15 Top-Rated Day Trips from Los Angeles
Within an hours' drive of Los Angeles, beyond the halting traffic, the landscape becomes rugged and refreshing. This area of Southern California has gorgeous beaches and a sunny Mediterranean climate year-round, similar to the French Riviera, giving the impression of an endless summer. In the oceanfront community of Malibu, sunbathers bask on sandy beaches, and surfers ride the impressive waves. Other dreamy places to visit nearby include the quintessential So-Cal town of Laguna Beach, the fun-loving seaside village of Balboa Island, and the picturesque coastal city of Oxnard. For those seeking a quaint and romantic getaway, Santa Catalina Island is the ideal choice. Families with kids will want to visit Disneyland, one of the top attractions in California. 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, fashionable Palm Springs for a desert oasis retreat, California's only castle along the Central Coast, the unique California desert environment of Joshua Tree, and Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains. Plan more adventures from the city with our list of the top day trips from Los Angeles.
1 Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island has been luring visitors since the 1920s, when it was used as a location for Hollywood films. Today, tourists can still appreciate the island's cinematic seaside beauty. The moment visitors set foot on the island, the idyllic atmosphere becomes obvious. With its leisurely pace, sunny weather, and soothing ocean waves, Santa Catalina Island is one of the most romantic places in California. Besides being a delightful day-trip destination, the island is perfect for a weekend getaway, short vacation, or honeymoon centered around relaxation and recreational activities. Hiking, cycling, backpacking, sailing, sunbathing, and picnicking are all popular activities.
The picturesque town of Avalon has the island's largest selection of hotels, shops, and restaurants, along with breathtaking ocean views, palm-fringed beaches, and a botanical garden. All of Avalon's beaches have gentle crystal-clear waters, and most are ideal for swimming. Tucked away in a sheltered cove, Descanso Beach is a private beach with a beach club but allows public access. It's a good spot for snorkeling, kayaking, paddle-boarding, and swimming. Descanso Beach Club has restrooms, dressing rooms, showers, lounge chair and cabana rentals, and an open-air beachside restaurant with outdoor seating. More remote in feel, Two Harbors boasts secluded coves and unspoiled sandy beaches with swaying palm trees. One of the beaches features a sand volleyball court; another has rentals of lounge chairs, kayaks, and sports equipment. Two Harbors draws nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts who come for the wide range of activities. Among the many things to do are boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, kayaking, paddle-boarding, scuba diving, and snorkeling.
Santa Catalina Island is an hour-long ferry ride from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach, or Dana Point to the ports of Avalon or Two Harbors. From Los Angeles, it takes about two hours (a one-hour drive to Long Beach plus a one-hour ferry ride) to arrive at Santa Catalina Island. For a convenient day trip to the island, try an organized tour. The Catalina Island Day Trip offers an enjoyable experience complete with round-trip transportation, pickup from a hotel in Anaheim or Los Angeles, a ferry ride to the island, a guided 50-minute tour of Avalon, and options for outdoor adventures.
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 cliff-hanging journey, and a "cursed" temple. Parents will appreciate that Disneyland also has good restaurants and shops.
3 Santa Barbara
Known as the "American Riviera," this balmy beach town, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, is a favorite getaway destination for Hollywood movie stars. However, almost everyone can appreciate the charm and beauty of Santa Barbara. Handsome historic Spanish-style buildings, towering palm trees, and miles of sandy shores beckon visitors. A top tourist attraction is the Old Mission Santa Barbara, open to the public for self-guided or docent-led tours. Called the "Queen of the Missions," the Santa Barbara Mission has one of the best-preserved of the 21 California mission churches. This beautiful 19th-century landmark is filled with colonial-era artwork and is surrounded by lush 12-acre grounds, including La Huerta Historical 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. Other cultural highlights are the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a magnificent blend of Spanish, Moorish, Islamic, Romanesque, and Byzantine architectural elements; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; and the 30-acre Santa Barbara Zoo. For a little activity, hit one of the local hiking trails.
4 Palm Springs
Palm Springs became a legendary winter resort in the 1930s, when Hollywood movie stars came here to relax in style. Holiday seekers still flock to this desert oasis (107 miles from Los Angeles) to bask in the sunshine and enjoy recreational activities, especially from January until April when the weather is mild. Things to do outdoors include swimming, tennis, golf, nature walks, hiking, and rock climbing. Those who want to explore the desert can try hiking the wilderness trails of Indian Canyons (a few miles outside of downtown Palm Springs), including Palm Canyon, with its lush oasis and dramatic mountain views; Andreas Canyon for birdwatching; and Murray Canyon, with abundant wildlife, a creek, and waterfalls. Another magnificent nature site is Mount San Jacinto, a 10,000-foot, snow-dusted mountain, which can be ascended by an aerial tram. From the 8,500-foot drop-off point, the views of the desert floor are spectacular.
Considering its quiet location, Palm Springs has a surprising number of cultural attractions and events. The Palm Springs Art Museum boasts a superb collection of American, Native American, and Western American art, as well as Mesopotamian artifacts. A must-see attraction for those who appreciate mid-century modern design, the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center is housed in a registered historic landmark. During Modernism Week, visitors can take guided tours of the town's notable mid-century modern buildings. Other events include the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January and the Coachella Music Festival in April.
Palm Springs is also known for its upscale shopping, from fashion boutiques and locally owned craft shops to outlet malls. To enjoy a shopping spree while spending time in Palm Springs, try the Palm Springs and Outlet Shopping Day Trip. This guided sightseeing tour includes a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway above the desert, a visit to the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens (home to wild animals that thrive in the scorching heat), a stroll along El Paseo street for window shopping at fancy retail boutiques, and a stop at the Desert Hills Premium Outlets to find great deals at the designer-brand shops.
5 Joshua Tree National Park
One of the most distinctive of the California desert areas, 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 used the tree's fibrous leaves to make woven baskets, and the edible flower buds and seeds were a nutritious addition to the diet. It was Mormon pioneers in the 19th century who first used the moniker Joshua, because they thought the tree's twisted spiky branches resembled the biblical figure's 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 round-trip 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
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 simply a place to sunbathe and surf, Laguna Beach has splendid gardens, scenic hiking trails in the rolling hills, art galleries, and cultural events. The JoAnne Artman Gallery (326 North Coast Highway) displays a collection of award-winning art from museums or private collections. Focused on California art, the Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Drive) offers free admission every first Thursday of the month as part of the Laguna Beach First Thursdays Art Walk and hosts Live! at the Museum music performances (classical or jazz) on the second Thursday of every month during summertime. Another lively event is Jazz Wednesdays, which presents jazz concerts along with dinner buffets every two weeks from mid-June to early September at the Ranch at Laguna Beach and other venues in Laguna Beach.
7 Malibu's Beautiful Beaches
About 33 miles from Los Angeles' city center, Malibu is known for its fantastic beaches and opulent oceanfront homes. Many Hollywood movie stars reside here, and the paparazzi are known to lurk around the beaches in hopes of spotting celebrities. Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area with its striking coastal bluffs, Malibu has a stunning 27-mile coastline. The dramatic ocean waves are ideal for surfing but not for swimming. Although the affluent town has an air of glamour and exclusivity, all of Malibu's beaches allow public access (up to the "mean high-tide" level) even when bordered by private beachfront property. The public beaches are open from 7am to 10pm every day, while the public-private beaches are open 24 hours a day but are only accessible through access gates or adjacent beaches. Malibu Lagoon State Beach has one of the best surfing beaches; it also has picnic tables and a saltwater marsh with abundant birdlife. Zuma Beach is an excellent public beach with a wide shoreline of fine white sand. El Matador Beach is a sandy beach with sea caves.
8 San Diego
Year-round balmy weather, beautiful beaches, and a wealth of tourist attractions make this sunny Southern California town one of the most beloved places to visit in California. San Diego's Balboa Park delights visitors with its gardens, museums, and ornate Spanish Colonial-style buildings, as well as the San Diego Zoo (home to exotic animals and beloved pandas). Families with kids enjoy visiting SeaWorld, which features killer whale shows, roller coasters, splashy water rides, an aquarium, and close-up experiences with dolphins.
Founded in 1769, San Diego has noteworthy historic areas. The Old Town of San Diego, with its original adobe buildings, is designated a State Historic Park. The Victorian-era edifices of the Gaslamp Quarter have earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places; this trendy area is now brimming with shops, restaurants, art galleries, and hotels. To see all of San Diego's top tourist spots and cultural highlights, try taking a guided tour. The San Diego Day Trip from Los Angeles includes stops in La Jolla, San Diego's Old Town, and Coronado Island, which has one of the best beaches in San Diego.
9 Hearst Castle
Farther away than the other destinations on this list, Hearst Castle is worth the journey because of its unique cultural value and sensational setting. This incredible landmark is perched high on a hilltop at the southern end of Big Sur on California's Central Coast, with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst created California's only castle over a 30-year period (from 1919 to 1947), enlisting architect Julia Morgan, the first woman to graduate from U.C. Berkeley School of Engineering, to design and build a lavish Spanish-style mansion with 165 rooms. The castle's architectural inspiration came from 16th-century churches in Andalusia, while the sumptuous interior is adorned with tapestries, paintings, and other treasures from Europe that Hearst collected to display in the castle. In fact, Hearst Castle is now an art museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, although it is operated by the California State Parks system.
Hearst called his secluded retreat "La Cuesta Encantada" ("Enchanted Hill") because of the sublime surroundings, including 127 acres of lush Mediterranean gardens filled with palm trees, vibrant flowers, fountains, terraces, and decorative pools. Also on the grounds are tennis courts, Moorish-style guest cottages, and the marvelous Neptune Swimming Pool, which features classical elements reminiscent of ancient Greece. The indoor Roman Pool is equally dazzling with its exquisite Venetian-glass tiles crafted in Murano.
The Hearst Castle estate is now the property of the state of California and is open to the public for guided tours. Tickets may be purchased at the Visitor Center, which has casual dining options, a gift shop, and restrooms. Tours include a five-mile shuttle bus ride up into the hills to arrive at the estate property. Some of the tours, such as the Garden Tour, tend to sell out quickly during high season and should be reserved in advance. For those taking a day trip to Hearst Castle from Los Angeles (231 miles away), a convenient option is an organized excursion. One recommendation is the Santa Barbara, Solvang, and Hearst Castle Day Trip from Los Angeles, which includes a drive along the oceanfront Highway One and a visit to Hearst Castle, as well as stops in Santa Barbara and the charming old Danish village of Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley.
10 Huntington Beach
Made famous by the Beach Boys music group in the 1960s, Huntington Beach is known as "Surf City USA" because it's one of the best places to surf in Southern California. The town's beaches still live up to their reputation. Huntington Beach boasts 10 miles of wide, sandy shoreline that encompasses five public beaches. Surfers love the crashing ocean waves, and beach volleyball players appreciate the pillowy sand of Huntington City Beach, where the U.S. Open of Surfing and the AVP Volleyball Tournament are held. A mecca for outdoor sports, Huntington Beach also offers opportunities for paddle-boarding, horseback riding, bicycling, jogging, and nature walks. Birdwatchers will find plenty of terrain to explore at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, home to around 200 species of birds, including cormorants, egrets, hummingbirds, owls, sandpipers, and swallows.
A great way to visit Huntington Beach as a day trip from Los Angeles is by taking an organized excursion. The California Beach Cities Day Trip lets travelers experience the good vibes of California beach culture without the hassle of driving. For a full day of fun in the sun, this guided tour allows guests to relax on a deluxe air-conditioned bus while enjoying the scenery and stops at Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, Long Beach, and Huntington Beach.
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.
12 Big Bear Lake: Hiking, Water Sports, and Relaxation
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 one of the best places to visit for alpine skiing and snowboarding, as well as cross-country skiing. Two of California's top-rated ski areas are found here at Big Bear Mountain Resort: Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, together offering more than 1,000 acres of skiable terrain and 1,800 feet of vertical drop for exhilarating downhill runs.
13 Balboa Island
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.
14 San Gabriel Mountains National Monument/Angeles National Forest
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.
An exciting day trip about a four-hour drive away, Tijuana gives visitors an authentic taste of a foreign country close to the U.S. border. This vibrant Mexican city, known as the "corner of Mexico," has an interesting downtown area with a historic plaza, a typical Spanish bullring, and a modern cathedral. The urban center also boasts noteworthy architectural landmarks including the elegant Neoclassical-style Palacio de Frontón Jai Alai. For a dose of culture, tourists can check out the avant-garde Centro Cultural Tijuana, which hosts art exhibits, conferences, iMax film screenings, music concerts, theater and dance performances, and traditional folk celebrations. The center also has an area designed for children, an aquarium, and a botanical garden. Shopaholics will want to check out the Avenida Revolucion, a bustling street with many retail boutiques. This avenue also has many restaurants where tourists can enjoy the delicious local cuisine.
To get the most out of a day trip to Tijuana, the best idea is to take an organized excursion. The Independent Day Trip to Tijuana simplifies travel arrangements from Los Angeles (about 230 kilometers away) with complimentary hotel pickup and a 10-hour guided tour on an air-conditioned coach. This tour includes stops at Tijuana's downtown, with plenty of time for sightseeing, shopping, and sampling spicy tacos.