From otherworldly national parks to awe-inspiring natural wonders; charming roadside dives to islands frozen in time, Southern California may as well be called the day trip capital of the world. Below is our pick of six incredible destinations worthy of the journey in SoCal.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK – With its comfortably warm days and mild nights, spring is one of the best times of year to visit Joshua Tree National Park. Just under an hour from Palm Springs and among the most magical natural wonders in Southern California, the park’s rugged rock formations, mythical Joshua Trees and scenic hiking trails draw over 2.5 million climbers and outdoor enthusiasts annually. Pack a picnic and spend the day exploring the sights, and if you’ve got the time, be sure to checkout nearby Pappy & Harriet’s for some delicious bbq and live music (Sir Paul McCartney recently graced its modest stage), the new-agey Integratron, or the delightfully eccentric Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum.
CATALINA ISLAND – Whether you’re jonesing for some time in nature or in need of a lazy day on the beach, Catalina Island has got you covered. Hop on the ferry from Long Beach or San Pedro and enjoy the hour ride to this iconic resort town that feels ever-so-slightly frozen in time. Pay a visit to Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden for a glimpse of the island’s native plants and epic ocean views, hike to hidden harbors, or kayak along the Pacific. Pay a visit to the island’s interiors and you might catch a glimpse of the island’s illusive wild buffalo, who were supposedly imported to the island in the 1920s for a silent film and never left with the crew.
COLDSPRING TAVERN – Originally built as a stagecoach stop in the 1880s, the vibe at Cold Spring Tavern is one part California Gold Rush and another 1970s Laurel Canyon cool. Nestled in the mountains 30 minutes outside of Santa Barbara, the tavern offers both an upscale restaurant—with game offerings like buffalo, rabbit and venison—and a raucous mountain bar scene. Drawing an eclectic mix of curious tourists, Santa Barbara locals and Harley Davidson devotees, the weekends are the time to visit, with a talented roster of local musicians playing rock and blues and some of the best tri-tip sandwiches in the West.
ANTELOPE VALLEY CALIFORNIA POPPY RESERVE – There’s a reason the poppy is California’s official state flower. The delicate gold bud rears its head almost anywhere the sun shines, but perhaps nowhere is there a more radiant display than Antelope Valley California Poppy State Reserve. Located just west of Lancaster, the reserve features eight miles of trails and draws thousands of wildflower—and Instagram—enthusiasts each year, eager to catch a glimpse of the electric orange canopy. The wildflower viewing season typically lasts from mid-March through April, with a variety of blooms springing throughout the season.
OJAI – From wine tasting and gallery hopping to world-famous “pink moment” sunsets, the sleepy town of Ojai is just 15 minutes from Ventura, yet feels worlds away from it all. Enjoy a day of pampering at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, or go horseback riding with Western Trail Rides. At sunset, head to Meditation Mount to experience Ojai’s famed “pink moment,” when the light casts the sky in an ethereal, rosy hue. End your day with dinner and drinks at Ojai Deer Lodge, a retro mountain hideaway with craft beer and an entertaining open mic night.
BALBOA ISLAND – This quaint, man-made island in Newport Beach is a world unto itself. Park your car and grab a frozen banana (or signature Balboa Bar) from rival stands Sugar N Spice or Dad’s before perusing the charming mom-and-pop shops along Marine Avenue. Then, hop on the $1 ferry and enjoy a quick trip across the water to the iconic Balboa Fun Zone, where you can stroll along the bayside boardwalk, ride the old-timey ferris wheel, play vintage arcade games and pretend it’s the sixties again.