City Nomads for The Travel Insider
For a taste of endless sunshine and salty sea breeze, look to California's sandy beaches and dramatic coastlines for your next holiday. We've uncovered seven easy day trips from Cali's most iconic cities where you can rub shoulders with the rich and famous in Palm Springs, whale watch by Monterey Bay, or bask in nature at Yosemite National Park.
1. Laguna Beach
Image Credit: Dennis Harper on flickr
The small coastal city of Laguna Beach is the ideal escape from the (over) glitziness of Los Angeles. Pick up surfing on Aliso Beach, or uncover the hidden ecosystems in Heisler Park's tide pools. If you've got time, take a ferry to the nearby island of Santa Catalina, whose crystal clear waters serve as the perfect place for snorkeling, scuba diving, or even exploring shipwrecks in glass-bottomed boats.
Getting here: Laguna Beach is a 1 hour drive from LAX via the I-5 S. Shuttle services from within Los Angeles charge about US$50 for one way transport.
2. Palm Springs
Image Credit: Eric Cooper on flickr
Since it's elevation to resort destination status in the 20th century, Palm Springs has become synonymous to modernist art and known for its iconic palm-lined roads. Take a drive through the arid landscape of mid-century vacation modern homes, or plan a trip during Coachella weekends to get in the thick of festival vibes. You can also (window) shop the galleries and antique shops that dot Palm Canyon Drive, where plenty of high-brow showrooms reside. History buffs and avid architects alike will enjoy a visit to the gardens of the Sunnylands summit space, formerly a 200-acre vacation vista in an irrigated plot within Rancho Mirage.
Getting here: Palm Springs is about a 1 hour 45 minute drive from LAX via the I-10 E.
3. Joshua Tree National Park
Image Credit: Esther Lee on flickr
The Yucca brevifolia, or Joshua Tree, is an enduring symbol of the Mojave Desert. Joshua Tree National Park straddles two distinct ecosystems - the Mojave and Sonoran - and you'll be hard-pressed not to spend a full day (and night) in this culturally sacred place covered in unique flora and landscapes. It's an amazing place to photograph, and there're dozens of trails for hiking, biking, and even horseback riding - but those that prefer more vertical means of travel can attempt rock-climbing the stony terrain. As dusk falls, the unpolluted desert sky reveals star-speckled views of the night sky.
Getting there: Joshua Tree National Park is about a three-hour drive from San Diego via the I-15 N.
Image Credit: Roberto Sahmkow on flickr
If time allows, grab your passport and hop over to the border to the Mexican city of Tijuana. It's a bustling mecca for shopaholics, with the main street of Avenida Revolución lined with souvenir shops and lively bars, and the tourist street of La Revu housing a good mix of stereotypical tourist finds (sombreros and painted donkeys), quality handicrafts, boutique shops, and silverware. Looking for something more traditional? Mercado Hidalgo is an easily-located central Mexican marketplace with an abundance of fruit, local cheese, and street food.
Getting there: Tijuana is a 30-minute drive from San Diego via the I-5 S.
5. Napa Valley
Image Credit: Aurimas on flickr
Napa Valley's sprawling estates and expansive tasting rooms make it the epitome of wine country in the United States. There are over 400 wineries to explore – like the To Kalon Vineyard that churns out indie cult labels like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate - so apart from the region’s signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, don't shy away from other varietals. Merlot, for example, is making a comeback with it's earthy cherry notes. The best time to visit is harvest season (August through October), but you can expect large crowds and high prices for accommodation.
Getting there: Napa Valley is about a 1 hour 30 minute drive from San Francisco via the I-80 E.
6. Yosemite National Park
Image Credit: Pululante on flickr
Yosemite National Park isn't short on breathtaking experiences - it'll probably take a lifetime to explore it all. But if you have a day to spare, be sure to make it a pitstop on your journey. Pack a picnic lunch and take the scenic route to the park via CA Hwy 140 through Mariposa. Stop by the panoramic Glacier Point that overlooks the valley, rent bicycles at Curry Village, or take a short hike on the Mirror Lake Trail. The list goes on, and it can get extremely crowded in summer, so it's best to visit in spring and fall.
Getting there: The Big Oak Flat park entrance is about three hours from San Francisco via Highway 120.
7. Monterey Bay
Image Credit: Mark Gunn on flickr
Monterey's appeal lies in the many waterfront activities catered to every type of vacationer. Laidback explorers can enjoy whale watching as the world's largest living creatures travel the migratory path through Monterey Bay; there's been sightings of killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, and even humpback whales. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must, especially if you’re a fan of adorable sea otters. Relaxation is more your cup of tea? Soak in the sunset from waterfront spas, whirlpool tubs, and incredible views of the Bay.
Getting there: Monterey Bay is about 2 hours 30 minutes from San Francisco via the Pacific Coast Highway.
For such a large state like California, not doing a road trip means you’re bound to miss out on some of the most wonderful experiences it has to offer. We’ve personally taken some of these trips before within The Golden State, and trust us, there are regrets - #dontlustjustwander.