Editor’s note: As communities re-open after their COVID-19-related closures, keep in mind that some parks, businesses, and attractions may still be closed or have new protocols in place. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you visit and check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub.
While California’s major metropolitan areas are justly celebrated for their dynamic dining and cultural scenes, these cities also let visitors easily get away from it all. Just minutes from hip boutiques, Michelin-starred restaurants, and luxury hotels, you’ll find quiet and solitude during escapes along gorgeous stretches of coastline and into the mountains that surround the state’s biggest cities.
San Diego County
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Trails at Torrey Pines, home to one of only two natural groves of its namesake trees, deliver spectacular views as these paths thread through blufftop stands of coastal sage scrub hundreds of feet above the Pacific. The reserve, located about 15 minutes north of great shopping and dining in La Jolla, is especially beautiful in spring when wildflowers speckle the bluffs with color. You’ll have a return climb, but the Beach Trail leads down to a secluded stretch of Torrey Pines State Beach backed by towering sandstone cliffs.
San Diego is full of natural wonders. Which spot do you hope to explore first? 1. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve 📸: @jbahuphotos 2. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park 3. Annie's Canyon Trial 4. Potato Chip Rock 5. Cedar Creek Falls 📸:@b_sarver 6. La Jolla Underwater Park 📸: @just_gnar 7. Sunset Cliffs' Hidden Sea Cave #WithLoveSanDiego . Please note, COVID-19 may have affected the hours and operations of the locations listed above. Please confirm open status of each location before visiting. . #anzaborrego #californiadesert #wonderfulwestcoast #canyonlands #torreypines #anniescanyontrail #cedarcreekfalls #potatochiprock #lajollacove #sunsetcliffs #SanDiegoLife #SanDiegoLiving #SanDiegoGram #MySDPhoto
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve
San Diego may be best known for beaches but the city is also notable for its distinctive canyon-and-mesa topography. This 3,700-acre preserve is crisscrossed by trails running along a creek shaded by sycamore and oak trees. There are surprises along the way, including a waterfall and a historic adobe. And while the waterfall draws plenty of hikers, with 12 miles of trails to explore, you’ll easily find solitude and silence at Los Peñasquitos.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Wanna get away? Like, really get away? San Diego may be the eighth most populous city in the country, but just 90 miles east you can retreat into 600,000 acres of empty, unspoiled terrain at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Here, in California’s largest state park, bliss out in the shade of palm oases and ponder the big questions from Font’s Point (best to use a 4WD vehicle on the sandy road), which overlooks craggy badlands that are especially dramatic around sunset. Spring typically brings a transcendent wildflower bloom at Anza-Borrego and, thanks to its dark skies, this is one of California’s prime stargazing destinations year-round.
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
A few miles up the coast from popular Huntington Beach Pier, Bolsa Chica shows off the natural side of Surf City USA. The restored wetland—the largest saltwater marsh for more than 400 miles between Monterey Bay and the Tijuana River Estuary—is a vital haven for more than 300 species of birds, including the country’s largest colony of elegant terns, which flock here in the summer. But you don’t have to be a serious birder to appreciate Bolsa Chica. Just gaze out at the shimmering water from the reserve’s five miles of trails and boardwalks, listen to the birds calling and the distant crash of waves, and you’re bound to feel rejuvenated.
Crystal Cove State Park
With a 3.2-mile stretch of coastline and seven distinct coves, there’s plenty of room to find your piece of paradise and a place in the sun at Crystal Cove, north of Laguna Beach. A path leads down from blufftop parking to the broad, sandy beach at Pelican Point, where there’s also outstanding tidepooling during low tide. Pelican Point is also the perfect place to take a long beach walk and catch one of Southern California’s incomparable sunsets.
Greater Palm Springs
Beyond Palm Springs' boutique-lined streets and manicured golf courses lie 35,000 acres of rugged desert, the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. More than 60 miles of trails ramble through the Indian Canyons, where bighorn sheep clatter across the hillsides and glistening waterfalls appear like a revelation. Hike a 2-mile loop in Tahquitz Canyon to see cliffs stained with desert varnish, thousand-year-old Cahuilla rock art, and a 60-foot cascade plummeting over polished granite. In nearby Palm Canyon, stroll under the cool shade of thousands of native fan palms. Or pack your lunch for a picnic in Andreas Canyon, where a year-round stream gives life to more than 150 plant species.
Los Angeles County
Drive just 10 minutes from the heart of posh Pacific Palisades to hike the easternmost stretch of the Backbone Trail from Will Rogers State Historic Park. The first section of the 67-mile trail leads to panoramas that stretch from Santa Catalina Island to the San Gabriel Mountains. Then the Backbone quickly reaches the rugged backcountry of Topanga State Park, which you’ll pretty much to have to yourself—except for the occasional coyote or red-tailed hawk.
Franklin Canyon Park
Less than five miles from the designer boutiques along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills is this hidden canyon, where a forest of pines and deodar cedars encircle a historic reservoir and trails lead into the surrounding Santa Monica Mountains. Whether you take a short walk around the park’s turtle-filled Heavenly Pond or explore the hills on the 2.3-mile Hastain Trail, Franklin Canyon is a serene escape in the very heart of the metropolis.
San Francisco Bay Area
Golden Gate Park
With its gardens, lakes, and trails through forests of Monterey cypress, Golden Gate Park is a place to lose yourself in beauty. This historic 1,017-acre urban oasis may be surrounded by dense neighborhoods, but you would never know it as you listen to the waterfall at Strawberry Hill, the park’s highest point at 430 feet. Savor the silence among the bonsai trees and koi ponds of the park’s Japanese Tea House Garden. Dating to 1894, it’s the country’s oldest public Japanese garden and features an elaborately carved five-story pagoda.
Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park
Up in the hills just a few miles from downtown Oakland, you can explore a secluded redwood forest at 1,077-acre Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park. Even many longtime Bay Area residents have never visited this area, which was heavily logged in the 1800s. But now second-growth redwoods tower 150 feet over uncrowded trails, including the two-mile West Ridge Trail, a route that winds through silent forests as grand as any cathedral.
Check out the contemporary Lands End Lookout visitor center and the ruins of Sutro Baths, the remains of a historic saltwater pool, before exploring the untamed reaches of sophisticated San Francisco on the city’s Coastal Trail. The windswept route edges forested cliffs high above the roiling Golden Gate, offering views across to Marin County and one of the best perspectives of the famous international orange bridge. The advancing and retreating fog is positively mesmerizing, and a side trail leads down to boulder-strewn Mile Rock Beach, a great spot to meditate as you watch and listen to the waves.