Editor’s Note: This feature is presented by our partners at Visit California.
We set out on a five-day adventure throughout Southern California. Our mission? Explore some beautiful pockets of the state, taste terrific tacos, and ultimately, see and do as much as possible.
Sounds easy enough. After all, it is California, and the options for adventure are abundant…perhaps too abundant.
We’re not in the business of complaining about all the road trip options available, but it is true that nailing down our plan and plotting our route was a challenge. With so many places to go and things to see, where does one begin? After a few days (OK… maybe weeks) of ping-ponging ideas back and forth, our crew created the ultimate bucket list for a California road trip.
It felt right to start and end our trip in La Jolla. From there, we built out our itinerary so we could visit five unique regions throughout Southern California: San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, The Inland Empire, and Coachella Valley.
To maximize our days (and our activities), it was important to keep our drive time between stops manageable. With less time in the car, we could spend more time exploring and enjoying the California sun and snow.
Over the five day span, we went sea kayaking, surfing, camping, mountain biking, taco-touring, snowboarding, spa-ing (Is that a word? It should be.), ATV riding, paragliding, and museum-visiting. We accomplished quite a bit, but still only scratched the surface of what this great state has to offer.
Below is an overview of our road trip itinerary:
Starting point: La Jolla, San Diego
Ending point: San Clemente State Beach Campground
Drive Times: 30 minutes | La Jolla Kayak to Fish 101 ; 45 minutes | Fish 101 to San Clemente State Beach
Morning: Kayak Tour in La Jolla – exploring the Ecological Preserve
When you think about San Diego, the beach is probably one of the first things that comes to mind. Makes sense, as San Diego is widely known for its world class surf breaks and picturesque coastline. For our first day, we decided to get out on kayaks and explore the San Diego Ecological Reserve off the coast of La Jolla.
The San Diego Ecological Reserve covers over 1,500 acres and is home to over 800 species. There are a handful of kayak tour operators in the village of La Jolla that offer guided tours of the preserve. Our crew paddled out with Sabrina Biglione of La Jolla Kayak and enjoyed a beautiful morning on the water riding small waves and admiring the surrounding cliffs and sea caves.
- If you’re going on a tour, we recommend the morning shift before the winds kick up. Glassy water makes paddling a breeze, and calmer ocean conditions give you a better shot of safely accessing the sea caves.
Lunch: Fish 101– a San Diego staple for fish tacos, burritos, and poke bowls.
After a few hours paddling around La Jolla Cove, we’d worked up an appetite, so we stopped at Fish 101 in Leucadia to refuel.
Known for its fresh, locally-sourced seafood, Fish 101 is a go-to for all things fish – fish tacos, fish and chips, grilled fish plates… you name it. The restaurant boasts a casual, laid-back vibe, which made us feel right at home.
Evening: Camping – San Clemente State Beach
With stomachs full of fresh seafood, our crew drove north about an hour to set up camp for the night at San Clemente State Beach Campground.
The campground has 160 sites, all located along the coast just south of San Clemente, providing easy access to restaurants, stores, and the beach. As far as amenities go, each site comes equipped with a picnic table and fire ring. There are communal restrooms and showers all around the grounds, so you’re not without modern amenities.
Perhaps our favorite part about the campground is its proximity to quality surf breaks. San Clemente State Beach, Trestles, San Onofre, and T-Street are just down the road.
- Book your campsite well in advance; look at the campground map before booking your site to orient yourself with the property.
- Arrive at the site while there’s still daylight to set up. It’s much more enjoyable, and significantly easier to dial in your setup when it’s light out.
- Bring more firewood than you think you need. You won’t regret having extra firewood. You will regret running out of wood early.
Evening: Surfing San Onofre State Beach
After setting up camp, we still had enough daylight to sneak in an evening surf. The conditions at San Clemente State Beach weren’t favorable, so we loaded up the logs and made the short drive to San Onofre State Beach, about ten minutes down the road.
San Onofre State Beach (or San-O) is a classic, quintessential California surf spot. A renowned location for longboards, San-O features a handful of log-friendly peaks. It’s a spot for surfers of all ages and skill levels – one of those rare places where you’ll see professionals mixing it in with first timers.
Breaks: Old Man’s, The Point, Dogpatch, Church, and Trails…all epic for longboarding.
Pro Tip: Get there early if you want to snag a parking spot, especially on the weekend; If you don’t get there early enough, be prepared to wait a couple hours for parking.
Surfcrafts: Longboard, Funboard, Midlength, Fish, Groveler, Soft Top… performance shortboard if you have the paddle strength!
Starting Point: San Clemente State Beach Campground
Ending Point: Downtown LA
Drive Time: 30 minutes | San Clemente State Beach Campground to Aliso and Wood Canyons Park; 1.5 hours | Aliso and Wood Canyons Park to Downtown LA
Mountain Biking Orange County at Aliso and Wood Canyons Park
Our crew woke up with the rising sun, made breakfast, and packed up camp at San Clemente State Beach. We then drove thirty minutes to Aliso and Wood Canyons Park to meet up with professional mountain biker and Orange County local, Xylena Hoppen, for an afternoon of trail riding.
The park is home to a myriad of multi-use trails, with terrain suitable for riders of all skill levels. Fortunately, we had Xylena to show us around and provide pointers and encouragement when we needed some extra motivation. We spent the day pedaling up and down the trails and taking in the sights from the mountain top.
If mountain biking isn’t your thing, the trails are multi-use and open to hiking or trail running, as well. You’ll get the same gorgeous views.
Downtown Los Angeles
After parting ways with Xylena, our crew pushed onward to Downtown Los Angeles for a change of scenery.
Now, Downtown LA has a lot going on. It’s a hot spot for development with a number of new high rises, restaurants, and storefronts opening on a weekly basis. With all the new, there’s still plenty of old. Angels Flight and The Grand Central Market serve as functional reminders of the late 1800s and early 1900s when Downtown LA was first established.
For dinner, we visited the aforementioned Grand Central Market, a bustling market that has been in operation since 1917. The market is home to a wide variety of vendors and cuisines, featuring food from around the globe.
To cap off the night, we took a short stroll and rode up and down Angels Flight, the world’s shortest funicular railway.
Starting Point: Downtown Los Angeles
Ending Point: Big Bear Mountain Resort
Drive Time: 2 hours | Downtown Los Angeles to Big Bear Mountain Resort
Downtown Los Angeles Continued – Taco Touring Los Angeles
We had two goals for our stop in Downtown LA:
1) Check out the architecture and historic sites.
2) Eat world-class tacos.
We spent the evening prior walking the Historic District and visiting key landmarks around Downtown LA. Now, it was taco time.
Fortunately for us, Bill Esparza, James Beard Award-Winning Author and expert on all things taco, offered to give us a tour. Over the span of a couple hours, Bill paraded us around Downtown LA to three unique spots serving up cuisine from distinct Mexican states.
Stop 1: Sonoratown – a Downtown LA counter-style eatery specializing in carne asada, inspired by the small border state of Sonora, Mexico.
Stop 2: Carnitas Los Gabrieles – Located in The Pinata District, Carnitas Los Gabrieles serves up Michoacán inspired carnitas.
Stop 3: Holbox – A casual, Michelin Award Winning seafood stand by chef Gilberto Cetina, serving dishes from the Yucatán Peninsula
Appetites officially sated, we pointed the van east and headed to the mountains.
Starting point: Big Bear Mountain Resort
Ending Point: Desert Hot Springs
Drive Time: 2 hours | Big Bear Mountain Resort to Desert Hot Springs
In California, you’re never too far from the beach or the mountains. A two-hour drive east of Los Angeles put us at Big Bear Mountain Resort, smack in the middle of the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains.
Bear Mountain Resort has three peaks: Bear Peak, Silver Mountain, and Goldmine Mountain, each sitting at about 8,500 feet of elevation. The mountain is home to a world-renowned terrain park where pros and Olympians like Shaun White have honed their skills.
We spent the morning and early afternoon riding the mountain and lapping terrain park with professional snowboarder Mike Gray before packing up and driving further East to Desert Hot Springs.
Soaking in the Spas of Desert Hot Springs
As the name suggests, Desert Hot Springs is home to natural hot springs. There are dozens of boutique hotels and spas where you can kick your feet up, unwind, and enjoy the healing properties of the natural mineral waters.
We visited Azure Palm in Desert Hot Spring for an afternoon of relaxation after a long day on the slopes.
Starting point: Desert Hot Springs
Ending Point: Back to San Diego
Drive Time: 2.5 hours | Desert Hot Springs to La Jolla
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum:
We were curious about the history of Desert Hot Springs, so we visited Cabot’s Pueblo Museum to learn about the area through the work of Cabot Yerxa, an early 1900’s explorer who discovered the natural hot water aquifer in Desert Hot Springs.
The property features cabins and structures that Cabot Yerxa built using found and reclaimed materials from all over the Coachella Valley. Cabot lived on the property until he passed away in 1965.
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum is now operated as a non-profit organization and is open to the public for tours, events, and educational programs. It is recognized as an important example of American folk art and architecture and has been designated a California Historic Landmark.
ATV Riding in the desert
We decided to break up the drive back to San Diego with a different kind of driving: desert offroading. ATVs were a great way to get the adrenaline pumping and to get up close and personal with the desert terrain.
We stumbled upon Off Road Rentals just off the highway in Palm Springs. They offer a fleet of quads available for rent. Fifty bucks for a half-hour of thrills.
Paragliding at Torrey Pines Gliderport – Back to where we started
We ended our road trip just up the road from where we started, in La Jolla at Torrey Pines Gliderport. Torrey Pines Gliderport has been in operation for over 100 years and is the go-to destination for hang gliding and paragliding enthusiasts in Southern California.
We put our lives in the very capable hands of our pilot, Robbie, and leapt off the edge of the Torrey Pines Cliffs to get an epic vantage point of Blacks and the California coastline.
So, there you have it. 5 days, 4 nights, and 460 miles throughout Southern California. We had ourselves quite an adventure with plenty of unique experiences. By all means, retrace our steps, or plan your own.
CLICK FOR A LINK TO OUR ROUTE (CLICK)