Moon Southern California Road Trips
Drives along the Beaches, Mountains, and Deserts with the Best Stops along the Way
By Ian Anderson
Contributions by Jenna Blough
Contributions by Jessica Dunham
Contributions by Tim Hull
Formats and Prices
- ebook (Revised) $15.99 $20.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback (Revised) $21.99 $27.99 CAD
Also available from:
- Pick Your Road Trip: Find flexible getaways throughout SoCal like three-day routes up the coast, through Death Valley, Ojai, and more, or combine them for an epic two-week driving tour
- Eat, Sleep, Stop and Explore: With lists of the best beaches, hikes, wineries, and more, you can tour backlots in Los Angeles, feel like a kid again at Disneyland, and feast on tacos and craft beer in San Diego. Climb Joshua Tree's rock formations to stunning views, ski and surf in the same day, and get a taste of the laidback lifestyle in Santa Barbara and Palm Springs
- Maps and Driving Tools: Easy-to-use maps keep you oriented on and off the highway, along with site-to-site mileage, driving times, detailed directions, and full-color photos throughout
- Local Expertise: San Diego native, brew enthusiast, and avid surfer Ian Anderson shares his tips on where to stop and what to see
- How to Plan Your Trip: Know when and where to get gas and how to avoid traffic, plus tips for driving in different road conditions and suggestions for LGBTQ travelers, seniors, travelers of color, and road-trippers with kids
- Coverage of Los Angeles, Disneyland, beaches from Malibu to La Jolla, San Diego, Anza Borrego State Park, Palm Springs & Joshua Tree, Route 66, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Hearst Castle, plus Las Vegas
Spending more time in the city? Check out Moon 52 Things to Do in Los Angeles. Want to extend your adventure? Check out Moon Northern California Road Trips.
Discover Southern California
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
DAY TRIPS AND GETAWAYS AT A GLANCE
SOCAL’S BEST ROAD TRIPS
Southern California is living the dream. Its urban and natural scenery has inspired generations of filmmakers whose indelible images are familiar to us all.
Romantic cityscapes include the bright lights and glamour of the Sunset Strip. On the coast, sparkling sands border endless blue horizons that set the stage for the region’s iconic beach and surf culture. Inland, the stark contrasts of desert landscapes hold natural wonders protected within national and state parks.
With a sturdy vehicle and a full tank of gas, you can see it all. Southern California gave birth to the modern freeway, and roads crisscross the region in every direction, connecting beaches to mountains and cities to the desert. From Mediterranean-inspired Santa Barbara to upscale Malibu and the left coast bastions of Santa Monica and Venice, the coastline stretches hundreds of miles past stunning beach towns where sunglasses, sun block, and flip flops represent a cherished way of life. And somewhere up there sits a bona fide castle . . .
Within a day’s drive of the coast, remote deserts beckon travelers to discover colorful wildflowers in the Anza-Borrego Desert, jumbled rocks in Joshua Tree, and a cracked asphalt that splits the badlands of Death Valley. Not to be outdone are ski resorts nestled within the mountains between these landscapes. You could start your day in the surf, ski down a mountain in the afternoon, and camp under desert skies at night.
Connecting it all are urban adventures ripe for exploration. The cosmopolitan nightlife and international museums of Los Angeles sit balanced against the thrilling rides of Disneyland. San Diego offers the perfect blend of beach and urban culture, while Palm Springs prefers its culture poolside, cocktail in hand.
A month of driving isn’t enough to uncover all of these treasures, but we’ve all got to start somewhere. Whether lounging in the sand, hiking through desert canyons, or watching world-class entertainment, follow your dreams on this stellar road trip.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Hit the Beach: For the prototypical SoCal experience, head for the surf and sun in beach towns stretching from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
2 Peek Behind the Silver Screen: Hollywood offers a real-life backdrop to a century’s worth of films.
3 Experience Art: Urban museums such as The Getty Center, found-art collections like the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, and far-out desert installations around the Salton Sea offer a broad range of beauty, from modern masterpieces to outsider art.
4 Admire Wildflowers: In spring, colorful wildflowers carpet the desert floors.
5 Thrill the Family: Iconic theme parks, world-famous zoos, and historic ships invite play at any age.
6 Cruise Death Valley: The lowest point in North America is a high point for any road trip, with spectacular vistas mile after mile.
7 Marvel at Hearst Castle: Built to impress, this Spanish Revival palace is filled with art treasures, but it’s the coastal view that’s priceless.
8 Ski the Slopes: The ski resort town of Big Bear is within a three-hour drive of LA’s coastal beaches, meaning you can surf and ski in the same day.
9 See Starry Skies: The Anza-Borrego Desert and Death Valley are both International Dark Sky Parks where nighttime skies reveal hidden nebulae and the Milky Way.
10 Road-Trip Along Route 66: Get your kicks cruising the remaining stretches of the historic Mother Road, where Googie architecture, old-school diners, and roadside attractions beckon shutter bugs.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Where to Go
Los Angeles has captured the world’s imagination on film, and most visitors come in search of the people and places they’ve seen in movies and on TV, including Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and the Sunset Strip. More than stars on sidewalks, the City of Angels also has world-class museums, performance spaces, and culturally diverse dining.
Of course, the biggest draw (especially for parents) is iconic Disneyland. The entertainment complex promises to become even more popular with the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction.
Southern California Beaches
Southern California’s greatest asset is its coastline. With 150 miles (242 km) of surf and sand, you could spend days driving the Pacific Coast Highway from beach town to beach town, creating your own endless summer. Gorgeous Malibu delivers miles of remote beaches, flanked by the pretty Santa Monica Mountains. A few miles south, Santa Monica lives up to the Hollywood image of the classic beach town. Less pretty and gritty Venice Beach offers unparalleled people-watching farther south.
As CA-1 stretches south, the South Bay beach towns offer incentives to navigate the coast in lieu of the inland freeways. Past the port city of Long Beach, the idyllic beaches of Orange County include the surf city of Huntington Beach, the bay town of Newport Beach, and the tony resort Laguna Beach. CA-1 continues south to connect to I-5 toward San Diego, which has its own beautiful set of suburban beach towns including Carlsbad (home of Legoland), Encinitas, and La Jolla.
Southern California is loaded with beach towns, but San Diego is a bona-fide beach city, known for its sunshine, craft beer, and Mexican cuisine. The city’s top attractions are the cultural hub of Balboa Park and the famous Hotel del Coronado, though many come for the animal attractions at SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. Across the border, the vibrant Mexican city of Tijuana provides a memorable day trip—bring your passport!
Anza Borrego, Palm Springs, and Joshua Tree
East of San Diego, the remote Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers warm-weather hikes, excellent stargazing, and the fascinating Galleta Meadows sculpture garden. Anza-Borrego is also convenient as you make your way north past the Salton Sea, reborn as a progressive arts haven.
The preferred desert getaway for Los Angeles elite, Palm Springs is a perpetually cool oasis thanks to its mid-century architecture and leisure lifestyle. North of Palm Springs, the jumbled rocks and spiky trees of Joshua Tree National Park beckon hikers, campers, and climbers to soak up the high-desert wonderland.
This historic highway was driven by the first generations of American road-trippers. Long since replaced by bigger, faster interstates, it feels like a time-capsule to a lost era. An intriguing section of Historic Route 66 runs parallel to I-40 along the southern border of Mojave National Reserve, where old highway stops have become ghost towns.
Partial road closures can require tricky navigation, but you can still reach the ghost town of Amboy. In Barstow, Route 66 veers south to parallel I-15 near the old crossroads of Victorville, where you can detour to Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, a roadside attraction. Route 66 stays with I-15 into San Bernardino, where the final leg jogs west parallel to I-210 to historic Pasadena.
Death Valley and Las Vegas
Arguably Southern California’s most awe-inspiring destination, Death Valley National Park offers gorgeous road-trip scenery, star-filled night skies, and unparalleled serenity. It’s a long drive from anywhere, so the most convenient starting point might be the park’s conceptual opposite: Las Vegas. The gambling capital offers bright lights, tons of people, and endless activity 24 hours a day, including an unparalleled variety of entertainments, such as nightly live music and comedy shows, top-tier restaurants, and clubs.
A slice of the Mediterranean on the California coast, Santa Barbara offers an alluring mix of wine, culture, and beaches. Modern beach life emanates from Stearns Wharf at the end of State Street, the main drag lined with shops. For a glimpse of the lavish estates on the surrounding hillsides, take a tour of the enrapturing botanical garden, Lotusland.
San Luis Obispo and Hearst Castle
U.S. 101 offers a convenient side-trip over the mountains north of Santa Barbara to the charming university town of San Luis Obispo. CA-1 splits northwest past the quaint coastal communities of Morro Bay and Cambria until it reaches San Simeon and the former mansion of William Randolph Hearst. Stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood once spent long weekends admiring the views from Hearst Castle, an architectural marvel high above the coast.
Know Before You Go
When to Go
Southern California enjoys a milder-than-average climate year-round, but coastal, desert, and mountain destinations prove more seasonal, with some months more attractive than others.
September-October offers the best times to combine a trip to both the beaches and the deserts. These months are sometimes referred to as the “locals’ summer,” when the destinations experience weather more typical of summer (average 72°F/22°C). The Pacific Ocean is warmer, but fewer visitors crowd the beaches.
The deserts start to cool down in the fall (average 70°F/21°C) and are too hot to explore in the summer months. Mountain destinations also enjoy pleasant weather in fall, with autumn colors and temperatures in the high 60s (19-21°C).
Traditionally winter is the rainy season in Southern California, though Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego see their share of sunny, 70-degree (21°C) days. However, the ocean becomes frigid November-February, making it tough to swim or surf without a wetsuit. On the plus-side, skiing becomes available in the mountains east of Los Angeles.
Winter is a good time for desert hiking, when cooler daytime temperatures prevail, though nighttime temperatures drop close to freezing.
The best time to visit is March-May. Though it’s more crowded than fall, the weather hits that mid-70s (21°C) sweet spot both inland and on the coast, and the ocean starts to warm. The beaches are mostly sunny, and the deserts don’t experience the extreme conditions prevalent in summer or winter.
The best part about a visit in spring is the chance to see the annual wildflower bloom; it’s the time of year when the golden hillsides turn vibrant with color as wildflowers bloom with life, adding a layer of photogenic beauty.
Summer is the best time to visit the Southern California coast. The crowd levels are high, but the long sunny days offer the best opportunity to experience SoCal’s laid-back culture.
The deserts, including Death Valley and Joshua Tree, are stifling in summer, with average temperatures in the 90s (32-37°C) and exceeding 100°F (38°C). Many tourist services close June-early September.
Along with the dry summer heat comes increased risk of wildfires. From the deserts to the rural coasts, fires impacting forests and grasslands have the potential to force regional evacuations, close highways, and reduce air quality due to smoke. In Southern California, the traditional wildfire season extends May-October, and although this remains the peak time, due to the impacts of climate change, there’s potential for wildfires year-round.
High-season travelers should plan ahead when visiting large cities and big-name attractions. If you have your heart set on visiting Disneyland, purchase tickets online at least two weeks in advance (you’ll save money as well). Reservations are pretty much essential at hotels and campgrounds, especially in and around popular resort towns like Palm Springs. Reserve a rental car ahead of time too.
Some campgrounds are reserved months in advance, particularly in summer around San Diego and Malibu, and on weekends in Joshua Tree National Park. All lodging (including campgrounds) at Death Valley is limited, so reservations are advised for busier times of year, such as spring breaks and winter holidays.
Advance reservations are recommended for top Las Vegas attractions and accommodations during weekends, particularly during high-profile concerts and sporting events.
What to Pack
The first items to pack for a Southern California road trip are sunglasses and a bathing suit. It’s also important to bring (and use!) sunscreen. Casual attire, including sandals and shorts, works for most places unless you have fancy dinner reservations. However, cool fog is possible anywhere along the coast, so bring layered clothing to ward off the chill. Higher elevations may see snow, and lower elevations in the desert can be quite chilly at night. Pack winter attire as your itinerary warrants.
Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas are convenient travel hubs from which to start this trip. Each town has an international airport with car rentals available. Smaller regional airports, including those in Santa Barbara, Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario, and Santa Ana, may also prove convenient.
Though Southern California weather is famously ideal, that doesn’t guarantee safe road conditions every day (just most days).
Wherever there’s coast, there’s a chance of fog. Several beach cities, even sunny San Diego, experience fog so thick that you can’t see more than a car length ahead. When fog obscures driving conditions, keep your headlights on low and drive very slowly.
Watch out for extreme heat in the deserts, where temperatures may exceed 100°F (38°C) in summer—deadly if you’re stranded and unprepared. Pack at least 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of water per person per day when driving in the desert and check your car’s tires and fluid levels before heading out. Monitor use of the car’s air conditioner as well to ensure your vehicle doesn’t overheat.
In winter, snow may fall at higher elevations. The Cajon Pass on I-15 sometimes closes due to snow, as do roads heading into the mountains around Big Bear and Mount San Jacinto.
Expect traffic delays at major cities along the route; this is especially true of Los Angeles and San Diego, where the afternoon rush hour begins in the mid-afternoon and extends into late evening.
Traffic on I-15 north to Las Vegas can be bad on a Friday night, but the worst traffic is heading west back to LA or San Diego along the same route. Avoid making the return trip on Sunday night or the Monday of a holiday weekend.
To receive reports on traffic and road conditions, call 511 (toll-free 800/977-6368). Additional resources include the California Department of Transportation (www.quickmap.dot.ca.gov).
Finding a gas station isn’t hard in most cities and urban areas; however, there are desert segments of this trip where you won’t see a gas station for 50 miles (81 km). And, when you do, the price per gallon can be astronomical. Plan what time you expect to arrive at each destination and determine whether there is a gas station available en route. Keep a full gas tank when you hit the road and don’t let it drop below a quarter tank without knowing where the next station is.
SOCAL’S BEST ROAD TRIPS
Check your tire pressure, change your oil, and fill up the tank. These world-class road trips will take you through miles of captivating scenery. Depending on how much time you have, plan four- to seven-day region-specific trips, or combine them for a full two weeks, which allows time for a side trip, either heading north to the central coast or farther east into the desert. Many Southern California road trips begin in Los Angeles, but San Diego and Las Vegas are also convenient travel hubs.
For driving directions all along the way, see the Getting There sections in later chapters. All mileage and driving times are approximate and will vary depending on weather, traffic, and road conditions.
Day 1: Los Angeles
Fly into LAX and rent a car. Take the classic LA drive up Sunset Boulevard into Hollywood.
- On Sale
- Jun 27, 2023
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Moon Travel