Four Days in Southern California - Our ultimate long weekend guide
If you’re like us when you head off for a long weekend, you’ll want to combine soaking in a place, lots of photo opportunities and some really good hikes. Our guide to a long weekend spent in Southern California provides exactly that. From Griffith Park in Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park, you’ll see it’s possible to take in a huge range of places in a really short time.
Arrive in Venice, Los Angeles
Venice’s vibe has an eclectic warmth with an artistic feel. With gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean, it’s a place like no other. Arrive early in the day to catch the morning light and park up your car in one of the many beachside parking lots. Then people watch as you walk along the famous boardwalk down to the beach and enjoy the calm ocean and cold sand. Take in the lively Ocean Front walk as it gets going mid-morning, where you will find everything from crystal sellers to trinket shops. This is also home to the original Muscle Beach, as well as constant games of volleyball. You’ll see skaters and artists all along this vibrant stretch of artsy beach. As you move toward lunch time, head down to Venice Ale House for lunch on the edge of the beach as you listen to the unique blend of music and street performers. We highly recommend their Vegan Club Sandwich (seriously, try it!)
Head to the Griffith Park, Los Angeles
This inconic location treats you to a gorgeous hike, amazing views and a great workout. Head to Canyon Drive and make your way all the way to the end of the road where you’ll find a car park. This does start to get busy on weekends but in the week, you should have no problem finding a space. There are many trails you can take in Griffith Park, but we would recommend the Mt Lee hike (otherwise known as the Hollywood sign). If you set off from the parking lot heading straight on, you’ll soon enter the park, taking Brush Canyon Drive. The trail is very easy to follow, and you will not be alone. Follow the trail around the side of the canyon as it starts to gain height. Take a left on Mulholland Trail and follow this around until you see a sign post for the Hollywood Sign, make sure to take in the scenery and views of Downtown LA as you go. This will get you onto Mt Lee Drive, which will take you up to the Hollywood Sign. Once you’ve taken in the iconic views, take the same route back. The trail should take you around 3 hours to complete, depending on your fitness and the amount you stop along the way.
Take in Mulholland Drive
If this is your first time in Los Angeles, you’ve got to drive the iconic Mulholland Drive. As the backdrop (and feature) to a wealth of movies, this mountain pass takes in some absolutely gorgeous views of the area as well as some pretty impressive real estate. Be sure to take in some of the scenic pull in points for photo opportunities. Sunset always looks incredible from here! We recommend approaching Mulholland Drive from the Hollywood Hills to really take in the area fully.
Head to Downtown Los Angeles for dinner
Once the sun has set, drive down to Downtown Los Angeles. If possible, take Santa Monica Boulevard or/and Sunset Boulevard for the full Hollywood vibe as it becomes Downtown LA. Head to Grand Central Market Los Angeles where you can park up in one of the many parking lots situated near by. As you walk around Grand Central Market, take in the neon lights and vibrant atmosphere as things start to liven up for the evening. The market houses many great food options, and we recommend getting lost in people watching as the different cafes, food stalls and restaurants do their thing. We highly recommend Ramen Hood for their spicy ramen – some of the best ramen we have ever tasted (although please note, Ramen Hood is only open from Thursday through Sunday). Once you’re done, spend some time walking around Downtown LA, taking in the sights and sounds of this incredibly vibrant city.
Drive the scenic Angeles Crest Highway
Head out on Highway number 2 onto the Angeles Crest Highway and into the Angeles National Forest. Forming a journey through the San Gabriel mountains, this incredible drive treats you to views of some of the highest mountains in the Greater Los Angeles area. The road, 66 miles in length, gains and loses height as you move through dense forested areas through to brush covered peaks, with the road reaching 2,100m at some points. The light at all times of day is absolutely incredible in this area, and you with a whole wealth of photo opportunities. Be sure to stop in some of the scenic pull in points and explore some of the side roads. If you have a 4-wheel drive and have some prior experience, take some of the dirt roads if they’re open to really give yourself the full mountain experience.
Take in Mt Baldy Road
Mt Baldy, or Mt San Antonio is the highest mountain in the San Gabriel mountains and the highest point in Los Angeles County at 3,068m. This scenic road takes you through alpine stretches and scenic mountain pass roads with many twists and turns to give you great views of the area popular with hikers and skiers (in the winter months). The road will take you on to Mt Baldy resort. If you have a further day you can add in here, we would really recommend trying to stay in the area and tackling a hike to Mt Baldy the following day. This is a hike described as challenging as it is set over a long distance and includes quite a lot of height gain and is at altitude. We would really recommend doing some research on this peak independently. If you’re not planning to stay in the area for an extra day, then be sure to take in some of the dirt roads if you have a 4-wheel drive or have experience of driving on rough terrain on the way back down as you take in the evening sun and mountain views.
Head to Âu Lạc in Downtown Los Angeles for dinner
Situated in Downtown LA, Âu Lac offers a glamourous dining experience that won’t break the bank. Bringing vibrancy and fresh, healthy flavours to their dishes, the restaurant offers incredible food with a modern, delicate twist. Be sure to book a table in advance, which you can do through their website (and if possible, take a change of clothes from your day time adventures).
Drive to Joshua Tree National Park
Be sure to leave Los Angeles early, and head east to Joshua Tree National Park. The drive is roughly 2.5 hours from Los Angeles depending on where you’re staying. Due to the traffic in the city, we would recommend leaving before 8am if possible as you will be grateful for the extra time spent in the park rather than on the highway.
Head to Indian Cove Campground
As you arrive mid-morning, head towards Indian Cove Campground. This area is great for camping, and if this is your thing, we recommend booking a spot in advance, especially in the busy winter months. If nothing else, head into the area and drive to the end of the road to take in some incredible views, being introduced to some of the unusual rock formations in the area that you’ll be getting very familiar with in your stay. Its great to spend some time after you’ve parked up at the Indian Cove campground scrambling up some of the rocks around you to take in some elevated views of the surrounding areas, and also to take in true silence in the area.
Take in the National Park
As you leave the campground and head to the main entrance of the National Park on the Joshua Tree side, be sure to call into Natural Sisters Café just before the entrance to grab a nutritious spot of lunch (and some cake) for your afternoon. When you head into the park, you’ll be given a guide from one of the park rangers. We recommend taking a drive on Park Boulevard and stopping as many times as you want to take in the weird and wonderful rock formations of the area. Depending on the time, there are many short trails that you can take in and around the rocks, these are really clearly listed in the visitor guide that you will have been handed when you arrived.
Drive the dirt roads of Joshua Tree National Park
If you want to take things a little more off the tourist path, take Bighorn Pass Road and Queen Valley Road for some off road, sandy stretches with amazing views and gorgeous light in the afternoon. We also recommend a drive down the Geology Tour Road. The road is suitable for 4-wheel drives only and is quite challenging in places with deep sand drifts. The first 5 miles are suitable for most cars, but at this point, the road becomes one way. Whilst the road, to this point is quite manageable, it does get more challenging and you need a vehicle with high clearance. Only go down this far if you intend on doing the whole route and know you can manage the driving. The tour road is 18 miles in total.
Take in the sunset at Cholla Cactus Garden
There is something incredible about taking in the sunset here, as the sun goes down behind the mountains, it magically back lights the thousands of cacti that stand proud and prickly. You’ll want to have your camera with you, and make sure you’re wearing something that protects your feet, as there are a lot of cactus spikes lying around and these can be very painful if they get into your feet! As fascinating as these prickly guys are, once the sun has gone behind the mountains, be sure to turn around and take in the light behind you – which most people seem to miss.
Hike a back-country trail and take in the diverse nature
If you’re looking for solitude, a less manicured experience and want to really get out into nature, head for one of the back-country trails. These aren’t always listed on the map, but there are so many longer hikes you can find in the park through other people’s recommendations online. These are usually found by driving to the location and the trailhead will be really obvious from here. If you do want to wild camp, please follow the guidelines on the trailhead board which will tell you of the local regulations for wild camping. As always, it’s important to leave no trace, so make sure you take everything out with you that you came in with. Start early in the day as the heat is not to be played with! One of our favourite hikes is the Pine City Trail, which is 5 miles long one way. This trail can be found by following the Desert Queen Mine Road and the trail head is at the end of the road, where you’ll see a parking area. The trail takes you through an endless Joshua Tree landscape up to higher elevations to see views down into sweeps of boulders and rocks like you’ll never have seen before. The trail has many points where you’ll likely want to take in the scenery and stop off to enjoy the quiet. There are also points where you can navigate off trail, we would recommend having some experience with off trail and also taking a map!
Enjoy another beautiful desert sunset
There is certainly one thing that Joshua Tree does well, sunsets! The colours you see in the desert here are like no other and you can be guaranteed a great view in so many locations as you drive through the park after your hike. Be sure to spend some time taking in the view and reward yourself for your day spent hiking in the desert.
As you’ll see, this guide really just scratches the surface of what is available in Southern California and is intended for a short weekend to give you a taster of the great activities available here. As you’ll see so many more ideas and places to visit will present themselves to you, but that is half of the fun of travel – you’ll be eager to return, next time with a bigger adventure to plan!
Author: This Expansive Adventure
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