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11 Top-Rated Day Trips from Los Angeles

Dec 16, 2015

Within an hours' drive of Los Angeles, beyond the halting traffic, the landscape becomes rugged and refreshing. This area of Southern California has gorgeous unspoiled beaches and a sunny Mediterranean climate, similar to the French Riviera, year-round, giving the impression of an endless summer. Take a one-hour drive to the upscale oceanfront community of Malibu, where sunbathers bask on sandy beaches, and surfers ride the impressive waves. Drive about one and a half hours to arrive at the quintessential So-Cal town of Laguna Beach, the fun-loving seaside village of Balboa Island, or the picturesque coastal city of Oxnard. To really get away from it all, sail to idyllic Santa Catalina Island, an hour ferry ride away from several cities near L.A. Families with kids will want to visit Disneyland, which is conveniently located only 30 miles away. Several places on this list are two-and-a-half to three-hours' drive away but are worth the extra journey: the sophisticated beach town of Santa Barbara, the fashionable wintertime oasis of Palm Springs, the unique California desert of Joshua Tree, and the inspiring nature retreat of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains.

1 Santa Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island
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Santa Catalina Island has been luring visitors since the 1920s, when it was used as a location for Hollywood films. Today, tourists can take the hour-long ferry ride from Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, or Newport Beach to the island's port of Avalon or Two Harbors. The moment after stepping off the ferry, the island's idyllic atmosphere becomes obvious. Slow down to the leisurely pace, soak up the sunshine, admire the ocean waves, and just relax, or take advantage of the island's recreational activities. Hiking, cycling, sailing, sunbathing, and picnicking are all popular activities.

The picturesque town of Avalon is the largest community on Catalina Island. As a top tourist destination, the town has a great selection of hotels, shops, and restaurants. Beach lovers will appreciate Avalon's sandy, palm-fringed beaches. All the beaches have gentle, crystal-clear waters, and most are ideal for swimming. Descanso Beach is a private beach with a beach club, but the admission is only a few dollars, and it's a great place for snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming. Descanso Beach Club offers restrooms, dressing rooms, outdoor showers, lounge chairs, umbrellas, and cabana rentals, as well a restaurant with outdoor seating. South Beach has lifeguards on duty during summer and is within walking distance of restaurants and shops. Another pleasant seaside town is Two Harbors, named for the ports that are separated by a strip of land. On both sides of the Two Harbors pier are unspoiled sandy beaches with swaying palm trees. One of the beaches has a sand volleyball court. Nearby are places for snorkeling, kayaking, and paddleboarding.

2 Disneyland

Disneyland
Disneyland
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Most families with kids will already have Disneyland on their list of places to go. Often it's a destination in itself, however Disneyland is an easy day trip from Los Angeles, less than 30 miles away. This world-famous amusement park is a "Magical Kingdom" that delights children of all ages. Little kids love the charming rides like the oversized Caterpillar cars of Alice in Wonderland; the big-eared planes of Dumbo the Flying Elephant; the Mad Tea Party, with its giant spinning teacups; and the musical boat ride of It's a Small World. Older kids enjoy exciting attractions like the Matterhorn's bobsleds that careen through a scene of the Swiss Alps, the drama of Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Indiana Jones Adventure that features thrilling rides, a cliffhanging journey, and a "cursed" temple. Parents will appreciate that Disneyland also has good restaurants and shops.

3 Santa Barbara

Stearn's Wharf, Santa Barbara
Stearn's Wharf, Santa Barbara
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Known as the "American Riviera," this balmy beach town, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, is a popular getaway destination for Hollywood movie stars. However, almost everyone would agree that Santa Barbara is a lovely place to visit. Handsome, historic Spanish-style buildings; towering palm trees; and miles of sandy shores beckon visitors to take a leisurely sightseeing stroll or just sit back and soak up the sun. The top tourist attraction is Mission Santa Barbara, one of the most well-preserved of the mission churches. This beautiful 19th-century landmark is surrounded by a lush 12-acre garden, the Huerta Historic Garden, which may be viewed on a docent-led tour. An interesting fact is that the garden's olive, citrus, peach, pomegranate, and peach trees were planted from cuttings of plant remnants found at original mission sites. While discovering the town's impressive architecture, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, which combines architectural styles including Spanish, Moorish, Islamic, Romanesque, and Byzantine elements. Other sightseeing highlights are the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the botanic garden, and the 30-acre Zoo.

4 Palm Springs

Palm Springs
Palm Springs
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Synonymous with Old Hollywood glamour, Palm Springs became a legendary winter resort in the 1930s, when movie stars like Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich came here to relax in style. Many people still flock to this fashionable desert oasis ( 107 miles from Los Angeles) during wintertime to bask in the sunshine and take part in recreational activities such as swimming, tennis, and golf. Palm Springs' dry desert climate is ideal from January until April, but can be unbearably hot during the summer. For those who want to explore the desert landscape, the best place to go is Palm Canyon, six miles from downtown Palm Springs. This rugged canyon has a small oasis with a creek and waterfalls. A variety of wilderness trails range from easy walks to longer hikes. Another magnificent nature site is Mount San Jacinto, a 10,000-foot, snow-dusted mountain that can be ascended by an aerial tram. From the 8,500-foot drop-off point, the views of the desert floor are spectacular. To balance the outdoorsy activities with cultural attractions, visit the Palm Springs Art Museum that displays interesting modern art as well as Native American art.

5 Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
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Joshua Tree National Park was named after the distinctive yucca trees that are found here in abundance. The Joshua Tree, known scientifically as "yucca brevifolia," is a member of the agave family and only grows in the Mojave Desert, an extreme ecosystem that includes Death Valley. Native Americans appreciated the tree for its practical uses: the fibrous leaves were woven into baskets, and the edible flower buds and seeds were a nutritious addition to the diet. In the 19th-century, Mormon pioneers named the tree after Joshua, the biblical figure, because they thought the twisted spiky branches resembled outstretched arms leading them to the Promised Land.

Since the park is 131 miles from Los Angeles (about a two-hour and 45-minute drive away), those visiting Joshua Tree National Park just for the day will want to try one of the shorter hikes or walks. The 49 Palms Oasis trail is a moderately strenuous three-mile roundtrip hike that features strands of fan palm trees and refreshing pools of water. For a short and easy walk, take the one-mile (two-miles round-trip) Cottonwood Spring trail that leads past an oasis to dry falls, which rush with water during wet years. Bighorn sheep often visit the freshwater springs, and the birdlife also draws birdwatchers throughout the year. The Hidden Valley trail is another moderate nature walk that would appeal to day trippers. The one-mile (round-trip) loop travels through a valley enclosed by rocks and includes a picnic area.

6 Laguna Beach: A Quintessential So-Cal Town

Laguna Beach: A Quintessential So-Cal Town
Laguna Beach: A Quintessential So-Cal Town
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About 55 miles south of Los Angeles, this quintessential Southern California beach town has a dreamy, carefree ambience. The sunny town is blessed with a mild climate year-round, an average of 281 days of sunshine, and seven miles of sandy shoreline. Sunbathers and nature enthusiasts come for the spectacular scenery, and surfers come for the great waves. During spring and summer, tourists can take a whale-watching and dolphin cruise and get incredibly close to these amazing marine mammals.

More than just a place to sunbathe and surf, Laguna Beach also has lavish gardens, wonderful hiking trails in the rolling hills, as well as art galleries and cultural events. The JoAnne Artman Gallery (326 North Coast Hwy) displays a collection of award-winning art that has been in museums or private collections. The Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Drive) focuses on California art and hosts Laguna Beach Live! that entertains visitors with classical, jazz, and world music performances on the second Thursday of every month. Another lively event is Jazz Wednesdays at the Ranch at Laguna Beach in August. The Festival of Arts takes place the last two weeks in August and features artwork by more than 100 local artists from Orange County.

7 Malibu's Beautiful Beaches

Malibu's Beautiful Beaches
Malibu's Beautiful Beaches
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This famous beach town, about 33 miles from Los Angeles, is known for its gorgeous 21-mile coastline and celebrity residents. Many Hollywood movie stars have opulent oceanfront homes, and the paparazzi are known to lurk around the beaches in hopes of spotting stars. Although the affluent town is known for its glamour and exclusivity, anyone can enjoy the natural beauty of Malibu. Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area with dramatic coastal bluffs, Malibu has several excellent public beaches. The beaches have strong waves ideal for surfing but not for swimming. The Malibu Lagoon State Beach is known as one of the best surfing beaches; it's also a stunning nature site that has picnic tables and a saltwater marsh with amazing birdlife. Zuma Beach is a wonderful public beach, with a wide shoreline of fine white sand. El Matador Beach is another beautiful sandy beach but also has interesting sea caves.

8 Oxnard

Oxnard
Oxnard
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Oxnard is a lovely waterfront city with plenty of recreation and entertainment to draw in visitors. It's worth taking the 60-mile drive from Los Angeles to enjoy the town's relaxing atmosphere, fresh air, and outdoor activities. Tennis, hiking, cycling, and golf are popular. Oxnard has miles of pristine white-sand beaches, ideal for sunbathing, swimming, surfing, sailing, and kayaking. Sunsets at the beach are incomparable, with the glimmering Pacific Ocean waves and the glowing afternoon light reflected on the Channel Islands in the distance. In addition to the natural attractions, Oxnard is known for its excellent restaurants, shopping, community performances, and concerts. Spring and summer are packed with a schedule of outdoor events and festivals. Oxnard's enticing California Strawberry Festival is in May, and the energetic Salsa Festival is in July. In January, the International Restaurant Week showcases the city's superb selection of international restaurants.

9 Big Bear Lake: Hiking, Water Sports, and Relaxation

Big Bear Lake: Hiking, Water Sports, and Relaxation
Big Bear Lake: Hiking, Water Sports, and Relaxation
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At Big Bear Lake, visitors can escape to a stunning nature site 97 miles from Los Angeles. Big Bear Lake offers fresh mountain air and invigorating alpine scenery. Surrounded by pine forests, the lake has sparkling crystal-clear waters that are ideal for fishing. The lake is also popular for summertime recreation, especially swimming, jet skiing, canoeing, and kayaking. Other favorite activities in the area are hiking, horseback riding, and golfing. Many visitors enjoy having picnics and BBQs on warm days. For a more luxurious meal, try one of the mountainside or lakefront restaurants with splendid views. During winter, Big Bear Lake is a great place for cross-country skiing.

10 Balboa Island

Balboa Island
Balboa Island
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Balboa Island is a tiny island within Beacon Bay of Newport Beach, about 45 miles from Los Angeles. Visitors may arrive by ferry, which drops off near a colorful Ferris wheel. With its sunny vacation ambience, this quaint seaside town invites relaxation. Take a leisurely stroll down Marine Avenue, a pleasant street lined with enticing restaurants and shops. Learn how to sail, jet-ski, or paddleboard, or just spend time at the marina watching others participate in water sports. The town also has a sandy, palm-fringed beach with gentle waves. During wintertime, whale-watching is a popular activity. Another attractive beach town, Corona del Mar, is just two miles away from Balboa Island.

11 San Gabriel Mountains National Monument/Angeles National Forest

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument/Angeles National Forest
San Gabriel Mountains National Monument/Angeles National Forest
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Travelers can escape from the Los Angeles metropolitan area by taking a 50-mile drive to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument/Angeles National Forest, a pristine and peaceful wilderness environment. During the summer and fall season, advanced hikers can take on the challenge of ascending Mount San Antonio, affectionately known as "Mount Baldy" because of its barren landscape. During winter and spring, the mountain is usually covered in snow, and mountaineers approach it with ice boots, crampons, and ice axes. The 10,000-foot peak is the highest in the San Gabriel Mountain Range as well as the highest point in Los Angeles County.

Looking for a less extreme adventure? The area has many easy and moderate hikes as well as campgrounds, picnic sites, and swimming areas. A variety of hiking trails wind through the forest, and some trails accommodate mountain bikers and horseback riders. Hiking Tip: Watch out for "Poodle-Dog Bush," a shrub with bell-shaped lavender flowers that can cause skin irritation and blisters similar to a reaction from poison ivy.

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