Napa Valley is a mecca for wine lovers the world over, but what about those of us who find themselves in or invited to a trip to the Valley who aren’t so interested in that wine-life experience? What is there to do in Napa besides wine tasting? Well, I’m here to tell you that there is plenty to do in Napa Valley for everyone. In particular, I would like to share three of my favorite places for hiking in Napa Valley, along with a weekend-length itinerary for anyone interested in having a unique outdoor and cultural experience in this area. Feel free to use this guide as an inspiration for your own weekend in Napa or just as a short list of places that we loved in the area.
Category: U.S. Travel (Page 1 of 7)
There are so many amazing Washington DC Monuments, parks, and attractions in the DC area that it can be hard to narrow down what you’d like to do. At the same time, the Mall is the primary section of the city that tourists flock to. This guide will help you both narrow down the locations that you’d like to see, as well as help you plan for an in-depth itinerary that will allow you to thoroughly explore the United States capital. In particular, national park service geeks will appreciate the focus of this guide. Anyone collecting stamps will amass a new section of their collection following our itinerary.
Day 1: Museums and the Washington DC Mall
Stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the State Capitol building, the Mall is the most famous part of Washington DC. If you take the time to stroll from one end to the other you will pass by most of the Smithsonian museums, the White House, and many Washington DC monuments.
If you start at the State Capitol, and head east, you can begin your day with the Smithsonian museum that is most interesting to you. I always love to visit National Museum of Natural History. As an environmental scientist, I find all of the massive collections and endless opportunities to learn more about the nature of Earth fascinating. My inner space nerd also really enjoys the National Air and Space Museum. But you honestly can’t go wrong with any of these, as they are all free.
After spending the first part of the morning in the museums, snap a picture of the beautiful Smithsonian Castle, and then work your way out into the memorial section of the mall.
When I told people that I was going on an Illinois roadtrip, I either got looks of disbelief or a sympathetic laugh. “There’s nothing out here,” more than a few people told me, as I trekked through the waves of agricultural lands dotted with picturesque farms and homesteads. As an outsider, however, I am here to tell you that there is, in fact, more than enough in the state for a weekend or even a week-long roadtrip. If you, like many of the people I met on the road, are wondering what to do in Illinois, this is the guide for you. I will give you the low-down on some of my favorite spots so that you can build your own trip, and I will provide a short itinerary based on my travels as well.
Hiking in Illinois
Considering that Illinois is known for being a plains state, flat with [insert agricultural plant] it might be surprising to some that there is good hiking to be had there. But where there is a trail there is a way! And there are actually some really amazing parks to explore on your Illinois itinerary.
Shawnee National Forest
Shawnee National Forest is nestled down at the southern tip of Illinois, making it somewhat hard to get to (from Chicago anyway), but it is well worth the drive. Not only is the forest free to use but it is home to some absolutely otherworldly and beautiful landscapes that even a world traveler would enjoy. For a very comprehensive guide to the forest, please see the Unofficial Shawnee Forest website. I used this to pick out a few places that I visited during my own roadtrip, the Garden of the Gods and the Little Grand Canyon; it is a great resource.
Chicago has to be one of the most exciting and culture-rich cities in the United States. It is also likely to be one of the most well-known Midwest cities. As such, Chicago is a great place for both domestic and international travelers. If I am being honest, the nature enthusiasts out there might find that there is something left to be desired (although I have it on good authority that there is some good hiking just outside of the city at Starved Rock State Park and Waterfall Glen). But almost any other traveler preferences can be found in the city. People watchers will likely find no where better in the US, besides NYC. Shoppers can find everything from big, brand names to small businesses with finds that you can get no where else. Selfie pros and adrenaline junkies will enjoy the views of the tall buildings that welcome visitors, and fishers and boaters will of course be entertained by one of the largest lakes in the world. In short, if you are considering Chicago, the city likely has something to offer you. This guide will help you design your perfect Chicago itinerary.
There are TONS of museums in Chicago, many of which are world class. No matter your interests, I would highly suggest visiting at least one of the city’s museums. If you want to my absolute favorites, you can check out the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and Adler Planetarium all in one beautiful, lake-side complex.
The Field Museum is highly immersive, which is my favorite kind of museum. You can waltz yourself through past versions of the Earth, learn about the history of Chicago and the many cultures of the planet, while also visiting grand rooms showcasing models and skeletons of some of the world’s most fantastic, inspiring animals. Whatever you are learning about, however, you will often find yourself feeling transported and surrounding by the different themes of the halls.
The Shedd Aquarium caters to anyone interested in learning more about and enjoying the marine world. A basic ticket will get you in to see all kinds of beautiful fish from around the planet. The place is so big it’s easy to get lost in wonder as you wander its halls, and there are plenty of ticket additions if you want to see more. There are also special exhibits, movies, and even small cetacean shows.
These two amazing museums are also really close to eachother, making them the perfect day trip, particularly when coupled with the Adler Planetarium. After all that, if you still have energy, you can also explore Northerly Island for some perfect views of Lake Michigan.
What is Star Wars Celebration
If you’ve been to any comic convention, consider Star Wars Celebration to be THE convention for all things Star Wars. It’s that simple!
If you haven’t been to either, Star Wars Celebration is a gathering of people that love the franchise. This group includes celebrities, the people that helped make the movies and shows that we love, authors, artists, venders, cosplayers, and fans young and old. When you attend, you can shop the massive exhibit hall for shirts, art, collectibles, and all things Star Wars. You can go to panels to be part of discussions about the universe. You can listen to celebrities speak, or meet them for autographs and pictures. And there are often other activities throughout the con, like VR experiences, games, crafting and art spaces, and more.
For some, it’s a five day experience. For others, a single day of con is sufficient. And for the die-hard Star Wars fan, this is an event that might be planned for years.
Why You Should Consider Going
(1) Get close as close to the Star Wars universe as you can (without being at Disneyland or Disneyworld).
The universe of Star Wars is full of alien worlds that many of us can only dream of ever visiting. However, many aspects of the franchise come to life at Celebration. The best cosplayers will make you feel like you are meeting the characters in real life. Some cosplaying groups also build sets and replica vehicles to explore and photograph. In 2019, Disney was also on the scene with an entire area devoted to its new, immersive Galaxy’s Edge land. Unless you are lucky enough to be able to visit one of the Disney parks, this is the best place to lose yourself in the world of Star Wars.
(2) Meet new Star Wars friends.
There are all kinds of Star Wars fans at Celebration, so no matter how hard-core you are, or what era of the films you love, you will be able to find your people at this convention. For the most outgoing among us, there are plenty of spaces to chat with new people in the halls and meet all kinds of cosplayers as they pose for pictures. There are also plenty of activities to bring people together; for shy people, these are great places to connect with new friends over a craft, game, or movie. Finally, there are even dating events, which can be a way to meet partners with similar interests. (Cosplay groups are also good for this. I met my husband at one.)
Why Disneyland Doesn’t Need To Be Complicated
I’ve been traveling to Disneyland regularly since I was little. It’s one of my favorite places, and despite the growing crowds, I still love going. It’s odd, in light of my long track record of just going there, that there are so many detailed and lengthy guides for this huge California attraction. Looking at all this information, one would think that a trip to Disneyland requires months of planning and a budget just to buy all the gadgets that you will need before you even leave. So, can you do last minute Disneyland if you don’t live in the area?
Heck yes! Obviously, if you have kids, that makes things a little more complicated, but a trip to Disneyland can be simple and fun. Whether you’ve never been before or are an old pro trying to simplify, here are my Disneyland secret tips for a great time sans too much planning.
Tickets and Fast Passes
The main barrier to entry is of course, the ticket price. Seems like every year Disney increases the cost of a day at the park, so before you commit to going, always make sure that you update yourself on the current price for tickets. If you are on a budget, that will likely determine how long you can go for and that will influence every part of your last minute Disneyland plan. The most recent pricing scheme will make tickets more expensive during peak season, so factor the potential extra cost in. You can get up-to-date prices here: https://disneyland.disney.go.com/tickets/.
While purchasing tickets you might also want to consider whether or not you’d like to pick up the MaxPass. This is an extra $15 and allows you to pick up FastPasses via an app. In theory, you can maximize your time this way and pick up passes faster than people without, although you are still limited to one active FastPass at the time. I am on the fence about this service being worth the money, although primarily because I experienced a service outage that lasted an entire day- making the MaxPass worthless. Luckily, if you just don’t think it’s worth it, or don’t have the extra cash, FastPasses in Disneyland still work if you bring your ticket to the kiosk at the entrance of the rides.
There are loads of hotels around Disneyland, and as you might expect, some are more expensive than others. For those budget travelers among you, more distance between the hotel and the park means bigger savings, but you’ll need to find something that makes up for the cost of parking (if you aren’t willing to hoof it). If you park at Disneyland, you will be paying upwards of $30 a day.
I’ve had some great luck with Hotwire for finding good deals in the area, but I will say, when it comes to finding a hotel that’s affordable but nice, you generally need time. This is one part of a last minute Disneyland trip that will be difficult for people on a tight budget.
You have a few options for transportation and the most budget-friendly method will depend on where you are staying, but all can work for a last minute Disneyland trip. My favorite thing to do is stay close enough that I can walk to the park, and plenty of the hotels in the area have free shuttles.
If neither of those work for you, Lyft and Uber can be a great way to get to the park without having to worry about parking. However, method will only be cost effective if you can get there and back for less than $30- that’s the cost of parking at Disneyland.
One of the most budget-friendly Disneyland secret tips is that you can bring your own food and water into the park. While I love to eat all of the increasingly delicious foods in Disneyland, meals and snacks add up really fast, especially when you have kids with you. If you are all about trying all the good foods, you can also save a little bit of cash by bringing a refillable water bottle in with you and filling up at fill stations and water fountains.
I have most recently become a Disneyland food fanatic, so I more than understand if you’d like to spend on some extra cash on food. I’d highly suggest checking out the Wonderful World of Food on Youtube. They put out seasonal guides to all of the great treats and meals that you can try in Disneyland and California Adventure.
My favorite Disneyland secret tips are to try to spend a couple days mid-week in the park. These tend to at least give you a little bit of a break from the crowd, particularly in the morning. Quieter times in the park are the best times to jump in as many lines as you can before they get too long. Usually, I visit the park for 2-3 days, coming up from outside of LA.
Of the two parks, Disneyland tends to be the more busy of the two (especially with the Star Wars section of the park opening in 2019), so I’d suggest going there first especially if that is the only weekday that you can swing on your last minute Disneyland trip. I can always spend more than a day in Disneyland, so if you feel likewise, you might consider returning for a second half-day or coming back for a third day. For you roller coaster riders, get fast-passes for Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones first.
On the second day of your trip, take a little breather from the crowds and go to California Adventure. Overall, if you haven’t been before, this park doesn’t have quite the history or atmosphere of Disneyland, but it is becoming increasingly well-themed. If you like big rides, the fast passes to go for first are the Radiator Springs Racers, the Incredicoaster, and the Guardians of the Galaxy.
For more California Travel Ideas…
…be sure to check out our Guide to California.
If you are looking to do a more thorough exploration of Southern California with Disneyland included on the itinerary, we also have the perfect travel plan for you.
Well, hello! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I haven’t forgotten about Backyard Discoveries, dear readers, even if this particular discovery is a little belated (by say, oh, maybe three months or so).
I visited Indiana in October, and one of the places I found on a list of must-sees was the Indiana Medical History Museum. I enjoy the weird and the historical, so this seemed like a perfect place to stop on a soon-to-be-rainy afternoon.
Indiana Medical History Museum
Things to Know Before You Go:
- The museum is only about three miles west of downtown Indianapolis – stop by on your way to or from downtown!
- If you visit, it’s through guided tour only. Which you’ll want anyway, because how else would you learn about the building and its history? Our docent was an absolute delight and firecracker. They were super knowledgeable about the museum, and also about the medical field – being a former nurse and current nursing professor.
- No need to reserve a tour (unless you’re a larger group or perhaps need special accommodations), as you can just show up. Tours are given every hour, on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays.
- Admission is per person, but only $10 for adults and less for seniors and students. Might I also remind you that the museum is a non-profit and these fees help with funding (and so do donations, so feel free to give more if you feel so inclined).
- Lastly and importantly, in case it wasn’t clear, this is a MEDICAL history museum. There are specimens. There is talk of cadavers. There is an autopsy table (pictured below). This building also was once part of the larger campus of a psychiatric hospital. If the thought of any of these things makes you or anyone in your party uncomfortable, do yourself and them a kindness and perhaps check out another Indianapolis attraction like the canal walk downtown instead!
The guided tour delves into the museum’s history, from the building’s inauguration in 1896 to its use as a place to study mental illness as a part of the former Central State Hospital.
You’ll get to see and learn about each room in this former pathological department, from a lecture amphitheater, to labs and even a photography room.
Not to be missed is the relics of their studies – slides, specimens and more. If you’re looking to see a slice of brain in a box or perhaps a full skeleton, this is the place for you.
That’s a wrap for this installment of Backyard Discoveries. And hopefully, it’s given you another idea of how to cure your little travel bug. See you next time!
Just what the doctor ordered,
I grew up in Phoenix, AZ so I have been to Los Angeles more times than I can count. The last time that I visited, however, I forced my friends to come with me to some of the tourist spots that the city is famous for. My husband tried to warn me away from some of them, particularly the Walk of Fame, but let’s just say… sometimes I just need to see how bad something is before I can believe the stories. Luckily for me, it’s easy to go back to LA to discover the good about the city. Not everyone has that opportunity, so I’ve written up this detailed guide to some of the major attractions that you should and should not visit on your LA itinerary.
Famous Locations to Make Time For
I’m going to be honest here and admit that I had no idea that the Griffith Observatory existed until I saw La La Land. So, the last time that I visited Los Angeles I wanted to give it a try and I ended up loving it. Whether you are a nature lover, fan of beautiful architecture, or just looking to snap a good picture of the Hollywood sign, this place belongs on your “what to do in LA” list.
The Observatory itself has a beautiful astronomy museum inside the building that is free to visit. There are talks and educational events throughout the day for all visitors as well. When I was there, I caught two talks, one about the iconic Foucault Pendulum in the entry rotunda and another about the mysterious Gottlieb Transit Corridor outside. In either case, it was a lot of fun to learn how these tools work and what we can learn from them. Adults and kids will enjoy the museum and it’s well worth an hour or more of your time.
Of course, you should also take some time to explore the outside grounds, because you will not only get a great view of the entire city from the Observatory vantage point, but the Hollywood sign is perched nearby. It’s a great place to indulge your inner tourist and snap a few pictures with the sign in the background.
Finally, if you are looking for a half-day experience, you might consider parking at the base of the mountain and then hiking up to the observatory. This will take you through a hilly, wooded area and give you a chance to escape the crowds for a bit.
The Observatory itself is free, however parking is not. If you’d prefer to save some money or aren’t comfortable parallel parking, there is a bus that you can take up. The DASH Observatory bus will get you up the mountain from the Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line.
Personally, as a Disney fan, I don’t think any LA itinerary would be complete without a trip to Disneyland. Even on the most crowded day, I just enjoy being in the park and taking in all the beautiful environments that have been created there. There’s really nowhere else in the world that you can wander from the Old West to a busy African marketplace in a matter a minutes.
Of course, Disneyland is a great place for families as well, although it is the most expensive attraction here by far. Some of my best memories as a kid were made in Disneyland, and of course, this is the best place to get great pictures with all of your favorite Disney, Marvel and Star Wars characters.
Besides the great rides, I enjoy trying all of the great foods in the park (something they have really upped their game on in the past couple years). If you want to keep updated on all the food news in Disneyland, I would suggest checking out the Wonderful World of Food Youtube Channel.
All that being said, Disney recently increased their prices and last I read we are up to $150 a day during peak season and $104 otherwise. Parking is $25 per day on theme park grounds, so if you can, try to stay in one of the hotels that are within walking distance or have a shuttle. There are a few that aren’t overly expensive, surprisingly.
Lesser Known Locations that you MUST Visit
We have an entire post on Little Tokyo, so I always consider this in my “what to do in LA” lists. It isn’t a large area, but we never fail to spend a few hours there. In particular, if you have been to Japan, Little Tokyo will be a nice reminder of that beautiful country across the sea.
For a lovely afternoon in Little Tokyo, I would suggest going around lunch and planning to get dinner there as well. There is a lot of good food in this area, and they serve things that you really can’t get easily in other places. After lunch, take some time to visit the Japanese-American National Museum. This is a great place to learn about the history and vibrant lives of Japanese-Americans, from the shameful parts of our history to the beautifully unique art and culture that has resulted from the mixing of American and Japanese heritage. It is $12 dollars to get in for adults.
After spending some time in the museum, taking in all the history and art, take time for a tasty snack or dessert and then enjoy the shopping in Little Tokyo. There is a ton of stuff that you would find in Japan, but also shops with unique items that mix Japanese and American culture with the unique character of the shop owners. It is a really great place to find a unique souvenir. Top the night off with some delicious Japanese food, or a downtown LA restaurant if you want to mix it up.
Parking in downtown LA is not free, so budget for parking; there is a big parking structure right next to Little Tokyo if you prefer to avoid street parking.
Santa Monica National Recreation Area
This is a massive national park unit, and there are definitely trails in the park that you will probably see in top ten lists here and there. But I would highly suggest getting out of the city a little bit to really explore this majestic slice of urban nature in your LA itinerary.
Solstice Canyon is a must-do. The trail there is not difficult or long, but the canyon is beautiful and ends at the ruins of a mansion. The nature and architecture tell a story unique to Los Angeles, so it is a great place to find a mix of my two favorite things, culture and nature. There is also a lovely picnic spot at the trailhead that’s the perfect place to eat lunch with the family.
For those of you looking for a harder hike, head up into the mountains to summit the tallest peak in the range, Sandstone Peak. It’s only a little over 3,000 feet, so it’s not extremely challenging but there are unparalleled views from the top. The ocean will be on one side and the city on the other, sandwiched in the middle will be you and the wilds of the mountains.
Best of all, this park is free, so you can wander at your leisure.
What to Avoid in your LA Itinerary
Walk of Fame
The Walk of Fame is my least favorite thing that I have ever done in LA, and I insisted on going the last time because I see it on so many “what to do in LA” lists! I just wanted to do the tourist thing and experience this place, but I ended up just absolutely hating it. Parking was extremely expensive compared to everywhere else in the city, and as soon as we walked out onto the street it was impossible not to notice how dirty the street was. The stores were little better for the most part.
Like any tourist trap, basically everything that you want to do here, besides just walking around will cost you something. And I just got a very predatory feel while I was there. I doubt that this is an area that many local people go to, so coming to the Walk of Fame just slaps a TOURIST sign on you. I’ve never liked that feeling and a few pictures of the Chinese Theater and the stars just don’t make the experience worth it.
The worst part of the whole thing was the people wandering around in costumes. Unless you want to pay to take a picture with one of them, stay far, far away. They like to fluster people with handshakes and then pull you in for a picture. One of them even grabbed a friend of mine in a very inappropriate way. It was very uncomfortable. As far as I know, none of these people are actually sanctioned to be there as those characters either. As an example, you might get manhandled by a Mickey or Chewbacca, and it’s not something that Disney would ever allow.
I’m sure there are people out there who have had a good experience on the Walk of Fame, but in my opinion, it just really isn’t worth your time. Save your money and go elsewhere. You can get great Hollywood pictures from Griffith Observatory, and there are plenty of unique spots in LA that you can go without the tourist scams and people trying to pull you into pictures with them for a buck.
Downtown LA in general
Besides Little Tokyo, I find downtown LA to be one of the worst downtowns that I have ever been to (and I’m from Phoenix). There is some really good food here, which is still worth the trip, but I would never spend the day walking around in the city like I would elsewhere. The streets are just dirty, and there isn’t a lot to see when you are walking around.
That being said, I feel a lot more ambivalent about this than the Walk of Fame. I think people that really love the city could keep this on their LA itinerary and have a good time. There are certainly some cool museums in the city and instagrammable spots, so it wouldn’t be impossible to enjoy an afternoon there. However, it certainly won’t be the best downtown experience that you have, and if you have limited time, this is definitely something that you can skip.
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Southern California is an absolutely wonderful place for hikers and national park enthusiasts. There are deserts, beaches, mountains, and cities with attractions that I think any nature lover will enjoy. If you are like me, and love getting as much out of your vacation time as possible, this intense itinerary for a Southern California road trip is for you.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
(1) Set up your trip to the Channel Islands with Island Packers in advance, and buy necessary permits from the National Park Service.
(2) If camping, be sure to have all of your permits squared away.
(3) Reserve your hotels/hostels/etc. and your rental car. If possible, rent an off-road vehicle.
(4) Bring all necessary safety equipment and hiking gear. Make sure a friend and/or family member has a detailed itinerary including the trails that you are planning on hiking.
DAY ZERO: STARTING IN LOS ANGELES
Los Angeles is a great starting place for this Southern California road trip, because it is the definitive capital of life in Southern California. There are tons of flights into the city and some of them are a great deal. That being said, there are some things about Los Angeles that make it a little difficult as well. LAX is a massive airport and can have issues with delays and construction, and the city itself is a warren of highways and crowded streets. I would suggest doing your best to time any drives through the city around traffic hour because it can literally take 2-3 hours to get across the city without lots of traffic jams.
DAY ONE: MT. BALDY
Mt. Baldy is the tallest mountain in the San Gabriel Mountains that hem in the city from the east, and the trail to the summit is no joke. With about 3,900 feet of elevation gain and 11.3 miles from start to finish, the trek up this mountain is a challenge for all but the most seasoned of hikers. If hiking is something you enjoy, however, and you don’t mind the challenge, I highly recommend this hike. It took me about half a day to complete it, and to this day is probably one of the more difficult summits that I have completed.
The trail itself is really beautiful, and has some unique sections. The Devil’s Backbone was one of my favorites, where you follow the ridge of the mountain with major drop-offs on either side of you. There are also stretches of forest with tiny waterfalls, and of course the view from the top of the mountain may be one of the most amazing for this Southern California road trip.
If hiking isn’t your thing, not to worry, there is a ski lift that you can take up to the lodge part of the way up the mountain during the weekends. You can also enjoy the trails lower down on the mountain for nice day excursions.
If you’d like to go for the summit, however, park just past the Mather Flats Campground and hike towards San Antonio Falls. Just past the falls, you will find yourself at a fork in the trail. The trail to the right will take a more gradual (but long) route up the mountain to the ski hunt, and the other trail is a steeper, more direct route to the top. I would personally suggest taking the steeper route up, which I think will allow you to appreciate Devil’s Backbone and Baldy Bowl more, and you won’t destroy your legs with a steep downhill.
For more detailed information on this hike, see Hikespeak’s post, which I used to plan my own trip. Note that you will need to purchase a pass for the national forest, and these can be picked up at the nearby gas stations on the road into the mountains.
STAY: Los Angeles Area, potentially near the Santa Monica Mountains if you’d like to avoid driving more the next day.
DAY TWO: THE SANTA MONICA NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
The Santa Monica Mountains are partially managed by the National Park service, and they offer some really varied hiking as well as ocean views. I would suggest warming up in the morning in the foothills so that you can experience some of the rolling grasslands that are so characteristic of coastal southern California, then moving onto a visitor center to grab a park stamp and speak with the rangers. From there, I did the Solstice Canyon trail, which is pretty gradual and relaxing, and has the perfect picnic area for lunch.
For hikers, my next stop would be Sandstone peak, the high point in the Santa Monica Mountains, where you can get some amazing views of not only the city and the ocean, but the backbones of the mountain range itself.
In case you don’t want to do more hiking that day, you can also head out from Solstice Canyon and spend the day exploring Malibu and enjoying the beach.
Hiking in Santa Monica is free in National Park lands.
For more information on the Santa Monica Mountains see our guide to the best hikes in the park.
Note that the Woolsey Fire damaged this area in 2018, so I would suggest checking with the park website and/or rangers to get the latest information on what’s open at the time that you visit.
STAY: Ventura, CA
DAY THREE: THE CHANNEL ISLANDS
There are an endless number of trips that you could plan for the Channel Islands, and I would suggest looking through our guide to help you decide. If you only have a day to spare on your Southern California road trip, I would suggest taking a day trip to Anacapa or Santa Cruz. But if you have more time, consider camping on Santa Cruz or Santa Rosa where you can explore the unique landscape of the islands more thoroughly on the trails and sea (if you like kayaking/snorkeling). If water-based activities are more your thing, Anacapa can also be a great place to camp, because there is a ton of kayaking and out-of-this-world kelp beds there.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you have reservations with Island Packers before you leave for your trip, because without that, you won’t have access to the islands. If you are camping, you will also need a reservation with the park service. Prices will vary with the location that you choose and the length of the trip you decide to devote to these beautiful islands.
STAY: Ventura, CA
DAY FOUR-FIVE: SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK
It’s about a 4-hour drive from Ventura to Sequoia, so get an early start. Once you reach the foothills, consider enjoying a picnic near Lake Kaweah or grabbing food in one of the small cafés in the Three Rivers Area. Then work your way up into the mountains through Sequoia. Of course, the stars of this park are the redwoods, which you will start to see in the higher reaches of the mountains. On the way up, stop by Hospital Rock, the Crystal Cave (summer only), and the Giant Forest Museum. But of course, make sure that you leave plenty of time for the redwood forest. The General Sherman Tree is a must-see and there are lots of lovely trails among the giants to explore.
On day two, continue exploring the forest landscape in Kings Canyon (if you go during the summer). Enjoy the beautiful views of the canyon, and enjoy some mild hiking (unless you still have tons of energy). Note that the road through this park is closed during the winter.
The $35.00 vehicle pass covers both parks and lasts for 1-7 days.
There are lots of road closures in both parks during the winter as well as strict rules about chains and four-wheel drive when there is snow. You can rent chains in the Three Rivers area on your way up if you need to, just keep your eyes open while passing through the small towns.
STAY: If you can, I would highly suggest trying to get a room in one of the lodges in the parks. If that isn’t possible, stay in one of the small towns in the mountains.
DAY FIVE-SIX: DEATH VALLEY
It is about 5.5 hours from Sequoia National Park and Death Valley National Park, so I would plan a quiet day driving to some of the main spots in the park. Mesquite Flat Dunes, the Badwater Salt Flats, Artist’s Palette, and consider Dante’s View for sunset are some of the main things that you could consider checking out to get your lay of the park.
On day two in Death Valley I would pull my hiking boots back on. We have a detailed list of my favorite hikes in the park, but there are so many trails in Death Valley. There really is something for everyone. In order to see the most while you are there, I would suggest a mix of short trails and more moderate length trails and a nice mix of the different aspects of this unique desert landscape. If you want to do a major summit hike, Death Valley also has options like Wildrose Peak (8 miles) and Telescope Peak (14 miles).
The park entrance fee is $30 per vehicle for 7 days.
STAY: There aren’t a lot of places to stay near the park, so if you can afford it, I would try to stay in Furnace Creek.
DAY SEVEN: MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE
Mojave National Preserve is one of the lesser known spots on this epic Southern California road trip, but this desert is full of unique landscapes and hikes. It is a great place for hikers and nature lovers to escape the crowds and see a place that mixes some of the best aspects of Death Valley and Joshua Tree.
We have a detailed description of hikes in this National Park unit here, but I would highly suggest the Teutonia Peak and Hole-In-The-Wall trails. These aren’t too hard but offer some amazing views of the park, as well as some very fun trail experiences. There is also a historic landmark in the park, the Kelso Depot, and access to Mitchell Caverns State Park ($10 entrance fee and $10 for a cave tour- get reservations ahead of time here).
The Mojave National Preserve has no entrance fee.
It is about 2 hours from Death Valley National Park to Baker, CA just outside of Mojave; it is then 1.5 hours from Kelso to Twentynine Palms.
STAY: Twentynine Palms area
DAY EIGHT: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Joshua Tree National Park has become extremely well known in the past couple years for its climbing, fascinating rock structures, and its chill vibe. For hikers, and road trippers, this national park has a huge variety of stops and trails. Hidden Valley is my personal favorite spot in the park and is suitable for people of all hiking abilities. Ryan Mountain offers a more difficult trek, although it is relatively short, and for those looking for a big summit challenge, consider the Pinto Summit (details here). Other spots to see in the park include Keys Views and Cottonwood Spring, although if you have time I would give all of the big points in the park a stop. For more details.
$30 vehicle entrance fee
STAY: Palm Springs
DAY NINE: PALM SPRINGS
By this point, I would be pretty tuckered out, so the next few days will give you time to rest and ready yourself for the journey home at the end of your Southern California road trip.
First stop for this rejuvenation is Palm Springs. This small city is known for its mid-century modernist architecture, adorable downtown stretch, and characteristic palm springs. If you are interested in seeing some of the architecture, look here for details. If you still have the energy to hike, this guide will give you the details about hikes to some of the desert oases that this city is named for.
I would highly recommend the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for any kind of traveler. It is about $26 dollars to ride, and the views from the tram and top of the mountain are absolutely beautiful. There are also hikes and nice walks at the top so you could make this into a whole day if you wanted, or a half day trip.
STAY: Palm Springs or Los Angeles
DAY TEN: LOS ANGELES
After all your hiking and exploring, it is time for the last day of the Southern California road trip before you head home.
If you are a Disney fan, treat yourself to a day in Disneyland/California Adventure.
If you want to get a taste of Los Angeles before you leave, I would suggest visiting the Griffith Observatory, which is free, and Little Tokyo in the downtown area. The Observatory has some more hiking, if you are a real champ, but there is plenty to see there even without a trek. There is a small museum in the observatory which is free (although you will need to pay for parking), and this is a great place to take pictures of the Hollywood sign and the city.
Little Tokyo is also free to visit, but you will need to pay for parking. There is TONS of Japanese food in this area as well as great shopping. I usually spend 3-5 hours here shopping, eating and visiting the Japanese American National Museum ($12).
STAY: Los Angeles
NEXT DAY: HEAD HOME
Sometimes urban life gets the best of us, and our spirits need some time in nature to recoup and heal. Los Angeles is one of the world’s biggest cities, and it can make a person feel like they’re trapped in an endless urban landscape full of unending traffic jams. It does for me, anyway.
But LA also is a great city for nature lovers, because it is surrounded by some spectacular national parks that make for a wonderful weekend getaway or an epic tour of Southern California’s varied landscapes. For either one, this is your comprehensive guide to the LA National Parks. For a brief run down of the parks, see below:
(1) Joshua Tree National Park: Unique rock formations, plenty of trails, climbing opportunities
(2) Santa Monica: Coastal mountains, urban landscapes, plenty of trails
(3) Sequoia National Park: Giant redwoods, varied landscapes, small mountain towns, plenty of trails
(4) Death Valley National Park: Extreme desert ecosystem, plenty of trails
(5) Mojave: Varied desert landscapes, plenty of trails
Remember to always hike prepared. Bring proper clothing, sturdy shoes, and water/snacks. Bring maps, and when appropriate, let rangers know where you are going. You are always responsible for your own safety while exploring.
Joshua Tree National Park
Distance from LA: 3 hours (132 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 3.5 hours (222 miles)
Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter
Cost: $30 per vehicle
Joshua Tree is probably the most popular of the LA National Parks, particularly in recent years. The park is named for the unique plants that dot that landscape, the illustrious Joshua trees, but I’d say that the rock formations of the park are the big draw for me. It is a famous climbing location, but there is plenty to do here for people with all kinds of interests. For those of you who aren’t big on hiking, there is a beautiful road that you can drive down and see all of the sights. This goes from Yucca Valley in the north to the I-10 in the south, so keep in mind that this is not a loop road in the park, but it can be made into one if you enter from one direction and then head out from the other.
I will list three of my favorite hikes in the park below, but some other spots that you really should check out on your drive are Keys View, White Tank, and the Cholla Cactus Garden. Keys will bring you up high enough in the mountains to see Palm Springs, and it is a great view of the surrounding mountains, as well. Arch Rock is amid some lovely rock formations where you can stop for a leisurely lunch and stroll. For those of you that have never seen a Cholla, the cactus garden is for you, but please, please stay on the trails here. Stepping on the roots of cholla over and over can hurt them, and they are also dangerous for you (so spiny!). Keep a respectful distance.
Cottonwood Spring Trails
These trails will give you a pretty easy stroll through the ecosystem that Palm Springs is named for; wild springs with massive, wild palms growing around them. There are also some mining remnants that have left a lasting impact on both the landscape and history of the area. There is some incline on these trails, but not much, and there is a large spring near the trailhead. So, this is a great place to stop whether you are a hiking enthusiast or not.
If you are looking to gain some elevation without committing to a big hike for a summit in the valley, Ryan Mountain is a great trail. It is only 3 miles (out and back) but you will pack on about 1,050 feet, so it is a great workout. The mountain is also located in the center of the valley so the views from the trek up and at the top are absolutely amazing- you can just about see the whole park from up there.
The Hidden Valley loop is a MUST-DO trail for any one that can make the walk. It is a short 1-mile loop, and it will take you through a narrow passage of massive rock formations into another world. Hidden Valley will make you forget that there is a larger valley surrounding you and the city will be the furthest thing from your mind while you are there. This place was once used by ranchers as a nature pen for cattle, but now it is a peaceful place for visitors of all kinds. That being said, Hidden Valley is easily accessible from the road, so this is one of the most crowded trails.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Distance from LA: 1.5 hours (39.1 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 6.5 hours (418 miles)
Best Seasons: All
WOOLSEY FIRE: Currently, some big patches of the SMNRA are closed due to the Woolsey Fire. Please consult with the National Park website for up-to-date information on what is open.
The Santa Monica Mountains are a wall of stone and wilderness between LA and the coast to the west. So, they are a great place to escape the stress of the city, and view the ocean from above. I also love exploring them in order to understand more about what this place looked like before people came and changed everything. This is really a great place for hikers, despite the closeness of the park to the city. For long distance hikers, the Backbone trail is 67 miles through the mountains.
Solstice Canyon Trail
This trails follows a canyon up into the mountains toward the historic Roberts Ranch. When I was here, not only was there water running in the canyon, but there were parrots playing in the boughs and whizzing through the air. This is a great hike for anyone that can deal with some incline and wants to explore the interior of the Santa Monica Mountains. This is just a 2.1-mile round trip (out and back), but there are plenty of other trails in the area to explore if you need to stretch your legs more.
Sandstone Peak Area
Sandstone Peak is the high point of the Santa Monica Mountains, and there are miles and miles of great trails in this area. This hike is a bit more difficult, so as much as I love the views up there, I would not suggest this area for people that aren’t comfortable with heights, steep inclines, and rough terrain. We did a loop in this area and ended up hiking for about 6 miles. You could go for longer, or summit and then turn around for a shorter hike. This is honestly the best place to get a sweeping view of the mountains in all directions.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Distance from LA: 4 hours (210 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 9 hours (574 miles)
Best Seasons: Late spring, summer, early fall (Chains required with snow)
Cost: $35 per car
Unfortunately for me, I did not have the opportunity to explore Kings Canyon when I visited the LA National Parks, due to snow, but Sequoia is a wonderful place to visit. As its name implies, there is a beautiful forest of giant redwoods here, but there is so much more, as well. At the entrance of the park, there are sweeping landscapes of grasslands and rolling hills that are in stark contrast to the forests that the road will begin to climb up through after you pass through the small town at the base of the park. (Be sure to stop here for food, or consider staying in one of the small lodges). After that, the road follows the canyon until it begins weaving its way up into the mountains that are crowned by the redwood forest. Be aware that several roads in this area are closed during the winter, so you may want to avoid it during this time. If you do visit when there is snow, you need have either four-wheel drive or chains.
Be sure to check out hospital rock with its beautiful petroglyphs, and of course, the stunning redwoods. The General Sherman tree area is a particularly great place to experience the majesty of redwoods on foot. Be on the lookout for signs asking you to keep your distance from some of the trees to protect their roots. Remember that these ancient trees are more important than your photo (you can always edit a photo to make it look more dramatic without hurting any trees).
Death Valley National Park
Distance from LA: 4 hours (215 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 6.5 hours (402 miles)
Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter
Cost: $30 per vehicle for 7 days
Death Valley is many things, including the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States, but don’t let its name and these things scare you off. Death Valley is an absolutely breathtaking LA National Park with desert landscapes that are as unreal as they are harsh. I grew up and live in a desert, but I have never seen somewhere as stark at Death Valley. In fact, this might be one of my favorite national parks with the power to pull me back just like the Grand Canyon, and the Channel Islands.
There is just something about the painted, dead mountains and cracked, salty bottom of the valley that speaks to both the majesty and danger of nature. When you drive through, be sure to stop at the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village, take Artists Drive through the Artists Palette, stop at the salt flats of Badwater Basin, and make time to spend sunset at Dante’s View. If you are a hardcore hiker/enjoy four-wheeling, I would also suggest trying to come with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, as there are many dirt roads in the park. It should go without saying, but be extra careful about having enough water in this park while exploring, and watch your car’s gas levels and monitor any issues with overheating. This place is no joke.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
You can easily view the Mesquite Sand Dunes from your car or from the parking lot, but I really enjoyed trekking out into the sand towards the largest dune in sight. Of course, there was a fair amount of sand to be poured out from my shoes on a regular basis, but I think that there is no better way to experience the dunes than by immersing yourself in them. There isn’t really a trail here, so you can wander where you’d like and for as long as you’d like.
Again, you can just view the crater from the parking lot, but I think you will get a lot more out of the 1.5-mile trail that loops around the crater. Not only will you get to view this beautiful place from all angles, but you will get some wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, too. This is one of the northernmost places that you can easily access with all vehicle types in the park. You might also be ambitious enough to hike down into the crater, but be forewarned, it is quite steep.
The entire time that I was in Death Valley, I was enchanted by the canyons that snaked away into the skeletal mountains of the valley – these places that seemed utterly without life. Golden Canyon Trail, which links to a variety of trails, was a great way to get a taste of the heart of the most characteristic mountains of the valley. The canyon itself could be home on any dead and rocky planet like Mars, and the vibrant colors of the rock make it seem even more otherworldly. There are also breathtaking sandstone formations on the trail such as the Red Cathedral and the Manly Beacon. When we did this hike, we made a loop of Golden Canyon and the Gower Gulch, which was around 3 miles in length.
Mojave National Preserve
Distance from LA: 4 hours (177 miles)
Distance from Phoenix: 4.5 hours (252 miles)
Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter
The Mojave National Preserve is one of the more secluded parks on this list. Although it is not quite as far from the city as some of the other LA National Parks, it is far less visited. That being said, it has an amazing variety of landscapes and offers some of the same draws as the other places on this list, including Joshua Trees and a huge stretch of sand dunes. The Mojave National Preserve is also home to some completely unique places, and the historic Kelso train depot, making it well worth visiting in its own right.
Teutonia Peak Trail
This short, 3-mile out and back trail will introduce you to the unique desert of Mojave. This is especially striking if you have seen Joshua Tree NP recently, as there are Joshua Trees here but they are markedly different than those of the other park. As you approach Teutonia Peak, you will have the opportunity to walk through a forest of these unique plants, and you will also be rewarded with a sweeping view of the Cima dome on your way up the mountain. Unfortunately, the end of the trail was unclear to us when we visited, so I can’t say much for the summit itself. Even so, I think this was a great place to get a taste of why this national preserve is so special, while also getting a sense for what connects it to the other places in this list.
Hole in the Wall and the Rings Trail
I loved this trail because of the beautiful rock formation that you get to explore while taking it, and also because of its unique character. At the beginning or end of the trail (depending on which way you start) you will be required to climb down steep stone passageways by clinging onto large metal rings that form ladders in the rock. As you can imagine, this wouldn’t be a great activity for people with a fear of heights, or at any time when the metal might get hot in the sun. However, if you’d like to avoid the rings but still see the rock formations, you can hike in from the other direction and just stop as soon as the rings appear.