Howser died at his home Sunday night from natural causes, said Ayn Allen, corporate communications manager for KCET. No other details were available.
For years, "California's Gold" took viewers to many parts of the Golden State, with Howser doing folksy, highly enthusiastic interviews and narration in a distinctive twang he brought with him from his native Tennessee.
Howser's friendly interview format was characterized by a gentle inquisitiveness and a love for little stories punctuated by his hallmark exclamations of "That's amazing!" or "Look at this!"
Howser wrote on his production company's website that his show was operated on the premise "that TV isn't brain surgery."
"People's stories are what it's all about," he wrote.
With little more than a cameraman trailing him to little-known corners of the state, Howser's programs didn't have slick production values but drew viewers in with his intimate, conversational interviews.
"I want our stories to reveal the wonders of the human spirit and the richness of life in California, including its history, people, culture and natural wonders," he wrote.
His charm and enthusiasm tickled viewers wherever he went. When Howser visited the U.S.-Mexico border, he playfully taunted a federal guard by tiptoeing back and forth over the international boundary. In Southern California, he wandered through a grove of avocado trees, exclaiming over a dog's ability to lick the green flesh clean from the fruit's shell — and noting the animal's thick, lustrous fur.
"Huell elevated the simple joys and undiscovered nuggets of living in our great state," a KCET statement said. "He made the magnificence and power of nature seem accessible by bringing it into our living rooms. Most importantly, he reminded us to find the magic and wonderment in our lives every day. Huell was able to brilliantly capture the wonder in obscurity. From pastrami sandwiches and artwork woven from lint to the exoticism of cactus gardens and the splendor of Yosemite — he brought us the magic, the humor and poignancy of our region."
Howser received a bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee and began his TV career at WSM-TV in Nashville. He hosted a magazine-style series at WCBS-TV in New York City and then went to Los Angeles in 1981 to work as a reporter for KCBS-TV.
In 1987, he moved to KCET to produce a program called "Videolog," the predecessor to "California's Gold," which is aired by PBS stations all over California, as well as Oregon, Nevada and his home state of Tennessee.
The beloved series about California was produced for more than 19 years, and helped launch six other series' about the state.
KCET planned to air special on Howser Monday night.
In 2011, Howser donated his entire catalog of episodes to Chapman University so that they could be digitized, posted to the Internet and made available free-of-charge.
"He loved California so very much, and above all he loved people: their life stories, their interests, their passions. And, of course, people adored him with equal intensity," Chapman University President James L. Doti said Monday.
In mourning the loss, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called Howser a "Los Angeles treasure and California icon."
City Councilmember Tom LaBonge, who was sworn into office by Howser, his friend of 30 years said no one will ever be able to replicate his enthusiasm.
"We've really lost the mother lode of California gold," LaBonge said in a statement.
Associated Press writer John Antczak contributed to this report.