Discover the best weekend trips from Los Angeles (quick getaways from LA)

The star-studded streets and glittering Hollywood hills may be hard to pull your eyes away from, but, get on the open road far from celebsville, and you’ll, fortunately, find that California has more range than your average LA starlet. While the Californian coast and the Big Sur towards the north hold their own vacation-making intrigue, quick getaways from Los Angeles can put you in touch with the tranquil ski regions of Big Bear, the Hispanic influenced county of Ventura and the exotic poolside retreat of Palm Springs. Whatever it is you’re after, LA serves as the swanky base to do it all and be back in time for a show. So what are you waiting for, darling?

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Los Angeles | Photo: Veeterzy

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More than just your average beach town, Laguna Beach flaunts both wealth and artistic vibrancy alongside a seemingly endless stretch of sun-soaked Cali coast

1. Laguna Beach

A sandy babe within an hour’s drive of central LA, Laguna Beach is one of the easiest and best weekend trips from LA without anyone needing to lower their standards. More than just your average beach town, Laguna Beach flaunts both wealth and artistic vibrancy alongside a seemingly endless stretch of sun-soaked Cali coast. Appreciate the view behind lithe joggers on the manicured promenade, moving from secret cove to chic café to art gallery with ease. One of California’s oldest artists’ enclaves, Laguna Beach breathes creative energy all while providing the style and sophistication LA is known for. Stay at a 5-star spa resort hidden away above the canyons or try something more down-to-earth with a beachside B&B.

Languid days on Main Beach are recommended, kayaking or surfing with dolphins if sunbathing doesn’t cut it, but, if you need a break from all that sunshine, try stopping by the Laguna Playhouse or Laguna Art Museum. Art lovers should also consider aligning their visit with the Pageant of the Masters or the Festival of the Arts in July for a dreamscape of works and staged performance dedicated to the arts. Want more? Discover our list of the many things to do in Laguna beach…

Laguna Beach | Photo: Shad Meeg

2. Ventura

Not too much further towards the north from Laguna is the mini beach city of Ventura, providing equally beautiful coastal views and the added bonus of fewer crowds and more heritage. Priding itself on its old-school design, downtown Ventura showcases 1920s architecture with remnants of the city’s Camino Real Spanish history showcased by the Mission Santa Buenaventura and church built in 1809 on Main Street. Much of the best entertainment can also be found downtown, with various LGBTQ-inclusive businesses welcoming everyone as equals. Come during Ventura County Pride to see the city at its gayest, on a weekend packed with community events and festive activities highlighting social issues for LGBTQ+ minorities. Outside of pride, spend your days strolling the bustling harbourside and the rustic wooden boardwalk beyond the beaches, or use Ventura as a base for further exploration of the region’s many national parks and forest, including the uninhabited Channel Islands National Park, easily reachable by boat.

Photo: Janosch Diggelmann

Ventura County | Photo: Steven Pahel

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A town of Spanish heritage and Mexican spice, Ojai is easily one of the best day trips from LA, boasting a diverse mix of hippies, artists and New Age hipsters who create a perfectly laid-back (and supposedly magic) atmosphere

3. Ojai

A town of Spanish heritage and Mexican spice, Ojai is easily one of the best day trips from LA, boasting a diverse mix of hippies, artists and New Age hipsters who create a perfectly laid-back (and supposedly magic) atmosphere. Based at the foot of the Topatopa Mountains in Ventura County, around 1.5 hours northwest of LA, Ojai is a countryside town with an edge. Cooled by the hills surrounding, Ojai has the optimum climate for growing olives, grapes and more. As well as allowing for not-so-sweaty summer breaks, eating in Ojai is always a pleasure thanks to the town’s focus on farm-to-table dining. Try the local wine in any of the tasting rooms that line the downtown strip, or drive out to taste the grapes on site, in view of some of California’s peachiest sunsets.

More of the top things to do outside of town include hiking, biking and fishing within Los Padres National Park, a site marked with almost 2,000 kilometres of trails across 875,000 acres of desert, redwood forest and coastline. One of the best day routes through Ojai is to walk the Sespe Creek Trail, resting up at Bear Creek Campground before finishing in Willett Hot Springs (14 kilometres) or Sespe Hot Springs (a further 10 kilometres).

Ojai | Photo: Smitty West

Photo: Cottonbro

4. Catalina Island

Approach by ferry from the nearby beaches of Dana Point, Long Beach or San Pedro, to arrive at the idyllic island resort of Catalina Island, all within two hours of Los Angeles. Some visitors come here seeking adventure and others for culture, yet neither group leave disappointed. On one side of the island, find the village of Avalon, perfect for easy strolls through its historic village and along the boardwalk, enjoying an ice-cream on the beach or rather more upscale fare at one of Avalon’s fancy beach clubs. Besides popular Jeep and helicopter tours of the area, other key attractions include zip-lining, diving and sea kayaking amongst otters and even whales.

To remove yourself from the mainstream, Catalina can also satisfy thanks to its vast nature reserves that span eighty percent of the island’s mountains, beaches and undeveloped areas. With so much wild space, Catalina is a great place to get close to California’s best wildlife, including bald eagles, foxes and bison, particularly if camping or backpacking in the less-populated western area around Two Harbors, a village with a tiny population of around 300 (in contrast to the 3,775 in Avalon). To get around, opt for a golf buggy in Avalon, kayaking, biking and hiking your way out of town (or otherwise take another ferry to Two Harbors)!

Catalina Island | Photo: Amy Vosters

Photo: Reead

5. Big Bear

Another contender for the best weekend getaway from Los Angeles is the mountain resort of Big Bear, high up on the San Bernardino mountains around two hours inland east from LA. Most well-known for its fantastic skiing and snowboarding in winter, Big Bear is also a prominent hiking destination in summer, when the ski lifts still operate for easy access to the best mountain vistas and loftiest trails. There are hundreds of kilometres of biking, horse-riding and walking trails to choose from, varying in difficulty and passing through cross-country pine forest, some even winding up at the beautiful Big Bear Lake where visitors can fish and sail to their heart’s content. A much more affordable ski resort than the likes of Tahoe or Mammoth, Big Bear wins out for its Moonridge Ski Area based around the native heritage site of Yuhaviat, meaning Pine Place, since becoming a gold mining town in the 18th century and now standing as a popular destination for outdoorsy types the year through.

Big Bear | Photo: Yunxi Shi

6. Palm Springs

Perhaps the gayest city in CA, with upwards of 40% of the resident population identifying as LGBT+ and being governed by a totally queer city council, Palm Springs is the ultimate gay pilgrimage destination. The most popular and arguably best weekend getaway from Los Angeles, Palm Springs and the 160-kilometre route here is paved in golden sand, epic canyons and glittering golf course resorts. On arrival in Coachella Valley, note the modernist architecture and design on palm-lined strips made for shopping, though sun and spending is not all there is, as the Palm Springs Art Museum and its artsy residents soon make clear.

Whether you’re single or taken, Palm Spring’s all-inclusive hotels and bubbling bar scene will have you socialising both day and night at any number of pool parties. Its world-famous gay events last throughout the year, though particular highlights include September’s Dinah Shore Weekend and April’s White Party. Other worthwhile festivals turning the city abuzz with cultural life include February’s Modernism Week, which celebrates all aspects of design with events, parties, tours and movie screenings. While other cities such as La Quinta, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert compete for the title of best base in Coachella Valley, Palm Springs is a winning destination in its own right. Explore the city in its entirety on a Palm Springs Society walking tour, or try the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for vistas over the region (and upscale café and restaurant) alongside 80 kilometres of hiking trails through mountainous pine forests. Discover the best bits of the city with our guide to Palm Springs.

Photo: Megan Markham

Palm Springs

Palm Springs | Photo: Aran Mtnez

7. Idyllwild

Giving off a very different vibe than the luxurious Palm Springs is the offbeat mountain town of Idyllwild tucked away on the San Jacinto Mountains two and a half hours from Los Angeles. In Idyllwild, natural charm is everything, outlined by scenery as spectacular as Yosemite, yet with no bigheadedness in sight. Come here to relax in view of pine forest and rugged mountain landscapes, getting to know the kooky downtown area, with its predominance of independent eateries and stores, while befriending good-humoured locals and the town’s recently elected mayor; Max the Golden Retriever. Based over a kilometre up in the San Bernardino National Forest, Idyllwild changes dramatically with the seasons, there’s snow in winter, lilac blossoms in spring and crisp mountain air in fall, with summer ultimately being the warmest and most popular time to hike the surrounding wilderness. If that’s what you’d like, try the 30 different trails within Mount San Jacinto State Park, starting at the trailheads beside Idyllwild Nature Centre if in doubt.

The Idyllwild Regional Park is another good place to roll out a blanket on 200 acres of parkland towards the edge of town, an area boasting hiking, biking and rock climbing opportunities. For smoother terrain, Lake Fulmor offers a number of beautiful and flatter walks, in the company of tree frogs, butterflies, squirrels and jays. Try your hand at trout fishing here before moving out into the nearby vineyard for wine tasting in the region. Other activities include petting the happy dogs and cats of Living Free Animal Sanctuary or taking a class on anything from contemporary dance to basket weaving with the Idyllwild Arts Academy.

Photo: Kitera Dent

Idyllwild | Photo: Devin Mcgloin

8. Santa Barbara

Last but by no means last in our rundown of the best road trips from Los Angeles, is Santa Barbara, a historic seaside city just over two hours north of LA by car. Brimming with old-world wealth and Spanish Colonial streets, Santa Barbara is best for a slow weekend of high-end dining, window-shopping and wine drinking in view of the blue Pacific and Barbara’s beautiful bay area. An old haunt of the Hollywood elite, Santa Barbara has an air of affluence to it, particularly in area known as ‘the Riviera’ for its celebrity dwellings along the coast. Nearby Montecito is also a contender for elite residences, homing the likes of Oprah, Rob Lowe and Drew Barrymore on their summer holidays.

Those looking for the everyman attractions meanwhile can head straight to the main drag on State Street, where the boutiques and bars still lean outwardly towards the fancy side of things (though the dive bars are certainly about if you look hard enough!). Spend the morning at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for a spot of culture downtown before settling at one of the trendy wine tasting rooms in the Funk Zone, a former warehouse district now bustling with top restaurants, art galleries and performance spaces. After a while in LA, the gay nightlife in Santa Barbara can seem a tad lacking, though the unofficial gay beach of Padaro, hidden away from the centre (and accessible via a short hike from Padaro Lane parking lot) can fulfil any need for fun gay company.

Santa Barbara | Photo: David Mark

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Big Bear Lake | Photo: Jeremy Bishop

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