As geographically spoiled Southern Californians we have the sweet luxury of being surrounded by the various beauty our state has to offer on all sides and in close proximity. Drive west on a warm day and you can bask in the sun and salt air on the sandy shores of a beach after taking a dip in the cool Pacific Ocean. Head east to experience the vastness and calm mystery of the Mojave. Go north toward those mountains eternally in our line of vision in the winter and you can go sledding (because there will be snow, whaaaaat?!) or enjoy a steaming cup of cocoa by the fireplace in a log cabin. Pair these destinations with the fact that there is everything to love about road trips—good company, speeding down highways, blasting music, and scarfing down delicious fast food—and you can’t go wrong. Most of us can’t easily gather the time or money to take that dream vacay to Santorini, so until then, don’t sleep on the majesty of this wondrous state and satisfy your wanderlust with these inexpensive trips less than a gas tank away from our home base of Long Beach.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Dear outdoorsy people, this one's for you. With plenty of campgrounds to choose from, Joshua Tree is the perfect location to spend a night or two. Nothing but boulders and cacti and desert, the city is not much of a park and it certainly does not fit the traditional view of camping that involves hiking through a forest or occasionally getting dirt on your face. I would argue, though, that the otherworldliness of Joshua Tree, with its massive geological formations that stretch high toward the sky, is better. Pack a tent, or don’t—on summer nights especially, it is not uncommon to see campers ditching the tent and snoozing in blankets in their open cars or in sleeping bags under the millions of visible stars we’re unable to see in the smog-filled city. If you can, plan to stay on a night that there will be a meteor shower (a schedule of the year’s annual meteor showers can be found through a quick Google search) because on a clear night, you can’t do much better than Joshua Tree when it comes to one. Waking up to the clean air and beauty of the desert the next morning isn’t a bad feeling, either.
Located in San Diego, this affluent seaside community makes for a great place for a daycation. Make sure to head out early to enjoy the full day. Take in the breathtaking scenery of the coastline and check out the renovated Museum of Contemporary Art overlooking the Pacific, $10 for admission. Add to a blissful day out by visiting one of the many eateries in the area. Though wealthy, the locality has something for every budget. If you’re feelin' like dropping some cash and getting in some (enjoyable) exercise, La Jolla is the best place in California for water activities. Get together with friends or family to go kayaking through the La Jolla sea caves reminiscent of Cancun or go snorkeling in the fresh blue waters.
Dubbed the American Riviera, the town of Santa Barbara is the epitome of California’s laid-back vibe. The Mediterranean climate and signature architecture of red-tiled roofs against whitewashed buildings combined with the numerous beaches and the quirkiness of downtown forms something out of a dream. While there, don’t be afraid to be a tourist and visit the city’s most famous attraction not too far from downtown, the historically rich Santa Barbara Mission founded by the Fransiscan order in 1820 and complete with a gorgeous rose garden. Participate in the relaxing nightlife of the city by grabbing a drink at one (or two or three or four) of the bars.
Literally a breath of fresh air, Big Bear is the ideal getaway from city life. Most of us Southern Californians have been there at one point or another, but it’s such a different environment than the one we are accustomed to that it never gets old. Head up to the mountains for a perfect white Christmas or winter holiday with your loved ones. Wear foreign particles of clothing like mittens and ear muffs. Go ice skating or hit the slopes on a snowboard. Make snowmen and snow angels (both of which are activities that are harder than they seem, by the way). If cold winters don’t sound appealing to you and you’d rather continue going to the beach in December, Big Bear is also a beautiful place to visit in the summer or spring. The greens and blues of the trees and lakes are stunning. Book a zip lining tour at an affordable price, go hiking through the scenery, or simply take a stroll through the small town—“small town” being something you will truly understand the meaning of while visiting the area, but hey, we could use that from time to time.
Contrary to popular belief, Palm Springs is not just for old, rich white people in golf carts. If you know what to do, Palm Springs is your desert paradise. Stop by Villagefest—an old school street fair consisting of musicians, food, art, and a farmer’s market—on a Thursday night from 7-10 P.M. Participate in Palm Springs’ Craft Beer Weekend or go to a DJ show and dance to good beats by a pool. Feelin' fancy? Wanna treat yoself after a hard week of work? Book a stay at the very chic Ace Hotel & Swim Club equipped with Moroccan robes and a Feel-Good spa. Lounge around and mellow out at the small pool or turn up at the party pool. The location of the hotel also allows for the perfect opportunity to borrow a bike and explore the vintage aesthetic of the area. The best part about all of this is that the Ace Hotel has been described as surprisingly affordable by people who have visited and expected to spend more for the luxurious atmosphere. It’s the kind of place you would expect to have three dollar signs on Yelp—it has two! Big win.
Known as one of the last free places on earth, Slab City near Niland is an interesting piece of our world and definitely worth stopping by while in the desert. Named for the concrete slabs (the last of what is left of of a military base that operated in World War II) spread out on the ground, the squatters’ camp is located in the badlands of the state’s poorest county. Residents live here free of things like electricity and running water—oh, and government regulation. One of Slab City’s former permanent residents, Leonard Knight, built the recognized art installation that is Salvation Mountain. No matter your religious beliefs, the structure made of adobe, straw, and endless gallons of paint is a moving and special tribute. Unfortunately, Leonard used to greet visitors himself, but passed away in 2014 after being hospitalized for dementia in 2011. The psychedelic camp is no Palm Springs resort or gorgeous California beach, but it is without a doubt just as road trip worthy.