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The Best Weekend Getaways From L.A. for a Mini Road Trip

AFAR logo AFAR 2/27/2021 Tim Chester

a view of a mountain road © AFAR

Calling somewhere a great launching pad to other places can be a bit of a backhanded compliment. But while Los Angeles itself has plenty to keep you busy (beaches, theme parks, places to explore Latinx and Black food, history, and culture), it’s also just two or three hours from a host of diverse weekend getaway options.

Pick a compass point. North? That’ll take you to the American Riviera, the city of Santa Barbara, and to wine towns aplenty in the Santa Ynez Valley. South? That way leads to San Diego. East(ish)? Take your pick between the mountain communities of Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead or desert destinations like Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. West? Well, there’s the ocean—but there is an island escape on Catalina awaiting you. Here are a few of our favorite weekend getaway destinations from L.A.

1. Santa Barbara

a body of water with a mountain in the background: Mountains, palms, and gentle waters—that’s Santa Barbara. © Photo by Damien Verrier / Shutterstock Mountains, palms, and gentle waters—that’s Santa Barbara.

How far is Santa Barbara from Los Angeles?

Los Angeles to Santa Barbara is about 100 miles. It’ll take you around two hours by car. The Pacific Surfliner train from L.A.’s Union Station takes just under three hours. 

Why go to Santa Barbara?

Reliably perfect weather, a sedate harbor, clean beaches, upscale shopping, winetasting in the tasting room hot spot the Funk Zone—Santa Barbara packs a lot in for its 90,000 lucky residents (including new local homeowners Harry and Meghan).

Where to stay

We love the Ritz-Carlton Bacara just north of Santa Barbara for its multiple saltwater pools, beachside location, and spacious suites with marble bathtubs, Asprey products, and ocean views.

Book now: from $329/night, expedia.com

Where to eat

Caffeinate your mornings at Handlebar Coffee, grab pizza for lunch from Bettina, order Asian takeout from Oku, and finish with a cocktail at Venus in Furs. State Street Promenade in the center of town has been pedestrianized since the pandemic and looks set to continue as a car-free way to peruse menus when you’re hungry.

Things to do

Got kids? They’ll want to explore MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation (closed at time of writing; hopefully open soon), grab an ice cream from a branch of McConnell’s, and tour the harbor on Lil’ Toot Water Taxi's 20-minute ride. There’s a beautiful Spanish mission, a Maritime Museum, Lotusland botanic gardens, and plentiful shopping. Did we mention the winetasting?

Read more on the perfect weekend in Santa Barbara

2. San Diego

a sunset over a body of water: A great day in San Diego often begins—or ends—with a surf. © Photo by STLJB / Shutterstock A great day in San Diego often begins—or ends—with a surf.

How far is San Diego from Los Angeles?

About 120 miles. As for how long it takes to drive, that depends if you’re talking early on a Sunday morning or at 4 p.m. on a Friday. Allot anywhere between two and four hours depending on traffic (in L.A., through Orange County, and north of San Diego). Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner will get you from downtown to downtown in three hours or less.

Why go to San Diego?

San Diego is one of the most popular road trips from L.A. for a reason—or a dozen: For starters, there are a 12 different beaches to explore, including lively, bar-filled Pacific Beach, La Jolla Beach (great for surfing, snorkeling, and seal spotting), and family-friendly Mission Beach. The latter is set on a long spit, meaning you can stroll oceanside then wander through the quiet streets or nearby amusement park to check out the calmer Mission Bay side. 

Where to stay

Try the Hotel del Coronado, a National Historic Landmark on Coronado Island that’s hosted presidents and was featured in Some Like It Hot. The historic resort just launched a new section of the hotel: The Cabanas “neighborhood,” which encompasses 97 oceanfront and poolside guest rooms and a new pool.

Book now: from $276/night, expedia.com

We also love L’Auberge del Mar in Del Mar, about 20 minutes drive from the center of San Diego, for its proximity to a textbook SoCal beach, upscale homely feel, and friendly staff.

Book now: from $509/night, expedia.com

Where to eat

Modern American Juniper & Ivy, seafood spot Ironside Fish & Oyster, and Michelin-starred Addisn are among our favorite San Diego dining options, but you’ll also want to try a handful of beachside fish tacos before you head home—look for the lines of locals.

Things to do

Beaches aside, visitors arrive in droves for the famous zoo, sprawling Balboa Park, or to see the USS Midway aircraft carrier. It’s also worth heading to one of San Diego’s appealing neighborhoods like arty North Park, LGBTQ-friendly Hillcrest, or museum-packed Old Town.

3. Palm Springs

a palm tree in front of a house: Palm Springs is a haven for midcentury architecture. © Photo by Stephanie Braconnier / Shutterstock Palm Springs is a haven for midcentury architecture.

How far is Palm Springs from Los Angeles?

Palm Springs is just over 100 miles from Los Angeles—driveable in two hours if you get lucky on the 10 freeway. 

Why go to Palm Springs?

Palm Springs has long been a classic weekend getaway from Los Angeles for a number of reasons. Between late fall and about April, the biggest draw is the weather, with nary a drop of rain and soul-lifting sun day in, day out. (In the summer, it’s triple digits and not so pleasant.) That reliable climate allows visitors to spend lazy days in a hot tub, gazing at the distant mountains fringed with palm tree fronds, before tearing themselves away to enjoy the city’s midcentury-modern architecture and abundant restaurants and shops mostly centered around Palm Canyon Drive.

Where to stay

Palm Springs hotels run the gamut from historic (the Parker) to hipster (the Ace) and many are excellent retreats for design lovers. We’re partial to Korakia Pensione, a Moroccan- and Greek-inspired spot close to downtown, where quiet courtyards full of bougainvillea vines and palms lead to luxurious suites.

Book now: from $309/night, expedia.com

Or, if you’re going to the desert with kids and you’re there on any of the 360 days of the year it’s sunny, the waterslides, pools, and lazy river of the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells are hard to beat.

Book now: from $357/night, expedia.com

Where to eat

The drink and dining scene in Palm Springs is exciting and evolving. Try Asian fusion poolside at Roly China Fusion, tacos accompanied by a margarita made with date tequila at Tac/Quila, or shrimp taquitos at Tu Madres Cantina to start.

Things to do

Many come here to golf at the 100+ courses, some designed by legends like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Others just visit to sip Arnold Palmers by the pool (the eponymous ice tea and lemonade drink was coined in Palm Springs in the ’60s).

More active types might want to tackle the switchbacks of the South Lykken Trail, a 2.2-mile there-and-back hike with great city views, or explore the shadier Tahquitz Canyon, which is part of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, costs $12.50 for adults to enter, and leads to a waterfall. The Palm Canyon Trail, meanwhile, is free and showcases Sonoran Desert ecosystems before ending in what the USDA Forest Service calls the “largest Palm Oasis in North America.”

The Aerial Tramway is a rotating cable car that takes you to an elevation of 8,516 feet in 10 minutes. The often snowy (and certainly much cooler), pine tree–dotted wilderness is a stark contrast to the desert floor. Up there, a museum, two restaurants, and dozens of miles of hiking trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park await. The Living Desert museum—an alfresco wildlife park specializing in the flora and fauna of the desert—is also worth a peek.

4. Joshua Tree

a person sitting on a rock with Joshua Tree National Park in the background: The desert is full of surprises. © Photo by Felix Lipov / Shutterstock The desert is full of surprises.

How far is Joshua Tree from Los Angeles?

Joshua Tree is about 130 miles from L.A. and takes just over two hours to drive. (Sensing a theme here?)

Why go to Joshua Tree?

To hike and explore its namesake national park, which encompasses parts of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts and is teeming with life, from lizards scuttling among the cacti to rock climbers bouldering on jagged outcrops. And also to immerse yourself in the idosyncratic art scene and high-desert lifestyle.

Where to stay

AFARians have experienced several excellent Airbnbs in the region, including Ocotillo Verde, a midcentury ranch house sleeping up to nine, and the HiDesert Ranch, which comprises several buildings, has a hot tub and outdoor grill, and can accommodate 10 people if you rent out the whole five-acre property.

Book now: Ocotillo Verde from $229/night, airbnb.com

Book now: The HiDesert Ranch from $237/night, airbnb.com

Alternatively, the Pioneertown Motel dates back to 1946 and has accommodated singer and actor Gene Autry (who played poker until sunrise in Room 9, apparently). It’s got the requisite rustic exterior but all the mod cons inside its 19 rooms and serves tacos and margaritas at the renovated Red Dog Saloon.

Book now: from $304/night, expedia.com

Where to eat

Eater insists that chef Nikki Hill’s brunch at La Copine is “among the best food available for a good distance in any direction” adding that the menu “reads like a Silver Lake love letter, with nods to the Middle East, the deep South, and coastal California.” 

Pappy & Harriet’s, meanwhile, serves up steaks and burgers from its mesquite barbecue as well as some killer chili for diners in its sprawling outdoor area. The outdoor stage has played host to any number of bands, from desert rock legends like Eagles of Death Metal to Paul McCartney.

Things to do

Joshua Tree has an initial to-do list like nowhere else: Take a sound bath at the Integratron; explore the outdoor sculptures crafted from scavanged materials at the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art; visit the desert shrine to ’60s singer Gram Parsons (it’s behind a rock a short walk from a parking lot in the park). However, you might find it best to just show up and see where the wind (or the locals) take you. 

5. Catalina Island

a frog sitting on the grass: Snorkelers and divers search for fish in the waters around the casino. © Photo by Darren J. Bradley / Shutterstock Snorkelers and divers search for fish in the waters around the casino.

How far is Catalina Island from Los Angeles?

A couple dozen nautical miles. It takes about an hour to get to Avalon on Catalina Island by ferry from Long Beach.

Why go to Catalina Island?

For a change of pace. Island life is a little slower, there are barely any cars there (there’s a 25-year wait to get one, and most people move around on golf carts), and days are based around leisure pursuits.

Where to stay

The Hotel Atwater in the center of town was recently refreshed to mark its 100th anniversary, and it offers bright and airy rooms with art deco touches, harbor views from its top-floor rooms, a lively reception stuffed with games, plus coffee and grab-and-go food at the adjacent Bistro at the Atwater.

Book now: from $169/night, expedia.com

Where to eat

Descanso Beach Club, a short walk from the main town in an adjacent bay, offers cocktails and appetizers on the beach, and Avalon Grille serves local seafood (including scallops, salmon, or trout) and craft beers from a patio with harbor views. There’s also a ton of seaside fare on offer along the harborfront; take a stroll and take your pick between pizza or burgers or ice cream at any number of places.

Things to do

We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to spending a weekend in Catalina, but you could fill your days with anything from ziplining to semi-submersible tours, kayaking, snorkeling, Jeep tours, or simply slowing down to island time with a book on the beach.

>> Next: Why Catalina Island Is the Mediterranean Escape Every Southern Californian Needs

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