Part of the reason Los Angeles is such a tourist draw is that there’s so much to do so close by. Within a couple hours’ drive are stunning coastal scenery, two (count ’em) wine-making regions, skiing, hiking, history, seasonal wildflowers, culture and kitsch. Here are just some of the best day trips, so fill up and get going.
Point Vicente Lighthouse at Palos Verdes is part of a great day trip from Los Angeles
Palos Verdes coast and Point Vicente Lighthouse © Peieq / Getty
From Malibu to Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County’s west coast is a big-time beacon for beach-lovers. But did you know there’s an entirely different experience on LA County’s south-facing coast? It’s so little-visited you’ll forget you’re in the United States’ second-largest metropolis.
Take the 110 Freeway all the way to the port of San Pedro where, a few miles west, the cliffs of Point Fermin Park offer inspirational coastal views all the way to Orange County to the left and Catalina Island to the right. Nearby are its lighthouse, the Korean Friendship Bell and the vintage 1940s bar, Walker’s Cafe, worth a visit to hobnob with bikers and other assorted characters. The Fort MacArthur Military Museum, a decommissioned WWII defensive post, has some history galleries and plenty of secret tunnels and bunkers for rambling and scrambling. Or if you prefer nature without the military history, try White Point Nature Preserve and White Point-Royal Palms State Beach.
Then continue west on a rewarding drive through Palos Verdes, past multi-million-dollar homes and bajillion-dollar ocean panoramas. Your destination: the lavish Terranea Resort and a sunset cocktail overlooking the Pacific.
Introducing Coastal California
Introducing Coastal California
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About 90 minutes northwest of LA, Santa Barbara exemplifies the SoCal lifestyle of everyone’s dreams. Spanish Colonial streetscapes are peppered with boutiques, restaurants and bars, and there’s a heady mix of attractions from the original Spanish mission to the family-friendly MOXI science museum and the west coast’s oldest pier, Stearns Wharf. Lest it all sound a little, well, grown up, the downtown Funk Zone bursts with hipster-friendly bars and restaurants.
If all those weren’t reason enough to go, fires and mudslides devastated several communities southeast of Santa Barbara in the winter of 2017-2018 and again in 2019, so you’ll be doing the locals a solid by spending your tourism dough here.
Features – California drought
The Santa Ynez Valley vineyards © Nik Wheeler / Getty
How blessed is LA? Doubly blessed, if you count the not one but two wine countries within day-tripping distance. Designate a driver and head northwest to the Santa Ynez Valley or southeast to Temecula, both about two hours from central LA and offering quaint towns as the backdrop for your SoCal wine adventure.
The Santa Ynez Valley is about a half-hour beyond Santa Barbara, through mountains dramatically nestling Lake Cachuma. The valley’s small towns have charm to spare, especially Early Californian-style Los Olivos and Solvang, founded by Danish immigrants and still feeling like a Danish village. Nearby Buellton has more of an industrial-hip streak with contemporary eateries and – can we call them? – drinkeries.
Meanwhile, Temecula, near where Orange, Riverside and San Diego Counties meet, has an Old West Americana vibe on its main street; it was a stop on the old Butterfield stagecoach line in the mid-1800s. A few miles away, some 40 wineries line its rolling hills and offer tastings and events.
Features – California Poppies
A poppy field in Antelope Valley © Ben Neumann / Getty
Most of the year the Antelope Valley, about 1.5 hours north of LA, isn’t on many tourist maps. But in early spring, typically mid-March through April, the hills are alive with wildflowers nourished by winter rains. Look for bright orange poppies – California’s state flower – especially among the 8 miles of walking trails at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, and other fields glowing with yellow and purple from lupine and phacelia.
Big Bear Lake proves that Angeleno adage: that in LA you can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon. This mountain resort town about 110 miles northeast of Downtown LA has an elevation of 6750ft, two ski resorts (Snow Summit and Bear Mountain) and a fun village to serve them; for the surfing part, make sure you get back to the coast before dark. During summertime, hiking, mountain biking and watersports take over.
For road-trippers, though, getting there and away is more than half the fun, via the Rim of the World Scenic Byway (Hwy 18), revealing a jaw-dropping vista around practically every twist and turn back to the real world.
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‘Snowbirds’ from northern climes spend entire winters in Palm Springs, but this desert oasis two hours east of Downtown LA can be done as a day trip, albeit a pretty full one. Hit the road early to survey the scene from above via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; at nearly 6,000 vertical feet up, summer temperatures at the summit can be a welcome 40 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) cooler than the triple-digits common on the desert floor; a network of hiking trails lets you explore. Back at ground level, tour the city’s signature Mid-Century Modern architecture, browse retro-cool togs and design on Palm Canyon Drive, or quaff a mai tai in a Tiki bar.
Features – Pioneertown, California
Pioneertown © Geri Lavrov / Getty
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Northwest of Palm Springs, a few diversions can be strung together for a fun day exploring SoCal’s quirkier side. If Pioneertown looks like an old-west movie set, that’s because it was – no less than Gene Autry and Roy Rogers helped finance it to shoot western films and TV shows there, and there are still occasional weekend shoot-em-up performances on dusty ‘Mane St.’ Don’t miss Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, serving down-home vittles and an evening roster of musicians; often including some of the biggest names in the business.
Get in touch with your inner outer space persona at the Integratron, conceived in the 1950s by aerospace engineer George Van Tassel as a place to receive telepathic instructions from extraterrestrials. There’s no indication that ever happened, but these days visitors can be transported via ‘sound baths’ performed on bowl-shaped bells under the Integratron’s wooden dome.
And en route back to LA are the World’s Biggest Dinosaurs, a selfie spot before its time: giant concrete creatures plopped down off I-10 by a theme park designer in the 1970s. The brontosaurus and T-Rex have been featured time and again in movies and music videos, most notably 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. You can pay a (steep) fee to view exhibits, do a dino-dig and climb inside Mr. Rex’s mouth. If shopping’s more your style, the dinosaurs’ neighbors are two giant outlet malls, Desert Hills Premium Outlets and Cabazon Outlets.