Southern California may not be known for leaf peeping (although there is some of that in the mountains and valleys), but autumn is prime time for a family vacation. Whether you can only sneak away for a weekend or indulge in several days, now is a great time to take a break from school and work to enjoy empty sunny beaches, mild desert temps and mountain towns before the snow falls.
It’s November and fall has finally arrived in southern California, making this an ideal time to take a break from homework for a family getaway. The weather is still warm enough for outdoor activities, but the tourist season has faded with the summer sun, leaving substantially fewer crowds at beaches, deserts and mountains.
Joshua Tree National Park
Located 114 miles east of Los Angeles, the 792,519-acre park’s unique rock formations and plants create a fascinating landscape for hiking, biking, and rock climbing. The park is composed of two desert regions, the lower Colorado Desert and the higher Mojave, home to the spiky Joshua trees.
To make the most of your stay, stop by one of the four visitor centers for maps and information. Among the popular activities are Skull Rock and a 1.7-mile nature trail. An 18-mile motor tour with 16 scenic stops provides a leisurely way to see the park. Ranger programs offer guided tours, hikes and children’s story time.
The park’s magnificent night skies make it possible to clearly see the Milky Way and other starry wonders. During the park’s busy months October – May, guided tours take place at Keys Ranch, where homesteaders Bill and Nancy worked and raised their five children. The ranch house, school house, store and workshop still stand on this National Historic Register Site. Most of the nine campgrounds located within the park are available on a first-come, first-served basis. More lodging options are available in nearby communities.
Balboa Island, Newport
Ditch the car for a bike on this small, charming enclave of Newport Beach. Accessible via bridge and ferry, the island is conducive for bike riding, fishing from the pier, perusing mom and pop specialty shops, and swimming at the beach.
The Balboa Bar, a chocolate-dipped ice cream rolled in sweet or salty toppings, and frozen chocolate-covered banana on a stick alone are worth the drive. Two ice cream shops, Dad’s and Sugar ‘N’ Spice, each claim to have created the yummy Balboa Bar. Who makes the best? You be the judge.
From the island, take the ferry to the Balboa Fun Zone, crammed with arcade games and a Ferris wheel. Vacation rentals are available for overnight visits on the island.
Solana Beach, San Diego
Just 30 minutes from downtown San Diego and major attractions, Solana Beach is a hidden gem that caters to beach goers, shopping divas, and race track buffs (the Del Mar Racetrack is nearby). At 3.5 square miles, it’s easy to get from the town’s shopping and arts district to beaches.
Hidden by steep bluffs but accessible by staircase, Tide Beach Park is ideal for swimming, snorkeling and exploring marine life. It’s also fun to catch the sights on electric or regular bikes. Rentals available from San Diego Electric Bike Co.
Located near the Del Mar racetrack and one mile from the beach, the recently renovated Winners Circle Resort has studios with kitchenettes, and one- and two-bedroom suites with kitchens. Onsite amenities include a pool, tennis club, laundry, barbecue grills, picnic tables and a clubhouse with a pool table gym and game room. Rates start at $139 (October – May) and $169 (April – September).
Big Bear Lake, San Bernardino
Located 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake is a quick escape from city life. While best known for skiing and snowboarding, the small mountain resort has a bounty of recreational activities for enjoying four distinct seasons. Nestled at 7,000 feet in the San Bernardino National Forest, the area showcases some of SoCal’s best brilliant fall foliage. Fun family activities include boating, hiking, Segway riding and bicycling.
Autocamp, Santa Barbara
Vintage airstreams may seem like a blast from the past but Autocamp’s renovated trailers feature new appliances, modern fixtures and even upscale amenities (think quilted pillow-top mattress and luxury linens). One unit even has a spa tub and integrated speaker system.
Located about three miles from the beach in old Santa Barbara, Autocamp has five airstreams that sleep between two and four people. The 1950s-era, 26-foot Airstream Overlander sleeps a family of four and has a dining nook (perfect for playing cards and games). Each airstream comes with an outdoor barbecue grill and complimentary use of two retro-style beach cruisers. Rates start at $150. Reservations should be made as far in advance as possible.
Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo County
A destination in itself, the landmark hotel features 110 whimsical-themed rooms sure to delight kids. For example, the Old Mill room feels like stepping into a storybook: a thatched roof and stone façade replicate a mill with creek and water wheel. A carousel horse takes center stage in the Pony Room, and The Jungle Rock room features natural rock walls, a cascading waterfall shower and bark colored furniture.
The resort also has a hilltop pool with a 45-foot waterfall, lagoon, and onsite stables for guided trail rides.
Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo
The laid-back seaside town’s claim to fame may be Morro Rock, majestically rising from the ocean, but runner ups include boatloads of fresh seafood (attracting locals from surrounding communities) and outdoor recreation.
With a small population of about 10,000, it may not seem like Morro Bay has much to offer. But activities include whale watching, kayaking, bay cruises, and bicycling. The Morro Bay Adventure Pass offers savings on many popular activities and attractions. Purchase online: $90 (for two adults and two children). There are plenty of free places to visit, too. Among them: beaches, parks, tide pools and the 2,300-acre Morro Bay National Estuary.
For camping and birding, check out Morro Strand State Beach and Morro Bay State Park, also home to the Natural History Museum. Free museum admission for ages 16 and younger. The Morro Bay Mural Mile is a nice walking tour of downtown and the waterfront. Along the way 23 murals depict the waterfront city’s history, sea life and natural beauty.
The waterfront and embarcadero anchor several good restaurants. Popular for breakfast: Frankie and Lola’s Front Street Cafe. For lunch and dinner: Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant. The three family-owned, side-by-side restaurants serve local seafood and other items.
Morro Bay has numerous lodging options. The budget -friendly Rockview Inn & Suites sleeps up to six people (pets welcome!) and is walking distance to the waterfront and Morro Rock.
Driving from L.A.? In the time it takes for the kids to watch a movie in the car, you’ll reach the 31,000-acre working ranch in Caliente. You’ll be greeted by Rosie and Dixie, friendly mixed breed dogs who live with the fourth, fifth and sixth generation Rankin family.
Guests stay in private cabins and share meals in the dining room. It doesn’t take long to feel at home and find your favorite horse to ride. More fun activities include haywagon rides, feeding farm animals and milking goats. Remember, you’re out in the country, so give your teens a heads up that the only free WiFi is from 3 – 5 p.m. daily.
All-inclusive rates include lodging, three meals daily, horseback rides, and all ranch activities. Weekend rate for a family of four; $1,370.