Southern California Side Trips

Easy Side Trips from So Cal

California Counties
"So Cal" (see map) is made up of the 4 to 10 southern counties, depending on who you talk to, and contains all kinds of natural and manmade attractions. Many are widely advertised and many are found by accident or by word of mouth. Southern California concentrates temperate north with desert south, beaches and mountains, cities, farms, alpine and redwood forests, lakes, rivers, wetlands, scrubland and all Map Courtesy of Digital Map Store There is a lot to see and do in So Cal and never enough time. But there are some really amazing places to visit that are not too far away too! Here are some places we often visit and thoroughly enjoy time and time again:

Catalina Island -is located just '26 miles across the sea' according to the song and you can easily get there by boat or plane. The landing path is really scary as you fly directly toward the mountain cliff and then at the last minute the air currents lift you up to land on the tiny strip. I have done that for the very last time! The boat trip is really nice and you can see whales and dolphins and breathe the fresh salt air. We use the Long Beach port when we go over for the day. It is nice to walk around the beach and seaside village and the restaurants are quite enjoyable with outdoor dining. There are some camp grounds on the island that the Indian Guides and Scouts use so many kids from So Cal have spent some time on Catalina Island. You can take a glass bottom boat or go SCUBA or snorkling in the clear water and really see a lot. Barking seals crowd the rocks around the island and the atmosphere is really quite nice. What is NOT NICE is that sightseeing bus trip up to the airport around death defying cliff roads. Yes, you can see buffalo etc. along the way the the views are really spectacular and the airport is interesting but NEVER AGAIN...everyone knows...I am waiting at the beach!

Las Vegas -You can drive to Las Vegas in about 4 or 5 hours from So Cal and if you have never been you are in for quite a treat. It is amazing (day or night) and there is a lot to see and do for everyone. We have always taken JJ with us to Vegas and I really think he loves it more than we do. It is necessary for us to take turn gambling with a kid along but that works for us. We stay somewhere different each time we go….and use the web to find a great deal and then let JJ choose from those. Recently we have stayed at the Excalibur, Circus-Circus, Mirage, Polo Club, Luxor and the Stratosphere and really the rooms are all about the same - well used and adequate. I am sure you could find a fabulous room that is immaculately maintained but we normally pay about $50 per night instead. Join the Players Club at any casino and they will send you postcards inviting you to visit for free or very little several times a year when their booking are low. Mid week and summer are the best times for great values!

Some of the many things we do in Vegas with JJ:
Top of the Stratosphere and ride the roller coaster at the top
Tunnel diving at Flyaway Indoor Skydiving
Mirage Hotel white tiger and dolphin habitats
Excalibur Medieval dinner show
Adventure Dome Amusement Park at Circus, Circus (and the midway games)
New York, New York roller coaster
Largest Souvenir Store on earth on the Strip up near the Stratosphere
Hoover Dam
Treasure Island Pirate Show - on the Strip in the evening
Christmas decorations at Bellagio and the water show out front all year
Venetian Hotel - everything, just everything is amazing and then take a gondola ride
Stateline roller coasters - Buffalo Bills
(We totally love roller coasters!)
Water Park on the Strip and every pool in the city

Sequoia National Park -is one of the most amazing places in California and it is about a five hour drive from my house. We have visited the park in all seasons and different ways. We have stopped by for the day, camped and stayed in 3 Rivers at a motel. There is nothing like Sequoia anywhere and I cannot recommend it enough. We have tried to stay in a lodge or motel actually in the park and never been able to secure accommodations. That is my next goal! I believe our camping trip to Dorst Creek was one of our most incredible (scary) trips EVER! There were bears everywhere! We had them shaking our bear boxes at night, running through our camp while we were roasting marshmallows and even smelling our heads through the tent at night. I could not wait to get out of there and would not consider such a trip unless you are 'good' with being that close to nature! The ranger told us that the mother bear that walked through the camps one morning with her two cubs used them to distract campers so she can steal their food! General Sherman (a spectacular redwood) is reported to be the largest living thing on earth is one of the hundreds of spectacular specimens of these giant beauties. One day we drove to Lake Hume and the kids spent the day on the natural rock slide and jumping off a huge floating log that some folks we met told us had been floating in that lagoon all their lives! Go to to book Lodgepole or Dorst Campgrounds up to 5 months in advance and ask them about the BEARS!!!

Kings Canyon National Park -is north of and contiguous to Sequoia and is supposed to be the deepest canyon in the United States. There are several groves of giant sequoias in Kings Canyon including the General Grant and Redwood Mountain Groves. The rest of the park (90%) forms the headwaters of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River and the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. There are extensive glacial canyons and much of the park is inaccessible to motor vehicles. The parts that are accessible are often closed due to land slides and weather caused issues so do check with AAA or the CHP before you plan a visit to Kings Canyon.

curry village curry village tent bear trap half dome yosemite falls mountain pond meadow and stream tuolumne meadow
merced river float trip river rafting merced river yosemite float trip glacier point glacier point yosemite fishing not catching glacier fed lake tenaya lake tenaya

Yosemite -is my grandson, Jack's favorite place. We take the kids 'camping' at Curry Village every summer in July (about six hours drive) and have a blast. It is the most wonderful answer to taking little kids camping. You move into already constructed tents with beds, blankets, sheets and electricity. Food is not allowed in Curry Village and everything you brought in the car had to be locked up in bear boxes out by the parking lot. We eat at the buffet or fast food stands in the village or go over to the Yosemite Lodge and eat at the food court. (no cooking over a campfire, folks!) We always hike up to Yosemite Falls and Bridal Veil, go to the shows at the amphitheater and drive to Lake Tenaya just before Tuolumne Meadows but try to add something new each year. We have gone river rafting, horseback riding and star gazing and have visited Glacier Point and the Sequoia Grove. It is important to book reservations early and expect crowds. Earlier in the summer is best especially if it has been a dry year. The reason we went horseback riding last summer is because the river was too low for river rafting! We always see bears and deer in the parking lot eating from the apple trees and look forward each year to our stay in Yosemite! Call the National Parks at 1-866-875-8456 to make reservations.

Mammoth -is the best skiing and boarding in California - in just about everyone's opinion. It is also a beautiful destination in the summer. Everyone is friendly and while it is growing all the time retains its small town atmosphere! Go to to purchase tickets in advance and get to the slopes early. The lower lifts have very long lines and they only get longer as the day progresses. Mammoth has plenty of hotels, motels, condos and bed and breakfasts as well as camping available all year. It is about a 5 hour drive up the 395 to get there in good weather.

The drive up Highway 395 is interesting and there is a lot to see! You pass by Manzinar Japanese Internment Camp along the way as well as the entrance to Death Valley at Olancha. You can purchase the most expensive jerky on earth in Olancha. Joe always gets hungry for jerky from all the signs along the road and stops. Then, he comes storming out without any claiming that we have to make the house payment and is totally irritated for at least an hour!!! You can see Mt. Whitney (the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states) when you get to Lone Pine. Bishop is a great place to have lunch at Schats Bakery but oh, my, what a nightmare to get served. There is always a long line (many of them) and the whole place is total confusion but the food is wonderful. Schats is an authentic Dutch bakery and restaurant who introduced the Original Sheepherders Bread to the Owen's Valley during the gold rush using the recipe from immigrant Basque sheepherders. It is absolutely delicious and sometimes worth the effort! Once you leave Bishop you are almost there!!!

june lake june lake swim boulder hopping june lake silver lake gem lake trail rock climbing june agneu dam supply track gem lake
June Lake -is another place we go camping every, single year. We just love the area and camp in the campground on the lake, just past the fire station, before you get into town. Book through Reserve America and we usually pay about $15 per night. There are many different hikes available in the area and Joe and JJ and a friend hiked up to Gem Lake last summer (2 ½ miles that seem like 10). Trout fishing is unbelievable and we always rent a boat for a day and jump off into the ice cold water when we can't handle the heat another second. Sometimes we take all of our food and cook and sometimes we just take stuff for lunches and eat dinner at a restaurant in town. We always have trout and it is delicious! It is fun to drive around the loop and make frequent stops and then go swimming at the end of the lake off the sandy beach.

Devil's Postpile National Monument -is open during summer months. We were told that you could not drive into the park and that you had to take a shuttle bus. But, we kept seeing cars go down that road so we took off. OK, well they mean it…after you drive several miles there is a Ranger Station that makes you turn around and go back. Hee hee…but first, you can get a great look at the mountains that are known as Devil's Postpile. Frankly, it was good enough for us. You can purchase tickets at the Gondola at Mammoth Mountain for about $7 for adults and $4 for kids and get off and on the shuttle at a dozen places but we could never find out how long it would take to take the whole thing. National Park and Golden Age passes are not honored and the whole thing seems to be more trouble than it is worth! Maybe one day?

Bodie Ghost Town State Historic Park -is located 13 miles east of Highway 395 and 6 miles south of Bridgeport. Highway 270 is closed most of the winter and is not paved the last 3 miles. Bodie is one of the largest and best preserved ghost towns in the west with over 170 buildings still standing. There are no restaurants, snack stands or really anything available-hello- is a ghost town. Bring your own food and drink (although there used to be drinking fountains, I sure wouldn't depend on it!) Bring your camera as you will find so many photo ops you will be exhausted! There is a museum that is usually open in the summer. It is free and they have a few things for sale but not much! And, my goodness it gets hot…so bring hats, sunscreen etc. and you will still be very uncomfortable with little shade available! I offered to wait in the car after about 10 minutes - with the air conditioning running! The problem is…there also is no gas station in case you run into car trouble! Bodie is a fascinating old town and I am really glad we went and even gladder (sp) that I did not live 'back then'!

Death Valley -is the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America and it absolutely takes forever to get there! Take the 190 at Olancha off of the 395 and every time you think you are almost there….nope! There are other routes marked as access to Death Valley off the 395 but make sure you know what you are doing. Some friends of ours took a different route coming back from camping with us in June Lake, had a breakdown after the road went from paved to dirt to rocks, and were stuck for hours before a car came along and rescued them. The desert can really be beautiful and when we got to the lowest point it was covered with a lake that was just a couple of feet deep from a recent rain. A couple of folks were windsurfing with their brightly colored sails and it was breathtaking. Wonder what happened to those pictures?? You must have overnight reservations if you go to Death Valley because it takes so darn long to get there and back and the few accommodations are normally booked and then you are in a pickle. We had to drive all the way back…is how I know! And as long as that drive is during the day….it is really dark and ominous at night!

lombard street san francisco fisherman wharf san francisco fishermans wharf pier san francisco san francisco streets alcatraz san francisco city view under golden gate bridge golden gate bridge
San Francisco -needs no introduction from me and is an hours flight from LA or Orange County. We love San Francisco with its steep streets, gorgeous views of the ocean, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and world famous cable cars. Shopping, dining and fabulous attractions round out this beautiful city that we visit at least once a year when we go to visit family in Healdsburg. The only thing wrong with San Francisco is the traffic and the lack of parking…just get over it and you will have a much better time! We head straight for the parking lot at Fisherman's Wharf and then try the parking structure second. Pier 39 is where it all happens for visitors and locals alike. There are crowded streets filled with shops, restaurants, rides (bungy jumping and a double decked carousel) and street people doing all sorts of crazy things. OMG, we have grown used to the human juke box and the tin man painted silver from head to toe but the BUSH MAN really got us last visit. alcatraz island bush man This guy holds a bunch of branches and sits very still next to a telephone pole and when unsuspecting people (like my daughter) walk by he jumps up and screams at them at the top of his lungs and then asks for donations from the hysterical crowd. She has not gotten over it yet! On our last trip we took the Alcatraz cruise that doesn't actually stop at the island and really enjoyed the experience. We went right under the Golden Gate Bridge and it was a glorious day. Hint to avoid stress and maximize your time: book reservations ahead of time with the Blue and Gold Fleet for absolutely any type of motor coach or boat tours of the area. We did not have reservations and we stood in several lines for a long time before we secured our tickets. You can walk over to Ghirardelli Square, home of the chocolate company and watch chocolate being made with the original equipment. Be sure to order a World Famous Hot Fudge Sundae before you leave. We also love to go shopping in the city and have lunch at Nordstrom. It is really beautiful during the holidays with all the store windows decorated and you can go ice skating outdoors at the rink down on the Embarcadero across from the Ferry Building!!! The completely refurbished Ferry Building offers amazing shops, restaurants and a farmer's market. Don't forget a cable car ride…they are simply unforgettable but again, the lines are really long and you just need to be patient! Golden Gate Park offers many options and on warm days you can see locals stretched out soaking up the sun. The San Francisco Zoo (located in the park)recently had a lot of attention when the tiger escaped leading to newer and higher fences!

Palm Springs -is located 110 miles east of Los Angeles (less than two hours drive) and is an oasis in the desert. You can find some of the best golfing in the country in Palm Springs along with tennis, hiking and all sorts of other entertainment and activities. They have wonderful resorts, spas, shopping and restaurants. It is very hot in the summer so winter months are more expensive for lodging and much more crowded with tourists. But you can get really good deals in the summer! We love to take the gondola up to San Jacinto and take a hike and have a meal and get some relief from the hot desert temperatures!

Palmdale -is in the high desert "Antelope Valley" north of Los Angeles and south of Edwards Air Force Base. It was going to have a big Lockheed plant and international airport but these never happened and it now is a mix of small businesses, retirees, military and long-range LA commuters. It's on the way to Vegas, Mammoth, Death Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and other destinations rather than being a destination, itself. The area grows on you, with new things to see and do with each visit. Edwards has open house and air shows and China Lake Naval Weapons Station has a great museum and the desert offers hiking, biking, climbing, camping, rock collecting and other activities. Our friend has a stall at a strange old warehouse called the "Antique Asylum" which has all manner of memorabilia, antiques and oddities. It reminds us of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books and we can't get before exploring each aisle and stall.

Antique Asylum
Antique Asylum aisle 1
Antique Asylum aisle 2
Antique Asylum aisle 3
Antique Asylum aisle 4

Tijuana Border Crossing Mexico -is right across the border from San Diego and we have visited there for years. We have often gone down to TJ for a day of dog or horse racing, shopping or simply with friends for a fabulous meal. There is a great toll road down to Encinada that we also have taken for many wonderful weekends over the years. We have not been for awhile due to our busy schedules and the increased difficulty in crossing international borders since 911. I can only say be aware of legal requirements (passport etc) and your car rental agreement before you attempt a trek across the border into Mexico. There is a trolley from San Diego that we have taken in the past which charges about $2.00 per person that might offer a better solution than hours of waiting in the line to come back across the border after a long day. Give them a call at (619) 231-8549 and check it out!

Travel Tip: Purchase an America the Beautiful National Park pass if you are going to more than one park during the year. We buy one every year and they sell them right at the entrance to every National Park. We have saved TONS $$$ this way. Also, the parks issue Senior Passes for folks over age 62 at a very low ($10)'rest of your life price' that admits you and the rest of your party (up to 6 adults and all kids) FREE.

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