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10 Ideas for a California Near-Cation

Smarten up your trip planning by traveling close to home this winter

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Your international and interstate travel plans may be on hold, but that doesn't mean you can't take a closer-to-home—and just as memorable—"near-cation." An in-state journey is the safest form of travel right now, and California offers best-in-class destinations for everyone from the discriminating foodie to the adrenaline junkie. No matter what kind of trip you're craving—coastal getaway, mountain vacation, or desert sojourn—many of the state's most alluring locales can be reached faster than you imagined.

Just remember to wear your mask and practice social distancing wherever you go, and click here for the latest California travel alerts.

Northern California

Gualala River, California

1) Gualala

Drive time from San Francisco: 3 hours / Drive time from Sacramento: 3.5 hours

Tune out the world in Gualala, a small but sophisticated dot along the windswept Sonoma Coast. Walk the blufftop trails at Gualala Point Regional Park. Paddle the lazy Gualala River in a kayak or canoe. Follow the Bonham Trail through a forest of Bishop pines to a wave-whipped pocket cove at Cooks Beach. Sample the ginger scones or a tuna melt at Trinks (where there's plenty of outdoor seating and easy takeout), and sleep in the cozy, woodsy cottages at St. Orres.

2) Placerville

Drive time from San Francisco: 2.25 hours / Drive time from Sacramento: 45 minutes

El Dorado County is home to more than 70 award-winning wineries, many just off Highway 50 near Placerville. Reserve a spot for seated outdoor wine-tasting and you can sip Cabernet Franc at Lava Cap Winery or Syrah and Zinfandel at Miraflores Winery. Pick up picnic supplies in downtown Placerville, then bike or hike a stretch of the 30-mile El Dorado Trail. Retire to a luxurious room with a private outdoor soaking tub at the Eden Vale Inn.

3) Lassen Volcanic National Park

Drive time from San Francisco: 4 hours / Drive time from Sacramento: 3 hours

Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of California's quietest national parks, especially in the winter months when the main park road isn't plowed. But Lassen's Southwest entrance stays open year-round, offering access to a snow-covered wonderland. Bring your winter clothes and gear, then check with the rangers at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to find out the best spots for sledding, snowshoeing, or backcountry skiing. At day's end, cozy up at Highlands Ranch Resort, only 15 minutes away. The 175-acre property includes a soaring main lodge and seven tricked-up cottages with heated floors, fluffy duvets, and fireplaces.

Central California

4) Solvang

Drive time from San Francisco: 4.5 hours / Drive time from Los Angeles: 2.25 hours

With its colorful windmills, thatched-roofed buildings, and wooden storks dotting the downtown, Solvang charms even the hippest travelers. Stock up on almond kringle and Danish waffles at local bakeries, stroll through the olive groves of Mission Santa Ines, and listen to the 1915 wind harp near the Lutheran Church. Debate the merits of vegan sausage versus meaty varieties at the outdoor Copenhagen Sausage Garden. Book a room at the European-style Mirabelle Inn so you'll have easy access to outdoor dining or takeout from the in-house First & Oak, a foodie favorite.

5) Cambria

Drive time from San Francisco: 3.5 hours / Drive time from Los Angeles: 3.5 hours

The easy-walking village of Cambria offers a lot more than just overnight lodging for Hearst Castle visitors. See bulbous, blubbery elephant seals hauled out on the beaches at Piedras Blancas, look for sea stars in the rocky tidepools at Leffingwell Landing, and hike along the headlands at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. Rockhounds head for Moonstone Beach's south end to hunt for smoothly polished jadite and moonstones. If you want to put some sandy miles under your feet, drive north to William R. Hearst Memorial Beach. Reserve a room at FogCatcher Inn so you can sleep to the sound of the waves.

Sequoia National Park, California

6) Sequoia National Park

Drive time from Sacramento: 4.5 hours / Drive time from Los Angeles: 4.25 hours

Fall and winter are the quietest seasons at Sequoia National Park, so it's the perfect time for a soul-stirring visit to the magnificent giant sequoias. Be awed and humbled by the gargantuan trees in Giant Forest, then take a heart-pumping climb up Moro Rock, a bald granite precipice with a sweeping vista of the sawtoothed Great Western Divide. Take the kids for a walk around Crescent Meadow to see the giant sequoia log that an early settler used as a cozy cabin. A reservation at the park’s Wuksachi Lodge puts you close to the park's main attractions.

7) Death Valley National Park

Drive time from Sacramento: 7.5 hours / Drive time from Los Angeles: 4.5 hours

Death Valley National Park is a lot bigger than most visitors realize, so plan on a multi-day trip to check off the national park's highlights: Marvel at the slickrock marble walls of Mosaic Canyon. Walk along the crunchy salt crystals at below-sea-level Badwater Basin. Cruise through the color-splashed sedimentary hills of Artists Drive. Climb the silky sand dunes at Mesquite Flat. Revel in a multi-hued sunset at Zabriskie Point. At the end of each spectacular day, head back to The Inn at Death Valley to float in the 87-degree spring-fed pool.

Southern California

8) Ventura

Drive time from Los Angeles: 1.25 hours / Drive time from San Diego: 3 hours

Ventura's pride is its spectacular stretch of Pacific coast, where every day seems like endless summer. Visit as many beaches as you can: West of Ventura Pier is Surfer's Point, a premiere point break favored by longboarders. Surfers, swimmers, and surf anglers flock to the boulder-strewn stretch of sand at Emma Wood State Beach, which doubles as a great spot for RV camping. South of town, McGrath State Beach is a bird-watching and beach-walking paradise. Ventura is also known for its biking trails—the 16-mile Ventura River Parkway Trail lets you pedal all the way to Ojai. Score a reservation for a vintage Airstream at Waypoint Ventura, then treat yourself to s'mores at the fire pits and sleep in a tricked-out trailer.

9) Mojave National Preserve

Drive time from Los Angeles: 3.25 hours / Drive time from San Diego: 3.75 hours

Here's one for the #vanlife crowd: Mojave National Preserve has no in-park lodgings, but plenty of awesome campsites at primitive roadside camping areas and two developed campgrounds. Stay up late to watch the desert star show, then get some z’s so you can make tracks during daylight: Hike to the top of 5,775-foot Teutonia Peak, passing through one of the world’s densest Joshua tree forests. Tackle the Rings Loop Trail near Hole-in-the-Wall, where iron rings embedded in the rock give hikers handholds and footholds to ascend Banshee Canyon's steep walls. Wander across the Kelso Dunes, America's third highest dune system, and capture stunning photos as the sand glows pink at dusk and dawn.

10) Temecula

Drive time from Los Angeles: 1.75 hours / Drive time from San Diego: 1 hour

North of San Diego County lies the grape-rich region of Temecula, a fertile valley boasting 40-plus vineyards and an 1860s cowboy vibe. Stroll along Old Town Temecula’s rustic wooden sidewalks and admire its Old West storefronts and water towers. Take out farm-fresh sandwiches from E.A.T. Marketplace before biking or driving the vineyard-dotted back roads (download the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association’s app). Play a round of golf at Temecula Creek’s 27-hole championship course, then rest up in a plush bed at the Temecula Creek Inn.

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