Southern California

6 Most Beautiful Places in Southern California to Visit in The Weekend

From naturalist-led hikes in the remote Channel Islands to the groomed trails of Big Bear, these places are incredible!

From the epic surf spots and sweeping canyon trails of Orange County’s western shores to the towering mountain peaks and ever-changing flora and fauna of the San Bernardino, Santa Rosa, and San Jacinto Mountain ranges, Southern California is truly a haven for those who want to see beautiful  and unique places.

Whether you’re sitting in a rotating aerial tramcar looking down on the variegated landscape of the greater Palm Springs valley from an 8,500-foot vantage point or kayaking a sea cave in search of sea lions off the Channel Islands, there’s something for every outdoor enthusiast. Here are six of the most beautiful places in Southern California to go for a weekend:

Algodones Dunes: Home to the Largest Dunes in California

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The largest dunes in the state of California, the Algodones Dunes, also happen to be some of the most remote, encompassing over 26,000 acres of land. The unique sand formations have been the setting for countless Hollywood films, most notably Star Wars and Resident Evil.

Expect soft, small dunes in the eastern part of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area—the section of dunes that’s open to the public—and course, larger dunes to the west, some approximately 15,000 to 18,000 years in age. With its remoteness and absence of light pollution, the area is also a haven for astrotourism, offering up some of the state’s darkest night skies.

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San Clemente: Epic Swells and Casual Beach Hikes

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With the sound of the Pacific Ocean waves crashing in the distance, fine white sand beaches and rocky canyons to the east, it’s no surprise that some of the most beautiful places in Southern California lie along its westerly coast, the sunny beach town of San Clemente being one of them.

Start off the weekend with a casual stroll along San Clemente’s Beach Trail—one of several hiking trails in the area, including ridge line and canyon routes—an easy, well-marked 2.3-mile-long coastal stretch adjacent to the Amtrak train tracks that connects Calafia Beach in the southern part of town to North Beach.

When it comes to swells, San Onofre State Beach or “San O” as the locals call it, is beginner-friendly, thanks to its gentle breaking waves, while the Trestles is strictly for advanced surfers. Despite having several surfing spots, San Clemente attracts far fewer tourists than the popular PCH towns of Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach, making it the ideal choice for swimming vacations.

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Cleveland National Forest: Forest Landscapes in Southern California

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Often the starting point for Pacific Crest Trail hikers as they head up north, Cleveland National Forest is the southernmost part of California’s national forest. Covering 460,000 acres of mostly chaparral, the area offers a dry, Mediterranean climate that’s perfect for year-round hiking.

Opt for a drive along the Sunrise Highway, a scenic national byway known for its winding one-lane road up steep mountain ridges. Get a glimpse of the stark contrast in landscape—desert and forest—on either side of the highway on the way to Kitchen Creek Falls. This beginner-friendly, 1.8-mile trail is a popular starting point for exploring the natural richness of the national forest as it takes hikers to the top of the falls for a direct view of the verdant vegetation, which at one point, used to cover most of Southern California.

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Palm Springs: A Southern California Resort Oasis

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Apart from its many midcentury modern design marvels and Hollywood A-lister hideaways, this tranquil desert oasis is also an underrated destination for hiking aficionados. With the sprawling Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountain ranges in the west, the otherworldly desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park in the east, and the Salton Sea in the south, it’s east to see why Palm Springs is one of the most beautiful places in Southern California for outdoor enthusiasts.

To get a glimpse of the diverse landscape of the Sonoran desert region from 8,500 feet above sea level, take a gondola ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Over 50 miles of hiking trails exist at the upper tramway terminal, including a 5.5-mile hike to San Jacinto Peak, the second-highest in Southern California.

For a break from the arid, rocky desert surroundings of Palm Springs, hike through the Andreas Canyon Trail located inside the tribal grounds of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Expect to find lush vegetation—over 150 species of plants thrive here, including California fan palms, cottonwoods, and sycamores —unique rock formations and even a perennial creek on this simple one-mile trail.

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Big Bear Lake: A Worthy Mountain Resort Destination No Matter the Time of Year

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Compared to the warm western shores of Southern California, the rugged San Bernardino Mountain range in the east offers not just a change in climate, but in activities as well. Situated at an altitude of 6,700 feet, the mountain resort town of Big Bear Lake serves as a year-round alpine playground for outdoor adventurists. The glimmering seven-mile lake, with its 22-miles of shoreline, plays host to a plethora of watersport activities in the spring and summer.

The surrounding pine-forested mountains are home to over 60 miles of cross-country trails such as the three-mile long Pine Knot Trail, which takes hikers passed pine, oak, and white fir trees before ending at the top with a panoramic view of Southern California’s highest peak, Mount San Gorgonio. The area transforms into a snow-capped ski paradise every winter, with its two famed resort areas, Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, offering access to over 1,000 acres of skiable land.

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Channel Islands: Biologically Diverse Islands Off SoCal Coast

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While Catalina Island boasts hotels and a thriving community, the northern Channel Islands—comprised of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Santa Rosa islands—are more rugged and wildlife-oriented. With over 140 species of animals and plants that are found nowhere else in the world, a visit to the Channel Islands National Park is about so much more than just being outdoors.

Daily boats depart from the coastal towns of Ventura or Oxnard, offering stops at both Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands. Spend the day in the azure blue waters snorkeling, surfing, or kayaking—there are over 30 sea caves to explore. On land, hiking, birdwatching, and participating in naturalist-led hikes are the norm for getting a glimpse of the islands’ diverse endemic plant and animal life, including foxes, seals, and dozens of seabirds.

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