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Head out on one of these top day trips from Los Angeles
Read time: 7 mins
While Los Angeles has enough activities and attractions to span a lifetime, no visit here is truly complete without discovering what lies beyond the city’s borders. We’ve pulled together the coolest day trips within a two-and-a-half hour drive of the star-studded metropolis (plus a couple of overnighters in case you want to extend your visit).
Locales don’t get much cooler than Laguna Beach, Orange County’s oceanfront city that’s only an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. Complete with nine miles of rocky shoreline dotted with 36 named beaches, this timeless California coastal town is mostly about the sun, the surf, the high-end art galleries, and the multimillion-dollar houses (a far cry from when it was home to a group of LSD-loving hippies who called themselves the Brotherhood of Eternal Love in the 1960's). Beach lazing aside, must-dos include making the most of the tide pooling opportunities at Treasure Island, strolling through Heisler Park for breathtaking Pacific Ocean views, and booking a whale-watching cruise for guaranteed sightings of finbacks, minkes, and humpbacks. Further not-to-be-missed thrills include walking along the Main Beach boardwalk eating ice cream or gelato, learning to surf at Thalia Street Beach, browsing at the one-of-a-kind shops in the downtown area, and visiting Laguna Art Museum for a lowdown on Laguna Beach’s rich history (formed in 1918, this is one of the state’s oldest cultural institutions).
Santa Catalina Island
Just 22 miles off the Southern California coast, Santa Catalina Island (known simply as Catalina by the locals) has everything you’d want from an island retreat: white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, swaying palms, exciting watersports, and melt-your-heart sunsets. Accessed via a one-hour high-speed ferry from Los Angeles (or a 15-minute helicopter ride if you’re feeling flush and flash), this little gem was once solely owned by William Wrigley Junior of Chicago’s chewing-gum empire (his family donated 88 per cent of the land to the Catalina Island Conservancy in 1972). Nowadays, it amazes visitors with its star-studded history (Marilyn Monroe lived here for a year with her first husband, James Dougherty), top-notch seafood restaurants, and thriving wine estate. Highlights include visiting the seaport village of Avalon, renting kayaks on Descanso Beach, and propelling down five zip lines that drop from 600-feet above sea level. Equally standout is the iconic and romantic Art Deco-style Catalina Casino for its three unique walking tours: Discover the Casino, Behind the Scenes Casino, and Twilight at the Casino.
An easy 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, the seaside city of Carlsbad (also known as “The Village by the Sea") wows with seven miles of coastline, nine breweries, a cool farm-to-table foodie scene, and a slew of outdoorsy activities such as hiking, biking, diving, fishing, surfing, and rock hunting. There’s also a glut of family-friendly attractions, including LEGOLAND California Resort, SEA LIFE Aquarium, K1 Speed Go Kart Track, and Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park - the former working ranch once owned by the American actor and conservationist. Must-dos include shopping for cut-price designer goodies at Carlsbad Premium Outlets, paddling a kayak on Aqua Hedionda Lagoon, checking out the instruments and pop music audio samples at the extraordinary Museum of Making Music, and playing a round of golf on the Arnold Palmer-designed 7,007 yard, par 72 course at the Aviara Golf Club. If you’re visiting here between early March and early May, don’t miss the annual Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch - a dazzling display of rainbow-coloured Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers extends for almost 50 acres.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Located just north of La Jolla along historic Highway 101 (a two-hour drive from Los Angeles), the Torrey Pines State Reserve is where you’ll find one of Southern California’s wildest stretches of coastal land complete with pine forests, sandstone canyons, and a network of dirt hiking trails on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As you’d expect from a 1,750-acre reserve dedicated to preserving its namesake (there are approximately 3,000 Torrey Pines), everything here is protected: the Peñasquitos River Valley on the east side of the highway, the State Park on the west, and the Underwater Ecological Reserve offshore. Most make a beeline for one of three walking trails: the easy Guy Fleming Trail, the moderate Razor Point Trail, and the more challenging Beach Trail (whichever you choose, stay on the marked trails to avoid the rattlesnakes who call this reserve home). Should time allow, cycle up to the beautiful Torrey Pines Mesa, stop for a refreshing swim at Torrey Pines State Beach, and join a one-hour guided nature tour departing from the Visitor Centre (10am and 2pm; weekends and holidays only).
A three-hour trip whichever way you do it (Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner train is far less brutal than driving 120 miles there and back in the notoriously bad city traffic), most tend to factor in at least two days for a Los Angeles to San Diego road trip. However, given that “America’s Finest City” offers a staggering amount of attractions (year-round sunshine, amazing beaches, excellent craft breweries, eclectic shops, and a rather famous zoo), you’ll probably end up staying a lot longer. Must-dos include working your way around the unique neighbourhoods (Gaslamp Quarter, La Jolla, Little Italy, Encinitas, Hillcrest, Barrio Logan, East Village, North Park, South Park), taking take a San Diego harbour cruise, and flopping on the sparkling white sands at Coronado Island - the narrow strip of land between San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. And then, of course, there’s Balboa Park - the city’s 1,200-acre cultural heart filled with museums, performing arts venues, restaurants, cafés, gardens, play areas, walking trails, a century-old carousel, and a miniature railway for three-minute rides around a section of this urban wonderland.
Only a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, the glamorous desert playground of Palm Springs warrants an overnight stay (definitely more if your itinerary allows). Set in the Coachella Valley at the foot of several mountain ranges, it delights visitors with a cool new design district, a booming hotel scene, excellent vintage shopping, wonderful golf courses, and a memorable Hollywood roll call (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, and Elvis were all fans). Those limited to a weekend here should spend their time hiking the Indian Canyons in the mountain foothills, visiting the nature-rich Coachella Valley Preserve, and gorging on works by Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall, and Henry Moore at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Further must-dos include riding the historic Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains, admiring the world’s largest collection of flyable and static WWII aircraft at the Palm Springs Air Museum, stocking up on one-off retro offerings at the vintage boutiques, and taking a Desert Modernism van tour for all the mid-century architecture you can muster.
Big Bear Lake
As a four-season wonderland for outdoorsy Californians, the former gold mining boomtown of Big Bear Lake is a convenient two-hour drive from Los Angeles on Highway 330. What you end up doing here depends entirely on the season: typically skiing, snowboarding, and tubing in winter (Bear Mountain is home to the only halfpipes in Southern California), boating, fishing, hiking, and cycling in spring, and kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming, camping, and golfing in summer. There’s also a decent amount of all-season activities on offer at Big Bear Village - the town’s charming district that serves as the central hub for shopping, dining, and entertainment. Most popular for fun-loving families is the Bowling Barn for its 16-lane bowling alley, the Mountain Room Escapes for its breakout-style challenges, the Village Theatre for its three cinema screens, and the Big Bear Funplex for its arcade games, indoor ice rink, and 18-hole miniature golf course. Equally worthy of your attention are the 90-minute lake tours, including The Miss Liberty Paddlewheel at Pine Knot Marina and the Big Bear Queen at the Big Bear Marina.
Joshua Tree National Park
Only two-hours and 15 minutes by car from Los Angeles, the 794,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park is a Dr. Seuss-like wilderness where two desert ecosystems meet: the Mojave and the Colorado. It’s also where you’ll find forests filled with giant and bizarrely-shaped Yucca Brevifolia (more commonly known as the Joshua Tree after Mormon trekkers supposedly named them after the biblical figure) and approximately 800 different species of plants (most famously the Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus, Desert Fan, Triple-Ribbed Milkvetch, Coyote Melon, and Sacred Datura). Once you’ve made a pit stop at one of the Joshua Tree Visitor Centres to pick up maps, factor in visits to Keys View, Arch Rock, Ryan Mountain, Barker Dam, Skull Rock, and Hidden Valley campground. And if you happen to be in a four-wheel drive, grab the opportunity to tour Geology Road - the 18-mile motor tour that leads through one of the park’s most fascinating landscapes (there are 16 stops along a dirt road and the round trip takes about two hours).
San Gabriel Mountains National Monument
Less than an hour’s drive from the city, the 346,117-acre San Gabriel Mountains is the much-adored “backyard” that stretches the length of the Los Angeles metropolitan area from Santa Clarita to San Bernardino County. Granted National Monument status by Barack Obama in 2014 (it received huge support by Los Angeles County residents, lawmakers, and environmental organisations in pre-designation polls), this protected land offers a wealth of outdoorsy attractions: mighty waterfalls, photogenic valleys, iconic formations, and two famous peaks (Mount Baldy and Mount Wilson). Must-dos include wildlife watching (expect to see yellow-legged frogs, mountain lion, Nelson’s bighorn sheep, California condors, and more), hitting the extensive hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails, and cooling off in one of the many swimming holes. Also squeeze in a visit to see the iconic Hooker 100-inch telescope from the Visitors’ Gallery at Mount Wilson Observatory (this world-famous facility perched 5,710 feet above the Los Angeles Basin was the stomping ground of eminent 20th century astronomers).
The tiny city of Ojai (pronounced oh-hi) may only be a two-hour drive northwest of Los Angeles, but it couldn’t be more different in terms of looks. As one of Southern California’s prettiest places, its rural landscape has long been a magnet for bohemians, spiritual wellness fans, and latter-day hipsters in search of funky places to eat, sleep, and shop (there’s some fabulous spots on or just off the main drag of Ojai Avenue). It also offers plenty to please adventurous souls, including horseriding, camping, taking open-air jeep tours along country roads, and hitting the nearby trails of the beautiful Los Padres National Forest. If you’re only here for the day, visit the tasting rooms at the Casa Barranca Organic Winery, hunt for rare and captivating titles at Bart’s Books, stock up on home-grown goodies at the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market, and book a signature treatment or detox at Spa Ojai - the 31,000-square-foot facility on North Montgomery Avenue. If you’re planning on hanging around until late, the best sunset-watching spot is Meditation Mount - a sacred garden founded in 1971 (the grounds open from Wednesday to Sunday).
Approximately an hour and 50 minutes by car from Los Angeles, the stylish seaside city of Santa Barbara (also known as the American Riviera) appeals with incredible sunshine, picture-perfect beaches, Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture, a flourishing farm-to-table dining scene, and sweeping views across the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Perfect for a day trip (but far better as a weekend break, if budget allows), sightseeing highlights include the newly-opened Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, the 18th century Old Mission Santa Barbara, and the wine-tasting rooms, craft breweries, one-off boutiques, and art galleries at Funk Zone - the trendy district that spans the area between the ocean and Highway 101. Further wow-factor spots include Santa Barbara Zoo for its 500-plus animals, Santa Barbara Museum of Art for its docu-led tours, and Santa Barbara Botanic Garden for its exquisite flora and fauna displays. For a real treat, book an early morning hot air balloon ride across the Santa Ynez Valley to marvel at the gorgeous vineyards set against the majestic San Rafael mountain range.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles (or two hours without traffic), the century-old Danish village of Solvang is located in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, roughly 45 miles from Santa Barbara. As you’d expect from California’s quaint little slice of Northern Europe (Solvang means Sunny Fields in Danish), there’s no shortage of olde-worlde charm; think wooden windmills, craft breweries, authentic Danish bakeries and confectionaries selling freshly-baked pastries, breads, aebleskiver (pancake balls), and even a replica of Copenhagen’s Round Tower (or Rundetårn). Must-dos include strolling along Mission Drive for Danish-themed souvenirs (cuckoo clocks, wooden shoes, Hans Christian Andersen memorabilia), taking a house-drawn Solvang Trolley tour, and leaning more about Danish culture at the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art. Also take the opportunity to sample wine and beer at 20 downtown tasting rooms - all of which offer products from the area’s 125-plus vineyards (there’s even a special Sideways tour that takes you to the vineyards and wineries that featured in the 2004 Oscar-winning movie).