Summer Road Trip: Hidden Gems in Southern California

Summer is the perfect time for gorgeous scenic drives and road trips. With that in mind, join our blog hop for virtual road trips, weekend getaways, and day trips along with some insider tips for visiting exciting places in North America as far away as Australia.

I’m excited to share some hidden gems in my neck of the woods, Southern California.  Join me, then pop about the globe for more inspiring road trip ideas from other great bloggers, who are linked at the bottom of this page.


(By the way, I actually live in the California desert which I do NOT recommend visiting during the summer months. It is 121 degrees as I write this blog. No, I’m not kidding – or exaggerating. Unless you like feeling your eyes burn as if someone has a blow dryer an inch from your face and burning your hands on the steering wheel, save a trip to Palm Springs for the winter when you’re buried in snow and we’re having perfectly fabulous weather.)

During the summer months here in Southern California, many tourists flock to well-known destinations like San Diego, Disneyland, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. These are all great places to visit, but if you’re looking for somewhere different that’s a bit off the radar, check out the following incredible destinations:

The Channell Islands

My husband and I have lived in California most our lives, but somehow missed these spectacular islands that are classified as one of the U.S. National Parks. After seeing some stunning photos on the Internet, we took a short boat ride to Anacapa Island from Oxnard as part of a weekend anniversary trip.

If you decide to go, be prepared and bring supplies. This trip is for adventurous people in good physical shape. You will need to climb 157 stairs to the top of this rugged little island where there is no food, services, water, or flushing toilets. Now, I HATE outhouses, but I’m telling you – the views of the rocky shoreline, massive cliffs, and jagged peaks were worth it. You can easily hike around the rim of the island in just hours with Inspiration Point a grand reward for your efforts.

We visited in June when bursts of bright wildflowers covered the small island and thousands of adorable baby sea gulls were to be found around every corner. Just beware of their protective mamas who will swoop at your head if you get too close.

We returned a couple of years later and visited the larger Santa Cruz Island for an exciting kayak tour of the historic sea caves. On the boat ride there we saw a whale and two large schools of dolphins. The waters can be rough at certain points, but the caves were amazing. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Some people consider these islands desolate, but if you have an adventurous spirit and love nature, the Channell Islands are considered the Galápagos of North America.

The Huntington Botanical Gardens 

This is yet another stunning place that we failed to visit for decades. Located in Pasadena, the magnificent estate is home to more than a dozen spectacular gardens spread across 120 acres. Hard to say which garden is the most dazzling, but the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, and the California Garden are a few of my favorites.

We didn’t even get a chance to check out the art galleries. The Huntington Art Gallery, houses 18th- and 19th-century British paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, and includes the famous Blue Boy. And to my shame as a writer, we did not visit The Huntington Library itself, one of the largest and most complete research libraries in the United States.

Next time.

Ventura County Wine Trail

Napa may get all the attention as wine country in California, but my husband and I enjoyed sipping our way through the coastal rolling hills near the seaside town of Ventura. We visited two of the nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms.

You can book one of the many wine tours offered. However, we decided to get a map and explore on our own. Beginning in Ventura at the junction of Highway 1 and Highway 101, we drove up Highway 33 toward Ojai.

Surprises await on this somewhat lonely but charming road – from the “USA’s Smallest Post Office” to the last place anyone saw James Dean alive. Our favorite find was Old Creek Winery which felt like returning to a simpler place and time where friendly folk and dogs welcomed us. We enjoyed our purchased bottle of wine and a picnic outside on tables enjoying the Americana view.

By the way, both Ojai and Ventura are worthwhile stops with charming inns, luxurious spas, and bed & breakfasts along with a wide array of outdoor activities. In the summer time, the Ventura Harbor Village is a hubbub of activity with festivals and live music on the weekends.

Laguna Beach

This charming beach town is located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. With over 20 different scenic coves, this beach area offers everything from surfing, paddle-boarding, snorkeling, kayaking, and whale watching excursions.

Just beware, the surf can be rough in places. As a teenager, I decided to body surf despite the churning waters and wiped out on a massive wave (think Beach Boys’ song: Heheheheheheee wipe oooout!). You can read more about that delightful experience here. Actually, I blame the Beach Boys for this entire mishap since they went and romanticized this whole surfer chick thing with songs I grew up on like Surfer Girl. SO their fault.

However, the scenery can’t be beat. Add ultra-chic restaurants and shops and one-of-a-kind art galleries and you get the picture. There’s even a Baby Boomer Club with Saturday Night dances. Every summer, they host the Laguna Woodstock where baby boomers party like its 1969.

Heisler Park is a good place to start, located just north of the main beach, with an easy half-mile stroll along a paved path with spectacular views of the coastline and the soothing sound of crashing waves. You can take one of the paths to the beaches and tide pools. Benches, picnic tables, and barbecues abound where you can enjoy the magnificent views. Hubby and I had a picnic on one of the grass areas and it was perfect!

Treasure Island Park is another great spot, located on the grounds of the five-star Montage Laguna Beach, where the truly rich stay. Exquisitely landscaped, several lookout benches line the easy-to-walk winding path. Stairways and ramps lead you down to the beach, where you can walk through a beautiful rock archway during low tide, find a spot in the sand for sunbathing, and a large tide pool. In addition, there is plenty of grass areas for a picnic. I’d suggest bringing some wine and cheese to catch a romantic sunset.

Big Bear Lake

I live in the desert, so nearby Big Bear is a great mountain escape with its gorgeous lake and pristine forests. Boating, fishing, and hiking are just some of the activities in this small, laid-back village.

Last summer, my husband and I cycled around the lake, enjoyed a picnic, zipped down an alpine slide, drove go-karts with speeds up to 30 m.p.h., and took a ride on the scenic sky chair for terrific views. After watching people take the chair lifts to mountain bike down the trails, we put this on our to-do list for next time.

For the adventurous at heart, parasailing and ziplining are also available.

El Matador Beach

Looking for a spectacular shoreline with white sands, towering cliffs, crashing waves, and craggy rock formations in a semi-hidden location?

Look no further than El Matador, located north of Malibu off the winding Pacific Coast Highway. It’s easy to miss the small, brown sign pointing toward the small parking lot at the trail-head, so watch carefully between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads. Once you find it, be prepared to hike down a 150-foot bluff with the help of some steep stairs.

Not for small children or those who are physically challenged, but if you can make it down the steps you’ll be treated with breathtaking views. The locals know about this beach and you may see some photo shoots taking place – we did!

There is blissfully little to do on this small but glorious stretch of beach, so bring a picnic lunch or some wine and find a hidden nook to enjoy an incredibly romantic setting.

Redondo Beach

By now, you’ve probably noticed that my husband and I are beach bums. We found this beach on accident while looking for a nearby place to stay the night before flying out of LAX the next morning.

The Redondo Pier is a landmark with panoramic ocean views and water activities that include harbor cruises, seasonal whale watching, kayaks, paddleboards, and pedal boats. Truth be known, we didn’t try any of these out, but we loved the views from Tony’s on the Pier where we enjoyed Happy Hour!

The pier is also home to a 16-foot great white shark affectionately known as Georgette, on display in a large tank at Shark Attack on the Pier.  If you have grandchildren with you or are young at heart, you may enjoy the semi-submersible yellow submarine (darn, now I’ve got the Beatles song stuck in my head) for underwater viewing of the local sea life.

Sure beats staying at an airport hotel if you’re flying to or from Los Angeles.

Catalina Island

This island is more well-known than some of my previous recommendations, but a sentimental favorite. My husband and I spent our honeymoon there 40 years ago and have returned several times. This is a small, quaint island, with no stoplights or fast food restaurants. A typical traffic jam involves two golf carts and a bicycle built for two.

On our honeymoon, we blissfully rode bikes around Avalon, went horseback riding, toured the famous casino, and sunbathed on the small beach. We also took a bus to Two Harbors, the only other village on Catalina Island. Snorkeling, parasailing, fishing, glass bottom boat rides, paddleboarding, Segway tours, golfing, and hiking are other popular activities.

Decades later, we sailed our boat to the island from Long Beach – which turned out to be one wild ride. My husband and grown children returned again for our open-water dives to become scuba-certified amid the famous kelp forests surrounded by the bright orange Garibaldi fish. Next time we visit, I want to try the new zip-line that’s 600 feet above sea level with one run that is 1,100 feet long with speeds up to 30 m.p.h. Wheee!

As you can tell, Southern California has so many great places to visit, it’s impossible to list them all. But hopefully I’ve given you some ideas to get started.

Thanks for your company!  What are favorite road trip must-sees in your corner of the world? Please share in the comments section. 

There’s more more fun and inspirational Summer Road Trips ahead!  Click over to your next destination with my blogger pals below.:

United States

Rosie Russell: Dust off your maps as Rosie guides you through her home state – Missouri.

Cat Michaels: Power up your GPS as Cat lists her top five family-friendly places to visit in North Carolina.

Kristen Lamb:  Buckle up as Kristen takes you through historical sites in California.

Rebecca Lyndsey: Check your tire pressure and take off on a virtual road trip through West Virginia.

Carmela Dutra:  Take a tour of family-friendly places in the San Jose Bay Area in California.

Rhonda Paglia: Rhonda is excited to guide you around her part of the world, Western Pennsylvania.

Lynn from An Encore Voyage shares a recent road trip in her beautiful home state of Idaho.


Sandra Bennett: It’s winter down under now, so Sandra takes us on a winter road trip to lovely Canberra.




Julie A. Gorges is the author of two young adult novels, Just Call Me Goody Two Shoes and Time to Cast Away and co-author of Residential Steel Design and Construction published by McGraw Hill. In addition, hundreds of her articles and short stories have been published in national and regional magazines, and she received three journalism awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association while working as a newspaper reporter. Julie currently lives in southern California with her husband, Scott, and has two grown children and three grandchildren.

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21 Responses

  1. K. Lamb says:

    Now I’m craving a Southern California visit, Julie! Although, I think I will do my best to avoid the ‘Wipe Out!” I would love to see the Channell Islands and the Huntington Botanical Gardens. We went to Huntington Beach a few years ago and rented Segways (quite fun!) but had no idea about the gardens. I would have enjoyed touring those.

    Another thing on my “To Do” list has been to visit Catalina Island but we have yet to make it there. Now that we are empty-nesters it seems like the perfect opportunity for a romantic getaway.

    Thanks for giving me more ideas for my next visit to Southern California, Julie. Although, I hope you don’t mind if I bypass the 122-degree weather for the coastal line. 😉

    • juliegorges says:

      Head for the coast this time of year, my friend. That’s what I do every chance I get! Just a side note, despite the name, Huntington Botanical Gardens is located in Pasadena, not Huntington Beach. I’d definitely recommend Catalina Island for a romantic getaway. Enjoy!

  2. Carmela Dutra says:

    Boy, did the blog article bring back memories. Most of my family lives in Southern California, I was instantly pulled back to childhood memories of going with my grandfather to Redondo Beach. Thank you, for sharing some off the beaten path places. San Diego is wonderful, Disneyland fun for the whole family, but it’s nice to check out some places that are beautiful and adventurous in less overly crowded. We’ll be taking our anniversary trip down south this year in September, this has given me some ideas to share with hubby.

  3. Rebecca Lyndsey says:

    Such beautiful scenery. I have never been to the ocean in my adult life. My dream is to see a great white shark in the wild and I know California is one of the best places to see them. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be in the water with them, just see them safely from a boat. LOL
    The Botanical Gardens would be a must see for me!

    • juliegorges says:

      Oh Rebecca, you must come and see the ocean. Although I don’t have a deep desire to see a great white after growing up on Jaws, I have seen many schools of dolphins and a couple of whales over the year. Always such a thrill. And the Botanical Gardens are beautiful beyond words. Hope you you make it one day!

  4. Julie, so many of your places takes me back in the day when I was a young teenager. Our brothers moved there in the 70’s so we went every chance we could. Catalina Island and Malibu are just a few.

    I love how you and your husband like to picnic along your travels.

    Thanks for all the needed information about how to safely maneuver around the different sites. Sadly, if ones are not aware of this, it could be a great disappointment for them and their families.

    How fun to find out about “The Baby Boomer Club and how they host the “Laguna Woodstock.”
    I looked back at your “Wipe Out” story and I so felt for you and your terrible scrap. I’m so glad your were alright. Those beach boys songs really did make us all want to be what you said, “Beach Bums.” I’m glad to hear you and your husband enjoy such a great time together.

    I really enjoyed your article Julie! Thank you for sharing the West Coast with us. Would love to come to your part of the world someday.

    Have a great weekend and stay cool.

    • juliegorges says:

      Thanks, Rosie! Glad it brought back some good memories for you. One day I hope to visit your part of the world as well. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  5. Looks to me like you folks need to head to the northwest! Come visit us in the mountains of Idaho! Hubs and I just took a day trip, climbing up to the top of the world, dog in the back seat and picnic packed! I posted about it at Now I’m going to put some of these other amazing places on our Travel Van plans! Can’t wait to get started!

    • Cat Michaels says:

      Wow,Lynn! Idaho looks amazing! My nephew lives near McCall, and I now feel more motivated to visit him. Thanks for the road trip to,your oart of the world.

      • Thanks, Cat! You would be amazed at the beauty in central Idaho! Keep heading north from McCall, or head toward Central Idaho near Sun Valley and Stanley. It’s our best kept secret! ~ Lynn

    • juliegorges says:

      Lynn, we used to live in Washington and I have visited one corner of Idaho. You are absolutely right to brag about all the beauty! Heading over to take a look at your post and will add a link to your post to my blog so others can visit as well!

      • Julie, thanks so much for the link! If the corner of Idaho you visited was in the north, then you didn’t do too badly! You should try to spend more time here! As for me, thus far, my experiences in California have only been negative (I’ve only been there for “death related family trips!) From this post, I can see that I am going to need a more in-depth California exploration. I do hope you folks get all of your wildfires under control – keeping you in my thoughts! ~ Lynn

  6. Thanks for the invite Lynn. I checked out your fun hike with your dog Moose and your husband. Looks like a great day!
    Enjoy the rest of your summer.

  7. Sandra Bennett says:

    Hi Julie, Southern California is one of those places I have always wanted to visit. The beaches from all those surfing movies ( and Gidget) we grew up on, with the Beachboys soundtrack playing in our heads. Growing up around the beaches on the east coast of Australia it seems natural to be drawn to yours too. Thank you for the inside look at these wonderful places, I might make it over there one day.

  8. Cat Michaels says:

    Beaches, and gardens, and mountains, oh my! What a glorious corner of the world is at your fingertips, Julie. I could visit every spot you names except for the Channell Islands…though lovely, I am a city girl who needs, er, flushable facilities. My fave thing to do would be visit Huntington Garden and then take a quick dip in the ocean (even though I hear the Pacific is usually chilly). Thanks for the tour -:D

  9. Hi Julie Gorges – Thank you so much for your blog and sharing the “hidden gems” in your Southern California! I don’t know that I could take the 120 degrees temps in the summer, but the places you shared sound like fabulous places to visit – any time of the year. I think my husband and I would enjoy your Channell Islands. Hiking up its cliffs full of spectacular views and wild flowers, plus seeing the ocean life around the islands would be wonderful. I’m a garden lover, so the 120 acres of flowers and plant life at the Huntington Botanical Gardens sounds lovely to me. My husband and I also make our own wine and enjoy wine tastings, so I’m sure we would not miss the Ventura Wine Trails. Your Beach Boys beaches – Laguna, Redondo, and El Matador Beaches would be fun to visit, as would hiking, parasailing, and zip lining at Big Bear Lake. Thanks for sharing all of your hidden treasures – via sights and activities – that we should not miss when we visit Southern California!

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