Travel

The Essential Itinerary: Southern California

From sea caves to deserts, this three-day guide offers the perfect itinerary to make the most of this corner of California

  • Apr 05, 2024
  • 654 words
  • 3 minutes
A view of the Mojave Desert from 28 Palms Ranch. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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If the Eagles’ “Take it easy” were a place, this corner of southern California would be it. Tucked away from the hum of Los Angeles, Ventura’s laidback surf-town vibe makes it the perfect gateway to the region’s storied landscapes, from the sea caves of Channel Islands National Park to the pine forests of the San Bernardino National Forest to the sparkling desert skies in Joshua Tree National Park. While you can blaze through this itinerary as is, it’s more fun to explore along the way. And remember, lighten up while you still can.

DAY 1

WAVES AND CAVES | 8 a.m.

Spend a day exploring Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park, just a 90-minute ferry ride from the Ventura Harbor. Trails offer stunning ocean vistas and opportunities to spot endemic species, like the island fox and scrub-jay, while guided kayak tours take visitors over kelp forests, alongside seabird colonies and into sea caves perforating the island’s volcanic rock. You might even spot a shark or two.

WHALE WATCHING AND TACOS | 5 p.m.

Crack a Modelo on the 5 p.m. return ferry — don’t miss it, or you’re sleeping on Santa Cruz — and spend the ride watching whales breach in the sparkling waves. When you dock, beeline wind burnt and salty to Spencer Makenzie’s, a local institution famous for its tempura-fried fish tacos. Wash them down with a pink lemonade while you watch the skies turn the same hue.

Inside a sea cave in Santa Cruz Island with Channel Islands Adventure company. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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A feast at Spencer Makenzie's in Ventura, CA, that includes their "world famous" fish tacos, carne asada tacos, tortilla chips and a selection of their homemade salsas. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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DAY 2

OLDIES AND BACON | 8 a.m.

Dine unbothered at Frontside Café, a modern breakfast and lunch spot serving Australian-inspired fare. Let the ’70s soft rock playlist transport you to a time when bacon and caffeine weren’t considered dangerous, and order a soup bowl-sized coffee alongside a full Aussie breakfast.

SCENIC ROUTES AND SIDE QUESTS | 9:30 a.m.

Cue up the music and hit the road to Big Bear. It’s a four-hour drive if you take the scenic route, and the 126-E to Santa Clarita up to the 14-N to Palmdale and San Bernardino is a worthy side quest, taking you through sagebrush-topped coastal hills, Joshua-treed Mojave and forested mountains.

BITES AND HIKES | 2 p.m.

Congratulations, you made it! Refuel at Amangela’s Sandwich and Bagel House in the village before hitting the trails in the San Bernardino National Forest. The Pineknot Trail is an 11-kilometre trek through towering pines and rocky outcrops with stunning lake and mountain views along the way.

A view of Big Bear Lake from Pine Knot trail. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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Posters for classic Western flicks and legendary musical performances line a wall in Pioneertown, CA. (Photo: Michela Rosano/Can Geo)
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DAY 3

WESTERNS AND HIPSTERS | 11 a.m.

Head back up to the Mojave to visit the Old West-themed Pioneertown. Originally built in 1946 as a movie set, Pioneer-town sits at the precise intersection where kitsch meets cool. Leave the gun-slinging show at high noon to the kids and head to the Red Dog Saloon, a hipster hangout slinging cold drinks while a DJ spins Hank Williams and the like. And definitely don’t miss Pappy and Harriet’s, a former biker bar turned exceptional barbecue eatery (try the brisket!) and legendary music venue played by the likes of Patti Smith, Paul McCartney and Lizzo.

DARK SKIES AND NERDS | 8 p.m.

You’ve probably never seen the Milky Way like this. As an International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree National Park offers opportunities to gaze into the crystal-clear heavens year-round. But real astronomy nerds visit in the fall for the Night Sky Festival, where pros and amateurs alike share their knowledge and their telescopes.

WHERE TO STAY

Revel in the shiny chrome and wood-panelled nostalgia of the vintage trailer accommodations at the Waypoint Ventura, situated near the beach, historic downtown and, most importantly, the fish taco spot. And a luxury yurt at 28 Palms Ranch’s stargazing yurt village is the perfect way to take in the landscape — a morning coffee hits different when you’re looking out over the Mojave.

A spectacular view of the night sky at Joshua Tree National Park, CA. (Photo: NPS/Brad Sutton)
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This story is from the March/April 2024 Issue

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