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 California, Legoland California, the San Diego Zoo and Los Angeles attractions including Universal Studios Hollywood. Get grown-up fun in the big city lights of LA, Hollywood and Palm Springs. Add natural splendour with stops in mountain and desert parks, plus a visit to unforgettable Mammoth Lakes.

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Los Angeles

Los Angeles
Rooftop Restaurants, A-List Celebrities

Your trip begins in California’s largest city. LA has non-stop 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 centre, great for rooftop dining with ocean and city views. Follow the Santa Monica Boulevard north-east 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 through the Hollywood Walk of Fame and visit the TCL Chinese Theatre.

Drive east to visit hip and historic downtown Los Angeles, simply known as DTLA. An influx of new residents has helped energise 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 artefacts (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 film-themed rides and back-lot tours.

From Los Angeles, head south-east 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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Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

Disneyland Resort

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 Bobsleighs 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 are 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 young children 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 lightsaber ready for any adventures by signing them up for the 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 world inside Tomorrowland’s main building, Innovations, filled with gadgets, gizmos and games. Walk through a house of the future to customise 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 sunny San Diego.

Next Stop
San Diego (96mi/154km; 1hr34min)
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San Diego

San Diego
California Dreamers, Endless Coastline & Sunshine

This waterfront city is all about getting out and having fun, and with weather this good it’s easy to understand why. Everything, and everyone, seems geared towards taking advantage of the region’s almost non-stop sun, especially along the edge of San Diego Bay, with a maritime museum that includes a retired aircraft carrier.

In the heart of the city, shop in Horton Plaza, or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. See the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Next, explore one of the city’s diverse neighbourhoods, Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village, pedestrian friendly enclaves are the epicentre of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene and craft beer boom. Start your own sampling in North Park, the neighbourhood bordering Balboa Park’s north-east side. Along 30th Street and University Avenue, enjoy farm-to-table cuisine and boutique wines at Urban Solace, or wing it at local favourite Carnitas’ Snack Shop (the menu changes daily depending on fresh produce and other ingredients available that day). Work off lunch by heading down to San Diego’s sparkling Mission Bay to hire stand up paddleboards or kayaks. Finish with dining and dancing after dark in the lively Gaslamp Quarter. Splurge on a night at one of California’s iconic hotels, the Hotel del Coronado, on idyllic Coronado Island, connected to the city by an arcing bridge that makes you feel like you are a million miles away.

Now you leave the coast behind, but not the sun. Your next stop lets you explore a remarkable desert parkland, with wildlife, remote canyons and Native American art.

Next Stop
Anza-Borrego DSP (84mi/135km; 1hr47min)
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Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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

This park’s combo name is a pairing of 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 of badlands, palm oases, slot canyons and cactus studded hills. A geology lesson in the 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 hiring a 4WD with high clearance for best access. But the pay off is stunning stillness and unforgettable beauty.

Start your trip just north-west of Borrego Springs at the park’s visitor centre, 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 (3 miles in 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

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 accommodations and fabulous shopping. Plus, there is the beauty of the California desert all around. 

Give yourself plenty of time to stroll along this swanky strip in Palm Desert. First, you will want to see all the art. This roughly 1 mile/ strip and its 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 during special openings and events. Then you will want to get something to eat. Perhaps a juicy steak accompanied by jazz (Sullivan's Steakhouse), oysters on the half shell (Pacifica Seafood Restaurant), or wood fired pizza at Sammy’s. And of course, there is the shopping. There is 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.

Next Stop
Joshua Tree National Park (49mi/79km; 47min)
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Alex Farnum

Joshua Tree National Park

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 a 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 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. 

Choose 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) and Mount Gorgonio (elevation 11,502 feet). Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley frame the background, and the vast Salton Sea shimmers to the south-east. 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 away. Stretch your legs on a short paved trail, or, if you are feeling lively and want the kind of peace and quiet found only in deserts, follow the path to neighbouring Inspiration Peak. A worthy side trip: Since you’ve already driven out via 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 colourful canyons, soaring sand dunes and even a castle.

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Laura Flippen

Death Valley National Park

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 encompass mountain-size sand dunes, below sea level salt flats,colourful 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 49°C, and average rainfall of 2 inches per year. Also extreme are the park’s elevations: Badwater Basin, the park’s lowest spot, rests at 282 feet below sea level while Telescope Peak soars to 11,049 feet. So go high, or go very, very low. Get hot, or chill out with amazing desert views. Death Valley delivers on every end of the scale.

Every imaginable shade of gold, from orange to apricot to vivid yellow is visible in the wrinkled Golden Canyon cliffs, whose folded and eroded layers glow at sunrise and sunset. Choose your favourite 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 is 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 south-east of the visitor centre). It’s a moderate out and back of about two miles, which can be extended into a 5.5 mile loop. From the parking area, the trail heads gently uphill through soft canyon walls colourfully 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 coloured red by the weathering of iron rich rocks.  

Once you have 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 a sobering time in California history. At Mammoth Lakes, turn in to enjoy the hospitality and things to do in this year round mountain town.

Next Stop
Mammoth Lakes (205mi/330km; 3hr30min)
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Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

Mammoth Lakes

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 live a great life. 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 wild flowers 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 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 for jaw dropping views of surrounding high altitude peaks. Wintry splurges abound, choose from motorised Snowcat tours to guided full moon snowshoe treks. Go tubing with the children. Glide through the wilderness on a dog-sleigh. Get an après ski massage at area resorts, such as Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa or Snowcreek Athletic Club. Finish with dinner at the cosy 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 between June and 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 to early May, so check road conditions via Caltrans, www.caltrans.org.


Next Stop
Yosemite National Park (125mi/201km; 3hr6min)
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Kodiak Greenwood

Yosemite National Park

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 and 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 centre, housed in a historic cabin, features exhibits that focus on the area's geology, wild flowers 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, 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 is a challenging hike to the top of the 2,425 foot falls, but fortunately it is an impressive view from the base to an easy and scenic 1 mile loop that should be on everyone’s list. An easy walk to 620 foot Bridalveil Falls takes you to a lookout 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. 


Next Stop
Sequoia/Kings Canyon (139mi/224km; 2hr32min)
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Tom Hilton/Flickr

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

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 north. Within the borders of Sequoia & Kings Canyon are Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet, 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 supersize sequoias. Thanks to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living thing, and its gargantuan neighbours, gawking at the big trees is the most popular activity here. The General Sherman Tree measures 103 feet around, and soars 275 feet into the blue Sierra sky, and it is still growing. Every year it adds enough wood to make another 60 foot tall tree. Still can’t grasp its size? One branch of the General Sherman is so big, almost 7 feet in diameter, that it is 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 is much more to do here. See even more majestic sequoias by hiking on the adjacent Congress Trail, a 2 mile loop that travels through dozens of sequoias with diameters the size of your front 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, therefore 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 north-west.