and breakfast just minutes from several award-winning wineries. Warm up in a king-size bed and in-room fireplace, then wake up to farm-fresh eggs for breakfast. Flaunting mature persimmon trees, the five-acre grounds provide a picturesque backdrop for your vacation—and the staff are super friendly.
Every other Saturday (with some exceptions), the Temecula Olive Oil Company invites visitors out to its ranch in Aguanga, California, to experience firsthand the production and tasting of its uniquely crafted olive oils. A state-of-the-art mobile mill allows for on-site olive processing anywhere on the property, ensuring the freshest possible branch-to-bottle taste. And with delightful flavor combinations like lemon, fresh jalapeńo, and smoked hickory—resulting from innovative cold milling techniques—these artisanal olive oils will take you on an aromatic journey.
A Grape Escape Balloon Adventure offers scenic sunrise hot air balloon flights with experienced pilots.