Southern California is literally the perfect starting point for so many great road trips in California. Just in SoCal alone, there are tons of beaches to relax on, deserts to roam, parks to hike, and even an island to explore (yes – an ISLAND!).
I’m a big fan of weekend road trips, and living in Orange County makes it easy since it is so centrally located. For this post, I’ve teamed up with a few blogging friends to share some of the best weekend road trips from Orange County (or San Diego, Los Angeles, and Riverside too!). All of the destinations on this list are just 4 hours or less away from Orange County, so they can easily fit into a 2 or 3 day weekend!
The Best Weekend Road Trips from Orange County, California
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Before you hit the road, make sure you pack these road trip essentials!
Venice Beach & Santa Monica
By Aswani, A Charming Escape
Distance from OC: 60 miles
Time: 1 hour
Santa Monica and Venice are about 60 miles from Orange County and take just about an hour by road. Scenic ocean views and coastal towns along the way make it a perfect weekend getaway from Orange County. While the 405 freeway is the fastest, I suggest taking the scenic Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1), with plenty of stops along the coast.
The first stop along the way is the coastal city of Long Beach which is also home to Queen Mary. Queen Mary is a retired ocean liner turned into a museum ship. Stop to explore the ship or have dinner on the ship. If you are looking for something unique, take the haunted tour of the Queen Mary.
From Long Beach, drive to Rancho Palos Verdes for incredible cliffside views of the Pacific Ocean. Past Rancho Palos Verdes, you could either drive directly to Santa Monica or make another stop at Redondo Beach or Hermosa Beach.
Once you arrive in Santa Monica and Venice, visit the famous Santa Monica Pier, walk the Promenade, visit the Venice canals, watch the sunset at Santa Monica State Beach, and skateboard or bike along the Venice Beach boardwalk.
If you are looking for a place to stay in Santa Monica, Shore Hotel is a good option and only a few minutes from the Pier and Promenade. Some of the best places to eat in Santa Monica and Venice are Great White, True Food Kitchen, Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry Cafe, and Hiho Cheeseburger.
Distance from OC: 73 miles
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
A perfect little escape from Orange County is Lake Arrowhead, located north of OC and surrounded by the San Bernardino National Forest. Lake Arrowhead is where you can enjoy perfect summers at the lake or get all cozy in a wood cabin during the cold winter. Yeah – due to Lake Arrowhead’s elevation, the winters do get cold and snowy!
During the summer you can fish, boat, hike, mountain bike, and even go on an ATV or Jeep tour in the mountain. Take a cruise on the Lake Arrowhead Queen, hike at Heaps Peak Arboretum, or check out SkyPark at Santa’s Village, a whole bike park dedicated to mountain biking skill-building.
Winters in Lake Arrowhead are a little different, but there are still plenty of things to do. Actually, there might be MORE things to do in the winter! You can ski or snowboard at Snow Valley, try snowshoeing, tubing, or ice skating, and visit Santa at Santa’s Village. Or, one of my favorite things to do in the winter – cozy up to the fire and just relax inside.
Any time is a good time to visit Lake Arrowhead but no matter when you visit, you’ll have to at least see Lake Arrowhead Village and explore the shops and food.
Lake Arrowhead is a private lake, so the best places to stay are at a cabin that has rights to the lake (check Airbnb), or Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa, which sits directly on the lake so you will have access.
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By Ruth, Tanama Tales
Distance from OC: 110 miles
Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
Julian, a mountain town located in San Diego County, is a wonderful place to visit on a weekend road trip from Orange County.
Julian can be considered the apple pie capital of Southern California. The pies there are simply sublime! And, this comes from a person who does not even like pie. Those pies my friends are reason enough to visit. Yes, they are that good!
If visiting from Los Angeles or Orange County, I recommend taking the inland route through the I-15 and CA-76. That will allow you to make several fun stops.
You can start by visiting Old Town Temecula, an area full of boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops. Do not miss the farmer’s market if you are in the area on a Saturday morning.
Temecula is well-known for its vineyards. There are several nice tasting rooms in Old Town. However, if you want to experience the area’s beauty and poshness, pick a winery or two in the Rancho California and De Portola Roads.
Once on CA-76 stop to see the Pala Asistencia, deviate to Palomar Mountain State Park to see the imposing observatory or catch fish at Lake Henshaw.
Make sure to arrive at Julian hungry. The pies are waiting for you at the Julian Pie Company, Mom’s Pie House, and Apple Alley Bakery. The Dutch apple pie served with cinnamon ice cream is one of the best options. Bakeries offer flavors such as apple berry, peach, pecan, strawberry rhubarb, and cherry. Apple cider donuts, apple turnovers, apple nut bread, and cider are served as well.
While making room for more apple pie, you can visit the Eagle Mining Company, wine taste, visit a brewery, pick apples (seasonal), hike at the Volcan Mountains Wilderness Preserve, or learn about wolves at the California Wolf Center.
Distance from OC: 113 miles
Time: 2 hours
Joshua Tree, my favorite little desert getaway, and an absolute must-do road trip from Orange County. If your Southern California bucket list doesn’t already include it, you have to add it NOW. I mean it. I could go on and on about all the things I love about Joshua Tree, but let me bring you through some of the highlights.
First of all, one of the main reasons for visiting Joshua Tree is to see Joshua Tree National Park, but that’s not the only reason you should visit. Joshua Tree has a special vibe, one that you need to experience yourself. Even if you take a trip there just to spend the weekend in a super unique Airbnb and not even do anything else, the trip will be well worth it. I once stayed in an RV trailer that had llamas on the property – and I got to feed and frolic with them! It was the cutest.
The small but expansive Joshua Tree National Park has plenty of hiking trails, unique rock formations, and a cactus garden to explore. What’s great about this park is that you can drive through it in about 2 hours (plus time for all of the stops!). You can see a lot of the park in just a weekend. In reality, you probably want to split the park into 2 days’ worth of exploring.
You also have to visit the tiny little town of Joshua Tree, which has really good restaurants like Joshua Tree Saloon and Crossroads Café and several vintage clothing stores. In nearby Morongo Valley, you can stop at Cactus Mart and plant your own cacti. Immerse yourself into the vibes by taking a sound bath at The Integratron.
Another cool place to visit is Pioneertown, an old Western village that used to be a movie set! It’s a great place to take photos, and it has a few shops and a hotel. If you do visit, you have to eat at Pappy & Harriet’s, which gets super busy, but that just means it’s really good!
By Eden, Rock a Little Travel
Distance from OC: 77 miles
Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
One of the most beautiful weekend road trips from Orange County is to the seaside community of La Jolla, located about 90 minutes south of Irvine. This beachy San Diego neighborhood is known for its gorgeous sunsets and stunning coastline.
Some of the most popular activities for those looking to spend a day at the beach include swimming, kayaking, diving, surfing, and paddleboarding. Those looking to spot some local marine life should head to La Jolla Cove to watch the seals and sea lions playing in the surf.
For those feeling a bit more adventurous, head to La Jolla Shores to swim and snorkel with the Leopard Sharks. If crabs and sea anemones are more your thing, make your way south to the La Jolla Tide Pools. Just be sure to time your visit for low tide if you’d like to see marine life.
After your day at the beach, head to Prospect Street in the Village of La Jolla. This is where you’ll find a majority of the neighborhood’s trendy cafes, restaurants, bars, and upscale boutiques. If you want to enjoy a healthy lunch or do a little shopping, this is the place.
For the perfect end to your day, make your way over to Duke’s just before golden hour. Request a table on the outdoor patio where you can enjoy a Mai Tai while snapping pictures and watching a spectacular San Diego sunset.
By Kay, The Awkward Traveller
Distance from OC: 92 miles
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Palm Springs is in Southern California trifecta, meaning it is almost equal distance from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Orange County. The quick 1.5-2 hour trip out to Palm Springs won’t be the most scenic (unless it’s Super Bloom season!) but once you start seeing the fields of windmills, Palm Springs is ready to host you.
As a desert city, Palm Springs’ main attractions are deliciously fresh food, poolside relaxation, and shopping. The best times to visit Palm Springs are basically any month outside of summer unless you purposely like to bake yourself alive. However, a prime time to visit would be in late February through March, right after the “rainy” season but before the Coachella-crowd rolls into town.
If you’re lucky, your dates might line up with some of Palm Springs’ best events, like Desert X or Mid-Century Modernism week! Check into The Saguaro Palm Springs for a colorful and fun place to lay your head, then head hit up the city’s best eateries like Cheeky’s for breakfast, Chef Tanya’s Kitchen for lunch, and El Jefe for late-night tacos!
Once you’ve gotten your fill for food, you can walk along Palm Canyon Drive to pop into the cutest shops and art galleries. Or you can go for a short hike in the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve and surround yourself in an oasis of native palm trees. And, while you’re out and about, stop by the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum to learn more about the Indigenous Cahuilla people of the Coachella Valley.
The city of Palm Springs is small, but it is nearby many other parks and attractions if you want to extend your road trip! Otherwise, it’s time to hit the road home, but don’t forget to check out the giant dinosaur (aka the Cabazon Dinosaurs) off the highway before you leave!
By Maria, San Diego Explorer
Distance from OC: 90 miles
Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
Coronado is located in San Diego so it’s the perfect road trip choice for a quick weekend getaway from Orange County. Since it is relatively close you can take your time and explore some of the fun beach towns along the way, like Oceanside and Carlsbad.
The highlight of your road trip will be crossing the Coronado Bridge. You’ll get a stunning view of Downtown San Diego and Coronado Island. Once you are in Coronado, you don’t really need your car since most of Coronado is easily explored on foot.
Some of the best things to do in Coronado include shopping on Orange Avenue, where you’ll find cute boutiques, cafés, restaurants, and fun art galleries, and of course, hanging out at the beach! Coronado has some of the best beaches in San Diego. On the northern tip, there is a dog beach for your four-legged friend and if you simply want to relax and unwind you can rent lounge chairs near the Hotel Del Coronado.
Another cool thing to do if you have time is to take the ferry to San Diego and spend a day in the city! You can explore the shops and restaurants, visit the museums, or head to the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park. If you like Seafood, check out Peohe’s for Happy Hour!
The best place to stay in Coronado is at the Hotel Del Coronado. This hotel is an institution and has so much history. They even say it is haunted. Even if you are not staying there, visiting the famous Hotel Del Coronado is a MUST for your Coronado itinerary!
Distance from OC: 127 miles
Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Where else can you find huge metal sculptures in the middle of the desert?! This is it! One of the most unique places to visit in Southern California is Borrego Springs. It is a little town in San Diego County that is surrounded by California’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Borrego Springs is the perfect place to escape the busy city and beach life we normally have to deal with. The town is cute, small, relatively quiet, and very well maintained. My favorite time to visit Borrego Springs is in the winter when the heat dies down a little. Springtime is also great because the flowers are blooming (but this is one of the busiest times to visit Borrego Springs).
As I mentioned, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest in California, so there is no way you will get through it in a weekend. There’s just way too much land to explore. For just a weekend trip I recommend hiking the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail and The Slot Canyon. These are the two most popular hikes in Anza-Borrego, and easy enough for almost anyone to do (even kids).
You have to at least see a few of the metal sculptures scattered throughout town. Most people drive to each sculpture, but you can also rent bikes and cruise to each one! Maps of the sculptures are usually available at your hotel.
The best place to stay in Borrego Springs is at the Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort. This place is great because it offers a lot. You can stay in the hotel, rent a vintage trailer, or bring your RV. It is also pet friendly and very family-friendly. It has a restaurant and bar on-site as well as several pools and laundry facilities.
Read more: How to Spend a Weekend in Borrego Springs
By Melissa, High Heels and a Backpack
Distance from OC: 170 miles
Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Solvang is arguably one of the most unique and quirky places in California. The town possesses a completely different vibe compared to that which you’d expect to find in Southern California. Solvang is more reminiscent of Western Europe than SoCal, as the town is actually a Danish settlement.
The town was founded way back in 1911 when a group of Danish settlers relocated here. To this day, Solvang maintains its Danish spirit.
Here you will find quaint little bakeries selling wienerbrød pastries, and homely taverns where waiters and waitresses in traditional Danish dress serve tankards of European ale. The town is a little touristy. However, that certainly doesn’t detract from its charm.
Head to the Amber Museum and the Copenhagen House to shop for chic Danish designs, accessories, and furnishings. Travelers of all ages will love the Hans Christian Anderson museum that celebrates the life and works of the renowned Danish author. The museum is set inside a cozy little house that wouldn’t look out of place in a fairytale.
Part of the charm of visiting Solvang is simply found in wandering the little streets and boutique stores that seemingly transport you to Copenhagen. There are a plethora of restaurant options here that range from the “hygge” and homely, to the upscale and elegant. Both Danish and All-American food options are available in plentiful supply.
Solvang is situated in the heart of the Santa Ynez wine country. If you have a long weekend to dedicate to your trip, you could easily combine a visit to Solvang with a tasting at a nearby vineyard. If your schedule does not permit the time for a trip into Santa Ynez valley, spend an evening in Solvang tasting the locally-sourced produce at the Wandering Dog Wine Bar, or the Lucky Dogg Winery.
Big Bear Lake
Distance from OC: 100 miles
Time: 2 hours
Another awesome mountain getaway is Big Bear Lake. Just a little further than Lake Arrowhead (also on this list!), Big Bear Lake is bigger and sits at a higher elevation than Lake Arrowhead, so you’ll get more snow. There’s a bunch to do whether you visit during the summer or winter.
Big Bear is the ultimate playground for both adults and kids. There’s something for everyone. If you love winter sports, you have to visit Big Bear Lake’s Snow Summit for skiing or snowboarding. Don’t like snow sports? Visit Snow Summit in the summer when it transforms into a downhill mountain bike park! The bike park is pretty cool and has both beginner level trails and advanced (with jumps and all!). There is even a section for the little kids to practice.
There are a lot of hiking trails to explore in either summer or winter. Some of the most popular trails in Big Bear are Castle Rock Trail, Cougar Crest Trail, and the Alpine Pedal Path. You may need an Adventure Pass to park near some of these trailheads, which can be found at several places in town or at REI.
There are so many places to stay in Big Bear Lake including hotels, lodges, cabins, Airbnb’s, and campgrounds. Winter is very busy in Big Bear, so it is best to book ahead.
By Gina, Evergreen & Salt
Distance from OC: 70 miles
Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Travel to one of the best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway with a weekend getaway to Malibu, a ritzy enclave on the northern end of LA County. Malibu is the perfect beach escape from bustling city life. You will probably find many Angelinos there enjoying a long weekend.
Break up your time on the road and do some beach lounging on the soft sand of Manhattan Beach before walking down its scenic pier. Or have a sojourn in Santa Monica enjoying the famous amusement-style Santa Monica Pier. From Santa Monica, you’ll hop on the famous Pacific Coast Highway and continue the scenic drive to Malibu via California Highway 1.
Once in Malibu, you’ll want to spend some time on the gorgeous beaches that are punctuated with rock arches and sea stacks. Zuma Beach and El Matador Beach are two of the most popular beaches in Malibu.
Malibu is also home to a picturesque pier, where you can get some incredible seafood. Eat at the farmhouse chic restaurant located on the pier called Malibu Farm, or arrive early in the morning to get some fresh-caught seafood from Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market. Cook it up yourself at your Airbnb or grill at your campsite if staying at the beautiful Malibu Beach RV Park.
Other fun things to do in Malibu include wine tasting at Malibu Wines & Beer Garden, hiking at Leo Carrillo State Park, and enjoying the views from Point Dume. If you have time, check out the gorgeous Getty Villa, a museum that shows off art and culture from Greece and Rome.
There are a few hotels in Malibu, but if you want to splurge a little, rent a private Airbnb. Go ahead and book that ocean view property just so you can live the dream life at least for one weekend!
By Melissa, @chasingbacklight
Distance from OC: 52 miles
Time: 50 minutes
Carlsbad is a fantastic weekend getaway from Orange County and an easy drive. Just less than an hour away you can enjoy perfect beaches, flower fields, outlet shopping, museums, and LEGOLAND!
The best area to stay in Carlsbad is near the Village if you like to be able to walk to restaurants and bars.
Make sure to grab a slice and a pint from Pizza Port, which has the best craft beer in town. Need more craft beer? Head over to Barrel Republic for a serve yourself experience!
For a nice dinner, I recommend Jeune et Jolie – their aesthetic alone is worth the visit! If you want something more low-key, check out Coyote Bar & Grill where the food is great and the people-watching is fantastic. For breakfast, The Goods Donuts are not to be missed!
Spend some time walking the Village and check out all the fun murals. The side of Grubby’s changes every few months, and it’s a great place to stop for a yummy margarita. Every Wednesday the Village has a Farmer’s Market, which has up to 40 vendors offering all the freshest fruits and veggies plus yummy extras like beef jerky, hummus, and even cheesecake.
Ok, enough with all the eating (it’s all SO GOOD I know), but there’s much more to Carlsbad than that.
Take a quick drive over to The Flower Fields, one of the most popular things to do in Carlsbad and what sends influencers flocking here in the Spring. Only available from March to May, The Flower Fields are a must-see!
Are you a nature lover? Head to Agua Hedionda Lagoon for stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, or yoga! For the shopaholics, the Carlsbad Premium Outlets is a great place to visit. Leo Carrillo Ranch is a beautiful stop for the history buffs. Did I tell you there is something for everyone in Carlsbad?!
If you are looking to explore with the kiddos, Legoland is right around the corner! Or take a trip down the coast on the train called The Coaster, which goes all the way to Downtown San Diego (another must-do road trip from Orange County)! From boutique shops to amusement parks, Carlsbad has it all for a great weekend getaway!
By Kristen, Act 2 Mom
Distance from OC: 63 miles
Time: 1 hour
Just 63 miles from Irvine, but a world away, is the perfect country escape in Temecula, California. Arrive Friday night and stop by Old Town Temecula to amble along the preserved wooden plank sidewalks. Stop for dinner and drinks at 1909 or The Goat & Vine.
Don’t make it too late of a night because you’ll want to rise bright and early to catch a sunrise hot air balloon ride through the vineyards Saturday morning. South Coast Winery Resort and Spa along the Wine Country Trail is an inspired choice for a hotel stay. Once you land back on solid ground, it’s time for a Grapeline Wine Tour to sample the local Temecula wines. Catch a late lunch at the hotel and don’t forget to schedule some treatments at GrapeSeed Spa Services.
Once you’ve enjoyed a little rest & relaxation, it’s time to take things up a notch. Head to Pechanga Resort Casino for the evening. Here you can eat a delicious steak dinner at The Great Oak Steakhouse, enjoy a hilarious comedy show, win at the gambling tables, and dance the night away at the Eagle’s Nest!
On Sunday morning, sleep in for a bit before you head out for a yummy breakfast. Mo’s Egg House is a local favorite and a must-try! Why not work off some of those calories with some physical exercise? If golf is your game, Temecula is a haven for golfers. You can head back to Pechanga to play at the Journey golf course or check out Temecula Creek Golf Club.
If hiking is your preferred activity, stop by the Santa Rosa Plateau on your way back to Orange County. Here you will find some of the most diverse trails in Riverside County that are appropriate for beginners to advanced hikers.
Temecula is a great getaway because it provides you with a variety of activities and is close to home. The best time to visit is from October to April because Temecula does reach triple-digit summer temperatures. When you are ready to slow down and savor the country life, come see us in the Wine Country.
Travel Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Remember that island I told you about at the beginning of this post? This is it! Catalina Island is an awesome getaway from Orange County, plus it is super easy to get to. Although not technically a road trip, Catalina Island is still an awesome weekend trip from Orange County. You have to visit at least once!
There are two main cities to see in Catalina, Two Harbors and Avalon. Most people visit Avalon, which is pictured above. You can catch the ferry to Catalina from Dana Point, Newport Beach, Long Beach, or San Pedro. The ride is about 1 hour and 15 minutes, but you’ll be on a comfortable cruiser with several deck levels and a snack bar.
Once you arrive in Avalon, you’ll quickly notice how life is different on Catalina Island. One of my favorite things was how people ride around in golf carts. I highly recommend renting one! The first time I visited Catalina we brought our bikes so we could save money, but those hills are a killer!
Catalina Island is a place you can get a little wild and adventurous. You can find really cool things to do on land like search for Bison or zip line, and also really cool things to do in the water like ride on a glass-bottom boat! Seriously, there are so many cool things to do in Catalina that you’ll have to spend several weekends here actually.
One of the most popular things to do on Catalina Island is to see the Catalina Casino. Not actually a casino, it’s more like a museum, but casino in Italian means “gathering place”. Inside you can see the theatre and ballroom where people used to gather for movies, dinner, and dancing.
You can visit the island all year round, so the best time to visit depends on your style. Winters are the quietest months and summers are the busiest. The best time to visit Catalina weather-wise is spring or fall.
By Ciara, Wellness Travel Diaries
Distance from OC: 136 miles
Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
About two hours north of Orange County lies the beautiful and artsy city of Santa Barbara. This wellness travel paradise is situated on the coastal front, lined with tall palm trees and hilly mountains. If you need a weekend getaway focused on wellness or a foodie travel experience, simply visit Santa Barbara.
While there are several different routes you can take, each leads to the famous Pacific Coast Highway. This highway begins just outside of LA and rides along the Pacific Coastal front, passing through Ventura and the small town of Carpentaria. If you need a pit stop, consider taking a midday stroll through downtown Carpentaria with its unique beachy vibe.
After arriving in Santa Barbara, a good place to check out is the historic Spanish mission built in 1786 by the Franciscans. Located here are a museum, beautiful rose gardens, and a lawn perfect for soaking up the picturesque ambiance while enjoying a picnic.
Subsequently, another thing to do is stroll down State Street until you reach the Funk Zone. This chic and hipster area is packed with local wineries that are surrounded by pockets of superb eateries. Indulging in the scrumptious food scene is something I highly recommend. From authentic fresh tacos topped with pistachio salsa, to vegan inspired dishes, this innovative food scene brings your taste buds to life with different flavor profiles.
Lastly, a trip to Santa Barbara wouldn’t be complete without visiting its epic natural wonders. There’s hiking at Douglas Family Preserve, exploring the wharf or visiting the numerous sandy beaches. East Beach is infamous for playing volleyball, while Hendry’s is the best for relaxing.
Distance from OC: 155 miles
Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
The weirdest road trip destination from Orange County has to be the Salton Sea. I don’t mean that in a bad way – the sights in the Salton Sea are wonderfully unique! Based on the photo above, you might understand the kind of vibe you’ll get on this road trip.
While driving to the Salton Sea you will pass through Palm Springs, which has fields and fields of windmills, making it a great place to stop and take some photos. Fill up on gas, food, and water, because the Salton Sea area does not have many options.
Stop at the International Banana Museum and the Bombay Beach Ruins, which are some of the most popular things to see in the Salton Sea. If you like birdwatching, you’ll be happy to know that the Salton Sea is one of the most popular birding spots in California.
The next stop is Salvation Mountain. It’s not an actual mountain, more of a man-made large hill that you can walk on. You can’t miss it because it is painted with very bright colors. It’s pretty cool to see and probably the highlight of this SoCal desert road trip.
Many people miss out on the place in the photo above because they think Salvation Mountain is the only thing to see here. Keep driving and turn left until you find East Jesus, which is an outdoor art museum created by the locals that live “off the grid” in Slab City.
Another nearby thing to do is visit the Imperial Sand Dunes (aka Glamis or Algodones Dunes). You probably won’t believe you are in Southern California once you get there. If you have time, rent a dune buggy!
There aren’t many places to stay near the Salton Sea. If you are not camping I would recommend heading back to Palm Springs for the night, or El Centro. If you are able to see everything you want to see on the first day you could even drive to Borrego Springs for the night (another great place on this list!).
I hope this gives you plenty of inspiration for fun weekend road trips in Southern California! Have fun!
Do you have any awesome road trips in Southern California to add to this list?