Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Are you stuck in quarantine somewhere in LA and looking for something fun (and safe) to do? When I was a college student in the area, something that really helped me and my mental health was getting outdoors and going somewhere beautiful out in nature. California is full of so many incredible beaches, mountains, deserts and forests that there is always plenty to explore.
These spots are great for a safe weekend break when you just need to get out of the city. Pretty much all of these spots require a car to get to, but if you live in LA you probably have one (or at least have access to one). Another cool idea is to rent an RV for the weekend, I've seen rentals in my area go for as low as $25 a day, but I'm in New York so I'm not sure what the situation in LA is like. You can camp in any of these spots, which I highly recommend, whether you're trying to save money or not. There are tons of great camping apps out there to help you find a good spot! The weather can also be quite volatile in some of these places, so make sure to check that ahead of time and pack accordingly. I had some of the best times in these spots, so grab your sunscreen and your sleeping bag and hit the road.
Quick Disclaimer: This list is absolutely not exhaustive. I have only included spots that I have actually visited myself, and I'm totally aware that there are so many awesome outdoor spaces, I just haven't visited them (yet!). Feel free to leave a comment on this post with any of your suggestions!
1. Joshua Tree National Park
Starting off with what is probably my favorite spot on this list, but for good reason. Joshua Tree is incredible, and if you haven't been here yet, put it on your list. Some of my California friends might not think it's as cool as I do, but coming from the East Coast, the desert here is breathtaking. Joshua Tree has such a unique ecosystem, and I've heard that the famous joshua trees that grow there can't be found outside of this region. It's a National Park, so you do have to pay a fee to enter. Tip: if you're planning on visiting a few National Parks within the next year, I definitely recommend getting the annual pass. It's $80 for the year, but unlimited entry for you and everyone else in your car or party for every National Park in the US. This is really helpful if you want to camp outside of the park and go in each day, which is what I did. There is some great free camping on the outside of the park, which I recommend camping in to get away from the crowded campsites.
2. Big Bear Lake/San Bernardino National Forest
For those looking for more of a mountain experience without having to drive for hours, Big Bear is the spot. It's small town has a pretty resort-y feel, but is also pretty chill and has some good shops, restaurants and bars to check out. While the town is pretty cool, the surrounding outdoors is the real reason to come here. There are tons of great hiking trails in the summer, and there's skiing and snowboarding all winter! Due to it's elevation, it's usually at least 10-20 degrees cooler than LA, so it's a great place to come cool down and breathe some clean mountain air.
3. Anza Borrego Desert State Park/Salton Sea
Probably one of the least touristed on this list, although that's changing, this cool desert park and it's surrounding area are a unique experience that will make you feel like you're completely in the middle of nowhere. For a real, authentic, desert feel that feels like you're in a movie, come here. Anza is really quiet and peaceful, and you can fully see the night sky here with no light pollution. There's plenty of camping all over the park, and it's really fun to just drive around and find new places to hike and explore. The nearby Salton Sea is a pretty interesting site. A former resort area, it's now a literal ghost town. The sea was overtaken was saline water due to an engineering failure, and now it's toxic. It smells pretty bad FYI, and there's a lot of dead fish washed up on the shore. It's a bit apocalyptic, so I think it's kinda cool to see. The nearby town of Slab City is home to the Instagram-famous Salvation Mountain, as well as an eclectic desert artist community. I actually camped in Slab City one night and got to hangout with some of the locals, it was a pretty unique experience.
4. Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country
Not as outdoorsy as the rest, but still worth a visit. This place may not be the sort of outdoorsy camping destination that the other spots on this list are, but it is a nice country getaway. In the Los Padres National Forest, just half an hour north of Santa Barbara, is this beautiful, bucolic valley full of vineyards and cute little towns. Stop into the Danish town of Solvang for some pastries and sightseeing, then explore the valley's many beautiful hikes and vineyards. For a nice little wine country getaway within a reasonable distance of LA, this is the best spot. The wine here is also so genuinely good. For accommodation, I'd recommend booking a bed & breakfast in Solvang or Los Olivos!
5. Mount San Jacinto State Park
This mountain oasis in the desert is a great place to go for some cool mountain hikes while enjoying desert views. You can enter through the small town of Idyllwild, or you can take the tram up from Palm Springs. If you are just going here for a day trip from Palm Springs, the tram is a great way to get up to the top where the hiking is. It's usually 20-30 degrees cooler than down in Palm Springs, which is pretty insane since you can still see the city so clearly from up there. The area where the tram lets you off is pretty touristy though, so if you'd prefer to camp and have the full experience, I'd suggest entering through one of the other two entrances.
All of these pictures I've taken are quite old, and they really don't do any of these places any justice. These are all naturally beautiful spots, and they're so unique and different from one another. If you're looking for a fun weekend getaway from the city, check out these spots! They are the perfect places to safely enjoy nature. California has so many beautiful places to explore, and there are already so many in your own backyard!