It's easy to fill an itinerary for a Los Angeles vacation, even if you never venture outside the downtown-Hollywood-beach triangle. But one of the best things about LA is its proximity to so many different kinds of destinations from snow-capped mountains to farmland-filled valleys, from artist-attracting deserts to laidback beach towns.
Go beyond the borders of the city proper on one of these day trips—all within a four-hour drive—to dive deeper into California's colorful history.
The desert destination is known for its Seussian trees, scenery seemingly ripped from an old-timey western, and animal skulls-and-macramé aesthetic. The national park is a huge draw, promising dark skies for stargazing, wildlife viewing, and bouldering. The dusty streets of the nearby towns bring nature lovers, hippies, and hipsters together at artist studios (especially in October during HWY 62 Open Studio Art Tours), festivals (Desert X; Joshua Tree Music Festival), and at the more trippy attractions like the Integratron, a geodesic dome in which sound baths are performed.
Getting There: It’s a three-hour drive each way along I-10 and CA-62 (Twenty Nine Palms Highway). Leave plenty before rush hour to avoid traffic.
In 1908, Colonel Allen Allensworth, an escaped slave and ordained Baptist minister who retired as the Army's highest-ranking Black officer, and four like-minded peers settled a secluded spot in the Central Valley creating the only California town founded, financed, built, populated, and governed entirely by African Americans. At its peak in the 1920s, Allensworth had about 300 residents, a school district, hotel, and many businesses. Sitting on the original townsite, the state park has several recreated buildings including a school and church and a visitor center with a film to explain what led to the town’s demise in the 1960s.
Getting There: It's about two-and-a-half hours north of LA using I-5, CA-99, and CA-43.
Travel Tip: McFarland, a small farm town 19 miles away, and its high school's cross country program were the subject of a feel-good Disney film, which features the school, almond orchards, the prison, Esperanza market, and Tacos El Cazador, where you should stop for horchata and tacos al pastor.
Sure there are now Disneylands around the world, but you’ll never forget a visit to the very first one. Take a spin on nine rides that remain from opening day in 1955 including Autopia and Jungle Cruise, eat a churro, watch fireworks, buy souvenir ears, and explore the many wondrous attractions that have been built over the past 65 years including the Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones, and most recently, the Star Wars land, Galaxy’s Edge.
Getting There: Approximately an hour from LA, a straight shot down I-5, driving is usually quickest. Or take Metrolink from Union Station to Anaheim and connect to the free Anaheim Resort Transportation (ART) shuttle.
Travel Tip: Before Oga’s Cantina opened in Galaxy's Edge with a droid DJ and adult drinks, the park was mostly dry. Make reservations at Oga’s up to 60 days in advance.
Welcome to Sideways country. Made up of six small towns, farmland, and vineyards, this valley is the best option for a boozy trip thanks to the prized pinot noirs, chardonnays, cabernets, and syrahs that its 120 wineries produce. Many of the wineries themselves can be visited for samples and tours, or sip and shop in Los Olivos where tasting rooms mingle with art galleries and plant nurseries. Grab a bite at Buellton’s Industrial Eats, Los Alamos’ Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, or Solvang’s First & Oak or Mad & Vin. Solvang is an adorable Danish-American village full of Scandinavian architecture, Christmas shops, windmills, and pastries.
Getting There: Drive north on US-101 until Santa Barbara and then cut over the mountains using the San Marcos Pass (CA-154). Depending on traffic it takes about two hours from LA.
Travel Tip: There’s plenty to do with under-21 squad members: OstrichLand, lavender farms, horseback riding with Vino Vaqueros, water sports on Lake Cachuma, a virtual-reality arcade, and the Quicksilver miniature horse ranch.
If a taste of the tropics is what you seek, look no further than the most accessible and developed of the Channel Islands. Take it easy sipping Buffalo Milks (the island’s signature cocktail) at the beach club, sailing, wandering Avalon's quaint streets, or being pampered at the spa. Or have an adrenaline-pumping day riding zip lines, scuba diving, or traversing the dusty backcountry in an open-air biofuel Hummer looking for bison and staring down sheer cliffs.
Travel Tip: For a more rugged adventure, take the ferry to Two Harbors on the west end instead for hiking trails, campgrounds, excellent kayaking, a dive shop, and a sandy beach.
Presidential libraries and museums offer an in-depth look into past leaders of the free world. Southern California has two: Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s. The first is set on the land where his parents ran a citrus ranch and contains the house where he was born as well as exhibits on communism and Watergate. Reagan's museum is in Simi Valley, and some of the info even comes straight from him by way of a hologram. Step aboard the Air Force One he logged 660,000 miles on.
Getting There: Nixon’s compound is about 40 miles from downtown LA in the Orange County city of Yorba Linda off the CA-90 freeway. Reagan’s is almost 50 miles northwest from downtown.
Travel Tip: Simi Valley and the surrounding countryside offer excellent hiking spots including Rocky Peak, Sage Ranch Park, and Corriganville Park, a former movie ranch featured in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Set on Chumash ancestral land once known as Sap’wi, the Chumash Interpretive Center in Oakbrook Park opened in 1994. The museum houses artifacts and replicas related to the tribe and a recreation of a Chumash village. There are opportunities to play native games, learn Chumash words, make crafts, and walk in nature while learning about their connection to the land and how they used various plants. Inquire about occasional docent-led hikes to see cave paintings.
Getting There: Take the 101 freeway 36 miles from Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley to Thousand Oaks.
Travel Tip: Another important Chumash site is Painted Cave State Historic Park in the mountains above Santa Barbara, where rock art dating back to the 1600s colors the sandstone walls.
The woodsy national parks sit side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and offer a range of elevations (up to 14,494 feet), landscapes, wildlife, and ecosystems. But the real reason to seek out this forest is to see its trees, foremost of which are General Sherman, the world’s largest living tree, and General Grant, the second largest. There are day hikes at all difficulty levels from casual flat strolls through giant sequoia groves or past alpine lakes to a steep 8-mile trek to Mist Falls.
Getting There: The closest entrance point from LA is Ash Mountain in Sequoia. At roughly four hours, it’s a time and distance commitment, but worth it.
Travel Tip: Temperatures drop off in the evenings and winter snow can linger until summer. Check the weather and trail conditions a week or two before you go to properly gear up.
It’s a quintessential SoCal beach town with laidback locals, reliable waves, small-town congeniality, seemingly infinite outdoor pursuits, and a spate of brunch spots and outfitters. Spend time on the water, whether by renting a boat or parasailing from Ventura Harbor Village, visiting the marine life tank at the Channel Islands National Park visitor center, or enrolling in lessons with Surfclass or Ventura Makos Surf Camp. Refuel at one of the restaurants that make up the Ventura Avenue Taco District. (Order quesarritos from the secret menu at El Taco De Jerez.)
Getting There: Roughly 60 miles from Santa Monica, drive north on the PCH (CA-1) through Malibu for scenic vistas or take the quicker inland US-101 route. The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner stops in town.
Travel Tip: Stay for a spectacular sunset. Trek up to the highest point in town, the 107-acre Grant Park, where you can look out over the town, the Pacific, and Anacapa and Santa Crux Islands. Or watch from the patio at MadeWest Brewing Co. with a cold Sound Sail lager in hand.
The landscape here is blanketed in bright oranges (from California’s state flower and park namesake), yellows, whites, and purples from mid-February through May. Enjoy the view along eight miles of trails (some paved for wheelchair access), from picnic tables, or at the interpretive center. Check the live cam to ensure there’ll be something to see that’s worth the drive.
Getting There: Northeast of downtown by about an hour and a half, take US-101, I-5, and CA-14 to outside Lancaster.
Travel Tip: Visit Vasquez Rocks on the way there or back. Named after a notorious bandit who used the dramatic rock formations as a hideout in the 1870s and seen in numerous Hollywood movies including Star Trek and Blazing Saddles.
When visiting Bakersfield’s Basque Block, a historically Spanish and French area, make sure to go hungry. Many of the dining halls, including Wool Growers, Pyrenees Café, Chalet Basque, and Benji’s have been open for decades. Often served family-style at communal tables, meals start with bread, cabbage soup, beans, salsa, boiled vegetables, french fries, and sometimes pickled tongue and spaghetti before moving on to main courses like roasted lamb, sweetbreads, oxtail stew, pork chops, or fried chicken. Wash it down with Picon Punch, a typical brandy and grenadine cocktail. The annual Basque Festival is in May.
Work off the meal with a little line dancing to the Bakersfield Sound, a country sub-genre of twangy guitar, fiddle, drums, and pedal steel popularized by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Most of the original honky-tonks are gone, but the beat goes on at Owens' glossy museum-meets-nightclub Crystal Palace. Learn more about the genre at the Kern County Museum.
Getting There: By car, it’s just shy of two hours north of LA on I-5. Greyhound also offers bus service between the two cities.
Travel Tip: The César E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, about 30 miles south of Bakersfield, salutes the important life and work of the titular leader. La Paz was the home and office (filled with photos, books, and artifacts) from 1970 and is his final resting place.
The 21 missions set up by Franciscan missionaries on behalf of Spain in the 1700s had a massive impact on California’s history, indigenous populations, and the landscape. SJC, founded in 1776 by Junipero Serra, presents an honest, balanced picture of how the mission program changed, challenged, and ultimately almost wiped out the Acjachemen (Ah-HAWSH-eh-men) Nation in interactive exhibits. There’s a draw for birders as well. Mid-March through October, large flocks of cliff swallows migrate 6,000 miles from Argentina to nest and mate in SJC’s eaves, an annual event celebrated with the Swallows Day Parade.
Getting There: It’s about 60 miles south from downtown on the I-5 just before San Clemente. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train stops at the SJC station.
Travel Tip: The mission is located in the Los Rios Historic District, the state’s oldest continually occupied neighborhood. Explore the area and spot the three original adobe homes that remain from the late 1700s.
There’s far more to this old-money city east of LA than the New Year’s Day parade and Rose Bowl. Architecture buffs will admire the Italianate city hall and the craftsman Greene & Greene Gamble House (used as Doc Brown’s house in the Back To The Future franchise). Spend a day visiting its museums (Norton Simon art museum; USC Pacific Asia Museum) gorgeous gardens (at the Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, and the Wrigley Mansion ground), or pick up a beach read at Southern California’s oldest bookstore, Vroman’s (1894).
Getting There: Take the Arroyo Seco Parkway (aka CA-110), from downtown or hop aboard the Metro’s Gold Line at Union Station. It has stations from Pasadena to Azusa.
Travel Tip: Grab a bite to eat in San Gabriel Valley. Although most known for authentic Chinese cuisine, eaters can also find quality Vietnamese, Indonesian, Taiwanese, Singaporean, and Indian spreads as well.
This getaway is a wooded wonderland boasting fresh air, beautiful forests, and year-round activities for lovers of the great outdoors. Learn to waterski with the McKenzie School, go fishing, mountain bike or skate at SkyPark At Santa’s Village, or take advantage of the natural swimming pool. Fall colors are best seen from hikes or while taking the perimeter tour aboard a vintage paddleboat, the Lake Arrowhead Queen. And winter’s first snow signals the start of ski season at resorts like Snow Valley or Rim Nordic (cross country and snowshoeing).
Getting There: Lake Arrowhead Village, which is where you’ll find all the shops and restaurants, is 90 miles from LA on CA-189.
Travel Tip: A fun detour along the way is a replica (13752 Francisquito Avenue) of the first In-N-Out Burger. Opened in 1948 in Baldwin Park, the 10-square-foot space was also California’s first drive-thru hamburger stand.
LA's port is the busiest in the nation and also offers plenty to do: the World War II-era battleship USS Iowa, several historic houses including the Banning Museum, parks with lighthouses or views to Catalina, the remains of Fort MacArthur’s batteries and bunkers, the Korean Friendship Bell, and the Marine Mammal Care Center, where you can hang with sick and injured seals and sea lions as they recuperate. Another important stop is the Terminal Island Memorial, which commemorates the Japanese fishing village that once thrived there before its 3,000 residents were forced to relocate to internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. By their release in 1945, the village was long plundered and decimated.
Getting There: The harbor is 20 miles south of LAX off I-405 and I-110.
Travel Tip: Stock up on souvenirs at Crafted, a market hall in a converted 1940s warehouse brimming with independent vendors and their handmade art, foodstuffs, and trinkets.