Discovering hidden gems in Southern California

By Zoey Goto

It’s best known for sun, sea, and cinema, but Southern California is a gold mine for cool and unexpected activities. Of course, the bright lights of Hollywood and the laidback allure of Santa Monica deserve their place on your wishlist, but get off the beaten path and you’ll discover one of the country’s most diverse regions. Swagger through dusty Wild West towns, paddleboard alongside sea lions, catch waves in Malibu, ride through Los Angeles’ vibrant art scene, and explore Wine Country in the most unique way — all without ever leaving SoCal’s inviting landscape.

Explore the natural wonders of Southern California

Kayak to the sea caves in stunning La Jolla 

This under-the-radar eco reserve just north of San Diego spans 6,000 acres of sandy flats, craggy sea caves, and dazzling reefs. Part of California’s network of marine protected areas, La Jolla’s crystal-clear water is loved by locals, both of the human variety and those that call the Pacific Ocean home. Go swimming off the sandy shore or kayak to La Jolla’s seven sea caves, spotting dolphins, turtles, and (harmless) leopard sharks as you go.

Hike a volcanic remnant at Amboy Crater 

Just off the historic Route 66, this astonishing landmark is well worth pulling over for. Standing on the rim of this extinct volcano, you can look out onto the vastness of the Mojave Desert. Get there via the 79,000-year-old crater’s west trail, a gentle incline with the welcome addition of rest stations along the route.

Ride waves in Malibu

Beach Boys playlist on, Volkswagen Bus gassed up, and cruising along Southern California’s dramatic coastline? A surf stop in Malibu is the quintessentially Californian experience you need to top it all off. Its perfect waves attract surfers from around the world, so even if you don’t have a board or are rocking a sedan, you shouldn’t miss out. Live out your #vanlife dream in a vintage VW and get lessons from a pro surfer — even beginners will find their inner Kelly Slater.

Uncover secret histories in Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is a mysterious land where outlaws and gold and horse thieves once roamed the yucca-dotted desert. Its namesake tree was invaluable to native people and is said to have been named by Mormon pioneers who were struck by its resemblance to the biblical figure. It can be hard to imagine how many stories and secrets the desert landscape holds, like those of the Cahuilla Tribe and cattle-rustling bandits who once called Joshua Tree home. On the drive, take an audio guide of the park’s highlights, like hiking trails and stargazing spots, to hear the tales that bring the magnificent landscape to life. Keep your eyes peeled for roadrunners on the rugged trails.

Hike lesser-known Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Those in the know describe Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park as a “mini Yosemite.” Why? Because this unsung 1,000-acre park offers all the joys of its neighboring superstar — including ancient redwood groves, cascading waterfalls, and sandy beaches — minus the throng. Big Sur River flows through this pocket of tranquil wilderness, providing the perfect opportunity to cool off on the hottest days.

Stargaze at California’s pioneering International Dark Sky Community

Dark sky communities are springing up across the US as the dimmer switch is turned down to make way for unmitigated views of the Milky Way. But Borrego Springs in San Diego County is ahead of this curve and home to the first International Dark Sky Community in California. Head here to see the cosmos put on its nightly spectacular, and keep your fingers crossed for shooting stars.

Paddleboard with sea lions in Marina del Rey

Swerve the crowds of nearby Venice Beach and instead head to the picturesque coastal community of Marina de Rey — LA’s premier boating and water sports hotspot. Calm waters provide the perfect setting for an unforgettable kayak or paddleboarding excursion. Glide past a fascinating cast of local characters, including resident sea lions, porpoises, and dolphins.

Push off on a bike tour of Earthquake Canyon

The San Andreas Fault Zone is a geographic wonder, formed 30 million years ago and marking the point where the North American and Pacific Plates meet in a jagged scar. Take the road less traveled on a downhill, backcountry cycling trail that takes in the diversity of this ancient landscape, from soaring canyon walls to the endless vistas of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake.

Find SoCal’s tastiest food and drink

Eat your way around the world at LA’s Original Farmers Market

Founded in West Hollywood in 1934, The Original Farmers Market pioneered the farmers' market concept. The attraction remains a bustling hub to this day, with live music and over 100 food stalls to graze. It’s vast, and while almost everything is good, some legendary tastemakers are among the mouthwatering stands. Take a tour of the Original Farmer’s Market to be introduced to them, sample the best bites, and make a pitstop at LA’s first pizzeria.

Take a deep dive into donuts in Santa Monica

As the birthplace of the artisan donut, Santa Monica knows a thing or two about these deep-fried delights. A donut tasting tour of downtown Santa Monica will take you to the best the neighborhood offers as you learn about the history of the not-so-humble snack. From sampling the super-sized glazed rings at Randy’s Donuts to a masterclass in making the perfect Californian churro, it’s all-round delicious.

Cruise Wine Country in a vintage sidecar

Tucked inland between Los Angeles and San Diego, Temecula Valley is a patchwork of charming old towns and scenic vineyards. Dubbed “the new Napa,” Temecula Valley is best experienced in style by jumping in a vintage sidecar and allowing your designated driver to lead the way. You’ll be able to soak up the stunning sights as well as the finest wines from local vineyards you’ll stop at along the way.

Discover Southern California’s offbeat arts and culture

See an outsider art masterpiece at Salvation Mountain

Decorated in a glorious riot of folksy emblems and religious slogans, this epic artificial mountain is one of California’s most fascinating public sculptures and most interesting examples of outsider art. The term typically describes elaborate and unconventional works made by self-taught artists, and this creation by Leonard Knight more than fits that bill. Made of hay bales, found objects, and 500,000 gallons of latex paint, it took three decades to complete. Visit this technicolor curiosity near the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, and follow the “yellow brick road” to the top. It’s free to visit. 

Explore Los Angeles’ Arts District by bike

As LA’s hottest neighborhood, the Arts District is the place to take in the creative pulse of the city. It’s been a magnet for artists since the 1970s, but in recent years a new crop of switched-on galleries, indie shops, and food trucks have sprouted among the Instagrammable mural-clad warehouses. There’s a lot to see, so cruising around the highlights on two wheels is a great way to see the gritty street art and slick contemporary showrooms.

Visit an eccentric sculpture park at the Galleta Meadows Estate 

Driving through the Anza-Borrego Desert, you’ll eventually come across a roadside theater where a T-Rex mingles with enormous mythical beasts. Fear not, this isn’t a mirage, but instead the creative vision of artist and welder Ricardo Breceda. Sprinkled throughout the Galleta Meadows Estate are 130 commanding metal sculptures, ranging from prehistoric figures to larger-than-life fantasy creatures, all of which are free to view.

Make some unexpected yet unforgettable stops in SoCal

Get wild out west in Pioneertown

California’s gold-mining past has left behind a treasure trove of ghost towns. Three hundred atmospheric, abandoned Wild West towns dot the state, most of which look like eerie, ramshackle film sets. But Pioneertown, near Joshua Tree National Park, is one of the few that’s managed a second act, this time as a hip Western-themed attraction. Artists now occupy the rickety outposts and the saloon bar attracts world-class acts.

Pull over at California’s coolest roadside attraction

Cameras at the ready: The enormous Cabazon Dinosaurs have been brightening up Californian road trips and starring in cult classic films since the 1960s. Originally built to lure peckish customers to a nearby restaurant on the outskirts of Palm Springs, Dinny the Dinosaur and Mr. Rex have since become the stars of the show. An estimated 12 million bemused drivers see them annually. Pull over for a roar-some photo opportunity. 

Take to the skies in Temecula

Just an hour from San Diego, Temecula Valley is a rising star of the global wine scene. Drawing comparisons with Tuscany, this laidback region is home to vineyards crafting seriously complex wines and citrus groves filled with the heady scent of fresh oranges. But while the wine is a big reason to visit, a bird’s-eye view of the stunning landscape is even more appealing. Take to the skies for a scenic hot air balloon ride, a glass of champagne in hand as the sun rises over the vineyard-scored landscape.

Live the high life at Topanga State Park Lookout 

For blockbuster views of Malibu, locals head to this graffitied ledge in Topanga State Park, one of the highest points in the Santa Monica Mountains. You can drive most of the way up, then it’s a mile-long walk to reach the decorated concrete slab, once an observation tower. Its beauty lies in the contrast between the colorful tags and the natural wonder of the rugged hills below. 

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my 

Think of the animals you might see in the wilderness of San Diego County and black bears, deer, and the occasional wolverine, might all be on the list. Leopards, lions, and tigers? Not so much. But pay a visit to the Black Pine Animal Sanctuary and that’s exactly what you’ll find, along with emus, wolves, donkeys, and alligators. The 18-acre sanctuary and educational center in Alpine, 30 miles east of San Diego, is home to around 100 animals from 60 species. It offers a second chance to big cats and other animals rescued from the illegal animal trade and operates as the gold standard in animal welfare in the US. 

Ride the world’s largest rotating tram car

Palm Springs aerial tramway is a midcentury modern design classic. Gliding 2.5 miles along the cliffs of Chino Canyon to the stunning San Jacinto Mountains, it rewards passengers with breathtaking views across the Coachella Valley. Time your tramway trip around lunchtime so you can visit one of the restaurants crowning the rocky peaks before a hike through the forest — a refreshing escape from the heat of the desert. 

Produced in partnership with Visit California

Hidden gems of Southern California