Ultimate Southern California VCW_TI_11_Hero_lauridsen_140702_2564-sized
Dave Lauridsen

Trip 8-10 days 10 stops

Ultimate Southern California

Yes, "something for everyone" might be a cliché, but this trip really is that kind of all-in-one trip. Visit iconic family destinations such as Disneyland Resort, SeaWorld San Diego, LEGOLAND California, the San Diego Zoo, and Los Angeles attractions including Universal Studios Hollywood. Get grownup fun in the big-city lights of L.A., Hollywood, and Palm Springs. Add natural splendor with stops in mountain and desert parks, plus a visit to unforgettable Mammoth Lakes.

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Los Angeles

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Los Angeles
Rooftop Restaurants, A-List Celebrities

Your trip begins in California’s largest city. L.A. has nonstop action and things to do, but it can be a challenge to navigate, so planning your trip in advance is a big plus. Start in the coastal city of Santa Monica, with a wide, uncrowded beach, a signature pier topped by carnival rides and restaurants, and outstanding shopping at Third Street Promenade and fancy Santa Monica Place shopping center (great for rooftop dining with ocean and city views). Follow the Santa Monica Boulevard northeast to visit legendary Beverly Hills, where cars with tinted windows pull up to Chanel and other deluxe boutiques along Rodeo Drive. Continue east to Hollywood to stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame and visit TCL Chinese Theatre.

Drive east to visit hip and historic downtown Los Angeles (or simply DTLA). An influx of new residents has helped energize the area, and downtown’s re-emergence has also been spurred by such attractions as Grand Park, an urban oasis with views stretching from the Music Center (including Walt Disney Concert Hall) to City Hall. Vintage buildings have been transformed, including the ornate 1927 United Artists building on Broadway, where the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles offers stylish digs and a restaurant. Crowds flock to the sports and entertainment combo of Staples Center and LA LIVE, where you can also see music artifacts (Elvis’s sheet music, Michael’s glove) at the Grammy Museum and catch concerts at the Nokia Theatre. Finish your L.A. experience with a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, with movie-themed rides and back-lot tours.

From Los Angeles, head southeast to visit a magic place that is hands-down one of California’s most popular destinations: Disneyland.

Next Stop
Disneyland (26mi/42km; 32min)
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Los Angeles’s Perfectly Prepared Eggs
California Dream Eater becomes an eggspert after visiting Eggslut downtown.
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Partners Statue by Disneyland

Disneyland Resort

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Disneyland Resort
Just saying the name sets a child’s face glowing

The undisputed granddaddy of theme parks, a dazzling compound surrounded by the Orange County city of Anaheim, has been leading the way since 1955, inviting visitors to spend the day in the ultimate land of make-believe. This beloved destination serves up vintage icons like the Matterhorn Bobsleds as well as new innovations, like laser lights and soaring fountains in the nightly show World of Color, or mystical mouse antics in Mickey and the Magical Map. The resort, which consists of the original Disneyland Park and the adjacent Disney California Adventure Park, has themed “lands” with related rides, shows, and attractions.

Keep your free map handy to make sure you’re heading where you want to go. Once you get in, reduce wait time in lines by using the resort’s Fast Pass system (use your ticket to book a dedicated time later in the day). And download the free Disneyland Wait Time app to know where to head next for shortest lines.

From glimpses of the future at Tomorrowland to the rustic world of Frontierland, the scenery changes quickly in the Magic Kingdom. Take a swashbuckling cruise (and look for Johnny Depp as a devilish Captain Jack Sparrow) on the raucous Pirates of the Caribbean ride, then step outside to smell of fresh beignets at New Orleans Square. It’s a quick walk to Fantasyland, where little ones can catch a ride on an elephant on the classic Dumbo ride, and pint-size princesses wait with wild-eyed anticipation to meet Elsa, Ariel, Belle, and other classic Disney heroines. Make sure your youngsters are light-saber ready for any adventures by signing them up for Jedi Training Academy. Travel into the deep and see Dory and the gang on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage , or zap your opponents with lasers in Toy Story-inspired Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. For more galactic explorations, blast off on Space Mountain.

After all that action, it’s nice to slip into the cool—literal and figurative—world inside Tomorrowland’s main building, Innoventions, filled with gatchets, gizmos, and games. Walk through a house of the future to customize your own artwork, music, and lighting, and see a full suite of Tony Stark suits (even virtually try one on yourself) in an interactive Iron Man exhibit.

From Disneyland, follow the coast south to another great family destination, SeaWorld San Diego.

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Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld® San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego

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SeaWorld San Diego
Climb aboard wild rides and learn about ocean environments

See the beauty and magic of the world’s ocean animals and learn about the importance of protecting marine environments at this packed-full theme park on Mission Bay Park, 10 minutes north of downtown San Diego. There’s always something going on at the nearly 200-acre SeaWorld compound, including interactive exhibits, zooming rides, live animal interactions and shows, and other special events. In among the hands-on fun, SeaWorld hopes to inspire visitors to better understand the planet’s watery worlds. To shed light on these environments, the theme park presents different ocean zones, each one featuring recreated habitats populated by some of the creatures found there. In Wild Arctic, get a close-up look at enormous walruses, creamy white beluga whales, and burly polar bears. Penguin Encounter is home to the entertaining seabirds, which live in the Antarctic. At Explorer’s Reef, see (and touch) harmless rays that live in coastal waters, then climb aboard Manta, a high-tech coaster that lets you twist, turn, and dive like a ray.

Special events dot the calendar, such as SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular in autumn, and Summer Nights at SeaWorld, when the park stays open late with live animal shows that end in a blaze of fireworks.

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Anza-Borrego by Harriot Manley

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Wild, Remote & Unforgettably Beautiful

This park’s combo name, pairing the name of famed Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who crossed this desert in 1774, and the Spanish word for sheep (“borrego”)—referring to the region’s native bighorn sheep, this desert preserve—California’s largest state park—protects more than 600,000 acres/242,811 hectares of badlands, palm oases, slot canyons, and cactus-studded hills. A geology lesson in making, still being altered by erosion and flash floods, it’s a wild and remote place, with much of it accessed via primitive roads, or on foot. (Consider renting a 4WD with high clearance for best access.) But the payoff is stunning stillness and unforgettable beauty.

Start your trip just northwest of Borrego Springs at the park’s visitor center, built underground for cooling efficiency, to learn more about this fascinating park, and to get tips on where to go. Anza-Borrego’s most famous hike leads to Borrego Palm Canyon, a watery haven fed by underground springs and shaded by California fan palms, the only palm that is native to California. It’s not a major hike round trip (3 miles/4.8 km total), but it feels like a trek from the desert to the tropics. Head off into a sandy wash twisting through a rocky canyon dotted with barrel cacti and ocotillo (look for hummingbirds flitting to the plant’s crimson flowers).

A little further along, you come upon lush willows and the sound of little waterfalls, until finally, rocks give way to deep pools of shade cast by the soaring, shaggy palms (their untrimmed fronds make them look a bit like Wookiee out of Star Wars). A series of severe rainstorms and flash floods in the last decade wiped out many of the oldest palms in this grove, but Palm Canyon is still the largest of the palm groves in Anza-Borrego. Over 80 species of migratory birds use Palm Canyon as a watering stop as they travel through the desert. Bighorn sheep like this spot, too. Scan the high ridges to catch a glimpse of them; if you’re lucky—and very still—they may come down for a drink.

When you leave Anza-Borrego, keep your eyes peeled for the remarkable metal sculptures of prehistoric beasts dotting the desert near the town of Borrego Springs; they’re the work of artist Ricardo Breceda. Now your route takes you east then north to the cities and lush resort communities collectively referred to as Palm Springs.

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Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

Palm Springs

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Palm Springs
Hipster cool in the desert

Fed by underground springs, the desert comes alive here, not only with signature palms, but also with a string of resort communities—Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and others, as well as the namesake town of Palm Springs—sporting a cool, mid-century modern vibe and countless ways to relax. Back in the 1950s, stars like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley built sleek estates, played rounds of golf at championship courses, and wined and dined the desert night away. Today, the region still has plenty of retro hipster swagger but also next-gen energy, with hot new restaurants, luxury lodgings, and fabulous shopping. Plus, there’s the beauty of the California desert all around.

Give yourself plenty of time to stroll along this swanky strip in Palm Desert. First, you’ll want to see all the art. This roughly 1-mile/2-km strip and adjacent streets house one of the largest concentrations of art galleries anywhere in Southern California. As inviting as mini-museums, these galleries let you get close to art, chat with knowledgeable gallery owners and staff, and even meet the artists on during special openings and events. Then you’ll want to get something to eat—perhaps a juicy steak accompanied by jazz (Sullivan's Steakhouse), or oysters on the half-shell (Pacifica Seafood Restaurant), or wood-fired pizza at Sammy’s. And of course—there’s the shopping. There’s a reason El Paseo reminds people of Rodeo Drive, what with the impeccably appointed boutiques of top designers, including Bottega Veneta and St. John, tempting you to brandish your credit card and come in. Find more shops at the Gardens on El Paseo complex: Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor, Pottery Barn, Brooks Brothers, Tommy Bahamas, and more.

Pack up your bags and get ready to explore another unforgettable desert parkland just east of Palm Springs, and named after the weirdly contorted yucca plants that dot its dramatic landscape.

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Alex Farnum

Joshua Tree National Park

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Joshua Tree National Park
Rugged Mountains, Vibrant Sunsets & Uncountable Stars

Boulders and buttresses, rugged mountains, gold mining ruins, desert plains dotted with the oddball trees—this is one weird place. Joshua Tree, nicknamed “J-Tree” by locals, lies at an ecological crossroads, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert. The result is amazing desert flora, including those wacky namesake trees (actually a type of yucca). Joshua Tree’s beauty shines around the clock, with vibrant sunsets melting into nights filled with uncountable stars. 

Pick a clear morning to visit Keys View for a sweeping panorama that takes in two of Southern California’s biggest summits: Mount San Jacinto (elevation 10,834 feet/3,302 meters) and Mount Gorgonio (elevation 11,502 feet/3,506 meters). Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley frame the background, and the vast Salton Sea shimmers to the southeast. Look carefully and you can pick out the leafy green of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve directly below you. On the clearest days, peer through binoculars to spot Mountain Signal in Mexico, more than 90 miles/145 kilometers away. Stretch your legs on a short paved trail, or, if you’re feeling lively and want the kind of piece and quiet found only in deserts, follow the path to neighboring Inspiration Peak A worthy side-trip: Since you’ve already driven out Keys View Road, be sure to stop at the Lost Horse Mine trailhead and take the moderate hike to Lost Horse Mine. 

Continue north to one of the world’s most unforgettable destinations. While its name might sound ominous, Death Valley is actually filled with spectacular sites, including colorful canyons, soaring sand dunes, and even a castle.

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Death Valley by Laura Flippen

Death Valley National Park

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Death Valley National Park
Mountain-Size Sand Dunes, Mysterious Singing Rocks

The largest national park outside of Alaska, Death Valley is an almost unfathomable place. The park’s 3.3 million acres /1.34 million hectares encompass mountain-size sand dunes, below-sea-level salt flats, and colorful sandstone canyons, and a remarkable structure, Scotty’s Castle, left by an eccentric explorer. Extremes are the norm: Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in America, with summer temperatures peaking above 120 F°/49°C, and average rainfall of 2 inches/5 cm per year. Also extreme are the park’s elevations: Badwater Basin, the park’s lowest spot, rests at 282 feet/86 meters below sea level while Telescope Peak soars to 11,049 feet/3,368 meters. So go high, or go very, very low; get hot, or chill out with amazing desert vistas. Death Valley delivers on every end of the scale.

Every imaginable shade of gold—from orange to apricot to school-bus yellow--is visible in the wrinkled Golden Canyon cliffs, whose folded and eroded layers glow at sunrise and sunset. Pick your favorite perspective: Drive to Zabriskie Point and survey the scene from on high, or see the vibrant beauty up close by hiking in Golden Canyon. For casual sightseers, Zabriskie Point (off Highway 190) offers a stunning view of the multi-hued badlands from a short paved trail.

It’s one of the park’s most photographed viewpoints and a busy spot at sunset. The Golden Canyon hike starts from the opposite side (off Badwater Road, 3.5 miles/5.6 km southeast of the visitor center). It’s a moderate out-and-back of about two miles, which can be extended into 5.5-mile/9-km loop. From the parking area, the trail heads gently uphill through soft canyon walls colorfully banded in yellow, beige, and cream, which signifies the presence of different minerals. Be sure to go the extra few steps to Red Cathedral, a towering cliff colored red by the weathering of iron-rich rocks. 

Once you’ve toured Death Valley, you continue north and west towards the towering Sierra Nevada range. Stop in at friendly desert towns like Lone Pine and Independence, and visit Manzanar National Historic Site to understand an sobering time in California history. At Mammoth Lakes, turn in to enjoy the hospitality and things to do in this year-round mountain town.

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Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

Mammoth Lakes

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Mammoth Lakes
Snowy winters, wildflower summers

Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the west, folks in this laid-back mountain town know they’ve got a good thing going. It’s a land of serious outdoor lovers, who take to the slopes of signature Mammoth Mountain (actually a massive volcano surrounded by granite peaks) and nearby June Lakes resorts in winter, then head out on trails when the snow melts to fly-fish in clear mountain streams, hike and mountain bike through wildflowers in high alpine meadows, and dip into natural hot springs. Join the locals for craft beer and listen to bluegrass music during summer’s Bluesapalooza festival (typically held in late July). For a high-mountain town, Mammoth Lakes is surprisingly easy to get to too, especially during the ski season, when daily flights zoom in from San Francisco area airports as well as Los Angeles.

In winter, Mother Nature is good to Mammoth Lakes. The mountain town’s signature peak, Mammoth Mountain, gets, on average, more than 30 feet/9 meters of snow, and lifts and gondolas continue to zoom up the mountain longer than any resort in the state. Visit the base village for shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Even if you’re not a skier, you can take advantage of Mammoth Mountain’s gondola, which climbs to the mountain’s summit at 11,053 feet/3,369 meters for jaw-dropper views of surrounding high-altitude peaks. Wintry splurges abound—choose from motorized Snowcat tours to guided full-moon snowshoe treks. Go tubing with the kids. Glide through the wilderness on a dogsled. Get an après-ski massage at area resorts, such as Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa or Snowcreek Athletic Club. Finish with dinner at cozy Lakefront Restaurant, surrounded by snowy pines.

After Mammoth Lakes, catch a shuttle from Mammoth Lakes for a day visit to fascinating Devils Postpile National Monument. (Note that this destination is closed in winter, when snow blocks all access roads and trails. The park typically opens June through September, but call ahead to get updates on access—the season can be shorter, or longer, depending on snow pack.)

Head north to Mono Lake and Lee Vining, then travel over Tioga Pass to Yosemite National Park. (Note: this route is typically closed by snow from November through early May, so check road conditions via Caltrans, Caltrans.org.)

 

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Kodiak Greenwood

Yosemite National Park

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Yosemite National Park
Unforgettable Beauty, Plunging Waterfalls

Coming from the east, Yosemite unfolds with high-country beauty, a land of granite crags and alpine meadows, the best known being Tuolumne Meadows, with well marked trails endless scenery. From its tranquil edges, hiking trails lead in all directions—to the alpine lakes set below the spires of Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks, to a series of roaring waterfalls on the Tuolumne River. The meadow’s small visitor center, housed in a historic cabin, features exhibits that focus on the area's geology, wildflowers, and wildlife.  Continuing west you reach the park’s signature site, Yosemite Valley, where shuttle buses can take you to all the key sites.

California’s first national park and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, Yosemite attracts 4 million visitors each year—with good reason. Nearly the size of Rhode Island and covering more than 1,100 square miles/284,899 hectares, it features unforgettable natural beauty. Among Yosemite’s many bragging rights, its waterfalls rank high. In the list of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots for Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall. Yosemite Falls holds the undisputed title of the tallest waterfall in North America. It’s a challenging hike to the top of the 2,425-foot/729-meter falls, but fortunately it’s an impressive view from the base to—an easy and scenic 1-mile/1.6-km loop that should be on everyone’s bucket list. An easy walk to 620-foot/189-meter Bridalveil Falls takes you to an overlook point below its billowing cascade. A more demanding hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls ascends granite steps to the brink of two massive drops, where you can watch the entire Merced River plunge over the rocky ledge. (Adhere to all safety signs and stay behind all ropes and signs.)

From Yosemite, continue south on the west side of the Sierra, following roads that dip down to the fertile Central Valley, to your last stop at a twin park that protects the world’s largest living things and a wild and rugged alpine canyon. 

 

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Tom Hilton/Flickr

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

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Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Deep Canyons, Roaring Rivers

Famous for their giant sequoias, soaring mountains, deep canyons, and roaring rivers, this tandem set of parks have plenty to see, even though they are less well known than Yosemite, roughly 75 miles/120 kilometers north. Within the borders of Sequoia & Kings Canyon are Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet/4,417 meters, and the Kings River Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in North America. Still, the parks—as well as adjacent Giant Sequoia National Monument and national forest lands—are most revered for their super-size sequoias. Thanks to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living thing, and its gargantuan neighbors, gawking at the big trees is the most popular activity here. The General Sherman Tree measures 103/31-meters around, and soars 275 feet/84 meters into the blue Sierra sky—and it’s still growing. Every year it adds enough wood to make another 60-foot/18-meter-tall tree. Still can’t grasp the size? One branch of the General Sherman is so big—almost 7 feet/2 meters in diameter—that it’s larger than most trees east of the Mississippi River.

Not surprisingly, General Sherman attracts a crowd, which is why the park runs free summer shuttle buses to two separate stops, one above and one below this amazing tree. Many visitors get off at the upper stop and walk one-way downhill to the lower stop, passing the General Sherman along the way. That’s fine for a quick trip, but there’s much more to do here. Get an even bigger dose of sequoia awesomeness by hiking the adjacent Congress Trail, a 2-mile/3-km loop that travels through dozens of sequoias with diameters the size of your living room. The House and Senate groves, two more sequoia clusters near the end of the loop trail, are the most impressive, but another standout is the Washington Tree, which was long considered the world’s second largest tree.

Winter snows significantly limit access in the parks; check the website in advance for details.

To return to Los Angeles, head south for roughly 3½ hours due south. San Francisco is roughly 4 hours northwest.